Sitting in the back of the archetypical sunny yellow cab, hurtling down the Long Island Expressway, Harold took an inventory of his strongest opening lines. It was either the one about getting stuffed or the one about getting mounted. They were both pretty dirty—almost on par with the inside of the cab he was perched precariously inside, trying desperately to ensure his skin didn’t come into contact with the upholstery. Generally speaking, the filthier the comedian, the more laughs they received. Even among the taxidermists of the world. The cab driver stopped short of the covered entrance and waited. His position wasn’t ideal given the inclement weather.
“We’ll be waiting all day to get any closer … ” he craned his neck to look at Harold sitting directly behind him. Reluctant to get wet, Harold considered asking him to wait. He didn’t know what was worse—staying in the cab for a moment longer than he had to or getting out in the pouring rain.
“Are you right to jump out here sir?”
It had been a long time since Harold jumped anywhere.
“Yes, yes, okay.”
There were very few ways a large-bodied man, unwilling to get wet, could emerge from a cab in the pouring rain. Harold’s strategy was practical, but far from ingenious. After paying for his ride, his black compact umbrella opened, some don’t, outwards while Harold, still wedged inside the car, shuffled along the seat to prevent skin-to-vinyl contact. He slid the umbrella efficiently out and above the roof of the car, at just the right angle to ensure maximum protection. For a moment, Harold—legs kicking around trying to find the pavement, one arm desperately dragging his suitcase across the seat, the other grappling with the unruly umbrella—looked like a man being eaten by a menacing yellow cab.
* * *
Harold collected his overnight bag from the tired carousel and made his way through customs. Welcome to Vegas! The sign screamed, as loud, bright and blinding as the city itself. He could see why the annual taxidermy convention was in Las Vegas—the folks around him were perfect specimens, tanned and half pickled already. Preparing for another less-than-desirable cab ride, Harold wondered what exciting things were spinning the world of taxidermists these days (or ever) … new methods for tanning fine-haired creatures, the best way to mount a large-antlered beast, changes to licensing practices. As far as he was concerned, anyone who received a modicum of enjoyment from stuffing a dead animal must need a dose of comedy. The truth was, so did Harold.
He was a miserable old man who should have left the life of a comedian in his dreams while he continued to teach science to teenagers in Queens. The kids always laughed at his jokes, and that was really something because kids could be mean. Although he was probably a lot funnier back then, when life hadn’t done the taxidermy on him and stuffed him with unemployment, divorce and eventually a breakdown.
Harold was a dangerous mix of pragmatic and obsessive compulsive; the latter enhanced more so post-breakdown, a survival tactic. The result was a daily struggle for order in a world that was fast becoming more and more disordered. He was the guy who actually used the windscreen wipers on his SAAB’s headlights, had three different types of locks on his front door (and used them all, every time), rolled his socks four times before leaving the house and kept his air-conditioning at the recommended 24-degrees year-round. These were the daily troubles of Harold Whittaker.
Never a small man, post-divorce Harold had bulked up on the body insulation. He read in a magazine recently (at the doctor’s surgery of all places) that weight gain was a common result of divorce. No shit, he thought, it was what happened when you didn’t know how to look after yourself because the one person who knew how to, left you. Things were different now; fast food was tasty, exercise was exhausting and the pills appeared to be working. The life of a comedian wasn’t all laughs.
Harold opened the door of his motel room. The bastard organisers were too tight to spring for a room at the actual venue so he had to sleep in squalor ten blocks away. Sadly, it was similar in cleanliness to his cab earlier that day. The door (with only one lock!) stuck, the carpets were stained, the bed was barely made and the old-school antennaed television needed a good bang or two to get it working. What I wouldn’t do to turn back the clock ten years he thought morosely to himself as he drifted off to sleep in front of the onslaught of advertisements.
* * *
The lights were too bright, too warm; Harold felt nauseous but he put it down to the newest member in the family of meds he was taking. Like a screaming baby, it was letting him know it was there and a certain part of his life needed more attention. Any delegate unfortunate enough to be sitting in the front row would have seen the beads of sweat building on his forehead, coalescing and racing down his brow. They would have seen the flush of pink in his cheeks and smelt the sweetness on his breath. Harold was in bad shape. If he looked in the grimy mirror on his way out the motel earlier he would have seen for himself. But he was afraid of who he would see staring back at him. Instead, Harold knotted his tie four times and scrambled out the door. With a sharp intake of breath he began.
“I was driving down the street the other day and this taxidermist cut me off … I told him to get stuffed!”
The absence of laughter drew immediate concern, he’d thought long and hard about that opening line, a classic play-on-words. No one had thrown anything yet, that was always a good sign, although it probably wasn’t the crowd for throwing or booing. Thank goodness. He waited a moment longer, still nothing, then released a faint sound of laughter—emphasised by the mike—to indicate what he was hoping for. It was an old teaching trick. Still nothing.
“In a strange turn of events, I caught my dog mounting my taxidermist yesterday.” Nothing.
“What do you call a hybrid cat and donkey? He waited again. “A Cat-ass-trophy!” Still nothing.
Then, from somewhere in the crowd: “Drop dead!”
Harold grasped his chest, gasped for air, and for once, someone took a taxidermist seriously.