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.