"Bad Moon Rising"

by James Wright

Approx. 6350 words

The Clemens Elementary School auditorium was filled to capacity with proud parents who chatted amiably to draw their attention away from the uncomfortably small student seats before the concert began. Behind the curtains, Mrs. Strader's sixth-grade choir warmed up slowly, singing "do-re-me" while trying not to fidget in their heavily starched outfits. Mrs. Strader smiled warmly at the students, giving her warmest glances to those who looked particularly uncomfortable or nervous.

The warm-ups ceased, the audience quieted, and the curtains rose. After the Pledge of Allegiance, the concert began with a rousing -- and surprisingly recognizable -- rendition of The Star Spangled Banner. At the conclusion of the national anthem, the audience applauded wildly. The next two numbers, "Amazing Grace" and the Carpenters' "Top of the World", were also well performed and well received.

As the applause subsided, two boys stepped to the front of the choir to sing solos in the next number, "One Tin Soldier." The two stood straight and tall -- the dark-haired boy at stage right, more than a head taller than the other. He had the awkward, jumbled look of early puberty, but he still sported a beautiful soprano voice.

The tall boy sang the first verse flawlessly; he saw the pride in his mother's face and smiled as his father took photo after photo with the family Instamatic. The shorter boy sang the second verse with a slight but intentional vibrato that sent chills through the crowd. The tall boy began the third verse as perfectly as the first, but soon disaster struck -- his voice warbled and dropped an octave, jumped back up, then settled on an A Flat somewhere in between. He tried to recover, but his hormones and growing embarrassment betrayed him, and the notes escaping his lips soon sounded completely random as his blue eyes welled with tears.

At first, the audience was silent, too stunned to react. But the poor boy sounded so pathetic, so ridiculous, that eventually it got the better of everyone, including Mrs. Strader; they began to laugh nervously -- then uncontrollably -- as the tall boy tried desperately to finish, his wavering voice deteriorating even further through his mounting sobs of shame and humiliation.

The boy on stage began to grow even taller, still singing and sobbing, as the roar of the audience increased. Soon he was a man, drenched in his own sweat and tears, overwhelmed by the deafening laughter of the crowd. He noticed his father put the camera away, his own eyes glistening.

* * *

I awoke from the nightmare fully clothed, drenched to the bone, and sobbing my eyes out. It took a moment to realize that more than mere sweat and tears had me dripping; I had been sleeping outside, and overlapping arcs of sprinkler water passed over me every few seconds. Where was I? I rubbed the moisture from my face and looked around.

As I scanned my surroundings between splashes of water, I realized I had spent the night in a park. It was light enough to see in the smoggy, purple and gray pre-dawn haze so common to southern California. I wasn't the only park sleeper, but I was the only one who didn't look like I belonged there. I saw some joggers and a few cars, most with their lights on, on the road a few dozen yards away. I still wasn't sure, though, which park I was in. Long Beach had so many...if I was in Long Beach. I noticed my jacket a few feet away from me, dark with moisture...and overflowing with money.

I started to get up, but my muscles protested; they were stiff and sore, like I'd been hiking all night. I stretched and rubbed my arms, neck, and legs for a few moments before moving again. I collected the money on my jacket, the nightmare and my strange surroundings temporarily forgotten.

I began counting the money. Forty...forty-five...fifty -- I heard someone say, "Hey, great job last night." Sixty...sixty-five -- huh? I looked around, but whoever had spoken was gone now. I shrugged and resumed counting.

I had awakened to two hundred eighty-three dollars in bills and enough nickels, dimes and quarters to sink the Titanic. I pocketed the bills and gave the change to my sleeping park-mates, then walked toward the street. Wherever I was, at least I could afford the trip home.

* * *

"You'll be fine, Michael. Some bruises and scratches, but nothing serious. The next time you decide to sleep outside, however, I suggest you remember your sleeping bag. And sleep away from the sprinklers; you could catch pneumonia." Dr. Simons frowned sternly, but his eyes twinkled.

I usually hated being called Michael, but Dr. Simons had been our family physician since I was a kid, and it felt okay coming from him. It didn't matter that I was in my mid-twenties, looked older, and was called "Mister" by most people I met; to him I'd always be six years old. In his office I usually felt that old, too, and I didn't mind.

"I promise, Doctor. Honest, though, I hadn't planned on it. That's why I came in; I can't remember what happened last night." I never considered calling him Doc; "Doctor" was a years-old habit, and any other name seemed disrespectful. "The last thing I remember was walking home from school last night."

"Have you had a memory loss before?"

I shook my head. "If so, I always made it home. This is the first time I've slept somewhere strange." The park was in an unfamiliar neighborhood, about two miles away from my apartment and a short walk from the lower campus of Cal State Long Beach, where I was working on a Masters degree in Computer Science.

"It's probably nothing, but if it happens again, come in immediately." Dr. Simons took a deep breath, as he usually did when he searched for answers to difficult questions; over the years, this had proven surprisingly effective. "But as long as you're here," he said, "let me take another look at your shoulder."

I had almost forgotten about my shoulder wound. I removed my shirt again. The month-old bite marks were barely visible now, but Dr. Simons had said bites from people had more danger of disease and infection than most animal bites. "It looks fine, but why don't we run some more tests?" he said with soothing reassurance. I nodded my assent.

I thought about my shoulder as his assistant took the blood samples. I'd seen Dr. Simons a month before, the day after I got mugged on the way home from a beach party in Santa Monica. At the time I felt lucky I hadn't been killed; the guy had caught me from behind and knocked me on my back, and glared at me with fierce bloodshot eyes and a gaping smile that looked more animal than human. He tore the pocket off my shirt and my wallet went flying; when I reached for it, he yanked me upright and bit my right shoulder. I screamed; on instinct I pushed myself away from him, drew back and kicked hard, connecting solidly with his crotch and sending him reeling. My friends came running when they heard the screams, but by the time they reached me the attacker and my wallet had vanished into a dark alley. My roommate, Matt, had seen him well enough to give a good description to the police; I had remembered little more than his eyes and hideous grin. They found my wallet in the alley the next day, with nothing missing and no fingerprints. The attacker had never been found.

"You have a pretty voice," the medical assistant, Denise, said, and I snapped back to reality.

"Excuse me?"

"You were humming just now, and it sounded very nice. I don't know the song, though." She started humming; it took a few moments for me to recognize the tune as "One Tin Soldier." My stomach tightened. I had hated the song since sixth grade, and until last night's nightmare I hadn't heard or thought about it in years.

"Thanks," I whispered, hoping it sounded sincere, and almost certain it didn't.

I went straight from the doctor's office to school. I had a few hours to study before my three o'clock Data Structures class; Professor Lewis usually gave a quiz on Thursdays. At least it wouldn't be an oral quiz.

* * *

I woke up yelling. At least I was in my room this time, and the wetness of my clothing came only from sweat. Another nightmare, completely different from my childhood nightmare the previous week, but shot through with the same disturbing emotions.

In my dream I was on a stage in front of a large group of people. I was doing -- something -- and the people in the crowd were laughing and clapping. The room was dark; a bright light was shining on me. I watched myself on the stage; I looked confident, like I belonged there, wanted to be there. Needed to be there.

I felt an overwhelming sense of dread. I could see no danger; the crowd looked harmless, too happy responding to whatever I was doing to pose any threat. Even so, I screamed at myself to escape from the stage; I was certain that every second I remained in front of the crowd was terribly, unspeakably wrong. I tried desperately to be heard, but I had no voice, and the me on stage remained, oblivious to my cries.

I didn't know how long I had been screaming before I awoke. The green LED of my alarm clock read 4:12.

I don't know why I still feared crowds. Not being in one, mind you; just being the focus of one. I had dropped choir, given up singing, and even skipped my high school graduation to avoid standing in front of a group of people. Being the center of attention was worse than being boiled alive, I thought, even fifteen years after my puberty-induced solo-from-hell. It wasn't that I'd screwed up -- hell, how can you control hormones? I just couldn't stand the thought of being laughed at ever again. That's why I guess I'd gotten into computers in the first place -- a machine will never laugh at you.

My roommate knocked on my door. "You okay, Mikey?"

I took a deep breath. "I'm fine, Matt," I answered hoarsely. "It was just a nightmare."

"You're sure?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I'm sure. Go back to sleep."

I emptied the pitcher of ice water I kept on my nightstand in one gulp and slowly, warily, closed my eyes.

* * *

When I awoke on the steps of the Cal State Long Beach math/science building with money falling off my chest, I screamed like I'd awakened next to a severed head. Two girls walking by dropped their books and also screamed, and a nearby campus security guard withdrew his baton and ran toward me. It took several minutes of talking and some of the money that had fallen onto the steps to convince them to leave me alone. I was fine, I insisted.

If I could only convince myself.

It had been several weeks since I'd awakened in the park. I hadn't dreamed that night, which in itself was a small relief -- I'd had many nightmares in the past month. I had stayed at school late the day before, finishing a project for Compiler Design. But after that...I could remember nothing. I gathered the money around me -- only eighty bucks this time, I discovered with some disappointment -- and went to the phone in the snack area to call Dr. Simons.

* * *

"You want me to what?" Matt was looking at me like I had asked him to take me to the Prom -- no anger, but some apprehension. He'd been suffering too; my nightmares were becoming more frequent, and my screams were getting to him. I finally pitched in to buy him some ear plugs.

"I'm scared, okay? I want someone with me if it happens again."

"If what happens again, Mikey?"

"I wish I knew, Matt. I want a witness. Or a designated driver." Matt laughed loudly; we both knew I didn't drink. "It may be the only way to figure out what's happening to me."

Dr. Simons had been unable to find anything wrong. Technically, nothing was wrong, aside from the nightmares and waking up in strange places with more money than memory. I was determined that if it happened again, I would have a witness to whatever I couldn't remember on my own.

"But why now? It's been almost a month."

"It seems to happen every month or so. If it happens again, it'll be soon."

"You're overreacting. It's probably nothing." His voice gave away the lie. He wanted my nightmares to end too, if only to give him a decent night's sleep.

"Nothing is what I know," I said, my voice rising. "Look, I'll pay for everything. Besides, we haven't done much together lately. If you want, we can call Stacey and Lisa, and we'll double."

Matt thought about it for a second, then smiled. "Well, as long as you're buying..." he laughed, and I joined in.

"Just don't get too weird on me, okay?" he said.

"I promise," I said, crossing my heart, and hoping I could keep it.

* * *

Five days later I woke up in my room; the alarm was buzzing, as usual, at 7:05 a.m. So far, so good, I thought as my head cleared; just a couple more days and the month will be gone. And no nightmares the night before. I turned on the light and reached for my water jug.

There was a small pile of cash on the nightstand.

Ten seconds later I was pounding on Matt's bedroom door.

"Wake up!" I yelled. I tried, unsuccessfully, to remember the night before. Please, Matt, have something to tell me....

Matt believed life begins at ten a.m. Wake him up before then, and your life ends. "What?" he mumbled through the door, sleep still firmly in control.

"What happened last night?" I shouted.

An unintelligible mumble. Then silence. Then a soft snore.

"MATT!!" I kicked the door hard; something hit the floor, and Matt cursed loudly. "Talk to me, dammit! What happened last night?"

"You were unbelievable. Gimme five more minutes, please? It was a long night...." I heard a yawn, then more snoring.

Further pounding did no good. At least Matt had been there to see it; I would get some answers soon. I went to the kitchen to make coffee and add up my latest windfall. An absurd thought popped into my head between sips: "You too can make money in your sleep...." I spewed coffee and laughed uncontrollably for several minutes before I managed to calm down.

* * *

When Matt finally made it to the kitchen, he told me everything. "We were walking out of Alondra 6 -- "

"I thought we were going to the Angels game," I interrupted.

"We couldn't get tickets, so we watched Aladdin instead. Anyway, as we left the theater you started doing bits from it. I mean, whole bits. Voices and everything."

"Whose voices?"

"All of 'em. Bird, genie, bad guy, boy, girl, everyone. And you were doing 'em perfect, too.

Then you started doing stuff that wasn't in the show, with the same voices. The people in line for tickets started watching us, and you really got off on it, started joking around with them. It was like we were at the Improv or something, Mikey; you were like Robin Williams out there."

I stared at him, unable to speak.

He shook his head, smiling. "Normally you're scared outta your shorts in front of people -- don't lie, I remember graduation. Last night, though...you surprised the hell outta me. Those people were laughing themselves sick, and you looked like you were having the time of your life."

"You're kidding," I managed to squeak out.

"Sorry, dude. You told me to tell you if you did anything strange, and last night couldn't get much stranger. Not in a bad way, though; it was great seeing you have so much fun. It's about time, if you ask me."

I had trouble swallowing my toast; I took a long sip of coffee, and burned my tongue. "Wh-what happened next?"

Matt ate a spoonful of Grape Nuts and took infuriatingly long to swallow. "Some people in line gave you their ticket money to keep you there. One old guy said, 'Screw Oliver Stone; this boy's worth seven bucks.' You went on for like a half an hour, until the theater people asked us to leave. Someone in line gave me his card and said I should take you to Igby's. He told me, 'Tell Casey I sent you, and he'll give your friend some stage time.'"

"Matt, this isn't funny. The Igby's?" Igby's was one of the best comedy clubs in southern California.

"That's the one. I almost crashed twice on the way, you had me laughing so hard. Casey saw the card and gave you a few minutes at the late show. Man, you killed. The headliner -- he did that HBO special last month -- refused to follow you. You did more than an hour up there; Casey was so impressed he gave you a hundred bucks and offered you a spot on Monday night."

In the pile of money on my nightstand I had found two crisp fifty-dollar bills. I started to feel nauseous. "This can't be happening...." I said, mostly to myself.

"Mikey, I know you hate crowds. But cross my heart, you were addicted to them last night; you were a comedy machine. Hell, maybe it was just a case of Full Moon Fever. Whatever it was, I hope I'm there next time you do it. I haven't laughed so hard in my life."

I stared at him while he concentrated on his cereal. It was too incredible to believe, but still....The nightmares, the nagging elementary school memory, the incessant cadence of "One Tin Soldier"...What did he mean by Full Moon Fever?

"Matt?" I asked. "Was it a full moon last night?"

"Mmm-hmmm," he mumbled through his Grape Nuts.

I ran into the bedroom and grabbed my Day Timer. I looked at the day before...it was a full moon. I paged back to the night before I'd awakened on the school steps. Also a full moon. Back another month to the morning in the park. Three-for-three.

My hands were trembling. I paged back to the night I was mugged. The Day Timer fell to the floor, and I soon followed.

As I screamed, a poem repeated itself in my mind, like a mantra of the damned:

Even a man who's pure of heart

And says his prayers at night

May become a Comic when the wolfsbane blooms

And the moon is full and bright.

* * *

I vaguely remembered paramedics strapping me into a stretcher and injecting me with something, and the world going black. While I was out, I dreamed. I was on a stage again, which bore a striking resemblance to the one at Igby's. I was talking and smiling and screaming happily and gesturing, and the crowd applauded wildly and cheered and convulsed with laughter. I saw the crowd through my on-stage eyes; I noticed myself in the audience, shouting at me to stop, as I had in prior dreams. But I wouldn't -- couldn't -- stop. Then I saw the me on stage from the me in the crowd, and my soul froze; I had the fierce eyes, and the hellish wolf-like grin, of the mugger at Santa Monica beach.

When I awoke, screaming, I was strapped into a hospital bed. Matt and Dr. Simons were standing nearby.

I burst into tears. "Doc, what's happening to me?" Did I just say "Doc"? That was a first. Dr. Simons noticed this as well.

"We don't know, Michael. Matthew told me what happened last night. That isn't at all like you."

My temples throbbed; the tears stopped, and I saw red. "Oh, brilliant deduction, Watson," I said, my voice dripping sarcasm. "You been sharing Sherlock's needle again?" The instant I said it, I turned pale and ached to take the words back.

Dr. Simons stiffened; I couldn't have hurt him more with a blunt instrument. I saw a twenty-year relationship falling apart in an instant. "Doctor, I'm sorry..." I said weakly, but he was walking out the door.

Matt looked at me in shock. "That was cold, Mike." Matt looked up to Dr. Simons as much as I did.

"Honest, Matt, I didn't mean it." I tried choking back tears. "I swear I didn't mean it." The tears won, and my whole body shook, rattling the bed frame. My world was falling apart; whether it was lack of sleep or lunacy or rabies, I didn't know or care; I just wanted it to end.

Matt's look softened. "I know. I'll go talk to him." He left the room, and I surrendered to the tears until sleep reclaimed me.

* * *

Dr. Simons was almost as quick to forgive as Matt. Matt stopped by frequently and stayed for hours, and managed to avoid talking about our "night on the town." At least with me. I knew he was telling someone, though; before I left, half the hospital was calling me Robin Williams Jr. Igby's made a habit of taping its shows, and a copy of my performance had somehow been passed around. The reviews were glowing.

This did not cheer me up.

After two days, Dr. Simons decided I was "stable" and authorized my release. Matt drove me home from the hospital; his car stereo was tuned to the classic rock station, as usual, but the volume was turned way down so we could talk. John Fogerty was singing "Centerfield."

"Back to the apartment?" he asked. "Lisa made a cake. We can invite a few people, watch a video...." I bristled. "You know, some obscure depressing French film. Or maybe an action flick."

"Thanks, but my parents want me to stay with them for a while."

"That's cool. So what happens next?"

I shrugged. "They should get the tests back in a few days; they're checking for everything this time. And they reserved an observation room for me the next full moon." I laughed bitterly. "You could be famous, Matt. Your best friend is a werewolf."

Matt laughed too. "Were-comic sounds better. You didn't sprout hair, you just got damned funny. I can think of worse diseases."

"Yeah, but I'm only funny on a full moon." I tried to laugh. "Well, at least I can pick up some extra cash every lunar month."

"Speaking of extra cash...you still on for Igby's tomorrow night?"

I saw red again. I wanted to bite him. I mean, hit him. "There's no way in -- "

"Sorry. How about if we go and watch the show?"

I was about to protest, but decided against it. I sighed and nodded. "Just to watch, okay?"

"You got it. I'll call them tonight."

"Centerfield" ended, and the deejay announced the next song, "Bad Moon Rising".

"Hey, they're playing our song!" Matt said with a goofy smile that quickly faded at my expression. He turned off the radio quickly and we drove in silence the rest of the way home.

* * *

Casey was disappointed but understanding; he gave us complimentary tickets to the early show. Fortunately, Casey said, there were literally thousands of comics in L.A. begging for stage time, and filling my spot -- even on such short notice -- wouldn't be difficult.

We took a front row table, over my objections. I looked around before the show started; I had no memory of performing here, and the thought of doing so knotted my stomach. The room was huge.

The emcee was a celebrity, the co-star of a recently-canceled sitcom. He talked a lot about his old show, and begged campily for any producers in the audience to take pity on him. He wasn't very funny, and the crowd response was lukewarm.

The opening act I recognized from HBO comedy specials and Comic Strip Live; she was hilarious, and I laughed a lot, momentarily forgetting my troubles. The audience loved her; she did close to a half hour of material, most of which I'd never heard before.

"And now, ladies and gentlemen," said the emcee after the crowd gave the opener yet another round of applause, "please welcome to the stage with a big hand, the Rottweiler of Comedy...Johnny Gonzo!!!"

I'd never heard of him, but the crowd went wild. Matt and I looked at each other and shrugged, then applauded.

When the man leaped to the stage and grabbed the microphone, my blood froze.

"Hey," Matt whispered, "he looks familiar..." Then he gasped as recognition set in. "Damn...I didn't know comedy was contagious."

I nearly hit him until I saw his expression; he wasn't trying to be funny. In fact, he was trembling, staring in horror at the man at the mike. At the bloodshot eyes and feral grin of the Rottweiler of Comedy.

* * *

Johnny Gonzo began his act, and the audience responded enthusiastically. Matt and I were too busy watching the guy with fear and loathing to listen. I didn't know whether to run away or jump onto the stage and beat him to death. The last three months were starting to make sense.

Sitting on the front row of a comedy club and not laughing is like wearing a target to a firing range. Eventually the comic noticed us.

"Hey, here's a party table! What's wrong, boys? You need a translator? How 'bout a Butthead-to-English dictionary?" The crowd laughed.

"I...I, uh..." I stammered.

"I...I, uh..." he mimicked with a sneer. "'I, uh' what? Ayatollah?" Loud laughter. People often laugh because it's funny. They also laugh when it's someone other than them being picked on.

I wasn't laughing. I was too busy stammering.

"I, uh..."

"...been working on the railroad? What are you trying to say?"


The guy on stage pointed at us with a sweeping gesture. "Ladies and gentlemen, the Idaho delegation of Mensa is with us tonight! Give them a hand!" Laughter, rebel yells, and applause.

The comic picked on us some more, then went on with his act. My heart was pounding, pumping adrenaline throughout my system. I felt like I'd been violated by him. Again.

Something snapped in my head; it was like a door being blown apart from the inside. I lurched forward in my seat as a wave of memories washed forcefully through my consciousness, sloshing around and demanding immediate attention.

The night in the park...on campus...outside the movie theater. Even here in Igby's. I saw myself dancing around, waving my arms, making faces, cracking jokes. I heard the laughter of the people watching me. I saw the money thrown at my feet, heard the applause, felt the handshakes and hugs of appreciation -- and the eager lips and probing tongues of groupie lust. I saw myself sinking down in exhaustion as the people walked away smiling, as if their very presence gave me my strength and their departure robbed me of it. Some staggered away and tried to recover their breath as I lost consciousness where I stood, only to awake the next morning, oblivious to what I'd done or been.

Making people laugh...it was a good thing, wasn't it? Tonight's opener had made me forget my troubles for a time. Why shouldn't I be happy to have sent so many away laughing? As my mind sorted through the memories, I saw that some of my jokes had been cruel, and I recalled seeing more than one pained look. A few jokes had been directed at faces in the crowd, targeting them as if I were exacting vengeance for some past wrong. Some of these bystanders had familiar faces, similar to ones I remembered from that elementary school concert. I replayed my cruel behavior in detail; it as if I were fighting for the right to be the focus of attention again, erasing my childhood humiliation one teardrop at a time.

I hated myself for these attacks. And I hated the man on stage who had done this to me.

Johnny Gonzo decided to notice us again. I didn't realize I was blushing. "You really need to lower the octane level of those drinks, Gomer; I could fry eggs on your forehead." He smiled sappily, said, "Golly!" drunkenly, and the audience roared. He had no reason to expect me to respond any better than I had last time.

The first time he'd attacked me in Santa Monica, I was caught off guard. The second time, from the stage, I was in shock. Now, though, my mind was working on all cylinders, and I wanted blood.

"When's the last time you had your shots, Cujo?" I asked loudly. His sneer faded. A couple of people laughed, but I ignored them. I locked my gaze on Gonzo; I was determined to make him suffer. I felt some shame for this desire, but my fury was in firm control.

The battle had begun.

"Ooooh," he said sarcastically. "Gomer's a heckler! Gonna throw spuds at the stage now?"

I smiled. "You know, I find it amazing that of all those millions of sperm...you won. I can only imagine it was a mercy fertilization." THWACK! He stepped back as if struck. The audience roared.

"Hey pal," he said nervously, "I don't give you a rough time at your job when you're giving your customers their McChange..." Sporadic laughter.

"You should really consider wearing turtlenecks, Johnny," I said, "to hide those circumcision scars." Some enthusiastic groans, and even more cheers. They were on my side now; I felt a rush of adrenaline. Getting laughs wasn't so bad, and I had Gonzo on the ropes.

He was speechless. His face went blank. "I, uh..." he stammered.

"I, uh, what?" I shot back. "Iawatha? Yer Honor, I uhbject!" The audience howled. I relished the irony of using his own joke against him, and the laughter was intoxicating. I looked over to Matt's seat, but he was gone.

Gonzo's eyes blazed with a mix of terror and fury; his lips curled and his teeth ground together as he clenched the microphone like a bludgeon. He didn't even look human anymore; he more closely resembled a cornered animal. It was the look he had given me after he'd knocked me down three months before, and I felt a momentary chill before my own rage reasserted itself.

"You wouldn't recognize a joke if it bit you on the ass," he growled. Nobody laughed. A few people booed. He weakened visibly.

"No, but I'd recognize the ass who bit me on the shoulder," I snapped back, smiling demonically. "You still singing soprano, Cujo?"

Every vestige of arrogance fled his face; I noted the pure terror with satisfaction as recognition set in. "You're...you're the guy -- "

"You screwed up my life, Johnny," I said. I stood. "And now it's my turn."

I imitated Sylvester Stallone: "I'm your worst nightmare." Some laughter from the crowd; the professional drinkers in the audience were now completely sauced and deter-mined to laugh at everything. I did another Stallone impression: "You're the disease, and I'm the cure." More sporadic laughter. I looked around; many people looked confused, but a few seemed to think we were a tag-team act.

Johnny Gonzo started crying. "I'm sorry, man...I'm so sorry...." Heavy sobs. "I used to be a teacher. I got bit a couple years ago in Phoenix, and next thing I know I'm on the road performing. Four months ago I...I just went crazy. I'm sorry...I'm sorry...."

I wanted so much to hate him, but my anger was rapidly draining away. If what he was saying was true, he was a victim like me. Could I blame him for attacking me? Might as well get pissed off at a mosquito for feeding off your blood while you slept. I looked at the weeping figure on the stage, and our eyes met again; this time, I felt no fear, no fury...only understanding. The look in his eyes now matched those I'd seen in the mirror almost every day of the past several months.

"I'm sorry too," I said sincerely. "It's not your fault you're a comic." I had no more anger in me, and now that I knew what was going on my fear diminished.

Matt entered the room with three police officers; he pointed towards the stage. They took the weeping Gonzo away in handcuffs as the shocked audience watched. Someone at the back of the room shouted, "Bravo!" and started applauding as if Johnny Gonzo and I were doing Hamlet shtick; did he honestly think this was part of the show?

Hell, why not?

I jumped on the stage, grabbed the microphone, bowed theatrically and announced in a Dodger Stadium Public Address System voice, "Ladies and Gentlemen, Elvis has left the building!" I pointed to the exit through which the police and Gonzo had left. The guy in back howled his approval.

"Howdy, folks," I said. "My name is Mike McNeal, and I'm your real headliner for tonight. Johnny and I planned this; normal intros are so boring and besides -- let's face it -- the emcee sucks." More laughter as I impersonated the emcee as his television character, using some of his best-known tag lines. The emcee, standing in the doorway, winced and grinned sheepishly. "The cops came in when things started to drag; hell, it always worked for Monty Python." More laughter, and a few Arsenio-style woofs. The drunks were happy again. I basked in the attention.

"How about a big round of applause," I shouted, "for the Rottweiler of Comedy, Johnny Gonzo?" Loud applause. "Bring him back in, guys!" I shouted, and the police dragged Johnny in -- confused, but no longer crying -- for a quick bow. I decided to not press charges against him. We needed to have a long talk; I needed to find out what I was in for. The uncertainty of what had happened to me was gone, but the future still scared me...

But first, the present. There were people to entertain. I noticed Casey as he gave me a thumbs-up.

"Sit back, folks; the show has just begun. Johnny will get his booster shots and be back tomorrow night, as rowdy and rabid as ever." Cheers. I was grinning like a madman.

"Some of you still have that look on your face like, 'is this Greek Tragedy night?'" I put the microphone close to my mouth and in an announcer's voice intoned, "Tonight on Masterjoke theater, Oedipus kills the headliner, marries the opener and fathers the emcee before dying tragically from a shorted-out microphone." I then faked electrocution and fell on the stage, launching into a long soliloquy in Classic style on the horrors of comedy inbreeding before gasping my last.

I didn't know if it made sense, but they were laughing.

I hopped back up, Bruce Lee style. "We need to get that Kumbaya feeling back here, people, so follow along." I started chanting in a low voice, "comedy, comedy, co-me-dy." My right arm -- the wounded shoulder was throbbing now -- churned in a steady rhythm to the words. I continued until the audience was chanting along, and I pumped up the volume up until the pictures on the walls rattled. Jay Leno's headshot shook loose and fell to the floor. When everyone was chanting in unison I let loose with a howl that pierced through the racket, and soon they were howling too. They were in the palm of my hand; everyone knew it, and we loved it.

"There's a bad moon rising, folks, and what's his name?"

"MIKEY!" they shouted. More howling.

And then the show really began.

I conjured comedy routines from thin air; I told jokes, did impressions, sang silly songs. I told them of my horrific elementary school choir experience, exaggerating beyond belief, even improvising a parody of One Tin Soldier -- mocking my childhood nightmare, purging my soul of that festering demon forever. As I told the story, I found myself laughing along. I was free! Twenty years of anguish and denial now filtered through a comic lens and dissipated into harmless memory. A crowd had once laughed at the child, and wounded me; a crowd now laughed for the man, and made me whole.

The jokes and the laughter became a part of me, woven inextricably into my DNA. I knew I would never forget this night, and even sleep could not steal these memories from me as they had three times before. The crowd laughed, cheered and applauded, the earlier tension in the room was forgotten.

My jokes were not so cruel now; my rage and fear were gone, washed away in a tidal wave of goodwill. Yes, I picked on people in the crowd, using a bald head, a cowboy hat or a loud sweater to launch into a new routine, but not maliciously; every victim laughed along, their faces registering no injury, able to enjoy their participation in the intricate symphony of mirth.

Only the crowd mattered. Their energy flowed into me; my blood churned and boiled like the base of Niagara Falls, and I ached to please them, to feed off their adulation until they went home satisfied and I sank to the floor torpid from the feast. Their laughter nourished me, sustained me. ioco ergo sum; I joke, therefore I am.

I couldn't imagine not performing for the rest of my life. All I could think of was the next laugh, and my greatest fear was that it wouldn't come.

First published in Galaxy #8, March 1995
Posted: January 19, 1998
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