Friday, November 27, 2015

OF GODS AND MEN
Prologue

           Malthus, Godking of the realm of Malthanon, sat high on his throne looking down at the hooded stranger who knelt before him.  
The opulent throne room shone brightly as artificial sunlight, made by Malthus to blaze eternally, flooded the hall.  Mountains of gold and silver, strewn about the entire room, reflected its radiance.  Pristine alabaster walls were set aglow by the amplified light of God; so that for any mortal man, looking into Malthus’s throne room was akin to staring at the face of the sun.  It forced the few who did enter the Godking’s chamber to do so with eyes closed and heads bowed.  As it should have been, for they were mortal men; but Malthus had ceased being a mortal man long ago.  In this city, he was king.  On this earth, he was God; and he would have his reverence.
“I am told you have a mighty gift for me,” Malthus said in jest.  “Tell me, what does one such as you have to offer God?”
“You have done well in your time here Malthus,” the stranger’s words rang throughout the room, even as his head was bowed.  “You led your people to this fertile land when you were without a home.  You defended them from invaders, and you built them a magnificent city.”
It pleased Malthus to hear his accomplishments recounted to him.  It reminded him of days long past when he would walk the streets of the city himself.  The praise and worship of his subjects greeted him wherever he went.  He remembered their prayers and songs, their feasts and celebrations; all in honor of him.  He remembered it felt good, once upon a time, to be among them.  To be loved by them.
But the feeling faded with each visit.  Over time, Malthus grew tired of the incessant needs of his people.  Their prayers became so small – so dull; like gnats buzzing in his ear, beating the air with the quiet hum of their begging.  So one thousand years ago, the Godking left the sorrows and joys of men behind; locking himself away in his throne room and giving himself over to the power of God and the vastness that came with it.
“But it is clear your days of achievement are long behind you,” the hooded stranger continued as he raised his head to look into the face of God.  “Lifetimes have come and gone since you involved yourself in the affairs of your people.  Famine spreads, your city crumbles, and to your flock you have become a relic of a bygone age.  Naught more than a myth: a ghost.  So I have come to revive the Godking of Malthanon.”
For the first time in a millennium, Malthus felt something…anger.  He rose from his throne and stumbled.  He looked down at his legs and saw that they had withered and shriveled.  He briefly wondered how this could have happened.  When was the last time he had walked?  When was the last time he had even stood up?  Could it have been a thousand years?  He banished these thoughts from his mind.  What need had he for a body?  He was God, and he would make that known again - beginning with this impudent stranger.
“You presume much mortal, to blaspheme in the face of the divine.  You no longer amuse me, and whatever else you have to say is of no consequence.  For such insolence, you must die,” the Godking proclaimed.
Malthus began summoning the power inside him; the power of God.  He could feel it as it grew; like a flooding river, submerging all around it.  The power engulfed him, and it was glorious.  This was all he needed.  This was rapture.  He closed his eyes for a moment to revel in it.  He was God, and now he would show it.  He opened his eyes in readiness, determined to release his wrath.
The stranger had vanished.  Malthus was confounded, his eyes rooted to the spot where the hooded man stood just an instant before.  But the Godking quickly recovered his wits and began scanning the room.  He focused a small sliver of his power, and suddenly he could see through the pillars, past the doors and beyond the very room itself to the ends of the earth.  Yet no matter where he looked, the stranger was nowhere to be found.
Then Malthus felt a sharp pain underneath his ribs.  He let out a quiet breath as his eyes bulged in disbelief.  He began to fall, but strong hands caught him and gently eased him to the ground.  He put his own hand to the place he had been stabbed and felt a hot liquid flow from the wound.  It was his blood.  He had forgotten he had blood.  But now, he wished desperately to keep it.  
The Godking looked up…to meet the black, endless eyes of the hooded stranger.
“You have given yourself over to the power inside you and abandoned the role you were meant to play.  Now your people live their lives apart; with no need of, or even belief in, the divine.  This cannot be.  Both men and gods have their part to play in the days to come.  And those roles must be played with conviction.  Thus, a new Godking of Malthanon must be cast.  And for you Malthus…I grant you oblivion.”
“Pain…” Malthus tried to say more, but he could not.  In an older life, when he was a mortal soldier fighting for his people’s freedom, he had been stabbed.  He tried to remember what that felt like.  Surely, it could not have felt like this.  This was agony, and it spread over what was left of his frail body.
“Yes, you will feel pain,” the stranger replied.  “But the power that has sustained you all these years will keep you alive.  You will suffer, each day, until such time as another mortal comes to claim your godhood.  When that day comes, you will finally know peace.”
  Malthus wanted to beg, to plead with this man to end tall now, but he could not find the breath to speak.  Instead, he just looked at his killer, hoping his remorseful and desperate plea could be read in his eyes.
“You all have your parts to play,” the stranger repeated coldly.  “Die well, Malthus.”
Malthus blinked, and the stranger was gone.  He was alone, lying prostrate on the ground, with his hand clutched to his side.  
Malthus’s eyes rolled from one side of the throne room to the other in his agony.  He took in his mountains of gold and silver: his weapons and armor: his tokens of worship from the people of his city.  In this room lay all the possessions of the Godking.  Yet now, as so much blood spilled out of him, he had nothing.  All he held onto was the knowledge that someone, someday, could grant him salvation.  But how?  When?  Was there anything he could do to summon his savior?
A wave of pain wracked Malthus’s body.  It would be the first of many more to come over his years of suffering.  There was nothing the Godking could do to save himself.  He could only lay there, dying. 
        God, was dying.


Saturday, November 14, 2015

STAND UP

        The unusually pitch darkness of the comedy club suited Jim just fine.  It wasn’t a big club.  Even sitting in the back, he was only a few feet from the stage; but it was far enough from the spot light to be swallowed up by the dark.  That intimacy was one of the reasons this was Jim’s favorite venues.  He’d performed here more than any other place in New York, and it was because on stage he felt truly separate from the audience; free from the judgmental glares of the people who didn’t get his jokes, but open to the laughs of those that did.  
Sulking alone in his one-size-too-small wooden chair at the two-sizes-too-small cocktail table, Jim downed half of his vodka soda in a single gulp.  On the table was another drink, fresh and waiting for him.  “Glad I planned ahead,” he thought; though he’d have a lot more than two vodka sodas before the show was over.  “I deserve it…after the day I’ve had.  Hell, after the last six months I’ve had,” his internal voice assured.  Still, he pushed from his mind the thoughts of drinking into oblivion and turned his attention to the stage.  The headliner was coming up, and from the looks of the guy Jim already knew it would be a terrible set.   
“How’s everybody doing tonight?” the young comic asked as he bounded onto the stage.
“Oh boy,” Jim smirked in disdain.  “We’re not your friends buddy.  Just get to the jokes.”
“Glad you all could make it on a Monday night.  I’m Kevin, and I’m gonna take good care of you,” the irritatingly young and handsome Kevin swaggered as he focused in on a female in the front row who Jim could only assume was stunningly beautiful.  “Especially you.”
There were sprinkles of laughter all around Jim: not from him though.  He polished off his first drink and reached for his second vodka soda.
“You’re gonna get to know me tonight.  Intimately,” the jerk-off Kevin said, not taking his eyes off the woman in the front. 
The sprinkles turned into a solid laugh from the crowd.
“All of you will.  Through my material people,” Kevin said, jerking his head up to address the entire audience.  Then, quickly ducking back to the woman in the front, “But seriously, find me after the show.”
“Ok,” a female voice from the front rang out.
The crowd burst into laughter then.  Even Kevin had to laugh. 
But Jim wasn’t laughing.  “Ugh,” he said out loud.  He didn’t mean to share his disgust audibly.  He didn’t even think he’d been loud enough to overtake the laughter, except that he saw Kevin suddenly turn and look into the darkness of the audience…in his general direction.  
“So, my junior year of high school…” the comedian began, shrugging off Jim’s resounding disapproval.
“Of course high school,” Jim thought condescendingly.  “What is this kid, twenty one?  Twenty two?  And he’s headlining already?  He must be friends with the booker.”
Jim took another swig of his drink, finishing it.  He looked back toward the bar to signal a waitress.  None were around.  “Perfect,” he griped internally.  
“Now, have you ever tried to kayak with an upset stomach?” Kevin asked as Jim turned back to the show.  Some people in the crowd laughed, picking up on where this was going.
“Oh no,” came one person’s voice from the crowd.
“Oh no is right,” Kevin said, incorporating the interruption into the show.  “Because the last thing you SHOULD do when you have an upset stomach, is an activity that contracts and expands your core.”
Laughter began popping up all around the room.  Most of the audience had caught on now.
“What?” Jim said out loud.  He was baffled.  He couldn’t believe the audience was on board with such a tired and clich├ęd premise.
“Sir, your core is…well, it’s pretty much your entire torso.  Sweetheart, you look like you do yoga, would you agree?” Kevin asked, working the girl he was flirting with back into the act.
“I do.  And yes,” she answered.
“Awesome!  And seriously, find me after the show,” Kevin concluded.
The audience erupted.  They were all on board.
“So yeah, the core is your torso.  It’s a bunch of muscles that allow you to do basically everything it is that you do…including interrupting people who are trying to tell jokes,” Kevin said.
The audience bought it.  They loved this reverse-heckling and rewarded Kevin with their laughter.
Jim crossed his arms.  His face was getting hot.
“Can I get you anythi…”
“Vodka soda!” Jim interrupted the waitress with a bark.  The audience immediately got quiet.  Jim felt the people at the tables on either side of his cast him glances.
“So here I am, kayaking as hard as I can.  Racing against the clock to make it to shore,” Kevin continued, moving everyone right past the angry outburst. 
Jim grabbed the waitress’s arm before she could walk away.  “Two of them,” he said in a forceful whisper.
The waitress nodded that she understood, and Jim turned back to the show.  “Idiots!  I can’t believe such a simple, stupid, tired shit joke is funny to them,” he stewed.
“So I made it ashore.  I ran to my friend’s Lexus.  I was in the driver’s seat.  Before I knew it, I was halfway to his house.  I was getting giddy, ‘I’m gonna make it!’ I thought to myself,” Kevin said, deliberately getting louder and faster with his set-up.  “UNTIL…I heard the sirens and saw the flashing lights.  Cop pulled me over, walked to my window, asked for my license and registration and as I reached for the glove compartment…”
Kevin paused giving a beat for the inevitable to sink in.  The audience was in hysterics, trying to suppress their laughter so they could hear the punchline.
“I shit myself,” Kevin delivered.
The crowd exploded.  
“…all over my friend’s cloth seats,” Kevin continued.
There was even more laughter, and even a few “Ewww’s” from the people who thought about it for a moment.
But one person wasn’t laughing.
“BOO!”
The castigation was loud; loud enough to quiet the laughter.   
“Excuse me sir, is there a problem?” a visibly frustrated Kevin asked of his heckler.
“Yeah, your material,” Jim called out after downing the first of his two new vodka sodas.  “It’s hackneyed, uninspired and derivative.”
“Ok, I’m sorry you had a rough day doing…accounting?” Kevin guessed, drawing snickers.  “Or maybe things aren’t so good with Mrs. Douchebag?  I don’t know, but I have ten more minutes and I would appreciate…”
“Hey!” Jim exploded out of his chair.  “I’m a comedian, alright?  I know what’s funny.”
“Haha, ok man, ok,” Kevin said bemusedly.  His attitude deflated some of the tension in the room.  “Sorry.  I didn’t realize you were in the business.  Probably because I haven’t seen you around: at the clubs or on the road.”
“I perform enough,” Jim retorted.  “But I don’t have my parents supporting me; giving me time to write shitty jokes; so, ya know, I have to work.”
“Right,” Kevin said with that swaggering, infuriating smirk of his.  “I’ll tell you what then, why don’t you come up here and take the rest of my time?”
As one, the audience turned in their seats to look at Jim.
“What?” Jim asked in a small voice.  He hadn’t expected this.  He’d never seen it done.  Sure, comedians argued with hecklers all the time, but inviting them on stage?  “Except, I’m not a heckler.  I’m not even just an audience member.  I’m a comedian,” he thought.
“Come up here, and prove your jokes are better than mine,” Kevin said confidently.  “You should hurry, though, because I only have eight minutes left.”
“Ok,” Jim heard himself say.  Before he could think about walking, his brain had sent the signal to his legs.  He put a foot to the lip of the stage and pushed up.  He found the spot light automatically, and placed a hand on the microphone stand.
Kevin hopped off the stage and waded through the audience to the back, disappearing into the darkness.
“I’m alone,” Jim thought.
But strangely, he didn’t feel cut off from the audience this time.  He felt all their eyes on him, giving him their full attention.  
In the moment, he realized he had just been given both the best and worst intro of all time.  Here was an audience completely absorbed by him just being on stage, unsure of how he was going to perform.  But at the same time, they all had their expectations; and it was up to Jim, and Jim alone, to either satisfy or disappoint them.
Then he realized something else.  He’d been on stage in complete silence for what felt like an hour.
“Uh, well…here we are,” he said, just to say something.  He desperately tried to remember the material from the last set he performed.  “How long ago did I do it?  More than four months at least.”  He shook his head, hoping to dislodge the distraction from his mind.  
“So, I work at a start-up.  Tech support,” Jim began.  “It HAS been a long time since my last show.  I left the start-up six months ago.”  
In the audience, Jim heard someone stir their drink.
“And one thing you learn about start-ups is that no one ever wants to admit they failed,” Jim continued, trying to push through.  “In fact, they don’t even use the word ‘failure.’  Instead, they use the word ‘pivot.’  So, if a spam filter didn’t filter spam; but instead just labeled it; they’d pivot and call it a spam labeler.  So ‘pivoting’ is, essentially, just being full of shit.”
Silence.  Dead silence.
“But it makes you wonder,” Jim went on, a bit more hurriedly.  “How far could a company pivot before they’re not the same company anymore?”
There was absolutely zero reaction from the crowd; not even a grunt to suggest they thought this might be an interesting idea.
“Like, could a software company pivot so much that they end up selling t-shirts?  How far could you take ‘pivoting?’  If my wife leaves me could I just say, ‘No, the marriage didn’t end.  It just pivoted into vindictive adults who hate each other?’ a sweaty Jim rushed to get out.
“We get it,” came a lone voice from the sea of black.
“Yeah.  It’s been a while since…” Jim began and then abruptly stopped.  “I’m explaining to them,” he thought.  He’d seen bombing comics do this.  Their jokes didn’t get laughs so they tried to explain to the audience why the jokes were funny.  
Jim looked down at the stage.  He was sweating profusely, and droplets were falling like rain from his forehead.  But he couldn’t look up.  
Thirty seconds passed by.  It felt like an eternity.  Jim said nothing, but neither did the audience.  They didn’t even heckle him.  They just let him stand up there, alone.  
“I, uh, I interviewed for a new job today,” Jim finally said, grasping at the first thing he could think of.
Out there, he heard someone slurping up the end of their drink. “Probably won’t get it though.  Huh, obviously,” Jim heard a few snorts from the crowd.  
“Which is fine; especially since I lied on my resume.  I don’t know Photoshop, I’m terrible at managing a budget and, judging by tonight, I have atrocious interpersonal skills,” Jim finished to some actual chuckles.
“And why would an office receptionist need to know Photoshop anyway?” Jim asked, raising his head to look at the crowd.  That earned him a couple laughs.
“Seems every job these days wants you to be an expert at the Adobe Creative Suite, right?  Do you think line cooks are doctoring photos of their dishes for the menu right before the dinner rush?  Are doctors filming their patients’ insides and cutting it together on their macbook pro to submit to festivals?” Jim posited.
He got a handful of laughs at this: maybe five or six people.  But given how his set began, he felt like he’d found an oasis in the desert.
At the back of the house, Jim saw a waving light signaling that his time was up.
He looked back at the audience and realized he had no joke to close with.  He couldn’t trust anything from his old set, and he had run out of stray thoughts to comment on.  His mind was blank.
Jim looked back down at the stage, hoping that something might come to him.
Nothing came.  No joke.  No line.  So instead, Jim had to go with what he felt in that moment.  
“I’m sorry if I ruined your night folks.  Thanks for listening,” he said as he quickly hopped off stage.
There was some applause.  A few people who clapped quickly and then stopped; likely when they noticed no one else was clapping with them.  
Jim walked back to his table and quickly grabbed his coat.  He put some money down and headed to the door.
It was cold outside.  Jim buttoned up his heavy coat and reached into his pocket for his gloves.
“How’d it go?” a voice called out to him.
Jim turned to his right.  Sitting on the stoop of the building next to the club was Kevin.
“You didn’t watch?” Jim asked.
“Nope,” Kevin replied casually.
“Not well,” Jim admitted.  “There were a couple laughs…when I started riffing.  But not many.”
“Some is better than none,” Kevin said with an easy smile.
There was a moment of silence between them, and Jim felt like he was back on the stage; searching for a joke to close with.
None came.
“I’m sorry I heckled you man,” Jim finally said.
“Yeah, I would expect a comic to know better,” Kevin replied.
Jim froze.  There were a lot of things he was thinking that he wanted to say right then.  Things like, “I’m not a comic.  I’m just a guy who played a couple clubs a few times and tried to fool himself into thinking he could do this.  That he knew this.  But when push came to shove, I took a desk job over trying.  Because if I didn’t really try, I’d never really fail.”
None of that came out.  Instead, Kevin held out his hand.
“I’m Kevin.  What’s your name?” the comedian asked.
“Jim,” the heckler answered.
“Nice to meet you Jim.  I hope to see you around.”
        They shook hands.