“Jaja-Haha” by Madari Pendas 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.
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.
He had taken the Steven Bauer and Anthony Quinn approach to success and rid himself of anything that could hinder his upward mobility in this country, even if that included his name. He remembered Porfirio urging him not to change it. “Our names are all we left with,” Porfirio insisted. Freddy didn’t want his first conversations with new people to begin with corrections or explanations. When they were coming up, some of the Anglo comedians had the habit of calling Porfirio Por Favor. It was apt, Freddy thought. His old friend always seemed to be begging.
“I’m sorry,” Porfirio said. He took the headshot off the desk. “He’s performing in the East Village tomorrow. Come out. See him yourself.”
Freddy listened to the thrumming of the A.C. and the patterned honking down on 53rd Street. He didn’t want to agree to anything he could be held to.
“Río Guaso,” Porfirio said.
Freddy shook his head. “No, not that—”
“You owe me.”
Back in Cuba they used to go fishing in the Río Guaso. They’d sell their illegal catches and split the money, though selling anything not in the ration books would have gotten them in trouble. Freddy was determined to make more money and snuck to the cove early one morning, but the rip current pulled him under. If Porfirio hadn’t been there—to also catch fishes by himself— Freddy was certain he would have died and washed up in Haiti.
Freddy took out a notepad. “Give me the details.”
“Ten. At Brouhaha. He’s headlining.”
Freddy scribbled the information down. He knew he was going to get grief from Judy for not coming directly home after work. Any place above 95th St was dangerous according to her.
“I’m agreeing to see him. Not committing to anything.”
“Yet!” Porfirio grinned. He got up and headed for the door.
As Freddy wrote the kid’s name, he called out, “Oye, tell him to change his name to something…easier to remember.”
“You mean Gringo?”
Freddy shrugged. It wasn’t that big a deal. Who cared what people called you as long as they called you?
* * *
Freddy left the Friday taping early. Friday shows were laxer and in his twelve years there he had seen plenty of producers and EPs duck out before wrapping. However, Freddy felt strange doing so. One of the line producers arched her eyebrows as he left, as if saying Wow, already abusing the new position.
Freddy lit a cigarette on the other side of Saint Mark’s Place. The more he smoked, the warmer he felt. Sixteen years in New York and he still wasn’t used to northeast winters. When he first moved, he’d hard-boil an egg in the mornings and keep it in his jacket’s front pocket to warm his hands.
The club, a popular haunt, 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 hadn’t realized how much he missed the frenetic energy and charge of the club scene.
He felt a tingle in his fingers as he strolled in.
“There you are!” Porfirio rushed over to Freddy. He took Freddy’s topcoat and guided him to a middle seat. “I thought you weren’t going to show.”
Freddy had considered it. “I always keep my appointments.”
They sat and waited in the theater for the show to begin. In front of them the semi-circular thrust stage had an overhead spotlight with tied-off black drapes, which looked like braids on a round face. There was a screen downstage projecting the club’s logo, the Melpomene mask chugging a beer.
“Just to warn you, the first guy does a lot of crowd work.”
Freddy scoffed. “Don’t make the audience do your job for you. These new guys are so lazy.”
“Come on. It’s fun. Some people like to participate.”
“That’s outsourcing your work. You have to show the audience you’ve earned the right to be up there. Comedy is a battle. That’s why it’s called killing.”
Porfirio patted his shoulder and made a tsk tsk sound. “No, you’ve got it all wrong. They’re rooting for you from the beginning. They want you to succeed,” Porfirio said. “Not everything is so adversarial. That’d be like me hoping my butcher circumcises his thumb when he cuts my mortadella.”
To change the conversation, Freddy asked about Porfirio’s wife. “Is Mirta still teaching in Bushwick?”
Freddy noticed his dour expression. Maybe his old friend was also being rankled by the wrap of cigarette smoke that hung above their heads like thoughts in a comic strip. Porfirio opened his mouth, but the lights dimmed. The show was beginning.
The first three comics performed. There were: Soviet Union jokes (“in Soviet Russia TV watches you”); observations on women-men relations; observations on Black-white relations; and a Lenny Bruce style discussion on whether pedophiles had a hierarchy. A scrawny, nervous comedian with long bangs that he blew out of his eyes asked, “Do the ones that like teens look down on the ones that like babies? Or all they all looking down on necrophiles? Or the other way around? What’s the flow chart? ‘Cause everyone looks down on someone.”
The fourth comic called a guest wearing fingerless gloves a “cocksucker.” Freddy recalled Neil Simon’s lesson on Vaudeville: “Words with k in them are funny. Casey Stengel, that’s a funny name. Robert Taylor is not funny. Cupcake is funny. Tomato is not funny.” Cocksucker, Freddy noted, was funny.
As the night continued, a heckler emerged. He was sitting at the bar with an olive skewer hanging between his lips. He was a tall, gangly fellow in a navy gabardine suit with his legs stretched out before him. “Go back to Jersey!” he yelled.
The crowd laughed.
The comic dropped the mike and walked off in tears. The audience could still hear him mumbling off-stage about how he should have finished med school.
Freddy leaned towards Porfirio. “Will your boy be okay?”
Porfirio calmly nodded.
A prop comic went up next. He was holding a crab doll and shaking it violently. “Now that’s what I call…shell shock.”
The heckler jeered. He had taken control of the room. The audience didn’t seem to know whether to groan or chuckle. Freddy looked back and noticed something in the heckler’s hand. It was a phonebook.
The heckler threw the phonebook onto the stage. It barely missed the comic’s legs. “Use this. There’s better material in there.”
The comic took his props and stuffed them back into his duffel. As he rushed off the stage, a screwdriver with eyelashes fell out of his bag. He left it and darted for the exit.
Porfirio pointed at the abandoned item. “I think the punchline was screw her.”
“Why doesn’t someone escort that man out? Who gave him a phonebook?” Freddy asked, looking at the heckler but careful to not lock eyes with him. It was easy for hecklers, he thought. They could move in and out of the space. They risked nothing.
“He’s probably spending more at the bar than any of these comics can bring in,” Porfirio said. “Or related to the owner.”
Two more comedians performed. One tried to talk over the heckler and the other walked off holding two middle fingers in the air.
The heckler cackled and made a thumbs down gesture, as if he were Caesar.
The host returned to the stage. He sped through the headliner’s biography. Freddy thought this was a tactic to avoid being the heckler’s next target. “Give a warm welcome to our next comic who hails from the island of sugarcane, big booty bitches, and dictators: Yusniel Fernández.”
Freddy dabbed his brow and steadied his breathing. Would the kid be able to handle the lush? He turned and saw the heckler with another martini glass. Maybe he was just getting warmed up. Who knew what damage he could inflict during a full set?
Yusniel took the mike. He looked calm and self-possessed in the glow from the spotlight. Freddy noticed he was wearing azabache around his neck, a black stone meant to guard against the evil eye. Yusniel performed for five minutes before the heckler started up again. “Go cut my grass!”
There was scattered laughter, and a few groans. Yusniel ignored the comment and continued, but the heckler cut in once more. “Did you enter the country on a piece of driftwood?”
Freddy looked around for security but couldn’t spot anyone. Comedy joints weren’t renowned for their safety, but this was ridiculous.
Yusniel snapped, “Martín, hazme el favor, turn the houselights on.” There was a sobering wash of light. Yusniel pointed at the heckler and asked, “Yo, my mans, what’s your problem?”
The heckler waved Yusniel off. “I’m just cutting loose. It’s Friday.”
Yusniel took the mike off the stand and walked towards the bar. Freddy’s hands trembled. Blood rushed to his ears, and he couldn’t swallow. Yusniel wasn’t really going to confront him, was he? Freddy looked at Porfirio, but his face was neutral, observant, as if he were watching ducks at Central Park.
When Yusniel reached the heckler, he took the seat next to him at the bar. “What do you do for a living?”
“Fuck off, spic.”
“Oh, but you were so chatty earlier. What happened? Scared of the help?”
Freddy wondered what would happen next. He had always avoided hecklers or cut his sets short when one bloomed from the audience.
Yusniel shifted to face the crowd. “White people will hire us to raise their kids and clean their homes and still be afraid to make eye contact with us.” Yusniel swiveled back to the heckler. “Look folks, he’s got a wedding ring. What poor woman agreed to marry this fool? Hey buddy, buddy.” Yusniel tugged at the heckler’s sleeve. “At what family reunion did you meet your wife? I mean we all have sexy cousins, but come on, man.”
There was a roar of laughter. Yusniel continued. “It’s smart, if you think about it. Keep it in the family and then she doesn’t have to change her last name.”
“Leave me alone,” the heckler muttered.
“Fine, fine, but one last question and then I promise I’ll fuck right off.” Yusniel paused. Freddy held his breath. “Do your kids drag their knuckles when they walk?”
The heckler threw a punch and missed, then a right hook, but Yusniel dodged. They scuffled on the floor. The mike captured the tussle and curses and punches as they grappled. Yusniel got up and dragged the heckler by his collar across the room, winking at patrons as he passed.
Yusniel took the heckler outside. Freddy wondered what was happening. If there’d be cops waiting by the curb or more fighting. After a long beat, Yusniel returned, waving his arms like the heavyweight champ. He picked up the mike from the floor and darted back on stage. “We taking all the jobs: jester, therapist, and bouncer. My name is Yusniel Fernández. Goodnight and tip your waitresses.”
After the show, Freddy waited for Yusniel and Porfirio at the bar. He ordered a white wine spritzer. He nursed his drink and thought about how the kid would do on Letterman. The higher-ups were always talking about “discovering the next Carlin.” As he continued drinking, he wondered what his peers would think of him. Maybe they’d call it nepotism or cronyism, some -ism. Freddy didn’t want to give them any reason to doubt him.
When he ordered a second round, he felt a hand on his back.
Porfirio and Yusniel sat next to him. Freddy noticed that Yusniel was now sitting in the heckler’s seat.
“That heckler was some piece of work,” Freddy said. “Did he hit you outside? It was incredible.”
“Thanks man, appreciate it,” Yusniel said.
Freddy thought he saw Porfirio and Yusniel exchange a look. It almost seemed mischievous, but maybe it was nothing— his empty stomach was making him imagine things.
After they’d ordered their own drinks, Porfirio asked, “So what are we thinking? Friday night spot would be good. But we’re also free for a Wednesday or Thursday…or early in the week, too. Want me to call your secretary tomorrow to get it on the books? I’ll call her—”
Freddy put his hand up. “Wait, wait. I haven’t committed to anything.”
Porfirio clicked his tongue. “Come on. What else do you need to see? Want to see his Reagan impression. Yusniel, do the bit—”
Freddy shook his head. “I just need to check with my team and see what’s available and clear it with the other EPs.”
“Fuck, bro,” Yusniel said. He leaned across the bar and glared at Freddy. “Hermano, where are you from?”
“I was born in Havana, but moved to Santiago de—”
“Havana?” Yusniel aped. “Habana, you mean.”
“Yes.” Freddy swirled his drink and took another sip.
“Are you sure you’re really Cuban?” Yusniel continued. “Maybe you been here too long. Or you’re a halfie or something.”
“Relax, papo. Relax,” Porfirio interjected. “You know we come in all flavors.”
Freddy tossed back his drink. Had he been here too long? What did that even mean? He’d give them next month. It’d placate them and give the kid time to get some nice clothes. Before he could speak, a woman screamed.
They all turned and saw that the heckler had returned.
“Where is the security in this place?” Freddy asked. He scanned the room again.
The heckler made a beeline for them. Freddy grabbed his empty glass as a weapon. What if the man had gone to get a knife or a gun? Or some of his pals were coming to join him for round two?
Freddy was ready to throw a left hook when the heckler reached them. Porfirio stood and blocked Freddy.
“Hey man,” the heckler said to Porfirio, arms by his side. “The train is on the fritz. I need more for a cab.”
“A cab?” Freddy repeated. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” Porfirio reassured. “Why don’t you go to the bathroom? You’ve had like four drinks. We got this.”
Freddy stepped aside. “No. I’m not going anywhere. What’s going on?” The heckler ignored Freddy and extended his hand.
“Nothing. Nothing. This guy is crazy,” Yusniel added. “You want to grab a smoke with me? Come on.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Freddy said. He turned to the heckler, perhaps the only person who would tell him the truth. “Sir, why are you asking him for money?”
The heckler looked Freddy up and down. “Guy, mind your business and get another little drink.”
Porfirio pulled out two twenties and pushed them into the heckler’s hands.
“Nice doing business with you,” the heckler said, pocketing the money, and turning to leave.
Freddy realized he had been hustled. The heckler had been a plant all along. Freddy paid his tab, grabbed his coat, and walked out.
It was lightly snowing. He saw the heckler get into a cab a few feet away. Freddy tightened his coat and waited for a taxi. He heard the creaky hinges of the door and saw Porfirio had come after him.
“I’m so sorry,” Porfirio said. “We didn’t mean nothing by it. It was just to add some theatrics, flare, you know. We wanted you to have an unforgettable night. We did it for you.”
Freddy stopped and faced Porfirio.
Porfirio didn’t have his coat with him and only had a thin sweater on.
“Bullshit. You did it for you. All you agents are the same. I knew you’d call the moment you found out I had the job. Opportunist, the lot of you.”
Freddy held his hand up for a passing cab, but it didn’t stop.
“You gotta get more in the street,” Porfirio advised. “Really get out there.”
“I know how to get one.” Freddy continued walking. He’d walk all the way to the Upper West Side if he had to.
Porfirio followed. “We were recreating an incident that had happened. It was just like that. And Yusniel handled it just like you saw. I wanted you to know how good he was.”
“And what about the other comics?”
“You think that’s going to be the last time they deal with a heckler? It’s good practice.”
Freddy laughed. This was ridiculous. “You’ve got a response for everything, don’t you?”
Freddy extended his hands and waved them like semaphores, but the next cab didn’t stop either. Were all the drivers trying to avoid the snow?
Freddy walked further down the block. He wasn’t going to risk his career for someone who’d pull something like this. He’d follow the straight and narrow, keep his head down, not make waves, and protect his position.
“Freddy, please, you know what it’s like for us. We have to work it however we can get it. Please.”
The snow was coming down harder. A cab pulled to the curb. This needed to end. He grabbed Porfirio’s shoulder. “It’s not my fault you couldn’t hack it. This is America. No one owes you anything. You’ve been here long enough to make something of yourself.” Freddy released Porfirio. “Be better.”
As Freddy slid into the seat. Porfirio grabbed the door and kept it from closing. “We didn’t have it the same.”
Freddy rolled his eyes. There was always some sob story. He was tired of it.
“I didn’t come here easily. I didn’t have family here. Or a job lined up for me. I didn’t have a life waiting for me here—”
“Excuses—” Freddy pulled at the door.
“Stop thinking it’s been the same for us. Stop thinking we all could have been you.”
Porfirio released the door. The car lurched forward.
Freddy shifted and looked back. The snow fell harder and pulsed against the cab’s roof. He saw Porfirio still standing on the curb, shivering.
* * *
At home, Freddy found Judy asleep on the chesterfield. Her crochet needles and thread were on the floor, and she had forgotten to turn off the fireplace. One day, he thought, she’d burn the place down. She’d gotten too accustomed to being looked after.
Freddy dropped his keys into the catchall with a rattle and left his boots in the foyer.
“Is that you?”
“No, it’s Jack the Ripper,” Freddy answered. “You can’t leave a fire unattended.”
Judy sat up and yawned. She stretched her feet out, straining each little toe, and then shrunk back on to the sofa, knees pressed to her chest. “So, how was it?”
Freddy watched the fire. “Fine.”
“All right, Mr. Man. Dumb old silly wife probably wouldn’t understand.”
“Stop.” He hated telling Judy about work. For her, work had always been an indulgence or hobby or passing interest. She had told him ambition bored her and called it overwhelmingly regular. “I went to go see a comic, but he…” Freddy trailed off. It was too late to explain the entire plot. “It wasn’t what I expected.”
Judy got up and stood beside him. She stretched out her hands to feel the warm licks of the fire. “Then don’t book him. See. Simple. Your job isn’t that hard. Maybe I could be an EP.”
As he enjoyed the heat, Freddy wondered if Porfirio was still cold. Sometimes the cold got into one’s bones and felt like it’d never leave. “But…it’s a comic Porfirio’s managing—”
Judy smacked her lips. “Oh, so your old barrio pal is looking for a little handout.”
“Don’t say it like that.”
“Why? Isn’t that what it is?” She smirked. “Aren’t you always saying I should learn Español?”
Freddy looked at Judy. Half of her face was in shadow, and her pale eyes were a dull amber. The winter always drained the color from her face. All her freckles were gone, and her lips took on a discolored purple hue.
“You didn’t call it a little handout when your father asked the AG to look the other way on the employment case.” Judy’s father had been sued for not paying his employees’ overtime. The case was dismissed since the employees were considered “contractors” and thus were owed nothing.
Judy waved him off and returned to the sofa. Was this conversation overwhelmingly regular? Freddy tried to figure out what it was she had tried to crochet. It looked like an unfinished sleeve or bottle cozy. She wasn’t good at domestic matters. She had tried to bake a tart once but confused baking soda and baking powder.
“Anyways,” Judy continued, needles in hand, “what are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. The kid wasn’t half-bad.” He sat with his back to the fire.
“Dear, can I give you some advice?”
He grinned. She was going to give it whether he said yes or no.
“You just got the position and you like our life, right?”
“Then keep the ship on course. Once you’ve earned some good will, you can push some of your hometown picks.”
Freddy leaned against the top of the fireplace. If he got any closer a loose thread would burn and set the whole sweater ablaze, but he loved the way the heat brought back to life the parts of his body the cold had dulled.
“Are you listening to me?” Judy asked. “I don’t know why I even bother.”
“I am. Tell me, baby. Is that what your father would have done?” Freddy had loathed Judy’s father, but the few times they chatted each year he was rapt in the man’s imposing presence. It was like standing in front of a jet engine.
“Do you want the truth?” Judy asked.
The fire was nearly burning him. “Yes.”
“Daddy wouldn’t have even taken a meeting. Anyone that has to beg doesn’t believe in what they’re selling.”
What had he known about begging? His great-grandfather had invested in Standard Oil and set all future generations up for lives of Parisian boarding schools, summers in Hyannis, and ortolan dinners. Freddy chuckled. “Your father would make a halfway decent poet. Too bad there’s no money in that.”
“He almost makes a halfway decent human being too,” she added.
Freddy took a seat next to Judy. He put his head on her lap. He couldn’t risk it. If he drowned now there’d be no one to save him.
“So,” Judy said. “Did he pull the widow card?”
“Widow card?” Freddy thought he had misheard. Maybe she had said little with that baby voice she sometimes used on him and the cats.
Freddy sat up. “What? Did something happen to Mirta?”
Judy walked to the table across the sitting room and pulled a paper out. As she returned, she said, “You know I always tell people I’m your mistress and that CBS is your wife.” She handed him a leaflet with details for the wake of Mirta Suárez.
Freddy’s whole body trembled. “When?”
“Two weeks ago.”
“Why didn’t you tell me? What’s wrong with you, Judith?”
She took a step back and tilted her head. “Don’t yell. I’m not a dog that just shit in your slippers.”
Freddy stood up and moved towards her. “I should have known about this. You can’t hide things like this.”
Judy took another step. “You don’t screen his calls? You didn’t call him a leech? Or what did you call him when he asked for you to drive him to La Guardia that one time?”
“I don’t remember.”
Judy kissed Freddy’s cheek and lingered by his ear. “Criticize my daddy all day long, but don’t act like you’re not trying to be like him.” She yawned. “I’m bored. Goodnight, darling.”
He opened the door and walked out of the apartment.
“Where are you going?” Judy called. He slammed the door and paced down the corridor.
Why hadn’t Porfirio said anything? Then Freddy remembered the po-faced expression he gave when he mentioned Mirta’s name. Porfirio could have played the grieving old widower and capitalized on sympathy. But he hadn’t. Why not? Was this why he was so invested in his work?
Freddy stopped at the end of the hall and looked out the window. There was a broken streak of light on the Hudson River. As a trawler passed, the waves curtained into white foaming ripples. The tide was high and choppy. Looking at its menace made Freddy turn back to the empty, carpeted corridor.
What would happen if no one liked Yusniel? What would that mean about him? His people?
He touched the glass. It was cool under his fingers. He leaned his forehead on the pane. Could he use the new position for something good? Was it his obligation? Maybe Porfirio had been right, and Freddy’s success had more to do with luck than merit. He closed his eyes and welcomed the cold into his bones.
* * *
Three dozen missed calls from Porfirio, and a day later, Freddy decided to give Yusniel the next Monday night spot and rearranged the schedule. Monday shows weren’t as watched as the Friday night gig, but it was something. The other producers were annoyed by the change but accepted Freddy’s decision. He still wondered whether it was the right decision.
The three men watched the show from the dressing room. One of Dave’s guests tonight was an animal trainer, who had brought a playful liger cub. It crawled across Dave’s desk and swatted at his coffee mug.
Porfirio sat on the green sofa and pulled out a flask. “When does he go on?”
Yusniel paced back-and-forth in front of the mirror.
“Ten minutes. The PA will come and grab us when it’s time,” Freddy explained. He was getting anxious just watching the two of them. On the phone, he had asked that Yusniel not perform anything that Gringos wouldn’t get. Now, he worried. What if the Gringos didn’t get him?
“Yo!” Yusniel said, turning to the men. “I can’t do this. I can’t.”
“Sit down,” Porfirio said, waving the flask about.
Freddy patted the kid’s shoulder. “Everyone’s nervous. Even Dave.” That wasn’t true. Dave was more apathetic and rankled by the inanity of celebrity culture. Often, after a particularly vapid interview, he’d mock the actor on the roof while flinging watermelons.
“What if that girl from Jackson Heights sees this?” Yusniel continued pacing. “She was right. Who wants to get laughed at for a living?”
Freddy looked at Porfirio. He wanted the agent to control his talent, but Porfirio was rattling the last bits of alcohol from the flask onto his tongue.
“What if my dick gets hard on stage and it won’t go down?”
Porfirio giggled. “That’s a good problem to have, young man.”
Freddy grabbed Yusniel by the shoulders and tried to force him to sit down. But he was overpowered, so instead, Freddy went to block the exit. “It’s all right. Just breathe.”
Yusniel sunk his head into the wastebasket. “I knew I should have taken that job with the city. I would have had benefits, time-off, a pension, and shit.”
As Yusniel vomited, a PA knocked on the dressing room door. “Five minutes!”
Yusniel surfaced. “Fuck this.” He turned to Porfirio, who was still drinking. “I’ll pay you back for the suit when I can.”
“Sit down!” Freddy shouted. They had put him through so much. There was no way he would let them leave. Freddy walked up to Yusniel and wiped some of the vomit from his chin. “Listen, we don’t get a lot of chances, so you have to take this.”
Porfirio lumbered to Yusniel. “Don’t end up like me. Be like Federico. Go after the things you want in life and tell fear to fuck its culo.”
Freddy wanted to correct him, but no one was around, and it was nice hearing his real name. He had forgotten that before he was ever Freddy, he was Federico.
Yusniel blinked three times. “What’s wrong with both of you? Tell fear to fuck its own ass? Bro, my heart is going to fall out my ass.”
The PA returned. “Yusniel to the wings.”
“Got it,” Freddy said. “Get up. Let’s go.”
Porfirio shook Yusniel. “You being in this theatre is already a win.”
Freddy felt shame for having been an obstacle for them. Yet he worried about whether or not the audience would laugh. Sure, they were plied with free drinks. But he’d seen a sloshed crowd just as easily jeer as laugh.
Freddy and Porfirio waited by the wings as Yusniel walked on stage. The lights dimmed and a spotlight shone over Yusniel.
Letterman watched from his desk, dabbing the sweat from his brow and mouth with a kerchief. A young woman rushed to him to touch up his foundation and hair.
Freddy held his breath. He didn’t realize he was doing it until he heard the audience’s first burst of laughter.
Freddy looked at Dave. Was he laughing? Did he hate the kid? Was he calling out to the head EP to find out what dumb-dumb had booked this comic?
Freddy shifted to get a better view.
A chuckle from Dave was one of the best endorsements the kid could get. It could set up his career, possibly get him noticed by Lorne Michaels, and let him earn some serious money.
Freddy pulled at the curtain to see Dave.
Was Dave getting ready to fire Freddy? If he got fired, could he live off Judy’s trust? What would her father say? He already suspected Freddy of gold-digging and had insisted on an iron-clad prenup. Freddy was a fool for having signed it.
After a few more jokes, Letterman brayed and slapped his desk, revealing the narrow gap between his front teeth.
Freddy’s shoulders dropped. Dave was really laughing. Not polite, hehe-dinner party snickering, but real ugly laughing.
Freddy beamed. His cheeks were beginning to hurt from how much he was smiling. He looked over at Porfirio who was holding his hands over his chest. His eyes were glazed as if he were about to cry.
Freddy said to Porfirio. “You’re a good agent.”
He wanted to add something else, offer his condolences about Mirta, promise to call more, check in regularly. But interrupting Porfirio’s joy in this moment seemed wrong, and he wasn’t sure if he could keep those promises. Instead, Freddy slapped Porfirio’s back and put his arm over his shoulder, as Porfirio had done after pulling him from the river. “Your boy is killing.”
Porfirio shook his head. “Our boy is killing.”
Madari Pendas is a Cuban-American writer, translator, and painter. She is the author of Crossing the Hyphen (Tolsun 2022). Her work has appeared in CRAFT, PANK, and more. Pendas has received awards from the Academy of American Poets, O, Miami, as well as two Pushcart nominations. She is a Lawrence Sanders Fellow at Florida International University where she is finishing her MFA in fiction.