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Punchlines

They say laughter is the best medicine. They say laugh till it hurts. Sounds like a vicious cycle to me. Ain't nothing but pain when you step into The Last Marquee. Now button your lip, sunshine. Show's about to start. The Doc ain't gonna tell you twice...


Punchlines by Jason Ridler


No one walks into The Last Marquee; you roll in like autumn leaves. Regulars are strangers just hiding from the rain, and lo and behold we are a pretty bunch. From the bottom right of the stage, I see them all through the smoke from my lips and the notes of my keys, tapping out the cadence of a machine gun with a heart attack. And yet I remain. And whenever anyone works up the courage to crush the peanut shells and roaches that lead to my stool, they all ask me the same goddamn question.

“It true you saw Dr. Yuk play his last show?”

And like some long-recovered addict remembering his first hit, I tap out the tune of nostalgia that’s like poison to my bones. “Sit down, chief,” I say. “And let me shoot it to you straight.”
See the Doc was no hero and sure wasn’t no saint. He was shorter than an everyman and two steps closer to being a nobody. A redheaded stepchild to a wandering preacher, some said. Others that he was a carbide orphan, on tour for mother’s milk since he dressed in mucky white Pampers.

There was a shot of truth here and there with these stories, but all are chased down with a pint of lies, and what difference does it make anyway? When boiled to the bone, the truth is the Doc had a knack for gaffs and guffaws. I said it before and I’ll say it again, whatever his faults, he had one goal. He wanted to make people laugh.

So he played the Clockwork Noir and the Silver Shack, and he grabbed the open mic in every Shitburg and Smallprick town between the angry Atlantic and Lady Pacific. And in his rambling days, living off bar nuts and trash can salads, he found his way here. Like they always do.

But the Doc came with steam, not sneers. His name was burning up the marquees. See, the Doc learned something, trilling along the wild. Something every pugnacious purveyor of punchlines knows deep in his heart, but takes a few cracks from the mallet to feel.

Funny ain’t funny unless someone gets hurt.

Slapstick stole his cherry, see. The old banana peel rag. He pulled it in a derelict smoke shack somewhere between Hell’s Kitchen and Death Valley. Only no one told the Doc about the wood rot and rusty nails that held the stage together, and lo and behold, the Doc did his banana walk and crashed right through into the dark.

Wood splintered into his arms and rusty nails stabbed his back. But his screams were drowned by the crowd’s cackle. As he bled, silver dollars rained down the hole like stars, and hit him square in the eye.

Lying in that hole, he found a red river of milk and honey. He had enough coin for a French blowjob and an American tetanus shot, then bought himself a lootbag of props, most shiny and soon red. The old banana peel carried him far, especially with the thumbtacks. There was the bear claw punching match, and the juggling razor jamboree. But what cut ’em up most was the old happy teeth smile. With a pliers and grin, he yanked his teeth out to thunderous applause throughout the Midwest, knocking ’em down in flophouses and classy joints as the scars grew like maggots on fresh meat, rotting in the sun.

But you only got so many teeth, dear friends. And the crowds and change soon dried up. And the only laughter the Doc heard was when he got on stage with his banana peel, or when he left dripping blood in its wake.

And that’s when he ended up here, the last refuge before disgrace, the only stage left that would gave any neverwas or hasbeen a last gasp to find some magic road to the comeback trail.

But when the Doc arrived, his loot bag black and dripping, the comeback trail was long gone. He took the stage with a dirty denture smile. “And now, ladies and gents I give you, my final act.”

This was no banana peel.

The Doc pulled out a silver-plated pistol with a barrel as long as Pinochio’s nose. He aimed at the crowd and said. “It’s never enough, is it folks? There’s only so many ways to bleed, only so many miles of skin, and it’s never enough, is it? Unless, of course, I find fresh meat. Now ladies and gents, boys and girls, children of all ages, can I have a volunteer?”

No one raised their hands, including yours truly, so the Doc smiled. “I guess I’ll have to pick the lot of you, then. First rule of comedy, my new apprentices. Pain is laughter so get ready to scream!”

And he fired wild as the crowd dove for cover, tables turned over, crushed bottles turned the floor into a sea of shark-toothed glass, husbands hid behind wives, mother’s behind their kids, and the Doc kept on firing.

When he was done, smoke rising from his pistol, two things stuck out like a sore thumb.
From the end of the barrel were a dozen flags unfurled with the word BOOM.

And the only one laughing was the Doc. “You out there!” he said, “you’re the punchline, you sons of bitches!”

And then the son of a gun walked out. Everyone clawed their way to kill him, tear him from here to heaven’s shithouse, but they slipped and slid all over each other, scrambling on a sea of booze, blood and busted glass. But not the Doc. He walked across that bleeding sea like he had a hundred times before, steady as Christ across a swimming pool. The Doc laughed himself right out of the joint, never to return.

No, I don’t know where he went. No, I don’t know if he got a face job and made it big. And no, he ain’t me, despite what our barkeep Marley will tell you.

But I do know this.

Comedy ain’t for the weak, sane, or lucky, children. So sit on down, grab a libation and enjoy the show. Our first act is coming up soon, and he’ll be sure to make you cackle ’till it hurts.

Jason Ridler is the author of the Spar Battersea thrillers (Death Match, Con Job) and short story collection Knockouts, with numerous stories in magazines and anthologies. A former punk rock musician and cemetery groundskeeper, he holds a Ph.D. in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada. Visit him at his writing blog, Ridlerville (www.jridler.com), and on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JayRidler