The Quiet That Haunts Julian Bell
Julian’s right ankle continued to make a cracking noise as he walked tensely back and forth. He wedged the rim of his water glass between his lips, rolled his wrist, and let the ice cubes crash against his mouth. He always got nervous before an act. He placed the glass on the floor, dirtied with the bottom shoe grime of the many comedians who’ve come and gone. Then he tried to get a peak at the crowd from behind the black curtain. From where his knees began to buckle with edginess, Julian heard the crowd softly burble to one another about cycling classes, happy hour, and heart attacks.
At last, the warm-up comic took the pedestal and fed the audience a haphazard display of enthusiasm. Nonetheless, the crowd clapped, cheered, and whistled as they always do. Crowds were as predictable as the “you look well” phrase when running into an ex. Julian looked at the home screen of his phone, hoping the warm-up comedian wouldn’t go over his allotted time.
The warm-up comedian went over his allotted time, rambling about how he recently had sex with a girl who looked like Hillary Clinton, even though he voted for Trump, and how vegans are compromising the Jewish heritage because they think they’re the new Kosher. In a desperate attempt to contrive hilarity and alleviate the notion of coming off as insulting, he stated that he was in fact Jewish. He failed, on both accounts. Finally, Julian got the cue.
“So are you guys ready for your headliner?”
Noise. Clapping. Cheering.
“Well here he is, Mr. Julian Bell, ladies and gentleman!”
The warm-up comedian walked past him with a pat on the shoulder and an eye roll, insinuating that the crowd was monotonous and immune to any form of quality comedy or improvisation.
Julian always had poise when he came before a crowd. He sported a navy blue button down that wasn’t tucked into his navy blue jeans. He stood six foot one inch before the microphone, wondering what it would taste like if he put his mouth around it. One of the many quirky things he’d think about instead of the dozens of eyes fixed on his skinny stature. Julian looked up and provided a panoramic gaze at the horde of New Yorkers. They sat contently on their flimsy chairs while their Tory Burch shoes and Chuck All Stars fastened to the stickiness of the timber flooring. Behind Julian was a brick wall that complimented the club’s surrounding walls made of the same brick. Julian put his hands in his pockets and let his thumbs rest on the outside. He inhaled and exhaled a fictitious sense of stress.
“Don’t you just fucking hate going to the grocery store?”
Julian paused and began to pace the pedestal. He squinted at the crowd against the blinding light that he referred to as the “Bat Signal” due to its inordinate beam of luminosity.
“I mean seriously. You wouldn’t wish it upon your worst enemy right?” Julian asked.
“I find it therapeutic,” said a man in the front row.
Julian looked down at him with a stern look.
“You find grocery shopping therapeutic?”
“Yes,” said the man.
“Was that in the blurb on your Match.com profile?”
“What’s your name, sir?”
“Jack…” said the man calmly.
“And your wife?”
“Kim,” said the woman.
“Kim, was that the hook line and sinker for you? His infatuation with food shopping? Jesus Christ you’re definitely a vegan.”
“Jack…that’s my dad’s name. Are you anything like my father?”
The man shrugged his shoulders.
“My dad’s a good guy. He was the best dad growing up. He was the most loving and caring guy. He was a construction worker but had a gentle soul. It’s important to have a good Dad today am I right? With kids today being the way they are, privileged, spoiled, and they talk back. Make some noise if your dad would have slapped you halfway to Hell if you talked back to him!”
Noise. Clapping. Loud applause.
“I talked back to my dad one day…”
Julian leaned in toward the crowd and pointed to a spot on his forehead.
“You see that scar right there?”
“My dad was the best. Backyard baseball catches, always helped me with my homework, he taught me how to be tough, talk to girls…he loved my mom.”
Julian found himself rambling. Rambling about times that once were.
“I mean he’s a little different now. Recoveringish alcoholic, prejudice against everybody, says inappropriate things out loud, has a permanent smell of whiskey and salt and vinegar chips on his breath, erectile dysfunction, and a lifetime subscription to Barely Legal magazine…is that you in any way Jack?”
The man shook his head no as he laughed with the rest of the crowd.
“But other than those things, my dad…he’s a good guy.”
“The other day, I found myself back in my old neighborhood in Westchester.”
A man in the right corner let out a cheer, indicating his residency in the county.
“Yea, thank you,” said Julian sarcastically. “I found myself in my old neighborhood inside one of those natural, organic food markets. Any of you people shop there?”
Some people stated in unison that they do in fact shop at organic markets.
“So I’m walking down the aisle with my girlfriend. Who…if you had to guess, dragged me to the store. And if you had to guess, actually doesn’t exist. And if you had to guess, was actually my mother.”
Noise. Laughter. Applause.
Suddenly, the horde of New Yorkers, drinking their watered-down vodka somethings forgot all about their cycling classes, happy hours, and heart attacks.
Julian’s knees buckled with edginess from where he waited from behind the white curtain. He heard the nurses softly burble to one another about cycling classes, happy hour, and heart attacks. Finally they admitted him into the room after providing him a flavorless smirk, insinuating the patient’s current mood and disposition.
Julian didn’t hear the sounds of the air vents or the dozens of machines running their courses. His nervousness alienated any sound or acoustic in the room. He walked up beside the medical bed and grazed the sheets with his fingers. His navy blue button down remained un-tucked from his navy blue jeans. He stood six foot one inch beside the bed and looked directly at the man resting. He wondered what it must have felt like to be in his position.
“Hey,” said Julian lightly.
His father nodded at him, without providing a verbal reply.
“How you doing?” Julian asked.
“I’m dying,” said his father sarcastically.
Julian pursed his lips and looked behind him for a chair. He sat and dragged the chair closer to the bed with his feet.
“It was a good crowd tonight,” said Julian.
His father looked up at the ceiling, mustering enough strength and interest to look halfway towards his son.
“What was a good crowd tonight?” Asked his father more annoyed than curious.
“At the Crack-Up, I did an act.”
“Oh,” said his father. And that was it.
Julian looked down at the floor, spotless from the clean shoes of the many nurses that have come and gone.
“Want to hear some of my material?”
“What would you like to do?”
“I’d like to rest.”
“Did you eat?”
“They brought over some crap on a tray.”
“Did you eat?”
“Pete says I’ll be able to start doing Fridays now,” said Julian optimistically.
“The manager. My boss.”
Julian’s father nodded his head without the slightest demonstration of affection or care. Julian leaned back in his chair and looked around, hoping a nurse would show up. Even as a guy who improvises and thinks on his feet for a living, Julian found extracting even the smallest degree of animation from his father less achievable than jumping off the Empire State Building and landing in a shot glass.
“Mom’s doing good. She said she’d try and stop in sometime tomorrow.”
His father sighed. It appeared he was recollecting on something. Presumably times that once were.
“It never could have worked,” said his father. “You’re mother and me. It just couldn’t.”
“I know, Dad. She said she’s gonna try and come tomorrow.”
“She still seeing that state worker? What is he? He does what?”
“He is a retired police officer,” said Julian.
“Good money in that now,” said his father. “Not too late for you, Julian.”
“I’ve been dating,” said Julian.
“They’re nice girls.”
“Not like mom though.”
“No one is like your mom.”
“You need to settle down, Julian. Start something real. Get away from that basement and microphone.”
Julian’s father always disregarded his career and never once endorsed it. As a man who worked with his hands for forty-five years, he always wanted his son to get involved in something more conventional or secure. He wanted him to take on man’s work. Julian quickly looked outside the window of the room out of pity for himself, hoping the Bat Signal from the comedy club would light up the city’s dark sky.
The first Friday night was reminiscent to the typical Thursday night performances. The only things that were different were the drink specials. The opener was different only in appearance. His demeanor and presence were as offending and obsolete as his material. Julian took the stage and walked up to the microphone. The Bat Signal engulfed his entire body as he looked at the microphone again, wondering what it tasted like. He paused for a brief moment, and then looked up.
“So I am in the grocery store with my mother. And this is back when we had that big storm so she is anxious as can be. And when my mother gets nervous her whole body begins to shake like this…”
Julian mimicked his mother’s nervous body shaking much to the crowds delight, probably over-blowing the actual gesture.
“I’m looking around and everyone coming in and out of the store is in this big hurry. So I go to pick out a cart, and I have one of those cart omens where any one I pick always has one of those deformed wobbly wheels.”
Noise. Claps. Mumbles. Loud chuckles.
“Everyone else is zipping by in their carts, and I’m veering off to the right into one of those beer pong displays in the aisle with tomato sauce and spices.”
Julian veered his body off to the right of the stage to demonstrate.
“And I always get a cart that has a soak’n wet page from a coupon pamphlet you get in the mail STUCK to the bottom of the cart.”
More noise. More laugher.
“On the wet page there was a NY Lottery symbol with a question in bold print. It read, “What would you do if you won a thousand dollars a week for life?”
Julian looked at both ends of the room like he was crossing Lexington and Fifth with the don’t Walk sign. He looked at the crowd with downright bewilderment.
“What would I do? I found twenty dollars on the street the other day and danced home like Richard Simmons.”
Noise. Laughter in unison.
“So we finally get to shopping, and I saw something on the list. So I reach for it, and my mother let out a SHRIEK. I jump up and go…’What?’”
Julian paused, allowing the suspense to build up like foam on a poorly poured craft beer.
“I’m looking at her, and she reaches into the depths of her purse. She fumbles through the wreckage of prescription pills and chewing gum from two years ago, and yanks out a stack of coupons held together by a microscopic paper clip. She goes I might have a coupon for that.”
Julian paused for a moment, looked at the crowd, chuckled.
“So the next morning, when we finally leave the grocery store…”
“We get to unloading the groceries and my mom starts adjusting everything in the car. NOTHING is right for her in the car. She adjusted EVERYTHING. I told her that she should work at a car wash.”
The audience waited for further clarification.
“Because ya know I was at the car wash, last week and one of the gentlemen who worked there hopped into my driver’s seat. And if you say this never happens to you, then you’re a liar. He ran my car through the sprinklers, machines, and what not. Within that span of two minutes, he returned the car to me with my seat so close to the wheel my knees were at my chest like this.”
Julian demonstrated the proximity of the wheel to his body.
“The rearview mirror and air vents were adjusted, the AC was blasting, two pieces of my gum were missing, it smelled like a fart, and the radio station went from alternate rock to Russian trance.”
The bed sheets were warm. His father lay sound asleep as Julian sat beside him, looking over his scribbled notes of the night’s bits. He thought about the things he said about his father being great and all. Most of it was true. Actually, all of it was true. Thinking of the person his father used to be became a habit during his frequent visits. He liked that guy. He loved that guy. The guy who used to enjoy his presence. The guy who had a sense of humor. The guy who actually laughed at his jokes. Even the ones that weren’t so great. Then Julian remembered who he became after his affair. After the divorce. After the heavy boozing. After he alienated himself from his family from the guilt. Julian started jotting down new jokes and ideas onto his notepad. He whispered them to himself and looked up at his father.
Julian wondered if his mom ever came to visit him like she said she would. He wondered why she ever would. The idea of parking spaces crashed into his head after he told his mom to park in the rear because it was too overcrowded in the front. He wondered if she did that. Julian started writing. He underlined parking spaces on his notepad. He became giddy as he wrote. Finally, after ten minutes or so, he had a draft of his new bit. He looked up at his father with excitement. He whispered to his father. The father who used to have a sense of humor.
“You’re going to love this one.”
Julian stood up and practiced his act in front of him as he slept. He paced back and forth like he does on the stage. He even paused at parts where he thought the audience would laugh. When his dad used to laugh. He went through the entire bit and looked down at his notes to try and make out his handwriting. When he looked back up, he saw his father. Awake. Julian rushed over to his side.
“Hey. How you feeling?”
“I wrote some new material. It’s good. I think you might like it. You want to hear it?”
“Not tonight. Let me rest.”
“Can I get you something?”
“You can get me quiet. That’s what I want.”
“Want me to turn the T.V. on for you? Want to watch something?”
His father mumbled something Julian couldn’t comprehend. Julian looked down at his notepad and smirked.
“Just let me tell you this one…”
“You’ll enjoy it. It’s about...”
Julian’s excitement came to a halt.
“Are you feeling okay?”
Julian got up and turned the T.V. on. His father began to cough loudly and repeatedly. He grabbed a handkerchief and coughed into it. It was painful for both of them.
His father did not answer as he examined the cloth. There was a blood stain on it. Julian couldn’t help but notice it. He froze.
“I’ll find a nurse.”
Julian retrieved a nurse and brought her to his father’s room. She examined his father and informed Julian that visiting hours were over.
Julian got the cue and took the stage.
“Guys love several things: beer, sports, women, and finding parking spaces. If you ask a guy about his time at the mall, he won’t tell you about what stores he went to. He will tell you about how close or how far he parked from the entrance.”
“For guys, parking spaces are like approaching women at a bar and getting a phone number. Think about it like this. You’re a guy, and you pull into the lot. You make your presence known by driving slow, but not TOO slow, so you can survey and get a look around. Most of the time, you’ll have a friend beside you and one or two behind you. They too are looking around the area.”
“Music will be playing, but no one is truly listening to it. As you progress, your friend in the back will tap you on the shoulder and say that he sees a possible opening on the other side. You nod and proceed forward to do your lap. As you get closer to the potential opening, your other friend in the back will tell you and the crew that he sees a spot he got two weeks ago. None of you believe he could have gotten such a good spot, and you all continue forward disregarding his comment.”
Loud Noise. Laughter.
Julian started his pace of the stage.
“You get closer. And now you’re hearts beating faster, and you’re getting nervous. Nervous that other cars are going to go after the spot and steal it. So you pick up the pace. As you pick up the pace, your friend next to you thinks he sees another opening, but then sees a Smart Car parked in it. Your friend becomes frustrated and wonders how a fucking Smart Car got such a great spot.”
“There’s always another car that nearly bumps into you because of not looking ahead, texting, or borderline intoxication. You hit the brakes and the beverage that was in your cup holder spills on your leg. You get pissed and stare the other person down while your friends tell you it’s not worth fighting or arguing over.
Julian paced back and forth some more.
“Finally, you reach the spot and you’re within twenty feet of it. You inhale and start your turn.”
Julian started turning an imaginary wheel for effect.
“You hope to display your “A-Game” and park perfectly with little effort. Your friends reassure you they are there for assistance, but you tell them to be quiet, and that you got this. You park the car in the spot. Mission accomplished. High fives are had all around. You start walking toward the actual destination, victorious and bragging. You tell your friends that the spot was looking at you the minute you came in. Your friend reminds you they helped set it up. You tell your friends you almost parked in another spot nearby, but it looked a little too thin. And probably way too tight for your liking.”
The next visit was different than the others. The only thing that was different were the bed sheets. The nurses were different, only in appearance. One of them provided a discouraging look at Julian, indicating the critical state his father was in. Julian stood at the same six foot one inch beside the bed and looked directly at the man resting. He wondered again what it must have felt like to be in his position. He took a seat and put his hands on his knees as his father lay in critical condition. Feebly, Julian’s father gave his son the light of day and looked at him.
“Hey,” said Julian softly.
The medical tubes and chords decorated his body. The cardiogram’s ECG line was weaker than usual. His father appeared defeated. Julian towered over his father and caressed his hand. His father became somewhat uncomfortable at his son’s sudden advance. The ECG line began to slightly dive. Both of them knew what was happening. They both knew this would be the last visit.
“Was mom able to make it?”
“She made it.”
His father’s eyes began to water, and he looked away to avoid his son seeing him. Julian felt an urge to say something. Anything. Before he could, his father interjected.
“I fucked up, Julian. Everything. It was my fault. I told your mother when she came too.”
Julian clenched his cheeks and swallowed. The lines dove some more. Julian looked at the machine and felt tremendous remorse. He looked back at his father and spoke.
“It’s fine,” said Julian.
“I want what’s right for you. You’re better than that basement, Julian.”
“I know you love it. But I fucked up, Julian. I’m doing the best that I can to steer you in the right direction. I’m sorry I never came to any of your shows. I’m a shitty father for it. But I think you’re better than it.”
“Dad, please”, said Julian almost demandingly.
Julian’s father transferred his eyes to Julian.
“What happened after the last supper?”
His father looked at him with a neutral tone. Julian prayed for a response.
“I don’t know,” said his father.
Julian smiled down at him and felt his throat sore with melancholy.
“A holy shit,” replied Julian.
His father offered him an impartial expression. Julian remained hunched over his father, who let out a chuckle. Then the chuckle turned into a genuine laugh. Julian laughed with him, and then his laugh became a cry as his father passed. Julian’s biggest fear ensued. The room fell to a deathly quiet. The one that haunted him. The one he has feared.
James Gianetti’s debut novel, The Town of Jasper (Elevation Book Publishing) was recently released in May 2017 and has been called “a powerful thriller that competes with the best of survivalist sagas” by Midwest Book Review. His short fiction and work has appeared in Cold Creek Review and is forthcoming in Hobart.