Jimmy, Deborah decides, is a dead man. And Marcus is on thin fucking ice.
And Marty, well, Marty is never crawling his way back into her bed again.
She tunes back in just in time to see the wannabe juggler performing on the makeshift stage in front of her drop two of the three bowling pins he’s brought. Kendra squeals from Deborah’s right, and Deborah can’t hide her grimace.
At the very least, it’s three Xs across the row, and the juggler knows better than to push his luck with trying to swing two of them to his side.
A PA rushes into the room once he’s gone, offering them fresh pens and new notebooks in case they’ve somehow managed to make their way through the first ones. (Deborah’s has a short to-do list in her untidy scrawl that says nothing more than ‘Kill Jimmy.’) She glances at the other two judges, the show’s “regulars”—Jared, some former boy band member, and Kendra, a model-turned-choreographer. Kendra’s doodled a few hearts across the first page of her notebook, while Jared’s seems to consist entirely of his own name in blocky graffiti-style lettering.
“Can I get anyone a coffee refill? Water?”
“Could I get a Diet Coke?” Deborah asks, trying to remember that this sad 20-something in ill-fitting jeans and a company polo is not the one to blame for the three hours of hell she has just suffered through.
The PA nods rapidly. “Is Pepsi okay?”
Deborah wrinkles her nose. “No.” After a moment, she waves him back. “Would you be a dear and pass a message along to Marcus? You’ll find him back in my dressing room.”
“Tell him he has ten minutes to be back with a Diet Coke. From the fountain.”
The PA glances at her, then the other judges. “Um, okay.” Seeing no joking smiles, he takes off at a run.
Jared spins his chair towards her and wiggles an eyebrow. “Marcus your new intern?” There’s a laugh in his voice, like they’re in on some kind of shared joke.
Deborah offers him a wan smile. “My COO.” A COO who’d gone and told Jimmy that of course she’d be happy to fill in as a celebrity guest judge for this godforsaken adult talent show. (She has seen no talent yet, and she doesn’t have high hopes for the future.) Marcus has already texted her a dozen reminders of the show’s demographics, assurances that this is the best way to keep her Friday and Saturday shows. As if there is any world in which they should have been threatened in the first place.
“We’re back in five,” one of the cameramen yells, and Deborah watches as Jared and Kendra sit up and direct their perfected Hollywood-fake smiles at the cameras.
The door swings open, then, and Deborah braces herself.
“Hi there, I’m Shayla!” The girl flashes them an overly white smile. “Today I’m going to be singing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow.’”
Oh good. Again.
Deborah feels like she’s already been through eight of the circles of hell by the time Jared nudges her with an overly tanned elbow. “This one’s all you,” he whispers, flashing her a wink he probably thinks is charming. As if she hasn’t seen him wink at every blonde co-ed that’s walked through that door today.
Deborah glances down at the call sheet in front of her and sees “stand up” listed in the talent box. God, she is really and truly going to kill Jimmy.
The door swings open, and that infernally chipper host whose name she still hasn’t learned is showing a young woman into the room. She hoists the straps of her backpack up on her shoulders and gives them a smile that looks closer to a grimace.
And then she’s going for it. No introduction to the audience. No attempt to read the room. Just barreling in like a bored waiter reciting off that night’s soup specials.
“You know last night I had a nightmare,” she says, chimneysweep boots scuffing at the floor. “I dreamt that my phone was ringing.”
It goes downhill from there. There’s no room for laughter. No attempt at connection. Nothing particularly humorous, even though Deborah swears she can see the spark of something darkly funny buried deep, deep under that painfully awkward exterior.
Deborah finally interrupts after a painful couple of minutes. “What the hell was that?” She catches sight of one of the producers perking up at that and can already see him banking on her becoming the asshole judge, the resident Simon Cowell that will make them millions in memes or whatever the hell is popular these days.
The woman blinks back at her, crinkles her brow. “My stand-up routine.”
“You look like one of Charles Dickens’ sad little orphans.”
Jared barely stifles a laugh in the crook of his elbow. Deborah glares at him before turning her attention back to the girl—Ava, according to the call sheet in front of her. “That wasn’t stand up. You have to bring your audience with you when you’re on stage, and instead you’re acting like we’re strangers bumping elbows at a funeral. At least try to seem like you’re happy to be here.”
“Well, I’m not, you…” Ava mutters something under her breath as she turns around. Deborah can’t quite make out the specifics, but she’s been on the receiving end enough to have three good guesses.
“What was that? You wanna say that to my face?”
“Look, you’ve been pretty fucking rude.”
Deborah arches an eyebrow and gives a minute shake of her head to the security guard stepping forward. “Have I now?”
“Yeah, I mean, I dropped everything to be here for this audition.”
“Did you want a gold star just for showing up?” Deborah scoffs.
“Kinda, yeah. I woke up at the asscrack of dawn to fly here in the middle seat on Spirit fucking Airlines, just to audition for a stupid show I don’t even want to be on.”
“So then why the hell are you here, taking up time moping across the stage and making me contemplate homicide? Or suicide. Either one, really.”
Ava takes a deep breath, looks up at the ceiling. And for the first time Deborah feels like she’s getting something honest. “You want to know the truth? It’s the only thing my shitty ass agent could get me, and that’s just because it’s an open fucking call for anyone who’s willing to stand out in that line for hours.” She shakes her head. “I used to write scripts. Good scripts. But I tweeted a joke about that closeted senator from Mississippi who’s sending his son to conversion therapy camp or whatever. And then everybody freaked out. And then some other asshole dug up shit I said when I was, like, 20 years old, and I lost my deal. Got totally fucking cancelled.” She lets out a half-hysterical laugh. “And now no one will hire me. Or apparently choose me over some dude I saw reading Juggling for Dummies out in the parking lot.”
“We actually passed on him,” Deborah says.
“Great. Well, I’m so glad we’re the same, him and me.” Ava picks up her bag from the ground and turns to go.
“Wait,” Deborah calls after her, ignoring the mouthed “No!” from the producers.
Ava pauses, turns halfway back around, and gives Deborah a wary look. “What?”
Deborah props her elbows on the table, rests her chin in her hands and leans forward. She runs her tongue across her teeth. “Tell me.” She can hear that voice she uses with Marty sometimes, the one guaranteed to have him falling at her heels, coming out of her mouth, but she can’t be bothered to care. Not when she’s having fun for the first time all day. She drops her voice even lower, lets the room narrow to just her and Ava. “What was it?”
Ava tilts her head, her eyebrows drawing closer together.
“What was the joke that ruined your life?” She grins, teeth flashing under the overly bright fluorescent bulbs. “I gotta hear it.”
Ava tips her head back before looking Deborah head on. “Senator Rogers is upset because he found out his kid is gay. Apparently, he heard it from one of the guys he was sucking off in the Senate cloak room.” She shakes her head. “I don’t even do jokes like that! I was just trying to call him out for being such a fucking hypocrite because he was the one caught with a male escort. But apparently I crossed a line or something.”
“Oh, honey, no, you didn’t.”
Ava snorts. “Tell that to a million people on Twitter.”
“There is no line in comedy. Your sad little tweet didn’t go ‘too far.’ It’s just not funny.”
“Thanks. Super fucking helpful.”
Jared lets out a forced chuckle. “Well, I guess we’re following the funny lady herself’s lead here, huh?”
Deborah ignores him entirely as she turns back to Ava, pen tapping insistently against her notebook. Her thoughts are racing a mile a minute, and she feels the thrill of coming up with something entirely new for the first time in years. “Sending your son to the woods with a bunch of other horny, gay teens? The only thing you’re gonna convert him from is a top to a bottom.”
Kendra lets out a high-pitched giggle. Ava opens and closes her mouth. “What?”
“Wait. No, no, gotta keep the focus on the dad.” Deborah’s foot is tapping in rhythm with her pen. “Oh, uh, Senator Rogers has been in the closet so long, his wife keeps trying to donate him to Goodwill.” She holds out her hands.
Ava’s put back down the backpack she’s apparently brought straight off the plane, like some unaccompanied minor. “Okay, just to be clear, these are all incredibly problematic.”
Deborah waves her hand. “No line. Not if you’re funny enough.”
“Agree to disagree. But what if it’s something like… Senator Rogers has been in the closet so long, all his friends are mothballs?”
“Mothballs!” Deborah snaps her fingers. “Yes.” She grins back at Ava. “Senator Rogers has been in the closet so long, he shits mothballs.”
Jared makes a quiet eurgh noise, but Ava lets out an involuntary snort of laughter.
Deborah nods, taps her hand against the table. “Yup, that’s it.”
“Alright, uh, can I go now? Really need to start looking for somewhere that might hire me.”
“Sorry,” Kendra coos, marking a little red X on her call sheet.
“Why?” Deborah glances between Ava and the other judges. “We’ll see you back here next week.”
“What? I said I didn’t even want to be here!”
“Yeah, well, you could use feedback from somewhere other than Twitter and whatever chatroom you millennial comics spend your days in brainstorming maudlin ‘jokes’ with no punchline. Now write a new act by this weekend.”