Joseph Hutchison

A Real Comedian

Comedians by Vilmos Aba-Novák

The scholar’s body was failing. Late afternoon smeared light across the westward window. Outside, the leafy branches of the mountain ash swayed, but the scholar couldn’t hear their rustling over the clank-gasp of the breathing machine. The machine’s slender plastic tubes had rubbed his nostrils raw, so that now each small turn of his head made him wince—the sting not harsh enough to mention. To whom would he mention it? The hospice angel who talked to him so kindly though he never answered?

It’s a lovely day, she told him. Would you like another pillow? Here, your mouth is dry—and glossing his lips with a jelled cotton swab, she smiled down into his rheumy eyes.

Who did she see? He is not here, some other, faraway angel was said to have said.

Irony twisted the scholar’s mouth.

Yes, he was dying, deep in the stupored mess of it.

All he could manage to think about were his books, the ones on which his reputation would rest forever. Would they prove crucial, as it seemed they would be when he wrote them? The spines cycled through his vision as if nailed to the spokes of a wheel.

The Comedians of Qumran with its burgundy buckram cover.

The forest green papered boards of his landmark study, The Roots of Vaudeville in Zoroastrian Dualism.

Then his most popular title, still in print—a treatise, written with his favorite comic in mind, addressing Gnostic aspects of the schlemiel archetype: Woody Allen Among the Archons.

Finally, his masterwork, issued by a fine small press in St. Louis—two signed and numbered volumes published in a run of two-hundred, each with marbled endpapers, nestled in a black slipcase: the book (he was confident) by which all the others in his admittedly narrow field would be judged for a century or more: Intimations of Eschatology in Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First?”

As The Comedians of Qumran cycled back into view, the breathing machine (far away now) said “Clank-gasp,” and the hospice angel leaned down. A wisp of her red hair brushed his brow. “I Don’t Know is on third,” she whispered.

Sure enough, when the dying scholar peered out of the darkening dugout, where he lay on the long hardwood bench, he found the second baseman standing nearby with one of the base coaches. The baseman made a rapid beckoning gesture. “What…” the scholar began.

“That’s right,” the baseman cut him off, waving even more vigorously. “I’m What. Get a move on.”

The delirious scholar rose up on one elbow and snagged his cleats on something under the bench: a long-fingered, tightly webbed glove. The leather was a dark golden brown. He picked it up, breathed in the rich fragrance of Neatsfoot oil, and thought of the old glove his grandfather had given him, boxed up somewhere in the cellar at home. He stuffed his left hand into it and rose, almost floated, up from the bench, up the concrete steps, onto the wiry grass. “What,” he began again, pausing when What’s eyebrows lifted, bit then forged ahead. “What’s my position?”

“I’m the third base coach, ain’t I?”

“I don’t know—”

“Yes, you,” said the coach. “Get your ass out there.”

What slapped the scholar’s shoulder in a jovial way, then jogged back to second base. The coach started back to the coach’s box, but the scholar seized the man’s elbow with his ungloved hand.

“What?” the coach said.

“Second base,” said the scholar.

The coach rolled his eyes and said, “Spit it out, kid.”

Over the coach’s shoulder the scholar caught sight the hospice angel. She was ten rows up in the cheap seats, her red hair blazing in the sun. He couldn’t help but smile and was amazed when she noticed him. She smiled in return, gave an apologetic shrug and a melancholy wave.

Now the scholar brought his mouth close to the coach’s ear. “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work,” he whispered. “I want to achieve it through not dying.”

The coach stepped back with an astonished look. “You’re a real comedian.” Then he barked, “Get your ass out there!”

The scholar made his way toward third base, the glove growing heavier, so heavy his left arm began to ache. “Shake it off,” his grandfather would have said, so he shook it off and took up his position a couple of yards behind the base.

Just then the opposing team took the field, and a tremendous, earth-shaking roar rolled up like thunder from the crowd.


About the writer:
Joseph Hutchison, Poet Laureate of Colorado (2014-2019), is the award-winning author of 16 poetry collections, including The World As Is: New & Selected Poems, 1972-2015; Marked Men; The Satire Lounge; and Bed of Coals. He has also published a translation of Ephemeral, flash fictions by Mexican fabulist Miguel Lupián, and co-edited two poetry anthologies: the FutureCycle Press anthology Malala: Poems for Malala Yousafzai (all profits to the Malala Foundation) with Andrea Watson, and with Gary Schroeder, A Song for Occupations: Poems about the American Way of Work. At the University of Denver’s University College, he directs two programs for working adults, Professional Creative Writing and Arts & Culture. Born and raised in Denver, Colorado, Hutchison lives in the mountains southwest of the city with his wife, Iyengar yoga instructor Melody Madonna.

Image: Comedians by Vilmos Aba-Novák (1894-1941). Tempera on wood. 39.3 x 47.2 inches. 1941. Public domain.