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Collages by Joanna Neborsky

Collages by Joanna Neborsky

Manny hadn’t opened the blinds in a week. There were too many windows in his brownstone, and he feared paparazzi might be hanging around the block. Though, in all honesty, it wasn’t just that: natural light depressed him too. Always had. He came to life only at sunset, when someone—or, most likely, something: a sensor, an algorithm—turned the streetlights on.

Maybe he should move to Iceland, Manny thought. More nighttime there. Iceland for the winter, then the South Pole in summer, whatever city they had near there. This reminded him of something stupid he’d seen on Twitter. (Everything did.) Someone had tweeted that, in an effort to be more inclusive, Americans should stop using “Northern Hemisphere–specific seasonal language,” because people had to be aware that what was summer for them wasn’t summer for everybody else. The person suggested we use only month names from now on, or refer to chunks of time by quarter number—Q1, Q2, and so forth. A lot of people had congratulated the person on her idea, but then someone had ridiculed it, responding that another tiny inclusive thing we could do as a species was avoid heliocentric temporal language entirely, and simply replace today’s date with “Stardate 36992.4.8,” for example. This had made Manny both laugh and want to shoot himself in the face. Not because the original tweet confirmed how stupid the world was becoming, but because it had taken someone else only four minutes to come up with and type out the Stardate response. Manny thought people were too fast now. Jokes were coming in too fast. He didn’t use Twitter himself and didn’t understand comedians who did. Why would they kill a joke instantly by giving it to the whole world at once? And for free? Although there was something admirable there, in a way. These people had to believe the well would never go dry, that jokes would just keep on coming and coming. He wished he had that kind of faith in himself. Was the new generation just better? More confident? The Stardate guy wasn’t even a comedian, Manny didn’t think. Probably just someone bored at work.

Manny had talked about it with Bill Burr once, why Burr was releasing good material for free all the time on his podcast, and Burr had said Manny was an idiot: of course he wasn’t doing it for free. Still. Twitter, a podcast, those were not venues for comedy. Good material was for the stage. Live TV, perhaps. It was for a physical audience, first and foremost. If you couldn’t hear a laugh, the joke was wasted. And as long as you could tell it and hear new people laugh, it was still alive. That’s why comedians before radio, before TV, had been able to sell their jokes to younger performers when they retired. Not everyone had heard them yet. Not that Manny would ever want to buy a joke from someone else, just that that was how it used to be. The business changed all the time.

His ex-wife called. She’d been calling once a day since the first scandal (the beating at the Comedy Strip), twice since the second (the marriage proposals), to check on him. Rachel called in the morning, to make sure Manny wasn’t too hungover, and again in the dead of the afternoon (which she knew had always been the worst time of day for him), in an attempt to delay the hour at which he’d start drinking.

“I’m not going to quit,” Manny told her. “You know that. I don’t believe in that.”

“You don’t believe in sobriety?”

“All the AA bullshit. It’s too extreme.”

He’d actually started and abandoned a bit about AA years ago. It was based on an actor he’d met at a charity event who’d gone onstage to tell his story and kept repeating he’d been sober “a year—a little over, in fact.” He’d given the audience the exact number of days, and everyone had applauded. Manny had, too (he wasn’t an asshole), but really, as he was clapping, he’d wondered why the number mattered. The way he understood the whole “one day at a time” motto was that every day of sobriety was so excruciating that it didn’t help to think about the future, and yet AA gave you color-coded chips to mark the length of your sobriety, certain anniversaries, and there was a contradiction there, to Manny’s mind. It seemed greedy to want people to know both the endlessness of your pain and how much of that endlessness you’d gone through already. And what did the chips even mean? If you never recovered but were always recovering, if you could slip at any moment and all there was to do was get to the end of a day without drinking and the next morning the clock started all over again, then who cared how long you’d been suffering? You don’t stop Sisyphus to ask how long he’s been doing this business with the stone. Or you could, but there wouldn’t be much to do with his answer.

“It’s not like I beat up women when I’m drunk,” he told his ex-wife on the phone.

“I know. It’s the timing. It’s making people conflate all the stories,” Rachel said.

“I just propose marriage to them,” Manny said. “Apparently.”

“Some would argue that’s worse.”

“Don’t give in to this shit, Rach. Words hurting more than physical violence. You’re smarter than this.”

“I was making a joke.”

“Leave the jokes to me.”

Why was he being such a dick? It was nice of Rachel to call. Rachel had always been good to him.

“I’m sorry,” he said, and he asked about their son. “Has August heard back from Boothe yet?”

August would take the bar exam in February. In the meantime, he was interning at Boothe, Bloom and Boghosian in Chicago. He’d been waiting to hear if they’d let him assist in the courtroom on the Delgado trial, which was starting tomorrow.

“Still waiting,” Rachel said. “He’s pretty confident they’ll say yes, though.”

Where did that confidence come from? Manny wondered. Certainly not from him. And Rachel wasn’t a glass-half-full type either. None of the role models they’d picked for August had been.

“Did you tell him I was moving to Chicago for a few months?”

Rachel didn’t respond right away.

“They still want you to teach there?”

“Of course,” Manny said. “They’re reasonable people. They understand the situation is absurd.”

Rachel took another second.

“I don’t want to tell Auggie anything about Chicago unless you’re absolutely certain you’re going,” she said.

Manny thought he shouldn’t have mentioned August. When he did, their conversations started sounding like after-school specials.

“He’s twenty-six years old,” Manny said. “He can take it if there’s a change of plans.”

Manny and his son hadn’t talked much the past few years. A handful of emails, birthday calls, a couple of strained days around Christmas every year. Rachel was convinced it had to do with the divorce, that August was mad at his father for cheating on her, but Manny wanted to believe his son simply had a life to live. It was so unusual, someone living his own life, not judging the way other people did it. He told Rachel she should stop protecting him so much.

“How about you start?” Rachel said.

Manny knew all the money he’d put into his son’s education didn’t make him a good father, so he didn’t mention it, but the soundproof walls in the basement so August could play the drums, the martial-arts lessons, the French tutor, all the books he wanted . . . didn’t that count as protection, too?

“Your son is blowing big-shot lawyers to be first row on a fucking murder trial, and you think he needs some kind of psychological preparation before he sees his father?”

“It’s a Ponzi-scheme trial,” Rachel said. “Not murder.”

“Didn’t the guy’s daughter die too?”

“Suicide. Unrelated. And don’t talk about Auggie like that. He’s not blowing anyone. He works very hard.”

Manny knew Rachel would’ve hung up on him just a few weeks ago for the “blowing” comment.

“All I’m saying is, I’m a fucking cliché,” he said. “Not a monster. There’s a big difference.”

“At least he’s on your side in all this,” Rachel said.

“Is he?”

“He says these women have no case against you.”

That was different from being on his side, Manny thought.

“What about me breaking Shitlip’s nose?”

“Auggie says if Lipschitz doesn’t sue, there’s no reason not to go back to your life.”

Manny respected that his son saw the world through a specialized prism. Even if that prism was law. At least it wasn’t social media. August didn’t claim to know everything, the way other kids his age did. He had one area of expertise, he knew to stick to it, and that was perhaps the best you could hope for—for your child to know enough about one thing that they could recognize the things they didn’t know about. It had been hard for Manny, though, to accept his son’s career choice. As an artist, you were supposed to say you didn’t want your kid to follow in your footsteps, it was such a hard and unfair world, so unpredictable, and you didn’t want your baby to suffer and be rejected all the time, the way you had been, etc., but then when your son became a lawyer, you had to wonder where you fucked up, what he saw in you that disgusted him so much.

“Still,” Manny said to Rachel. “I think I’ll have to apologize. No way around it.”

“I’m sure Auggie would love that,” Rachel said.

“I was talking about a public apology.”


“What would I have to apologize to August for? I cheated on you back then, not him.”

“Never mind,” Rachel said. “I misunderstood you. Public apology, yes, that’s a good idea. You’ll have to address the drinking thing, too, for sure. All three women said you drank a lot. Do you have a draft you want me to look at?”

Of course he didn’t have a draft. When his agent had first suggested he apologize about Lipschitz, Manny had asked to think about it, and in the time it had taken him to think about it, the women had come forward with their stories of marriage proposals, and now he didn’t know what he was supposed to apologize for. If he wrapped it all up in the same statement, it would add to the confusion. People would also think he’d been violent to the women. His head was exploding. He’d been worried for a week that he had brain cancer and these were the symptoms—frequent headaches, punching guys at comedy clubs. He’d cried a couple of times, too, since the shitstorm had started. In fact, he’d wanted to cry at the Strip when Lipschitz had called him washed-up, a dinosaur. It was because Manny had wanted to cry that he’d punched him. He’d punched him in order not to cry. Maybe crying was a symptom. He tried to chase the cancer thoughts away, like he’d been doing for days.

“I don’t have a draft,” he told Rachel. “Michelle keeps telling me the agency has ‘apology specialists’ that can write one for me. I think she’s getting impatient.”

“Maybe you should listen to her.”

“I don’t want anyone to ever write anything on my behalf. And I’m okay apologizing for the punch. It’s the marriage proposals that I’m not apologizing for. That shit’s ridiculous. Also, I didn’t propose. I didn’t say, ‘Will you marry me?’ I don’t think I said that. I probably said, ‘Maybe we should get married.’ That’s what I usually say. As you may recall. ‘Maybe we should get married’ is very different. You’re the first person I said it to who took it seriously, by the way. Everyone does now. Everyone’s so fucking serious. You were ahead of your time.”

“Don’t be an asshole,” Rachel said. “Don’t pretend you were joking when you proposed to me.”

“You’ll never know.”

He promised her he wouldn’t drink until he had a draft of an apology, and that he would send it to her.

“I’ll show it to Auggie then,” Rachel said. “If that’s okay.”

What could Manny say? August would have to see it anyway.

“Brilliant,” he said. “We can work on it as a family. Create new memories.”

They hung up. Manny opened Word on his computer. He’d judged all public apologies so harshly before, the same words for everyone. Now it was his turn, and he couldn’t find better ones. The problem was, he had to keep it bland, he thought. You couldn’t be funny in an apology, or try to be clever. Apologies had become mere phatic functions of language, automatic responses no one really paid attention to, or noticed, unless they never came. Dullness was the goal. The reader/witness of the apology had to forget that the apologizer was a real person, and apologizing a hard thing to do. Manny wrote:

I’m an idiot, have always been an idiot.

He wrote about his childhood, how hard it had been, and how he realized that the amount of anger he carried was perhaps a form of disease. He struck the word “disease.” Claiming a disease was making excuses, not apologizing. The key was for people to come out of this thinking he had a disease without him having to say the word. Which should be easy to do, he thought. Everyone saw diseases everywhere now. Everyone was sick. He’d tried to convince August, on his law school applications, to check the “disability” box, because August had a very high IQ, and Manny thought hyperintelligence should be considered a mental illness.

He wrote about August and Rachel, how much he loved them, and how sorry he was to have brought shame onto them. He wrote about Lipschitz, of course, though he’d learned from reading other apologies that it was better not to go into much detail there, when it came to your victim. He stuck to the words “promising” and “talented,” even though Lipschitz had never made him laugh, and he insisted that there was never any excuse for violence, even though he didn’t believe that was true either.

Manny knew the draft was far from clean, but he wanted to start drinking, so he sent it to Rachel. That’s when he saw Ashbee’s email advertising the MFA students’ stand-up showcase at the Empty Bottle that night. He scrolled down to the attached flyer, expecting to see a group picture, what his future students looked like, but the illustration was only of a microphone, of course—it always was when the comedians weren’t famous: a microphone in a spotlight. He called Ashbee (to make fun of the flyer, he told himself, but really to ensure that he was still wanted in Ashbee’s school, that some people still liked him), and regretted it right away.

He’d never much liked Ashbee. When he’d heard about Ashbee starting up a graduate comedy program twelve or so years before, Manny had first thought it was a joke (it would’ve been Ashbee’s best), but then when different sources had confirmed it wasn’t, he’d understood it might’ve been Ashbee’s true calling, teaching what he couldn’t do but had spent his life attempting.

When Ashbee picked up, Manny pretended he was only calling to ask for Dorothy’s number. He hadn’t talked to her in ages, and she was going to be his colleague now, too.

“I can give you Dorothy’s number, sure,” Ashbee said. “I can give you Ben Kruger’s as well. He’s also working with us now, you know?”

“Only Dorothy’s will be fine,” Manny said.

“Right,” Ashbee said. “Only Dorothy’s. Dorothy, you care about. Kruger can go through your secretary.”


Manny didn’t want to riff, but he was the one calling—he had to give Ashbee a little something. He asked the standard questions, how the semester was going, whether teaching comedy left him any time to write.

“We haven’t seen a new Ashbee show in a while,” he added.

“Not sure that’s what the world needs right now,” Ashbee said. “Another middle-aged man ranting about his experience as a middle-aged man.”

“Except you’re a black middle-aged man,” Manny said. “I don’t know about needs, but the world definitely wants to hear what you have to say.”

“I guess I just don’t want to partake,” Ashbee said. “I’m not much into all that stuff. I’m selfish at heart. I’ve never wanted to speak for anyone other than myself.”

They exchanged banalities about writing, how speaking for oneself was the only thing one could do in the end, one’s best shot at universality, etc. Ashbee said something about animal memes. He had a theory that, soon, comedians would only joke about other species if they wanted to stay clear of scandal. After that, it would simply be a question of time before people started getting offended on behalf of the animals in question, but still, there was a window there for now. With animals. Ashbee said that people recognized themselves in animals. You just had to look at the most popular memes on the internet. Like the swan meme, the swan at the party. Did Manny know what he was talking about? Manny didn’t. He didn’t follow the animal memes.

“I’ll send you a link,” Ashbee said, and a few minutes later, he did.

He sent Manny a link to an essay about memes too. Manny wasn’t a reader of essays. Would he have to read essays now? On comedy? Would that be asked of him now that he was going to teach stand-up classes?

He dialed Dorothy. No response. Hearing her voice on the voicemail greeting, Manny realized he couldn’t quite match a face to it anymore. He’d spent three or so years with her in the Nineties closing every cheap bar in the West Village, and they’d slept together too, a handful of times, he’d seen all her shows, but he couldn’t remember anything specific about her features. He didn’t pay a lot of attention to faces. He’d even had a hard time distinguishing August from other short, dark-haired boys in kindergarten back in the day. He remembered a lot of things Dorothy had said, though, all of her jokes.

His phone rang, but it was only Rachel telling him what he already knew, that his apology needed a lot more work. Manny promised he’d draft something else right away and poured himself another bourbon. Contrition came easier this time. Not because of the bourbon, but because he’d just remembered how bad he’d felt one night after Letterman, using a line that wasn’t his but Dorothy’s. He tapped into that old guilt and wrote something decent.

Rachel said that the new draft was better, more heartfelt. That she would send it to Auggie for legal advice. Manny asked his ex-wife if they called their son Auggie at work, or August. She said everyone called him Auggie, even clients.

“It’s a shame,” Manny said. “We gave him such a good name. August Reinhardt. He could have been a novelist with that name. An astronaut.”

“Auggie Reinhardt is nice, too,” Rachel said. “It has a nice ring.”

“It sounds like he’ll only ever defend small-time crooks.”

Rachel said small-time crooks needed defending, too. She was meeting a friend and had to go, she added, and Manny realized jazz music had been playing in the background this whole time, that Rachel might have been getting ready for a date while giving him career advice. When they hung up, he tried to remember when he’d last gone out for fun and couldn’t. He hadn’t seen anyone in days. Even food deliveries were left on his doorstep. All contact with the outside world was mediated through the phone in his hand, that black rectangle that suddenly reminded Manny of the monolith in Kubrick’s 2001. It was the same black, wasn’t it? Shiny and opaque. Malevolent. He felt as lonely as he had in the hospital, when August was sick as a baby. That feeling he’d had back then that he would never again be anywhere else. That life would go on for others outside the hospital, but not for him, and not for August, that hospital time would be their time from now on, the entirety of it, their lifetime. Remembering this, he felt his heart compress, a sponge being squeezed. Was he having a heart attack? Was it cancer? Was it just sadness? Maybe he was lonely, Manny thought. Maybe that was it. What did lonely people do? They read books, he thought. He should read something.

He read the essay Ashbee sent, about memes. Meme writers were even less understandable to Manny than comedians on Twitter. At least comedians on Twitter were trying to get something out of their posts, expand their following or whatever, generate buzz, while meme writers . . . these people didn’t even want credit. That made no sense to Manny. No sense at all. Although anonymity was the best way not to have anyone mess with you if your joke didn’t land. That was unfair, Manny thought. If you had the guts to show your face, you got in trouble. But if you gave up on putting your name out there, you could make any joke you wanted, unsavory, downright appalling, even not funny at all: the joke would find its audience, and no one would ever wonder whether the person who’d made it had been allowed to make it. No one cared who they were.

What comic didn’t want the world to know that a good joke was his? Manny never believed people (people like Rachel) who said they didn’t want to be famous, that all they needed was for their work to be recognized in the very small circle that mattered. They said they didn’t want to lose control over their image, that fame was toxic, and fame was toxic, yes, people knew too much about you, people knew too much about him, especially, right this minute, but if he was being honest, wasn’t it better than them not knowing anything at all? Than them not even knowing his name? Wasn’t everyone knowing what a shitty person he was better than having to introduce himself to new people all the time? Introducing yourself sucked. Starting from scratch. Figuring out what to put forth, what lies to tell.

Of course he was ashamed that everyone with an internet connection knew he slept with women thirty years his junior and became an idiot who brought up marriage after too many drinks, but he would be ashamed anyway, famous or not—shame had always been his motor, what kept him writing. He’d always written to erase previous shameful stuff with new material, new material he became ashamed of after he toured it long enough, and so on and so forth. That was the cycle he’d been in for decades, so what if he was ashamed on a grander scale now? Maybe it would get him to a new level, writing-wise. He’d been stuck on the same plateau for years. He’d been stuck at home, too, for more than a week now, with the blinds drawn, because he’d been told to lie low, that was what one did in his situation, but really, he was keen to show himself again, and maybe he should get back into the world right this instant, not listen to what others recommended. It was his life, and he didn’t want to hide. Manny wanted to be seen. It wasn’t purely selfish—he wanted to see others, too, and not just the front they presented to the world but who they really were. Meet young comedians. He wanted to know their fears, their favorite jokes, what kept them up at night. He wanted to see his son.

He looked up flight times to Chicago. He could be there in five hours if he left his apartment in the next few minutes. Arrive at O’Hare at 10:02 pm. August worked late. They’d have a drink together. They’d talk. Manny booked his ticket.

Somewhere over Pennsylvania, the Wi-Fi stopped working. The flight attendants apologized for the inconvenience, but they didn’t mean it. How many times had Manny, as a young dad, had to tell August that he was sorry about something he wasn’t responsible for? “I’m so sorry Cassie doesn’t want to be your friend, kiddo.” “I’m sorry you forgot your book on the bus.” “I’m sorry your sweater itches.” How was any of it his fault? Though, well, in the grand scheme of things, yes: All his fault. For making August in the first place. Every single one of August’s bad days would be on him and Rachel, in a way. Perhaps August had gone through most of the bad days he would ever have, though, perhaps he’d piled up the bulk of his allotted share in infancy. Just a few days old, he’d been diagnosed with Hirschsprung’s disease. Curable, but tricky. Baby August couldn’t shit on his own. The latter part of his intestine wouldn’t contract, wouldn’t spasm the shit along and propel it forward (downward?), so it all remained stuck up there and you had to go get it with a tube and a pump. For a year they’d done that, Rachel and Manny, in turns, manually pulling the shit out of their infant son, until he was old enough for surgery. Rachel had worried that that year of enemas would scar August forever, psychologically, and the many months of colostomy bags after that, but the boy had grown up well-adjusted, all things considered.

Manny had phoned him to let him know he’d be in Chicago in a few hours, but the call had gone straight to voicemail. He’d left a message inviting him to meet for a beer at the Empty Bottle. He was trying to convince himself that showing up at the comedy club to meet his future students would make him look good. It could make him look good to August, in any case. A teacher caring for his students.

Manny tried to picture it, but it didn’t make much sense. Him, a teacher? He hadn’t thought this thing through when Ashbee had offered him the job. What was expected of him, exactly? Was he just supposed to sit through the kids’ bad jokes and give them feedback? Was that the idea? Or was it more of a lecture-type thing? He took out his notebook and decided to write down everything he’d learned in almost forty years of stand-up. He thought it would take a while, but after ten minutes, he only had this, and not much more to add:

notes for class

  • There are two kinds of jokes: ready and not.
  • In comedy, good memory is your best asset.

Manny asked the flight attendant for another beer, which she brought over without a smile. He’d thought at first that the lack of smiling was due to her recognizing and disapproving of him, but she treated everyone else the same way. There were jokes to be made about flight attendants, he thought, how in the past few years they’d ceased to be nice or pretty, same as nurses (before World War II, flight attendants had been nurses, he’d read somewhere), how those once sexually charged professions had evolved to become regular jobs, held by women who looked like your mother. But such jokes could never be made in the current climate. And that was a good thing, Manny thought. As dreary as political correctness was for comedy, with all the new fences built around forbidden topics, it went both ways: people were deprived of potentially great jokes, but also spared terrible ones, sexist or otherwise. Sexist jokes still existed, of course, but comedians had to put extra thought into them now. They had to be worth the trouble their authors would get into, and so they tended to be funnier.

Not that it mattered, in Manny’s case. Sexist jokes, even good ones, would not be welcome from him ever again. No matter how the rest of his days unfolded, there would always be a vague aura of scandal about him. People would remember hearing something about Manny Reinhardt and younger women—harassment, perhaps, something sexual, certainly. Manny didn’t have sexist jokes in the bits he was working on, and he hadn’t planned to write any, but the realization that he could never make one again bothered him. What if he found the model joke, the sexist joke to end all others? What would he do with it? There was nothing personal when he made a sexist joke, nothing against his ex-wife, his sister, his nieces, or his mother. To Manny’s mind, all jokes existed in the form of embryonic blobs in the air—they were the thoughts people exuded and rejected all day, and his job as a comedian was to grab onto the most horrible of these thoughts, shape them right, and serve them back to those who’d run away from them. He was in the business of finishing people’s horrible thoughts so they didn’t have to go there themselves. A dirty job, but as long as people thought horrible thoughts (and they would never stop thinking them, no matter how hard they pretended), someone would have to do it.

He didn’t always enjoy it. Sometimes, he didn’t want to go where he went. Often, he disgusted himself for going there. But if he didn’t say things that shocked even himself, then he was failing, then he wasn’t doing his job right. Right? He needed to be a little uncomfortable, the audience needed to be a little uncomfortable. If they never were, if they were always in agreement with what Manny said, then it meant Manny hadn’t gone far enough, hadn’t handed them a clean enough mirror. He didn’t understand people who went to a comedy club, or to a movie, or to the theater, to feel good about themselves. Most people weren’t good. Didn’t they want to hear from someone else who wasn’t?

Maybe he could sell his future sexist jokes, Manny thought, if future sexist jokes came along. He’d never sold a joke before, but he knew people who did. He could sell his sexist jokes to female comedians, to Dorothy, for example. Dorothy would be allowed to make them. He could sell racist jokes to black comedians.

What would be left for him, though, if he sold all his offensive jokes to people who were allowed to make them? He could still joke about alcoholics, Manny thought, his father having been part of that community, he himself verging on membership. He could keep anti-Semitic jokes. Jokes about rich people. About Hollywood. Ugh. He crushed his empty beer can and gestured to the stewardess for a third. He couldn’t tell if anyone recognized him on the plane. He’d jumped from the cab to the airport’s express security line to the Admirals Club lounge to the plane’s first-class cabin without anyone bothering him. Rich people tended not to bother celebrities, though. Rich people didn’t even look at celebrities, whereas Manny knew that if he so much as walked across coach now, two or three guys would stop him to chat, ten would stare, twenty others would badly pretend not to stare. He’d wondered what it was with rich people, if they went through rich-people training once they’d amassed a certain amount of wealth, an intensive course in which they were taught how to properly eat an ortolan, and to leave celebrities alone because it was déclassé to care about fame. Although he hadn’t been offered that course, and he had to be richer than most people on the plane.

He wondered if Ben Kruger was richer than him. That bastard had to have made a lot of money with the Meryl Streep movie. Manny didn’t think he was jealous. He’d been offered movie roles before, had always turned them down. But there was something about Kruger that annoyed him. At first, he’d thought it was the way Kruger looked—his eyes, in particular, which seemed to never fully open or close—but maybe it was bigger than that, the eyes a mere symptom of a larger condition. The neither/nor condition. Neither a bad comedian nor a good one, neither a good actor nor a bad one. Yet people seemed to love it, Kruger’s mediocrity, his in-betweenness. It was real, or whatever they called it. But what was with the teaching? Why had Kruger taken a teaching job? A tenured one, too, not just a visiting position, like the one Manny was accepting. They were probably paying him a lot, but still. Was it a status thing? Could it be that Kruger believed in teaching?

His son was the main reason Manny was giving teaching a shot. August had never admired anyone more than his professors at the University of Chicago. Manny had heard him on the phone with his favorite teacher once, when August was home for Christmas after his first semester of law school. He’d heard him laugh harder than he’d ever heard him laugh before. That had hurt a bit. What could a law professor have said that was so funny? He’d wanted to take the phone from August and tell the guy, “I’m the father, I’m the one who didn’t sleep for years thinking the kid might die, who the fuck are you?”

He didn’t think about August’s childhood illness that much, to be honest, but hearing him laugh with his professor that day on the phone had brought it all back. It had surprised him to remember it so clearly—the anguish, the smell of the soap they used in the hospital. It had surprised him because the only parts of his life he remembered so vividly tended to be those he’d written about, and he’d never written about August’s condition. He’d promised Rachel back then, when August was a few weeks old, never to use his illness for work, for laughs, never to talk about August onstage, in fact, and he’d kept his word. He’d talked to strangers about the most private and embarrassing things (hemorrhoid treatments, taking his mother off life support), but never August. That was a long time ago, though. When he’d made that promise. August was healthy now, everything had turned out great. Maybe it was time to really put it behind them . . . maybe now was the perfect time to write about August, about having been August’s father, a parent to a sick child. Yes, forget movies! Manny thought. Movies were boring. They moved like warships. You controlled nothing. What Manny had to do was write an hour of comedy about August’s first years of life, when he and Rachel constantly feared he would die. A comedy special about sick babies! That was the new frontier. That would surprise everyone. Everyone would be expecting a contrite performance from him, tepid jokes about male-female relationships, jokes about how horrible men were, and so on. No one would see the sick-child thing coming! And it would be his story, too. He could never be accused of having no right to tell it. Well, August could accuse him of that, he guessed. Or Rachel. If August was okay with it, though, Rachel would be, too.

Big ideas didn’t usually come to Manny like this. His shows tended to build one beat at a time, until he figured out patterns, what the whole thing, unbeknownst to him, had been about. But this, what he was going through now, this was what people referred to as “inspiration.” He could see the whole show. Rachel’s pregnancy, the baby’s first days, the terrifying wait for a diagnosis, the horrible jokes that had come to his mind and that he’d kept to himself. He’d look like a terrible father at times, but also like a great one in the end—he’d taken such good care of August! The show would be hilarious and moving. He could almost see it write itself.

In spite of the snow, Manny’s flight landed ahead of schedule. He’d spent the last forty minutes in the air working, writing down memories of Brooklyn Hospital’s pediatric ward, the long hours he’d spent there with Rachel, August, and all those other sick children he’d never asked about. What he had on paper so far wasn’t funny, but it didn’t matter. He just had to let it all out for now, how cold and afraid he’d been (why was it always so cold in hospitals?), how cowardly, how angry at Rachel, at times, for talking to other parents in the hallways, for letting their worry add to her own. Manny had never felt so selfish as when August was sick. Hospitals were places of high contamination, and the fact that the ailments August and other children suffered from were mostly congenital malformations and noncontagious blood diseases was of no comfort to Manny at the time. He was afraid of another type of contamination, of his family’s bad luck piled on by other families’ worse luck. Snowballing. When he saw a deformed kid on the ward, he looked away, didn’t even nod at the parents. He held his breath too. He thought bad luck would travel like bad smells.

Manny had been so focused on remembering his son as a newborn that he experienced a moment of unreality when he turned his phone back on and saw a text message from grown-up August, sent an hour earlier: “I’ll meet you at the Empty Bottle.” Manny had almost forgotten about the Empty Bottle, or why he’d come to Chicago in the first place. He wanted to skip it now, skip the whole thing, just check in at the airport Hilton and write all night, like in the good old days. He knew he would have to ask August for permission to use his life story, but if he came to him with an idea of how the show would be structured, the beats, he could make a stronger case. His son would see the thought that had gone into it. He felt bad canceling on August, knew that Rachel would probably give him a hard time about it, but August would understand. He respected hard work. Manny was starting to type his excuse when his son’s next message came: “I’m here.”

Manny didn’t let this stop him. He could still tell him he wasn’t feeling well and ask to meet tomorrow instead. “At the bar,” came another message. “With your future students.”

Now it was trickier. Now third parties were involved. Parties Manny hadn’t disappointed yet. August had likely told them he would be coming.

“They’re already asking for legal advice.”

Manny erased the message he’d been working on. “That’s smart,” he replied. “Smart kids. I’ll be there in an hour.”

He put his phone back in his pocket and looked for directions to a cab. He made accidental eye contact with a woman who seemed to recognize him, and he pretended to need something from the Hudson News immediately to his right. The woman could’ve been a fan with no interest in his present troubles, but Manny didn’t risk it. He’d been insulted on the street a dozen times since the stories had broken. Mostly about the proposals, only once about punching Lipschitz. Several news outlets had labeled him a predator after one of the three women maintained he’d offered marriage before they’d had sex. Manny was pretty sure he’d said it post-sex, but he didn’t feel like correcting the woman’s story yet. If there ended up being a trial and the timing of the proposals became a pivotal detail, he would give his version, but now, in all honesty, he couldn’t really see the difference it made.

Manny thought he could get something for August from Hudson News while he was there. He used to bring him a present from each tour stop back in the day. Toys at first, but then August had started asking for unique things, things that could only be found wherever Manny went. Manny had brought home local papers after that, the Tampa Bay Times, the Bellingham Herald, which August proceeded to read from front page to obits. Rachel had found it cute, how nerdy that was, and how close the boy wanted to be to his dad, going over the news of the towns Manny had been in on the day that he’d been there. Who passed on Legos to read about the weather in Raleigh? she’d marveled. Last week’s weather in Raleigh? What a quirky child they had! It had made Manny uneasy, though. August’s interest in what had happened in those cities was the photo negative of what his own had been, and he’d been there. On tour, he tended to forget where he was. He slept until noon and woke up sad most days not to be in his bed, with Rachel. He saw the long hours before a show as time to kill, not opportunities for discovery. Why was his son so interested in knowing where he’d been? People were the same everywhere. Manny had brought the newspapers as a joke, and his son hadn’t gotten it.

People magazine had a starlet on its cover, one who’d been sentenced to hundreds of hours of community service after being caught shoplifting and who was now letting the world know how transformed she’d been by the experience. She’d served her sentence but was still volunteering at a homeless shelter in L.A. Manny wondered if he would have to do something like that, too. His agent had hinted at it, asking if there wasn’t anything they could use to make him look like a good guy. Any volunteer work he did on the side? Of course not. He donated a lot of money to cancer research, though, he’d said. Over the years, he’d probably given a million dollars. He’d been proud to tell Michelle this. He’d never told anyone about it before, not even Rachel. He believed that charity wasn’t something you advertised, that advertising it rendered it worthless. So he was ashamed to realize he’d expected praise from his agent when he’d told her. All she’d said, however, was that it didn’t really count because all Manny had done was give money, and not time. Manny was afraid she’d suggest he visit cancer wards now, make the dying people laugh. He didn’t want to see people with cancer.

He’d started giving money to cancer research when Rachel, during one of August’s many hospital stays, had befriended a mother in pediatric oncology. Manny’d never met the woman himself. He’d refused to set foot on the cancer floor. He hadn’t had much money at the time, but he’d begun making small donations to leading research labs: the National Cancer Institute, the Anderson Center, the Curtis Lab. August’s two following surgeries had gone splendidly. Even Rachel’s friend’s son had started doing better, or so Rachel reported. Manny had kept giving. As he gave more, his career took off. August began shitting on his own. Manny kept giving. The more he gave, the more famous he became, and if fame meant touring extensively, being less a part of his child’s life, Manny reasoned it was a way to balance out the intrusiveness he’d been forced into at first, pulling the shit out of August several times a day. It was good to give August some space once he could do everything by himself.

Manny cheated on Rachel one night in Ohio and made his first-ever five-figure donation the following day. He never gave less after that. When Rachel started talking about couples’ therapy, he doubled his usual donation. The day their divorce was finalized was the day he gave the most. Since then, he’d kept the donations steady, the same amount twice a year. Maybe he hadn’t given as much as he could have the past few years, and that’s why life was catching up with him. He worried now that Lipschitz and the women’s accusations would only be the beginning. The beginning of a long fall. He hadn’t given anything to cancer research since it had all started. He’d felt the situation demanded something different, something drastic.

Perhaps Michelle was right and he ought to forget about money, upgrade to time given to those who suffered. The problem was, no one wanted his time now. No one wanted Manny to spend it on them. Except maybe journalists. There was this journalist who kept asking him for quotes and corroborations. He could give her a few minutes. That would make her day. Maybe he could even tell her about what he was working on, a special about his son’s illness . . . is that how he would phrase it? He could pretend that he’d already been working on it the night he’d punched Lipschitz. Yes, that was a great idea, Manny thought as he handed the checkout guy a Take 5 and a Red Bull. He could tell the journalist how writing about the hardest four years of his life had made him vulnerable, his nerves so very raw. Journalists loved that word.

Outside O’Hare, the cabdriver didn’t recognize Manny, but told him about his idea for a TV show anyway. A show about cabdrivers, and all the different kinds of people they met. Like no one else ever had this idea, Manny thought. He didn’t want to be a dick, but it was hard not to judge everyone all the time. Here was the interesting show: a show about a cabdriver with no curiosity for his customers whatsoever. Though maybe it was the same show, in the end, and Manny should relax. He’d chanced upon the best kind of driver. The cabdrivers who told you about how interesting their job was because they got to meet all sorts of people were the ones who never asked you a single question.

 is the author of How to Behave in a Crowd. Her novel The Material, from which this excerpt is taken, will be published next month by Random House.

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May 2024

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