PRIME TIME

written by Molly Shilling

It's Connor's first performance at the club, but things don't go as planned.

         The tables were arranged in a way that confused Leah. They weren’t in any specific shape. It was more like someone had just thrown the tables around the room like dice on a flat surface; they just sat where they landed. But tonight isn’t about the tables or the shitty bar or the asshole comedians. Tonight is about Connor.

         “Primetime,” Connor whispers, only seven hours before his first gig at the Stinky Rose. Looking up at the stage, Connor notices how the mic is rusting and leaning a little to the left, and how the wooden stool is missing some of it’s cushioning on top. Still, this is where comedy legends are made. 

Leah snorts at his comment and grins. “I mean,” she releases a breath. “Not really.”

         “Daniel Fischer, Isaac Hammonds, Elijah Emens…” his voice trails off.

         “Connor Daniels,” Leah whispers.

         “It’s my primetime.” Connor nods, oblivious to her comment. This is the big leagues. Leah takes his hand back in hers and squeezes. 

         “You’ll be great, babe,” she says.

         They weave between the stacked beer bottles on the ground and a few overturned chairs and make their way to the stage. Leah helps Connor onto the platform, then jogs back to the first row of tables. A waitress begins cleaning up after the bachelor party from the night before. She begins throwing away the beer bottles, but not before Leah steals the top bottle from the closest tower, and sits in the front row.

         “Okay, go.”

         “With what?” Connor runs a hand through his hair, in a nervous tick.

         “Well, first, stop that. Your hair looked so good a second ago. And next, talk about,” she pretended to think for a second as if she didn’t always request to hear this story, “our first date.”

         Connor looks at the ground and Leah can see his introverted, anxiety-riddled persona instantly sink into the ground. What is left on stage could only be described as an energetic and charismatic dreamboat.

         “Have I ever told you guys about my first ever blind date?”

         Leah laughs heartily from the audience and yells, “Of course not! You’re new here!”

         Connor just rolls his eyes. “Well, I got to the restaurant forty-five minutes early. You know, just in case there was traffic or an earth-destroying catastrophe in which my five-minute commute was interrupted.” The waitress in the back chuckles softly.

         Leah interrupts again, “And only seven hours early before your gig.” 

         “Hush!” Connor chides, but smiles. “Anyway, I’m just playing on my phone when this woman walks in. But, not just anyone, you see, she was insane. Clinically. For one thing, she has tattoo sleeves. A septum piercing. Basically, she’s my mother’s worst nightmare. Oh, and Asian so there goes all of my inheritance right there.”

         Leah rolls her eyes but is beaming. 

         “I mean,” Connor continues, “You’ve seen me, right? I’ve got kind of a white frat boy thing going on if the frat boy was also thirty pounds heavier, kind of balding, and twenty-nine. So not only was I overthinking about my future at this point, but also the reasons why she would ever be into me. Especially when you add in the fact that when she asks about my profession, I’ll have to say,” he hunches over and pantomimes eating at a table in a restaurant. He coughs out the words, “I’m a comedian.” 

         “What was that?” Leah asks again, just like she did on their first date.

         Connor pretends to take a sip of water and mumbles unintelligibly, “Mmm commdy.”

         As Leah blushes in the front row, the waitress from before walks up from behind her, a conflicted expression on her face.          “Sorry, but we’re gonna need you guys to leave.”

         Awkward Connor returns and his face goes beet red, a slightly darker shade than if he with his fair skin had sat in direct sunlight for three days. “Sorry, sorry,” he mumbles. He jumps from the stage and lands in front of Leah. He reaches for her hand and they race each other out of the bar, laughing.

         Six hours and fifty-eight minutes later: Connor is adjusting his tie in the mirror backstage when a large, meaty hand smacks his ass. 

         “You ready?” Gabe laughs uncomfortably close to Connor. Soon the overwhelming smell of Gabe’s cheap cologne overcomes Connor and he jokingly pushes Gabe away.

         Connor gives an unconvincing bob of his head. “Of course.”

         “Lighten up, buddy.” Gabe smiles down at Connor. “You’ve got this.” He pats him on the shoulder and checks his watch.               “I’ve gotta go warm up the crowd for ya,” he pauses, giving a comforting smile, “but don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll knock ‘em dead.”

         Gabe’s trying to cheer me up harder than his belt’s working to keep up his pants, Connor thought. No, he continues, that’s not funny enough for an opening line. Through the backstage amp, Connor could hear Gabe’s muffled set. God, he really was built for comedy. As if on a timer, the audience rolls with laughter after each line Gabe delivers. Wanting to hear what Gabe was saying, Connor walks down the short flight of stairs down to the audience level. He finds Leah sitting at a table in the front row. Two bottles of beer are on the table and the heel of Leah’s left foot is resting on top of her right on the second chair at the table. Her elbows hang off the arms of her chair. Leah can be comfortable anywhere.

         When Connor sneaks up to the table, Leah immediately adjusts her posture. She drops her feet to the floor and sits up straight against the rickety chair.

         “Babe! What are you doing? Get backstage!” Leah whispers to him.

         Connor waves her off. “I wanna see the master at work.”

         Gabe walks around the stage with the kind of confidence Connor could only dream of having. Gabe’s hair is thick and black, slicked in a stylish pompadour. He struts around the stage without having to second guess what he was saying, he knows his jokes would land. He knows that he owns the audience.

         Connor sits with his elbow on the table, his chin resting delicately on his palm, just watching Gabe. Leah leaned back in her seat and repressed the impulse to roll her eyes.

         “I told my wife something the other day that upset her,” Gabe pauses, “again.” Gabe makes an exaggerated ‘what can you do?’ face. Connor laughs lightly along with the audience as Gabe acts out making his puppy-dog eyes at his wife. “Now, dear, I’m sorry to have upset you. Can I offer you some chocolate? Or a tampon?” Roars of laughter erupt from the theater as Gabe swings the microphone around on its chord and walks triumphantly across the stage. “

         “I should get going,” Connor whispers to Leah. “Wish me luck!”

         Leah mumbles a “luck” under her breath and goes back to scowling.

         As Connor arrives backstage, he hears Gabe’s audience participation section of his act begin. The sound is muffled from the backstage amp, but Connor hears: “Aw! We’ve got a sourpuss in here tonight!” Laughter. “Miss, what’s up your skirt?”

         The audience member huffs. “Nothing. I just don’t think you’re funny.”

         Even muffled, Connor could recognize the voice of the woman he would spend the rest of his life with anywhere. He runs back down the steps and peeks around the curtain on stage left. He watches Leah, back in her relaxed pose with her arms crossed, glaring up at Gabe. Her eyebrows are raised and her lips pursed in a look Connor recognizes from the time he accidentally called her by his ex’s name during sex. Gabe looks down at Leah, an overconfident smirk on his lips. 

         “Not  funny?” Gabe strikes his chest with his fist, a mock gunshot. “Miss, I must say I’m offended.” 

         “Good,” Leah fires back, still relaxing in her seat.

         In a state of complete panic, Connor runs over to Leah just as the spotlight found the pair. 

         “Gabe, listen, she doesn’t mean it.” Connor’s words stumble over themselves in his hurry to get them out. “She’s just happy to--”

         “Everyone!” Gabe interrupts and turns to address the audience, “I’d like to introduce you all to a newcomer to the Stinky Rose! Connor Daniels has just been recruited to our little club from a real hellhole in the pits a’downtown.” Gabe shakes his head in Connor’s direction. “And if he plays his cards right, you’ll hear him perform tonight.” Gabe turns back to Connor.                   “What'd ya say, Connor? Is this worth your career?”

         The first time Connor went on stage, it was at a dive bar called Santiago’s. There were only four people in the bar at the time of his set, but man, Connor was still sweaty enough to mop the floors with his shirt. To be perfectly honest, Connor doesn’t remember much of his first set. He just knows that his hands and legs were shaking, he could feel a migraine beginning to creep up the side of his head, and the damn spotlight was already making him dizzy, but when he picked up the microphone, time stopped. 

         It was the night after he first met Leah. They had really hit it off at dinner, so he invited her out to watch the show.

         “Just go up there!” Leah nudged Connor with her elbow. They were sitting at the bar, Connor was drinking an appletini, Leah, a bourbon. An older gentleman was quietly playing the banjo on stage.

         He shook his head. “I’m more of a watching kind-o-guy.” 

         Leah rolled her eyes and said, “Don’t even try that with me. You are not and you know it.”

         “How do you know?”

         “Because at dinner last night you couldn’t stop talking. And I couldn’t stop listening. You were hilarious. And you’re good.”

         “How good?” He asked, egging her on.

         “Let’s just say that you’re good enough to get me here at one AM on a Monday night.” As she concluded her sentence, the stage manager ushered the banjo-er off stage and looked at a crumpled up piece of paper in his pocket.

         “Looks like that was it, folks. Thanks for joining us, tonight.” Before the stage manager could turn off the lights, Leah pinched Connor so hard he jumped from his seat, squealing and raising his arm in protest. 

         “Oh wait,” the manager said unenthusiastically, “looks like we got one more.”

         Connor’s face turned a deep shade of purple out of embarrassment and fear. He tugged at his index finger instinctively as his feet shuffled him to the stage.

For a few seconds, he just stood on stage. He contemplated going back to the safety of his table. Just putting on his coat and leaving. But what would Leah say? Connor just stood onstage. The heat from the stage lights sent a bead of sweat down his forehead. 

         “God, it’s hot up here.” He mumbled, dabbing his forehead with his tie. 

         And just like that, he got his first laugh. Without even making a joke. With just being himself. And sure, it was mostly from Leah, but still, it counts. And she was beaming. 

         Like now. She looks up at him from the floor. Everyone laughing just like that night, but now she was the butt of the joke. Without thinking, Connor walks up to the stage and reaches for the microphone in Gabe’s hand. Gabe releases it willingly, a smirk on his lips. In one fluid motion, Connor uses his left hand to drop the microphone, steps forward toward Gabe with his right foot, and uses his momentum to thrust his right hand, closed in a fist, into Gabe’s cheek.

         Gabe falls backward, sputtering. The audience rises to their feet. Leah gasps. Connor calmly picks up the microphone.

         “Sorry about that folks. But, you ever have that one moment where you realize you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, where you admire your boss and love your girlfriend, only to realize that your boss is an asshole and decide to punch him in the face?”

         Gabe gets to his feet and makes a slow and fragmented swing at Connor, who deftly ducks out of the way. “Well folks, that’s what happened tonight.” Gabe tries another uncoordinated swing at him, and again Connor simply dodges and jumps off of the stage. 

         “You see, misogyny is the platform,” Connor huffs as he rolls on the ground away from Gabe. “Of, uh, which, many of the male comedians use to make their jokes.” The audience is on their feet, engaged in the performance.

         “Are any of you going to help me?” Gabe shouts at the audience. However, even the bouncers are laughing at the ‘bit’ the two seem to be doing.

         Leah, still standing, slowly sits back down. Her hand cups her mouth, in a state of shock.

         “As with Gabe here, if you hear his jokes, most of them are at women’s expenses.” Gabe makes a rushed grab for Connor and latches onto his suit jacket. “And unlike Gabe,” Connor turns to look at Gabe, “I try to poke fun at myself. Allowing my audience to relate to me instead of putting others down.” 

         With one hand holding Connor’s suit jacket, Gabe brings his right fist up to strike Connor. But not before Connor slides his arms out of his sleeves and dives away. Connor jumps off of the stage and picks up the extra beer on the table with Leah’s. 

He holds the beer to his lips, “For example, I know that it subverts the male stereotype when I say things like, ‘This beer would be so much better with a pineapple wedge’. Or even, ‘Beer is gross. I prefer appletinis’ because for some reason we’ve deemed beer a ‘manly’ thing.” By now Gabe has marched over to the front table. He lunges for Connor, gripping him by his shirt, tight enough that this time Connor isn’t able to wiggle free. 

         “This is my club,” he growls, “I gave you the opportunity of a lifetime to perform here. And this is how you repay me?” 

Connor shakes his head and turns to Leah. “Let’s go.” He takes her hand and begins to walk toward the exit when suddenly a leg extends into his knee and Connor collapses onto the ground. 

         A cold, wet rag dabs at Connor’s face. He looks around and realizes that he’s sitting against the wall outside of the club. Leah kneels beside him and is biting her lips. She brings her hand to his cheek in a concerned caress before playfully slapping his face.

         “What the hell?” Connor winces and attempts to bring his hand to his face. A metallic rattle comes from behind his back and he looks back up to Leah.

         “Yeah, dude. You assaulted Gabe.”

         “But,” he spurts, “He started it!”

         Leah rolls her eyes and says, “For the record, I could’ve handled him myself.” 

         Loud enough for the police and onlookers to hear, Connor says, “I know, and he wouldn’t have stood a chance. Gotta follow the Geneva Convention, babe.”

         “All I’m saying is that you didn’t need to defend me.”

         “I know. But I also couldn’t just let him attack you.”

         “But,” she pauses. “What about your shot? I mean, you hit him in front of all those reporters--”

         “I didn’t like doing that. But, I don’t need someone like Gabe to help me get ahead.”

         Leah sighs and leans her head against Connor’s shoulder. “Thank you,” she murmurs.

         The police officer walks over. She closes her notepad and puts her hands on her hips. “Okay, so Gabriel Rearson is not pressing charges. And because you have no priors, we’re gonna let you go. You’ll still have to show up for fine sentencing, but for now, you’re free to go.” 

         Leah helps Connor to his feet as the police officer uncuffs him. Connor nods a thank you to the officer and the two make their way home down the sidewalk. 

 

         Two blocks out of the door, an out of breath woman in a blazer taps on Connor’s shoulder.

         “You Daniels?” she asks.

         Leah cocks her head and glances at Connor. They continue to walk towards the subway station.

         “You left quite a scene back there,” the woman says, jogging in her heels to keep up. “I think they’re still arguing about what to do with you.” She brushes a piece of dark hair behind her ear.

         “Well don’t worry, I’m not looking to ever go back.” Connor turns to the stairs leading to the station.

         “Where you headed?” She asks.

         Leah turns on her heels. Always the bodyguard. “Why?”

         “Because I want to make you an offer and you keep trying to run away from me.” The woman says to Connor. “Let’s walk together, shall we?”

         “An offer?” Leah looks back at Connor.

         “As what? A boxer?” He asks sarcastically. 

         The woman juts her thumb toward the bar. “That was a hot mess back there, but you show confidence, a good sense of humor, and a level of authenticity that is rare in this business.” She takes a deep breath, “We’d like to sign you.”

         Connor’s jaw drops three levels underground and is about to be hit by a subway car. “Uh, um, woah.”

         “I’ll help you out here, babe.” Leah steps in front of him and takes the woman’s business card. “Thank you,” Leah says, scanning the card, “Miss Flynn with FSL Entertainment.” 

         “Isaac Hammonds works there. Oh my God.” Connor mumbles, vaguely hyperventilating.  

         Leah adjusts her posture to give off the impression that her five-foot frame was actually five one and a quarter. She raises her chin and pops her hip. “Thank you for the offer Miss Flynn, we’ll be in touch.” She shakes Flynn’s hand and watches her walk away. With each click of Flynn’s heels, Connor can feel his heart rate accelerate. As soon as Flynn turns the corner, Leah releases a high pitched squeal that makes Connor’s skin crawl. 

         “What the hell--”

         “You did it!” Leah shrieks, jumping up and down. Connor pauses for a minute, taken aback, before joining her.

         “I couldn’t have done this without you.” Connor embraces her. “Really, you’ve made all of this possible,” he says, a slight tremor in his voice.

         “Stop that!” Leah says, stepping back. “Tonight let’s celebrate! Wanna grab a beer?”

         “Can I get an apple--”

         “Of course.” Leah smiles and takes his hand. They walk down the steps leading into the subway station and enter the limelight.

©2020 by Molly Shilling. Proudly created with Wix.com