Apr/May 2014 Humor/Satire

Death's Debut

by Lâle Davidson

Image courtesy of the British Library Photostream

Image courtesy of the British Library Photostream

Death wanted to quit his day job.

He was tired of people taking him so seriously. No one was ever awed by Death in a good way. Fear, disgust, sadness, sanguine acceptance, he'd seen it all. But let's face it, people just liked Life better, even though she was the one who determined how they would die. Sure, sure, people were sometimes relieved to see him, especially when they were dying of some God-awful condition Life had concocted. That was the worst of it. She had to beat them with a stick to get them to stop loving her, and still, they persisted. Even God preferred Life and referred to Death as an "unfortunate necessity."

No. He didn't know why, and he wasn't sure why mattered. He just wanted to quit and try out a new profession. The question was, what?

The answer came the day he claimed a soldier in Afghanistan who, inexplicably, giggled the instant his leg brushed the wire attached to an explosive device. Death was already inside Sgt. Peter Adam's body, and the laughter felt like sun-filled water rippling through him, plunging him into the center of oblivion and catapulting him over it at the same time.

That's when Death decided he wanted to become a stand up comedian. The idea reverberated with rightness. This laughter thing was invented by humans, completely unforeseen by God. Immortals didn't get it. Armed with humor, Death could transcend his original purpose. The more he thought about it, the more brilliant the idea seemed.

Besides, didn't he have a right to self-determination?

"NO," thundered God the next day from his marble throne, manifested for the hell of it from dark matter.

"Mortals do," Death countered.

"That's besides the point. You can't quit." God flashed blindingly.

"Could you cut the theatrics?" Death said, shading his eyes. Obligingly, God assumed the form most commonly imagined by humans, the white man in white robes with a white beard, sitting on a cloud.

"How's this?"

"A bit cliché, but better," Death nodded.

God turned himself into a woman. "Ah, that feels better," she said, looking down at her breasts. "You know, it took me two tries to get people right. Adam was a rough draft, so to speak."

"You look more comfortable, it's true," Death said, momentarily distracted. "But don't change the subject." He shook it off. "You're telling me that in this entire universe, where change is the only constant, I'm not allowed to change?"

"That's right. You're the other constant."

"Can't I just take a little vacation?"

"Can't. Not possible," God folded her arms and tapped her foot. "It's a small planet—and they're already at their max."

God didn't want to admit it, but no one, not even she, knew what would happen if Death quit.

"Well, I'm doing it anyway," Death said.

"I forbid it." Her voice careened around the Greek temple she had just manifested, ricocheting off pillars.

"Watch me." Death dropped his wings at God's feet and simply walked out the door.

He took the form of a smallish, neat-featured young man and rented a studio apartment in the New York City where performance venues proliferated. Death's traditional names were definitely not funny, so he renamed himself Bob.

Now no one was dying. It was spring, and trees flew their tender green flags, and tulips mouthed dawn. The first thing people noticed was that nothing wilted, no blooms faded. That was okay. The second thing they noticed was that no one could eat. When they chewed carrots, nothing happened. Lots of saliva; no break down. People could swallow the carrot pieces with water, but undigested chunks got stuck in the sphincter muscles and caused all kinds of gastrointestinal distress. At first this surprised Death, but then he realized that digestion was destruction. Of course he must be inside them somehow from the moment the first cell divided, but he'd never seen it that way before. The newspapers were full of it: "Mysterious Eating Disorder."

There was mass panic. Everyone thought they were going to die.

The very definition of irony, Death thought. But he closed the door to his tiny apartment and sat down before the white page.

He had no idea of how to be funny. He looked it up in books and online. A joke is a "benign violation," said someone from a website called HURL. Death had never been violated, so he didn't know what that meant. Zen and the Art of Stand-Up Comedy said a joke was "a sudden, ironic insight." Well, he'd had a few of those, like how everyone blamed him for suffering when he was the one who ended it. Or how growth wasn't possible without deterioration. Or how Life was really the cause of pain, but everyone loved her anyway.

But the punch line concept really stumped him. According to a book, a punch line was "the final information the comic gives to the crowd that alters the meaning of already given information in a surprising fashion." Put that way, it didn't seem funny at all.

Filled with uncertainty, he pressed his pen to paper and wrote through the angst. This must be what it felt like to be human.

After a few weeks, outside his window, people started to notice that they seemed to be fine without food. They weren't getting tired or sick as long as they didn't try to swallow the food. There was mass celebration. Followed by mass ennui.

"Knock, knock, " Death said at his first open mic at the 11th Street Café one humid summer night about three months into life without death.

The audience, hunkering half-lidded around wood tables against brick walls, squinted up at him from their stale food plates. Though people didn't need to eat, they still wanted to. Rituals paled without it; conversations had no flow.

"Come on, " he gestured. "Who's there?"

"Who's there," they muttered, irritated.

"Death," he said. The audience just looked at him, their mouths slack, their eyes droopy. This time he was irritated. He gestured to them again.

"Death who," they droned.

"Gezunt-heit!" he said.

A middle-aged man took a bite out of a shellacked dinner roll and spit the pieces out. The waitress hurried over and pulled the breadbasket off the table, giving him the evil eye. With no new food coming in, they had to find ways to preserve the old food so they could at least make a pretense of eating.

"Okay, why did God make Eve after he made Adam?"


"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."

Someone threw a shellacked carrot at him.

"Come, on," he said, "You're killin' me, here."

On the way home that night, an explosion of misery carved a crater out of his chest. This must be why they called it bombing. He had experienced human pain before, but never like this. In that final moment, when he enfolded them in his wings, all people opened to him like flowers to sun. He remembered the milky smell of that fair-haired Molly-child, who had been lost in the woods, how her loneliness had bellied like a hot air balloon before her last alchemical burst of joy. But the pain had always been temporary and borrowed. This pain was his alone and felt endless—deathless—he suddenly realized, by his own choice. He was so consumed by the slurry of feelings that he tripped over the foot of a bundled figure propped up against the wall.

He looked down at an old woman swaddled in gray-edged blankets that she'd embroidered long ago for her wedding day. She looked up at him, eyes blued and blinded by cataracts, white lashes streaming out from all sides like the rays of two stars. Though she saw nothing, she smiled with instant recognition and reached for him.

"At last. I've been waiting for you. It hurts so much here," she pointed to her chest, "and here." She cradled her abdomen. "Take me, now. Please."

What was this he felt? A tightening around his esophagus?

"I'm sorry," he said, brushing his knuckles along her cheek. "You have mistaken me for someone else. Please, take this." He pressed a few dollars into her palm.

"Ach!" she cried, suddenly savage. "Money. What need have I of money?"

He scuttled away, ashamed and confused.

He closed his mind to humans when he closed the door to his apartment. He had worked for an eternity, never asking for anything. He just wanted this one thing, to make people laugh.

When fall came, the leaves didn't fall. And those babies everyone loved so much? They never got any older, which turned out to be a major problem, because no one wanted to watch a baby forever. Sex had lost its luster in a world where nothing ended. Some of the more gorgeous men and women, who had at first celebrated their immortal beauty, were now cutting themselves to achieve some kind of climax. Furthermore, the cuts, while bleeding, didn't lead to infection or—oddly enough—healing, because it turned out cells had to die in the healing process, so many people looked like tattered jeans, all droopy, and holey and easily dehydrated. Much use was made of duct tape.

He had to pretend he was reading about these things in the newspaper, because it turned out that coming up with good jokes was a lot harder than collecting souls. He studied how Jon Stewart could gild any turd, how Louis C.K. could share utter humiliation and make you laugh, and how Steve Martin could be absurd and vulnerable at the same time. A good joke was like a thunderclap, a convulsion of life and death coming together in perfect balance, a hybrid. Instead of the stasis of balance, laughter was a rollercoaster of a good ride, a plunge into chaos and a triumph over it at the same time, where you could see how life really was and yet be totally free of it.

"Why is dying better than a punch in the face?" he tossed out to his new audience at the Karma Bar. He paused, looking around the red room at the gray faces that seemed to float in smoke above the red velvet couches. The smoking ban had been lifted since death died. "Because when it's over you feel nothing."

The audience didn't even blink.

"Why is death more democratic than God?" Death rubbed his hands together, certain this next one would get a laugh. "Because God only appears to the true believers, but death comes to everyone whether you believe in him or not."

Silence. Were they deadpanning purposely to punish him?

"Good one," someone cried from the corner, slapping his knee. Death squinted his eyes to see through the smoke. He thought he could make out the telltale long hair.

"Jesus," he muttered.

After the show, Jesus parted the red haze, walked through, and put his arm around him. "Death, old buddy. You rocked." When he bobbed for emphasis, his love beads jangled. Then he leaned in closer and said under his breath, which smelled slightly of jasmine, "Now, what do-ya-say, you get back to work? The planet's a mess."

"The name's Bob," said Bob. "And do you really think so?"

"Dude. Haven't you noticed?" He sliced his hand through the air, palm up, gesturing at all the people bickering and slapping each other on the velvet couches out of sheer boredom.

"No, do you really think my jokes were good?"

"We-e-lll, that last one was sort of interesting. The timing isn't quite right, or the order—or something. But you make an interesting point."

"Why don't you come to people anymore?" Death asked. "You, God, Buddha, Guayín. Why do you all stay away and leave me to do all the work alone?"

Jesus shifted his eyes away guiltily. "Well, human suffering... been there, done that. Got the stigmata," he grinned artificially, pointing to the scars on his palms. "Besides, I visit them in their dreams."

"But you don't come here physically. Like I do. Every day. To every single one."

Jesus nodded but couldn't muster a response.

"I take all the blame, and you get to be the light."

"I know." Jesus nodded sympathetically, looking down at his sandals. "We all have to make sacrifices. But don't forget, some people see the big picture. 'Member that Shakespeare Dude? '…and by a sleep to say we end the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.'"

"Yeah, he was pretty good. I had sort of forgotten about him," Death said. For a moment his motivations seemed hollow.

"Look, you've made your little demonstration, you got your point across. We all know you're essential to the cosmic order. It's time to get back to work. That's all I'm saying."

Wrong thing to say, Death thought. "Well, I'm not done. I'm looking for a consummation of my own." He wasn't sure what he meant, but in his gut, he knew that it was vital.

Jesus went back to heaven, and Death bought a few more books on comedy, sequestered himself again, and took notes while the world descended into seething chaos. Most people quit their jobs because they didn't need food or heat to stay alive. Between writing exercises, Death stared down at them through the smog-glazed window. Torn and duct-taped, people thronged the streets without purpose, daring cars to hit them, causing huge traffic jams. Insects and animals, no longer afraid of death, climbed the walls and spilled from every crevice. Nothing worked, trains and cell phones winked on and off sporadically, garbage piled up in the streets, all of society collapsed. While Death struggled to understand the mystery of laughter, nothing could resolve or change, and the only thing that grew was rage.

One day, shortly after winter arrived, he wandered down the street where the old blind woman, Dorri Fadle, had lain, but to his dismay, she had wandered off. He was no closer to writing a funny joke than when he had started. A thick layer of skin had grown between him and people, but he sort of missed the milky smell of Molly, the salty tang of Peter Adams, Dorri's star-blind eyes. Back in his apartment, as he blew humid breath over his cold hands, he remembered the twin emotion Peter Adams had felt in that final second: the relief that the thing he had been dreading every moment of his desert vigil had finally arrived, that it wasn't going to be so bad after all, and—simultaneously—the revelation that the taste of sweat on his upper lip was... exquisite.

Just then a knock came at the door. When Death opened it, there stood a man with prematurely white hair, horn-rimmed glasses, and a banjo slung across his back. Death instantly recognized Steve Martin.

"Oh, my God!"

"No. The name is Steve. But do we really look alike?"

"Yes. No. Well, God takes many forms—" he caught himself. "But how would I know? I just meant you're my hero."

"You are too kind." Steve squinted like he was politely anticipating a punch in the face.

"No, no I'm not nice at all. I'm—"

"I know who you are and why you came here," Steve said seriously. "I had a divine visitation."

"But how—"

"Well, as you know, I've been making a living by telling jokes my whole life, and all of a sudden about six months ago, everyone stopped laughing." His eyes tilted down sadly in the corners. "At first, I thought it was just me, but then I started looking around, and I realized no one was laughing at anyone. That made me feel a little better, at first, but not much. Not for long. If I can't make people laugh, I have no reason to live, but because of you, I can't die. I was on my sixth suicide attempt when Jesus finally gave me the tip off."

"Aw, Jesus!" He could see it now, Steve jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge, drinking poison, putting a noose around his neck, squeezing his eyes shut and tipping over the stool, then the look of surprise fading to annoyance as he struggled to release himself while hanging in midair. Jesus had probably made a grand entrance, sunbeams streaming all around.

"Is that why you're here?"

"Well, yes—and no. As soon as he told me what was going on, I wanted to come. I think I can help you become a comedian."

"Oh, man, would you? That would be great!"

"Walk with me a ways," he said, pointing toward the setting sun. "I've got some new material I want to try out on you. I really need your input." He smiled in his tight-lipped way and beckoned.

"Stay right there." Death ducked back into the apartment to get his coat.

"So, I've been doing these tweets," said Steve, as soon as they hit Bleecker Street and threaded their way between meandering discontents. "It's an interesting form. You only have 140 characters. It's sort of the haiku of jokes. I find the limits exciting. I like the concept that you can have these thoughts that just pop up in people's lives at random moments. I've been working on this hokey-pokey series. You know the hokey-pokey?"

"Sure," said Death, as they walked across the Hudson River. Death was concentrating so hard, he didn't notice where they were going or how.

"Well, here's one." Steve Martin showed Death the screen of his iPhone. It read: "Two broken legs forces me to cancel hokey-pokey dance recital."

"I don't get it," said Death.

Steve scratched his wide nose under his glasses. "Well, here's the next one." He showed Death the screen. It said, "I can put my right leg in, left leg in, but hard to 'turn myself around.' Which is, of course, what it's all about."

Death laughed. "That's funny. Tell me some more."

They walked all afternoon, right off the edge of the planet and into the galaxy, Steve explaining, Death listening and laughing. He didn't even notice they were going back to his realm until they arrived at Death's door.

"I put my right hand in then shook it all about, then it fell off, thanks to flesh-eating disease," Steve had just finished sharing.

Death laughed again.

"Here's the last one, "With the other hand, doing the 'pokey.' Still fun. Playing music LOUD."

Death guffawed. "How do you do that? That is so funny." He rubbed his chest where warmth was spreading like the first hot sip of coffee on a cold morning.

"But you see," said Steve. "Without you, that joke doesn't work at all. You're the reason it's funny."

The truth was sobering. He stood with Steve on his front balcony overlooking the glittering galaxy. Ach—there it was again, that damn seriousness. "Hey, what do you think of this one?" Death said in a last, desperate attempt to ace the audition. "Good Night, Tweet Dreams."

"That's cute, but it's not truly funny. Try it like this: 'I can't tweet today, because I'm really absorbed by a Bounty paper towel.'"

Death laughed. He'd seen the commercial. "Why can't I do that?"

"Well first of all, your timing is catastrophically bad. I mean, you decided to start telling jokes when life became bitterly boring because you were absent from everything. But second of all, you're trying too hard. You don't need to become a comedian. You already are one. If you think about it, death is truly funny."

"I know. Right? Why don't people see that?"

"Because they are too serious. You are such a joke!"

"I am!" Death slapped his stomach and laughed.

"We're born to die, it happens every day, but we can't believe it. And yet no one can live without you! You're a giant, cosmic joke!" Steve shouted.

"It's hilarious," Death said. And they both laughed till stars streamed from their eyes and watered heaven with their tears.

Finally, the truth that had been metamorphosing all along resolved into a shape he could swallow. He missed his job and loved people. Sgt. Peter Adams, Molly, Dorri, countless others. In that final split second before he took them, a door opened, and they could see it all, Janus-wise: the life they were about to leave and the death they were about to enter. As they teetered, he could do what God and all the angels could not or would not do: enter their bodies. It was a strangely intimate moment, where they faced the shocking reality of flesh in decay and breathed their ecstatic, most living last.

"Come on," said Steve, putting his hand on the splintered door. "Bring meaning back to life."

Death sighed, turned around, and looked back down the long, winding road they had traveled. He was rueful. All that disorder he had caused—for what?—just to discover what he knew all along: without him, life pretty much sucked. But it was more than that. He had started this journey thinking he needed to be loved, and that he could somehow earn it by being funny. What he had found instead was that he loved mortals more than God. Admired them even. While God knew all and lived in a universe of certainty, humans had to navigate vast uncertainty, and they did it with beautifully flawed courage, intelligence, stupidity, persistence, and laughter.

And though his sister, Life, had started each and every one, she couldn't understand them as he could, because she lived without shadow. She was like a thoughtless, endlessly inventive child, prancing without consequence, innocently cruel. God could afford to retreat, Jesus and all the rest might be moved by pleading or saintly epiphanies, but Death alone would visit each and every one, no matter what they did, no matter how they lived. In a universe of uncertainty, he was more certain than life, the one thing they could always count on. Poor Dorri Fadle. He would put her first on the list.

"Why don't you stay with me, keep me company, tell me some more jokes," he said.

"How about I join you later," Steve said.

"I hear lots of people are dying to get in," he rejoined.

Steve smiled.

"Need a lift home?" Death asked, feeling his wings sprout.

"Nah," Steve said, "I know the way." He raised the banjo strap off his shoulder and slid the instrument around to the front. "I've got this to keep me company."

"So long," Death said with a trace of sadness. "And thanks."

"You're very welcome," said Steve, and he turned around and headed back toward life, plucking the playful strains of the "Danse Macabre."

Death unfurled his great dark wings, fluffed up the softest, roundest summer night breeze he could conjure, and fanned it gently toward Steve's back, speeding him home.

"Hey," Steve called. "Knock 'em dead."


All Steve Martin jokes were quoted verbatim from The Ten Make That Nine, Habits of Very Organized People. Make That Ten. The Tweets of Steve Martin. The paragraph on tweeting was paraphrased. Comedy advice was quoted from humorresearchlab.org and Zen and the Art of Stand-Up Comedy by Jay Sankey. In addition, I stole half a line from William Blake's "Tyger, Tyger," where stars "watered heaven with their tears."


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