Not Actually Very Funny At All

Terry is a Joke. And a bad one, too. But Terry is bringing home a new roll of Certs from the Kwik Shop because he is going to help Amanda find a new job. His breath must smell better than normal so that she won’t send him away when he opens his mouth.

On his way back to his apartment building, Terry passes some real people on the street. Compulsory chuckles escape this man and that woman. Real people never find him humorous, but it strikes them as impolite not to laugh at the young man’s existence.

Oh well, Terry thinks as he dips his head to accept their recognition.

If he were real, they wouldn’t laugh. Objectively, Terry looks frightening. His eyes glow red, for one. And he wears no shirt under his black trench coat. Nothing covers his gaunt, fish belly white chest. He’s so thin, his heart beat visibly moves his sternum. People who look like Terry shoot up malls and movie theaters.

Passersby ought to stare at Terry. Or avert their eyes and pass him quick as they can, but without breaking into a run so as not to attract his attention. But somehow real people can sense that he’s only a Joke. Just laugh him off. It used to bother Terry before he finally got a chance to use his punchline. Now he’d really rather that people laugh.

Terry pads barefoot down the sidewalk back to the apartment building he shares with other living Jokes. When he enters, the elevator isn’t working. Alvin, the blind maintenance man is taping an “out of order” sign to the double doors.

“Your sign is upside down,” Terry points out.

“You can still read it,” says the blind man, as he picked up his hammer and saw.

As Alvin does this, the room magically changes. The low lights in the dingy foyer brighten, everything looks tinged with rose, and the world seems awash in champagne. From nowhere, an invisible brass chorus plays Wah wah wah waaaaaah! And unseen drums roll ba dum CHING! Alvin smiles.

“Love it. Thanks Terry.”

“Don’t mention it.”

“I carry the hammer and saw on all my rounds. The saw’s blamed heavy and I never use it for anything but making the punchline happen. Doesn’t work without an audience, you know?”

Terry knew. It was why he avoided Alvin. And most of other resident Jokes, for that matter. He cannot relate to the satisfied look they all get when they use their punchlines and the Wah wahs sound. A living Joke’s life purpose is to see their punchline used.

Instead of answering Alvin, Terry spins on his bare heel and pads up the staircase that encircles the elevator. He stops at the fourth floor and puts one of the Certs in his mouth. Then he opens the fourth floor hallway door and heads for apartment 4B. Amanda’s.

***

Amanda is the woman who was fired from the calendar factory for taking a day off. The day it happened, Amanda awoke thinking she was a real person. She left her apartment like always and waited for the bus to pick her up. She inserted her bus card into the bus card slot and the software deducted the $0.45 fare from her prepaid account. Amanda had a prepaid bus card account so she had to be real, right?

When she got to work she put her paper lunch bag into the employee fridge and went to her cubicle. She was tweaking a page of the 2027 tear-away cat calendar when a higher purpose struck her. October the 24th had to go. Amanda’s mother, hugely pregnant with Amanda, had escaped that day twenty-three years ago from the wreckage of a supposedly election-related terror attack.

But Amanda’s mother had always told Amanda the attack was meant for her. Amanda’s father was the middle son of the fascist dictator of the country to the north of the calendar factory. The café Amanda’s mother worked at crumbled in the blast and Amanda’s mother—saved because she’d been in the walk-in freezer when it hit—crawled lacerated and shaking into the arms of rescue workers. Labor started as she crawled and Amanda was born the 25th.

So when the image of October the 24th filled her computer screen, a Sunday with a sleeping ginger shorthair, Amanda’s nerve endings came alive. It had to go. She deleted the cat, but it wasn’t enough. Only the whole day would satisfy her. Delusional power ascended and Amanda opened the source code of the calendar generation software.

She removed the day from the system. Errors popped up on Amanda’s screen. The software wasn’t that smart, but it knew how to count. It knew that 25 didn’t come after 23. Amanda soothed the program. The nice thing about computer programs is that they’re credulous. Whatever people tell them is real is real. If they lie right.

When she was done, Amanda sent the calendar file to processing like nothing had happened. Amanda titled the attachment she sent her boss “Year to Review!” Amanda spent months anticipating something. It had been a strange feeling. Satisfaction mingled with expectation. When it happened it was glorious and Amanda’s life changed forever.

Her boss called her into his office and handed her a pink slip. Then the world turned to champagne bubbles and beautiful trumpets blasted wah wahs into the air around her. Fired from the calendar factory for taking a day off! Her past melted away as the laugh track sounded. Amanda understood that the story of her birth and her mother’s affair with the fascist’s son were like cardboard cutouts of a life. Amanda had no mother. No world but this moment. Whenever she had gone back home after work wasn’t real. She had been like a coat that put itself away in a closet. Amanda was a Joke who’d fulfilled her life’s purpose.

She doesn’t remember how she’d come to live in the apartment with the other living Jokes. But Amanda suspects that she must reside here until she finds another job at another calendar factory so she can do it all again. The thought thrills her.

And someone is knocking at her door. Probably Terry. He is supposed to tweak her resume before she sends it to NewYearSoft, the largest digital calendar distributor in the world. Everyone uses NewYearSoft. Except a few elitist snobs, but who cares about them? Amanda is going to remove a day from everyone’s calendar.

She opens the door and lets the gangly teenage vampire-demon thing in. Not for the first time, it crosses her mind that Terry would be scary if there wasn’t this pervasive laughableness about him.

“Hi Terry,” she says.

“Hello. Did the new identity pass muster?”

“Yeah,” she says. “I’m glad you gave me a good credit score this time. NewYearSoft is going to look into everything.”

Terry had pieced together a whole new persona for Amanda—one who had never been fired from a calendar factory. That is important. It is going to cost her all of her paychecks for six months. But what of it? Her apartment here is free. All the tenants’ food is supplied by their neighbor, The Farmer who is outstanding in his field. And she isn’t doing this for the money, anyways.

A look must have crossed her face because Terry says:

“What?”

“Huh?” Amanda asks. “Oh. I was just thinking about The Farmer. He’s so lucky, you know?”

“His commute’s pretty terrible,” says Terry.

“Yeah, but all he has to do is drive from the apartment to his farm. Then he can stand in his field and the drums roll for him all day! The laugh track chuckles for him for nine hours! He gets to perform his punchline every single day!”

“Maybe it’s not all that great for him,” Terry suggests. “Not everyone reacts to their punchline the same way.”

“You are a wet blanket,” she says.

Terry shrugs. Suddenly punk rock music blares from the apartment above them. Amanda grins. She lives for punchline opportunities.

“What is that noise? She says in a voice that sounds like an auditory version of an elbow to the ribs.

“You know who it is,” Terry says.

“Why, is that our friendly neighborhood band, The 1020 Megabytes?” She turns the tone of the last word upwards. An exaggerated question. An obvious joke set up.

“Yup,” He says. Taciturn. Monosyllabic.

“Come on, Terry,” Amanda hisses in a whisper. “Play along.”

Terry rolls his eyes and shrugs.

“Why yes. It is. How has business been for them?” He asks. Dry unenthusiasm with a hint of contempt.

Amanda spares him a glare. He is perfect for his job: the Repo Man of Souls. Good at bringing people down.

“They still haven’t gotten a gig!” She finishes.

Above them, faint wah wahs sound, followed by an un-punkish ba dum ching! Their neighbors cheer. Amanda glows. She feels like the It’s a Wonderful Life movie. When Clarence says ‘every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.’ She likes the feeling of giving out wings. She’ll get her chance again soon, she can just taste it. If only Terry didn’t suck all the joy out of everything.

“Look,” she says, “Do you have my resume ready or not?”

Terry nods and pulls a file drive from his trench coat pocket. Amanda reaches for it, but Terry holds it back from her outstretched hand.

“There’s a condition,” he says.

“Yeah, I know. You get my paychecks.”

“There’s more. You’ve got to keep the job for four months or I’ll get you fired.”

“I want to be fired. That’s the whole point.”

“But it won’t be your punchline. You’ll be fired for lying on your resume. Not for taking a day off. There won’t be any laugh track or drum riffs for you.”

“Fine. Why?” Amanda asks.

“I need exactly $15,872.”

“What do you need money for anyways? You’re a Joke.

“Things,” Terry says

“Fine.”

Amanda waggles her open hand at Terry. He presses the flash drive into her palm and she shudders at his touch. Clammy. She huffs an involuntary, begrudging laugh. Terry isn’t funny, but you have to laugh at him.

“Remember we have a deal,” he says.

“I’ll remember.”

***

 

Amanda’s whole body itches with the anticipation of it. Waiting has been hard, plus it has been longer than she originally planned. She’s had to let the previous year’s electronic calendar launch with October the 24th still intact. All because of Terry.

She hadn’t had enough money to pay him off last year. She’s waited a whole year, working like a real person at NewYearSoft. Model employee, well-liked, trusted. Amanda has been biding her time. So, temporarily thwarted in her punchline ambitions, she held back the agreed monetary compensation from Terry all year—as insurance.

But today at work she removed October the 24th. It is going to cause lots of software problems all around the globe.  Amanda is going to be fired. Gross oversight. Corporate espionage. Whatever they call it, Amanda’s bosses would not—could not—excuse today’s actions. The trumpets and laugh track will be hers. Only a matter of time.

She knocks on Terry’s apartment door. When he opens the door, Amanda beams and hands him the promised cashier’s check.

He accepts it reverently, without speaking a word. He encircles the check with his claw like hands, only touching the edges. As though the paper it is printed on might crumble and blow away. His red eyes fix on it and he stares with a look of entrenched hunger.

“Well,” says Amanda, “thanks, Terry!”

“Mmm.”

His eyes don’t move from the check.

“I’m gonna get fired again. And we all know how funny that’ll be.”

“Mmm,” he says.

He looks as if he might turn to leave.  Amanda says something to stop him.

“Terry?”

“Hmm?”

“You hate punchlines, don’t you?”

His eyes flick up at her and stare from behind his curtain of stringy black bangs.

“Yeah,” he says.

Amanda nods. It confirms all her suspicions.

“It’s ‘cause no one’s ever really used yours. Isn’t it?” she diagnoses. “I mean, you’re the guy who repossesses souls when people don’t pay their exorcist bills. How often can that have happened?”

Terry stares at her for a moment.

Without a word, Terry takes three steps backward into his apartment and turns. He leaves the door open behind him. Amanda presumes he did this so that she would follow him. She does.

The entryway of his apartment is dark. She tries the light switch, but the overhead bulb is out. Terry’s apartment is laid out like hers. A studio. Slatted closet to the right. Kitchen to the left. Terry’s kitchen looks sterile and unused. No fruit or cereal boxes out. Not much trash in the trash can. Certs wrappers only.

The entryway opens into the living room/sleeping area. Amanda’s living room has a futon and a television. Coffee table, book case. You know, furniture. Terry’s has only a desk and a twin mattress on the floor. No comforter. Sheets only. There are two full bookcases, presumably to make up for the lack of a TV. But no light to read by. Amanda wonders if his red eyes can see in the dark.

Terry emerges from the shadowy bathroom carrying a black, wooden box about the size of a microwave oven. The box has an ornate brass lock keeping the lid on. Tiny whimpers emanate from inside. Then snarling noises followed by something small sobbing, ‘Please!’ over and over.

“I always knew I was a Joke,” Terry says. “Look at me! I knew what my setup was. My punchline. I thought I was really funny, too. A clean Joke, word play-based with a slight edge of irreligiosity. A slight edge, mind you. Not enough to really be offensive. I mean, priests and nuns would tell my joke. But my punchline got used for real once. I guess the priest needed money and the guy defaulted. I showed up all excited to repossess him. ”

Terry places the box on the floor, pulls a key from his pants pocket, and fits it into the lock. As he lifts the hinged lid Amanda peers inside. The box is lined with white silk padding. In its center is a tiny man wearing a diaper. He is growling.

Without warning, the tiny man throws himself against the sides of the box again and again and again. Then he falls down on the padded floor, panting. He shakes his head back and forth and says ‘no, no, no, no.’

Terry picks the small man up in one arm and cradles him like a baby. He produces a bottle from his cloak and gives it to the diapered man, who sucks and gurgles as though he is famished.

“Baby formula,” Terry says. “It’s nutritious. And I can feed and hydrate him all at once.”

“Why is he so small?”  Amanda asks.

Terry shrugs.

“He was too big for me to handle as he was. So I asked the guy with the hard-of-hearing genie three doors down to help.”

“The guy with 10,000 ducks and a 12” pianist?”

“Who else? Anyways, the genie shrunk him so I could keep him in this box until today.”

“The paycheck.” Amanda says, understanding.

Terry nodded.

“I am going to pay off his exorcist bill for him. Get him his right mind back.”

“Then what will you do?” asks Amanda.
“Just live here, I guess. Go to the Kwik Shop. Hope I don’t ever have to use my punchline again.”

“But, the punchline is all I live for,” said Amanda. “We’re Jokes, Terry. How can you give up on your punchline?”

“It turns out,” Terry says. “I’m not actually very funny after all.”

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