Stay Up with Hugo Best
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 recrossing 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 time.”
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, and 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 underground.
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 burned-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 gray 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 wasn’t 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. Ha-ha,” 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 said.
“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 toward 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 materialized from nowhere and would return there 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 undeployed 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 half 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 Gretzky poster he’d had since second grade. He told me he 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 résumé, 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, headachey. 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 hot dog?” 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 hot dog 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 onstage. 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 presummer 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 gray-blond 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 toward 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 into his pockets. I braced for an awkward good-bye. 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 Eighth, walked the rest of the way.”
He rolled his eyes.
“I’m friendly with Susie, sort of. I took her stand-up class like a decade ago.”
“Ah, Stand-Up Basics. And how would you rate your experience?”
The class had been a waste of money. The other students were nonserious: 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. “Multitalented.”
“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 from 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 a 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.”
I directed Hugo’s driver, miles away at the front of the SUV, farther downtown and over the Williamsburg Bridge. Now that we were together in a confined space, Hugo withdrew a little, composed himself after his earlier eagerness. He popped in a piece of spearmint gum and I could smell it over the new-car scent. He smoked for twenty years, twenty years ago, he told me. Unbelievably, he still needed the gum.
“My generation smoked,” he said. “Today everyone vapes. You don’t vape, do you?”
“I don’t vape.”
“Good. It’s a weak simulacrum. If you’re gonna do the thing, do the real thing. Not the PG version. Not the cantaloupe-flavored version. You know?”
The bridge was a string of taillights creeping forward in fits and starts. Below, the dark blue surface of the river reflected back streaky clouds and buildings and cars moving up the FDR.
“Lived out here long?”
I’d started in Manhattan over a decade ago and been forced farther and farther east, changing neighborhoods ahead of gentrification. Now I lived in Bushwick with a friend and soon we’d be priced out again. Already the signs were there.
Hugo nodded. “Tapas bars. Coffee shops.”
“Craft beer sold in growlers.”
We lived at the neighborhood’s limit, right between Ridgewood and Bed-Stuy. It wouldn’t be long before we shipwrecked against the hard barrier of Brownsville. Brooklyn was finite. You could only go so far east.
“And then what?” asked Hugo.
“I don’t know. Queens? Jersey City? Bangor, Maine?”
“Outer outer outer borough.”
“I have a twelve-hour commute,” I said. “But you wouldn’t believe how much reading I get done.”
“It’s a tragedy what this city is doing to our creative class.”
We stopped in traffic near the foot of the bridge. Bikes streamed by in the last of the dusk. Being in a chauffeured car all of a sudden was a shock to the system akin to jet lag. I felt transported across time zones. I struggled to recall the chain of events that had gotten me there. We’d crossed the street, I could remember that much. He’d held the car door open for me, grasped my elbow while I’d taken the step up. The contact had lit up my nervous system like a strand of Christmas lights.
“Where do you live,” I said, “when you’re not in Connecticut?”
“I keep a sleeping bag at the office, unroll it under my desk after everyone leaves. Laura came in early once and caught me. Gave me hell. Apparently there’s something called sleep hygiene.”
Laura was the self-appointed keeper of his health. I thought of earlier in the bar, her casual hand in his. Their relationship was a popular topic of office gossip, but no one seemed to have all the details. There was a consensus that they had been
lovers when they were much younger. Opinions diverged on whether they still were.
“I’ve heard of it. You’re only supposed to sleep in your bed and only use your bed for sleeping.”
“What fun is that?” He pointed back toward Manhattan and north. “I live uptown. Stuffy neighborhood, you’d hate it.”
I turned to look. Manhattan was still there. “I bet it’s got a bad view, too.”
“Rotten. Too much park.”
“At least it’s cheap, right?”
“A steal. It’s a slum around there. Not like this.”
We were in the land of warehouses, of plywood partitions and artists lofts. Even with gentrification being what it was, it had a bombed-out feel. All that was missing was the rubble in the streets, the holes torn from facades to reveal bathrooms and kitchens, the severed pipes still dripping water. I had considered telling him to skip it and making do without a change of clothes, picking up a toothbrush somewhere along the way. It could have marked the beginning of a life untethered. But there was the matter of clean underwear and my cell phone charger. The crude implements of modern survival.
On my block, the driver pulled up into the bus lane and punched the flashers. Scaffolding fronted most of the buildings. The bodega on the corner would sell you a hamburger or a loose cigarette. Our joking had acknowledged and dismissed the difference in our lifestyles, but I was still embarrassed to have taken him to such a place. It was a block like so many others I’d lived on: charmless and in flux.
“I’ll only be a minute,” I said, getting out of the car.
The street in the evening was as busy as midday. Kids flew by on Razor scooters. The pet store next door—Just
Pets—was getting a delivery. Two men hoisted terrariums full of gray mice up on their shoulders. Outside my building, Rocco sat in his striped beach chair, burning incense. His legs were bloated with disease, skin purple, shards of yellow toenail sticking out of his bare toes. He was a painter; he made portraits of neighborhood people and sat there all day trying to sell them.
He greeted me by name but I waved and kept going. Rocco spent his nights in shelters, smelled like patchouli layered over wet popcorn, loved to talk about his process. You couldn’t engage him without a clear schedule and a heart full of hope. I glanced back at the car to see if Hugo was watching. The windows were tinted and gave nothing away.
Inside the vestibule, one of our neighbors, a tall guy named Lars, appeared to be waiting for me. He had his collapsible bicycle with him, mint green, so small he had to stoop to hold it steady. His round black helmet framed his sweaty forehead.
“You guys need to be better about getting your mail,” he said.
I looked at our mailbox: Bloom/Newton. Corners of letters poked out. More were balanced on the narrow ledge above it.
“Okay,” I said.
“First of all, couldn’t some of those letters be important? Are you not paying your electric bill?”
Once Lars had knocked on our door to give my roommate, Audrey, an Anthony Bourdain book. Another time he asked her on a date. Both occasions she had laughed. Now he was mad about mail and taking his revenge.
“We do that stuff online. But I’m kind of in a hurry. Could we talk about this another time?”
He made his voice very calm and leaned down slightly to clutch the bike. “The mail piles up. The postal worker can’t fit it all. He just puts it wherever. It gets on the ground. It gets kicked out the door and onto the street. You don’t want it out there, do you? With all your identifying information on it? Today I got one of your letters in my mailbox.”
He held it aloft. A credit card offer.
“You can just throw that away,” I said.
“That’s not my job! It’s your mail!”
I took the envelope from him. I worked late, I told him, and sometimes forgot to get the mail. But as of today I was unemployed, so I could give it my full attention. I could watch for the mailman, have him personally hand me my letters. I could camp out with Rocco and preempt him halfway down the block.
“Oh,” he said. He took his helmet off. His hair was pressed to his skull. “Why doesn’t Audrey get the mail ever?”
I laughed. He’d managed to bring it around to Audrey. “I have to go.”
He called after me, “Sorry about your job.”
I was up the first flight already, the first of five, and didn’t bother to respond.
Our apartment took up half a floor, each room longer than it was wide. I knocked over a bike as I entered, and the bike knocked over a broom. I lunged for the broom, but didn’t catch it. It clattered as it hit the floor. On the couch, Audrey raised her eyebrows.
“Well, why was there a broom there?” I said.
“I was going to sweep,” said Audrey. “One day.”
We both laughed at the notion of Audrey sweeping.
“I ran into Lars downstairs.”
“Oh God,” she said. “The mail?”
“He wanted to know why you don’t ever get it since you’re here all day.”
Audrey used to want to be a comedian, too. Now she worked from home freelancing articles for culture websites. Fifty bucks here, one twenty there. Occasionally she’d get a more permanent gig and go to an office for a few months. Then the company would realign, pivot to video, get bought out, disintegrate, and she’d end up back on the couch, sending out invoice reminders.
“It’s too boring for me to contemplate,” she said. “Did you tell him that?”
“I didn’t feel up to it.”
“Tell him that next time. Tell him I think they should discontinue the mail. Why are people still scribbling something down on a piece of paper and paying to have it delivered to another person? It makes no sense. Everywhere there’s a post office they should build a wind turbine instead. Would that make a good essay?”
“No,” I said. “Come with me for a second.”
Audrey followed me down the hall to my room. I had a window that looked out on the street, and I beckoned her over to the blinds.
“That’s my boss down there,” I said.
She squinted. “You mean a producer or something?” She pulled back and cocked her head. “Or . . . You don’t mean Hugo Best?”
“It’s him,” I said.
I told her about our encounter. My set on Bleecker, his invitation outside. How fast it had all happened. How looking back at Manhattan from the Williamsburg Bridge had
been like glimpsing the Earth from space. I felt oddly like I was lying. I kept adding details to make it sound more true.
“The guy on before me had a ukulele,” I said.
“How is that relevant?”
“Just painting a picture.”
We looked through the blinds again. The car’s smoky windows reflected the orange streetlight.
“What’s he doing in there, reading emails?”
“Just chewing gum, I think.”
I started jamming clothes at random into a canvas tote bag. I searched my drawers for what to bring. He’d mentioned a pool and a tennis court, but otherwise I was at a loss.
“What do I pack?”
Audrey let the blinds fall back into place. “How long are you going for?”
“I don’t know. I forgot to ask. I guess all weekend?”
“Don’t you have that thing with Logan tonight?”
Yesterday I’d been consumed by my relationship with Logan; today I felt barely able to picture him. What had I liked about him again? His modish swoop of hair and carefully considered interests? His tidy shirts buttoned all the way to the top? He thought it was funny that I worked in network television. He had gotten the idea that I was doing it ironically and I hadn’t corrected him.
“It’s not that important,” I said. “It’s just standing on a roof.”
She settled onto the striped duvet my mother had gotten me when I’d come to the city for college eleven years ago. She wore sweats and a frayed T-shirt with cutoff sleeves, but crossed her wrists elegantly in her lap.
She said, “If you’re doing this for the experience, fine. If you’re doing it for your career . . .” She paused. “Also fine.”
“It’s not like that,” I said.
“But if this is some hero worship thing . . .”
“But if you have expectations . . .”
She exhaled. “Remember when I met that author on the plane?”
I did, but she told me the story again anyway. She was on her way to California for a wedding and had ended up in business class seated next to the author. He was one of the lesser greats, upper-second-tier, bald and charismatic with a gold Rolex that rattled on his wrist when he motioned to the flight attendant for another round of drinks. His most recent book was being made into a movie, he explained, sipping, and he was headed to LA for a meeting. He was sure it would be a dreadful affair. They always were. The movie or the meeting, Audrey asked, and he smiled. They talked for a couple of hours. He paid for the drinks and they exchanged numbers.
“It felt promising,” she said. “It had weight. Not just a chance encounter, but the beginning of something.”
I was getting impatient, doing a lap around the room for anything I’d forgotten. “And then halfway through the flight he took his shoes off and watched a kids’ movie.”
“And socks,” she said. “Shoes and socks. And not just a kids’ movie. An animated princess movie for little girls.”
“Is this an allegory?”
“It’s a real thing that happened,” said Audrey. “As well as an allegory.”
“Can’t men watch cartoons without some judgment on their masculinity?”
“It wasn’t just about his masculinity.”
Later, the author fell asleep and his breathing sounded ragged and wet. Audrey could feel his body heat radiating three inches off his skin like a clammy dome. She’d come close to grabbing her bags and heading back to coach. It was lurid, his humanity. It was a neon sign switched on in the dark. It ruined his books for her forever.
“Granted, I was drunk,” she added.
“But that was that author,” I said. “And this is Hugo.”
“Author, television host. There’s no difference.”
“Sure there is.”
I wasn’t going to get into it, but the problem with allegories was that they worked in general but failed in the specific. Anything could happen with Hugo. Anything at all. The outcome wasn’t limited to disgust. Plus, I could think of counterexamples. Our friend Priya from college had fucked Michael Jordan once and it was great. They watched Ray after on demand. He sent her home in a chauffeured limo.
“I think that’s apocryphal,” said Audrey. “Anyway, you’re not going to Michael Jordan’s house, are you?”
“I guess not.”
“Say it did happen. Priya wasn’t invested in basketball at all. Michael Jordan wasn’t her idol. She wasn’t employed by Michael Jordan. She wasn’t in her twentieth year of a one-sided conversation with him in her head.” She paused. “Isn’t Hugo like seventy?”
“Not seventy. Sixty-five.”
“And what about his thing with that high school girl? What’s her name—Kitty Rosenthal? How old was she, sixteen?”
The episode was bound to come up. Hugo was almost more famous for that one night with Kitty Rosenthal than he was for the rest of his career combined. It wasn’t that the story
didn’t bother me. It was that I had grown accustomed to it, or learned to ignore it. Shelved it somewhere out of reach.
“I’m twenty-nine,” I said.
“So too old for him then.”
“We can’t both be too old for each other,” I said. “How does that work?”
“I just want you to think about it, is all. Really think about why you’re going.”
I made a show of thinking, let several seconds elapse while I stared off into space. All I really thought about, though, was Hugo smiling at me in front of the club. How his smile had seemed full of possibility. How it had made me feel, briefly, special.
That seemed like a weak justification, even to me.
“I’m going for fun,” I said. “Remember fun?”
I’d been clutching my bathing suit in one hand and stuffed it into the tote. I didn’t get many chances in the city to wear it. I went to the beach at the Rockaways twice a year, lay out on our roof maybe once. A pool out in the country was an enticement all its own, almost separate from Hugo. Almost. “Did I tell you he has a pool?”
“Well,” said Audrey. “A pool.”
We laughed again.
There was nothing to see on 95 between Manhattan and southeast Connecticut. Streetlights and potholes, the dour monoliths of Co-op City. We hit traffic in Westchester and Hugo had his driver—Cal, I had learned by now—put on a Richard Pryor album.
The older white comics I knew all revered Pryor. Hugo himself always named him as his greatest influence, but it was hard to see what their comedy had in common. Stay Up found its jokes in misprinted headlines, man in the street silliness, the gentle mocking of starlets. In his late career, Hugo was bland and inoffensive and scandal-proof. He had become an affable idiot among affable idiots.
Richard Pryor, with his drug jokes and race jokes and sex jokes, his raunch and barely controlled rage, was something else entirely. The album we were listening to, stop-and-go through Harrison and Rye and Port Chester, was called That Nigger’s Crazy.
“Back then you could shock people,” Hugo was saying, “I mean really shock them. Pryor was raw. He talked about doing crack in a way that you could tell he had done crack. That was a big deal back then. People weren’t walking around casually joking about crack. Now everywhere you go, it’s crack this, crack that. You’ve got middle-aged white women talking about how their smartphone is a crack addiction or their Starbucks latte is like crack. Oh really? You’re crawling around on your hands and knees sucking on carpet fibers ’cause you think a drop of your latte might have gotten on the floor?”
“Have you ever done crack?” I asked him.
“That is not my point at all. Just not even close.” He leaned back to watch nothing scroll by for a while.
On the stereo, Pryor was doing the bit about the wino dealing with Dracula. Winos weren’t afraid of anything, it went, except running out of wine. Wino bumps into Dracula on the street and he’s like, what’s that you’re wearing, a cape? He’s like, what’s wrong with your teeth? Why are they
hanging out like that? Go to the dentist, motherfucker. It’s 1975. And so on.
Finally Hugo asked, “What about you? Do you like Richard Pryor?”
There were other comics I liked better, but Hugo seemed tired, not fully up to sparring, so I said, “Sure, he’s funny. Reminds me of you a bit. Your early stuff.”
Hugo’s mouth twitched with a suppressed smile. “Flatterer.”
“Was I not recruited for that express purpose?”
“Recruited is too strong,” he said. “Enticed. Coaxed.”
We listened to the Pryor a little longer, and then Hugo said, “What brought you to our show anyway? Besides fate I mean. It always interests me, the route our staffers take to find us.”
“I was an audience page,” I told him. “You know what that entails.”
“Ah, a child of the purple windbreaker. I hope you kept it.”
“No. I think it got lost in one of my moves.”
It was hanging in the far left of my closet in dry cleaners’ plastic. I saw it regularly, wondered all the time when I’d throw it out. I’d never wear it again, this water-resistant sack with the show’s name over the heart. Its only value was sentimental, and I didn’t think of those days fondly. The work was too boring, too physically demanding. I was twenty-five and everyone else was twenty-two, right out of college. The three-year difference didn’t sound like much, but it humiliated me.
“What made you want to do it?” said Hugo.
I shrugged. “I barely remember.”
It was almost five years earlier. I’d been working as an assistant in the voiceover department of a talent agency. It
was a big corporate office, gale-force AC, business casual. I managed the schedules of actors who voiced radio promos and TV commercials. I booked them auditions. It seemed to me the least consequential job available. I spent most of my time there—most of two years—writing jokes in text documents that I hastily minimized if anyone walked past. That and applying for other gigs. When I took the job it seemed like it could be an avenue to something else. Maybe I could move over to the comedy or TV department. It hadn’t worked out that way, though. Nothing that presented itself as a stepping-stone ever really was.
My page application had been an impulse. I filled it out online and clicked send. When I got a call back I was surprised. So many of my applications disappeared into the blank churn of the Internet. The pay wasn’t better than what I was getting as an assistant, but it wasn’t worse. My last day at the agency they gave me a card signed by everyone in my department and we had grocery-store cupcakes, stale and sticky, in the conference room. I felt sad in a remote way, even though I hated the place. Instead of saying good-bye to my boss, I snuck out an hour early and took the stairs all the way down. Eleven flights held more appeal than the bloodless well-wishes of people who didn’t really care what happened to me.
The new class of pages started the last week of August. Summer was dead by then and the city flew at half-mast. It had been raining for two days while a tropical system made slow progress inland. When it stopped, the sky was still dingy gray and low as a ceiling. I was wet on arrival. Not just from sweat; puddles of unknown depth lingered at the curbs. I judged it right three times, four, but eventually I guessed
wrong and drenched my shoes, my socks, the hem of my jeans. I had to do the whole day like that, squishing along.
“I remember the first time I set foot in the theater,” I told Hugo. “The lobby floor was flooded and they had us sandbag it. That was my first day.”
“It was a special place,” he said lightly.
The Bob Hope Amphitheater. There’d been a war for him between networks in the early nineties and the promise of the theater had clinched it. It had been restored, keeping the best of its original features: crown moldings, stained glass windows, scrolled mahogany banisters. By the time I got there in 2013, it had faded again. The atrium needed paint and the tiled floor, below the rubber nonslip mats, was cracked. Poor lighting gave it a green, flickering cast. The only recent improvement was the addition of cardboard cutouts of Hugo, big smile, finger guns, available for photo-ops as the line inched past.
Still, he wasn’t wrong. The building had a specialness, even flooded, even in the thick of summer. It was built in the late thirties as a music hall and cycled through decades of use and disuse, repair and disrepair. Everyone had played there—Buddy Holly, the Beatles, Nina Simone. Lenny Bruce and Andy Kaufman. Robin Williams, scaling the plush purple curtain like a gym-class rope.
I didn’t believe in ghosts, but I did believe that the mind took what it knew about a place and projected a mood. Part of my job as an audience page was to give an introductory spiel about the building, and afterward I could always see the crowd looking around, newly awed. Here had walked the demigods of entertainment. Here the guitar. Here the brow. Here the halo of light. It made people reverent. It
made them speak in hushed voices about the architectural features. It made them, anyway, less likely to stick their gum to the undersides of their seats.
“Did you like being a page?” Hugo said, and we both laughed.
The job was scanning tickets and putting on wristbands. Standing up through the whole performance and making sure the audience stayed put. Answering the same three to five questions over and over. Pointing out the bathroom. No one liked it. Or some did, the try-hards. Everyone else was stoic. Occasionally the pages all wallowed together at the TGI Fridays in Times Square. Fifteen dollars got you an extralarge daiquiri with floating components you had to chew. We could have chosen any bar in Manhattan, but we chose that Fridays, deep in the canyon of the neon signs, a place so lacking in character it could subsume you into its anonymity. It could dissolve your very identity.
“I didn’t like it that much,” I said. “If you can believe it.”
“Did I ever meet you on one of my page rounds? I always tried to make a point of meeting everybody.”
“For a second early on. You shook each of our hands and thanked us. You seemed sincere.”
“I was. We need the pages. We need the whole staff.”
He talked about the show like it was still going on. I wondered how long it would take for the past tense to kick in.
I said, “I remember you weren’t wearing your suit and it was weird to me. An out-of-context thing like seeing your teacher at the grocery store. And you had on a baseball cap. The baseball cap in particular was really jarring.”
“My hair must have been bad. I only ever wear the hat when my hair is bad.”
“It made you seem like a regular guy. I didn’t like that.”
“Sorry for seeming regular,” he said.
What I actually felt that day was excitement. Until then he’d been made of pixels. Then suddenly there he was, right there. I had touched him. I could smell him. He smelled like coffee—he was drinking one—and damp skin. He’d walked over from his office in the tiered skyscraper the network owned, two street blocks and half an avenue away.
We took a break from sandbagging and he gave us a sardonic pep talk.
“Welcome to the glamorous world of show business,” he said, toeing the frayed corner of a sandbag with his sneaker. “I wish I could tell you it gets better.”
The effect was low-key psychedelic. Encounters with celebrities always produced in me a fizzy dissonance. I had once seen Art Garfunkel at my gym and I’d been mesmerized. I could remember staring at the ruched elastic waist of his shorts. He dropped his keys and I picked them up. He had a Rite Aid loyalty card just like mine, which made me laugh. Folk legend at the register swiping for his rewards. It was the same the first time I met Hugo. I could not accept it as anything other than surreal. My brain simply would not yield.
“We must have met other times,” said Hugo.
We had. After I was a page I worked as a show receptionist for three years. My face, along with the other receptionist’s, was the first he saw when he got off the elevator in the morning. I passed him in the hallway regularly. Once we’d shot hoops together at a staff party at Dave & Buster’s and I let him win. I mean really crush me. All told we had encountered each other hundreds of times, if not thousands.
“We’ve met here and there,” I said.
We pulled off 95 and drove the rest of the way on the Post Road. I had been to Greenwich before, but was surprised every time by the generic nature of its charm. Here was the Upscale Anywhere, green lawns and avenues of beautiful shops unfurling like flags.
The driver stopped at a gourmet supermarket and both of us climbed out. Hugo grabbed a cart, navigated into the store. He steered awkwardly—who knew when he’d last done his own shopping? Inside, he looked back over his shoulder and grinned at me wildly, as if this was some great caper.
“Anything you want,” he said, and spread his arms out expansively. There were lives out there that had strayed so far from the norm that a trip to the supermarket was high kitsch.
“The grocery store,” I said to myself. “What a lark.”
Hugo didn’t hear me. He had already disappeared into the glare of lights and crush of people. He was already lost amid the antipasto.
The house lay behind a solid gray gate on a long arm. A winding driveway carried us deeper onto the property. It sat in a clear field, a boxy structure of glass and pale concrete. Instantly I could imagine the way it would take on the color of the seasons. White in winter, green in summer. Tonight with the lights off it looked nearly invisible in places, a suggestion of angular geometry against the night. It was an esoteric design object you could live in. It belonged on a plinth.
“The architect chose everything. The furnishings, the art,” Hugo was saying. “Unity being the idea. Blurring the line between indoors and outdoors. The dimensions of
the recessed living room are the same as the pool. All of the materials are local. The granite. The wood. Every few years the state tries to make it a landmark.”
We climbed out of the car. Hugo insisted on carrying my tote. The straps were filthy, I noticed, and his arm was touching a bottle of store-brand face wash I had crammed on top.
“Why not let them?”
“It’s a house,” he said. “Not a museum.”
He led me through the downstairs, turning on lights as we went. Through the windows: acres of moonlit field in every direction. The kitchen was white and stainless, opening seamlessly into the living room. Beyond the sliding glass door the flat of the patio gave way to a dark, wobbly presence. The pool.
I sat down at the marble slab of island to unpack our grocery bags. I took out high-concept crackers and pricey Côtes du Rhône, while Hugo busied himself retrieving silverware. He had a whole drawer of tiny, specific knives and he looked down into it thoughtfully for a long time before giving up.
“So what’s your story?” he asked.
I was struggling with a wine opener evidently from the future. “Me? Nothing. I’m just over here trying to figure out how much manchego is acceptable to eat in this scenario. We should all get together as a species and nail down some cheese protocols.”
Hugo nodded. “A Geneva Convention for dairy. I like it. But what I meant was what’s your story more generally. Your upbringing, et cetera. Are you from New York?”
“South Carolina,” I said. “Outside of Charleston.”
“You don’t seem southern.”
People always said this to me. I had lived in New York since college and didn’t have an accent. I was never sure
how people expected southerners to act. The place I had grown up was a lot like this place. The Upscale Anywhere. Only the wealth was not as great and the worst of its ruthless villains were already dead.
“The South isn’t all that different. Except for the trees.”
“So why leave then?”
“Hope. Ambition. Belief in myself. You know, kid stuff.”
Hugo crossed his arms. He was tall and broad in an appealing way. His paunch seemed solid rather than flabby. What wrinkles he had appeared calculated, left intact so he’d look like a reasonable facsimile of a gently aged human being. Leaning against the sink in his shirtsleeves, he was just this side of too orange to be my thesis advisor, or my rumpled editor in chief, or—I didn’t want to think it but there it was—my father.
“What fucked you up enough to want to become a stand-up?” he asked.
“I’m a writer,” I said. “Not a stand-up, not really. No stage presence, you see.”
“Then why do it?” he said.
“It’s that or a Web series, right? Or improv.”
He took the wine opener from me, negotiated its stainless steel levers. He poured us each a glass and held his up in a shy toast.
“Thank you for coming on short notice. I think you’re going to have fun. While you’re here you can treat this place as your own. That’s it. You can drink now.”
I clinked his glass and we both sipped.
“Mm,” I said, “tannins,” though I didn’t know what that meant.
He swirled his glass. “I like my wine like I like my women.”
I groaned. “For real?”
“Abundant? Great legs? Available for purchase?”
He looked pleased. “I was going to say dry.”
He handed me a plate and I laid out crackers.
“Your childhood,” he said.
“I wasn’t abused, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“It’s not always abuse. Sometimes it’s a stutter. Sometimes it’s childhood obesity. Sometimes it’s, I don’t know, a back brace.”
“I didn’t have a back brace,” I said.
“You’re being literal. You were an outsider.”
“You mean because I’m Jewish.”
“There couldn’t have been many.”
“None. None that weren’t eighty years old. So few that people didn’t know. The possibility of a Jew didn’t even occur to them. My brother and I more or less passed. Kids at school would ask us where we went to church.”
“And what would you say?”
“Episcopalian was a safe bet. Evangelicals were too intense and Catholics could sniff you out. You had to know stuff to be a Catholic. When I got older I would tell the truth. People didn’t know what to do with that.”
“Well, there you go,” said Hugo. “That must have been isolating.”
“But everyone feels isolated as a teenager, don’t they? The reason is almost beside the point.”
“So nothing causes anything. That’s your thesis?”
“I don’t have a thesis,” I said. “I’ve got my woes like anyone. No one’s unscathed. My grandparents are dead. Three
of four, anyway. I was only intermittently popular in my small town. Not, you know, full-on popular. Um, what else? I don’t know . . . I’ve had an abortion?”
“Are you asking me?”
“No, I definitely had the abortion. And I’m not trying to be flip about it either. In case that kind of joke makes you uncomfortable. What I’m asking is, is that enough?”
He chewed a cracker, half smiling. There was a poppy seed stuck to his lower lip, and I thought of Gil. On Thursday afternoons Gil printed out bingo cards and the writers all played while we watched a live feed of the taping: B-plus ad-lib was a square. Glance at guest’s tits was a square. Spittle on lower lip was a square. Winner gets a raise, Gil always joked. I never knew what Hugo thought about these games, if he found them funny or insulting. If he saw them as a way for the staff to let off steam, if he knew about them at all.
“Is that enough what?” asked Hugo.
“Enough bad stuff. To convince you that I’m miserable or lonely or whatever it is you think qualifies me to be a comedian.”
“I never said you had to be miserable. I’m just saying that’s usually the case. I know a lot of comedians, too many, and they’re a pretty desolate bunch. It’s not always something in their past; sometimes it’s clinical. Is it clinical for you?”
I took a gulp of wine to conceal my surprise. “You’re asking if I’m depressed? I thought this was supposed to be a date. Or a datelike hang-out.” I blushed. “Maybe I misread it. Can we just eat these crackers? Damn.”
I shoved a handful into my mouth and coughed. They tasted earthy, like rosemary and dirt, and absorbed all my spit. I had to drink a lot of wine to get it all down. Hugo refilled my glass.
“Nothing fucked me up,” I said, when I could speak again. “Nothing in particular.”
It was true. I hadn’t had a difficult life. My father was a dentist and my mother ran the practice. We had health care, school clothes, summer camp. We had an extra room just for the computer. A Honda Civic that my brother and I took turns backing into street signs, telephone poles, other cars. I could get a twenty from my dad on the way out the door anytime if I was willing to needle him for it.
And it wasn’t just money either. I hadn’t been beaten up or neglected. I hadn’t ever been mugged. I’d done well in school, well in college. I’d had a couple of iffy sexual experiences that I’d thankfully been able to shut down before things went too far. The worst I had suffered was nonsuccess. I was twenty-nine with an entry-level job and unable to pay my bills. I had been provided for. I hadn’t been harmed or held back, I hadn’t been scarred, but I had quietly failed anyway.
I said, “I don’t hold with sad-clown theory. It’s facile, superficial. The idea that something horrible has to happen in a comedian’s past. Like all comics had shitty dads or dead mothers. Like that’s the only reason you could have for wanting to be funny.”
Hugo topped me off again and said, “Maybe that’s what you need. Something big to hurt you. Maybe it would make you funnier.”
“Is this a preamble to sexual assault?” I craned my neck and looked down the hall off the kitchen. “Does this place have a designated rape room?”
I knew my tone was nasty; he’d gotten under my skin.
Hugo shook his head. “Come on. I just mean that you probably need to have some more experiences.”
I said, “Maybe I just want to be funny because the world is funny. Maybe it’s the only way I can see of telling the truth.”
I looked at him, daring him to laugh at this preposterous statement.
When he didn’t I put down my wineglass, pushed back from the countertop. “Where’s the bathroom?”
It was cleverly hidden under the staircase, a cubbyhole with a smooth, black-tiled floor. I peed looking at the copper bowl of the sink and considered leaving. I pictured walking down the long drive and waiting outside the spooky gray gate for a car service. There was nothing actually spooky about the gate. I was drunk. I wondered if Hugo would follow me out. Come on, June. June, come on. He would use my name a lot like that, I was sure. Possibly, it would work.
Or if it didn’t I’d what? Call my own bluff? Get on the train? Ride back to the city, back to Brooklyn? Go to the roof party and drink a warm PBR? Tell Logan what happened? Pick up the mail on the floor of the vestibule?
It was too logistically difficult, I concluded. I had come this far and I was still curious. The experience hadn’t even amounted to a story I could bring back to Audrey yet. I washed my hands, reapplied lipstick, studied my reflection for signs of credulity. There was no medicine cabinet to check for pills. Better that way, because I’d have looked if there was. I’d have been unable to resist confirming for myself the things I suspected: his sadness and erectile dysfunction, his growing prostate and failing heart.
The kitchen was empty when I got back. Maybe he left, I thought, and the house belonged to me now. I picked up the cheese knife and held it in my hand. A pleasing silver heft.
“This is mine,” I said experimentally.
I got up and looked in the refrigerator. It was empty except for Diet Coke, pickles, and condiments. Even the condiments were sparse. The mustard lids looked crusted on. I opened a low cabinet and saw nothing. I opened another and saw a SodaStream still in its box. I didn’t want to get caught gazing at an unopened SodaStream, so I sat back down.
He returned from a door off the kitchen, brushing the dust from a bottle of wine. He held it up so I could inspect the label.
He said, “No offense, but the wine you picked out was garbage compared to this.”
“I read something awhile ago that said if wine tastes good then it is good.”
“Hm,” he said. “Not really.”
“But if it tastes good . . . it is . . . good.”
“You just said that. Are Hostess cupcakes good just because they taste good?”
“Yes. The theory holds.”
He poured me a glass. “Here. Try this.”
It tasted woody, like someone had dragged some grapes along the deck of an old boat. I told him that and he laughed. “You’re not actually wrong.”
We both sipped. He opened his mouth a couple of times to say something and closed it again. Finally he said, “I had the shitty father you mentioned.”
He was trying to apologize, I realized. The special wine was an apology. His sudden openness about his childhood was an apology, too.
“Shitty how?” I said.
I already knew the answer. I knew all about his upbringing. Years before I’d found his memoir on the one-dollar rack outside the Strand and stood skimming it while smoke from
the halal cart on the corner stung my eyes. It had a purple cover with raised silver lettering and brittle yellow pages that kept falling onto the sidewalk. Finally I fished out a single and took it home.
“You name it,” he said. “Distant. Ragey. The type of person who would hit a kid with a closed fist.”
“Jesus,” I said.
“Yeah. He waited until I was ten, though. Double digits. That was his bizarre boundary. I probably weighed eighty pounds.”
“And your mother . . .”
“Did nothing. I could never really get a handle on her. She was this soft, creative person, but she let him do what he did. Maybe she didn’t like it, but she didn’t stop it either. She had boundary issues of her own, my mother. She was a dancer. She’d been a Rockette for about an hour when she was young, and she used to put on her costume and perform the whole Christmas extravaganza in our living room for fun. Oil up her legs.”
He fell silent. All of this, I remembered, took place in Woodside, Queens, in the crisscrossing shadow of the LIRR. They had a grim little row house, brown on beige, loose banister, silverfish in the tub. His room was divided from his sister’s with a particleboard partition that wobbled when one of them rolled over in bed. The mailbox said Bechkowiak.
“Is that why you changed your name? To distance yourself from them?”
“I changed my name because you can’t be Bechkowiak in Hollywood. Or you couldn’t back then.”
But yeah, he went on, he picked Best because it sounded good, was empty of association, and also because he was nineteen
and pretty dumb. He picked Best because it said nothing except that he was the best, which made him laugh to this day.
“It wasn’t all bad,” he said. “My childhood. My dad was a mechanic and he taught me about cars. He had an incredible breadth of knowledge. He’d flown planes in World War II. Probably he should have been an engineer. He was smart enough. And we watched Carson together almost every night. That we did do. My father didn’t really like it, but I could tell he thought it was a bonding thing. I can’t remember if he ever laughed. I’m guessing not. I would have enjoyed it more on my own. But instead it was this weird solemn ritual. Glumly making popcorn, sitting down on the couch.”
“But you loved your sister,” I said. “Vivian.”
There was a photo insert in the middle of the book that included some family pictures. Hugo with a terrifying Easter bunny; Hugo and Vivian on roller skates in front of the house; the whole family posed for a frowning department store portrait. Hugo and Vivian looked alike. Tall, fair, and miserable.
He narrowed his eyes at me. “You read my book.”
“I might have. Does it have a purple cover?”
“I was against that cover. It was silly. It misrepresented the content of the book. People picked it up thinking it was this light, gossipy thing, and were surprised to find out it was really about a kid clawing his way out of an abusive home. It fell out of print.”
He ate the last sliver of manchego, tossed in a jagged shard of cracker after it. “That’s something you don’t consider when you write a book,” he said. “That one day it’ll be out of print, and sooner than you’d like. Not thinking about endings doesn’t stop them from happening. It only makes the endings sneak up on you.”
He stood to clear the plate, tilted the crumbs into the sink. He pressed buttons on the dishwasher, trying to get it open, but it seemed to be locked.
“Eco wash in progress,” he mumbled. “What does that mean? No it isn’t.”
He looked up at me and smiled abashedly. I went over and took the plate from him. “Let me.”
I punched a few buttons and opened the dishwasher, set the plate on the empty rack. As I was closing it again he grabbed my wrist. His hands were aging faster than the rest of him. They were lean, tanned to spotting, and the tendons stood out. His grip was urgent, but not painful, and the warmth, the give of his skin, startled me.
He said, “You’re not a sad clown, okay? It was wrong to assume that we’re the same, you and me. That you’re a mess just because I am.”
We stayed like that for a moment, not speaking. I thought he’d do something else, pull me closer to him, kiss me, but he didn’t. The dishwasher started to whoosh—all that water for one plate. I hadn’t meant to run it. I hadn’t meant to come to this beautiful house and needlessly run the dishwasher. It was the last thing I ever meant to do.
He let go and told me a joke, the classic Catskills one-liner about two old Jewish women in a restaurant. The joke went like this: Two old Jewish women are sitting in a restaurant eating their food. Waiter walks up to them and says, “Is anything all right?”
I didn’t know exactly what he was trying to tell me, but because the joke was funny, and because he was a professional with perfect delivery, I laughed.
At midnight, we tuned in and caught the end of Hugo’s lead-in. We had finished the bottle of wine and I sent Hugo down to the cellar to retrieve an even nicer bottle. He came back with one that tasted like a Hershey bar and we sat drinking it on the hard charcoal couch in the recessed living room. I kept getting distracted by the room’s functional twenty-first-century objects, its flat-screen TV and sliding Jenga tower of remotes. It was as if a set dresser had let a few anachronisms slip through to see if anyone was paying attention.
On TV, a different middle-aged white man presided in a different signature suit. He had an America’s sweetheart of his own on, this one newly minted. Her dress zipped all the way up the front and Hugo wondered aloud whether some part of her felt tempted to unzip it in a single deranged swoop and continue telling her anecdote in her underwear.
“They’d burn her like a witch,” I said.
“She’d deserve it,” said Hugo.
I expected the host to acknowledge the end of Hugo’s show, pay tribute in some way. But he only said, “Don’t go anywhere. Stay Up is next.” The credits rolled and were interrupted immediately by a commercial for bleach.
Hugo’s intro music began, dominated by jazzy, dated sax. When Bony’s tenor boomed through the speakers announcing the night’s guests, a bad feeling crept into my chest.
I said, “Hey, let’s put on a movie instead.”
Hugo didn’t respond. His own face, his own body, had appeared on TV. He stood delivering his opening monologue.
Behind him, the purple curtain caught the light and shimmered like stardust.
“I, Hugo Best, being of sound mind and body,” he said, “declare this to be my last will and testament. I appoint my bandleader, Bony Suarez, as my personal representative to administer this will, and to make sure that there are no, you know . . .” He paused, rubbing his palms together. “Shenanigans.”
The audience laughed. Hugo said to Bony, standing off to one side behind an old radio mike, “That cool with you? You prepared to administer?”
Bony nodded. “On it, boss.”
“To the incoming host,” Hugo continued, “I devise, bequeath, and give all my hackiest material.” He paused. “And man, there have been some turkeys over the years, am I right?”
“Some clunkers,” agreed Bony. “Some whiffs. Some real, uh, what do you call it? Comedic misfires.”
“All right, Bony,” said Hugo. “We get it.”
“And that’s the best stuff. You guys should see what doesn’t make the show. Woof.”
“All right, Bony,” said Hugo again. He addressed the audience. “This guy’s a media expert all of a sudden. A bold and incisive critic of TV’s new golden age.”
Next to me, Hugo chuckled softly. I turned to look at him. The real version of the man sat with one leg crossed over the other, wineglass resting on his knee. But it was the version on the screen that caused a clenching in my chest.
When I was ten, eleven, twelve, I lived for Hugo’s show. It had seemed like such an act of largesse on my parents’ part to allow me to watch him, even though it made me tired at
school the next day. Hugo was younger then, cool, something of an iconoclast. My crush had been a minicollision of forces, a science fair Krakatau. The double whammy of loving him and also wanting to be him. Here, for the first time, was a way of living. You could move to New York, be urbane, wry, ironic. You could be a wit and hover above the whole sad, grasping fracas.
Tonight he was up there for the last time, on the same set, in the same clothes, trying for the same vitality. His face was older. His body was heavier. He was carrying around the knowledge that it was all over. Even so he was almost pulling it off. Something was the same. His self. His Hugo-ness.
The Hugo on the couch reached over and put his hand on my knee.
The Hugo on the screen said, “I’m so happy you’re here with me. We have a great show planned for you tonight.”