By Wynne Hungerford
The sidekick becomes the star of his own self-isolation. Things are fine for a while, because for a while they are fine. He orders sushi and collects it at the door with gloves and a mask. He wears the same t-shirt for three days in a row and then takes an hour-long shower before FaceTiming with his manager, who says, “The business is fucked, but at least you’ve got a podcast.” The business is a stuck pig. The blood is in the streets. The streets are empty. Smog lifts. He makes all of the brownie mixes in the pantry one afternoon, without regard for expiration date, and while he’s busy cracking eggs and setting timers he longs for a marriage without an expiration date. Maybe next time, he thinks. When his children FaceTime him from their mother’s house, he holds up a pan of brownies and jokes, “Anybody hungry?” and with voices as thin and hard as piano wire, they say, “Hey, Dad.” They are burdened by their security, feeling trapped and bored and lost, even though the wonders of the known world are fulfilled by Amazon and delivered at their feet, those precious feet, so clean and narrow and soft, and in truth he wouldn’t have it any other way. He thinks of how they were before Spotify took hold of them and the earbuds went in, his boy and his girl, his own flesh and blood, laughing and wiggling under the covers all those years ago, when this little piggy went to the market and this little piggy stayed home. They could not disappoint him, no, never, he loves them too much, but still the call ends with disappointment. If this crisis doesn’t bring them back to calling him “Daddy” then nothing ever will. There is an assumption that the passage of time brings progress and that change means growth. He chose a long time ago to believe that those assumptions are true, because otherwise life would be a painful doggy paddle from one doomsday to the next and he would not be able to keep swimming. Medication helps. The walnuts in the brownies are stale, but he doesn’t mind. It was expected and somehow welcome. His teeth are packed with walnuts and the sky is full of stars, even if they are mostly hidden. It’s the presence of others that throws his own life into relief and without them, these people entering and exiting, on cue and of their own volition, he becomes the star of a one-man show, flickering, fading, losing heat. He has always known this about himself but now, being alone in the pandemic, in what people call, via email and text, “these crazy times,” he’s reminded that he’s at his best with others. He doesn’t just need people, he wants them in his life. What a gift, he thinks. What we’ve had and what we’ve been able to build. The sun slinks west and tender light fills the house and makes the walls look like suede. There is no one to turn to, no hand to gently squeeze. It’s the symbol of the moon he misses, always just over his shoulder on the Conan set. Seeing that moon in his periphery was almost like catching a glimpse of himself in a mirror, something glowing, something round, something mundane yet magical, familiar yet unknown, always orbiting a celebrity planet. He was born to play the sidekick and he’s grateful for it. Why be ashamed? A therapist once said, “It seems like you try very hard to say all the right things,” and he denied it, of course, all the while being unaware of his denial, and the therapist said, “You want to mean it so badly, son, that it hurts.” Love grows. Gratitude grows. Understanding expands. The common, human hurt is a pebble passed from shoe to shoe. He gets the idea of rearranging the furniture in his living room so that when he sits on the couch, he can see the moon over his shoulder, the real moon, through the sliding glass doors that led to the backyard. It works. He sits down and sees the moon out of the corner of his eye. Something’s not right, though. He grabs a blazer from his closet and sits down again. That’s better. Then the dog jumps into the armchair, upright and panting, a consummate late-night talk show host. The dog barks and he thinks, This is not the worst monologue I’ve ever heard. The audience applauds, though it’s really the sound of his tinnitus, the collective drone of every crowd he’s ever worked, and he pretends to catch the eye of a producer in the shadows, who gestures that it’s time for a commercial break. The dog lets out a silent fart and he, Andy, Andy Richter, leans toward an imaginary guest sitting on the couch beside him. He imagines placing a friendly hand on the guest’s shoulder or perhaps shaking their hand. He brings his mouth close to the guest’s ear, quickly now, because the clock is ticking and they’ll be live again soon, and this is what he loves, the momentary ascension into his best self, when he becomes warm, inquisitive, and complementary in every way, integral but not central, generous but not demanding, and though this window may be brief, he cannot help the ambition of his humanity. He asks, “Where do you come from, where are you going, and what have you learned?”
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