Texas Bar Journal Short Story Contest
First Place Winner

Crowd Work

By Caryn L. Carson

A stand-up comedian on stage

With a hand on either side of the sink, Paige leaned toward the mirror of the ladies restroom of the comedy club. “This is it,” she whispered to the face in the mirror. “This is the grind. You chose this. Don’t embarrass yourself.” She checked her watch and re-lipsticked for the third time. Two regrettable pepperoni kolaches she had lifted from the office break room still churned along with the familiar butterflies in her stomach. Paige was in the third block of the open mic and would be going up around 11 p.m. She knew better than to miss her spot. She better be in the showroom when the host called her name.

Paige threw her shoulders back, faked a confident walk out of the restroom, and beelined to the bar where she elbowed in between comics to order her regular: a shot of Jameson and a Coke back. She pulled out that night’s set list scrawled on the back of a grocery list. She didn’t write out her jokes like she first did when she started doing stand-up comedy. Instead, the list only read:

• Naïve first wife
• 2019 New Year’s resolutions
• Love language = sabotage
• VP Pence

She should have felt good about this five-minute set she had been working on for weeks—editing, practicing it aloud in the car, recording herself on her iPhone, ruthlessly editing some more, getting tags from other comics, using as few words as possible to get to the punchline. But right then she stared at the words on the page, and nothing came to her brain. She downed her jolt of Jameson confidence, shoved her set list in her pocket, and pushed open the doors to the dark showroom. One comic was onstage and visibly perspiring while hanging off the mic stand. The audience was small, but it was hard to miss the three people who had chosen to sit right in front of the stage. Other comics Paige knew were littered around the back of the room. Some were stars of the local comedy scene; some, well, not so much. Paige figured she hovered in the middleof the spectrum. She was only willing to admit to herself that there were some nights when she wasn’t terrible. She hoped this would be one of those nights.

Navigating through the comics, Paige fist bumped a few, nodded her head to a couple more who ignored her, and settled into a seat beside Stephanie, a comic whose comedy podcast she’d been hoping to get on for months.

“Wassup?” Paige whispered.

“Nada, my friend. This room is pretty cold except that one bald dude up front,” Stephanie gestured at the threesome near the stage. “Be ready. He’s had something to say to every one of the last five comics.”

“Fantastic—just what I need. A heckler who knows more about my jokes than I do.”
The visibly sweaty comic onstage wrapped up his set. He was bombing. He knew it. “Thanks everyone,” he spat sarcastically.

“You’ve been a great audience.” He slammed the microphone into the stand and darted off stage.

“Never blame the audience,” Paige said under her breath.

“They don’t owe you anything,” Stephanie agreed. “We’re here to make them laugh.”

The host for the third block reappeared on the stage. His eyes darted around the room.

“Hey! Is Paige Branson here?”

Paige bolted over to the side of the stage, dropped her bag on a sticky table, and pulled her set list from her pocket. She tried to look at ease as she rubbed the paper between her fingers. She stared at a greasy spot on the worn industrial carpet and repeated the familiar mantra in her head: Laughs in first 20 seconds. Pause. Breathe. None of this matters.

“This next lady comic is actually funny! Put your hands together for Paige Branson!” the 20-something host with baggy jeans yelled into the microphone as Paige climbed onstage. She shook his limp, clammy hand, and he whispered “Light at four, Paige.” She pulled the microphone out of the stand and set the stand behind her.

“How y’all doing tonight?” she asked, as a matter of habit. Faint clapping and weak nods from the folks up front.

“People tell me I look like the naïve first wife …” pause, breathe … “from every Lifetime channel original movie.”

“Who even has basic cable anymore?” The bald ringleader lit into her right away. Paige ignored him. She usually got a laugh on that first joke because she really did look like she belonged on Lifetime. She heard nothing but uncomfortable shifting in chairs. She doubled down. “You know that wife. She never sees it coming—”

“You know who else doesn’t see it coming?” The ringleader nudged one of his female companions who just smirked and took a swig of beer.

Paige plowed through her set. She talked too fast and stepped on her own jokes. The ringleader lobbed inane questions at her, but she stuck to her own setups and punchlines. She hated crowd work and refused to engage with the hecklers. She was halfway through her planned set when she saw a quick iPhone light flash from the back of the showroom. “That can’t seriously be the light,” Paige thought as she started into a two-minute bit about second ladies. A minute later, an angry shaking light was moving up from the back of the room to the side of the stage. She wanted to finish her bit and not let those hecklers win.

“That’s my time. I’m Paige Branson,” she trailed off as she exited the stage without shaking the host’s hand. Her face felt hot. She picked up her bag and headed for the exit. Stephanie was the next comic up, and as she passed Paige going in the other direction, she mumbled “Good set” without making eye contact.

“There’s always the show tomorrow,” Paige told herself.

* * *

With a hand on either side of the sink, Paige leaned toward the mirror of the second-floor ladies restroom in the courthouse. “This is it,” she whispered to the face in the mirror. “This is the grind. You chose this. Don’t embarrass yourself.” She checked her watch and re-lipsticked for the third time. Two regrettable blueberry doughnuts she had lifted from the office break room still churned along with the familiar butterflies in her stomach. Paige was the appellant’s lawyer in the third case on the docket and would be going up around 11 a.m. She knew better than to miss her spot. She better be in the courtroom when the court clerk called her case.

Paige threw her shoulders back, faked a confident walk out of the restroom, and beelined to the well-worn bench closest to the courtroom entrance. She discreetly swigged from a Red Bull she had hidden in her briefcase. She pulled out that day’s binder with her argument outline on top. She didn’t write out her oral arguments like she first did when she started doing appeals. Instead, the list only read:

• Federal Arbitration Act
• Electronic signature
• Unconscionability = Nope
• No waiver

She should have felt good about this 15-minute argument she had been working on for weeks—editing, practicing it aloud in the car, recording herself on her iPhone, ruthlessly editing some more, getting feedback from her partners, using as few words as possible to concisely convey the point. But right then she stared at the words on the page and nothing came to her brain. She downed her jolt of Red Bull confidence, snapped shut her binder and shoved it into her briefcase, and pushed open the doors to the bright courtroom.

One lawyer was at the podium and visibly perspiring while lilting to the left. The three justices on the panel were all leaning in toward the lawyer. Other appellate lawyers Paige knew were littered around the back of the room. Some appeared on all the Best Of lists; some, well, not so much. Paige figured she hovered in the middle of the spectrum. She was only willing to admit to herself that there were some days when she wasn’t terrible. She hoped this would be one of those days.

As she navigated quietly from the back of the courtroom, Paige slid into a row in the gallery, shook hands with one attorney, and nodded her head to a couple more who ignored her. She took a place on the bench beside Connor, a lawyer whose legal podcast she’d been hoping to get on for months.

“Wassup?” Paige whispered.

“Nada, counselor. This room is pretty cold except Chief Justice McMullen.” Connor covertly gestured at the judges behind the bench. “Be ready. She’s had something to say to every one of the last five attorneys.”

“Fantastic—just what I need. A justice who knows more about my legal argument than I do.”

The visibly sweaty lawyer wrapped up his argument. He wasn’t gaining any ground. He knew it.

“Thank you,” he said with a twinge of attitude. He slammed his binder shut and quickly stepped away from the microphone. “Never blame the panel,” Paige said under her breath.

“They don’t owe you anything,” Connor agreed. “We’re here to answer their questions.”

The court clerk reappeared. His eyes darted around the room. “The second case on the docket settled. Are counsel for Zia BTG Holdings, LLC v. Andrew Diaz present?”

Paige announced her appearance and bolted up to the appellant’s table, opened her briefcase, and pulled out her binder. She tried to look at ease as she flipped to her outline as Mr. Diaz’s counsel confidently found his way to the appellee’s table. She stared at a greasy spot on the worn industrial carpet and repeated the familiar mantra in her head: Frame the issue in the first 90 seconds. Pause. Breathe. All of this matters.

Without invitation, Paige strode to the podium and leaned into the microphone.

“May it please the court,” she started out, as a matter of habit. Paper shuffling and a weak nod from the justices.

“I’m Paige Branson and I represent Zia BTG Holdings …” pause, breathe … “in its interlocutory appeal from the trial court’s denial of a motion to compel arbitration.”

“What’s the standard of review on a trial court’s denial of a motion to compel arbitration?” The chief justice lit into her right away.

Paige didn’t expect such an early question on the standard of review. The standard was well briefed by both sides, and she hadn’t even had a chance to introduce the key issues of her argument.

“Your honor, the court reviews the denial of a motion to compel arbitration for an abuse of discretion, but the question of whether there is a valid and enforceable arbitration agreement is a legal one subject to de novo review.” Paige addressed it head on.

Chief Justice McMullen stared straight ahead, but the two other justices simultaneously nodded their heads. Without further hesitation, Paige plowed back into her argument. She spoke at an animated pace, but always stopped when she heard a voice from the bench start into a question. The chief justice lobbed puzzling questions at her, but she consistently engaged. She’d answer the question and steer right back to her issues and her arguments. By the time the light on the podium switched from green to yellow, she knew her best bet was to avoid the red light and take her seat back at her table.

After the appellee’s time and a quick rebuttal from Paige, it was all over. She thanked the panel and thought she even detected a faint smile from the chief justice. She grabbed her binder and briefcase, shook hands with opposing counsel, and headed for the exit doors.

Connor’s case was up next, and as he passed Paige going in the other direction, he silently mouthed “Good argument” with a smile and unblinking eye contact. TBJ

Headshot of Caren CarsonCARYN L. CARSON lives in Dallas and Albuquerque, New Mexico, and is a lawyer at Tenet Healthcare focusing on employment law and commercial litigation. She is also a stand-up comic.

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