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Fiction #474
(published February 18, 2010)
End of the Punch Line
by Nathaniel Williams
Two guys walk into a bar. They shake their parkas free of snowflakes and look around at the crowd.

The place is hopping with hundreds of folks shoulder-to-shoulder.



Men of the cloth.

Lawyers in sharkskin suits.

The blonde at the far end of the bar vainly attempts to ignite the tampon between her lips with a gold lighter.

A chicken lies spread eagle on the bar, his white feathers drenched in spilled tequila, glaring back at the new arrivals through one opened, bloodshot eye.

The last thing they notice is the elephant plopped on his backside in the center of the room, dealing solitaire on the hardwood floor.

"We ain't in Minnesota anymore, Ole," says the larger one.

"Oh, really? What gave ya that idea, Sven? When we walked for three days without seein' a town? Or the way the weather kept changin' from hot ta cold? Or maybe it was all them bugs that started fallin' from the sky like rain."

"We've been tryin' ta find Lena for days now, Ole. Don't ya think we should maybe stop here a while 'n rest?"

"What can I get you gents?" asks the bartender.

"Two beers," says Sven. "What're you gettin' Ole?"

Ole grabs the bartender's arm.

"Look, friend. Have ya seen a lady in here recently? Hard ta miss. Big gal. Swede."

"Big gal, yah," Sven says.

"Said that already, Sven."

"Kinda homely too."


The bartender looks them over with narrowed eyes. "I've never heard of a gal like that."

"My wife," Ole says. "She just up and disappeared four days ago. Me and Sven here have been lookin' for her since then, but we can't figger out which way's which lately. We figger she's lost too. If ya can just give us directions, we'll be on our way."

"Nah," the bartender says as he hands a couple of beers to Sven. "You guys'll want to stick around."

"Whatcha got to eat around here?" Sven asks.

"Missionary," says the bartender. "Should be done in a while."

Sure enough, by the oversized fireplace, two headhunters in full African dress stir a large kettle. A missionary swirls inside with only his head and folded hands unsubmerged as he frantically spits forth the Lord's Prayer over and over.

"You're not the only people here looking for someone," says the bartender. "The doctor's gonna explain things. At least stay for that." He points to man in baby blue ER scrubs with a stethoscope dangling around his neck who's fiddling with a microphone at a podium near the fireplace.

"Pshht," says Ole. "Ta hell with that. Last time I listened ta a doctor, he told me ta move in with my mother-in-law."

"Why's that, Ole?" says Sven.

"Cuz he said I only had six months ta live and he wanted ta make sure it seemed like the longest six months of my life."

As the room fills with the sound of microphone feedback, the bartender heads to the front door. He lets in a few stragglers—a duck, a precisely one-foot-tall man in a tuxedo with tails, and an elderly, black woman so fat she could use pillowcases for socks, so ugly she'd have to tie a pork chop around her neck to get a dog to play with her. He bars the door shut with a slab of oak so heavy it would give Paul Bunyan a hernia.

Ole frowns. He stares into his beer like he'll find Lena floating in there somewhere.

"Ole," Sven whispers, "I'm sorry I called Lena 'homely.' She's a real looker. I didn't mean it disrespectful."

"It ain't that," Ole sighs. "I know what my gal looks like. I used ta take her everywhere I went, just so I wouldn't have ta kiss her goodbye. But she's mine and I miss her. Sure she may nota been the prettiest gal . . . " He gazes down the length of the bar, hiding his flushed face from Sven.

The doctor stands at podium, half-illuminated by the fireplace and by several bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling by long electrical cords. He clears his throat and begins to speak.

One light above him flickers and goes out.

They all surge forward. Some hop on others' shoulders. Some stand in one place barking orders. Others scramble to build a pile: chairs atop stools atop tables atop the small, limbless boy in the baseball uniform. The elephant teeters on a stack of beer mugs, his trunk inches from the bulb.

"Please," says the doctor. "Sit down or we'll be here all night. Thank you. Look. Most of us are here because we've lost somebody close to us. My nurse disappeared a while back. We had a special relationship."

"How special was it?" they shout.

"Now come on! This is serious. We've got an emergency on our hands. As some have noted, the kind of people who could deal with this are . . . underrepresented here. But we've done our best and got as many of you together as we could." He clears his throat. "Recently, it's come to our attention that existence as we know it may come to an end."

He pauses to let it sink in. The silence is broken by a room-shaking thunder—the boom of a fist pounding against the front door. Then another.

"Who's there?!?" they shout.

The door shakes until the oak bar falls to the floor with a tumultuous crash. It slowly swings open.

In walks this guy. He's not young, but not old either. He wears a blazer, jeans, and red tennis shoes. He ambles to the bar, shovels a handful of peanuts out of the bowl and begins eating them, one by one, chewing with his mouth open. Something's not right about him. He stands there, giving them all glimpses of tan peanut gunk on his tongue, then saunters down the bar until he stands next to the blonde.

"Mister," she says. "What do you do?"

"Well, right this minute, I'm staring down your blouse."

"I mean for a living. I can usually tell just by looking."

"Oh that," he says. "Well, that's why I'm here."

Once he's sure all eyes are on him, he walks to the front of the room and takes the microphone from the doctor. He drops another peanut in his mouth, then begins:

"Have you ever noticed how bar peanuts taste more like pee than nuts? I mean, why put out peanuts? Why not just let me suck on some guy's fingers as he's leaving the Men's room. I know I'd want a beer to wash that down."

Headhunters grunt disapprovingly. The rabbi coughs. The rest are silent.

"Tough crowd," he says.

They begin to whisper.

"What's his deal?"

"Full of himself."

"Too pretentious."

"Pretentious?!? Moi?" says the stranger. "Look at yourselves. I'm a little stuck-up, sure. But you guys are freakin' brutal. And that's why I'm here. Guys like me are the future. You guys are the past. Get it? It's time to move on."

"We're not going nowhere without a fight!" shouts one of the men in bowling shirts. He does a big-league pitcher windup and throws something that lands at the stranger's feet with a faint clink.

Far from nonplussed, the stranger bends and retrieves it. It's a metal pin with a large finger hoop.

"Everybody cover your ears," he says to the crowd, seconds before the bowler explodes.

"Kowalski!" his buddies shout. They pick up his body—all perfect black powder burns and white circles around the eyes—and carry him away.

"Now see, that's just what I'm talking about. Poor guy's dead now. All because the Polish guy doesn't know which end of a grenade to throw. That kind of nonsense doesn't happen in the world I come from. Please, for once in your lives, do something that's not expected of you. Something sensible. Just head out the door and let us take over things."

"Where do we go?" asks the blonde.

"I think you know the answer," replies the stranger. "Don't worry. A few have already made the journey. All you've got to do is follow."

"That's asking too much," says the minister.

"Coming from you, Reverend, that's downright embarrassing. Remember folks," he says, "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard."

Ole holds his breath. He tells himself he won't get choked up twice in one day, but he feels a tear welling. All these people, just like him, prepared to give up everything.

"Give us a little time to get ready," says the doctor.

"Sure," the stranger says.

And they all begin to move. The headhunters let the missionary out of his pot. The Rabbi takes a peach-colored wallet from his inside coat pocket and rubs it a few times. It grows to the size of a suitcase, which he begins to stuff with blankets that the bartender brings from a storage cabinet. The golfer unpacks his bag, laying irons and woods gently along the floor and replacing them with bottled water and bags of potato chips.

The bar is already changing. New neon signs flash names of beers Ole's never heard of. The plaster on one wall has been stripped, exposing a brick wall beneath it. More strangers have arrived—women in pants suits with foot-high bangs, burly men in sleeveless flannel shirts and ball caps, skinny men in rainbow colors toting bags full of props—walking to-and-fro, rearranging things. Some of them begin hammering a makeshift stage at the foot of the brick wall, paying no attention to the other patrons as they stream past.

"Ole, we don't have ta go. I saw plenty more beer in the icebox."

"Lena'll be there," Ole says. "We're goin'."

As the front door opens, a ray of light glares against the hardwood floor. A hot breeze from outside blows sand grit into their faces. What had been frozen tundra has become a raging desert, nothing but desolation for miles. They won't need their parkas.

The chicken crosses the road. The rest follow, forming a winding line, over the rising sand dunes, across the cracked flatlands towards an enormous, golden escalator that extends up through the clouds, where Saint Peter waits.

Nathaniel Williams lives in Lawrence, KS, where he is a student volunteer at the Center for the Study of Science Fiction. His fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Fantasy Magazine, 10 Flash Quarterly, and Hadley Rille's Footprints anthology.

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