I wrote this eerie short story for my friend Joel, who then offered to turn it into cross-platform art by coming up with this wicked illustration.
Joel could not remember exactly when he had seen the beggar for the first time. At some point during the last few weeks, or maybe even months, the scruffy, old man had become part of the backdrop in Joel’s commute, just as the hotdog vendor and the ATM had done in their own rights.
The beggar would always wait for him in the same spot, by the newspaper stand at the train station exit, and he would always extend his open palm, garbed in a ragged, fingerless mitten. His gaze would follow Joel hollowly, and the one time that Joel had summoned the nerve to make eye contact he’d immediately recoiled as he subconsciously recognized the cackling echoes of a deranged mind.
The beggar wore a suit and tie that might have been expensive once. Alas, the bespoken silk was now dull beyond any hope of recovery. Underneath the grime, his shoes might also have been valuable once, but today they wouldn’t be worth a pack of cigarettes at a pawn shop. For all Joel knew, the beggar was yet another Wall Street victim of the Subprime crisis – a living and breathing cautionary tale who had failed to caution anyone.
Around his neck, the beggar wore a cardboard sign with the words “WORLD’S GREATEST JOKE” inscribed in red paint, followed by “$1000” on the next row in pencil.
Joel had, on various occasions, offered money to the beggar. A quarter here, a five-dollar bill there, and once – as a joke – a hundred-dollar bill. Every single time, the beggar refused him, pointing madly at the “$1000” on his cardboard.
One day, after closing a particularly juicy deal with a major client in Indonesia, Joel decided it was about time to give something back to society. A sizeable donation for stem cell research or Alzheimer’s, or maybe water pumps in Africa. Something to make him feel good about himself. It was then that he remembered the beggar. Without thinking twice, Joel put on his cashmere jacket and left the office with a spring in his step and a sly smile on his face. A minute later, he was cashing out a thousand bucks from the ATM.
“There you go, old man,” he said as he handed the wad of bills to the beggar. “Now, tell me your joke.”
The beggar counted the money and stuffed it into his coat pocket. Then, in a surprisingly clear and controlled voice, he started:
“A Jedi, a bloke from the Southeast, and a Lannister walk into a bra…”
Joel listened in fascination. The joke went on for minutes, evolving into complex parallel threads spotted with witty non-sequiturs, and accentuated by judicious pauses. It was, Joel had to concede, shaping up to become the greatest joke he had ever heard. Possibly the greatest joke in the world.
“And then, the Jedi said, ‘How should I know? I’ve never met his Aunt Bethel!’” the beggar finished with a wink.
Joel could hold it in no longer. He let out a snort, which turned immediately into a long chuckle, followed by an avalanche of bellyaching laughter, which rapidly degenerated into convulsions and tears.
Beside him, the beggar stood upright, gaining several inches in height. Quietly, he removed the cardboard sign and placed it gently, almost reverentially, around Joel’s neck.
Oblivious to this, Joel continued to laugh, randomly quoting snippets from the world’s greatest joke. “The giraffe had a missing molar! And then, the S.W.A.T. team started to boogie, but the satellites had forgotten the steps… Ridiculous! Absolutely ridiculous!”
The beggar took out a pencil from his pocket and scribbled something on the cardboard that now adorned Joel’s expensive suit. He, then, turned and walked away into the crowd.
The sign now read “WORLD’S GREATEST JOKE,” followed by “$10,000.”
If you enjoyed this short story, chances are you’ll have a blast with The Scriptlings: