On the last episode of the show, Hugo interviewed a veteran America’s sweetheart who’d been on many times before. She sat on the stiff blue couch crossing and re-crossing her flashing shins and baring her wholesome gums. Hugo wore his black pinstriped suit, his signature.
The actress said, “Hugo, I’m going to miss seeing you in my bedroom every night at 12:34 Eastern Standard.”
Hugo said, sly grin, laughs from audience, “We can arrange something if you’d like...”
At the end of the hour he stood in front of the swaying purple curtain and thanked his producers, his band, his bandleader Bony Suarez for taking so many years of his jokes with such élan. He teared up when he got to his loyal fans, and Bony led the band in a sentimental version of the theme music.
The taping was over by late afternoon and there was a huge white sheet cake for the staff. Stay Up With Hugo Best, it read in the show’s font. We all had a piece and a small plastic cup of champagne and then went to the oyster bar on the corner to do our real drinking.
I found it important to drain a lot of top shelf liquor in situations like these, when someone else was buying and the revel was not wholly mine. I was out of a job after that day. The new host would hire his own writers, and those writers would hire their own assistant. As the writers’ assistant for under a year, I was so low totem I was subterranean. I was the part of the pole they buried under ground.
Come next week it was back to the open mics. Back to standing outside of the midtown clubs passing out flyers to tourists, saying, “Comedy, comedy inside, don’t you guys like to laugh?” I practiced it out loud in the corner of the oyster bar, spoke it into my rocks glass to remember how it felt in my mouth.
“Who are you talking to?” asked someone next to me. Bony Suarez had ditched his suit jacket, rolled up his cuffs. He was rubbing his bald head with one hand and holding a beer in the other.
“No one,” I said. I swirled the fluid in my glass. “Just an old friend.”
Bony nodded. He knew me only barely. “Drink up, because that motherfucker is paying.”
I followed his gaze to the motherfucker in question. Hugo sat at the bar at the center of an eager throng. The most junior writer, a Harvard grad named Julian who was three years younger than me, was at his elbow. On his other side, a very young woman perched on a bar stool touching his hair. I had never seen her before—she wasn’t on staff—and I wondered if Hugo hadn’t either.
“Where did she come from?” I asked Bony.
“Who knows?” said Bony. “Eugene Lang? The ether? Where do they ever come from? He arrives and they just materialize.”
Hugo sipped his whiskey and said something that made her laugh in a false, head-thrown-back way. In my experience a woman laughed like that for one of two reasons: to show off her delicate collarbone or to flatter someone who’d told a bad joke. Hugo still had on his pinstriped suit, though it must have held the funk of the studio by now — the faint burnt hair scent of the lights, the smell of his body. When the woman finished laughing she reached out and smoothed his lapel. He looked satisfied with himself. His lapel didn’t really need smoothing.
“You ever been so sick of a suit,” said Bony, “that you wanted to do an act of violence to that suit?”
The young woman climbed into Hugo’s lap. He looked over at us, over at Bony, and shrugged theatrically. I knew that shrug. I had grown up watching his stupid hammy gestures on TV, practicing them in front of my bedroom mirror.
I said, “He thinks it hides his paunch, I bet. He probably calls it ‘The Paunch Hider’ in his mind.”
Bony took a step back and assessed me. I was nothing to Bony Suarez, still less to Hugo Best. I was a shape on the periphery of their future nostalgia.
Bony said, “You’re gonna be okay. You’re young and pretty and sort of funny.”
“Say it like you mean it,” I said. “Give it some vim.”
Bony just snorted and walked away.
I was alone again in my white-tiled corner. It had grown hotter, hazier, more crowded. The party would continue to thicken until someone led a mass migration to a cheaper bar. One dollar shots, beer mud on the floor. Jukebox full of nothing you’d want to hear. The older people would all filter off then, to Metro North, to condos uptown, to wherever people went when they had somewhere compelling to go. The young people would stay late and drink too much, order pizzas to the bar, confess their true feelings and pair off to kiss each other in the bathroom.
After a while, Julian gave up on Hugo and came over, frowning.
He’d been the writers’ assistant before me, promoted to staff writer nine months ago. When he moved up, I had taken his place. Because of this we were bonded forever, members of the same wary club.
“I was pitching him a show,” Julian said.
He took a drink of beer. He was sweaty, agitated, his pale upper neck scratched up from an impatient shave.
“The one I told you about. Remember? Mates? The sitcom where the characters all live in a house together but you can’t make out what any of the relationships are. It’s just completely opaque.”
“I remember,” I said. “They’re all different ages and ethnicities.”
Julian smiled, ran a hand through his hair. He only ever truly relaxed when he was laughing at his own jokes. “Yeah, and they all leave the house together every morning in a grey minivan. And it’s unclear where they’re going and you never find out.”
“God, Mates,” I said. “I love it. But can it sustain itself for twenty-two minutes week after week?
“As a premise it’s no thinner than any other sitcom out there.”
“Is that how you pitched it to Hugo?”
“No, I pitched it as Friends taken to its logical conclusion. Cheers, but way dumber.”
“And how’d that go?”
“It went great. He ordered thirteen episodes. No. Come on. You saw how it went. He was barely listening to me. She was distracting him.”
We looked back over. By now Hugo was barely visible, his face concealed by the woman’s cascade of dark brown hair. She held her champagne flute aloft in a posture of victory. He put his hand on her thigh, just rested it there knuckle side down, and I had to turn away.
“Careful,” I said. “That’s the president of the network.”
A flash of real alarm passed over Julian’s face. Then he said, “Oh. Haha,” and took his glasses off to clean them with his shirttail. We were silent, trying to negotiate the moment. It seemed to call for some small gesture of mutual comfort or commiseration, which neither of us was able to summon. To do so would acknowledge the presence of feelings – uncertainty, dashed hopes, even friendship – and once the levees were breached there was no telling what would happen.
“What will you do now?” I tried.
“Another show. Another staffing job. Something will work out, eventually. Something’s got to. What about you?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll go to law school. Prove everyone right.”
Julian shook his head. “You? No.”
“Why not?” I said. “Get to wear a nice suit, carry a briefcase. Go out for a power lunch, whatever that is. You know everyone who’s a lawyer is just someone who decided to do it?”
Julian said, “Yeah, but…”
He seemed on the verge of a sincere remark, but a clanging began, the sound of silverware on glass. The room rotated to face the bar, where Hugo had risen to give a speech. Julian looked at me once more and shrugged. Then Hugo started talking and whatever Julian had been about to say floated away towards the ceiling, never to be retrieved.
Hugo began, “I’m going to be brief because I know you all have more important things to do.” He mimed taking a shot to appreciative laughter. “I came to this show as a young man.”
A few feet away, Bony cleared his throat.
“A youngish man.”
Bony cleared his throat louder.
Exaggerated grimace. “All right, I was forty.”
Everyone laughed again.
“We started this thing twenty-five years ago,” said Hugo. “Think about that. Twenty-five years. George H.W. Bush was President. Remember him? Old willowy guy? No, me neither. The Internet as we know it did not exist. Meaning people were just blindly stumbling into stores seeking pornography. Bony had hair. Unimaginable.”
These were the contours of the show, its rhythms exactly. I got the sense someone else had written the speech for him. I could picture the head writer Gil yawning his way through this final bit of drudgery, his mind already elsewhere. He’d stop to glance out the window, sigh, think of the other courses his life could have taken — dissertations unwritten, chickens upstate — now all lost to him.
And while Gil worked, Hugo would have been where? Alone in his office squeezing a stress ball? Having a boozy lunch that stretched well into the afternoon? Passing time with one of the young women who came out of the ether and would return to it just the same? I found these scenarios all equally likely.
Hugo was saying, “For twenty-five years, I came in every day and did my best.” He paused for laughter, groans. It was his favorite pun, rarely un-deployed before large audiences. “Did I get good at it? Did I learn how to host a talk show? I’m sure you have your opinions on that. But I can say with confidence that it has been the greatest pleasure of my life, working with you.” He eyed Bony. “Correction: most of you. You were the ones that made me look good night after night. The credit for everything we did over there goes to all of you.” He took a long moment to make eye contact with each of us, even me. “You’re all equally to blame.”
Roaring laughter, whoops, applause.
He waved a hand, dismissing us. “Now go get drunk.”
Chatter resumed and the crowd rearranged itself. Hugo was swept along to another part of the room by Laura Posner, his longtime manager and executive producer. His stool stood empty, as if people sensed it would be presumptuous to sit there. After a while Gil sat down, scratching self-consciously at his trim, black beard with a capped pen.
Julian rattled his beer in Gil’s direction. It was still mostly full. “Do you want another drink? I think I’ll get another.”
“You’re going to pitch him,” I said. “You’re shameless.”
Julian winced. “What choice do I have? I might never see him again, or any of these people. Her—” he was pointing at Laura Posner, still holding Hugo’s hand. “I’ll never see her again. Or him—” Dennis Pascale, a programming executive talking into his cell phone. “No chance. Will they remember who I am a month from now? Doubtful. How would I begin to describe myself? Hi, I don’t know if you remember me, I wrote for the show for a few months? In the illustrious sinking ship period?”
His stubbled throat bobbed as he spoke. Even his Adam’s apple seemed panicked. I remembered how young he was. He had just moved out of his parents’ house in Short Hills, New Jersey. For years as a page and then as the writers’ assistant he’d commuted every morning on the bus. At the end of the day, he went home and ate the dinner his mother left out for him on a cellophaned plate, and went to sleep under a Wayne Gretsky poster he’d had since second grade. He told me couldn’t remember ever liking hockey that much. Now he might have to go back.
“All right, I was only kidding,” I said. “Go on and pitch him if you want to. Good for you. Maybe I would too if I had something to pitch.”
“You would?” he said.
Between the two of us I was worse off. He had the better resume, the parental fallback plan. He had his ideas, however silly, and the nerve to voice them aloud. Still, I couldn’t help reassuring him. He looked at me so hopefully.
“Definitely,” I said.
We watched Hugo break free of Laura and cross the room, making his way back to his young woman. The crowd parted for him and filled in again after he’d passed. When he reached her he took both her hands in his like they’d had a long separation.
Julian drained the dregs of his bottle, took a deep breath. “So I guess we’ll never see each other again.”
This was false and we both knew it. New York only ever got smaller. It contracted at the same rate the universe expanded. Eventually it would just be the same ten people shuttling back and forth between work and home, averting each other’s gaze.
“We’ll see each other in the next world,” I said, “and not a moment before.”
It was early evening when I left the oyster bar. I was buzzed, headache-y. The sun was still out, and I had the disorienting feeling of emerging from a movie theater into daylight. That feeling could turn into despair if you let it.
I decided to go downtown and do stand-up at Birds & The Bees. Told myself it’d help me ease back into things. Birds & The Bees was a dank basement room on Bleecker that never filled up. If I arrived early enough, the manager would let me do a set for whatever semblance of a crowd happened to be there. In the past, results had been mixed. Sometimes the place was full of NYU undergrads, ten or more of them, out on a weekday afternoon bender. Other times it was just Randy, a neighborhood pot dealer, wiry and balding, with one rolled up pant leg, nursing a club soda at the bar.
Today there was an act on when I showed up, an even more lost soul than me with a ukulele. Dressed in a bolo tie and cowboy shirt, he strummed a melancholy tune about the new president. His tone was hard to gauge. One minute he was close to tears, the next scornful. He flubbed a lyric about the electoral college and started over, apparently from the beginning.
“How long has he been at it?” I asked the bartender.
She had thick, pale, tattooed biceps and a delicate doll’s face. Her hair was braided into two long pigtails. She smiled rarely, laughed never.
“Since the dawn of man,” she told me.
I asked her for a gin drink and swallowed it down in three gulps. It tasted like quinine, like a pinecone, like last-ditch medicine. It was restorative in its way. It restored my aversion to gin.
“Do you want your hotdog?” asked the bartender.
She stepped aside so I could see the cooker behind her. I had made the mistake once before of cashing in on the free hotdog that came with every drink.
“Oh. God no.”
There was another figure at the bar, hunched, disheveled, and looking at me sidelong. The braided bartender looked at him sidelong, and I looked at both of them — sidelong, you might say. Then we all put the sidelong thing to rest and turned to watch the act in progress.
The guy on stage plunked away at his political epic. The tune sounded like “Clementine,” only slower. I paid close attention to see if I could figure out what was funny about it, or what was supposed to be funny. Was it bad comedy or a parody of bad comedy? Was it a bad parody or a parody of a bad parody? I went around like this for a while before giving up. At the end, he pulled out an air horn and set it off, a raw, honking noise that echoed around the room. A couple sitting near the stage got up and walked out. I tried to take a final sip of my drink, but all that was left was ice and lime husk.
At that hour at Birds & the Bees there was no one to herald your arrival on stage. If you wanted an introduction you had to do it yourself, into a microphone set up in the hallway near the bathroom. Some people did, affecting a booming announcer’s voice. I could never bring myself to do it. The indignity was too much. I preferred instead to walk on stage almost as if it was an accident. Oh oops. Well, now that I’m here.
By the time I went on, the audience consisted of two or three men sitting by themselves in the shadows. Even the bartender had disappeared; maybe she was changing the kegs. A pair of college girls wandered in with shopping bags and kept up a conversation at a table near the back. In the nearly empty room their voices sounded almost as loud as my own.
“It’s too much to handle. I cannot handle it anymore,” one was saying.
“You shouldn’t have to,” confirmed the other. “You should not have to.”
I was doing the bit about men being able to suck their own dicks. Men can suck their dicks, it went. They can suck them and suck them. It was time to stop pretending they couldn’t reach. Every time a man’s late it’s because he’s been sucking his own dick. He may show up panting with some excuse about transit or the dentist, but really he’s been sucking his own dick. He’s been sucking it and sucking it. And so on in that vein.
The bit got a couple of laughs from out in the gloom. I told the feeble crowd I was June Bloom, thank you very much for coming, and then went backstage to throw up. It was a dry heave, mostly, an empty and painful going-through of the motions.
When I came out of the bathroom, Hugo Best was standing in the dim green hallway. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand, tried not to show my surprise.
“Nerves?” he asked.
“Ennui,” I said.
“I used to be a puker, too.”
The hallway was narrow and hung with framed portraits of legendary comedians. Lined faces, flat eyes. What came next was the part where I asked Hugo what he was doing here, but I didn’t know how to initiate this. Over his shoulder I could see a picture of Rodney Dangerfield. I had always liked Rodney’s face, his pop-eyes and look of forthright insanity. Sometimes there was solace in things that were very ugly.
“Can we go stand outside or something?” I said at last. I motioned to the pictures on the walls. “These guys are making this weirdly heavy.”
Hugo nodded. “We must avoid gravitas at all costs.”
I followed him out through the bar, past the college girls and drunks, back up the six stairs to street level.
In front of the club, a breeze ruffled my dress and raised goose bumps on my bare legs. It was late May, the eve of Memorial Day weekend, that precarious pre-summer period in New York when the weather hasn’t fully made up its mind about what it’s going to be.
“You work on my show, right?” asked Hugo.
“Worked on the show, yeah. The writers’ assistant. My name is June.”
“June,” he said. “Right. June. You were good in there, June.”
A year ago this casual praise from Hugo would have felled me, sent me careening back to the bathroom to puke again in a paroxysm of nervous joy. All that time, my whole life, of waiting for this man’s approval and here it was, too easily, too cheaply won.
“Thank you,” I said though. “It means a lot for you to say that.” I paused. “So what brings you here?”
“This is where I got my start. I guess I was feeling…”
He trailed off and turned to study the entrance of Birds & The Bees, its yellowing marquee. His grey blonde hair lifted boyishly in the wind. It had gotten almost completely dark.
“What happened to the girl you were with at the oyster bar?”
“On your lap.”
“Oh. She didn’t want to come. Can’t imagine why.”
He gestured towards the bar. The smell of stale beer and public toilet was wafting out.
“Don’t you have somewhere to be?” I asked. “A party or something?”
It was last night, he told me. There’d been champagne and passed appetizers, those tiny puffed pastries with one bite of crab in them. A band had played. All on the network’s tab.
“Weren’t you there? I thought we invited the staff.”
I shook my head. No one had told me about a party. “I guess I missed the e-vite.”
“It wasn’t that fun. Mostly just executives patting themselves on the back. For what, I don’t know. Anyway, tonight I thought I’d let everyone celebrate without the boss. They deserve to trash me if they want to.”
He put his hands in his pockets. I braced for an awkward goodbye. But he made no move to end the conversation, no head fake up the street. Was he waiting for me to make my excuses — dinner plans, a dog to walk, a complicated train ride and someone expecting me at home? If I didn’t initiate, it might never end. But did I want it to end? Not exactly. Not unless he did.
“How did you come to be here?” he asked.
“N to 8th, walked the rest of the way.”
He rolled his eyes.
“I’m friendly with Susie, sort of. I took her standup class like a decade ago.”
“Ah, Standup Basics. And how would you rate your experience?”
The class had been a waste of money. The other students were non-serious: retirees trying out a hobby, office workers building their confidence. Susie herself had been bored. She’d taught it for thirty years as a way of supplementing the club’s income and her enthusiasm had expired long before I got there. The only real upside had been her offer, extended on a whim, to let me perform occasionally. I think she kept letting me do it because she’d forgotten how the arrangement had come about. Or because she just didn’t care.
“Two stars. Once she sent me out to get her an aloe beverage. Another time I helped fix her printer.”
“Bravo,” he said. “Multi-talented.”
“Hey, I’m no hero. It was a paper jam. I just reached in and yanked it out. Took thirty seconds. People tend to give me an easily accomplished task.”
“Why do you think that is?”
“Maybe I seem competent, but just a little.”
He laughed approvingly. “What did you think of the show today?”
I thought about what to tell him. The show had had the trappings of a celebration without feeling like one. There were tributes, special guests, a gag reel. Running jokes were reprised. Barbra Streisand sang a song. It was exactly the conclusion you’d expect, only the energy was off. Hugo’s enthusiasm seemed faked. Even so, I was sure the audience felt lucky, as if they’d witnessed a historic moment. This was what I finally landed on.
“It was historic,” I said. I sounded unconvinced.
He repeated, “Historic.”
I tried again, “It was...it made me sad.”
He nodded. “Me too.”
A burly guy in all black dragged a stool out of the club. It was late enough now for a bouncer. We watched him take a Sudoku out of his back pocket and start filling it out. People began to weave around us and down the stairs into the club, the first arrivals for the early show.
“Listen, let’s get a drink,” said Hugo. “Somewhere other than this.”
“I can’t. I’ve got a thing. I’ve got to go stand around on a roof with some young people.”
“Of course, a roof.”
“I’m serious. I’m not blowing you off. Another time maybe.”
He thought for a minute, swaying forward on the balls of his feet. He seemed a little drunk already. “This is going to sound crazy, but you should come spend the holiday weekend with me.”
He had a house in Connecticut, he said, growing more excited. With a pool, tennis court, everything. I should come hang out, discuss comedy. We could leave right then. He thought I had potential. He wanted to hear me talk.
I said, “That roof thing I mentioned? I’m meeting a boy there. A man. We’re at the beginning and I’m trying to figure out whether he loves me or hates me.”
“Love and hate aren’t mutually exclusive,” said Hugo. “Especially at the beginning.”
He smiled, a dashing enterprise that usurped his entire face. “Come to Connecticut. No funny business.”
The breeze gusted again, blowing blossoms off a tree just up the street. They came at us in small white cyclone. One landed on Hugo’s lapel, an accidental boutonniere. It was warm and cool both and what light was left in the sky looked purple.
“How can anyone make good decisions in this city?” I asked.
“They don’t,” said Hugo. “Nor anywhere in the world.”