It was lunch and Lou Salvatore felt like the CEO of one of those tanking corporations he'd read about lately. The numbers had been bad for so long he could no longer pretend things would get better on their own. Desperate steps were in order.
"Tommy. The bookings is drying up. Everybody's seen the act. You gotta either come up with new material or take the old out of town." They were meeting in the usual 40th Street deli--near the Automat where the agent and entertainer had initially clinched their partnership, during the first Gulf War. Today, Tommy Sherman, professional comedian, was examining the surgically sliced bread of his tuna on white. "There's a joke there," he thought, but none came. Maybe that was age: at thirty-seven the synapses weren't firing as cleanly as at twenty-seven--when he'd done Letterman. Well, hadn't Einstein finished his best work before thirty--and the guy from A Beautiful Mind? But that was physics, not comedy. Still, the point hung there. Time was running away, diving into a black hole as smoothly as Chaplin into a sight gag.
"Sure, Sally. I understand," Tommy cracked, "You gotta make your fifteen percent regular." Tommy pushed his glasses up his nose--a reflex acquired at Erasmus High to block the thick lenses from breakage when he wised off. Compared to Lou "Sally" Salvatore, or the J.D.'s back in Brooklyn who'd christened him Carrot Boy, Tommy was as tough as a Twinkie.
Sally bit a smile into the pastrami on rye between his butcher-thick fingers. He chewed casually, head down. The tell was his scalp, going purple through the weeds of his comb-over. "Don't be a punk," Sally said and bore his tiny eyes through Tommy's pupils. "I could say some things about you, kid, but that would be like telling a fighter in the fifteenth he looks tired." Sally was a round small man whose fearlessness and volatility were exacerbated by his compact size. Like a cannonball with a gunpowder fuse, you never knew when he would explode or with how much shrapnel. Sally calmed himself with a belch then continued chewing.
Tommy's heart, leaping like a salmon up his throat, prevented him from swallowing. So he played with his lunch, flipping back its pale top slice to uncover the mash of tuna. "Sally," he said, offering conciliation, "You think this fish ever dreamed he'd wind up in the city?"
"Lucky fish," Sally replied without observing. "Eat!" he commanded, his nose maroon, dented and veined, his mouth full and spitting but not empty of affection.
"What do you mean, you're going out of town? Where outta town? And what do you expect me to do in the meantime? Walk your dog morning, noon and midnight. In this slush? I gotta life too, you know, Tommy. It's not like we was married for better and worse or something. What's in it for me, Tommy, what's in it for me?" Sheila Shebelski talked like a dame because her mother used to mimic Joan Blondell characters; someone once told her she had Joan Blondell's voluptuous cheekbones. The daughter inherited her mother's looks and adopted sass so accurately that Tommy was often tempted to push a grapefruit into Sheila's face. But Tommy wasn't Jimmy Cagney, though he had his standup thick red hair, and Joan Blondell wasn't Mae Clarke, and this wasn't the movies either--even if Tommy once played a bit role in an indie film starring Sandra Bernhard. "Mr. Hollywood" Sheila called him whenever he got too big for his knickers. "So, Mr. Hollywood, you're going south on a comedy tour. And why can't I come and work on my tan, too?" Tommy pushed Sheila onto the couch, where she squirmed out of her jeans so that Tommy could calm her. "Careful, Red, I'm ovulating," the good Catholic girl protested, though not too firmly. Tommy wasn't worried; he had perfect rhythm, for comedy anyway. Later, under cover of Sheila's contented snores, Tommy packed a bag, woke Bluto Blutarsky to change the fat Labrador's flea collar and crunched through the dirty lingering March snowbanks down to Chinatown. He added himself to a queue of Asian men wearing thin white clothes and stamped along against the East River gusts slicing up from the Manhattan Bridge. Finally the coach door opened, the kramden punched his twenty dollar one-way--Sally knew how to conserve travel expenses--and they were rolling.
"You work in restaurant out of town, too, Mister?" the man in the adjoining seat inquired.
"Sometimes," Tommy said, sympathetic to the hooded eyes trying to figure out why he was on the 3:00 a.m. bus.
"I sleep now." The man closed his eyes and folded his arms over his chest.
Tommy saw the swollen dishpan knuckles and realized how lucky he was. There were worse ways than comedy to make a living, even if you had to hit the highway once in a while. And it had been a while. The last time Tommy set shoe leather beyond the city was a decade before--a trip to Stamford for an aunt's farewell. Despite concentrating on the sendoff's comic ingredients--the aunt was obese and he was a pall bearer--Tommy felt vulnerable. Outside the cover of tall buildings, nature imposed itself, was ready to swoop down from infinity and spirit souls away screaming in its claws. To the detriment of his comic development, Tommy had avoided travel ever since--even to Chicago, which cultivated its own nurturing skyscrapers but also blew a cool Second City welcome to native New York funny men who hadn't made the big time in a home town that would have discovered them if they were truly funny. So Sally was sending Tommy south, and as the coach entered the long driveway of the New Jersey Turnpike, Tommy gazed sentimentally home. The glittering silhouette of the city seemed out of balance--until he remembered. Still, he couldn't stop staring at what was no longer there, and the wrench of loss helped stifle the panic of departure.
Back in the big city, Tommy's shtick was to play the typically beset, chronically obnoxious New York City kvetcher at the tourist comedy clubs. It wasn't helping his act that, over his twenty-year career, the terrain of the city had become much more habitable: bereft of garbage strikes and graffiti, derelict windshield washers and crack drivebys. The murder rate was down, 42nd Street had gone from XXX to R. What was there to complain about? Well there was something. The growing niceness of New York was uncharacteristic of the hard city memorialized by Cagney, Garfield, Lancaster, De Niro. Tommy hadn't even been mugged in a decade--a fact that eventually became the core joke of his act: nostalgia for the bad old days when life was hard and men were mugs and women were broads. Where were the chain smokers and all-night drinkers of yore? Where was the half-controlled chaotic ferment that scarred you and made life dangerous but sweet, as if just getting through the day was an accomplishment worthy of serious reward? A life spent in New York City was a life lived at its sharpest pitch. That theme in Tommy's act was what attracted Lou Salvatore. Sally was the real article: a tough. He'd grown up poor in the 1940s and found his dream in movies like Body and Soul that took place in his neighborhood and offered him exemplars like Garfield's bloodied Charlie Davis, who made it to top of the world--which meant being on top of New York like King Kong. As a youth, Sally was good enough to spar at Stillman's Gym, where he earned his nickname. He gave up boxing when Lou Ingbar banned him because his reach was too short for his weight division. Sally changed his dream to the next best thing: being one of the city's hustling seven million--the Quinn to Garfield's Davis--and liking it. But that didn't preclude nostalgia, which was where Tommy fit in. In the early '90s, Sally discovered Tommy on stage blowing the minds of some wheat-haired Wisconsin farmers: "Fuck you, asshole. I'm mean really. . . . Fuck . . . You . . . Asshole. That's how you say I love you in New Yawk. So don't feel bad when somebody yells it in the street. It just takes practice to get used to. Now, look to your neighbor, go ahead and say it. . . . Fuck . . . You . . . Asshole. C'mon, say it. I love you, in New Yorkese." And the farmers did. From the back of the club, Sally lit a fresh cigar. Seeing those cursing yokels warmed something deep in his heart--his uncynical love of big city cynicism. Afterwards--starting with a handshake the next day at the Horn and Hardart--it was champagne and roses for a couple of years, culminating in Tommy's cleaned-up Letterman appearance . . . and then a long, slow wind-down. Tastes were changing but Tommy stayed rooted in New York's past. Sally figured it was up to him to break the spell cast by the old city of dreams. Hence the bus ticket south.
"They ate it up, Sally. And licked the bowl." Tommy had just played Chief Ike's Mambo Club in Adams Morgan and was now calling from the other side of the Key Bridge. His room at the Motel Fifty in Arlington was a moderately clean box with road rattle from the semis headed north into the District of Columbia. Tommy was pacing like a caged hyena. "I added some local color. You know, sympathy for a southern Democratic town invaded by Texas Republicans."
"That's good, kid." Sally lived halfway up a tower on 29th Street. Bleary with sleep, he looked out his bedroom window. Over the wood ensconced water tanks atop the opposite roof, he could make out 3:18 on the MetLife Tower clock. He'd crashed an hour before, after finishing rounds at the Surf and the Cellar maintaining the in-town talent. He was getting too old to hand-hold clients twenty-four-by-seven. Tommy would get an exemption this time.
"I warmed 'em with the usual stuff about surviving in New York, Sally. Polite laughs, right. Nice, grateful people, appreciative of talent from the big city. I want to entertain them. So I'm thinking: Washington; politics--right.. Something comes to me: 'better dead than red, like who came up with that slogan, not one of my people, not a redhead.' Bigger laughs. I'm getting confident. I go topical. Items of national interest. I don't know where it came from, maybe reading the Times because I was homesick, but, Sally, I riffed on this Christian versus Muslim thing for twenty minutes. It was a tsunami. Stuff like, 'so I hear Islam is a very violent religion, which explains why we Christians gotta bomb the shit of them' type of thing. Sally, I may be on to something. The big laughs are back."
"You did good, kid. Just watch the sacrilege. Remember, south of the Potomac, never use the words fuck and Jesus in the same sentence. Especially where you're headed."
"Where's that, Sally?"
"First stop, Richmond. Pick up your ticket at the front desk tomorrow morning."
"Yeah, but the University. Should be a hospitable climate." It was Sally's plan to keep Tommy in a safe bubble of open flexible minds, which was why, below D.C., he'd arranged only college campus appearances for his boy--bookings he'd nailed through the goodwill the Apple still generated around the country, even the normally antagonistic South. It was risky, but Tommy had been slowly dying at home. That was the danger most New Yorkers faced. It wasn't that the City wasn't the greatest place in the world to reach your potential, but, if you lived in it without experiencing how paltry life was elsewhere, you could start wearing the same grooves in the sidewalk. A comedian locked in a routine might as well emigrate to Sheboygan--where, Sally figured, Tommy had already been living half a decade, playing the same lines for the same crowd with different faces each night after week after month after year. Until now. "Calm down and get some sleep, kid," Sally recommended and hung the receiver. "Topical, huh," he thought, shutting his eyes toward an approaching dream: was that Kong scaling the Chrysler Building, or Godzilla? The master plan was going just like New York and then some.
As Tommy worked his way through the Dixie colleges, Sally was angling the publicity. His worst-case scenario had been to envision Tommy at some sleepy Southern college doing the same act he'd done in New York: yadda, yadda, fuck-it-if-you-can't-take-a-joke, yadda. But that incongruity had a comic oddity worth at least a line in the talent rags--something, anything to blow a little dust off of Tommy's career when he got home. With Tommy harvesting the media for fresh material, however, the situation had evolved. In a dark Tulane rathskeller he gave the kids some updated Lenny Bruce: "You know times have changed when the latest youth movement slogan is Give War a Chance. Fuuuuck. What's a matter with you people?" Tommy spoke the lines straight into a video camera pointed by a boy with spiked hair. The kid was wired with so much technology that Tommy played him between gags: "Who are you, fucking La Guardia air traffic control?. . . Hey, punk, run me the odds on Ms. Rapunzel in the ninth at Belmont." The young audience would laugh, though he didn't know if they got half the allusions; the lines were throwaways to keep the momentum going. That was the thing. Momentum. You had to ride it to the bitter end because once you broke stride who knows if you'd ever get anything like it back. It was the story, in short, of Tommy's one-trick pony career. Till now. "This way, Tobor," he told the boy with the camera and went into the audience. His first stop was a table containing three blonde co-eds with big hair and bright pink lips. "This the bus stop for the cotillion?" The young women giggled, enjoying the spotlight. "You girls sweet potato queens?" Tommy said, drawing on a popular book of Southern women's humor; Sheila had read him the funniest parts in bed, saying over and over, "This shit does me, Tommy. You should use it." Well, finally, he would. That was how his comedy worked when it worked best--easy as birdsong. A little improv, a little theft, a little shock, all coming out faster than he could think. "You read that book, huh, girls? So I guess you know my next question. Which one of you really blows?" If Tommy feared for a second that he'd gone over the top, the girls laughter told him this was the New South. He went off to harass the next table.
That night Tommy closed Tulane on a relatively serious note. That was the danger of mining current events for comedy instead of one's own personal disasters--you grew a conscience. Fortunately, the slick surface of Tommy's delivery didn't betray how strongly he felt--at least not to his live audience. "You know, despite being a Yankee from a large metropolitan area, I am firmly against this gun control thing. Firmly. It's crazy. I mean, look at Canada: same percentage of guns, one-eighth the gun killings. I'm telling you, guns don't kill people. Americans do." Bada-boom. For Tommy, guns were a litmus test for membership in the species Homo Sapiens. If you owned a gun, especially a hand gun, you were a dupe or a stoop but definitely Neanderthal. Tommy had never needed a gun. His mouth was his deadly weapon.
Sally picked up the telephone ringing in his dingy inner office on the 74th floor of the Empire State Building. The address didn't have the major prestige it once did and his suite had no windows, but the rent was affordable. More important, being there made Sally happy. He was inhabiting a living monument to everything he considered worthy in the human endeavor: hustle, power, success and, most importantly, an unabashed admission that dreams counted, symbolic proof that even if you failed at least you tried to storm heaven. Sally put the receiver to his ear and swiveled to face the giant photograph of lower Manhattan tacked to the south wall of his office--the view he would have had if he had a view. He'd taken the picture himself with a borrowed Hasselblad, pointing it out the window of his neighbor's suite on a crystal clear January morning after shooting the millennial celebration all night.
"Lou Salvatore, here," he told the caller and, after listening a moment, "Yeah, yeah, I represent Tommy Sherman. But if you want to book him, he's gone south. Last stop in Texas-- Oh, you know that, huh. You're with the Times . . . saw Tommy's act on some college fraternity's Internet site . . . Yeah, quote him all you want. What's he been saying? . . . Provocative. That's Tommy. Listen, once Sherman's March tour is over, he'll be coming home to the city briefly. Why don't we set up an interview now-- What did I say? An interview, like for the Sunday magazine. Before that? His March tour. He's a busy guy-- Right, Sherman's March tour; he's got tours every month lately. So if you want an interview, we oughta schedule now. . . ." Revealing supreme concentration, Sally's gaze was riveted on the perpetual morning sun reflected in the south tower of the old Trade Center. Here was a dream revived and he wasn't going to let it slip.
On the yellowing flokati rug in the Village apartment she shared with Tommy, Sheila was leaning against the couch and combing down Bluto Blutarsky with a wire brush, the dog's head a lump of lead in her lap. As she stroked, she sang something vaguely remembered from childhood: "Hush-a-bye, sleep baby, when you wake, you'll have, all the pretty horses." It was the end of March and Tommy had been gone three and half weeks. She missed trading cracks with him and was glad for the two phone calls. But for the moment she felt relieved he was away. Choosing earrings for work that morning--she favored large ones indiscriminately--Sheila had paused dizzily at the bathroom sink, then heaved. Well, she had warned Tommy that last time and he went ahead anyway. He must have wanted a child as badly as she did--she hoped.
"That's it, fatso," she told the Labrador and stopped brushing to watch a little evening cable. Bluto gave a pathetic, pleading yowl that was almost language. "Mutt, I said, that's all. You dumb or something? My leg's asleep. Lucky to get what you got. What the--" Sheila cut off her harangue to stare at the TV. The image was grainy, but that was definitely Tommy's carrot hair and Tommy's voice.
"I'm telling you," Tommy was saying, "Guns don't kill people. Americans do," and then a quick cut to Tommy gesturing to his head, "Better red than dead, muther fu--" Bleep. "Better red than dead."
Tommy disappeared from the screen, replaced by a familiar talking head Sheila loved to hate, especially for that mouth full of perfect white corn kernel teeth. The heavy man shook his jowls and spoke glibly as he always did. "Bad taste is one thing, folks, and humor is relative. But personally, I would not appreciate an outsider coming into my kids' college to foment treason under the guise of humor. You don't even want to know what this character said to the young ladies in the audience. Freedom of speech may be protected by our Constitution, ladies and gentleman, but that doesn't allow so-called funnymen like Tommy Sherman to traipse about our great land disparaging the common heritage of true Americans. Now understand this, according to that oracle of wisdom The New York Times, Tommy Sherman has named his comedy tour of the southern states Sherman's March. And just like General Sherman did to the Old South, this new Sherman intends to leave cultural devastation in his path. Somebody ought to do something. That's one man's opinion. Mine. Good night, all."
At the bar of the Rubber Monkey, Lou Salvatore was proudly wearing a vintage pin-striped suit and obliviously clashing with the lounge's striped wallpaper. The joint was more raucous then he liked for his acts, who had to compete for attention with an audience that thought every night was Mardi Gras with TriBeCa being New Orleans. His latest discovery--big, blonde, tattooed, hip-hop Iggy Reilly--was playing the small back room and holding his own--at least if the screams were for him and not from him. Sally was taking a rum and cigar break, commiserating between puffs with the bartender about the smoking ban, when his cell phone rang. "Sheila," he told the phone and listened for a good three minutes while sipping down a finger of Bacardi in his tumbler. He puffed the Hoyo then started laughing. "What's so funny, Sheila? What's so funny? Tommy Sherman, that's what. He's done it, Sheila. Tommy's saved himself. First the Times, now he's on cable news. We're talking national recognition, Sheila. Letterman. Saturday Night Live. The frickin' sky's the limit now, Sheila. Tommy's gonna come home a hero. I tell you what. We're not even gonna finish the last shows down in Texas. I'll call him right now. Get him to an airport. Yeah, Sheila. I promise. Right now. I'm on it, kid. Yeah, yeah, I'm calling him right now." Sally closed the phone and smiled at the glass-eyed ram's head over the bar. "Here's to your horns, pal," he complimented and raised the tumbler. Before it reached his lips something crashed in the room Iggy was playing. Then came a gladiatorial roar as if the emperor of Rome had just given a thumbs down in the Coliseum "Saaaally," he heard Iggy cry. "Yeah, yeah," Sally said and he took a deep puff before diving into the back room to save the client at hand.
Just as Sally was attempting to rescue Iggy from the tumult at the Rubber Monkey, Tommy Sherman was settling in at the Fort Jericho Motor Lodge. The check-in clerk had boasted about the great views of the desert and mountains over the Mexican border. Entering the room, Tommy shut the curtains. All that raw nature was freaky, like an uninhabited planet or earth at the end of time. On the bus ride down from Houston, the wasted landscape, punctuated only by an occasional see-sawing oil pump, had induced Tommy to scrounge a pill out of his dopp kit. Inside the protective Xanax bubble, Tommy wandered back to New York, back to the ebb and flow of millions of people all working and building something together--the City--yet also hustling for their own individual purposes. It was so different from the landscape endlessly repeating itself outside the bus window, where the relentless entropy of nature had worn things down till all that was left was sand. Norlisa Chang, the sloe-eyed, coffee-guzzling CUNY philosophy post-grad who'd latched onto him during his Letterman days, explained it to him: why he needed the action in the city like she did caffeine, and why he and his viper-tongued talent belonged there: "See, Tommy, you get energy razzing people, daring them to actually think about how they're living. Your joking is a mode of big city norm enforcement. Every time you rag on a Wall Street shill or even some ditz peeing in an alley, others are less likely to follow in their footsteps. If Athens had Socrates, New York has its Tommy Shermans. Big deal, your mouth's a sewer. Tommy, you're civilization operating at its highest pitch." Well, he'd managed to fool Norlisa for a few months. And now he had Sheila. Not bad for a skinny, red-haired Brooklyn big mouth with coke bottle glasses--Carrot Boy.
In his room at Fort Jericho, Tommy was still trying to shake the mellowing effects of the Xanax. Given half an excuse he would have canceled that night's show, even the whole damn lonely tour at this point. He just wanted to be home. To stiffen his spine, Tommy picked up the phone--Sheila would snap him out of the mood. Or, better, maybe tell him to come straight back to the city. "Ah, c'mon," he said to the busy signal. He was ready to dial again when he heard a knock.
Tommy opened the door and two young men greeted him. "We're here to take you to the show, sir, at Jericho College," one of them said with a pleasant Texas twang.
"Who are you, the Bobbsey twins?" quipped Tommy. The young men were wearing pointed-toe cowboy boots, black jeans, wide belts with lone star buckles and black Stetsons. Their shirts were button-down and plaid and their faces remarkably fresh, guileless and clear.
"Yes, sir. I'm Bob and he's Zee," said the speaker deadpan.
Tommy looked at them a moment. "You guys are funny, I'll be with you in a minute."
It was a little early to be picked up for the show, but this was service for a change, door-to-door, like he was a wheel. Tommy started getting dressed. "You guys are students, huh?"
"Yes, sir," said the one who spoke.
"So what do you do for fun down here at the bottom of the world?"
"Pick up girls. Go to the drive-in."
"You still got drive-ins. Never been to one, myself."
"It was closed a while. They started it back up."
"That's nice for you kids."
"So what are you're real names?"
"Bobbsey twins. Your real names. C'mon. Give."
"Why I'm Bob and this is Zee, sir."
"You're shittin' me."
Bob and Zee drove an immaculate black GM pickup with fat tires that looked like claws. Tommy got in on the passenger side and Zee slid in after, shoving Tommy to the center of the leather bench seat.
"Nice and friendly," Tommy said and squeezed his knees together like he was on the subway. Bob put the truck in drive and kicked up a dust devil as they left the lodge's parking lot. "Where's the fire, kid?" Tommy asked.
"We got a ways to go, sir," Bob said.
Tommy didn't get suspicious until twenty minutes later, when Bob turned off a washboard road and headed into the desert.
"So where the hell's this college of yours."
"Out there," Bob said.
"What are ya studying? The epistemology of sand?"
"That's a good one, sir."
"Didn't think I was that smart, did you?"
"You are, sir."
Bob drove for another half hour under the light of a crescent moon. Though there was no road, he seemed to know where he was going. As far as Tommy was concerned that was nowhere. Finally Bob stopped the truck and said, "We're here, sir."
"Here?" Tommy said, "What the fuck you talking. Here. This is nowhere."
Zee got out of the truck and took something from a cargo box in the bed.
"What are you doing back there?" Tommy asked and Zee showed him the gun. "You little fucks," Tommy said, though he was shorter than the boys who were Texas tall.
Now Zee pointed the gun. Tommy had been in similar situations, though not exactly. Back at Erasmus, the kids had been rough but rarely deadly. He could usually joke his way out of a beating. Once, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, he'd even cracked up a mugger who after taking the cash gave him back his wallet in exchange for the laugh. But for this situation, with such polite and earnest assailants, he had no precedent.
"We're sorry, sir. You'll have to get out of the truck now."
"I'm not getting out," Tommy said. He heard Zee cock the revolver. "All right. All right."
Tommy stepped down and his low shoes filled with sand. Zee was still pointing the gun and backed him away from the truck. "So this is it, huh? This is how Tommy Sherman's story ends. Look, let me ask you something. What are you so pissed at?"
"Oh, we're not angry, sir. We're just taking care of a little American business."
"Hey! I'm American. Born and bred."
"Yes, sir. Now, step away from the truck," Bob said.
Zee got into the pickup and stuck his arm out of the window. He tossed the gun at Tommy's feet. Tommy looked at it. "What?" he said.
"Watch for the rattlesnakes. They cozy to body heat. You'll probably need to use that revolver, sir. Squeeze the trigger slowly," Bob said.
The pickup started to move and Zee spoke for the first time. "Now ya'll see what guns is for. Folks 'round here usually save the last bullet in case they git snake bit. You'd know why if you'd ever seed a snake bit corpse, all black and swoll. You got six shots, so better count good."
"Don't be mean, Frank," the boy who called himself Bob said.
"Bob . . . Frank . . . Zee! Don't leave me out here. This ain't even nowheresville. Guys. C'mon. Oh, man, at least point me toward the subway. C'mon, guys. Guys!" Tommy shouted until the truck's taillights faded.
Father Dumbrowski dipped the screaming infant three times as Lou Salvatore held its tiny arm. "Don't worry, kid. I'll make sure he don't drown ya," Sally whispered. He had renounced Satan for the child, not that he'd ever followed him, but now it was official. He was a godfather. He liked Sheila and was sure the kid was Tommy's. The red hair and myopic squint were better than a DNA test. Which was why he'd given to Sheila Tommy's full percentage of the HBO special. "Renounce Satan," Sally thought, "I'm a friggin' saint."
"I'm so happy," Sheila said. She was crying as she wrapped little Tommy in his blanket. December had turned cold if not bitter.
" 'At's good," was all Sally could think to say. He missed Tommy, too, but knew he couldn't imagine how badly Sheila must. Ultimately, he blamed himself for sending Tommy on the road.
"Where do you think, he is?" Sheila asked.
"Someplace real nice." Sally replied.
"The schmuck," Sheila said. Clutching little Tommy, Sheila held fast to Sally as they navigated the icy steps of Saint Joseph's.
Tommy Sherman had not been seen since March 27. According to the Texas Highway Patrol, Frank and Grady Cole had dropped off the comedian ten miles into the Chihuahua Desert with the intention of making him miss his performance at the college.
"All he had to do was follow them town lights to get back home. Any child knows that," Frank complained.
The boys had turned themselves in after news of the missing comic made the front page of the Fort Jericho Gazette, which picked up the missing persons report filed long distance by Lou and Sheila. By then a week had gone by, and all that turned up after a modest search of the region was an old, unfired Colt revolver with six live rounds. The gun was jammed barrel down in the sand.
"Rattlers," the newly loquacious Frank explained, "We gave him a gun and told him to watch for rattlers. But there ain't none in that part of the Chihuahua; just jackrabbits. We figured he'd take those jacks for snakes and bang, bang, bang. Hell, we was just trying to teach him to use that gun."
"Shut up, Frank," Grady said.
As the years passed, legends grew about the disappearance of Tommy Sherman, and Lou Salvatore heard most of them. His favorite was that Tommy had somehow crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico, where he marched south out of the desert and on down into Central then South America. According to this story, Tommy is now doing New York City insult stand-up to a lost tribe of Yanomamo who consider him mad and venerate him as a shaman. Every once in a while, Sally gets a call from one stranger or another who's seen the Tommy Sherman HBO special and claims the comic is performing at a small private comedy room over the Third and 42nd Street Horn and Hardart. "You're nuts," Sally generally replies, "That Automat was shut down in '91." Sally's had enough of these calls to put them off to some chain-mail practical joke. Still, the thought that Tommy's ghost was in the city consoled him, not in the least because Sally had no reason to be haunted--he was doing the right thing. The Sherman's March Tour video, compiled from the Tulane fraternity's tapes, is still a steady seller, and Sally is making sure that Sheila and little Tommy, who is growing like a carrot, get their rightful cut. Though he never brings up the subject of Tommy's ghost with Sheila, Sally likes to imagine that his boy is back where he belongs.
Tommy Sherman was following a sliver of desert moon with the revolver heavy in his hand when something ran across his feet. "What the fuck," he said, pointing the gun at the noise. Something darted again. "Hey, you!" he shouted. "Yeah, you!" Hearing a human voice, even though it was just his own, gave him comfort. Tommy got down on his haunches and squinted. He saw the glint of two dark eyes staring at him and aimed the gun. Then he saw more and more eyes all around him, and then the ears. "Jesus fucking Christ. Bunnies," Tommy said. He sat down in the desert, laughing. It was creepy as hell out there in the middle of nature, but somehow the rabbits made it better. He smashed the barrel of the revolver into the sand, where it stood like a flag. Tommy felt O.K. now that he was free of it. The gun reminded him too much of the few times he'd actually faced death, handing over his wallet while looking down the barrel of a mugger's weapon. Maybe that was why most New Yorkers hated guns, because the only civilians in the city who used them were thugs, hoods or twisted adolescents. Tommy got up and started walking, lighter now, still tracking the moon. After a while, he heard a hiss that turned into the sound of rushing water and he descended onto a soft river bank. "Just like the Palisades," Tommy thought, "All I gotta do is follow the river till I find a bridge. Civilization." But walking got harder and one of Tommy's shoes sucked off into the watery sand. In a moment, he was up to his knees and couldn't raise a leg to save his life. "Crazy," he thought, "Like some Abbott and Costello movie. Hey!" He'd seen this gag before in Africa Screams. "You gotta be kidding," Tommy went down repeating, "You fucking gotta be kidding." As wet sand filled the raised cave of his mouth, a gigantic leathery paw lifted him gently and held him warm and secure. They were climbing now, higher and higher, up the side of the biggest building Tommy had ever seen. When they reached the top, Kong raised Tommy to the sky so he could see all the sparkling lights of the city.