#FridayFlash: Ridi, Pagliaccio

Ridi, Pagliaccio

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Withdrawn and laid aside, the spoon stained the saucer of the demitasse.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!


  1. Surprise, surprise, surprise as Gomer Pyle would say.

    When will people learn that Satan is tricksy and no good can come of playing with him.

    So now I really understand why Adam Sandler gets the laughs!

    And I hope you did not pay you-know-who to help make your story this enjoyable.

  2. Thanks, Marisa. No, I didn't have to sell (or even mortgage) my soul for this story. It's good to know I have that line of credit for emergencies, though.

  3. I always knew espresso could be deadly, but puffer fish poison takes it to a whole new level. I like it how you had Mr Betz stifling words the whole way through.

  4. Fantastic idea and you've executed it seamlessly.

  5. Oh, man... Well, at least the poor guy died happy. Love your take on the "be careful what you wish for" theme. Nice work!

  6. Expert masterpiece! I bow down to your prowess Tony!

  7. WOW! That was a great read all the way through to the ending, which was a complete and sinister surprise. Great! ~ Olivia

  8. Amusing.

    "Withdrawn and laid aside, the spoon stained the saucer of the demitasse."

    You sure about this phrase? Makes me think the spoon is shy and has just been dumped. :P

  9. Tony! Love the way you played it out. I had a feeling suddenly being funny to others wouldn't have the happiest of endings, but didn't guess this one.

  10. Whew... nice reveal. I went from amused to chilled in a few sentences. And I like the way it's crouched in such a realistic idea-- I have noticed that famously funny people get laughed at even when they aren't particularly funny. I had never considered it was a curse! Well done.

  11. Thanks for all the great comments, guys!

    Anton: believe it or not, I was trying to convey grief, loss, frustration, existential angst over the uselessness and unfairness of life, profound irritation at having been interrupted in his suicide, and tight control over years worth of subsumed rage suddenly brought to an explosive boil... all with the act of removing a spoon from a cup of espresso. Think maybe I was trying to say too much?

    Jen: I can't say that I'm any legendary or satanically-enhanced comic, but I had the experience of trying to have a normal conversation, while all around me, people are leaning forward waiting for the punchline. When no punchline comes, they're automatically disappointed in what I said. Frustrating.

  12. That's one hell of a curse - and to think he wished for it specifically!

    Pufferfish poison - how utterly cool.

    For me the teaspoon "scene" was more of a resigned sigh :-)

  13. Tony - I love it. This is a wonderful yarn from just a germ of an idea! Well done!

  14. Tony!

    Wow. . . such a crazy story man. I was sure where this was going until the end and you got me - I should have seen something coming when he pushed his drink over to the other guy.

    Great job here.


  15. Be careful what you wish for, indeed. :-) I guess puffer fish poison is a good way to make someone listen...ahem, quietly. Poor guy, great read though!

  16. There is a certain King Midas like quality here, isn't there? That didn't consciously occur to me as I wrote this. Interesting!

    Thanks for reading, everyone!

  17. OOoo, a super villain in the making; Batman's next nemesis! cool story.

  18. Tony - LOVE this! You had some great twists and turns here.

    Hmmm...puffer-fish poison, didn't know it was so lethal - cool!

    I really liked the idea of his deal with the devil - everyone laughing at what you say sounds great - but you brought out the repercussions of such a deal quite well.

    Really enjoy it!

  19. Great job with the reveal Tony, and even better with the subtle clue of the cup. You know what? Your voice is becoming clearer each week and I find it quite enjoyable. Must be that post-op medication huh? :)
    Truly fantastic work!

  20. Coffee anyone?

    Tony, this is evil, twisted, and deliciously funny! I really enjoyed the dry roast of your story but I especially enjoyed seeing all the #fridayflash death-mongers placing thoughtful fingers to chins at the new vistas opened by neurotoxins. I don't think we've seen the last of that little meme! You are so responsible! Brilliant.

  21. I suppose it IS nice telling someone your woes without being laughed at. A thought-provoking idea of hell, right there.

  22. At least if he gets charged with the murder, he can probably talk his way out of it. Well told tale!

  23. He can rule the world. He won't want to, but he will be elected.

    Straight From Hel

  24. It is a funnier King Midas story. Amusing stuff, Tony.

  25. You won't believe this, Eric, but I was just thinking about that very thing this morning. He walks away, and the waiter finds a dead body at the table. What next?

    The evidence will be overwhelming, but there's no prosecutor who would prosecute him, no judge who would sit dispassionately over him, no jury that would convict him. All he has to do is say, "Sure, I killed him. So what?" and it would be all over.

    He'd be a free man... to return to the prison that he always carries with him.

  26. Oh man, this was fantastic! And excellent flash. While it could be a longer story, I don't think it needs to be.

  27. Fabulous, Tony! The things we wish for...
    Great twist.

  28. That was freaking awesome! Never saw it coming.

  29. That Mephistopheles is one tricky bugger. Excellent twists in this one Tony.

  30. Nice take on the funny curse with en extra special helping of poison cup. A pseudocomatose effect is a great way to get someone to listen without laughing.

    Your writing strengthens each week. A bold telling, this one.
    -David G Shrock

  31. Okaaay, so you haven't sold you soul to the devil, but are you sure you didn't rent it out by the hour? Whoa, that was a fabulous, sinister story. I tip my hat.

  32. Great fun read. What happens next, as others have pointed out, is interesting too. This guy could be the subject of a much longer piece of fiction I am sure. This is like a more humane take on the Joker. Great stuff.

  33. Thanks for the weekend reads, guys, and for the great comments. It's tricky to make something funny and sad at the same time. I'm still working out the bugs in that process.

  34. Interesting twist on the tears of a clown premise.

  35. It is such a very Fantastic idea as well as very much useful for them who want to know about it. football picks


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