The crowd roared with laughter.
Greg knew they would.
He took a deep breath and unleashed the most offensive and nonsensical joke he could muster. He’d worked on it for weeks.
They laughed harder.
“But … that isn’t funny!” he implored them.
A few fell onto the floor, so violent were their guffaws.
And yet …
It all sounded mechanical, wooden.
He knew it would be that way, too. It always was.
It had been ten years since Mr. Steab approached him in the back alley behind that dingy club in Akron.
“You’re terrible, kid,” the pale, knife-thin but well-dressed stranger had said under the dirty yellow of a dying streetlight.
He was right .
Greg had wanted to be a comedian as long as he could remember, but he just wasn’t funny. No timing. Bad lines. Every open mic night ended the same — silence, or ridicule, from whatever meager crowd had gathered.
“Thanks,” Greg had said, and tried to walk past the man.
“I can fix that,” the creepster said, laying a hand on the younger man’s shoulder.
Fifty years of unstoppable laughter was what the the huckster offered up, a guarantee that audiences would howl at every joke. And all Greg had to do was pledge his servitude to Steab once the half-century was up.
Greg knew it was all bunk, but the guy would be lucky to make it fifty days, let alone fifty years.
They shook on the deal, and Steab’s flesh felt like a wad of raw hamburger.
Chills climbed into Greg’s thudding heart and spidered through his body as he looked out at the bellowing Hollywood crowd, just like a decade before in that dark alley. Steab winked at him from his seat, smiled his yellow, rotting fangs.
Tapped his watch.
Only forty years to go.