Roosevelt stood backstage at The Hyena, waiting for his name to be called. He adjusted his tie and straightened out his suit. By his reckoning, he was the only comedian to wear a suit and tie at these clubs. The others looked like total schlubs with dirty jeans and a hoodie. He kept it classy.
Derek Heart was the opener. A newbie, he struggled through some jokes but got in a few zingers. Giving his last punchline, he said, “That’s all, Friendsies. See you next time!” A slight applause trickled and popped but didn’t make an uproar.
Heart passed by, saying insincerely, “Good luck, Rosie.” He smirked and made a beeline for the green room.
“Ladies and Gentleman,” said a deep, computer-generated voice. “Put your hands together for…Roosevelt Degazio!”
Roosevelt straightened his tie, combed his fingers through his wavy brown hair, and walked out on stage with his head held high. The blinding lights kept the surrounding room mostly dark but he saw some of it. A small, divey bar, few people came out to the Hyena. A fat white guy with three chins and grease spots on his white shirt sat up front. He had a big beer mug in his hand, looking hungry for jokes. A couple sat in the middle, not paying attention to the stage. Others were scattered here and there but the rest of the seats were filled with blue holograms of people back home. They got the full experience without having to go anywhere.
He did a few soft openers and warmed the crowd up, weaving in and out of topics seamlessly. The jokes landed every time, building momentum. For Roosevelt, comedy was a chemistry that needed to be perfectly blended together, and he was a master chemist.
Finally, he came to his major topic. The topic he knew would kill.
“So, how about this Dominus Corporation? Don’t they own everything now? I hear they have drones now that can come to your house and deliver your groceries,” he paused, allowing things to sink in and prepping them for the punchline. “Who knows? In the future, I bet they’ll have someone come and talk to my wife.” He didn’t have a wife.
A few giggled but the fat guy busted a gut, slapping his hand on the table. The laughter bar moved to yellow but he needed green to make money.
“Hey, Dominus,” he continued. “Tell you what, why don’t you come and have someone take my kids to school. That’s what I really need.” He didn’t have kids.
The fat guy spat out his beer and almost fell out of his chair. The laughter bar almost hit green when the mic died and a dark figure came and pulled him off the stage.
“What the heck are you thinking, Degazio? Are you insane?” Barry, the stage manager, yelled. “You can’t say anything about Dominus on stage. Do you understand? Pretty sure we told you that.”
“I know, but…”
“This place is owned by them.”
“Yeah, I get that…”
“Shut up! Get out of my face!”
“Am I getting paid?”
Barry’s dead eyes answered his question.
Roosevelt put on his black single-breasted button up and walked out the back door into a cold, dark alley. He put on his sunglasses and checked his messages. His girlfriend Jenette needed to talk. Seconds away from asking Robin, his personal AI, to call her, someone smacked him in the face, knocking his glasses off, and grabbed him by the collar, violently thrusting him against the alley wall.
“Where’s my money, Rosie?” a gruff voice said, his breath smelling like meat, cheese, and bad beer. He knew that smell. Briggs.
Roosevelt coughed and tried to smile. “Look, look, I don’t have it right now.”
Briggs punched him in the gut. “Say it again. Come on. Say it.” Despite his anger, his voice was even-keeled as if it made him zen.
“I have five cred in my pocket. I’ll have more tomorrow.”
Briggs threw him on the ground and kicked him in the crotch. “I don’t want your scraps. I want 5,000 cred by next week. If not, you’re dead. Do you understand?”
“Yeah. Yeah. Next week. You’ll get it.”
Briggs’ hollow cackle echoed off the alley walls like he knew exactly what Roosevelt knew – He was a dead man. Earning 5,000 cred in a week was impossible.
His glasses, resting on the dark pavement, lit up. Letting out a painful moan, he crawled over to get them and placed them on his head.
“Hello?” he said, hiding the pain in his voice.
“Roosevelt, we need to talk,” Jenette said.
“Let’s talk at home.” She hung up.
He whimpered. “Nice talking to you, too. Loved hearing your voice. Let’s chat again sometime. Sound good? Oh good.” He licked his lips and sat up. “And I’m talking to myself in a darkened alley. Awesome.”
When he arrived home, Jenette sat on the couch and patted it gently, motioning for him to come sit. He hung up his coat and took a seat, forcing a smile. She reached out and held his hands. They were cold but her growing smile exuberated warmth.
His eyes grew wide. “How…how is that…that’s uh…that’s great!”
“Yes. Absolutely. So great,” he said, his words didn’t match the dull tone of his voice and the uncomfortable grimace. She didn’t pick up on any of it. If she could see inside his head, she’d hear a loud bone shattering scream. He could hardly pay his own bills much less Briggs. How could he afford a baby? Without getting paid at the Hyena, his income was going to dry up quick. A horrific realization hit him harder than Briggs ever could.
His career in comedy was over.
For as long as he could remember, it was his dream to be a comedian. Something he’d been mastering for years, now over.
A sick feeling lingered in his stomach after he swallowed a heavy dose of reality. If he didn’t get out of town, he’d be dead in a week and then his child would grow up fatherless, struggling to make it in Everdon City.
“Listen, I have something to say, too…” he began.
He didn’t know the words that would come out of his mouth next until over her shoulder and through the window, he saw several bright, glowing billboards, flashing advertisements. One had the words: DOMINUS AGRA – We provide the tools. You provide for your family.
“Dominus Agra,” he blurted out.
He looked into her eyes. “I’m signing up for Dominus’s Agriculture Sharing program out on Bromurus. I hear you can make a killing.”
“But, what about our life here in Everdon?”
“Look, Jen, I don’t have the money for a baby. I barely can take care of myself. We’re going to need to do something drastic to make this work.”
“But…your comedy…and I mean…do you even know how to farm?”
“Oh, come on, their AI does everything for you. You’re basically a babysitter. But I hear you get paid serious cred.”
“Another thing…we have to pack up right now. We have to leave this week.”
“This week!” she yelled, standing up and looking down on him like he’d gone crazy.
They spent the whole night arguing until he finally fessed up to why exactly he had to leave so soon. Realizing he didn’t have much of a choice, she agreed to it. They trashed everything that could be traced back to them.
The day of, they walked on to a Dominus Beta Class shuttle, holding hands. As it took off, Roosevelt looked longingly on Everdon City’s massive skyline and frowned. The shuttle pierced through Apleron’s atmosphere and entered into space. He couldn’t believe he convinced Jenette to do this, couldn’t believe he had a new lease on life, couldn’t believe his life in comedy had ended after all those years. Leaving was his final joke and something told him Briggs wouldn’t laugh this time.
Here’s hoping, he thought, my final joke doesn’t end with a thud.