"You'll do," he said.
"I'll do what?" I asked.
Then I saw that beyond all that pie-brown makeup, his dark eyes shone like the rich, sweet filling in a Danish pastry: poppy-seed, or prune. He gave me a lopsided smile, as though he already believed I was funny, and right then I began to believe it myself. At least we both knew my reflexes were quick. Rocky Carter, I would find out soon enough, was one of those people who could will light into his eyes, make them gleam and twinkle and shine and glint and sparkle, any number of otherwise indescribable clichés, a knack I now think of as nearly the definition of charisma.
Later, in the cartoon credits of our movies, they always drew me much taller, but that's because he slumped and I wore lifts. We were about the same height, which is to say short. I let go of his hand, and he snatched the red wig off my head and stuffed it behind the rolled-up photos already in my pocket.
"I'm Rocky Carter," he said.
I'd studied the bill. I knew who he was. "I'm Mike Sharp."
"You are not. What's your real name, son?"
"Sharp," I said. "Mose Sharp."
"We're old friends already," he declared. "So I'll call you Mose. Do you drink, Mose Sharp?"
"No," I lied.
Clearly he heard the deceit in my voice, because he smiled pretty wide when he said, "Wrong answer."
Carter and Fabian --- Freddy Fabian was the guy vomiting into the purse --- weren't the headliners, but they were better off than I was. I tried not to think of this as my big break. I'd had that thought too many times over the past two years, ever since I'd left Valley Junction, Iowa, for what turned out to be the big lights of Duluth, Davenport, Toledo and Wichita, any number of two-bit towns with two-bit theaters. Minneapolis was a step up. By 1931, I'd done everything: acrobatics, eccentric dancing, juggling, ventriloquism. I'd played both juvenile and geriatric roles in tabloid shows, full-length plays cut down to size for the vaude circuit. I'd appeared as a woman and a little boy; I'd tried on accents of every nationality. And I'd told the truth to the first question Rocky ever asked me. I'd been a straight man for a couple dozen acts: a group of hard-boiled kids, a frail old-time comic whose arthritic pratfalls caused the audience to gasp in horror, a temperamental seal, a pair of French brothers, and, for an entire season, a troublesome nineteen-year-old Dumb Dora comedienne named Mimi with whom I'd been horribly in love. I'd thought she'd been in love with me too. When Mimi --- her real name was Miriam --- handed me my pictures, I thought about getting off the circuit and going home to run my father's clothing store. Instead, I kept plugging away.
It's not something that people understand so much these days, how a comedian needs a straight man. They see one funny guy, and then another guy who isn't so funny. They don't realize that the comic (Rock, for instance, his pants so baggy they drape like an opera gown) needs a straight man (me, for instance, in my tweeds and mortarboard) standing still, telling him to act right. Getting him into the right kind of trouble. Making him look so dopey he's adorable. Most people in this world want to be the comic, and why not? You get laughs and love and attention. You get all the best catchphrases. Used to be that a good straight man could get the lion's share of the salary, sixty-forty, a little money to salve his ego and keep him in the act. I was nobody when I joined up with Rock, so with us it was the other way around. Not that I was thinking of money that first night in Minneapolis. I just followed the guy out onto the dark stage, rubbing my painted freckles off with my thumb, happy I had somewhere to go. The light hit us like a bucket of water, and I said my first line --- "Here's what you do" --- and we were off.
Excerpted from Niagara Falls All Over Again by Elizabeth McCracken Copyright 2001 by Elizabeth McCracken. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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