Saturday, November 13, 2010

Chapter Three

Tucker took a look back from the side of the lecture platfrom to soak in the applause as the crowd's attention was re-directing from his set to Courtney's. She had asked him offstage earlier what Big Ten school was Illinois's rival in basketball, and was using that information to insult Purdue as she opened her act. Beta was out of his seat fist-pumping that joke. His distracted ex-roomie was exiting the ampitheater classroom up one of the steep aisles, taking two or three at a time like he was on a mission. The two Men-in-Black types were the only ones in the room still looking at Tucker, strangely, while talking into their Blackberries.

The sponsoring frat had set up a green room of sorts down the hallway from the lecture hall in a teacher's lounge. Easy chairs and a TV and some refreshments for the talent. Not rock star level refreshments. They weren't celebrities on that level. Sandwiches and soda and, being a fraternity, beer. A keg of the cheap stuff. Roberto Juarez and Venkat were in there getting psyched up for their shows. Talking to themselves and they ran through their sets semi-verbally, mimicking the practiced physical movements that would enhance the bits. Exaggerated hand gestures. Exaggerated facial tics. Slapstick stuff at points. Roberto did a set mostly about dating pitfalls, which always went over with this age crowd, and Venkat did some ethnic impressions and cultural jokes . They were getting into character and would not be chatty at the moment. Tucker needed to unwind and decided to skip the Green Room for a while and started wandering the halls instead.

Had it really been 30 years since he had classes in this very building? It still looked very familiar and unchanged. The campus had grown North continually since then, with shiny new red-bricked buildings trying to maintain the architectural theme of the campus. Lots of new bicycle paths threading through between the campus with empty bicycle racks at each building entrance. Even a second Quad of sorts in the middle of the new complex for the engineering students to congregate on and socialize with their peers. But this historic building that they were occupying tonight was still in active use. First year orientation type classes mostly. Nothing requiring the state-of-the-art equipment that research required elsewhere. Hell, when he was here thirty years ago state-of-the-art had a different look to it. Crude robotic steel structures with giant-sized CPU's following lines marked out on the floor. "Touch-screen" panels that were hugh and thick and operated by a matrix of beams of light that your finger would interrupt when you touched the glass. State-of-the-art was a concept that implied a constantly changing state, and the evolution of technology in Tucker's lifetime was staggering.

Tucker poked his head into some classrooms just for grins, letting the memory tour unwind his tension from the being on stage. From being "on" in the tightrope act that was stand-up comedy. Picturing himself as a much younger man sitting behind these desks. Having flashbacks to a simpler time. Remembering some successes and traumas.

This room that he was in, for example, was where he had earned his first "D" in college on a paper. Ah, yes. Rhetoric 105 - writing for engineers. What, engineers have to write differently from everyone else? Yes. Logical. Technical. Readable. Understandable. Concise, which is where he had gone wrong.

What was the topic, again? Ah yes. The teacher had assigned an impromptu writing instruction on the first day of class. One page on "your pet peeve". Scratching his head, he had stumbled about before he set on the topic of people who were bad sports, in sports. He easily filled the page with the flourishing soaring rhetoric that had gotten him so many "A"'s in high school, but would find the red-penned scorn of a teacher at this level. In fact, to his horror, his teacher had singly recognized his work as the example for the rest of the class to dissect the next week. An example of truly bad writing, that is. Ouch! That session hurt. He was paying tuition to get this much ridicule? Ouch. He raced into his teacher's next office hours on fire with hurt and anger. How could he be that good in high school and that bad here? It wasn't fair. Patiently, the teacher walked him through where he could do better. Knock off of the big words just for the sake of big words. Brevity. Clarity. She challenged him to do better in her class, or else the bad grades would keep coming. And, slowly and surely, he did. He got it. And his writing greatly improved, and by the end of the semester he was back in his office thanking Mrs. Tanner.

"Thank you, again tonight, Mrs. Tanner", he thought as he silently saluted her. He didn't know at that moment what his career choices would be - and would never have guessed at the turn of events that would have him on stage tonight performing. But he did realize right at this moment that what she had taught him - brevity and clarity - would be instrumental to his skill as a stand-up comic and ventriloquist. Brief. Clear. And hopefully funny. The funny part seemed incongrous to his technical nature, and he had to work at it, but he did have some natural skills. He could still make his ex-wife laugh every time that they talked, which came in hand at times when things got tense all over again. He was thankful for that.

Tucker was lost in reverie as he wandered through remembrances of missed opportunities at school and, now that he thought about it, in his married life too when he ran smack into a guy who had his back to him around the corner. It was Steve, the distracted guy, in an animated conversation with an older man who was probably a grad student and / or teaching assistant at the University.

"Sorry, man. Didn't see you there", Tucker apologized profusely.

Steve didn't even hear him or acknowledge Tucker. He had a point to make to his companion and was locked in on that.

"Dr. Evans, I'm telling you they've been in our work. It's been hacked. Taken. Gotten into!"

"Steve", Dr. Evans said somberly, "they are entitled to access to the work. They sponsored it with financing, and are in fact our partners on the project - even if they are not around any time. Remember that."

"Okay. I get that. But I'm worried about what they are going to use it for." Steve was still agitated and was gesturing wildly. Tucker worked his way around them and left them there in the hallway as he worked his way back to the Green Room to get ready for the encore. He had been gone longer than he he thought.

Stephanie, their tour producer, was standing at the door looking around apprehensively.

"Hey man. Get in there! Venkat is just finishing and we need you for the wrap-up. You don't want to miss your last applause of the tour".

No, he did not. It had been a long time on the road this time around. And he wanted the payoff.

"Give it up for Tucker and Courtney and Roberto and Venkat", Stephanie was saying at the mike. "The Professors of Comedy!" And the crowd's standing ovation was the payoff that he needed and craved. He left the lecture hall and the campus finally feeling like a success.

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