A Well-Respected Stranger

Greg sighed and contemplated the series of life decisions that had brought him to this moment, driving around a small, recreational harbor to get to the nearest alcohol supplier. The entire sixty-mile drive, all he could think of was getting a drink. Hell, the only reason he’d stopped in Oxnard was because he knew he couldn’t make it all the way to Santa Barbara without imbibing in a vodka-flavored beverage. Well, he probably could have made it if he hadn’t spent the first hour of his trip driving angrily through Los Angeles’s surface streets for no real reason. He’d needed something else to be angry about, and traffic on Hollywood Blvd had done the job well enough. Once he’d gotten on the freeways, however, traffic had lightened up and he’d been allowed to think and reflect and simmer in his own angst. And that’s when he realized that if he didn’t raise his blood alcohol to nearly lethal levels, he’d go 100% batshit insane.

In spite of the earlier events of the evening, he’d pulled off the freeway and headed to the marina, the only part of Oxnard that he knew anything about, to the hotel he and his wife had stayed at when in town for her friend’s wedding years ago. It felt like a lifetime ago. When they’d been happy. When he hadn’t stormed out of the house after yet another argument about god knows what, and that he would never admit he was wrong about. When he hadn’t left town two days early for a two-week west coast tour and just needed a place for the night to drink away his pain.

Greg had realized that he couldn’t drink in the hotel bar, because it would force him to think of his wife, and he’d probably end up crying or breaking things, so he’d asked the front desk clerk for a suggestion. But now that he was looking up at the bar the clerk had directed him to, Greg realized that this bar could have a similar effect: the bouncer weighed about 85 pounds soaking wet, and the door he was guarding was plastered with posters for an improv comedy troupe calling themselves the Harmless Hitchhikers. The bouncer glanced up from the glossy mag he was reading, rolled his eyes, and half-heartedly nudged the door open. Greg heard a twitter of laughter escape. He was about to turn around and find a 7-11 to fulfill his alcohol needs rather than suffer through another try-hard amateur improv group, but the smell of booze and fried munchies lured him inside in spite of himself.

He slipped to the bar as quietly as he could, knowing all too well that berating a latecomer was the easiest way for a doofus on a stage to get a cheap laugh. Luckily, three of the five on stage were either miming a game of twister or some rare marmot mating ritual, and the other two were pointing and laughing, and he went unnoticed. Greg ordered his drink – vodka, double, ice – watched it get poured, and debated only a moment when the bartender asked if he wanted to open a tab. With a sigh, he said, “Fine,” and felt the credit card and a bit of his angst slip away.

But he didn’t turn back to the improvers. He just couldn’t. He was too busy wallowing. Thinking of all the shows his wife had been to. All the times she’d consoled him after a bad show. All the times she’d critiqued him when the bad shows had been his fault. He knocked back half his drink.

 

”So this is a game we call ‘Fenny’s Dad is Crazy’.”

A cheer went up from the crowd. Greg swirled the ice in his glass and pouted.

“How this works is we get a suggestion from the audience, and Fenny tells a story about that topic and her dad. Then we all vote on whether it was true or not. For those of you who are new to this game, they’re usually true.”

Greg decided that the voice probably belonged to the tall guy. He briefly wondered if Fenny was the girl who looked like a slightly more gothic Stevie Nicks, or the one who looked like she fell off the VW van to Woodstock. He realized he was starting to care, and flagged down the bartender again.

“So what we need from you guys is a topic. We’re trying to stump her, here.”

A cacophony of suggestions rose up from the crowd. They sounded awfully prepared; these Hitchhiker people must have had quite a following.

“Let’s go with lava lamps, those two in the back sound pretty adamant. You selling stock or something?”

“Lava lamps, right, that’s an easy one.”

The voice was too soft for it to be the goth fairy. In spire of himself, Greg turned halfway in his stool so he could check for himself. Yup, hippie chick: long brown hair, Lennon-style glasses, Who t-shirt, flared jeans, Keds.

“So my dad’s an engineer, one of those guys who throws out the instructions and takes things apart so they can figure ’em out, and then sometimes puts it back together wrong just for fun. So I had a lava lamp when I was a kid, and the bulb burnt out, and I asked my parents for a new bulb, but my mom had a hard time finding one that’s the right wattage or whatever. So my father took the scientific approach and went through this whole rigamarole to figure out what the minimum wattage would be to be able to get the thing to work. He tried it out on a few of the bulbs we had in the house, like taking this lava lamp and resting it on top of table lamps to see if it would melt. And it wasn’t working, so he decided he needed to know what the red stuff and what the yellow stuff was inside it. Keep in mind, this is before the days of the internet. So my father popped the top off the lamp – did you know they’re held together with bottle caps, and that they’re held that way for a reason? He takes off the bottle cap, and drains all the liquid into a pitcher, and starts poking at the red wax stuff with a butter knife. He pretended that he learned something from this little experiment, poured the liquid back in, and then had to find a way to close it, since he’d busted the bottle cap. So he pulls a twist-top beer bottle out of the fridge, and epoxies the cap to the lava lamp, goes to the hardware store, buys what he’s decided is an appropriate bulb, sets up the experiment, with the lava lamp sitting on this bulb in a table lamp on the dining room table, and after about an hour, it explodes. Luckily Dad had gotten bored and was watching TV in the living room, but there was wax and yellow goo and glass all over. Turns out my genius engineer dad forgot about pressure needing to vent out under the cap when the air inside got hot. The end!”

Greg frowned to himself. There was no way that could be true. What engineer would work that way? How would we have gotten to the moon? The crowd voted a nearly unanimous ‘true,’ and Fenny did a little jig.

“100% true. My parents are still finding bits of glass in the carpet fifteen years later, and Mom left a chunk of wax on the light fixture to remind him of his stupidity. He thinks it’s hilarious.”

 

In spite of himself, Greg had enjoyed the show. It was your standard theatre sports sort of routine, but with a few new games he wasn’t familiar with. Much mellower than the LA improv crowd; these kids probably weren’t dying to be discovered and have a sitcom written for them. It was a good enough distraction from his personal angst that he was actually disappointed when the show ended.

There was a rush for the bar, and Greg thought for a moment about finding a table to avoid the crush of humans, but that would mean moving further from the booze, so he stayed put. When the crowd thinned, he waved down the bartender.

“Can I get a rum and diet?”

A young redhead, maybe 25, had sidled up to the bar and vodka-blocked him. He turned to scowl at her, but she was a little too pretty to scowl at. She gave him a polite, ‘don’t even embarrass yourself by trying, old man,’ smile, and Greg realized that his night would not improve. Ever. Then the glass of vodka appeared, and he realized he didn’t care.

“Hey Addie,” a voice perked. Greg glanced over at the familiar voice. Fenny had joined the redhead.

“Good show,” the redhead said with a smile.

“Eeh, we’ve done better,” Fenny shrugged.

“You’ve done worse.”

“Thanks for that. I didn’t expect to see you here. You haven’t been to a show in ages.”

“Yeah, well, Brian’s out of town, I got bored.”

“You’re such a great baby sister. Only see my shows when you’re bored.”

“Hey, it’s not like you come to my shop to watch me work?”

The bartender dropped Addie’s drink on the bar, and she slid a ten dollar bill over to him. “How many have you had?” Fenny asked.

“Not enough,” Addie said with a grin.

“Regular, Fen?” the bartender asked.

“Sure, thanks Roger.”

“I’m gonna go say hi to Alice,” Addie perked, grabbed her drink, and vanished into the crowd.

Roger plopped a glass of something fizzy onto the bar and wandered off.

“And a usual for Fenny is?” Greg heard himself asking.

“Hmm?” She turned to face him. “Oh. Uh. Actually, it’s just a ginger beer.”

“Just ginger beer? Like the soda?”

“Yeah.” She looked at her drink and shrugged. “Alcohol and I don’t agree. I don’t like that ‘not in control’ feeling. I get that enough in my daily life.”

He nodded at her. “Well I really liked your show.”

“Well, coming from the likes of you, that’s quite a compliment, thank you.”

“The likes of me?” He adjusted his glasses.

“Don’t be so modest, Mr. Proops,” she said, turning her eyes away shyly.

“Greg, please,” he said kindly.

Smiling at him, she continued. “Well, I’m quite a fan, really. Whose Line, Rendez-View, Versus when it was on, your TV specials. Sorry, I don’t mean to blather.”

“Oh, I don’t mind, blather on,” he laughed.

“If you don’t mind my asking, what’s a well respected comic like yourself doing in a dive like this?”

“I’m doing a couple shows up the coast, and I stopped out here on my way up, thought I’d check out the improv scene here in suburbia.”

“Well, you’ve just seen it. Sorry we couldn’t give you a better show.”

“Oh, don’t say that, it was a good show.”

“Flatterer,” she mumbled as she took another drink.

He smiled suspiciously. “So really? No booze?”

“Really,” she admitted.

“So how do you find dates?” he laughed. “I don’t know if I’ve ever taken home a sober woman.”

“Hmm.” She cocked her head. “That must be why I haven’t managed to bag a guy in so long. It just never occurred to me that a girl had to be drunk to be taken home.”

Unsure if he had insulted her or not, he floundered to make amends. “Well for a guy like me, back when I was young, of course, I couldn’t get a girl’s attention until she was pissed out of her skull.”

“And now that you’re older?”

“Well, now I’m a relatively famous comedian. Every warm-blooded American woman wants me,” he said, holding his head up triumphantly. “Well, the few that know who I am.”

Fenny shrugged noncommittally and glanced over her glasses at him, then realized she was falling into a comfortable flirtatious conversation with Greg Proops. “I think all comics are inherently sexy. I think it’s the confidence. You could put a gay guy with a harelip on stage with a mic and if he made me laugh, I’d fall for him.” He raised his eyebrows at her. “Of course, that could just be me,” she said meekly.

“There is that personality type in women I think, all those teenage girls fawning over people like, my god, Colin Mochrie.”

“See, I really dig him, just ‘cause he can make me laugh.”

He bobbed his head at her, reluctantly agreeing. “So you’re a big Whose Line fan?”

“Well yeah, who isn’t? But I have to say, the Brit version was significantly better.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Oh, you know, more variety in the players, a bit less, uh, dominated, shall we say, by the Ryan/Colin combo and Wayne Brady, and, well, the Brits have Tony Slattery, really.”

“Ah, so you’re an admirer of Tony?”

“How could you not be?” she said, finding herself smiling.

“There are those that love him, and those that despise him.” He leaned one elbow on the bar. “I happen to love the guy. You two would probably get along well. If you ever find yourself in London, you should see him at the Comedy Store.”

“As much as I’d love to, that doesn’t seem too likely. I don’t leave town that much.”

“No standup?” Greg asked.

“That’s Art’s bag, really, and Jan. I’d never cut it as a standup.”

“What makes you say that?”

“I have to have someone to play off, you know,” she shrugged, pulling a long strand of hair through her fingers, “hide behind when I don’t have anything funny to say. I’ve helped out the other fellas when they’re writing out routines, but I could never just be funny for eight minutes straight.”

“Yeah, it’s a lot more work than some people like to give us credit for.”

 

The conversation went on for a while longer, Greg discussing the tour he was starting as he finished his drink and started work on another, the two sharing anecdotes about Greg working with Tony and Paul Merton and the other Whose Line players Fenny enjoyed so much, and her tenure with the Hitchhikers.

It was starting to get late, the discussion was beginning to drag, and Fenny was rolling the ice around in her glass. He cleared his throat. “So, uh, is there somewhere else around here I could take you to, coffee, maybe a nicer bar, a restaurant, your place…”

“Well, my place is actually an our place.”

“Oh, I, I didn’t realize,” he said visibly disappointed.

“No, it’s not like that, just Jan, she’s my roommate.”

“Well, my hotel is just across the way, we could have dinner?”

“I’ve had dinner already.”

“Dessert then. And a nonalcoholic beverage of your choice.” The casual flirting had been fun, but he was getting serious now, inviting her back to his hotel. He must have sensed her reluctance. “Or I could buy you a bowl of complimentary peanuts here, if you’d like that better.”

“No, I think dessert sounds lovely.” All joking aside, she really didn’t get out much, and wasn’t sure she had ever been picked up in a bar for what could possibly have the potential to blossom into a steamy one night stand, let alone with someone like Greg Proops.

He swallowed the last bit of his vodka and glanced at her empty glass. “You have a car?”

“Yeah. Um, just lemme tell Jan not to wait up. Just a second.”

He watched as she hopped off the stool and made her way to the table not far from the bar where her friend sat chatting with a group of what looked like hardcore surfers. “Yeah. Why?” Jan asked loudly, obviously feeling no pain. Fenny replied in more hushed tones. “Really,” came the amused reply, “you, with a man?”

“Can I get you another?” the bartender asked, and Greg turned round to face him.

“Oh, no thanks. How much for the two of us?”

“You’re paying for Fenny?” Rob demanded.

“Part of the ritual, isn’t it? Buy the lady drinks?”

“I suppose so.” He wandered off to total the tab. Greg was beginning to get the feeling that Fenny truly didn’t get picked up from the bar too many evenings.

“…always did have strange taste in men,” Jan laughed as Fenny left the table, shaking her head.

Rob came back with a receipt on a clipboard and Greg slid his credit card back into his wallet. “On my tab, huh buddy?” Fenny chirped as she sidled up next to Greg.

“Your friend’s picking it up,” Rob answered.

“You really didn’t have to…”

“I insist.” She smiled at him nervously as he scribbled his name across the receipt, and she let herself be led out to the parking lot, one hand against her back. “So I’ll meet you there, then,” Greg said, lighting a cigarette as he tried to remember just where he’d parked his car. “The Marriott, you know where it is?”

“Yup.” She hoped into her car, a cute little black deal that nearly matched Greg’s. Well, in the dark, anyway. His was almost certainly a digit fancier than hers. She followed him out of the parking lot, heart starting to pound a bit. She was as close to celibate as a 30-year-old woman who was the homeliest member of a comedy troupe could be; she simply hadn’t slept with many men. A four year relationship had gone sour about a year ago, and before him, she’d only dated two other men, but her high school boyfriend hardly counted.

It suddenly occurred to her that he was married, and she slammed on the brakes at a yellow light that Greg whizzed through. It then occurred to her that she really didn’t mind too much, and it was a startling revelation. There was no other word for her condition than horny. Mentally running through that morning’s activities, she tried to remember if she had bothered to shave and what underwear she had slipped on. As the light turned green, she remembered that she had shaved and that she was wearing black cotton panties and a simple red bra, hoping he wouldn’t be disappointed by her lack of lace and frills. Of course, considering he had picked her up dressed the way she was, he would probably be expecting a sports bra and granny undies.

As she pulled up to the hotel, she didn’t spot his car. It was a nice hotel, fancier than most in town, but still a beach hotel, and rather casual, but she still felt a bit out of place in her jeans and Who shirt. Greg was waiting in the lobby and with a short hello they headed for the restaurant.

Over mud pie, they chatted some more, about comic influences, books, music, school. “I dated an artist in college,” Greg mused. “San Fran’s full of ‘em, they’re falling off trees. She took great pleasure in showing me her drawings of nude models. The males ones, of course—wouldn’t let me see the women. But all the men she drew were the perfect chiseled young Tom Cruise ‘who needs brains when there’s barbells’ types.”

“I took a nude figure drawing class. Nineteen years old, fresh out of high school, very much a prude. That’s where I saw my first naked man, actually.”

“You’re kidding me.” He gave her one of his short, cackling laughs.

“No. Not one of your chiseled dumbbell types either. Not bad looking really.” She shrugged and put the fork in her mouth to get to the last bit of graham cracker crust. “Our teacher, he was against classical ideals of beauty, so we had unusual models. That or he was intimidated, I’m not sure. Short little French guy, very strange.”

The waiter came and took the empty plates with mumbled thanks from both Fenny and Greg. They were two adults, both knew where this was going, so Greg opened his mouth to ask if she wanted to go up to his room with him and shag like wild ferrets.

“So you’re married?”

Fenny’s simple question snapped his mouth closed and startled Fenny herself. She hadn’t realized it was bothering her until it came out. It wouldn’t help to apologize, but she tried. “I, I’m, uh…”

“No, it’s a legitimate question. I am, but not happily. And I’m not just saying that to get you to come up to my room with me. We’re thinking of separating.” He pulled at the ring on his left hand as he kept his eyes on the table. “We don’t get any time together anyway. It’s just, love is far from a permanent thing sometimes.” He dropped the gold band in the breast pocket of his jacket. “But life goes on.” He looked up at her and smiled. “Does that mean you don’t want to come upstairs with me?”

“I never said that,” she grinned.

Greg flagged down the waiter and he scurried off to find their bill. “So, what’s it like, seeing your first naked man like that?” asked Greg mischievously, wanting to return the mood to its previous warmth and steering the topic as far away from his troubled marriage as possible.

“Well, you know, it was an experience,” she giggled.

“And you really managed to stay a virgin all through high school?”

“Yes I did. The one boyfriend I had was really bothered by that. I didn’t date too much my senior year, as you can imagine. Word gets around, you know.”

The check was delivered and Greg dropped a twenty on the tray. “Ready to go?” He stood and held out a hand to her, which she took as she got to her feet. He kissed her, a light teasing kiss against her bottom lip, over before she could respond in any way, but a promise of what was to come.

Hand in hand he led her to the elevator, which opened as he punched the arrowed button. With a low chuckle he pulled her into the small compartment and into his arms to kiss her deeply. She grazed her teeth against his lip as the elevator halted and he pulled away. Taking her by the hand again, he led her silently down the hall to his room where he struggled with the key card.

They made it into the room and she dropped her purse on the table in the corner, Greg draping his suit jacket over a chair and loosening his tie. “There anything good on TV at—“ he grabbed her hand to look at her watch— “11:45 at night?”

“Nope.” She slipped the glasses from his face and set her own next to them on the table.

“In that case, I guess we’ll just have to find other ways to amuse ourselves.” He kicked off his shoes.

“Guess so.” With a thump, her shoes landed next to his under the table, worn red canvas next to impeccable black leather.

He gave her a few quick pecks on the side of her lips before devoting the attention of his mouth to her neck, his hands to her body. With gentle nudging, he guided her backwards to the bed, which she misjudged and only managed to halfway sit on before sliding off to the floor. Greg, who had managed to catch himself, laughed at her as she righted herself to a seated positing on the gray carpet. “You okay?” he snickered. Half hiding a smile, she tossed her socks at him, but they landed a few feet past the end of the bed. “You’re uh, not too good at this, are you, the whole sly seductress thing?”

“Not really,” Fenny admitted, “but I’m willing to give it a try.” She hopped up on the bed and pushed him on his back to straddle him around the waist, then harshly pressed her lips against his.


Greg woke slowly, the blazing midmorning sun burning red through his eyelids as the glowing, somewhat sticky feeling reminded him of the fun he had had the night before. The alarm clock on the bedside table read 9:37, the colon blinking irritably at him. Heavy hearted, he began composing a note to write to Fenny to explain his absence. It had been ages since he’d slipped out after a one night stand, but he was already starting to feel a pang of guilt towards his wife, and he didn’t have the energy to do more than sneak out for coffee until the Fenny’s car was gone from the lot. He knew she had the same type mindset as he did and understood their rendezvous to be what it was, but he still wouldn’t know what to say to her when she woke up.

“Fenny,” he thought to himself as he formed a rough draft in his mind, “had a great time with—God no, that won’t work.” Careful not to disturb the bedclothes or mattress, he slipped out of bed and into his discarded and rumpled pants to hunt down the hotel stationery. Noticing his glasses on the table, he gratefully slipped them on, then realized the round wire frames were no longer there. A quick glance to the bed confirmed that indeed, Fenny had gone.

“Damn it,” he grumbled, the worst case scenarios playing through in his mind. She had woken up, thought she had made a mistake, remembered his wife, or figured he had been drunk and fled. Sure, he was going to leave, but not without a note of explanation.

Then he saw it, the piece of paper folded into a tent over his pack of cigarettes. He paused for a moment to light himself a cigarette. As he picked up the note, the room service menu fell to the floor. Ignoring that, he read the simple blue script:

 

Greg— 6:24

Thanks for last night. I made breakfast, but I had to go—don’t you just hate how one’s day job can get in the way? Hey, if you’re ever in town again, you know where to find me. Take care of yourself

—Fenny

 

“Always a pleasure to corrupt a young mind,” he mumbled to himself with a smirk around the cigarette, “even if she did beat me to the punch.” He put down the note and picked up the room service menu, presumably the breakfast Fenny had prepared. He smiled to nobody in particular and headed for the shower.