Today in New Voices, we are excited to share “Jaja-Haha” by Madari Pendas. This story follows Freddy—Federico, as he used to be called—a new executive producer for The Late Show with David Letterman in the late 1980s. An old friend from Cuba resurfaces, a talent agent, calling in a favor to book a new act on the Letterman show. “Jaja-Haha” is a story that explores assimilation and all its unseen impacts, as Freddy must weigh the status quo—”Give ’em what they’re used to,” he’s told by the former EP—against the promoting the promising Cuban act Porfirio represents.
The club was a popular haunt. It was a renovated basement that still smelled like the inside of a cupboard. The space was cramped. Freddy was certain they were violating all sorts of fire codes. While grooming Freddy to take over, Jack had insisted on sending underlings to night clubs. That was the point of being the boss, according to Jack. “Have someone else eat shit.” Freddy didn’t realize how much he missed the frenetic energy and charge of the club scene. He felt a tingle in his fingers as he strolled in.
1989, Midtown Manhattan
Freddy was unaware that as he worked the past was storming down Broadway and 53rd, past security, past his secretary, and into The Late Show with David Letterman offices.
He perked up when he heard a knock at his closed door. Before he could ask who was there, the door swung open and there he was: Porfirio Suárez.
Freddy shook his head; it was too early for this nonsense. He had only recently been promoted to executive producer and didn’t have the time or patience to deal with a cunning talent agent, even if that cunning talent agent was an old friend. “No, no, no. I’m busy.”
Porfirio closed the door and took a seat. “Tranquilo. I’ll be quick. I’m faster than a virgin at a brothel.”
Freddy watched as Porfirio took out a headshot from a peeling brown valise. Even when Freddy was an associate producer, people still slipped headshots under his door, into his mailbox, and even into the bags of his lunch orders.
“Come on, I have work to do.”
“Bueno, this is what happens when you don’t return my calls.” Porfirio slid the headshot across the desk. “This is your next guy. One of the best upcoming comics on the scene right now.”
Freddy looked at the picture. The young man in the photo had a one-guard buzz, an angular jaw, a long nose, and hauntingly deep-set eyes. His collar was undone and revealed a gold chain over a shock of chest hair. The black-and-white tint of the image made it difficult for Freddy to tell how dark the kid’s skin was. “What’s his name? How old is he?”
“Yusniel Fernández. Twenty-two.”
There was silence between them. Freddy looked at the photo again. He had always stayed quiet when the more senior EPs asked him about a particular Hispanic comic. Freddy didn’t want to seem partial or like he was pushing an agenda. He wanted to show his bosses he could do the job just like them. He had only gotten the promotion last Monday. The retiring EP, Jack, had told Freddy, “Give ‘em what they’re used to. They know what they like. And they like what they know.”
Freddy slid the photo away. “Let’s talk some other time, okay? I already have the comics booked for the next month.”
“So book him for the month after,” Porfirio insisted. “You got some power now. Use it, viejo.”
“I’m not a viejo. We’re the same age.”
“Si and fifty-four is the new forty-four, right? This fucking industry and age. Come on. You’re finally the gatekeeper and you’re still keeping the gate closed.”
Freddy rubbed his temples. “Some other time. Please.”
“Federico, por favor—”
“Don’t call me that.” Freddy looked to make sure the door was closed. He didn’t use that name anymore.