At the age of twenty-seven, Maggie Barns began to performe five minutes of standup at a time, twice a week, at a bar 49 minutes away from her apartment. That year, the L train, which ran between northeast Brooklyn and Manhattan’s disgusting 14th Street, shut down for acts of extraordinary maintenance and as a result her commute became 65 minutes. Though friends, many of whom she blew off as part of her busier schedule, assumed she developed a love for monologue or comedy she in fact hated standup. It infuriated her to no end that the tipsy audiences of the Gershwin’s dive bar were not as interested in topical jokes about city politics. Whether it was her material on how city council meetings should be run, or how bike paths reduced traffic fatalities by 10% – incredible results, limited only by your ability to paint a green stripe down a street – the audiences would, at best, stare at her quizzically. Local politics were the engine of change, she said, before launching into a too-specific impersonation of the borough leaders. Maggie Barns, age 27, was alternately wonderful and exasperating. She used her three fingers primarily to snap in front of people’s noses, to either punctuate her arguments or overaggressively teach someone the rhythm to a song. Maggie Barns, age 27 and an impossible human being.
That summer, the summer the L train shut down, she was enjoying a dinner (chicken) and a movie (20th Century Women) at her mother’s posh Upper East Side apartment when her mother pitched forward from the couch and fell spread-eagle, like a human asterisk, to the rug. Her mother had only partially survived the heydays of first- and second-hand smoking and the damage was evident from her charmingly phlegmy accent on the phone, but still she had only been animatedly talking about Annette Bening before she kicked the bucket. An ambulance was summoned and professionals swarmed into the apartment in boots and stretchers to take the body to the hospital. Riding in the back of the ambulance as it veered left and right into traffic to the soundtrack of the siren, Maggie would inadvertently joustle her mother. She thought of nothing else but how warm her skin still felt. How her mouth still probably had bits of rosemary that she had grown, plucked, and sprinkled onto the chicken that night. When the ambulance was four blocks out, her mother’s pulse slackened and became still. Maggie’s mom sighed once more and then stopped respirating. The body now flew at forty miles per hour to the medical center, where it would undergo a cursory examination before being correctly reassigned to the mortuary. Maggie sat in the vehicle and shook with the realization that she was headed to wrong place at the wrong time. The van slowed to a halt and the driver turned off all the lights and fury. For a split second, there was just the blue LED light of the city’s new streetlights and the rhombus it made on her arms as they draped across her mother in a hot tight hug. No noise, no questions, no paperwork, no lawyers. No email chains, no funeral arrangements, no signatures made on countless dotted lines. No ugly black dresses and shitty church food. No rain, no speeches, no cardboard boxes and old photos and prescription pills being emptied into the sink. Just her and her mother and the moon and the lights. Then the back door of the ambulance van was thrown open and three paramedics stared at them and the show, which had been on pause, once and for all began.