Short fiction by Ron Merkin

While walking on stage, John reminded himself not to tell the audience any of his stupid jokes.

Then, as he stood in front of 4,000 people, in reply to one judge’s “Are you nervous?” – the most frequently asked question before America’s Got Talent auditions – he blurted, “No, I’m John. I told you that just a second ago.”

No one laughed.

Damn it! John thought. I’m not auditioning as a comedian! So why, instead of resisting my crazy impulses, am I ruining my chances before my act begins?

“I didn’t mean to be a wise guy,” he managed.

A pause, then from the same judge, “So… what will you be auditioning as?”

“A pianist,” John answered.

“OK, let’s hear it.”

 But while he walked to the piano, another idea occurred to John. Instead of sitting facing the keyboard, he sat down with his back to it. With no understanding about why he was doing this, he reached his arms behind him. “How the hell can I play this way?” he shouted.

There was a little laughter. Stealing a glance at the judges, John noticed sour faces on all four of them. So, thinking they needed something more dramatic to stimulate their interest, he slammed his knuckles wherever they landed on the keyboard behind him.

This made things worse. The judges looked confused. Oh, OK, John thought, and he turned around to begin playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

Unfortunately, after he’d played two bars, one of the judges raised his hand. That was a way of ending an audition. Not having noticed, John continued playing.

“Enough!“ the judge yelled, bringing John to a stop. “I don’t know what the hell you’re trying to do up there, but it doesn’t resonate with me.”

And before John could respond – he was searching for an expression more tactful than “Tough luck, Mister!” – the judges voted unanimously to dismiss him from the competition. So, walking off stage, John turned his back to the audience, leaned forward, and wiggled his rear end at them.

How disgusting, one of the judges thought. I’m glad we got rid of him.

Unfortunately, they hadn’t.

The next afternoon John sneaked back into the auditorium and, from backstage, crept behind an old man whose singing sounded like Pavarotti. Raising both hands above him, John clasped them in an inverted V position and began improvising a ballet pirouette to the man’s left and right as the audience watched.

Mouths dropped open. Eventually, the crowd burst into laughter.

Thinking he was the target, the man stopped singing. Tears formed in his eyes. This was too much for one of the judges.

“What the hell are you doing here again?” she shouted. “And how’d you get past security?”  Then, noticing the singer’s confusion – his humiliation – “I don’t mean you,” she continued.I mean that despicable… that stupid idiot behind you!”

John stopped dancing. He didn’t say anything. A second later, two security guards walked onstage and escorted him out.

How crazy am I? John wondered. And why can’t I resist these impulses that defeat me every time I try to do anything?

Two days later John’s psychologist offered an explanation.

“You can’t deal with a fear you’ve repressed that a lack of talent may be causing your failures,” he explained, sitting across from John during their weekly therapy session. “It’s easier to blame them on the self-defeating tricks you invent than admit to the flaws you correctly or incorrectly perceive regarding abilities. This is all unconscious, of course. But suspecting that any admission of inferiority would be too devastating, you invent excuses – reasons substituting for the lack of talent you’re convinced you really have.”

What a mouthful! John was at a loss for words. Then feeling uncomfortable, “But… how… would that explain… my impulse… to… sneak behind a singer on stage and impersonate a ballet dancer!?

 John was getting angry. Dr. Harberer paused.

Then, “Oh!” – and improvising a hypothesis on the spot – “That’s similar to getting a second COVID booster shot! On the chance that people who have been vaccinated might nevertheless get sick, they decide on yet another preventive measure to ensure that the first one works. In other words, should you audition someday in the future as a pianist at America’s Got Talent a second time, you want to be doubly certain that the judges would remember your behavior – outlandish enough that it wouldn’t be easily forgotten. It’s like… a back-up dose to guarantee you’ll defeat yourself and continue avoiding a confrontation with the lack of talent you unconsciously believe you harbor.”

What nonsense.

John had never heard such…

But could there be something to this? This was only his second session with Dr. Harberer.

“I… guess. I mean… I guess. I’ll have to think about that,” he managed.

Walking home a half hour later, John bumped into Jessica. A friend since adolescence, she’d become adept at reading his moods.

“I’m on my way to lunch at Starbucks,” she said. “Care to join me?”

And fifteen minutes later, seated and waiting for their order, “What’s wrong with you this time?” she asked. “I can always tell when something’s eating you.”

“Oh… it’s my psychologist” and John explained what he’d been told that morning.

A pause, an “Aha.” Then “Your doctor told you what your motives were?”

“Of course. What else should he do?”

“Well, he might have guided you – to an insight… your own realization, in other words. He might have helped you arrive at this… this understanding… yourself !”

“Why? Is that better?”

“Of course it’s better! If you arrive at an awareness yourself, you’ll be more likely to change your behavior! His telling you what’s in your mind before you’re ready to admit to it could bring on the opposite – it could make you resistant. In that case you’re less likely to do anything about it! Don’t you understand?”  

“Not entirely. Anyway, how do you know all this?”

Everybody knows that.” Then, studying him to evaluate whether her point had sunk in, she squeezed his hand. “John, take my word for it.”

The more John thought about it, the more sense Jessica’s insight seemed to make. So, once home, John left a message on Dr Harberer’s voicemail.

“I’ve decided not to continue my psychotherapy,” he said. Wow! That actually felt good! I have to let Jessica know!

But calling her at work, he heard, “You discontinued your therapy?”  She sounded incredulous.

“Well, yes. You said…”

 “I didn’t mean you should stop your—” (Was this the same person who so criticized John’s psychologist an hour ago?)

“It was you who told me…” But, overwhelmed, John hung up. Only then did it occur to him that regardless of Jessica’s changed opinion, canceling his therapy validated Dr. Harberer‘s point. An unconscious fear that he was incapable of succeeding in psychotherapy was influencing him to cancel it prematurely!

Confused about what he’d done but worried that Dr. Harberer wouldn’t take him back if he left another voicemail to indicate a change of mind, John shuffled to his piano. There he began playing the same music he’d begun before the America’s Got Talent judge interrupted him two days earlier. For some reason, remembering the incident made him laugh. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more doubled over with hysterics he became.

Hunched forward, his forehead collapsed on the keyboard: why does this remind me of the time years ago when, before the beginning of a piano lesson, my teacher tested my trust in him by challenging me to fall backward from a standing position into his arms? he wondered. My confidence that he’d catch me was meant to help free creative expression, I guess. But what if he hadn’t caught me and I’d landed on the back of my head?

Then, wait a minute, I’m the teacher now! he remembered.

Glancing at his watch he realized he had less than five minutes before his hopelessly untalented seven-year-old student would be knocking on his door. The kid’s mother always accompanied him. In fact, every time John glanced in her direction, he couldn’t help noticing that she seemed to be flirting with him.

This discomforted John. But his hint at the beginning of the last week’s lesson – “Should you have some shopping or other chore to do, don’t feel obligated to remain here for the entire lesson” – met only with a smile. All things considered, he would have liked to have canceled these lessons. But so many of his students were dropping out lately. He had no idea why. And John needed the money.

Around halfway through the kid’s lesson – a rendition of the music he’d been assigned to practice the week before – John felt something tapping his shoulder.

Waking up he couldn’t believe what had happened. “Did I… fall asleep?” he asked.

“I’m afraid so.” Smiling, Leon’s mother leaned into him.

“It’s because of this chair. Too comfortable!” Pulling it away from its place a foot or so left of the piano, John exchanged the cushy seat for a small, barren, uncomfortable folding chair. This he dragged across the room.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled.

“You’re sorry! I thought you were John,” Isabel answered.

“Where did you hear that joke?”

“On television. I watched your audition for America’s Got Talent last week.”

God, if John thought he’d blushed all the times this woman had flirted with him…

Throughout all this, John’s student had not stopped “playing.”

What John did next was too unprecedented – too shocking – to publish. Suffice to say that instead of admitting we’re lacking in inspiration, some writers struggling with a story’s end may leave it hanging so the rejection notice expected from editors to whom the story was submitted can be blamed on material purposely omitted, not on any lack of talent…

Ron Merkin is a retired psychiatric social worker, journalist, fiction writer and entertainer.

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