They beat us up pretty bad. The check-in, the x-rays, then wandering around in our socks. Now we’re on the runway, waiting to take off. The flight attendants have demonstrated how to buckle and unbuckle a seatbelt. (Now there’s a scary thought: people travel who haven’t mastered this much technology?) I ask the man next to me, “Do you believe in God?”
“Excuse me?” he says.
He’s forty or so, balding, with pinched eyes. He looks like a scared rabbit.
“Just kidding,” I tell him.
He hitches up in his seat, gives a little cough and pulls out his cell phone to confirm that it’s turned off, in keeping with our instructions. He doesn’t speak.
“It’s funny because some people freeze and get all nervous at that question because they think they’re going to be trapped coast to coast next to somebody trying to convert them,” I explain. “But I’m not trying to convert you. It was just a joke. My partner and I used to perform a routine where I’m this militant atheist, see, sitting next to him on an airplane? And the weather is bad and the plane starts to shake all over? The kind of moment when people who don’t usually pray, find themselves praying. But not me. I start saying: God, I’m not impressed! You call this a storm? God, you pussy! If you really exist, I defy you to strike this plane down! Bring it on, asshole! Stuff like that? Just to wind people up? It was edgy material, for college crowds mainly. We don’t do that routine anymore. Of course if I tried a stunt like that here, right now, some sky marshal would probably shoot me.”
Now he’s staring at me—but still, no smile.
“It was just a joke,” I repeat.
He reaches for a magazine, muttering, Some joke. He turns a page with a slap and begins to read.
Now, how could I let that pass?
“It’s why I’m making this trip,” I begin, but then the intercom crackles and announces that we can expect a twenty minute delay before takeoff. The man groans, pulls out his phone, and turns it on, scrolling down his menu for a number.
“I’m making this trip,” I resume, “because I’m going to shoot some commercials. That is, I’m not going to shoot them, somebody else is going to shoot them, but I’m going to be in them. With a funny part.”
He shows me the back of his head, looking out the tiny oval window as if there’s something to see on the tarmac. “Yeah, it’s Matt,” he says. “We’re already delayed. If you have to start without me, go ahead. But don’t finish without me. Bye.”
After he turns off his phone and slips it back into his front pocket, I tell him, “So you’re a Matt, too.”
“It’s a coincidence. My name is Matt, too. Matt Niles. Maybe you’ve heard of me?”
He shakes his head, waving his arm to get the attention of a flight attendant. I ask, “What do you do for a living, Matt?”
He gives a little sniff and taps his breast. “I design these.”
“Hearts?” I ask.
“Phones!” he replies as the flight attendant, a young man with gel and bleach highlights in his hair, bobs down the aisle in our direction.
(At this instant I’m sure that Matt and I are thinking the same thing: Kid looks gay as a goose.)
Matt asks, “Can I have some headphones, please?”
“Not yet, sir. We’ll pass those out later.”
“I was joking,” I explain as the attendant leaves us. “That’s what I do for a living. Jokes. I’m a comedian. An actor, too, and I used to do magic shows.”
Matt returns to his magazine. “Well, that makes you three of my least favorite people.”
He didn’t miss a beat. Put a lot of snot into it, too. He was a mean rabbit, this Matt.
“Good one,” I said.
But he didn’t even acknowledge the compliment. Didn’t lift his eyes from the magazine. By now, I smelled way too much ego. He seemed the intelligent type, well-appointed. This had probably made him over-confident. It happens all the time. People get used to winning and they start taking credit for their luck. They need to be taken down. Oh, yes! More than right, it’s fun. It’s an underestimated aspect of justice. Fun! Did he really think I wouldn’t rise to the challenge?
My partner Big says, “Why worry? Some people have no sense of humor. Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.”
He was talking about my ex-girlfriend Kimberly at the time, trying to boost my morale, but this observation is fairly representative of his philosophy in general. Big and I have been working together, on and off, for the last eight years. Usually we were billed as “Niles and Martinez.” We did topical humor, a bit political, a bit observational, and though we had some good times, our careers weren’t going anywhere and we decided to split. He wanted to try his luck out west while Kimberly had convinced me to join her on the adventure of teaching English at a private school in Italy. This was after Kim’s younger sister had married some insurance company big-shot and had a baby and they bought a fancy house in Chalfont and Kim started feeling dissatisfied and restless about her own life. She was fed up with her job hostessing at the restaurant. She decided it was time for a major shake-up. She wanted to do something romantic. She would go further than Bucks County, she would outdo her sister. Why not live abroad?
I have to say, it turned out to be exciting, because while in Ravenna I fell in love with one of my students, a big-eyed brunette named Liliana with very long legs and a high ass and when the time came, it was like screwing Bambi, I swear. She was amazing. Even when her father found out he was reasonably cool about it, and we started doing some business together, a sideline smuggling cigarettes out of Slovenia using the school kids’ passports for fake purchases from duty free shops. It didn’t hurt anybody. It wasn’t such a big deal. But then Kimberly found out and she made it a big deal and kicked me out of our apartment and got me fired from my job. I returned to America alone. In pretty low spirits, to tell the truth. Liliana stopped answering my e-mails.
“You act like there’s only you in this world,” Kimberly had reproached me.
“No, I don’t. But I’m done lying for the sake of other people.”
Fortunately, Big was back in town—it hadn’t worked out for him in California—and we started performing again. But with a new show. Our sabbatical made us see things differently. We decided to take a new name and streamline our act. Strip it down to fundamentals. No more showing off with commentary. No more knowing chuckles. Everybody was tired of that. What our times required was a childlike purity. The boldness of innocence.
My partner Big is, well, very big. Pushing four hundred pounds. He wears sweatpants all the time, both on and offstage, because it’s hard to find other pants that fit him. Big’s a Dominican, or both his parents were, before they came north, and let’s just say this dude likes his plátanos. His real name is Alberto. For our new act, Big puts on an intellectual accent, all nasal NPR, you know, and he maintains a very sweet, sincere face. Me, I’m a lot shorter and I weigh 120 pounds and I’ve shaved my head to show maximum skin. In our duo, I’m called Nasty. I can climb onto his shoulders and ride around and if I hunch and bend forward, my head bobs directly above his, like a thought bubble. That’s how we make our entrance.
“Here they are: Big and Nasty!”
We lumber into the lights.
“Hi, I’m Big,” he says.
“And I’m Nasty!” I snarl, showing my teeth and pitching my voice very high, shrill, demonic.
The first time we did it, we got a good laugh. And every time since then, too. From the start we could tell, bango! This was the shit. We’d touched a nerve.
“Good evening, friends,” Big says, spreading his arms benevolently.
I hop down and flap my arms and run a spastic circle around him. “I want a blow job!”
From there, we have various routines, which generally revolve around Big’s unsuccessful attempts to catch me, control me, and put me securely back on top of his shoulders. I insult Big about his weight, he chases me around. People find it funny to see a fat man run.
Sure, it’s basic—but it works. We’ve thought very hard about how to keep it pure. In the act, Big tries to reason with me. “Listen, there are thoughts you shouldn’t share. Things you can’t say.”
“But what’s mine is yours!”
Big tuts, “What if I don’t want it? My goodness. You’re so unenlightened.”
“Oh, yeah?” I snarl. “I suppose you are?”
Big nods, deadpans, and then reaches into the back of his sweatpants and pulls out a lighted candle.
The first time we did this in public, people gasped, and then they roared. The self-lighting candle is a standard prop you can find in any magic shop, but I’m pretty sure that we were the first ones to come up with this application. And, though initially we wondered how long we could use this gag, because we would lose the element of surprise, it turned out to be a false problem. In fact, this candle became our trademark—it’s what got us spotted on YouTube and invited for the OneNationUnlimited network commercials—because we discovered that people, even when they knew it was coming, looked forward to seeing Big pull a candle out of his ass. Astonishing how much they wanted it!
Matt asked a different flight attendant for a set of headphones, but she, too, told him it was too early. Once we were up in the air the staff was busy passing out little boxes of popcorn (it’s non-allergenic, they promised) and providing the beverage service. A kid in the row in front of us started choking on a piece of popcorn, which was ironic, since it was supposed to be safer than peanuts, but when I pointed this out to Matt, he ignored my insight. He fiddled with the ventilation jet above his head, trying to adjust the stream of air, while the kid coughed and eventually managed to spit it out. Suddenly, the plastic nipple broke off in Matt’s hand. He tried to stick it back on, but without success. Now a totally unobstructed stream of cold air blew straight on his face. “Fuck,” he said, fumbling with the piece. “Fuck!”
The mother of the kid in front of us turned around. She had big, sensual lips, but she wasn’t smiling.
“Sir, could you please control your speech? Sir?”
Matt nodded. “Sorry.” When she turned around again, he hissed at me: “Don’t you say a thing.”
Now, this was totally uncalled-for. Downright insulting. Was I supposed to sit there and take his orders? Did he suppose that he could bully me because he was somebody’s bossman and I’m small in stature? Was he really so blind? I was ready to bring out my Nasty, but, before I could reply, he called out, “Excuse me! Please! Please!”
He was addressing the nearest flight attendant, who happened to be the Gay Goose Guy. As Matt testily explained his predicament (the cold air stream blew up a sprig of hair on his forehead and as he spoke it danced around as if animated), and as the attendant remembered him as the fellow who’d already bothered him prematurely about headphones, I could tell that Matt was making a bad impression; no, he wasn’t going to get satisfaction. The Goose had him marked as a troublemaker. “I have to change my seat,” he insisted.
“There are no available seats in your category, sir.”
Matt craned his neck. “But over there. That’s not first class. Nobody’s using it.”
“That’s the Valu-Flex section. Different code, sir.”
Matt persisted, and eventually the attendant told him, “Well . . . stay where you are. I’ll check with our purser.”
He sauntered up the aisle, obviously in no hurry.
Matt groaned and drew up the lapels of his jacket, hunching his shoulders to turn away from the cold air. He pressed his fingertips to his sinuses.
I pitched my voice very high. “I doan know nothin’ ’bout fixin’ airplanes, Miz Scarlett!”
Matt shook his head. “Matt?” he said. “That’s your name, right? I have a question.”
“Yes?” I said.
“Among your many talents, do you do mime? I’d love to hear you do mime.”
The corner of his mouth was going twitchy. Oh, I was reaching him! Definitely. But I played it straight. “Oh, I’m sorry. Maybe you don’t like the use of stereotypes?”
“Yeah,” he muttered as an attractive young woman flight attendant came down the aisle toward us, “something like that.”
Was she the purser?
She walked straight by, without a word.
Matt leaned back in his seat, disappointed, but he’d been eyeing her, I could tell. I squinted and leaned toward him and put on my best Chinese face. Confucius say: ‘Big boobs give much solace!’
Kimberly accused me of objectifying people, of lacking empathy. This was after Italy. It happened last week, actually, when she stopped by the apartment to pick up some of her old movie posters. I’d called her to let her know I was leaving town, and if she wanted to claim the rest of her old stuff, now was the time. She’d lasted only a few months longer than I had in Italy. I was surprised, in fact, that she came over. Maybe those posters were worth something.
“So Alberto’s already in LA?” she asks.
“That’s right. He knows some people from the first time he went out and he’s getting us a place. They’re scripting a series of commercials. We’re guaranteed $80,000 plus there could be extras, if it takes off. Maybe even a pilot.”
All this is perfectly true, but she looks at me as if it’s too incredible to believe and I might be making up the whole thing. This is pretty ungenerous of her, and I tell her so.
“That’s not my point,” she says. “I’ve seen the video. But Matt, don’t you want to do something more, I don’t know . . . grown up?”
“We’re free agents self-branding in the digital age,” I tell her.
(Here I’m imitating the way Big talks on stage, the earnest player, but she doesn’t get the joke, probably because Kimberly often talks in this tone herself.)
“Okay,” she says, “but what about people? The way they truly feel ? Don’t you have some empathy? Matt, who can really respect your work?”
“What people respect,” I counter, “is what they want. The rest is just hypocrisy. Look at you! You’re back to working at Flavio’s. Do people respect you for it? I remember what you used to say about the wait staff when you worked there the first time. Didn’t sound to me like you respected them.”
She tucks the rolled posters under her arm and moves for the door, but I block her path. We haven’t seen each other in ages, and I have some catching up to do. I let out my Nasty.
“Look at you,” I repeat. “Your problem isn’t only with me. You’re gonna turn thirty-four soon and you’re still playing first dates and haven’t even come close to finding a guy who will go the distance. You told me so yourself. After all these years! It can’t only be me. What’s your problem? You want a baby, and no one even wants you. You’re so jealous of your sister, it’s ugly. You wanna be like her so bad you could just spit, couldn’t you?”
Tears are beading in the corners of Kimberly’s eyes but I’m standing in front of the door, waiting for her reply, so she can’t get past me. I’m waiting for her Nasty. She manages to hide it most of the time, but it’s there. Oh, it’s there! She’s not so much better than me.
Kimberly, though, is crafty. She knows the apartment. She spins around and goes to the kitchen and throws open the window. She steps out onto the fire escape.
“You afraid to answer?” I call to her. “What’s the matter, Kimmy?”
She’s gone—or rather, I think she’s gone, but then she sticks her head back in the window. “You—you’re gonna learn,” she sobs.
Then she’s really gone. That was the last thing she said, so I didn’t get to see her Nasty. She’s saved it, for now. For somebody else.
Somewhere over the heartland, Ohio, maybe Indiana, Matt tried to get up and claim a seat ahead of us but the old Goose was on the lookout and caught him before he could settle in and told him in pretty unambiguous terms to go back to his place. Matt did manage, however, to beg a blanket out of Business Class. The Fasten Seatbelt sign flashed on a number of times, maybe they were testing it in the cockpit, I don’t know. It kept us in our seats. Now I’m telling Matt about my grandfather Buck.
“Entertainment is in my genes. My grandfather Buck was a performer. Not on the stage, not technically, he ran a bar, did close-up magic for the customers. By the end of his life he’d acquired quite a reputation. People kept coming back to see him. Even when he was eighty-two and had taken a fall and was in a hip cast, Buck didn’t stop. Somebody would ask, ‘What happened to you?’ and he’d say, ‘I laughed my ass off.’ He had people in stitches, I swear.”
(None of this is true. I never had a grandfather named Buck who ran a bar.)
Once I get in a groove, though, it’s hard to stop and, even as I’m talking, my mind cooks up additional scenarios, like: what if Matt turned out to be a Totally Badass Rabbit and he went back to the toilet and snorted crack and when he comes out he’s suddenly crazed with rage at the sight of the Goose pushing the drinks trolley? He charges up the aisle in a maniac attack and I’m the only one who can see what’s coming so I stick out my leg and trip him and jump on his back and pin his face against the floor in a Nasty Full Nelson and the passengers applaud and there’s a news crew waiting when we land at LAX because I’m a hero?
It’s just a thought.
One look at Matt, though, nixes that scenario. He doesn’t look so hot. His blanket is wrapped tightly around his shoulders and his face has gone gray and his eyes are closed and you’d think he was sleeping except that his teeth are chattering. He’s not even listening to me.
So I take a break and close my eyes and think of sexy Mom in the row ahead with her plush lips . . . she could leave the kid for a couple of minutes . . . follow me down the aisle . . . we slip into the bathroom together . . .
“‘Now, my dears,’ said old Mrs. Rabbit one morning, ‘you may go into the fields or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden: your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.’”
I open my eyes.
Must’ve dozed off.
Mom is reading a story to her kid. She’s lifted the armrest and he leans his head onto her lap. She’s turned partway to angle the book so he can see the pictures and her voice travels straight back, telling the story of Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail. All that bunny-wunny stuff. I look over and notice that Matt’s eyes are open, too, sort of glittering, and he seems to be following the story. Somewhere in Los Angeles, I recall, there’s a meeting that can’t finish without him.
Suddenly, everything seems kind of wistful. Downright nice. Kimberly would laugh if she could see us. She’d talk about it afterward, too.
I rub my head for a moment, trying to shine up another thought. Some other image. I want to stop thinking about Kimberly.
The intercom hisses, pops, and announces, “In a few minutes we will begin our descent. Please make sure that your seatbelt is fastened, your tray table is up, and your seat-back is in the upright position.”
There is a collective rustle as we make ourselves presentable at six hundred miles per hour. The kid in the row in front of us peers through the gap between the seat-backs. His face is all puckered and serious. Weirdly, he looks like a little old man. Instead of thinking, I used to look like that, I tell myself: Someday I’ll look like that. It’s not an appealing notion.
“Poo?” he says.
I nod, smile. “Poo,” I say back.
He blinks once, twice, and Mom says, “Come on, Tyler!” She turns the boy around and straps him in. Flight attendants scoot down the aisle, in preparation for landing.
And then—well, it’s not one of those things you notice instantly. It sneaks up on you, then suddenly, it’s there. Unmistakable. The smell is growing stronger.
“Tyler?” she says. “Oh, Tyler !”
He wiggles in his seat and begins to cry. And I swear, soon the stench is so bad that my eyes begin to water. Pressing my sleeve against my nose makes little difference. The change is enormous, vile.
Matt shivers under his blanket and tells me, “Well, you get what you ask for. Proud of yourself?”
This, frankly, is outrageous. Before I can reply, however, another announcement comes over the intercom: there’s backed-up traffic, we’re experiencing a delay, we’re in a holding pattern. We are all requested to respect the seatbelt sign and remain in our seats until further instructions. “Tyler, honey! Oh, honey.” The boy is crying, wailing now, his arms swimming; he can’t even see his mother’s desperate attempts to reassure him, to soothe, to offer comfort.
“Come off it, Matt,” I say. “The kid is suffering. It’s pitiful.”
“Matt?” he says.
“What?” I say.
He’s not looking at me. This could go on forever. The seats vibrate; the air does not move; the sky enfolds us.