“Anyone seen my collar?”
Danny frowned at the silent room.
John’s chin nestled neatly into his wattles as he squinted at the wig he was turning about in his lap.
“I haven’t.” He managed, somehow, through the tiered mass of compressed flesh.
Eddie, sewing a pair of lederhosen, grunted negative through teeth holding a thread tight.
Danny glimpsed himself in the old burlesque mirror. The white greasepaint left behind in the crevices around his eyes gave him a ghostly aspect. The paunch in his jumper–he only now realized he’d fallen asleep still partly in costume–was alarming. On the dresser in this image’s foreground there cluttered make-up and brushes, scraps of wardrobe, notes, a half-eaten Soybar, a massive black dildo, a pair of masks, old show programs, unidentifiable things, yellow prescription bottles, something half consumed by fire; all piled there like temple offerings to his living portrait. He sighed.
“I’m taking a walk.” He pulled a moth-eaten raccoon coat out from under a pile.
His cigarette was lit before the door closed behind him.
“Danny Boy!” A cowboy in chaps practicing with a lasso hailed him from across the muddy lane separating the rows of trailers.
“Morning, Tex.” He waved. “Taking a walk.”
The cowboy smiled and nodded. Danny started out as if he had a destination. He passed a surfer in a bathrobe loading beach scene props onto a cart. Most of the performers hadn’t stirred from their trailers. A stray cat skittered past ahead of him. A light fog lingered beneath an overcast sky. He liked when the camp was still asleep, when he could imagine they were anybody, anywhere.
The big tent occupied a slight hollow where the fog lingered, lapping at its edges. The pennants on its peaks hung damply limp. Its slanting support ropes vanished into the mist on the ground where he could see one or two figures moving about. It looked smaller than when he first saw it years ago.
“There’s a system.” The man who would become Danny’s predecessor had said. “We open with a short stand-up routine. Standard white-joke genre, lots of self-deprecation–do you know what that means?”
Danny nodded, lying.
“A little sexual inferiority here, a little intellectual inferiority there. It sets the tone.” He spoke without enthusiasm. Danny’s stomach growled. He had been promised a meal.
“Then there’s a skit. We have five basic skits; one is the historical skit, involving a figure from US history. He’s a bumbling conniver, saved from some ill-fated and corrupt scheme by his dependent slaves or servants. It usually features his cuckolding by one or more of them. Sometimes he is hauled off by the Indians.”
Danny was barely paying attention now. He wanted to sit; his sore feet felt as if they were melting into flattening blobs like putty on a hot sidewalk.
“We finish with a song and dance. Don’t worry, you don’t have to know how to dance. If you’re called on to dance it’s to dance badly, because that’s the idea. You don’t know how to dance, right?”
“Right.” Said Danny.
“Good.” He looked Danny up and down. “You’ll have to learn some basic pratfalls, nothing serious. Have you done any stunts?”
“No.” Danny said apologetically.
“Yeah, well, that’s okay. Normally I wouldn’t take on someone without experience but,” he nodded at Danny’s red hair “a genuine ginger is a real rarity nowadays. Do you know your guys are like two percent of the under-30 population? A dying breed.” He nodded; his tone was complimentary. “So what do you say?”
Danny’s stomach contracted painfully. Over the man’s shoulder he could just make out the lines of smoke rising from the homeless camp in a stand of sickly cedars nearby. He remembered a pact he’d made some hungry miles before, on a hungover first day of 2040; with a twinge he determined to forget it.