In the heartland, Sir Laugh-a-Lot's shuts down their comedy club after 9-11. A month later, when they re-open, management cut Max's three weekly gigs to one. They wonder about their customers' desire to laugh—even that mix he attracts with shock tactics and subversion. Prior to those crumpled towers, though, Max had carried his own questions. He'd been mired in a self-diagnosed comedic slump, his "edges rubbed soft." But tonight there are jagged new margins in the world, and craters where reason used to be. He kisses Julie's forehead before they step through the club's back entrance, metallic door slamming heavy behind them.
"Be funny," she tells him. "But careful."
"That just isn't possible," he says.
A hug, then Julie takes the same spot she takes when doing reviews for the local paper's weekend supplement, a table and stool near the back (across the room from the large bar, so she's not tempted.) If Max struggles, she's told him, he can look to her corner for support. Now, under smoky lights, he hustles to the stage then works slowly into form, pulling off a skull-cap to reveal a tidy Mohawk, shaped hours ago. He mock-salutes, noting a freshly hanged American flag at stage left. With an icy deadpan, he tells the crowd he's keeping the Mohawk until people stop dying in Afghanistan.
"People," he clarifies, "and goats!"
A cough echoes. Empty tables manage a lonely glow, between black holes of silence and timid spots of life. Max taps around with old standards, but, in building to the fresh material, his timing stumbles. He stutters a word, mispronounces another. He glances to the back, where Julie feels witness to catastrophe; this is the same fear she's held since the first time she watched Max perform (almost a year ago, while doing a piece on him), a fear that usually passes without any fulfillment.
"We will never forget," Max mumbles solemnly, buzzing the mike. "9-14 . . . fif-teen . . . wait, what was it? 9 . . . 9 . . . "
The audience can imagine the eleven. Suddenly, Max slaps himself, the pop crackling over the speakers. His scattered regulars grin, and others re-adjust in their chairs. Julie cringes a bit at this old trick.
Soon Max staggers inside the story of Flight 93, wondering what those brave passengers were really up to. The flight number alone gets several gasps. Apparently, Max figures, a few passengers were helping Neil Young and Alan Jackson pen manipulative song lyrics, while the business class cowered to brown-skinned men armed with a few Gillettes. Sir Laugh-a-Lot's customers give this failed joke silence, which, in turn, Max brushes away with a laundry list of things Todd Beamer was up to on that doomed flight, other than listening for the connection gates at Pennsylvania's Rural Countryside International and turning down an economy bag of pretzels. He made all sorts of calls on his cell phone, it seems. "Let's Roll," you see, was originally, "Okay, Can You Hear Me Now?" Then, "God Damn Verizon!" And, finally, "What the Fuck is Carrot Top Doing in a Turban?"
The cheek Max slapped blushes deeper than his other. He fishes through the room again, until Julie hooks him with her worried support. He pretends to slap himself a second time, but stops short, letting the audience imagine the impact. He chatters up Bon Jovi's butt-rock response to the attack—"You Give Islam A Bad Name"—and, for the audience mislaid in the sixties, Bob Dylan's potential epic—"A Hard Plane's Gonna Fall."
Jimmy Buffet's possible tribute whisks up healthy boos, though they bleed into the music on the other side of the wall. Julie takes a sip of her diet soda, then glances for any sign of dissent from the bartender, or the waitresses, or even the thick bouncers near the entrance, but they're preoccupied with the hustle of business. Some people ask for early checks, but here come more punch-lines, and Max just barks them. Pockets of cheers combat the catcalls and commotion. Most of the approval comes from idiot college kids drunk enough to give Max the benefit of the doubt, Julie notes, some of them mistaking his insolence for politics.
Then, more tributes like spit.
Julie catches his eyes again. There are awkward claps and more calls for beer. There's sloppy laughter, too, which Max has said he'd rather hear, as it's much more spontaneous, applause being full of lies.
He offers his ideas for Reality-TV shows based on the events of 9-11.
"Survivor: Logan International Airport."
"Law and Order. Right?" he adds, to angry claps. "Racial Profiling Unit."
"Islamic Temptation Island," he says. "Sixty virgins and a glorious death, or a lifetime of poverty and repression . . . "
Pale laughter, then clanks of bottles and the air of business again, the credit card machine stuttering a receipt.
Max lurches on; Julie watches.
Back in the beginning of his career, Max came out of a failed joke swinging. His comedy hit a groove after a girl he'd wanted to love had rejected him, quick and clean. Max had scored the gig two weeks before her departure, when his manager at the bookstore made a call to a buddy who managed at Sir Laugh-a-Lot's. Initially, Max just wanted to make people laugh the way he'd done at work and play, at the rinky-dink talent show at his old college, the way he'd watched other comics make people laugh with reverence and awe. With this approach, Max failed magnificently in those opening gigs. But lightning struck when this Sarah dumped him, and Max suddenly felt lucky to kick out the aggression that comes with realizing you're nothing special.
Weeks later, Julie learned of this history while writing a feature on Max's comedy routine for the paper. The piece ran accompanied with a color photo of his calculated scowl, hair brushed long over dark eyes, as he posed in front of Sir Laugh-a-Lot's neon crown. The interview stirred up noise, thickening the offbeat following he'd started to develop. He spoke to the "wounds of bitterness" and laughed about "the healing power of hate." In a highlighted quote, he claimed that, despite a routine steeped in references to the world at-large, any success was "all thanks to a girl named Sarah. She broke my heart and lit a fire under my spiteful, spiteful . . . jokes."
"She ran off with a Marine," he told an early crowd, "so F that baby-killing cooze!" As the routine hit peaks and pauses, Max paced himself by making fists and popping his jaw from both directions. He said, "And if you see her, tell her I still love her . . . and by 'love her,' I mean, 'would take a sympathy fuck' . . . and by 'would take,' I mean as long as she doesn't break my heart again . . . then tell her to fuck off . . . but first see if she's still pretty . . . because I really hope she's mangled . . . so then she'd have me back . . . "
Somehow, Julie noted in her article, with that particular stop-and-go, Max stimulated sympathy in a crazed focus-group of fans, from misogynists to the sympathetic women—"Sympathetic broads," Max would kid. "And by 'sympathetic,' I mean 'desperate.'" More importantly, though, the man behind the routine, as Julie called him outside the interview, had stimulated something in her uneventful life, a life of telling stories instead of living them. Their relationship blossomed after a follow-up interview turned into dinner, and dinner turned to more.
At his dissident advice, Julie titled her article, "How Far Can Hate Take Him?"
"It took me to you," he told her, days into their relationship, holding her close in the apartment they now share. She wondered if they should sleep together so soon. Max explained that he was a comedian and knew all about timing.
The morning after, he felt comfortable enough to ask, feigning worry: "You don't have AIDS, do you?"
Max sat upright, atop twisted sheets. Julie noticed his eyebrows first, slightly arched, and the smile forming in the dry corners of his mouth. Reviewing his routine had clued her in on some tics, and she was suddenly aware that he was just working his way to a joke. She felt their connection grow taut.
He repeated, "You don't have AIDS, do you?"
She played right along, shaking her head.
"Good," he said. "I can't afford to catch that shit again."
She watched Max use the line the following Thursday. Afterward, she told him she'd felt protective of the quip when it got scattered heckles, even after he'd knocked those heckles away with a joke about homophobes, dolled up like homophobia itself. Julie admitted that the frenzy Max had worked himself into about Sarah that night had also made her protective, in a different way.
"If part of her is still there," Julie told him, "I understand."
"Your act, though, it's so . . . intense."
"My act. Exactly. An act."
"But in the interview . . ."
Max tried burning away the preconceptions he'd created, and spilled a little more of himself.
Initially, Max explained to Julie, he'd been able to work in shots at Sarah while making people feel a way they weren't used to feeling at Sir Laugh-a-Lot's. He took shots at the person she'd chosen over him, even though Max had never met Chuck the Marine, an imagined evil. Max went hard at the Armed Forces, in general, which led to the government, led to the status quo. This carved a niche. He said anything he believed would get him killed by Chuck, whom he'd sculpted for audiences with thick forearms and a vein snaking up the neck. But Chuck and Sarah could've cared less about such small-time jabs. They'd moved halfway across the country. The time Max actually tracked down a phone number, he could only listen silently to the confused, then annoyed, then pitying voices in the earpiece.
The happy couple changed their number, and Max sold it as gross persecution.
He maintained this unfounded focus, though, and in time, it grew a life of its own. For the sake of his act—he admitted to Julie, piece by piece—he and Sarah had been together for over two years, even though, in reality, they'd had a few fleeting months when Chuck was overseas. It was for a bloodthirsty audience that Max invented he and Sarah's greatest hits. These made-up fights of passion replaced a boring reality where Max had merely sulked when Sarah left, peaceful as a whisper.
"Don't hate my history," he told Julie when she worried. "It's what brought us together."
Julie wondered which history he was speaking of.
But Max assured her, again and again, that talk of scorn, of never getting over Sarah, was entirely part of the act. He told her he was joking about ninety-percent of it. "Okay, maybe seventy percent." Then he'd take that back, as a joke, to let her know it was a joke.
Julie saw Max's heart lying somewhere between the hate in his routine and the half-truths of the explanations he tried to give her. She understood this as a third reality—the reality of hanging on to anything we can create for ourselves. It was a reality she felt she could handle for a while. Maybe, Julie figured, they should hold onto what they'd created. His act had been all gaping wounds, but soon they'd managed a little scar tissue together. They smoothed things slick.
Later, in the lazy summer of 2001, when a worried Max told Julie his act was growing tired and his crowds were going stale, Julie knew their bond had never been stronger. She knew the past had finally been batted away. She knew they were as close to happiness as they would get.
Then, with a few pumpkin-hued blasts, televised live in early September, they were slapped across their stupid, grinning mugs.
Now Max's movements start clicking again, however notoriously the clicks come. Management at Sir Laugh-a-Lot's warns him to tone it down, and to make sure the audience "gets" the sarcasm. "Just be sure they know where Sir Laugh-a-Lot's stands, you know, on this whole 'terrorism' situation," he's told, though a tripling of customers on his scheduled night make warnings hard to enforce. They consider giving back his other two nights, depending on how this all shakes out. He spends off hours at the bookstore skimming through the political extremes of the newsstand, from The National Review to Utne Reader, plotting new incisions. Julie lets him know her paper is planning another piece. She says, "I knew you'd get out of the slump." But she's also concerned, wondering where this refueling will take their relationship.
Maybe the country's paranoia has crowbarred old fears.
Tonight Julie kisses Max before he goes on. At the start, there are no reactions to the changes in his Mohawk, which is well-spiked and laced with blue. He sports a t-shirt with a picture of Osama bin Laden in the cross-hairs, throwing management a bone (though, on the back, he's scribbled "Hootie and the Blowfish World Tour—1995" with a black felt pen). Still, Julie thinks, the room feels like life again, tables sweating and breathing and waiting. Then the Todd Beamer stuff bombs. Max shrugs.
"Guess I should strap that punch-line to my chest and run through Jerusalem diner," he quips.
Julie holds her breath through the silence. Max smirks, and refocuses the material. His eyes flicker when he looks to the flag behind him. "9-11. We all remember where we were," he tells the crowd, getting dull nods and a drunk's booming affirmation.
"We were," he pauses. "Well . . . we were on our fat asses, I guess, watching the fucking tube . . . it ain't much of a story, but that's what we can tell our grandkids . . . "
(There are cushy chuckles.)
"You're saying, 'I remember, yes, I was watching the TV and then I was . . . well, switching the channels, and then . . . well, it was on all the channels.'"
(Max takes a breath.)
"We . . . well, it really fucked us up, though? Huh?" Julie nods in anticipation but Max hasn't looked to her yet. This rant comes from a conversation they'd had days after the eleventh, sheltered in their apartment, glued to the television. "Three-thousand people get blown to shit and we all wondered how to carry on, right?" He points to the stars and stripes. "But some of us figured it out, right?! You know, fuck it . . . it's this giant flag! That's the solution. We gotta get us two or three of these things! Put one in the house. One on the truck. Let those dirty fanatics try that horseshit again. Let them pull that shit now! I got me a flag!"
He glares at the bar. The manager who gave him the official warning pours drinks, smiling at commerce.
"See, this flag shows which side of the issue you stand on. So now people, well, they know where, for example, this bar stands. We are for the building full of people . . . and we're against the plane with the insane Arabs on it. This flag will show people that!"
"Jesus-fucking-Christ," he says, shaking his head. "But honestly, I gotta say, if any Arab motherfucker came at me with a bunch of TNT on him, well, the first thing I'd do is ditch that fucking flag."
Most fall for laughter. Some grumble dissent.
"I'd tell that Arab I don't know where the fuck that flag came from. 'It ain't mine! I usually tote around an Arab flag, sir, to tell you the truth' . . ."
Julie is the first to see the whiskey tumbler flying—end over end over end—and she belts out a hoarse scream. Everyone else watches the tumbler just miss Max's head and smash against the brick wall behind him. Shards litter the stage, and Max finally ducks, a reaction to shattering glass. When the crowd calms to a hush, the music goes louder next door. Bouncers part the audience and drag someone outside. Customers explain everything that just happened to friends who'd witnessed the exact same moment. They say, "What the fuck?" They go over the best details, and that final one-liner. Julie's holding the arm of another bouncer, who hustles Max off, and the crowd goes puffy again with boos of uncertainty, boos of shock, and boos of alcohol. The manager comes back to make sure Max is fine, noting specks of dried blood on his bright skull.
"Shaving nicks," Max says.
The manager nods. Julie's crying, and Max is suddenly assuring her, again and again. A bouncer gets a call on his walkie-talkie; it seems the suspect has pepper-sprayed the heavies, quoted the Old Testament, and thrown a brick through the front window. The cops tracked him down after he stumbled drunk into a Kia. He was laughing his ass off.
"See," Max says, "the guy was a fan."
The manager neither laughs nor grins. The second show is cancelled for tonight, as the natives have grown restless and started chanting illogical things. Max again tells Julie, "It's okay, it's okay," all the way home. She doesn't respond, only leans across the seat, and puts her head on his shoulder. He tells her some more of the one-liners he'd planned on using tonight, some things he'll work on for next time. Later, they're on the couch, eating re-heated Chinese food. She's coming around. She's made a few cracks about the idiot look on Max's face when that tumbler exploded. And she also tells him how worried she is, one more time.
"There has to be 9-11 stuff, Julie. If I'm going to be honest."
She touches his face.
"The country's got some padding by now," he says. "We've already squeezed an attack on the Taliban between the premiere of "Friends" and the World Series."
She shakes her head.
"You almost took a glass in the eye tonight, Max. Someone stood up, boiled over, and threw a glass at your face."
"Some drunk nearly put it in your ear, for Christ's sake."
"That drunk would've thrown a drink at Guiliani!"
"There are heckles."
"But there's more," he says. "There's life."
She nods, and then looks back up, her fingers drifting down the side of his cheeks.
"People either feel too connected to those towers coming down," he explains. "Or not enough."
"But what do you feel, Max?"
He starts to answer, but stops. She watches him swallow what words he holds back, and the thoughts that push him towards her, kissing her fingers, which tap softly at his chin. They work on each other's clothes. Max buries himself deep; Julie accepts. When they're finished, and the breathing has caught up, the sweat gone sticky, he tells her of this desire to return the routine to dangerous territory.
"And this will give you back your edge?"
Julie believes she is most helpful when she's naked. But while Max is usually most willing to open up in the same state, he's silent now. She fingers the hair below his belly-button while he massages her thigh like habit. Neither of them had turned off the lights or television before toppling into sex. The staccato glare of the news isn't what distracts them now, however, nor is the room lit up like daytime. This light lies deep in the background of their small apartment.
Sir Laugh-a-Lot's gets phone calls, a few letters with terrible grammar. Max jokes them off with cracks about Anthrax. He rhymes it with Tampax, at some point. On the upside, The Gassy Knoll, one of the premier comedy clubs in Dallas, is thinking about booking Max for two nights in December. They will send a representative. He gives Julie a Henry Ford quote but calls it a Hitler quote—that "all publicity is good publicity"—then uses it later at a show, mentioning his management's desire for him to tone it down a notch. This, he says, is his pre-emptive strike against conformity. The audience, larger than ever, now boos management like terrorism. Max gets a black eye, but he's his own attacker, head-butting the microphone stand after a rant about the American Taliban, high school nerd Johnny Walker Lindh.
"Kid goes halfway around the world to take out his aggression," Max laughs. "Score one for gumption, I guess!"
The head-butt reverberates, drawing laughs, shaking Julie.
"Minus two, though, for study abroad programs."
Seemingly embarrassed, Max slaps his cheeks red, then screams primal. The crowd hoots and hollers. With these new standards, he's furious, sweating and jumping and falling to his knees at times, bending the mike stand to a near snap, then pulling himself right at the last possible moment. He mentions the military support we've received from the forces around the world, questioning China's view from the sideline: "There's like a billion of 'em, right?" Then again, Max thinks, maybe the support we have isn't all it's cracked up to be. "Canada's helping us fight terror? Seriously?" he asks. "What? We gonna challenge the sand-people to a hockey match?" Max hardly bothers with the shit-eating Germans before moving to gay Paree. "France?" he asks. "The last time those faggots won a war was the French Revolution! And then they were fighting themselves!"
There's bickering mirth, before he turns the fight back home.
"But what about back here? Here we got some holes to cover up . . . right?" he asks the crowd about Ground Zero. "We need . . . memorials! Something grand! A powerful statement."
He offers suggestions, weakest arguments first.
"An Applebee's? Something Jewish?" he asks innocently. "Or, fight back with irony. How about a giant statue of Jesus and Allah arm-wrestling."
Claps where there should be chuckles.
"Okay then," he pounds his chest. "A great big target! We build a giant bulls-eye! We're a great big bulls-eye!"
He howls this last part over and over for effect. He towels off and pours his bottle of Evian over his head like a ballplayer, the bare part of his scalp slick, the Mohawk lathered. He rubs it tall, several times. He thanks the crowd, his voice cracking. He blows a kiss to Julie, like satire. She claps, too, sipping anxiously on drinks until he's ready to go. She wonders about the swelling of that eye.
She also wonders where Max finds this furious spirit. These acts he's worked himself into are wild-eyed relics from a time before she came along. At times, he's a wreck. He works himself up during the nightly news, coverage from aircraft carriers near Turkey then back to those pits in NYC, where the debris is sifted through daily. His eyes go mad following the strange update scroll at the bottom of the TV screen. "It's for the routine," he tells her, calming down, but Julie sees the destruction written all over his face.
But why now, she wonders. Why, period.
They had watched the aftermaths of the attacks together. He was off that morning, and Julie didn't have to go in until noon. She was finishing an article on Anne Heche's new tell-all; Max made a quip about career dykes. Then came history, over and over and over again, news in chunks and rumors. Julie called in sick with the rest of the country. Max fixed soup. The television channeled images of ruin, voices shocked with awe, then importance. When they grew fatigued by the coverage, Max flashed on the mute, and they rollicked respectfully on the carpet, where they burned holes of thankfulness through each other. Amid the fires raging, they had each other, it seemed. Life and security affirmed. They confided in each other that they'd been lucky to lose nothing.
How a plane like a missile can give you perspective, she'd thought.
And now Julie watches Max's stage rage fueled by metaphors of loss, his language graphic and cruel. At home, they fight regularly, Max forcing victories like he would on stage, then trickling back to himself, weary. As they fall asleep, she hears him weeping. When he's by himself, she believes he breaks things, imagining a whirling dervish of god-knows-what in their small apartment. Last week, she found the phone receiver in several pieces; Max says he accidentally stepped on it. At her own suggestion, she asks no questions. When the time comes for the paper to interview Max again, Julie passes the duty to someone else. Max seems relieved, and gives a nice interview.
The piece is titled, "The Healing Power of Fury." The picture features the Mohawk prominently. Max proclaims his material is "loss-driven, speaking to the wounds of longing, of memory." Under the photo is this quote: "We all have holes in our personal cities. We are full of them."
Then on stage, he mocks these self-made platitudes, in the guise of more platitudes. He replaces much of his better-plotted material with screaming repetition. The crowd begs for it. They fall blindly into the routine of uproar. They clap at simple, angrily stated lines they've heard again and again. Finally, Julie's unable to stomach more than one show a week. She waits up for him, drinking more than her share of wine, and worries about the wounds he'll bring home.
One night when he's not back long after the expected hour, Julie puts a jacket over her pajamas, frustrated and just drunk enough to walk the mile stretch between their apartment and Sir Laugh-a-Lot's. She's certain something's gone horribly wrong. Halfway, she spots Max's car at a gas station, where Max stands shivering at a pay phone. In the end, Julie's taken aback at the banality of the scene, stepping into the shadows off the sidewalk, while Max never notices. Even she'd let herself get carried away with the melodramatics, and had believed this would all end with fireworks. She wonders exactly what she's spotted, just in time to catch Max hang up the phone gently, stalk back to the car, then kick a dent in the door of his Cavalier.
Even drunk, it hits Julie that perspective only comes when something is finished.
For this night's performance, Max hustles on stage, late, carrying traces of a black eye and a fresh spot on his lip. His hair is growing out uneven. His shirt features the Twin Towers, an eagle, and the big block numbers of 9-11; on the back, his black felt message declares, "My Government Supports Israeli War Crimes and All I Got was this Lousy 9-11 T-Shirt." He tells the crowd about his meeting earlier with the rep from Gassy Knoll. He'll be doing a few nights there after Christmas. There are ridiculous cheers, and Max wishes someone would throw something at him.
"Of course, the rep wondered about this," he says, tapping the blue curl on his lip. "I told him he should see the other fucker's fist." He grins, and turns his five fingers into a ball. "Then I showed him."
Applause, but it's a lie. From the back of the club, beyond her reporter's cranny, Julie watches this deception from the outskirts of the largest crowd she's ever seen at Sir Laugh-a-Lot's. She knows Max actually whacked his lip after the meeting with the rep. Before the show, as Max was getting out of the car and she was ready to wait for him in the parking lot, Julie asked quietly, "It's Sarah, right?" She'd planned on it sounding stronger.
Max slipped his foot back in, and gently closed the door. He tilted his head. Julie had felt too drunk to talk about it the night before, when all the pieces had fallen logical. She'd thought it might lead to violence. She'd wanted to bring it up casually, but now she felt things might go too placid. Max carried a sad look, resignation.
"She called me after 9-11," he said.
"She called you?" Julie said, incredulous that he'd admitted it so freely.
"Shocked me, too," he said. "Tracked down my number. Maybe a week after the eleventh. The flags were still halfway down."
Julie listened, staring out into a parking lot, where the car's headlights cut a swath through the bustle.
"She told me that it was weird but she'd been calling everyone she'd ever known," Max says, laughing. "I figured it was another way she could show me how random I am."
Julie didn't budge. His story grew easier to follow.
"Anyway," Max said, "she's telling me how shaken she is. Then she throws me little snippets of her life. That she's still with Chuck. That she's worried he'll be called into duty . . . and she was crying, Julie. Crying. So I told her I was worried, too. About it all. This world gone so crazy . . . and it kept her talking. It kept her on that line."
Julie felt his turn coming. "So what's the punch-line, Max?"
He glared at her, then smiled. "Well," he says, "it was bullshit for me. I used that shit just to keep her on the phone, this voice out of nowhere. And I'll be damned if it didn't fucking work . . . like I'd hit the lottery. All of the sudden she was telling me that she felt the same way, over and over, and that she'd even thought of me that morning, out of nowhere, and we talked about all those poor fucking dead people, right? And I went right along with it."
"And in this moment of weakness she gave you her number."
"Biggest mistake she'll ever make twice," Max laughed.
"But now you've taken it too far. She doesn't want these calls to continue, right?"
"And you think this is where your pain comes from?"
After a pause, Max said, "Seems like it."
Julie let out her own bold laugh. She told him of her conclusions about perspective. That it only comes when things are over.
"Except for me, is what you're saying."
"I'm not talking about you at all, Max. This perspective is all mine. I've never seen this clearer."
He took in her words. "So what's over?"
"Us, Max. Us. Because that's where this destruction is coming from."
Max looked shocked, confused by not knowing what lines came next.
"Your loss isn't national, Max. It isn't even personal. It's selfish. And our relationship only reminds you of what you don't have . . . and, well, I can't compete with a past that evolves nightly."
Soon they both had tears, real or not. But when Max tried to go theatrical, and put his head to his knees, he accidentally smacked his lip on the dashboard.
"No," Julie said calmly. "No, Max."
He shook, then went to her shoulder, staining her blouse with his gory lip. When the bleeding stopped, Julie told him she was sorry this had to come out now. "But it had to come out," she said.
Max looked stronger when he pulled away. Maybe, she thought, he's already working this into something. Sadly, she'd never felt closer to him. She said, "I'll be out here until the show's over."
He left without a word, and, despite what she knew, Julie finally couldn't keep herself from tonight's routine. Now she watches Max look down the front of his shirt, underlining the date with his finger.
"Have you forgotten?" he admonishes them. "Let's have a moment of silence for all that we've lost . . . "
Julie feels a ping of flattery, but tries to block it out. The audience doesn't know what to do until Max breaks into a grin.
"I hear it, though. September, right? It really gave us a lot to think about. It really . . . put . . . things . . . in . . . perspective!"
He scatters grains of spit when he uses the letter P. Then he misdirects the build-up for a moment, wiping his lips and apologizing to those sprayed in the front row. He tells them he's the new Gallagher. Then he shakes his head, dripping perspiration, dog showering those who just laughed away his apology. Julie waits anxiously.
Max says, "We needed to see those images. We need to see that first plane . . . boom! Boom, I say! It shows us how lucky we are to be alive, right! It shows us what we have to be thankful for. But seriously . . . it really just made me thankful I didn't have a job on the 78th floor. Thankful I didn't end up as sidewalk chili on the one day suicide doesn't really single you out from the crowd, the one day you can't get a little personal sympathy."
He wipes the sweat from his eyes and looks to Julie's old spot, which is taken by a couple of hippy looking kids. Max frowns; Julie steps back, deeper into the shadows.
"Perspective?! That's like needing to get raped to appreciate sex," he announces. "Exactly how fucked is your life if you need 9-god damn 11 to gain a little perspective?"
He threatens his tender lip, fist hovering near his face like a ghost
"To know," Max screams, "what comfort feels like . . ? Well, I guess I need this." He punches his chest. Julie shakes her head. "To know what breath feels like, well . . . " He wraps the mike cord around his throat and starts to pull. The audience is vibrant, and he pulls tighter until they should beg him to stop. They wait, though. His face goes red, his eyes bulge a little. One final time, Julie steps out of the shadows, ready to save him. But he lets go soon enough, his air coming back in a burst, as does that of the audience, a sigh floating out among smoke and drinks.
You don't need saving, Julie continues to understand, when it's all part of the act.
Max stares into the crowd, past them, intent in his brow. He stares, waiting for the next movement to come to him. The crowd, uncomfortable with the idleness, starts to clap. He stares, a mad smirk forming under a swelling lip. There are jeers, like balance.
"Okay," Max says, voice charred. "Let's talk about loss . . . let's talk about that. We can joke about that now."
And, as Julie slips past the pool tables and to the front door, Max continues to do just that.