Twenty-four hours to go.
The Ultus Theater was all lit up, the marquee emblazoned with his name, glowing in the haze of the heavy rain. Laffing Farm Final Show: Mitch Williams!
He chuckled to himself.
Mitch, Mitch, born in a ditch . . .
The last time he was outside in a downpour was ten years ago, that night by the lake after his treatment. He had been jittery with withdrawal, teeth chattering in his head, as loud as the waves crashing against the shore.
Look at him now. 2,800 seats, sold out.
His routine was perfect. He ran through the list of jokes in his head, seeing each of their shapes and their particular hue and shine. Yes, all the best hits and then at the very end, the new one.
Mitch smiled, running one hand across his stomach. He would give them a night to remember.
With a final look at the marquee, he crossed the street and walked into the cool mouth of the theater. A few hours of sleep and a sound check was all that was left between him and the culmination of his life’s work.
• • • •
Cassie, seven years old, giggled. “Mom, Dad, I thought of a new joke!”
“Not now, honey. Frank— turn here, turn here!”
“Goddamn it, you could have told me earlier!”
“Oh yeah, it’s on me. Like every other fucking thing.”
From the backseat, Cassie watched her dad crack his knuckles. Her mom took out her phone.
“The only thing you’ve been doing is read your emails,” said her dad. “What, more love letters from that moron Jerry?”
“Don’t you start that again,” said her mom in a low voice.
“Daddy! Knock knock.”
The car swerved. “Watch it!” yelled her mom.
“Shut up, Monica. Can you shut up for one second? Can you do that?”
“Mommy, Daddy. Please don’t fight.” Cassie’s voice came out so soft she could barely hear herself, but her throat felt dry and she couldn’t speak. That morning when they were fighting again, she hid deep in her mom’s closet, where she found a bottle of peach-scented lotion. She liked the smell and rubbed it on her arms. Now, hours later, the sickly sweetness had given way to something rancid and bitter. The new smell tickled her nose and made her head spin.
Cassie looked down into her lap, where she was cupping a small plastic oval in her hands. Her newest joke. The rainbow paint faded where Cassie’s thumbs had run over and over again over the past few days.
It was a really funny one, this joke. Cassie was sure that if she told it to Mom and Dad, they would stop shouting at each other, and instead, laugh together as a family. Cassie smiled. It would be nice to hear them laugh for a change.
They arrived at the Ultus Theater. For the last few weeks, the theater had been hosting the Laffing Farm Comedy Festival: Belly of laffs or your money back! Glass frames at the entrance displayed headshots of the featured comedians surrounding the main act: Mitch Williams, with his wide grin, slicked back hair, and signature black suit.
“Alright, Cassie, this is what you wanted, right?” Her dad said, without turning around. “Was near impossible to get these tickets. Better be worth it.” He swore under his breath.
Cassie nodded. Mitchie was her favorite. He always had the best jokes: big, round, and colorful. Unlike other comedians who used tools, he cracked them open with his bare hands and the most wonderful surprises popped out: feathers, kazoos, cotton candy, beeps and boops, and once, even a weasel wearing a tiny hat.
The first time her dad saw her watching Mitch on TV, he was drunk and yelled at her. “What’s that garbage? Turn it off!”
She tried to say it was just jokes, but her dad’s eyes were red and his hands were clenched in that way that made her want to hide. She turned off the TV and stayed in her room for the rest of the night.
Then her mom started working late and was never home for dinner, and her dad drank in his underwear until he passed out on the couch. When he was asleep, there was no one to tell her to stop watching Mitchie, so she’d sit in front of the TV with the volume all the way down and disappear into his world of shapes and sounds. It made her feel better. She liked listening to him and also started making her own jokes, using bits of paper and rubber bands at home.
Cassie turned the joke in her palm and slipped it back into her pocket. She couldn’t wait for tonight to see Mitch in person! She knew he would make Mom and Dad laugh—they would all laugh together, then Cassie would show them her new joke, and they would smile at her and laugh again and everything would be okay.
• • • •
Mitch examined himself in the mirror of his dressing room.
The white shirt fit nicely. The larger size was a good choice to accommodate the multiple layers of bandages. Tonight was no time to be sloppy.
He smoothed out the sleeves and lifted his arms to check their length against his wrists.
The lights on the mirror shone through the fabric, drawing his eye to the pale, puckered rings along the inside of his forearm. Mrs. Ware was resourceful—she loved to chain smoke but never had an ashtray.
He slipped on the suit jacket.
His first joke came when he was staying with the Dalmans. Was that the fourth house or the fifth? Faces, names, rooms, and beds all blurred together. They were all meaningless. The only thing that mattered from those years of his life was discovering the dark place, its quiet shadows and corners, and the jokes he could form there. He only made small ones at first, the size of ping-pong balls, simple and to-the-point. Juvenilia.
After the Dalmans were the Klerkens. Or was it the McMahons? No, the Listers. The one where the dad had a bushy mustache and sweat-stained undershirts. The one where Mitch learned to lock his bedroom door every night. That was when his jokes really started to improve.
Mitch, Mitch, left by a bitch . . .
• • • •
Cassie struggled to unbuckle her seatbelt. The button was jammed and wouldn’t release.
“Hurry up!” her dad shouted. Her parents were already at the theater entrance, talking to a man in a red vest.
“Ma’am, sir, the show has already started but you’re welcome in. Please try to keep quiet. Oh, who’s this?” He bent down. “Are you coming to the show too?”
Cassie nodded, out of breath from scampering across the street.
“Welcome, welcome! You may just be our youngest audience member tonight. Mom, Dad, I should warn you, some jokes might not be totally appropriate for her—”
“Can we go in now? Don’t got all day.” Her dad crossed his arms. He had that look in his eye that Cassie didn’t like.
The man’s smile faded. “Certainly.” He examined their tickets. “Oh, you’re also our last set of VIPs this evening! Now, unfortunately, we held the VIP tour before the show, but you’re welcome to come visit backstage during intermission. It’s very exciting to see how the jokes are made! Most of our guests love that.”
Cassie caressed her own joke in her pocket.
“Wait, Frank, you got the VIP tickets?”
“They were the only ones left.”
“Weren’t those through the roof?”
“Didn’t you hear what I said? They were the only fucking ones left.”
“You didn’t think to ask me?”
“For god’s sake, Monica, does everything have to be a battle with you?”
“It’s not a battle if you’d just—”
“Hey Mom, can I show you something I made?”
“Cassie! I said not now!”
Her dad yanked hard on her arm. “Come on, we’re late already.”
The lobby was all rich wooden panels and plush red carpet. Bronze, sculpted sconces cast a warm glow from the corners. They went through a corridor marked VIP and entered the theater itself.
White moldings of angels and mermaids flanked the stage, like the figureheads on pirate ships that Cassie saw in her picture books. As they walked down the aisle, Cassie noticed one of the statue’s eyes were closed and its mouth twisted in a half-smile or half-grimace. Its head turned away from the stage, as if it couldn’t bear to see what was there.
“Keep walking!” whisper-shouted her dad, pushing her along the aisle. She stumbled and almost tripped. They found their seats.
Onstage, a woman in a sparkly dress tugged a wagon that held a large, smooth joke shaped like an ostrich egg. Its surface glittered and shimmered, refracting the stage light into a thousand colors.
“I’ve got one last bit for you all,” she said. “Are you ready?”
She lifted the joke from the wagon to a stool at the center of the stage, and then took out a hammer and chisel.
“And . . . Voila!”
The joke split open in a plume of smoke and out flew hundreds of streamers and clouds of confetti, exploding all over the stage. The audience erupted in laughs and cheers.
Cassie giggled and clapped. She looked over to her parents.
Her mom frowned and muttered at her phone, and her dad slumped in his chair, eyes barely open, just like on the couch at home.
Cassie sighed. She felt a heavy pit in her stomach and thought about two nights ago, the last time she had seen Mitchie.
Around nine, her mom was still at work and her dad had left to go to a bar. She was really hungry, since dad had forgotten to pack her lunch again that day, but when she opened the fridge the only things in there were a dented bottle of mustard and a few scraps of lettuce. Her stomach grumbled. She was getting dizzy.
She washed the lettuce as best she could, put it on a plate, and squirted some mustard on top. She brought the plate to the living room and turned on the TV.
Mitch was on! For a moment, she forgot about the lettuce, her hunger, and how big and dark the house was when she was all alone. She was fixated on the television, mouth open, watching him go through one joke after another.
Cassie liked Mitch best, because from the first time she saw him, she knew where he made his jokes. It was in the dark place. Cassie was spending more and more time there herself, in the place that was quiet and safe, where dishes stayed on shelves, chairs stood upright on the floor, and no one called her stupid, spoiled, useless, and good for nothing.
She rubbed the joke in her pocket and hoped Mitch would come out soon.
• • • •
Before the mirror, Mitch powdered his face carefully. Combed down a cowlick, smoothed his hair, brushed his sideburns.
Tonight’s performance, he decided, he would dedicate to Crenshaw. Good old Crenshaw.
Ten years ago, he had scraped together all his money from the odd jobs for the comedy workshop. The first week, they asked all the students to bring in their best work and cleared a room to display them all.
All of the jokes were lumpy and uneven, toppling over, baring obvious gaps. Yes, his jokes were also rough and basic. Of course they were—he had just started. Even so, he had been up until three the night before, hunched over his desk in the workshop.
Crenshaw came in and without even a glance at the students, surveyed the awkward heaps on the table. He stopped in front of Mitch’s. It was a modest ovoid, the size of two stacked oranges, painted a muted green.
“Whose is this?”
Mitch raised his hand.
“At first it doesn’t look too bad, right? But its sin is that it is derivative. Unoriginal. Uninspired. Not to mention, an utter eyesore.”
Crenshaw picked it up and smashed it against the table, sending pieces flying. One of them hit Mitch square in the face.
“A ha ha!” Crenshaw cackled, pointing at him. “Now that’s funny.”
A few snickers around the room. Mitch’s face burned.
Yes, Mitch thought, straightening his collar. This show would be for Crenshaw.
• • • •
The lights went up for intermission. “The show will resume in fifteen minutes,” announced a voice over the speakers.
Her dad jerked awake. “Hey, let’s go check out the backstage. This is our only chance.”
“But Daddy, I have to pee. Can you wait for me?”
He groaned. “Again? Come on, can’t you hold it?”
“Go, Cassie, hurry!” her mom said, still typing on her phone.
Cassie got stuck in the crowded aisle leading out of the theater. When she finally found the restroom, a line snaked all around the waiting area and down a flight of stairs. Cassie went to the back of the line, fidgeting with the joke in her pocket and trying to think how many minutes had passed. The line inched along. When the lights dimmed three times, Cassie had only moved a couple of feet.
She hurried back into the theater. From far away, she could see her dad’s face was red and her mom was sitting with her head in her hands.
“Show me your phone, if you have nothing to hide! Prove it!” her dad yelled. A few people across the aisle turned their heads toward them.
“Goddamn it,” her dad hissed, when he saw Cassie approach, “the intermission’s over now. Great job. What a waste of money.”
“Honey, you could be more mindful of time,” said her mother, not meeting her eye.
“But Mom, there was a long line—”
“I don’t want to hear it! It’s always excuses with you. We came all this way for you, you little brat!” Her dad let out an exasperated grunt. “Forget it, it’s fucking useless. It’s all for nothing. As usual.”
Cassie sank into her seat. In her pocket, she could feel the rainbow layer of the joke, which she had so carefully painted, starting to peel off.
It was all for nothing. She was good for nothing.
• • • •
Mitch got up and twirled before the mirror, checking his reflection from all angles. He had to look perfect tonight and give them the show they deserved.
One movement went too far—he felt a twinge from a fresh suture threatening to open up.
“Nuh-uh,” he cooed, patting his stomach. “Not yet. Soon, very soon.”
Mitch, Mitch, born in a ditch,
Mitch, Mitch, left by a bitch!
• • • •
“Next up, our final act, in the last performance of his career, give it up for . . . Mitch Williams!”
Cassie sat up straight. This was it!
“Come on, this is our last chance to go backstage. It’ll be more interesting than watching this hack.” Her dad was already craning his neck to see if there were any pesky attendants circling the area.
“No, wait, Mitch is coming up! This is the best part!”
Her dad huffed. “I didn’t spend this money for nothing. If you don’t want to go, fine. Stay here. We’re going.”
Cassie grabbed her mom’s arm. “Wait, no, please! Just watch for a little bit, please, Mommy, Daddy.”
The people in front of them jerked their heads around. “Shh!”
Her mom shook her arm loose from Cassie’s grip. “Ow, Cassie, you’re hurting me. Don’t grab me like that.”
Her dad leaned close to her. “That’s it, Cassie, we’ve had enough of you. You need to learn to grow up and stop being such a fucking whiny baby. We’ve spoiled you rotten. You hear that? You’re rotten.”
His hot breath rushed into her face. Cassie smelled the meat they ate at dinner, beer, and underneath that, something foul. Specks of foamy spit landed on her chin and cheek.
“Stay here then. We’re going.”
Cassie’s throat was tight and itchy. She held her arms against her stomach, digging her nails into her skin. She would not cry, she would not cry. She bunched up her face and stared straight ahead. “Fine.”
• • • •
Frank and Monica left the theater and circled the outside until they found the door labeled “Backstage.” Sound equipment and racks of lights lined the walls.
One door opened into a larger space: a workshop, full of paint, easels, brushes, pottery wheels, plasters, and molds. All around the room were chest-high pedestals, most of them displaying jokes in various stages of completion. The joke closest to the door was the size of a melon, round base with a slightly elongated top, a glossy maroon. Another was much smaller, like a tennis ball, with a blue and green checkered pattern. A woman stood polishing it with a brush.
“Ain’t she a beaut? Took me three months.”
Frank and Monica gave her a perfunctory nod and smile and left the room.
“I’ve never seen so many jokes in one place,” said Monica.
“Eh,” Frank waved his hands. “I don’t know why they bother. What’s the use? Bunch of clowns. Waste of time.”
Next door was another room. The door painted in black and gold stripes bore a nameplate: “M.W.”
They exchanged a look. Frank reached for the door handle.
“Wait, should we —”
“Five hundred dollars. I’m getting my money’s worth.”
The room was lavish. Full crystal chandelier, marble vanity with a large oval mirror encrusted with a border of golden light bulbs.
There were no artist supplies in this room. On the vanity lay several strips of frayed white cloth.
“Hey, willya look at this!” He jabbed a finger at the mirror. Stuck into one corner was a scrap of paper, on which was scribbled “you are enough.”
Frank guffawed. “What kind of grown man needs that? Must be a nutjob!”
“Maybe we shouldn’t be in here.”
Frank groaned. “You know, I really don’t think we should be letting Cassie watch this guy. She’s going to get the wrong ideas. She’s already so scatterbrained as it is, always going on and on about her stupid jokes.”
“Oh God, what are those?” Monica pointed across the room.
On a shelf stood a dozen jokes of different sizes, most of them pitch black. They were coated in a slimy fluid. The liquid dripped onto the floor, where it pooled into a crimson puddle.
That’s when the smell hit them.
Monica gagged and covered her mouth.
“Jesus Christ!” Frank said, face twisted in disgust.
Their eyes watered.
Lies, hurt, wounds that never heal.
They staggered back, stumbling to find the door.
Everything that is dark, teeming, and festering.
• • • •
Mitch cleared his throat. “You’ve all been a lovely audience this evening. I’m so grateful you all came out, and that I could share this moment with you.”
Frank and Monica emerged from backstage, finding themselves at the edge of one of the stage wings, looking out at the audience from an angle, but hidden from their view. Mitch took a sip of water. “To round things out, I have one last joke for you. Something new.”
The crowd cheered.
Cassie swung her legs back and forth. This was it, this was it.
Mitch walked to the center of the stage. Three spotlights trailed across the floorboards and focused on him, catching the sparkle of the buttons on his jacket.
With a smile, he took off his jacket and laid it on the floor. Then he began to slowly unbutton his white shirt.
The theater went silent. Cassie leaned forward.
The shirt parted and his chest came into view.
Layers of stained gauze wrapped his stomach. He undid one end and began to unravel it, round after round.
There was shuffling in the audience now and anxious murmurs.
The full length of fabric fell to the floor, exposing a column of dark stitches against his pale skin.
Mitch stepped forward, raised his arms, and began to laugh.
With each laugh, the stitches opened, one by one, each a perfect eye.
His torso bloomed like a flower, layers upon delicate layers of pinks and reds. He reached his hands in and brought out a perfect golden sphere. The surface was covered in a film of viscous liquid, blood and bile, a net of tendrils running down on all sides.
There was a split second of complete silence in the theater.
Then the audience exploded in cries and shouts of panic. Muted thuds left and right, as several people fainted. Aisles congested with desperate people trying to leave. Parents shielded their kids’ eyes or blocked their views, pushing them along the packed bodies to the exit.
From the wing of the stage, Monica spotted Cassie.
Cassie did not get up. She sat square in her seat, still swinging her legs, while the row emptied out. She was the only person still sitting in the entire theater.
Cassie leaned forward, mouth hanging open, staring at the shiny sphere on stage.
Then she started to laugh.
Cassie giggled and squealed, her lips and brow wiggled and contorted, her shoulders shook violently. She stood up, rocking back and forth, arms thrust out to the seatback in front of her for support. Her mouth split even wider, exposing more teeth. Her smile was too wide for her small face, her laughs racking her entire body. She howled with laughter, showing the darkness of her throat, as tears streamed down her face.
Monica saw Cassie clutch at her stomach, and in the space between her narrow wrists, the glint of something wet. Something dark red. Slippery.
Cassie was struggling to breathe but she didn’t want to stop, she couldn’t stop, all she could do was laugh, laugh, laugh.