“So I’m in the cosmetics aisle, right? And I’m standing there reading this bottle of lotion. ‘Not tested on animals,’ it says. And I’m thinking: Really? Like, who the hell is rubbing lotion on animals? Anyone?”
A modest amount of laughter from the audience. About as much as you could expect from twelve drunk New Yorkers at one in the morning on a Thursday night. Nick paced the stage; the practiced dumbfounded expression on his face. His free hand supine, his shoulders up around his ears.
Laughter stops, one… two… three…
“I mean, is that seriously the way you want to be testing your new body lotion? To rub it on a bunny? ‘Well, the bunny doesn’t seem to mind, so I guess I won’t either.’ I mean, is this really what people think is going on?”
A little less laughter this time. Polite at best. Not going well. Not bombing, but far from killing.
Too wordy, gotta cut it down a bit. Here comes the wordy-ass punchline, and God help you if you trip, Nick. Smooth and steady. One… two… three…
“I mean, I picture some top-secret facility twelve floors underground, right? Armed guards, razor wire, security cameras. And inside, there’s this mad scientist rubbing Lubriderm on a turtle. This is what everyone’s worried about?”
Polite laughter. Not enough. Too short. Need an extra beat before the tag. One… two… three… funny little face, shrug shoulders, sigh. Here goes…
“I mean I’d love to buy this Goldbond, but I have it on good authority that they rubbed this shit on a til… on a tilapia.”
Tripped on the last goddamn word. Ruined the whole joke. Ruined the whole act. Maybe ruined his whole career, for all he knew. One lady laughed, but it was clearly an act of kindness.
“Thanks, Mom,” Nick said. And that one got the best laugh of the whole set. For an encore, he oughta pull out a gun and blow his brains out. That’d get him a standing goddamn ovation.
“You guys have been great,” he said. “Thank you.”
He put the microphone back in the stand and walked offstage to the bare minimum of appreciation. He took the long way around the little audience and went to sit at the bar. Dani uncapped a Heineken and touched the cold bottle to the back of his neck.
“Ow!” he said.
“You’re sweating, Nicky.”
“Yeah, you’d be too,” Nick said. “How hard is it to say ‘tilapia?’ Freakin’ tilapia! It’s not like I chose Patagonian toothfish.”
Dani laughed. It was the best laugh of the night. She set the beer down in front of him.
“Thanks,” Nick said.
“I’m about to kill the fryer for the night. Want anything?”
“No thanks. Just ate my balls.”
“You’re funny as hell, Nick. Don’t sweat it.”
“What’s another funny-sounding fish, Dani? Carp? Halibut?”
“Gefilte,” Dani said, winking.
“Christ, you’re funnier than I am,” Nick said.
Some local greenie was up on stage doing his little Attell ripoff routine. Sadly, he was the same laughs as Nick had.
“You know this hack?” Nick asked.
“Ari Green,” Dani said. “Short for Greenbaum, I think.”
“Short for Greenbaum? What, with a name like Ari, you’re worried about sounding too Jewish?”
Dani laughed. “He’s alright,” she said. “Really nice guy.”
It was late, but Nick decided the only way to celebrate his monumental bomb of a set was to drink about seven or eight beers and watch as many people bomb after him as possible. With luck, he’d get drunk enough to forget the whole thing ever happened.
Ari finished his set to a smattering of polite applause, and like Nick, took the long way back to the bar. He nodded at Nick and took a seat.
“How ya doin’?” Ari said.
“About the same as you, I suppose.”
“I hear that. Dani around?”
“She’s closing up the kitchen, should be back any minute.”
Ari nodded. “What a crowd, huh? These people oughta be at an Enya concert.”
Nick chuckled. “I’d love to blame them for my own set, but I straight-up shit myself.”
“Nah, man,” Ari said. “These bozos are ready for bed. That joke is killer. I’ve always loved that joke.”
“Have you been here before? I didn’t recognize you.”
“I saw you at the Riot Room with some friends.”
“Oh. Cool, man. That’s a nice room.”
“Totally. Haven’t been on stage there or anything.”
“How long you been at this?” Nick asked.
“Six months. You?”
“Five years this May.”
Ari nodded. “Hey, you sure Dani isn’t taking a shit or something? How long does it take to get a beer around here?”
“They keep all the beer in the back. Don’t ask me why. If this was my place, I’d have three taps; here, here, and here. Guinness, Bud, and Bud Light.”
The emcee came up next, with an artificial enthusiasm he hoped might wake up the audience.
“We’ve got a special treat for all you brave enough to be out past your bedtimes on a school night. Please welcome, making his comedy debut this very night at the Mikestand, the Magnificent Rodney Walters. Rodney Walters, everyone.” He hung up the microphone and clapped enthusiastically, effectively doubling the amount of applause in the room.
“You heard of this guy before?” Ari asked.
Nick shook his head. “With a name like that, I’d sure as hell remember if I did.”
“Need anything, boys? Hi, Ari.” It was Dani.
“Thank the gods,” Ari said. “Get me drunk, please.”
“Another for you too, Nicky?”
The Magnificent Rodney Walters was making his way to the stage. A trundling old man in a ratty, faded suit. He got to the edge of the stage and put one foot on the first step. Then the second step. Then he was onstage facing the audience. Nick was sure he had never seen him. If he had, he’d have recognized the big mole on the left side of his nose.
“I just flew in from the local rub ‘n tug. And boy, are Miss Ling’s arms tired.”
“Oh, God,” Nick said. “One of these guys. Time to go take a leak.”
“Yeah, I’m with ya.”
There wasn’t a laugh to be had on the way to the bathroom. Rodney Walters’ magnificence consisted completely of hacky one-liners; most of which you could hear variations of around any water cooler or barbershop full of dullards. It was guys like this who made people think stand-up was easy; that comedians were merely the class clown-dropouts without the gumption to put in a full day’s work. Guys like this who made a mockery of the craft and a shit sculpture of the art. Thanks a ton, Rodney, for your truly magnificent contribution to comedy.
“This one’s for Rodney,” Nick said, taking a leak. You could still hear the cadence of his shitty one-liners through the bathroom door, but mercifully, you couldn’t make out the words.
“At least someone’s bombing worse than we did,” said Ari. “Hey, so how long ago did you get passed at the Riot Room.”
“A couple years ago,” Nick said. “You ever meet the owner?”
“Paulie? Nah, not yet. Still waiting for someone to introduce me to–”
They paused, both simultaneously cocking an ear to the door. Mr. Magnificent had just gotten his first laugh of the evening. A pretty good one too, considering he’d cooled the audience down to the temperature of liquid nitrogen.
“Must’ve just dropped his big closer,” Ari said.
“Probably got it out of a dirty jokes coffee table book,” Nick said.
No doubt they were both right, but holy hell, was that dead-ass crowd enjoying it. They were still enjoying it. It must’ve been eight, ten seconds already, and the knuckleheads were still laughing. In fact, the laughter was getting louder.
“He’s killing up there,” Ari said. “What the hell did he pull out of his ass?”
They hurried to the sinks and half-heartedly rinsed their hands.
Out in the room, the stage was empty. What, had the audience been that thrilled to see the guy leave? Nick looked to the front door just in time to see the guy’s ass disappear out in the street. That was him, alright; that ratty suit and geriatric shamble.
But the audience. The audience was still laughing. Forget laughing; they were cracking the fuck up; knee-slapping, rolling back, falling-on-their-asses laughing. Ari and Nick looked at each other.
“What the hell happened here?” Ari said. “I’ve never got a laugh like that in my life.”
Just then, Alex, the emcee, came stumbling towards them from the back of the club; one hand on his belly and the other one landing on his knee as he stopped in front of them to bend over laughing. When he came back up to face them, he had tears in his eyes. Bulbous veins protruded from his forehead and the sides of his neck. His face was purple in the neon lights from the bar.
“Oh my god,” Alex wheezed. “Did you hear that guy’s closer?”
“We were taking a leak,” Nick said.
“Oh my god,” Alex said. “Holy shit. That has to have been the funniest fucking joke I’ve ever–”
Alex doubled over, half laughing, half coughing.
“What’d he say?” Ari asked. “Fuck, did we pick the wrong time to take a piss…”
“Tell us the joke,” Nick said.
But Alex was practically debilitated with laughter. The whole club was in a goddamn uproar. The audience was falling out of their chairs; some of them literally rolling on the floor. ROFL, Nick thought, typed a million times a day, never happened once in the history of mankind. Well, so much for the joke he was working on—it was happening right before his eyes. He and Ari met eyes again. What could that guy have said to cause such a cataclysm?
“He goes… He says…” It was Alex, trying desperately to catch his breath. It was hopeless. He threw his head back and howled with laughter. All at once, it was more disconcerting than amusing. It had gone on too long. No joke could possibly be that funny.
“He goes… Goes…”
The veins in Alex’s neck bulged so obscenely, they seemed to fold in on themselves. His face was a deepening purple. His expression turned from hilarity to sudden horror.
“Alex? Chill out, man.”
A geyser of fluid erupted from Alex’s mouth.
“Holy shit,” Ari said, narrowly escaping the splash.
Another splash. Then another. And another. Alex stood agape with his eyes rolling back in his head. Only then did Nick realize that the rhythmic bursts of vomit were not vomit at all, but blood. Alex fell backwards, his head hitting the floor with a final, weakening spout.
“Dude,” said Ari, “What the hell is going on?”
“I think we need to get outta here,” Nick said. He turned to the bar. Dani had just come out of the back; was standing dumbfounded behind the bar holding two bottles of beer. When her eyes found Alex, his mouth weakly erupting blood on the floor, she dropped both bottles. The soundtrack to it all was uproarious laughter.
Nick hurried to the bar and took Dani by the elbow. “Don’t ask,” he said. “Let’s get out of here.”
As the three of them went for the door, a hysterical audience member collapsed, tipping over a table and landing face-first on the floor. He didn’t move.
“Nick!” Dani said, pointing at the man on the floor.
“Come on,” Nick said. “We gotta get the cops.” There was no helping these people at this point. Plus, he had a serious case of the creeps.
The police were no closer to the answers they were looking for by the time they let Nick, Ari, and Dani back onto the street. It was 1:00 in the afternoon, and they were exhausted and hungry; all the cops had given them to eat were the same bologna sandwiches reserved for the guests in the drunk tank and lockup. Nick didn’t blame the cops for being suspicious. It was tough to explain: The cops arrive on-scene at 1:35 a.m. Two comics and one bartender, unharmed. Inside, thirteen dead. A bloodbath. Alex had only been the first to go—esophageal varices, he heard one of the cops mention; a burst blood vessel in the throat attributed to the club owner’s alcoholism. But the jury was out on everyone else. There was no logical explanation for it. People just don’t laugh themselves to death. There was no way the cops were going to buy that line, so neither Nick, Ari, or Dani even suggested it during the extensive bouts of questioning.
Last they heard once the cops admitted defeat, they meant to investigate the matter as a possible gas leak. Maybe the lack of oxygen left everyone giddy, and they asphyxiated in the throes of hysteria. Nick and Ari, breathing the relatively fresh air in the bathroom, and Dani, safe from the fumes in the kitchen, survived. Could this really be possible? Admittedly, it made more sense than some weirdo coming onstage and cracking a joke so funny it killed everyone.
The three of them were too tired and hungry to discuss it by the time they got out of the precinct. Ari bid them farewell, and Nick saw Dani to a taxi and sent her on her way.
The story in the paper hardly did it justice. No big headline, no sensationalism suggesting a chemical attack; just Tragic Gas Leak Kills Thirteen. It seemed like the cops and the news alike just wanted to put a button on it and put it behind them. Case closed. But Nick couldn’t put it out of his mind. That creepy comic. What did he call himself? The Magnificent Rodney Walters. Could he really have killed the audience? What the hell had he said or done before the crowd lost their shit like that?
The phone rang that Sunday morning, shaking Nick from a pleasant dream and instantly pissing him off. He’d been doing sets until 3:00 a.m., and was planning to sleep until noon at the very least. So much for that.
“Nick. It’s Ari. From the other night?”
“It’s nine in the morning, dude. How’d you get my number?”
“Dani had it. Dude, it happened again. You see the paper?”
Nick sat up suddenly. “You’re kidding me.”
“There’s no way this thing was a gas leak. It’s that guy. Rodney Walters or whatever. Ten people dead, dude.”
“That’s the one. It’s closed now, to investigate the ‘gas leak,’ but there was no fucking gas leak. It was that guy. It must’ve been.”
“Did they mention the guy?”
“No, nothing. There’s no way to find out either; everyone died. It was that joke, dude. They heard the joke.”
Nick took a deep breath. God, he was tired. “Listen, man. I don’t know how to explain this either, but there’s no way this actually happened the way it looks. You can’t laugh yourself to death, it’s just not possible.”
“Listen, man, I know you were out working last night. I wouldn’t have called you at nine in the morning if I didn’t have to. But ever since that night, I’ve been obsessed with this. I haven’t done a set since Thursday.”
“Do you have a point here, or can I go back to sleep?”
“Of course I have a point, dude. Listen. Meet me at Lucky’s at noon. I have someone you have to meet. Really important, okay?”
“I gotta sleep, man.”
“Please, Nick. You have to trust me. Again, I wouldn’t have bothered you if I–”
“Alright, alright, I’ll be there.”
“Perfect. Lucky’s at noon. I’ll see you then.”
Nick hung up and set an alarm for 11:15 a.m. He lay back down and closed his eyes, but when he did, all he could see was that creepy comic. Rodney Walters. No more sleep was forthcoming. Thanks, Ari.
Lucky’s Pizzeria, 12:00 p.m.
When Nick walked in, he immediately saw Ari and some other guy sitting at a table in the back. He grabbed two slices and a soda and made his way back to join them. They had already eaten.
“Nick, thanks for coming. And again, sorry for waking you up.”
“Again? I don’t recall you apologizing the first time.”
“Nice to meet you, Nick,” said the man, hand extended. “I’m John.”
“He’s a pastor’s assistant at Bible Baptist Church,” Ari said. “And a comic, wouldya believe it?”
“No kidding,” Nick said. They shook hands. “So I take it you don’t work blue?”
“He’s filthy as hell,” Ari said. “Don’t let the cross fool you.”
“Hey,” John said. “I’m only a pastor’s assistant.”
“Fair enough,” Nick said with a chuckle. “So what’s the big emergency here? Not to downplay what happened, or anything.” He folded a slice and took a big bite.
“So, we’ve been talking ever since the thing happened. I was super freaked out. He’s kinda my spiritual advisor, you know?”
“Spiritual advisor? Aren’t you Jewish?”
“Hey now,” John said. “Jesus was too, remember?”
“Touché,” said Nick.
“Anyway,” Ari went on, “John is always suspicious of devilish shit going on. So, when I told him about what we saw, he was all over it.”
“It’s been written,” John said with sudden authority, “that Satan, in all his craftiness and deceit, is constantly looking for ways to wreak havoc on earth. And if this is what it sounds like, it can only be the work of the devil.”
“The devil, dude,” Ari said.
“It’s been written?” said Nick. “That’s a pretty vague way to attribute something to the supernatural.”
“Specifically,” John went on, “in the ancient grimoires that preceded Jesus himself, that there exists a joke so funny, that all those who hear it will die of laughter.”
“Ancient grimoires, dude,” Ari said.
“Obviously,” John continued, “The joke itself has never been transcribed. If it were, it would be the single most dangerous document to ever exist. All of mankind could be destroyed.”
“Well, not really,” said Nick. “If you read it, you’d die, right? Kinda keeps you from spreading it, for lack of a better word.”
“It has too been written, that simply reading the joke will not kill the individual, but instead arm said individual with the joke’s destructive power. The person needs only to tell the joke, and all who hear it will die, including the teller of the joke him or herself. Just picture the destruction. The dead, piled around water coolers, in locker rooms, in comedy clubs. Say someone uttered the joke over the radio, or on television. It would only be a matter of time until the joke is transcribed to all the tongues of the world. Bodies piled in the streets! Vermin! Pestilence! The pit of hell, belching forth its infernal–”
“Alright, cool it, man,” Ari said. “We get the idea, believe me.”
Nick took another bite and sat chewing for a minute. “Even if this was true,” he said, “that a joke like this could possibly exist; some evil joke that killed all who heard it; you mentioned the teller of the joke would also die, correct? Because he heard himself tell it, you mean?”
“Precisely,” said John.
“So that couldn’t be what happened. Because the guy onstage when all this went down walked back off the stage and out the door. Both Ari and I saw him go. Right, Ari?”
“But there is an explanation for that,” Ari said. He and John glanced knowingly at each other.
“The devil has many names,” John said. “Beelzebub, Lucifer, Damian, Satan, The Morning Star…”
“Rodney Walters,” Ari said. “The Magnificent Rodney Walters is the devil.”
The more Nick thought about his conversation with Ari and John, the more he wished he’d only had one slice instead of two—the heartburn was brutal. He’d been pushing the idea of anything surreal out of his mind ever since the night in the police station. It just wasn’t rational to think a joke was so funny it could kill you. Even if there was such a joke; one that was so funny you’d need a Surgeon General’s warning on it, there’s no way it would kill everyone who heard it. Maybe the odd heart-patient, or yes, possibly even an alcoholic club owner with a varicose vein in his throat, but never everybody. Was it possible John’s take on the situation was accurate? Had the pit of hell belched forth Rodney Walters?
Nick picked up the phone and cancelled his spots at the Riot Room. As tired as he was today, attempting comedy tonight was a certain bomb.
“Screw it,” he said.
He was dozing on the couch at around 5:00 p.m. when the local news brought up the comedy club tragedy in Brooklyn: Ten dead from suspected gas leak. The second such tragedy in a week. More regulation needed?
It didn’t go any further into it than that. What were a couple dozen deaths in a city of zillions? Peanuts, that’s what. Worth little more than the ten bucks you’d get for your fifteen-minute spot.
No sooner than Nick closed his eyes did his cell phone ring again. He picked it up and looked at the number. It was Ari. Nick shook his head. They certainly had become fast friends, hadn’t they?
“Nick. You got the TV on?”
“Yeah, why? And why are you always calling me when I’m trying to sleep?”
“Put on channel seven, dude. Quick.”
Nick grabbed the remote and hit seven. The Midtown Mania Comedy Festival was going on a week from today. The news was showing snippets from last year’s festival; big acts from around the country doing their best fifteen minutes; everyone selling T-shirts and CDs, taking pictures and signing autographs for the fans. Nick couldn’t care less about it; the festival was huge, but guys on his level had no shot at all getting onstage at show like that. Much less a guy like Ari. The whole thing was a self-celebrating big-shot fest. Maybe Nick would be in it one day, sure. But until that day, he was fully intent on resenting it.
“Why do you care?” Nick asked. “Hoping to sneak in five minutes between Bill Burr and Dave Attell?”
“You never heard about that big raffle?”
“What big raffle? I try not to pay any attention to this shit.”
“Look, man. Look, right now.”
Nick looked at the TV. There he was: The Magnificent Rodney Walters, this year’s first guest-spot raffle winner. The lucky comedian will have the chance to perform five minutes in front of a massive crowd of an expected eighty thousand comedy fans. A chance in a lifetime for sure. We at Channel Seven News wish Rodney Walters a magnificent performance indeed!
Nick’s stomach tightened. The pizza was creeping up his throat again. “I see,” he said.
“Dude, there’s no way he could’ve won that contest without harnessing his infernal devil-powers. There were like fifty zillion entries!”
“I can imagine,” Nick said.
“I mean, I know you aren’t convinced or anything—I can totally understand; the whole thing sounds pretty crazy—but you gotta admit… Like, seriously, right? Devil-powers, man.”
Nick took a deep breath. There was so much to absorb today, he hadn’t even the resources to digest two slices of pizza. Biases toward the non-supernatural aside, he had to admit: It did seem like the odd, unknown comedian literally killed that night at Alex’s club. And it did appear that the exact same scenario had taken place at Slappy’s in Brooklyn mere nights later. And it did seem pretty unlikely that the same, completely unknown, utterly shitty comedian would win—let alone meet any necessary qualifications to enter—a massive contest to perform in front of eighty thousand people along with the nation’s biggest, most prestigious acts. “Yeah,” the biases-aside Nick agreed. “It kinda seems that way, doesn’t it?”
“And you know what that means, don’t you? He’s telling the goddamn joke, Nick. Everybody’s gonna be there. My sister’s gonna be there! All her friends too!”
“Can you convince her not to go?” Nick asked. “Just in case all this is true?”
“She wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Ari said. “She’d never listen to me. And besides, this isn’t only about her. There’ll be eighty thousand people there, Nick. What are we supposed to do? Let them die?”
“Oh jeez…” The two Nicks were engaged in battle; the rational, reasonable Nick, and, well…the other Nick. Strange thing was, the other Nick was coming out on top. Hard as it may have been to believe, there was actually more evidence that The Magnificent Rodney Walters was the devil seeking to commence hell on earth than there was to explain him as a shitty hack comic who got really lucky.
Either way, Nick decided; whether in the name of God, or the spirit of comedy; the fucker needed to be stopped.
Sunday: Day of the Midtown Mania Comedy Festival.
A record turnout of ninety thousand people packed into Central Park to watch their favorite headliners on stage. A pamphlet with the set list listed eighteen comedians total. Halfway down the list was the lucky contest winner, The Magnificent Rodney Walters. The show was currently up to the eighth comic—Joey Diaz. Following him was scheduled Nick DiPaolo. Then, it would be time for Walters. If he had his way, Nick, Ari, and John knew, the final nine would never make it on stage.
“You’re absolutely sure, Ari?” Nick asked.
“Trailer ten,” he said. “They’re all in order. Makes sense, right?”
“It makes sense, sure, I just wonder whether the security guy was talking out of his ass.”
“He was telling the truth,” John said. “I have a nose for these things.”
“Besides,” Ari said. “He wouldn’t try to throw us off by sending us towards some big-shot’s trailer.”
“Unless Rogan’s in that one,” I said. “They’d get a laugh out of watching him break our legs.”
“God is on our side,” John said. “Certainly, he would never lead us astray.”
Nick almost chuckled at that, but seriously, what was there to chuckle at? If they were honestly here to confront the fallen angel of hell, it was pretty reasonable to believe that there was a god, and that in mind, he was pretty likely on their side.
“Fair enough,” Nick said.
With Joey Diaz captivating all in attendance—security guards included—the three comics walked with a cloak of divine invisibility to the row of trailers behind the huge stage. There was no security at all by trailer ten. Steeling themselves, they approached the door.
“Know what I just realized?” Ari said. “I have no idea what the fuck we’re supposed to do.”
“Faith,” John said. “Have faith, ye of little…faith.”
“You really think that’s all we need?” Nick asked. “Because I’d feel a lot more comfortable with a machine gun or something.”
“Oh, me too, man,” John said. “Don’t get me wrong, I’d love a machine gun. But I’m only a pastor’s assistant.”
“Gotcha,” Nick said. He didn’t, but this was no place for an open-ended question.
With a mutual nod between them, Ari raised his fist and knocked on the door.
Knock… knock… knock…
A pause. Momentarily, they heard shuffling towards the door. It opened. And there he was: The Prince of Darkness, Rodney Walters.
“Yes?” Satan asked.
“Get thee back, scourge of hell!”
John shot into the old man’s midsection with an exasperated “Whoof,” Nick wasn’t sure came out of the man or John. The two hit the floor, and Nick and Ari hurried inside, shutting the door behind them.
“W…What are you doing?” Walters groaned.
“Sending you back to hell!” said John.
But something didn’t seem right. If the old man really was Satan, would he really be panting on the floor right now? You’d think by now he would have morphed into his true form; wings, goat horns, etcetera. Not that Nick was an expert by any stretch, but…
“Are you boys out of your minds?” Walters snapped. “Get off of me! I have to be on stage in fifteen minutes!”
“You don’t fool me, bub! Beelzebub!”
“John, hold up,” Ari said. “Maybe we got this wrong. He doesn’t really seem so satanic right now.”
“He’s the Prince of Lies!” John said. “Just you wait! Any moment now, he’ll be breathing hellfire! Only your hellfire cannot hurt me, Satan! I wear the fireproof cloak of faith! I’m a pastor’s assistant!”
“Okay,” the exasperated old man said. “Okay. You win. You win. Just please…let me up…”
“Never!” John wrapped his hands around the old man’s neck and began to squeeze. The man let out an exasperated fart.
Nick and Ari looked at each other, their resolve quickly fading. “That’s enough,” Nick said. The two of them seized John and yanked him off of the man. John fought for a moment, but looked in their eyes and suddenly let up. Perhaps he saw mercy? Forgiveness?
The old man scooted back against the dresser and grabbed the edge of a drawer to help him stand. It took him a moment to catch his breath. “You caught me. What can I say?”
The three looked at each other with confusion. “Huh?” Nick asked.
“Look, you’re right about one thing,” he said, still panting. “I’m Satan. You got me. But this seventy-year-old body isn’t exactly equipped to breath hellfire, so you’re pretty safe in that area.”
“It was written you would return,” declared John.
“Nah, that whole thing is later,” Satan said. “This weirdo decided to summon me, so I popped in for a little visit. The enchantment wears off at midnight, then it’s back to the pit. I’m just hoping to wreak a little havoc before I leave, that’s all.”
“I knew it!” John said, re-advancing with clenched fists. “Have at thee!”
“Gay guy walks into a deli,” Satan said.
John stopped in his tracks. Everyone froze.
“Don’t you dare tell that infernal joke,” John snapped.
“Hold on,” Nick said. “There’s no way that’s the start of this ancient death-joke.”
“He walks up to the deli counter…,” Satan continued.
“Stop!” John commanded. “In the name of God!”
All four of the men, Satan included, turned to face the door. It was Dave Attell.
“Hey, didn’t mean to interrupt you guys. I was just walking by. Thought I heard the start of a joke there…”
“Mr. Attell,” Nick said, “trust me, this is no joke right now.”
“Who’re you kidding?” Dave said. “Think I don’t know a fuckin’ joke when I hear one? Let’s hear it, Rodney. Lay it on me.”
“He points to the biggest bologna in the case,” Satan continued. “He goes, ‘I’ll take that one right there.’”
John took another step toward Satan, but suddenly, he lost his footing. His legs wobbled and he was forced to take a knee. Somehow, the joke was already starting to take effect. “The power of Christ compels you!” he shouted. “The power of Christ…”
“Earplugs!” Ari said. “He’s not stopping!”
John gave up his attempt at exorcism and the three of them stuffed in their earplugs, just like they’d practiced. Dave Attell already had a smile creeping onto his face.
“Don’t listen, Dave!” shouted Ari. “Cover your ears!”
Dave mouthed back silently: Shut up, dude, I gotta hear the punchline.
“The deli guy takes the bologna from the case and puts it up on the slicer. ‘Woah, woah, woah,’ goes the gay guy. ‘What, does my ass look like a slot machine?’”
They only knew the joke was over by the look on Dave’s face. First, mild amusement. Then, laughter. Finally, knee-slapping laughter. His face, then his whole head turned a deepening shade of red.
Dave Attell’s head exploded. Blood, brains, skull fragments; they covered every square inch of the trailer. To Nick, Ari, and John, the sound had been a muffled pop. But the earplugs had worked. They were still alive.
“You killed Dave Attell, you sonofabitch!” Ari was livid. Attell had been one of his favorites.
“Get thee hence, Satan!”
The three men, strength returned, rushed the demon once more. This time Ari strangled him while Nick and John pinned him down. Satan was powerless to fight back with his geriatric body, but the grin never left his face. Incensed, Nick grabbed the little mole on the left side of the demon’s nose and squeezed it. He pulled it, dug his thumbnail into it. He yanked it right off of the man’s face. With that, Satan’s eyes went dark.
“I mean I’d love to buy this Goldbond, but I have it on good authority they rubbed this shit on a flounder.”
Uproarious laughter. ‘Flounder’ had been Ari’s idea. Turns out it was a lot easier to say than tilapia, but a sufficiently funny-named fish. After murdering Satan in his trailer, the two had become fast friends after all. He’d even helped get Ari passed at the Riot Room. His act was pretty good. He felt bad for dismissing him the way he had initially. Dani was right. He was a pretty nice guy, other than continuing to call him whenever he was trying to take a nap.
John, Ari had recently told him, was now not just an assistant, but a full-fledged pastor at Bible Baptist Church. He even had his own machine gun now. A useful thing, in case Satan decided to possess another body and come after you.
But for now, things were looking up. God had lain his hand upon Nick, and he acquired the comedy club from the late Alex’s estate for pennies on the dollar. Not only could he go on stage whenever he wanted, but he had three taps installed on the bar; here, here, and here. Guinness, Bud, and Bud Light.
Nick walked offstage and sat at the bar. Promptly, Dani poured him a Bud. The light from the neons in the front window glimmered brilliantly in the amber liquid. Yes indeed. Nothing beat a Bud after a long day doing God’s work.
“Ladies and gentleman, we have a special treat for you all today. A surprise appearance from the one and only Dave Attell!”
A wild reaction from the packed room as the real Dave Attell walked out from behind the curtain and took the stage. Turns out the guy with his head blown off was yet another Dave Attell ripoff. Uncanny, this one—he’d even looked just like him. No loss for the comedy community in any case. And what a relief it was for Ari when he learned his hero was still among the living.
Nick smiled and took a big swig of beer. “Dani?”
“You ever feel like your life is like some crazy, kind of poorly-written story?”
Dani smiled. “Totally,” she said.
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