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He closed his eyes, intent on mentally rehearsing a new bit about reality TV shows, but all he could think about was his mother, wishing she could be here to see him perform. Maybe then he'd know whether to thank her for the inspiration ... or blame her.
According to Delores Miles, her son was born funny. Her simple declaration had planted itself in the fertile soil of his nine-year-old brain then sprouted like Jack's proverbial beanstalk. And it was this weird alchemy of language and inspiration that transformed a needling boyhood curiosity into his lifelong obsession with making people laugh. So for more than a decade, Oliver honed his blossoming sense of humor into kind of a sixth sense, perfecting his mother's uncanny ability to "find the funny" in any situation, no matter how mundane, morbid, or even tragic. Creating laughter became Oliver's calling card, his shield, sword, and escape hatch. It was his alter ego, his imaginary friend, his security blanket. It was not, however, such a great way to make a living.
Oliver paged through his notebook a final time as if cramming for a test, then squinted into the blackness once more, trying in vain to make out the actual faces in the gloom. Finally his gaze drifted to the exact center of the stage where the spotlight had painted a lopsided moon, silhouetting a skinny microphone stand. The padded barstool, which now served as an oversized coaster for his sweating tumbler of ice water, remained in the shadows.
His mission was simple enough. Walk out onstage—no, scratch that—command the stage, and deliver a ten-minute set of stand-up comedy. This gig would neither make nor break his career. That particular gig was still more than two months away, provided he survived the audition.
Still, when the emcee's voice echoed in his head, panic struck him like a pebble in a pond, rippling outward in small, strutting waves until the rest of him shook as badly as his hands.
It was show time.
Oliver closed his eyes and mouthed the words of the emcee's scripted introduction. He never allowed himself to imagine wild ovations; that way he would never be disappointed. After wetting his now-chapped lips a final time, Oliver Miles strode out from the wings and across the familiar stage. The wooden planks creaked and groaned under his feet.
He snatched the microphone from the stand, fixed his gaze on some random spot in the crowd, and delivered his trademark opening.
"Let us pray," he said, bowing his head somberly. He paused for effect, popped one eye open for a quick, nervous scan of the crowd, then mumble-whispered a litany of heartfelt syllables that culminated in a breathless Amen.
"There," he said, as if something had actually been settled. "If you people don't have a good time tonight, it's not my fault."
Oliver ignored the abject lack of crowd response and forged ahead. Years of practicing in front of his bedroom mirror had taught him more than a few ways to cope with uninspiring feedback from uninspired crowds. He'd learned to simply invent laughter as needed, then have his brain insert it like a laugh track on a sitcom. After all, didn't he know his own material better than a roomful of strangers? Was he not the expert on his own jokes? For the most part, audiences merely confirmed what Oliver already knew.
This flimsy bit of self-deception almost always worked too. Like WD-40, it displaced his sagging confidence and greased the rusty hinges of his vocal cords. In fact, it was working tonight. He was a machine, setting up one joke, punching it just right, tagging it a time or two, then slipping in and out of segues like a runway model swapping outfits backstage.
Oliver used the glow of the spotlight to check his watch. He'd timed his set perfectly so far. Just two more jokes to go, then hit the closer, say goodnight, and go back to work.
But the laughter building inside his head ceased when the house lights came on, temporarily blinding the newly befuddled comedian midsentence and filling his head with deafening silence.
As his eyes recalibrated, so did his brain. The tables scattered around the ballroom were empty, just like they were twenty minutes ago when he'd set up the microphone stand, placed his water glass on the barstool, and killed the house lights in favor of the spot. Vacant chairs, all sporting the garish hotel insignia, were still piled high on dollies. And the spotlight, now rendered impotent, mocked Oliver and just made his eyes hurt.
His mystified gaze finally landed on the only other sign of life in the room, a shadowy female form in full Harrington Hotel regalia— a unisex ensemble of dark slacks, white dress shirt, and a maroon vest. Her brassy nametag glinted in the glow of the sparkling chandelier. She looked familiar, but in a distant, impersonal way. Like an extra in a really old movie or a headshot from his grandmother's yearbook.
Oliver clipped the microphone back on the stand, retrieved his notebook from the wings, and descended the steps with all the nonchalance he could muster. As he made his way across the ballroom, he glanced under tables and behind curtains or wherever else imaginary villains might be lurking. He stopped a few feet in front of the intruder and leaned casually on the back of a chair. They exchanged bewildered expressions as the silence loomed between them, vacuum packed, coiled like a spring.
"I was just, you know ..." Oliver's voice sounded shrill, lilting with unintended question marks. "... making my rounds. I am the security guard, after all."
"You're Oscar, right?"
"Right," she said. "Sorry."
It was obviously Oliver's turn to speak. But every time he opened his mouth the sluicing roar of adrenaline made it impossible to focus on forming words. His addled brain peppered him with unanswerable questions: When had she come in? How much did she hear? What had she thought of his material? What must she think of him? Not to mention his idiotic uniform. The question he finally settled on was So, how may I help you? But it came out like: "So, what are you doing here anyway?"
"Working," she said. "Same as you."
"Oh." Oliver braced himself for the undertow of sarcasm in her tone. But there was no subtext, no irony, no ridicule or disappointment or threat of sanction. As far as he could tell she was wholly earnest.
"We met at my orientation last week."
"Right," he said as a vague memory of a quick introduction a few days ago began to emerge. All he could recall was that she had a little boy's name, a little girl's haircut, and a seeming inability to break eye contact. But that version of this girl had been a throwback to another era, something mid-sixties, pre-hippie, a mash-up of chiffon and velvet and patent leather. All that remained now was her lazy bouffant flip.
Oliver tried not to be too obvious as he allowed his gaze to migrate to her nametag. That's when it finally dawned on him that he was staring at the hotel's new night auditor, the only other person he would see or talk to for the countless hours that comprised the graveyard shift.
He was mid-squint when she said, "It's Matilda. They misspelled it on my nametag."
"Right, nice to see you again, Matilda. I thought—"
"Please," she said, "call me Mattie."
"Got it. But I thought you didn't start till next week, Mattie."
"That was the plan," she said. "But I think the last girl eloped or something. So Mr. Sherman called and asked if I could start a little early."
So much for having the hotel to himself for an entire week.
"Anyhow," she continued. "I had to work late at my other job. So I told Mr. Sherman I'd be a little tardy tonight. Turns out, it was later than I thought."
"It'll be our little secret," he said, shocked at how creepy it sounded and wishing he could take it back.
"Are you okay?"
"Sure," he said, although her unrelenting eye contact was making him a bit dizzy. "Why do you ask?"
"Because ever since I flipped the lights on, you look like you swallowed a curling iron."
"How does that look exactly?"
"Bug-eyed, sweaty, short of breath, and blushing in too many places at once."
Oliver chuckled. Her obvious attempt at humor sanded the edge off his humiliation. But she never smiled back. She simply stared. And blinked.
"Anyhow," she continued, "I'm just glad I finally found you."
Finally? he thought, then said, "You are?"
"Yeah, you got a phone message."
"I think her name was Lindsey. Said she'd call back later."
In the three years Oliver had worked security for the Harrington Hotel, he'd never once received a phone message. And as far as he knew he'd never met a Lindsey before. He was about to indulge a few morbid thoughts about his mother when Mattie spoke up again.
"And I'm pretty sure we were just robbed."
While he waited, he reviewed Mattie's version of the events so far. She had parked her car, punched her time clock, and fielded the phone call from someone named Lindsey Whitaker, whoever that was. Then before Mattie could plug in her own personal adding machine, the phone rang again. It was the Johnsons from Room 218. According to Mattie, Mister Johnson sounded cryptic and vague, maybe even a little sleepy. Apparently his wife could be heard shouting details in the background.
Mattie had suspected they were both high on something. Now, after only a few minutes with the Johnsons, Oliver suspected she was right.
Their story unfolded in a series of inebriated corroborations. The husband handled the bulk of the narrative while his wife added unnecessary punctuation. She managed to correct, cajole, and threaten without adding a single helpful detail. They allegedly left the hotel around noon to attend an afternoon wedding followed by what was described as a drunk and disorderly reception. They returned a little after one a.m., noticed some "valuables" were missing, and eventually called the front desk.
"What exactly is missing?" Oliver asked.
Mr. Johnson started to speak but was interrupted by a series of obnoxious throat clearings. They shared an unreadable expression, then he said, "Um, just some cash."
"How much?" Oliver asked, pen poised over a spiral notepad.
The Johnsons exchanged another round of pointed glances. Their dilated pupils made them look constantly surprised to see each other.
"A lot," the husband finally said. He scratched at a scab on his forearm.
"Could you be a little more specific?"
"We'd rather not," Mr. Johnson said.
"Speak for yourself," said his wife, absently fingering the patch of fiery acne on her chin.
Oliver pretended to make another note, then pretended not to watch their soundless altercation: fists balled, fingers pointed, jaws clenched, but no actual words exchanged, reducing the couple to a pair of belligerent mimes in a silent film. The subtitles were not that hard to imagine ...
Mrs. Johnson: Don't just stand there. Tell him.
Mr. Johnson: Are you nuts? How are we supposed to explain that kind of cash missing?
Mrs. Johnson: Don't be such a wuss. Either you tell him or I will.
Mr. Johnson: Yeah? Over my dead body ...
(Mrs. Johnson cuts her eyes suspiciously to the security guard.)
Mrs. Johnson: Or maybe his.
When Oliver cleared his throat, it had the same effect as a referee's whistle. The couple turned their glares on him, both breathing hard. When he asked if there was anything else missing, Mrs. Johnson said, "Not yet."
Oliver watched the unhappy couple glare at each other some more, waiting for one of them to expound upon her cryptic answer. Instead, she wheeled around and locked herself in the bathroom.
"So, what's next?" the husband said, attempting a weak smile, one meant to convey apology or embarrassment or both.
"I'll file my report with the hotel. Then I'm sure the police will show up and want to fill out one of their own."
Mr. Johnson then announced, loud enough for his wife to hear through the closed door, that, on second thought, they were actually too tired to deal with the police at three a.m. He added, "Right, honey?" To which she suggested he go to that fiery place filled with demons and pitchforks and politicians.
Oliver's interrogation ended with a final halfhearted threat from Mr. Johnson about pressing charges and making the hotel pay—but only after they got some sleep. That left a few short hours for Oliver to fill out his report and dread telling his boss about the alleged burglary.
But that too would have to wait. The front-desk manager arrived at 6:30 a.m. and promptly informed Oliver that Mr. Sherman had been called to Memphis for an emergency meeting with Claude Sherman (Mr. Sherman's father, aka the owner of the Harrington) and the Shermanettes (Gladys, Montel, Morty, and the rest of the Sherman family) and wouldn't be back on property until Monday. Oliver found some solace in this news, but not much. As much as he hated delivering bad news, he still preferred getting it over with. The only consolation was that it afforded him a couple of days to coordinate stories with Mattie.
He intercepted her just as she was coming out of the ladies' room. She looked bleary-eyed and exhausted, just like he felt.
"Hey, Mattie. Got a second?"
"Actually, I'm supposed to meet the controller in a few minutes to review my first audit."
"Okay, I'll be quick. I just wanted to compare notes one more time, while everything's fresh in our memories. You know, before we talk to Mr. Sherman."
"You make it sound like we have something to hide."
"Oh, no. Nothing like that. It's just that Mr. Sherman likes details." Oliver held up his notebook as some kind of tangible proof. "Lots of details."
She stared at him again, a human polygraph machine. "Didn't we already have this conversation?"
Oliver wished now that he'd brought the official incident report he'd typed up. That way he could stare at it thoughtfully instead of avoiding the penetrating eyes of Mattie Holmgren.
"Sorry," he said. "You don't know Sherman."
Mattie's gaze ricocheted from her watch to the hallway leading to the executive offices and then back to Oliver. "Alright, let's see. I clocked in, got the call where the guy basically just repeated whatever his wife was yelling at him in the background. I hung up, went looking for you, and eventually found you in the ballroom. That's pretty much the end of it."
"So that's all you can remember? No other details or peculiarities worth mentioning? Nothing else you saw or heard that Mr. Sherman needs to know about?"
"Look, I really don't know what else to tell you, Oliver."
He knew he should leave well enough alone. But Oliver was suddenly consumed with the desire to explain himself—that he wasn't just some hack or wannabe comedian indulging pathetic fantasies, that he'd been working out new material for a big audition he'd been hearing rumors about, that he routinely performed actual stand-up comedy in actual comedy clubs, that sometimes he even got paid for it (if by payment, you could include chicken wings, fries, and all-you-can-drink coffee), that he wasn't just goofing off or shirking his responsibilities, that he was actually working on his real career. But he'd already asked her the same series of questions and she'd never once mentioned anything about the ballroom, the quality of his jokes, or his stupid uniform. Chances are, she didn't notice. Or didn't care.
Still, before his brain could convince his mouth to shut up, he said, "Well, it's just, you never really said where you were before you found me. You know, between the time you clocked in and when you took the call."
"Well, I didn't stop by Room 218, if that's what you're getting at."
"No, Mattie. That's not what I meant, not at all. I was just trying to—"
Actually, he was trying to apologize, but it wouldn't come out right. He could feel the regret thrumming inside him; he just couldn't seem to form it into a coherent sentence.
"Sorry," Mattie said. Oliver followed her gaze to the grim-faced controller. "I have to go."
But she didn't sound sorry; she sounded accused.
Excerpted from A Stand-Up Guy by Michael Snyder Copyright © 2011 by Michael Snyder. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted August 10, 2011
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