The Good Times
Robert Beaumont used his new library card to sign out Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Thus he established himself as a card-carrying borrower, having heard recently that vagrants might be given the bum’s rush. The public library was one of his favorite places to escape the Florida sun or, on winter days like this, to keep warm. He chose a comfortable chair by a window overlooking Sarasota Bay.
The book, an old favorite, brought up memories. The year it came out, 1957, was a good year for stand-up comics. In fact, he had started making his entrances with a timely song from the year before:
Come on, baby, let the good times roll.
Come on, baby, let me thrill your soul . . .
He would stagger out to the clatter of drums, cowbells, cymbals, and gong. They loved his drunk act, ate it up. Drunks were funny in those days. Wearing a battered hat, brim pulled down all around, thumbs hooked in his loose suspenders, he would rock a little on his heels and point to someone in the front row. “I know you. I know all three of you.” And leaning forward, he would wag his finger and confide, “But I won’t tell anybody.” Another flurry of fanfare . . .
Robert Beaumont closed his eyes, shutting out the glare from the water. He recalled his first contact with Rita Molone, a magician’s assistant billed as Charmaine. They were alone in the dingy dressing room of a roadhouse midway between Washington and Baltimore. The three-way mirror dimly reflected the Comic and the young woman.
There was something wrong with his bow tie. He experimented, finally leaving it untied. To test the effect, he assumed an alcoholic stance and tried some one-liners.
“My wife didn’t know I drank—till one night I came home sober.
“I’ve been drunk for three days—yesterday, today and tomorrow.”
Behind him the woman said, “Hey, lover boy, you don’t need to practice your act; it’s a natural.” Maybe she wasn’t so indifferent, after all. He watched her pull off her dress in the shadows.
“I’ve got to practice being couth,” he said above the roar from Route 1. “I’m stepping out tonight.”
“Gee, who’s the victim?”
“You,” he replied on impulse. He had watched Morgan the Magician saw her in half, but that was all he really knew of their relationship. Maybe it was only professional.
“Sorry,” she said, “I never date baggy pants comedians.”
“Can I help it if my mother was frightened by a kangaroo?”
She stepped forth in a gypsy blouse and spangled tights and bent backward to check a stocking. He fully approved of the view. She went over to the rabbit cage. “Here, make yourself useful,” she said, enclosing the rabbit in a tube. “Strap Pete to my arm.”
“I wear baggy pants, you wear baggy sleeves. What’s the difference?”
She opened the left sleeve. As he attached the tube to her forearm, she said, “Your wife might see a difference.” She fastened the sleeve, adjusted the slit through which the magician’s hand would pass, and flourished her arms. Then she nudged him away from the mirror and clasped her long blond hair with a rhinestone barrette.
“She doesn’t care what I do,” he said, realizing that it sounded like the world’s oldest con. “But don’t get me started. I might forget what I’m out there for and break into Pagliacci.”
She looked up at him, interrupting their banter. “If you mean it, I’ll meet you later. He’s going to Cleveland after the show.” She heard her cue and went out.
He took off his hat and pushed back his thinning hair. The Comic, a growing part of Robert Beaumont, had vanished, and in his place was the Clean-Cut Young Man. He stood straight, smiling, radiating confidence—but it was a confidence he didn’t feel.
As the Clean-Cut Young Man, he had spent a year in college before Jimmy’s birth had put an end to that luxury. The role still served him as a paint salesman, enabling him to support a wife, three children, his mother and grandmother, and temporarily (he hoped) his sister and her family. But now the role itself seemed threatened.
Inevitably the Family Man emerged. He didn’t smile at the sarcasm. In fact, his whole demeanor projected gloom. He was tied to a diabolically wrongheaded woman—one whose laziness and obstinacy had reached nightmarish proportions. Her only excuse was that he was never home, as though he did these gigs for kicks. He sat down at a littered dressing table immersed in his woes.
Presently he heard the MC announce “that lion of international society, that debonair paragon of sobriety, Bob Beaumont!” His pulse quickened.
He trotted out to a few bars of the theme. It was better than the stagger: he had to get the easel in place. As the band wept “Show Me the Way to Go Home,” he shuffled around the small stage, peering blearily at the audience. The trumpet went out laughing.
Cigarette smoke whirled in the spotlight. Though a little nervous, the Comic felt a thrill that was like power. He clutched the mike and presently made a long, hoarse noise as if trying to find his voice. It was disarming and never failed to get a laugh. “What the hell did you expect?—King Faruk!” Glaring accusingly, he surprised himself with a hiccup.
“Ladies and gen’lemen, I beg your indulgence. I indulge, so why shouldn’t you? No, you’re very, very nice people to put up with all this. And all that rain out there. You know, I dropped in here to dry out, a couple of days ago. Got as far as the bar and I haven’t dried out yet.”
The band played the opening measures of “Tiger Rag” while he staggered around and stopped at the easel. He produced a half-pint bottle and pretended to take a swig. “I want you to know I drink for medic’nal purposes only. I’m sick of being sober!” He fumbled in a pocket and got out a grease pencil. “Please excuse the crayon. Where I’ve been, they won’t let us have anything sharper.”
Then peering at them, “I suppose you wonder why I sent for you tonight.” That caught them unaware, piling laugh on laugh. The band did four bars of “Changes” and a flashbulb flashed. He was wound up and no longer tense. It was Saturday night, the joint was packed, and he was off to a swinging start.
A drunk on the sidelines called out, “Hey, why don’t you do som’n funny.”
Stop and stare at him. Be thankful for audience participation. “Folks, I want you to meet a man with a wonderful future behind him.”
The audience was with him, but the drunk persisted. “You bug me.”
Looking around, the Comic said, “You know, here’s a guy who really picks his friends—to pieces!” A few bars of “Chicago” delivered the coup de grâce.
He drew a wavy line on the pad of paper, but abandoned it to tell the one about the scientist who cloned himself, but didn’t like the clone because he had a foul mouth so he pushed him off a roof. He was charged with making an obscene clone fall.
Groans. Look wounded. On to the mental patient who pretended to be fishing off the asylum wall. Asked if he had caught anything, he said, “You’re the first one today.” Laughter again. He had them going. It wasn’t what you said, it was the way you said it. For a moment he slipped out of character and flashed the clean-cut smile.
It was time to proceed with the sketches, which were harder to pace than gags.
“I met a girl once and I thought she was very beautiful.” He drew another wavy line, the two suggesting a woman’s partly turned torso. “Then I married her and got a real good look.” He drew a curved line between the others, obviously a breast, and placed a large dot, a nipple, on the outline opposite. “Real good look . . . You know what I saw? Well, I’m gonna show you.” Another dot . . . a few more lines . . . some shading . . . and the voluptuous torso had become the head of a poodle, with the dots as nose and eye. “You don’t believe I married a dog? Well, you gotta meet my wife.”
His heart was in that one, though in reality her looks were okay. He lurched around with the easel, showing it to right and left. As the applause subsided, the band struck up “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” Cupping his hands, the Comic peered at the sketch as if through plate glass—and again the applause rose. He was hot tonight!
“Give me a number from one to ten. . . .” Soon the digits formed the face of an old sot. Then a quick sketch of a baby, to which he added a few lines while philosophizing on the burdens of life. When he tore off the sheet and turned it upside down, they saw a foxy grandpa. “They say a man is only as old as he looks. I say if he only looks, he’s old.”
And he topped that with an ancient jingle out of burlesque:
“It’s not the gray hair that makes a man old,
Nor the faraway look in his eye, so I’m told;
But when the mind makes a contract the body can’t fill,
You’re over the hill, brother, over the hill!”
As he signed the last drawing and gave it to eager hands, he could see that everyone was having a good time. The former hecklers were applauding the loudest. Amid the fanfare, he took off the battered hat and made his bow. Before them stood the Clean-Cut Young Man. He had given of himself. And they had taken him to heart.
After the show he sat at a table and ordered beer. Rita, in a knitted dress and low-heel shoes, joined him. He was still exhilarated. “How did it go? Was I good?”
“You were great,” she said—“really great. That act could make the big time.”
The thought had immense appeal. Why not dream? After all, many stars had come up this way. His name in lights: Broadway, Vegas, television, films . . .
Or, short of all that, just to be on the road. To earn enough to support his family while living apart. Of course, he’d want to see the children from time to time and avert the total collapse of his marriage. After tonight’s row over Linda’s absence of affection, it seemed their only hope.
The band racked up and the juke box played an oldie. He danced with Rita. The scent of her hair, the shapely young body, and that plaintive refrain recalled his youth. Where had the years gone?
“Shall I tell you what I’ve been thinking?” asked Rita at length. “I think you need me in your act.”
“Oh, sure. You in baggy sleeves, me in baggy pants—”
“No . . . imitations of old-time vaudeville. You know—vanishing America. And maybe a slapstick bit, like a Mack Sennett movie. We could call it ‘Trends in Burlesque’ or something.”
“Not bad,” he said. “You’ve got a good imagination.” They ordered more beer and elaborated her idea, and he said how much he wanted to be on the road. This led to the matter that was always on his mind—his wife’s failings. In fact, he was so hungry for a sympathetic ear that he poured out much more than he intended.
Rita kept saying, “I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it.”
He realized that she was being very responsive, that no one, in fact, could really be so interested in his troubles. He wanted to sign off, but the topic forced its own way.
The most burdensome aspect at present derived from aiding his sister. Alice needed all the help he could give, with her two children, an invalid mother, and a grandmother to care for. True, her husband had been working. But Al was a ne’er-do-well, a thirty-six-year-old juvenile delinquent, and worst of all a bigamist wanted in two states. His total earnings at the gas station fell drastically short of the family’s needs. And it was Linda’s irrational contribution that made the problem acute.
“Do I read you right?” said Rita. “Linda, your wife, is taking care of their kids?”
“Exactly. You see, I offered to keep them going while Al looked for a decent-paying job. I told him to quit the station—they don’t pay for time off—and take my car and start looking. Well, he’s been at it now for two months.”
“And how did Linda get involved?”
“That was something she and my sister cooked up. Alice got a job in a supermarket, where she makes all of forty dollars a week. Meanwhile, Linda takes my car over to Al every morning and spends the day at their house. Fortunately, I get the car back in the evenings to make a few more bucks and keep the whole ship afloat."
“I just can’t believe it!” said Rita, this time with feeling.
Presently he left and drove toward Washington, detouring to take Rita home. The rain had stopped, but the cars and trucks threw back a dirty mist. In the distance the city smoldered like a battlefield.
When Rita had found her key, she opened the door and faced him. Her voice was husky as she invited him in. He felt a visceral surge at the prospect. But he told her he was depressed and would rather make it another time. He didn’t, of course, disclose his reluctance to cheat on Linda. In that respect, at least, they were still intact.
At his own apartment building, he mounted the stairs on legs unsteady with fatigue. He paused when he saw the door of his apartment ajar and heard Linda’s voice. Then he glimpsed a man’s arm and leg, and heard Linda say, “Be careful going out.” Merely puzzled at that point, Robert Beaumont stepped forward—but halted. For they were in the doorway, Linda and Al, absorbed in an ardent kiss.
* * *
Later he watched from across the street as Al mounted a motorcycle and coasted to the corner before blasting off. Robert Beaumont reentered the building. Disembodied, he passed through the hall and up the stairs. He found himself in the bedroom staring at Linda’s back as she sat in pajamas brushing her hair. Red hair, like Tennessee mud. He took in the scrambled bedroom, the unmade bed. With any other woman, that would be proof enough—but Linda seldom made beds. Well, he’d get to the truth or wring her neck.
“What’s been going on?” he hurled.
“What do you mean, what’s been going on?”
“With you and Al. Don’t give me any crap; I saw you with my own eyes.”
She rose slowly, her face gray and blotchy. Her mouth opened and she shook her head. Even the familiar blocking of her speech infuriated him now. “Well, speak up!”
“He came here because the police are after him,” she stammered.
“Oh! Just a friendly visit because the police are on his tail for having more women than the law allows, is that it? And you take him to bed in a weak moment with the kids sleeping all over the place. Will you please explain why you’d have anything to do with that miserable loser, which nobody but my poor, dumb sister would’ve even looked at.”
“There’s nothing to explain. Obviously I’m in love with Al, and when you love somebody it hardly matters what you do. I loved you once, back when you were decent to me, so you ought to know. Does that answer your questions?”
His impulse to strike her found partial expression in a volley of curses. She stood gazing at the dark window. At length she said, “You can always leave, you know. It wouldn’t be as though Al had taken anything from you, since it wasn’t here to take. Let’s admit the fire went out a long time ago.”
He closed his eyes against the merciless truth, but still refused to believe that another had taken his place. Grimly he went into the living room and collapsed on the sofa. Burying his face, he wept in silent, aching sobs.
He woke at dawn and rose on tired legs, glancing at his son on the cot. Fourteen. How much did he know? He passed the room where the girls slept—Betty, now eleven, and Charlotte three—and the knife took another twist. The other bedroom was vacant. Linda had slipped out during the night.
Mechanically he went into the bathroom to shave. The unfamiliar ravaged face in the mirror was shocking, and he had a dull headache. The children used the toilet one by one. Sleepily Betty asked, "Where's Mommy?” and seemed to accept that she had gone out somewhere. He told her to fix some cereal and instant coffee. Presently he stood at the living room window, cup in hand, and gazed out at his car, which Linda had discreetly left.
With Betty gone to meet the school bus and Charlotte parked with a reluctant neighbor, Robert Beaumont offered Jimmy a ride to school. He sensed that the boy was troubled. “You must know about Mom and Al,” he said, starting the car. “Maybe you can tell me how long it’s been going on.”
The averted face was eloquent confirmation. He even saw pity for himself as well as shame and embarrassment. Why did the children have to know? To avoid unleashing his rancor against the boy’s mother, he tried to change the subject. But Jimmy said, “Dad, can’t you talk some sense into her? She might be getting ready to—” Here he paused, swallowed hard, and said, “Aw, nuts!” before blurting, “She even asked me and Betty how we’d like to have Uncle Al for our father.”
“I’ll try to talk to her,” Robert Beaumont replied, numbed by this latest revelation. He let Jimmy off at the school, reading in his eyes how much a fourteen-year-old still needed his two parents.
He drove on to Al’s. Small faces—children’s and his grandmother’s—peered through the windows, and two urchins ran to meet him as he mounted the sagging porch. Al came to the door in a soiled undershirt that hung loosely over his concave chest.
“Al, let’s take a ride. We’ve got something to talk over.”
He drove a block or so and parked just beyond the railroad trestle. “I’ll come right to the point, Al,” he said. “Linda admits that you two have been hitting the sack. I’ve got a family to think about—a rather extended family—and I’d just like to know what you and my wife have in mind.”
“I never went after her, I swear. She hit on me.”
Al Plass was a compulsive liar, but for once he might be telling the truth. “All right, Al, give me the rest. Are you planning to run out?”
“Hell no, Robert. I ain’t goin’ nowhere, you know that. But you oughta kick that no-good woman of yours—”
“That’s for me to say,” he retorted, sick of being patronized.
Sick. Sick of everything—of supporting two families that were draining his lifeblood, of seeing his children brought up like toothpaste squeezed out of a tube, of knowing that his second marriage had failed as dismally as his first. Sick of roadhouses and wholesale paint. Sick of the entire American culture, with its folk-singing heart in Nashville, the home of country music and his ever-loving wife.
She was at the apartment when he arrived. He saw her in the kitchen as he hugged the frightened girls. Then he stood at the kitchen door while she rooted under the counter. The television blared behind him. Already furious, he grew more so as she went on rattling pans. At length he shouted at her and she stood up, facing him with a look of concern.
“I think Charlotte hid my purse,” she said. “I need it to get Jimmy from the police station.”
“What do you mean? What’s he doing there?”
“He was caught with some older boys stripping cars.”
So it had come to that! Should he be surprised? It was homes like this—parents like Linda and himself—that bred juvenile delinquency and mental illness. “I had a little talk with him this morning. You’ve really got the kid screwed up, but good.”
“Like you didn’t have anything to do with it.”
Flaring into rage, he hit her hard across the face with his open hand. “I don’t have to take anything off you!” he bit out, striking her again. She fell back against the sink with a stunned look, her arms raised in a feeble effort to ward off blows. When he saw blood at the corner of her mouth, he stopped in horror at his own lack of control. She turned away, choking back tears.
He hadn’t meant to do it. It was the first time he had ever struck a woman, and he knew it was wrong. He also knew there could be no reconciliation. For he could stand a great deal, forget and forgive a great deal; but infidelity—never! He glared at her in disgust as she watched her blood drip on the sink. In the living room, Betty tried to calm Charlotte, who was screaming nonstop. “I’ll get Jimmy,” he said.
It was then that Linda lurched to the telephone on the kitchen wall and hastily dialed. He paused at the front door. A moment later he heard her say with rare fervor, “Al—come and get me; I need you . . . No, I’m leaving right now.” There was a pause, and then in tones so hoarse as to be almost a whisper, “No, tomorrow’s too late. It has to be now, honey.” And finally, “But you said— You said . . .”
After a long pause, Linda entered his view, sinking into a chair at the kitchen table. She dropped her face on her arm.
Driving home from the police station, he said to his son, “Well, you might as well give me your version.” Jimmy told an involved story that left him in a rather bad light. By the time they reached the apartment, Robert Beaumont had only managed to elicit a promise that his son would drop the bad company. There were tears in his eyes as he watched the boy shuffle up the walk. A short time ago, Jimmy had been an infant with a genius for mechanics and a limitless future.
Thoughtfully he drove to Rita Molone’s.
* * *
Their agent’s car was just leaving as he pulled up. Slipping into his arms, Rita beamed with excitement. “It’s in the bag, lover boy. We get three weeks to work on our act. Then we do the audition in New York and it’s off to Chicago and Vegas.” She had taken their plans seriously and forged ahead.
He mixed substantial drinks, turned out the light, and sat down beside her on the sofa. His fantasies of the last several days were becoming reality. He clasped her waist and moved closer. She went on talking as though preoccupied. He waited awhile for a pause, then abruptly kissed her, and she returned his kiss and his impassioned embrace.
In the bedroom a necktie rack on the door confirmed that her partner lived here. Robert Beaumont didn’t flinch. A tenderness for Rita came over him, not generated, it seemed, by whiskey. It could mean that tonight marked a beginning, that there was a place in his life for Rita as a person. There was also the pain, and a bitter urge to retaliate.
Unlike Linda, she was animated in love making. Alcohol prolonged his pleasure, and Rita’s passion was balm to his shattered ego.
The next morning, Linda phoned him at work. At first she seemed remote, and he heard himself speaking as though to a stranger. She seldom called him at the plant. Curiosity or suspicion began to draw him back to reality.
“Are you coming home this evening?” she asked in her usual monotone.
“I’m not sure I know where that is anymore.”
“Well, say yes or no. I’ll put a ham in the oven if you are.”
“That would be novel. It’s good you told me because I’d expect to find dishes in the sink and you keeping house for my sister—and of course Al.”
“Maybe I like to keep house, did you ever think of that? I didn’t hear any complaints over there.”
“I guess not. So, you want me to come home for dinner.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“What doesn’t matter?”
“I don’t want you to feel you have an obligation to me, Robert. You don’t have to come home if you don’t want to.”
“Did you call to give me a bad time?”
“I called to see if you wanted us, I guess. But don’t try to make me crawl, because I’m not good at that either. Just say whether you’ll be here for dinner.”
“All right, I’ll be there.”
That evening, she called him and the children to the table as though nothing had happened, and he moved a stack of laundry and sat down. She had actually cooked a ham. The children were quiet, probably awed to see the family assemble for a meal.
“The potatoes fell all apart,” Linda said. “You’ll have to get them up with a spoon.”
He decided to let it go. There must be a reason for the way she was. Maybe, somehow, it was his fault. Would she really be able to cook better if she had a decent stove? He was surprised to find she had baked a sort of cake.
After dinner he lied that he had to do a show in Richmond. He packed a bag, kissed the children, and went out. He told himself she couldn’t erase infidelity by cooking one meal and pretending that bygones were bygones. Could he desert them? Of course he could—just as she had deserted him.
He stopped at the liquor store to buy a half pint. He passed a phone booth on the way in, and paused by it on the way out. His life-changing decision, fraught with anticipation and gut-wrenching pain, had already given way to one less drastic. He had been struck with the idea of leasing a house, one that would give Linda no cause for complaint. A big, old house with lots of rooms, just in case Mom and Granny . . .
He called the real estate agent and learned that a house they had discussed was still available for rent with an option to buy. It amused him to add, “I like the sound of the kitchen; my wife has decided to take up cooking.”
* * *
Later that evening, he instructed the band to repeat his theme song while he placed the easel. The fanfare alerted the audience. He sang out as the theme faded, “Come on, baby, let the good times roll. . . .
“That song does something to me inside,” he said with a hiccup. “It makes me sick.”
As he staggered to the easel, he put the bottle to his lips. This time it was real whiskey. He swallowed the last golden drop and flung the bottle into the wings. “Let’s get drunk and be somebody!” he shouted, thinking of his own abandoned hopes.
“I’ve been drunk for three days. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow.” It was a car salesmen’s convention; they’d laugh at anything. They were laughing because they were as stupid as he was pathetic. But their laughter was still music to his ears.
Rocking on his heels, he pulled out the pants in front. “I bought this suit at Sears. It’s one of them seersucker suits.” Then he looked down. They thought that was hilarious—and the gag that followed. “As the fly said as he crossed the mirror, that’s just another way of looking at it.”
The artwork was a little slow for this bunch, but they went for the one-liners. As he drew toward the close, he delivered them in quick succession.
“Did you see in tonight’s paper where two old maids got on a drunk—and damn near killed him?
“I’ve got a beautiful wife. Trouble is, her husband wants her back.
“You know, if I had to do it all over again, I’d do it all over you.”
The band played a few fast bars of “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and the Comic reeled back to the easel. He started to pull off the battered hat—to offer what was left of the Clean-Cut Young Man—but decided against it. “Folks, I used to sign out like this,” he said, printing a large B. “But why not admit I’m a horse’s ass? From now on, this is gonna be my signature.” He turned the B on its back and drew a bushy tail down the middle. With a martyred expression, he added, “Why are there so many more of these than there are horses?”
Then he printed in large letters under the drawing—
Author’s note: All of the characters in this story are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Two lines from “Let the Good Times Roll” are copied from The Musicians Fake Book, copyright © 1991 CPP/Belwin, Inc., 15800 N.W. 48th Ave., Miami, FL 33014.
Bill Carrigan had a long career as interpretive writer and
editor for medical research institutions. Now retired, he lives in Sarasota,
Florida, and writes mainly fiction. Five novels may
be sampled at his website. Bill keeps in close touch with his two daughters,
reads widely, and heads a fiction writers’ critique group.
Copyright 2003-2006 AntiMuse