April Fool, Part 2
Soon's they hear about my job with Pep, first thing outta most people's mouth is "so how'd you become a jester?" I usually just shut 'em up with some kinda joke, because havin' to spend that much time thinkin' would cramp my style. But seein' as I'm here and don't have much else to do, maybe it would help pass the time to think up a better answer.
I was always funny, of course, and I use to like to perform as a kid. I mean, picnics, reunions, I'd do my schtick where ever I could. I really got a charge outta makin' all those grownups laugh so hard. But when I started goin' to school, things started changin'.
First of all, I was small for my age. I mean, I was a bona fide runt. And I wore glasses, which automatically doubled my victim factor. Goin' to school actually made me physically ill. Startin' Sunday night, my stomach used to do friggin' somersaults, and it wouldn't ease up 'til Friday night. I'd toss my cookies two or three times a week, on average. It grossed out the other kids, and the janitor use to hate me too. Can't say as I'd blame him, since cleanin' up my puke couldn't have been pleasant.
Probably worst of all, I was smart. That was my fourth strike, as far as the other kids were concerned. By the time we were half-way through first grade, I was doing readin' assignments with the third graders. So on the days when my mom didn't have to come and get me because I'd hurled, I'd get the crap beat outta me, either in the schoolyard or on the bus goin' home from school. One thing I learned real good from those days was how to take a beatin'. You may not think that's a valuable skill, but believe me, it is.
See, when somebody's gonna hit you, the first thing most people do is tense up. That's no good, because it makes it hurt worse. The best way to take a punch is to loosen up, and if you can, begin your body movin' in the same direction as the punch is gonna move you anyway. Sounds kinda weird, but it does work. Maybe that's how come I came through this crash while Pep and the pilot didn't. I don't know.
Anyway, I spent the first four or five years of my school career just duckin' beatings, and when I couldn't, tryin' to take them while sustainin' the least possible damage. I tried all kinda things to try to get 'em to lay offa me, like hidin' my glasses and squintin' my way through the day, but the teachers would always bust me and make me put 'em back on. Funny how they'd notice I took 'em off, but they seemed to be blind and deaf whenever the other creeps in my class made fun of me.
I tried to play down bein' smart, too. I figured if I flunked a year or so, the rest of the kids in the new class would be closer to my size. Or, if I couldn't flunk, at least maybe the other kids would lay offa me about bein' a genius. That didn't work either, since the teachers would send notes home to my mom and she'd whip my ass for slackin' off. Seemed like I couldn't win no matter what I did.
I finally figured it out one afternoon during recess when Marty Stempel was kickin' the bejesus outta me behind the school. I can't remember exactly what I said, but it made him laugh so hard he forgot all about beatin' me up. Everybody else thought it was pretty funny too. Like I said, I was smart. So from then on out, anytime I sensed somethin' bad was headed my way, I'd crack a joke or two and sure enough, it went away.
That's how I made it through the rest of grade school, then junior high, then high school. I stayed smart enough to keep the teachers off my ass and funny enough to be accepted by the kids. Sometimes, it seemed like a tightrope, but I pulled it off. And things changed for me when I hit my sophomore year in high school. I had that growth spurt, and now I was taller than average, and my eyes improved so's I didn't have to wear glasses any more. Girls started noticin' me, too, which was a nice bonus.
By the time I graduated high school, I was just a normal guy, like all the rest. I got a partial scholarship to the State college, and spent my spare time either studyin' or workin' to pay off the rest of my tuition. Pretty normal existence for a kid my age. I was still livin' at home, datin' pretty regular, although there wasn't any one girl. It was the summer of love -- you know, bell bottom jeans, long hair, flower power and all the rest of that crap. My favorite part was the free love.
I had my first lay in the back of my old '69 Volkswagen beetle with some girl I met at a concert durin' my senior year of high school. I think we were both pretty stoned; I know I was. The only thing I can remember about her is that she had long reddish-brown hair, brown eyes, and a smiley face tatooed on her boob. I never saw her again, but I can still remember how it felt to be with her that day. Every time I see a red head, I think about her.
In my junior year of college, I needed some elective credits, so I took an acting class. When the professor found out I was a comedian, he had me go see this guy billed as "The Great Ree Model," a friend of his who was doin' this traveling one-man show. I didn't really wanna go, but it was for extra credit, so I went ahead.
Ree -- His real name was Reese Cavanaugh, but all his friends called him Ree for short -- changed my life. His act consisted of this running monologue, peppered with jokes. These days, we'd call him just a stand-up comic. But he had just enough theater in the way he delivered his gags that people would pay the big bucks to sit through his show. I thought the stage name was really stupid, so I asked him about it.
He said that he was once a model for a friend of his who drew illustrations for ads, and it just came to him one day when his friend was tryin' to talk him into posin' for one of those dorky 50s pipe ads. "C'mon, Ree, model for me." The juxtaposition of "Ree" and "model" in that sentence had clicked for him, and that had been his stage name ever since. He also did some writing on the side, and didn't want that associated with his goofy onstage persona, so it made sense for him to take a different moniker.
I noticed during Ree's act that a couple of people in the audience -- and since this performance was in ritzy Westchester County, most of the folks there were pretty well heeled -- nearly peed their pants during a couple of his skits. It dawned on me then that I might actually be able to make a livin' being funny. I'd thought about it before, of course. I idolized George Carlin and his "hippy dippy weatherman." But when I went to see other comics, the bar atmosphere depressed me so badly that it killed any idea I had about doin' it as my life's work.
But Ree's show was different. When I went to his dressing room after the show, several folks came back to compliment him on his performance, and lots of 'em invited him to parties and asked him to come to dinner with them. This had the nightclub circuit beat all to hell. We clicked immediately. We had totally compatible senses of humor, liked many of the same things, and even though there was a nearly forty year age difference, we became buddies.
Over time, Ree told me his whole life story, from bein' a Depression-era street kid in New York City to his stint in Hollywood in the forties, mostly as an extra in gangster pictures. The black and white photos of Ree from that time showed this tall, dark, handsome guy with a menacing glower and a jaw that looked like it had been chiseled from granite. He'd married an actress, not a real famous one, but one I'd heard of, and they'd divorced after a couple of years. Ree said he'd learned his lesson, and never married again.
The part of his past that really impressed me, though, was his relationship with Howard Hughes. He'd met Hughes on the Hollywood party circuit, through his wife. Hughes liked people with a sense of humor, and soon he and Ree became good friends. When Hughes moved to Vegas, he asked Ree to come with him. He offered to pay Ree's expenses, but Ree turned him down. He worked in the clubs on the Vegas strip as a comic, and earned a fairly good living doing it.
Before long, he began traipsin' all over the country with Hughes, and when Hughes started wiggin' out, Ree began spendin' more and more time with him, trying to snap him outta it. Eventually, Ree spent almost all of his time in Hughes's penthouse, crackin' jokes to take Hughes's mind off the weird stuff he'd begun to imagine.
"I became his private clown," Ree told me, "you know, like in the King Arthur days. He had all of these companies to run, and he was having trouble maintaining a grip on reality. The worst part was, he knew it. He knew he was going nuts and couldn't do anything to stop it. That was the saddest thing I ever saw. I loved that guy. I stuck around and told him jokes because it seemed to ease his pain. He used to call me his jester, and I guess I was." That lasted five years or so, then Hughes finally got so demented even Ree couldn't take it any more and split.
He'd been doin' this travelin' show ever since, and he claimed he liked it. I hung out with him every time he was in the area, and even traveled to New York and Boston whenever he played there. I liked Ree a lot, and envied him his life. I thought a lot about his time with Hughes, and came to the conclusion that that would be the ideal gig. But the want ads didn't have a lot of listings for jesters, so I spent my time agonizing over what I'd do when I graduated college.
Oh, geez! Here comes Marcy! I figured I was safe over here, since it's been a couple of days and she's left me alone. She was scared to death of the woods, figured some sorta animal was goin' to take a huge bite outta her butt, but she musta gotten over it. That woman's a royal pain in the ass. It's "me, me, me" all the damned time with her. And if she tells me about her friggin' Emmies one more time, I'm gonna pick up a rock and end her sorry tale right here. No one would ever know she didn't die in the damned plane crash.
"Jack," she starts, in that pouty tone, and I know I'm in for it now. "Why didn't you come back? You left me over there all by myself! Someone could have ravaged me." She's standin' there in front of me, face sunburned and peelin', hands on her hips. She ain't hard on the eyes, but cripes, what an attitude! Thinks the sun rises and sets for her alone.
"That was the object of it, to leave you over there all by yourself so that I could get some peace," I tell her, and I can tell she's startin' with that attitude again. Before she start shrieking at me again, I cut her off. "Listen, lady, let's get one thing straight. I don't give a shit who you are or what you do or what statues you got at home. On this island there's you and there's me. That's it. And if you don't keep your fat trap shut, there's only gonna be me. Is that clear?"
"You wouldn't dare," she yells at me, with one of those hokey expressions of horror soap opera actors get parodied for.
"Wouldn't I?" I drawl with a smirk on my face. "If I decided I wanted to do you in, Marcy, no one would know the difference. Nobody knows you're here, and if you were to take a long swim, no one would know that either. So shut your yap and go back to your side of this flyspeck until you learn some manners."
She looks at me with her mouth open, then clicks her tongue and turns around on her heel. She's doin' a good impression of "stormin' off in a huff," as they'd term it in improv class, but then she ruins it by lookin' back at me. You can't tell me this broad is a real actress! Oh, I figure she'll come back again, in another coupla days, but by then she'll be hungry enough and scared enough to drop her act, for a while at least. Then we'll see if she has any redeeming qualities whatsoever.
So where was I? Oh, yeah, I told you about Ree. Ree and I still keep in touch, or did, until I dropped down here. He's in a retirement home for old actors out in LA, says he loves it and is enjoying his retirement. He's working on an autobiography with some broad who's got the hots for him, and although he says it's strictly business, I've seen the way she looks at him. That "only business" crap won't last long.
Back to my story. Anyway, I finish my junior year at State, and like every summer since graduatin' high school, I take a summer job at the Gideon Putnam, one of the local hotels that caters to the upper crust of society that invades Saratoga each summer for horse racing and just enough cultural activity to keep the place from turnin' seedy.
There's a certain hostility toward these pigeons from the locals, but for me, they're simply that -- pigeons. I've learned how to charm 'em, and they pay me extra for my flattery and for attending to details for them. It's how I pay my tuition, and every summer, there's one or two little rich girls that want to hobnob with a townie. I consider this a fringe benefit.
It's near the end of the season when Pep blows into town. He's got this horse that he's runnin' in the Travers Stakes, which is sometimes referred to as "the fourth jewel of the Triple Crown," or the "midsummer derby." It's the busiest week of the season. I see Pep comin' in and figure he's a player, and if I do right by him, he'll do right by me. But he's got this assistant, Clarence, and this guy has really got something lodged up his ass sideways.
I'm layin' out Pep's clothes one day while Clarence is on the phone with someone, and I can tell from a couple of snatches of the conversation that it's a business thing, and he's really peeved. Actually, now that I come to think of it, I don't think I've ever seen Clarence when he wasn't peeved. He seems to have this attitude like life is a chore and the world is purgatory.
He gets to me, with his snide attitude, but every time he does, I think about ol' Clarence playin' baseball, runnin' the bases with those spindly legs of his. I'd be willin' to bet a summer's tips that he swings just like a girl. Or Clarence as a kid, writing nasty letters to the Cracker Jack company because he didn't like his toy, or threatenin' to sue the cotton candy vendor at the fair because it was stuck in his hair.
The final thought I come up with is Clarence playin' John Travolta's role in "Saturday Night Fever." I take a sideways glance at Clarence and realize that anyone this goofy can't possibly have any sense of rhythm. I see the disco lights, the glowing floor, hear the Bee Gees playin' "You Should Be Dancing,"... and there's Clarence, the glitter ball glinting off his bald head, the pot belly sticking out of the SansaBelt pants, looking more like he's having a fit than dancing.
Then I start laughin' -- I can't help it! -- and Clarence starts rippin' me a new one when Pep comes outta the bathroom. Now I know for a fact that Pep feels the same way I do about Clarence, from some of the things he's said about him and the way he's said them. What I can't figure out is why he keeps the sourball around. He's always makin' faces at him behind his back. So Pep asks Clarence, "What's your problem?"
Clarence tells Pep that I was laughing at him, and Pep goes, "So?" Clarence just sits there with his mouth open. He doesn't know what to do. Pep turns to me and asks me what's so funny, he could use a good joke. And I tell him about my John Travolta fantasy, and he starts chucklin', then by the time I'm finished, he's howlin'. Clarence's face starts turnin' this beet red, and I could swear he's holdin' his breath, then he just grunts and leaves the room.
Pep lets it all out, then wipes the tears outta the corners of his eyes and lights a cigar.
"Thank you, Sir," I say to Pep, and he waves it away like it's nothin'.
"He's a gasbag," Pep says, and starts gettin' dressed. "To tell you the truth, that was the best laugh I've had in a week."
When he's dressed, he takes a look in the mirror, and pats down his hair. I'm standin' behind him, near the bed, waitin' for him to ask me to do somethin'. Our eyes meet in the mirror and he smiles. "Say, kid, how'd you like to be my gofer for the afternoon?"
"Gee, I'd love to, Mr. Pepper, but I've gotta work," I tell him regretfully. I really meant it. I was really beginnin' to like him a lot.
"No problem," he says. Before I know it, he's callin' down to the desk and tells 'im that he needs my services for the day. And just like that, I'm goin' with him. My supervisor gets on the line and says to do whatever Mr. Pepper asks me to do. I tell 'im okay, no problem.
Pep takes me with him to the track. Clarence meets us in the lobby as if he's coming too, and the look he gives me would have done me in if looks could kill, but Pep tell him that he doesn't need 'em any more that day, and to go get his oil changed. Clarence turns scarlet again, and now I feel kinda sorry for him, 'cause Pep's said this in the middle of a crowded hotel lobby in a voice that half of them had to hear.
But there's no time to waste on Clarence. I get in the limo with Pep, and the man talks my ear off. He asks me questions from time to time, but mostly he tells me about himself and how he got where he is now. When we get to the racetrack, I spend my time gettin Pep drinks and runnin' his bets to the window. Each time he wins and I cash in the ticket, Pep gives me half. Before the day's out, I've got $600 more than I did when we walked in. I could get used to this, I think.
Anyway, to make a long story shorter, I play gofer for Pep for the rest of his time in Saratoga, and when he's through, he says he wants me to come to work for him. I tell him I'm flattered, and would love to take him up on it, but I've still got my last year of college to finish. "No problem," he says. "Come to work for me when you're through. And by the way, let me pay your tuition, and here's some spending money, 'cause you'll need it."
I kept waitin' to wake up, but I wasn't sleepin'. I felt like I had the world by the balls, and all I had to do was squeeze to get whatever I wanted.
I sat down in the shade of a palm tree, looking at the pristine white sands leading to the brilliant blue ocean waters. I listened to the surf as it rolled into the shore, and soon I fell asleep thinkin' about Pep. Sure miss that old bastard!
For a story about the woman who created Jack, see Fortress of Solitude.
Props to the CHPercolator List for the prompt