“Weird but good! I would like to use your story in the November issue of Aphelion.”
It was September 17, 2000. Cary Semar, the then-Short Story Editor of an online science fiction zine, had really enjoyed my first submission. It was a personal triumph. This email message marked the first time I ever had a piece of fiction accepted for publication. Yes, there was no money involved and yes, it would only be posted online but it was a welcome breakthrough nonetheless. A complete stranger I’ve never met in person thought I had something.
For years, I fantasized about what it would be like to attend my own funeral. How many would show up to mourn me? What would they say? Would there be excessive weeping? Would people be happy to be rid of me? How much of a void would my absence be in their own lives?
The Discovery evolved out of this concept. It tells the tale of a long suffering comedy writer and the deteriorating relationship he has with his longtime boss, a TV vulgarian with a lot of personal problems and a demanding personality. The approach I took was darkly comic and dramatic. You can decide if I ultimately succeeded. Personally, I’m proud of the story and was happy to see it made available online, even just for a short time.
The original story opened with two lines:
“In an instant, I was dead. Just like that, my life was over. Now, I awaited the aftermath.”
But Semar wanted them dropped. (“The gimmick of having a dead narrator is a cliche…You would be amazed at how many first person dead stories I get.”) He also wanted a key plot point changed but I successfully fought him on that. In the end, we made a compromise. I excised the opening and the rest of the story remained pretty much untouched.
As promised, The Discovery was posted in the November 2000 issue of Aphelion but only for a month. And that was my decision. Semar told me I had the option of having it pulled after 30 days or it could stay there for as long as the site is in existence. Thinking at the time that I could sell it somewhere else, I requested its ultimate removal. Today, when you try to access the story, you’ll see this instead. (Sadly, no cache copy of the original posting exists.)
Unfortunately, I never did try to sell the story elsewhere but I don’t regret my decision. Ever since I began this website, I’ve thought about reposting it exclusively on here. When the tenth anniversary of its publication quietly passed, I missed a welcome opportunity to revisit it as well as the circumstances behind its creation. But while working on 10 Great Songs Of The 1990s (Parts One and Two) recently, I pulled it out again, re-read it and realized that despite missing the anniversary last year, it wouldn’t be a big deal to publish it now.
Semar was very kind to me after I wrote him a thank you email in December 2000 for accepting and posting the story. He said The Discovery was “very original and skillfully done, but perhaps a little too cerebral for most Aphelion readers.”. That last comment referred to my disappointment in the lack of feedback for the story. He further noted, “Unfortunately, very few people take the time to comment on stories and you really need to knock their socks off to stir them out of their lethargy.” He also encouraged me to “keep writing”. Speaking of Aphelion, it continues to publish monthly issues online. The most recent one was released this past May.
For this reposting, despite a strong temptation, I’ve ultimately decided to not restore the original opening. Semar was probably right. Maybe I did give away too much in those two lines. Anyway, what you’re about to read is, I believe, exactly what was posted all those years ago on Aphelion.
One last thing. I named the villain Jimbo Willson in tribute to my old friend, Shane Willson, who, it should be noted, is a much nicer guy. After losing touch with him for about a decade we reconnected on Facebook not too long ago. We’re not as close as we were in our younger days (he’s a happily married man with a cat that thinks it’s a dog) but it’s good to know that at any time we can message each other and get caught up.
By Dennis Earl
“You stink, Charlie. This is the worst crap you’ve written yet.”
Picture it, a nice spring morning, hardly any traffic, the trees swaying ever so slightly as the wind gently caresses their aging textures, the sun with a clear view of the land below, unobstructed by non-existent clouds, producing a pleasantly warm atmosphere, the various sounds of wild life heard throughout the area, the overall calm and serenity felt just by being out there. I tried desperately to maintain my concentration from the inside while I was being scolded by my boss. Reality was winning.
“How do you expect me to get laughs with this garbage, huh? We were once a Top 10 show, remember? This is gonna bury me! Have you forgotten about the goddamn sweeps? Are you even listening to me, you dumb bastard?”
I really wasn’t. But I humoured him.
“What’s wrong with it?” I asked innocently.
“It has no zingers. Where are the zingers? I’m looking and looking and looking and I can’t find any zingers. Where are the goddamn zingers?”
“What about the bit involving Wally The Wacko, the turtle and the nutcracker? That’s pretty good.”
“Pretty good?” His sarcasm was killing me. “Let me tell you something, Charlie. I’ve been in this business for 45 years. I know funny when I read it and this ain’t funny. Look at this trash. It isn’t even offensive! Where are the Catholic jokes? The busty broads? You don’t even mention the word ‘vagina’ in here once! You do have a penis, don’t you, Charlie?”
“Last time I checked.”
“There’s not one joke about minorities in here, either. Not one epithet!”
“The network asked us to cut down on those, remember?”
“When was the last time anyone listened to an executive, Charlie?”
Then, there was silence, the second longest 25 seconds of my life. (I actually timed it. I’m that sad.) I was expecting another order to re-write part one of our sixth season finale. (Draft #13, to be precise.) My writing staff were fed up, as usual. But we were well paid, a rarity in our business. HE demanded quality.
“I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, Charlie.” He paused. All of a sudden, I felt a horrible ache in my throat. It had to come, sooner or later. After all, we were #33 and falling.
“Your instincts have let me down for the last time. We shouldn’t be going down this road every goddamn week.” He paused one last time. Drama was his real gift. “You’re through. Get the hell out of here!”
I had known Jimbo Willson for 30 years. 30 LONG years. A crabby, portly man who looked old and rubbery even then, he felt sorry for me. I had dropped out of grade 11, hoping to become a great comedy writer. Jimbo was a close friend of my father’s, a fellow comedian who quit the business to look after me. (My mom was the breadwinner, the CEO of a major record label. I hardly saw her.) One day, my dad told him how disappointed he was in my lack of scholastic ambition. He wanted me to go back and eventually graduate. It wasn’t in my future.
“Does he have a job?” Jimbo inquired.
“He’s allergic to work,” My dad responded.
“He can be my assistant. He can take care of the crap I can’t stand taking care of.”
And that’s how I met him. I started out doing his laundry, forging his cheques, buying his pornography and coke, recycling his beer cans, paying the staff every week, updating office equipment, stuff like that. Not completely unpleasant, as you can imagine. It’s not as if he received his beloved porn RIGHT AWAY. By the way, his favourite was Anal Monthly.
When I was in my mid-twenties, he threw me a bone. I started writing jokes for his stage act. He never liked them, or rather he never SAID he liked them. That didn’t stop him from throwing them into his act and getting big laughs. I never did get a thank you. Just more grief.
For years, Jimbo toured the country, using my material and passing it off as his own, as all great comedians do, especially the ones on late night Television. (Most people forget that behind every funny and successful talk show host is a staff of 20 writers, the real funnymen.)
The Jimbo Willson Show went on the air the day before my forty-first birthday. The set-up was simple. Jimbo played himself, a shady, hilarious, struggling stand-up comic who will do anything and everything to outshine the competition in the club circuit. One rookie comic was killed in every episode. Gene Roddenberry would’ve been proud.
I was hired as the head writer with 5 other scribes assisting me with the jokes. It was one nightmare after another. First, the jokes weren’t rude or funny enough. Then, they weren’t timed properly. Next, the story was all wrong. It needed to be re-written. It’s any wonder the shows ever got made at all.
By this point, Jimbo’s nose candy habit was out of control. He only sniffed it because he thought it made him funnier. (It was my jokes, stupid.) He got angrier and louder and even more difficult to please than usual. His tenth wife convinced him to straighten out. The day he left detox, he filed for divorce. His rehab counsellor became wife #11.
Jimbo Willson never did know the meaning of the word ‘gratitude’. So why did I work for him for so long? Why did I take so much abuse?
The morning of my dismissal, I went home with all my stuff from the ofice and thought about my next move. But then, I remembered an old idea that I had that was rejected by Jimbo last season. On the show, his biggest rival was Wally The Wacko, a tall, lean, gonzo comic who liked to bash himself in the head with his own dangerous props. (He also used objects belonging to members of the audience.) Wally decides to go away for a while, just to see what happens. That got me thinking. What if I disappeared suddenly, without any warning? Would anyone miss me? What would Jimbo Willson say in my absence? I wanted to know for sure.
2 days after my firing, the police made a horrible discovery. No one had heard a peep from me since I left Jimbo’s office and my friends were worried. The phone endlessly rang. The mailbox was still full. All the lights were off. No one was answering the door. Everyone feared the worst.
There was a reason for the silence. The house was on fire. By the time the police arrived on the scene the firefighters had already quieted down the fiery blaze. There was nothing but smoke and ashes. Everything was reduced to blackness. There were no floors anymore. Just one big crumbled mess. Inside, there was a body, burnt beyond recognition. Who was it?
The DNA tests were inconclusive. There wasn’t much of me they could use for testing. Nobody came forward with any new leads. Presumption became fact.
Attending your own funeral is a bizarre feeling. No one expects you to be among the observers in the church. They expect you to be dead.
It was a worn-down, decrepit old building that was going to be torn down in 2 weeks. Attendance had dwindled over the years and the building was sold to a developer who was planning on knocking it all down and replacing it with an unemployment office. (There’s a joke in there somewhere.)
It was a packed house. Unusual, considering I had so few friends within the business. It only took me a few minutes to realize why there were mostly writers in attendance. Word spreads quickly in our business.
“Please rise and join us in singing hymn #227,” said the minister.
After the hymn, the minister addressed the congregation: “Today is a time of great sadness. We are gathered here in God’s house to remember a man we knew as Charlie. A friend and a great talent.”
Wow! My first compliment.
“He was an enigma, a mystery, a man few were intimate with.”
He ain’t kiddin’.
“He had a certain wit, something I will never forget. When I think of Charlie, I always remember his best one-liner: Why can’t I put window dressing on my salad?”
Dead silence. It was a groaner, after all. And no, it wasn’t my best line. No wonder Jimbo’s show was getting killed in the ratings. When did I start writing crap like that?
“And now, Jimbo Willson.”
I had been sitting in this place for 30 minutes and no one had recognized me. I wore no disguise. I wore the same clothes the day I was fired. (Yes, I did a wash.) No one cared. Even my friends and family didn’t bother to turn around and look at the corpse sitting in the balcony. Something was up.
Jimbo looked angry and fatter, if that was possible. 2 weeks had passed since my death and I read in the paper that he had been overeating more so than usual. (He loved the pastries.) He also kept working. Part one of the season finale was finally taped after the latest re-write. The second part was re-written for a fourth time and had yet to be taped. Nothing had changed. I had my answer.
Before he got up to the podium, he looked at the giant painting of myself (I never let anyone photograph me), and then, collapsed.
“Call an ambulance!” someone yelled.
Everyone rushed to his side but there was nothing they could do. It all happened within seconds. All those women and drugs. All that food and bitterness. They had finally taken their toll. The lousy bastard. What was he going to say?
Suddenly, the service was postponed. “It will be re-scheduled at a later date,” the minister said vaguely. “An announcement will be made soon.
Jimbo was taken out of the building by gurney. He revived his sagging career at my funeral. I left in disgust. No one noticed.
After everyone left, I hung around outside, wondering what to do. Suddenly, someone quickly grabbed me from behind and threw me in the back of Jimbo’s ambulance. I couldn’t believe what I saw.
“So you faked your death, huh? What do you think I’m stupid, Charlie?” Jimbo was staring right at me. He was sitting up on the gurney. Maybe he shouldv’e given straight acting a try. He’s a natural. “Everybody knows, you moron. Why do you think they’re all ignoring you? You let them down. You might as well be dead.”
I was dumbfounded. How did he know?
“Through the wonder of technology,” he replied. “Everywhere you go, I go, pal.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” I shouted, not caring about the volume.
“I always wondered why my magazines were always late. Then, I noticed the writers. They dressed better than I do. Supplies were always missing. I never seemed to have enough money for myself. I wonder why.”
So, he thought I was a thief? Well, it wasn’t true. He was right about the magazines, though.
“You know damn well I don’t steal.” I called his bluff. He had nothing on me. The truth was the writers were drug-free and Jimbo wasn’t. He loved his nose candy.
“You think you’re so clever with your tinted car windows, fake rotting corpse and secret hideaway. I saw it all, Charlie. There are hidden cameras in both your houses and your car. And when you go out, someone is always watching.”
“What do you want from me?”
“All the money you stole.”
“I didn’t steal anything from you. All that money went up your nose!” I was furious.
“If you don’t co-operate, I’ll go to the press. I know you got the body from the special effects department. Pretty convincing, unless the secret is revealed.”
“No dice, fatty.”
We weren’t alone. 3 of his well-toned bodyguards were surrounding us. The one on his left had a vein on his neck that was pulsating so much I thought it was going to burst. That’s how he got the nickname, “The Vein”. He pulled a knife, grabbed me hard and pointed it at my throat.
“So, what’s it going to be, Charlie?”
It took me 25 seconds to think it all through. (I actually timed it. I’m that sad.) Without warning, I pulled the knife that The Vein was holding and jabbed it right in my throat. He was still holding the knife as I gasped for air. The stupid bastard left it in. He was stunned.
“Jesus Christ!” Jimbo started hyperventilating. Then, he yelled, “My heart!” He keeled over within seconds. For real, this time. The bodyguards left the ambulance in a flash. They weren’t looking for help. They were leaving for good.
I finally pulled out the blade. Blood was gushing like crazy. I was a lost cause.
On the floor of the ambulance was a piece of paper. It must have fallen out of Jimbo’s pocket when he fell over. I didn’t have much time left. I uncrumbled it. At the top were the words, “Why I’ll Miss Charlie”. The rest of the paper was blank.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, July 1, 2011