by Tony Noland
"Excuse me, Mr. Maverick? Casey Maverick?"
Knuckles whitened on the spoon's handle. Espresso swirled around it, arrested mid-stir.
"I'm sorry, I don't mean to interrupt you, Mr. Maverick, but I just had to tell you what a fan I am."
Withdrawn and laid aside, the spoon stained the saucer of the demitasse.
"I'm Richard Betz." The young man held out his hand; after a fractional pause, it was accepted.
"It's such a thrill to meet you; it's an honor to shake the hand of a such a great comedian!"
Betz stifled a giggle.
From his seat, the older man regarded Betz, the lines around his eyes deepening.
"Mr. Maverick, I apologize, I don't want to take up a lot of your time, but - may I sit? thanks - I've got a question that I really hope you can answer. See, I'd love to be able to do what you do."
"You mean you want to suffer?"
Betz bit his tongue and turned red as he nodded, his face contorting with the effort of self-control.
Finally, wiping his eyes, he said, "God, you are just amazing in person! No, I mean keep a straight face like that! How do you do that serious, flat-faced delivery without ever breaking it and smiling? You're better than Steven Wright or Buster Keaton. My friends tell me I'm a funny guy, you know, around the office and everything. They keep telling me I should do stand-up. I did it a few times on open mike nights, but I couldn't keep from cracking up. I thought maybe you might be willing to give me some pointers."
"So... you want to know how it is that I'm able to say such funny things without laughing?"
Betz couldn't help himself; his laughter snorts, and he took several breaths to calm himself. "Please?"
The comedian drummed his fingers on the table for a moment, then slid his espresso over to the the younger man.
"Here. You drink while I talk. It's already grown cold and someone might as well benefit from it."
"Ha! Benefit from it! That's classic! God, I can't believe I'm having an espresso with Casey Maverick!" Betz downed the cup eagerly and set it back on the saucer.
"Now then, young man, please don't interrupt me, and I'll tell you everything you want to know."
Betz made just one muffled squeak as his face widened into a huge grin.
"I've tried many times to tell people the truth, Mr. Betz. No one ever believes me. They just... laugh. I used to do that, too. I used to laugh all the time back when I was Kasimir Marveski. I was the funniest guy I knew, at least in my own mind. I thought my obscure little jokes were hysterical, even if no one ever laughed at them. That didn't stop me from telling them, from laughing at my own hilarity. I was a happy man, Mr. Betz."
He closed his eyes. When he reopened them, they were red and wet.
"Until, that is, my wife left me. It blindsided me completely. She said a lot of things on the way out the door, but what cut me the worst was what she said last: '... and your jokes aren't funny'. Those were her final words to me before the door slammed. 'Your jokes aren't funny'. I'll tell you the truth, Mr. Betz, it made no sense for me to latch onto that the way I did. I was in shock, I suppose, but the thought just echoed, back and forth. I got it framed in my mind somehow that if I were actually funny, she'd come back to me. So, when the devil appeared and offered to make it so, I signed the contract without a second thought. From that moment, everything I said would be funny."
Betz's eyebrows twitched and his grin widened fractionally.
"You don't believe me," the older man said. "But it's true. The problem is, Mr. Betz, Satan has his own sense of humor. Did you know that? Not ten minutes after my blood was dry on the contract, the police called. At the morgue, they started giggling around me as I identified her body. At the mortuary, they snickered as I made the arrangements. When I spoke at her funeral, they roared. After someone posted a video of it on YouTube, I couldn't escape the publicity.
"In the end, I had to leave my position at the university. You can't teach if no one takes you seriously, if they interrupt every lecture with giggles and guffaws. Fortunately, all the agents who'd seen the video made it easy to get work as a comedian. All I had to do was open my mouth. It didn't matter what I said. The agents negotiated the contracts for the stand-up gigs, the Comedy Central specials, the movies. I grew famous, we all grew rich, and my soul shriveled a little more each day."
He put his hands together, fingers interlaced.
"My mother died two days ago, Mr. Betz. I am expected to give the eulogy at her memorial service on Friday. I don't think I can face that again. That's why I came here and loaded up my espresso with puffer-fish poison, what they call tetrodotoxin."
He sat in the silence, drumming his fingers. He looked at the wide, rictus grin on Betz's face, the saliva leaking from the corner of his mouth. After a little while, the old man stood, put a few bills on the table and picked up his hat and newspaper.
"But you know what's strange? I feel better for having had a chance to tell someone the truth, to talk about it without being interrupted with laughter." He patted his admirer on the shoulder. "You're a good listener, Mr. Betz. A good listener."
Comments and constructive criticisms welcome. Other #FridayFlash pieces can be found here.
Note: Special thanks to Anastasia M. Ashman of Istanbul, Turkey, for being my muse this week. This story grew out of one of her tweets. Sen, Anastasia ederim!