The Joke

Daniel Lynch

Here now, the future isn’t so bad.

I’m writing this in the present, in June of the year 2015. It is cold outside, overcast, and the moisture in the air is visible and low. The clouds, it would seem, want to be down here walking around with us.

The future presented in this story is a fictional one, perhaps a hundred years from now, when there is no more racism or hunger or advertising professionals. The reason for this great advancement in humanitarian principals comes down to the fact that there is only one man left alive on planet Earth. His name is Alex. To be clear, there was no apocalypse here. No bombs or disease to push mankind back to the hilt of existence. No darkening skies or natural disasters beyond ordinary description. There was only an agreement, and a simple one at that, made by those with the capacity to enact it. But I will get to that.  

The last man on planet Earth was of average height, and intelligence; he was smart enough to open cans of salmon without a can opener, for instance, but could not reinvent algebra. I have never tried to open a can without a can opener, but I imagine I would struggle, so Alex has me beat there.  

Not only was Alex the last man left on planet earth, he also had the terrible distinction of being the last human being with a heart that pumped goo around his body.

We are an endangered species.

We are going extinct. Kaput.

 

The last female on planet Earth died by her own hand. Her name was Jenny. She had meaty arms and legs, and big round breasts that swung like twin pendulums counting down to some kind of destruction when she walked.

Jenny was very attractive to Alex’s singular male eyes.

By far the sexiest part of Jenny was her brain. She tried to read and write a little every day. Alex could read too, but he had trouble with it. Words would appear to him as single letters and complete arrangements at the same time. It’s hard to make meaning from that. 

Sometimes I have trouble with reading, too, so I know what that’s like. It can be very frustrating. Like trying to reinvent algebra.

 

Being the last human alive meant that Alex pretty much had the run of the place. Whatever he did was the direction humanity was heading. He could eat any canned food he wanted, and didn’t have to worry about his breath smelling like an empty swimming pool. HA! What a wonderful way to die.

Before Jenny slit her wrists with a sharpened plastic shard pulled from a smashed vending machine, the last thing she wrote was a short story called Return to Sender.  

Return to Sender was about a scientist in the year 2115 who invented a device that could deliver a message to every working fax machine that happened to be switched on in the year 1999, on August 30th at 10am.

That is my birthday, by the way. I am thirty years old, as of writing this, and I have a full head of hair. My mother tells me I was a long labor. I just decided, she says, that I wanted to stay in the womb. Sometimes I joke that I only wanted to do a few more laps. When I finally came into the world, my mother says, I was wrinkled and brown. Overcooked.

Just like practically everyone else in this story, I’m kaput. 

 

The scientist in Return to Sender, whose name was Dr Olyphant, created the time-fax to tell everybody in the year 1999 exactly what they could expect from the next hundred and change years.

‘One thing that happens is we run out of cotton,’ Dr Olyphant said in his fax, ‘so you better tell your kids and grandkids to enjoy having comfortable underwear while they can.’ 

 

Like all made up stories, Return to Sender was a complete lie that tried to say something that might be true.  Alex read the story before Jenny’s heart stopped pumping goo around her body.  He read it slowly, and aloud, his finger tracing the sentences on the page as they unfurled from his tongue.

He recognized what the story really was before he got to the end. It was a short history of why he would become the last man in the world. Alex and Jenny had a fight about it, and like human beings with differing opinions, they said some things that were mean.

‘Don’t leave me,’ Alex said, which is about the second meanest thing a person can say.  

‘I have to,’ Jenny said, which is the meanest.

As I have said, the way Jenny left Alex alone in the world was by cutting open her wrists so her goo would leak out all over the floor. I have known several people who’ve left the world through a similar choice, but none specifically by spilling out their goo. One friend overdosed on prescription medication in the bush land surrounding Brisbane, which is a city in Queensland, Australia. Nobody knew he had gone out into that wilderness, or what wilderness he was trying to leave, so by the time his body was found he didn’t look like my friend any more.

The wilderness he was trying to leave was called schizophrenia.  

‘I have to,’ his note said. And so he did.

 

As Dr Olyphant explained in his communication, and as really happened for Jenny and for Alex, there was a general consensus reached sometime in the past that human beings were pretty much bad for planet earth.

‘This, of course, was a misunderstanding,’ Dr Olyphant said in his time-fax. ‘The truth of the matter was planet Earth would continue spinning, regardless of what human beings did to it, until the big burning sky daddy ate it up. The truth of the matter is human beings are bad for human beings.’

Here is how Jenny and Alex knew the truth of the matter: it was explained to them when they were both children.

My mother and father explained a few things to me, too, when I was a child, which have the same kind of historical reverence. Number one was don’t be a bully. Number two was only pick fights you know you can win. Number three was wear clean underwear. Mind you, all my underwear was made from cotton.

Like most people in this story, my underwear is kaput too.

 

‘There used to be a philosopher,’ Dr Olyphant said in Return to Sender, ‘who lived around the first half of the twentieth century. He was famous for saying that the greatest philosophical problem was suicide. His famous joke was, if death is so great, like so many religions say, how come people don’t get on with it right now.

‘There were certainly enough loopholes to get away with it and still have access to whatever afterlife there might be. A popular one was sacrificing your life so someone else could live a little longer. Like all great jokes, when there is a fan, and sufficient shit to hit it, people failed to get the punchline. And so it was decided.’

    

And that’s exactly what happened, and exactly what was explained to Jenny and Alex when they were children. Planet Earth looked to be in bad shape. People were running out of clean underwear. Human beings were being bad to human beings. And so, in 2018, a very successful sweetened drink company brought out their first cyanide laced beverage. It was called Sleep-Sip, and cost three thousand dollars.

‘They still had to keep their investors happy,’ Dr Olyphant said, ‘before those investors could sacrifice themselves so someone else could live a little longer.’

‘A famous hamburger company, with franchises all over planet Earth, invented a delicious suicide hamburger. Motor vehicle manufacturers added an extra clipping mechanism to the seatbelts in their vehicles that would allow the driver to remove his or her seatbelt from the car entirely.

‘There are records of the first few billion,’ Dr Olyphant said in Return to Sender. ‘Mostly names and dates, lineages being tracked so people would know who they were leaving the wilderness for.’  

 

This might have been true, but Jenny had no way of knowing it, and so had no way to know whether it was information or hooey that she gave to her character, Dr Olyphant. Time had eroded everything, including the concept of billions of people. To Jenny, a billion might as well have been the number of trees in the bush land she could see through the doorway of her hut, or it might have been the number of the stars in the sky. Jenny knew exactly twenty-five people her whole life, including Alex, and including her and Alex’s parents. And eventually most of those people were all kaput.

Jenny’s mother said to her, ‘I’m leaving, so you can have a better world, and live for a little longer.’ The way she went kaput was by climbing a tall tree, right up to where the branches are flimsy and thin. Then she let go.

Her father said to her, ‘This is for you kiddo,’ and then keeled over from starvation.

 

‘The world kept on spinning,’ Dr Olyphant said, ‘as it does. Populations shrunk, bonded, broke up, traveled, and settled. Three quarters of the population went kaput in the first five years. Then there weren’t enough human beings to operate sweetened drink factories or run hamburger franchises. People had to get creative. I tell you, if there’s one thing you can count on, it’s human beings fucking themselves up in creative ways.’

The most creative way I ever saw someone become a corpse, by and by, was a friend, who I will call Claire. Claire owned the first pair of breasts I ever saw as a teenage boy. She showed them to me when I was about fourteen, and they were beautiful. I told her so. I was thankful, and although I wanted to, I didn’t touch them. This was in the year 1999.

Those breasts contained cells that were programmed to multiply wrong, which they did, when Claire was in her twenties. She didn’t have a sharpened plastic shard, or any inclination to stop swallowing food, so she did the next best thing. She packed her bag and explored the wilderness called planet Earth until she shrunk it down to the size of single bed in a hospice in her home town. The only people in that wilderness were her parents, and her friends. There was small economy there, too. Everyone traded in surprise and grief at the suddenness of an illness which was diagnosed years previously, but which they had only recently found out about. They found out about it when the world shrunk to the size of a sheet, draped over some mountains, which no longer had any goo that was worth pumping around.

If anybody got the famous joke, it was Claire.

 

Here is what Alex said to the corpse of Jenny, when her goo was spread all over the dirt: ‘Now what do I have to do?’

   

Alex buried Jenny behind the hut his father had built. The way Alex’s father went kaput was by training a venomous snake to bite him on the ankle, and hand, and finally his face, just to make sure he would definitely be leaving Alex the world a better place. The snake didn’t need much training, just close proximity a number of times.

Alex’s father said to him, ‘I’ve trained this snake on your mother. Now it’s my turn. Have fun, but don’t get greedy.’     

Alex marked Jenny’s grave with a large log cut from a gumtree. There was a log just like it at his mother’s and his father’s graves. The snake had one too. Alex’s father would have called that getting greedy.

 

Instead of tombstones, with sweet epitaphs, Alex had the idea that he’d sit on the logs sometimes. And remember.

This is the truth of Jenny’s story, Return to Sender: the saddest thing about human beings isn’t that we’re terrible to each other; it’s that we’re terrible to ourselves.

In Dr Olyphant’s words, which were actually Jenny’s words: ‘Basically, it was all maths. If you keep subtracting at a greater rate than any kind of addition, you end up with zero. Sometimes you end up with less than zero.’

Alex had read those words many times when he finally died from that slow and tedious killer called old age. He read them slowly, and aloud, until he could remember them by heart, and didn’t need the story anymore.

The way he went kaput was by laughing. He spied a dingo running around in the dirt near Jenny’s log. The dingo had gotten one of Alex’s salmon cans stuck on its snout. It ran all over the place trying to find his way out of that can. 

Alex’s heart gave out laughing at that dingo. He got the famous joke, too, I think.

Nobody knew it except for a dingo trapped inside a salmon can.

Like everybody in this story, it’ll be kaput one day. 

Run

Adam Napier

The street-performer rips off his eyelid, (right). Just one tear, like that, like, Oh my fuck. And then the other follows, so noiselessly the crowd thinks, pushed out of his hand and the air by the pelt of rain, each drop hitting a ripple into the skin. Of course next he moves to his nose, wrenching it off with an approximate 210° wrist flick and the crowd are like, How do you even rehearse this?, and, I really really don’t have any change to give, and the only ones unsurprised are the babies in prams who face this nose-crime all the time from parents, uncle, et al. And the street-performer’s very open eyes develop an almost instantaneous rheum from the dust and then cloud over with red as he spits out one, two, all of his teeth. Somehow, probably from a film, it brings to mind to all of the crowd some sort of orally-fixated hag from olden times, one who would cast her spittle-coated and bitten runes onto the street to divine whether foxes would come in the night and snack on her chickens or chew a hole in her cat. And now the crowd think of cider cans because the street-performer is pulling up his fingernails between finger and thumb. By the second hand it gets tricky and he doesn’t even scream, though his lips are white and suckered into his face like he’s already torn them off. He unlaces his trainers, kicks them over the crowd and the socks come too, soggy, weighted. Okay, so now the crowd think about hags again because the guy’s square feet are without toes and when he shimmies out of his jeans and coat and top the crowd see his shaven, plucked body and the crater that is his stomach. And now he hurtles headfirst towards the crowd, his shoulders buckle against theirs and possibly his arms fall off and his legs and his head, who knows?

You race after him. You elbow and slap your way around the people and break out on the other side but he’s not there, or there, or there. There’s no smoke or mirrors and you don’t think holograms exist yet. Already the crowd shuffles along, pats their pockets, tucks their elbows into their sides and hold up flat palms. You feel again like, Oh my fuck, like, if the entire crowd had a spirit animal it would be one of those security guards at the end of The Truman Show who just snorts and turns over. And so you recover his coat for him, a fur-topped parka, and slide it on and put up the hood and pull it down over the front of your face. 

The Deal

Matilda Morrison

You are the last. He is the first. His basket had seemed mercifully empty: dried mangoes, some almond milk, a couple boxes of frozen samosas…Little did you know the depth of his pockets, the intricacy of the apparently endless stream of coupons housed within them. The man is now casually shuffling through a stack of Lotto tickets and old receipts, pausing occasionally to tell the cashier about the home-brew kombucha kit he’s been experimenting with.

The minutes drag on, and you look at the salad in your hand, watching the leaves brown before your very eyes. You experience an almost visceral feeling of disappointment as your lunch hour dwindles, and you begin to make certain realizations. You will not get to nap in your car. You will get heartburn from eating too quickly. You will stand patiently in this line until the skin falls from your bones, and the last words you ever hear will be, “Yeah, that’s where I bought my vintage typewriter.”

The other shoppers start glancing around, hoping, no doubt, that a benevolent light will fall upon them from register two. They imagine the voice of the new cashier as he tells them that they—yes, they!—can step on over, the relief as he begins to scan each of their items.

They know as well as you do that this is a fool’s dream.

An elderly man two people ahead attempts to lower himself onto a chocolate pretzel display; he has grown weary. An exhausted young mom is re-reading the back of a cereal box to her three-year-old daughter, who has, by now, committed most of it to memory.  

At long last, the hipster produces the elusive “one last coupon,” which he waves around triumphantly before handing it to the cashier. Relief washes over you as you check your watch—twenty minutes is enough time to eat a salad, no problem! The old man pushes himself back up. The mom looks up from her box. You can all see it—the end! The door! The world outside.

The cashier unfolds the slip of paper. “I’m sorry,” she says quietly, “but this coupon is expired.” 

Meeting Antonio Inoki

Benjamin Sixsmith

I was a hundred miles from Okayama and did not have the money for a beer or a pork bun, never mind a bus. The show was in six hours and when I called the promoter I heard a dull beep. I missed Tokyo, where benevolence and mistrust ensured that everything was laid on for a valued gaikokujin.

So, I held my thumb aloft. At six foot and two hundred and fifty pounds, with three day's stubble and a mess of brown hair, I was an intimidating prospect for drivers. Still, I hoped that if the Gods were smiling one of them would recognise me - or, at least, that I'd remind them of a cartoon character.

At the corner where the byroad met the Chugoku Expressway I stood so as to let would-be saviours glimpse the cheek without the scar. A gyaru-oh kid in sunglasses was first to pass. He gave a thumbs-up through the window and shouted a cheerful greeting as he raced into the distance.

 “Git.”

Some drivers slowed, as if observers in a zoo, but then accelerated past me as I looked towards them. An hour dragged by before a green Toyota eased to a stop. A door was pushed aside and a man's face looked out. I cleared my throat.

“English?”

“Japanese.”

“あなたは、岡山に行っている?”

“I see the confusion. You meant do I speak English. Yes.”

“Are you going to Okayama?”

“はい.”

I squeezed into the car. He offered me a cigarette and I shook my head.

“You can, though.”

“Yes,” he said, “I can.”

He occupied the space between youth and middle age. Furrows marked the edges of broad lips and keen eyes, and tinges of grey were shot throughout his hair. He smoked by dragging on a cigarette and turning to exhale through the window. I appreciated the thought but would have been happier if he had kept his eyes on the road.

There is something poignant about futile generosity. I once told my Gran how much I loved her ginger cakes, and she proceeded to reveal them whenever we met. My pleasure at being able to greet them with enthusiasm from the first time to the last makes up for what an ordeal it was to eat the things.

The man fixed his eyes on the road and did not turn or speak to me. I looked out of the window. The borders of the Chugoku Expressway are lined with tall, shaggy trees, and beyond them are farmlands. I thought I could see patterns in the colour of fields – one olive per three light greens or two dark greens to one auburn – but the pastime was soporific. I had had four or five hours sleep in my little capsule and did not want to feel drowsy while I was working.

“Are you hungry?” he asked.

 “No.”

“I am.”

I had not wanted him to feel obliged to feed me but he looked as if he had wanted someone to empathise with him.

“Perhaps a bit hungry.”

He nodded and smiled.

“I've left my wife.”

He said it in a tone with which you might tell somebody your name or comment on the weather.

“Oh.”

“She knew that I was leaving. I haven't disappeared.”

He looked as if he wanted to talk.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Akita.”

Akita?”

He shrank into his side of the car.

“What's wrong with Akita?”

“Nothing. But you've driven all the way?”

I noticed that the car was strewn with soda cans. Butts were spilling from the ashtray and onto the cup holder. A musky smell of burgers and BO hung in the air. It reminded me of changing rooms and Bed & Breakfasts.

“Have you stopped since Akita?”

“Yes. For petrol.”

“When did you last stop?”

“About five hours ago.”

“Stop. Stop here. You need a break.”

He opened his mouth to speak and failed to suppress a yawn. Pursing his lips and shooting a glance towards me, he took the next exit and eased to a halt next to a roadside cafe. It was a humbler set-up: a wooden extension to the house that lurked behind it. One of the pot plants was out of order with the others.

I had enough for a coffee and dumped half the sugar bowl into the cup. The man ordered a green tea and bought little rice cakes filled with a paste that looked like jam but tasted more like peanut butter.

“I think she was glad.”

“You didn't get on?”

“We 'got on',” he said, “But I 'get on' with the man who sells me fish.”

“Perhaps you should have married him. You would have eaten well.”

“You can't have a marriage around fish,” he sighed, “Not even salmon.”

I shrugged and ate another cake.

“We had pak choi...”

His fist was tightening around his cup.

“My wife refused a second helping...”

“Oh?”

“I said I thought she liked it, and she told me she pretended to because she thought I liked it, and I said I pretended to like it because I thought...”

“I see...”

“She said she made dinner because she thought I'd be upset. I said that was the reason that I talked to her.”

The cup slipped in his grasp and spilled tea over his wrist. He looked down in surprise before finishing his thought.

“She said that was the reason she slept with me.”

“But you had to leave?” I asked. “Did you not have a job?”

“Yes,” he said, “A lawyer. But if I could not pretend to love my wife I could not pretend to care about thieves and rapists.”

We sat for a while and looked across the countryside.

“What are you doing in Japan?”

 “I am a wrestler.”

He gazed the scar.

“I wondered.”

I touched the old souvenir from a brawl in Texas, where a barbed wire bat had slashed my cheek as it was swung before me. If the other man had been less cautious and just smacked me with the thing, the barbs would have hit so fast that they would have entered and left the flesh without tearing it.

We travelled down the hills and through the suburbs of Okayama. Enclosed by the cool grey tower blocks, we discussed the performers he had watched as a young man.

“Have you met Inoki?”

“Once.”

“Did you speak to him?”

“He asked if I knew the Queen or Dynamite Kid.”

“What is he like?”

“God knows,” I said, “Who would want to know what Inoki is really like? It would be disappointing.”

He insisted on driving me up to the hall.

“Where are you going now?” I asked.

“I don't know,” he shrugged, “Somewhere good for me.”

“Thanks, friend,” I said, as he set his eyes on the distance, “And don't worry. You will be alright.”

I had said that to my Gran as well. Someone has to say it.

The promoter met me inside the arena and was smiles and apologies for the minute he could spare.

“I hope you had a pleasant journey.”

“Sure,” I said, “Fine.”

In the changing room my opponent – a veteran with scars for wrinkles – was pulling spandex over his legs.

“Who's doing what tonight?” he asked.

"I'm losing,” I replied, “And I'll lose like a champ.”