Stop me if you’ve heard this.
A horse walks into a bar. The bartender says “Why the long face?”
The horse says, “Don’t even start. We’ve got trouble. A priest, a rabbi, and an atheist are about to come in any second now.”
“What?” says the bartender. “Here? How’d they get across the road?”
“How do you think,” says the horse. “They followed the damned chicken.”
It’s a pale horse. He thrashes his tail while the barkeep weighs his options.
“Right. They’ll have to be sorted, then. Where’s your partner?” He nods at the horse’s empty saddle.
“All things considered, he’d rather be in Philadelphia.”
“Cute. Get lost before they see you.”
The horse backs into a dark corner as the door swings open and three men enter, shuffling as if they’ve already had too much to drink. The bartender wipes a glass and looks around the edge of the men’s shadows to see what brought them to his place.
There it is: a car bomb in Haifa, on their way to a conference on religious tolerance. It was over so quickly that the poor bastards still didn’t know what had happened. That was good. It would make things easier.
“What’re you having, friends?”
The priest slumps onto a stool and orders a beer. His voice is tired and Irish. The barman pours a stout from the tap, giving it a perfect, frothy head, and the priest takes a sip.
“Begorrah! If that isn’t the best tasting Guinness I’ve ever had. I must have died and gone to heaven.”
And poof, like that, he’s gone.
The rabbi doesn’t seem to notice. “Excuse me, sir, but do you have any kosher wine?”
“I have a Flam. Care for a glass?”
“Yes, please.” The rabbi sips and says, “Oy, that’s so good you’d think I was in the World To Come.”
And poof, like that, he’s gone.
The atheist glares at the void where the rabbi had been and says, “What is this, a joke?”
“What do you mean?” The barkeep holds an empty glass, waiting.
“I remember the flash. It was a bomb, right? Now I’m in a bar, no idea how I got here, and my fellow panelists just vanished in a puff of smoke. Not to mention there’s a horse playing hide and seek by the dartboard. Is this really the best my subconscious can come up with?”
“Your subconscious?” The bartender wishes the third man would just order his drink. As long as he didn’t accept his surroundings as real, there was still hope for him.
“Then again,” says the atheist, “what if this isn’t a dream? Dying in an explosion wouldn’t leave much time for hallucinations, and this one’s going on for a while.”
“Look friend,” says the barman, “are you going to order something already or not?”
The atheist shakes his head and takes a stool. The bartender sets aside his glass.
“Okay, so maybe I was wrong all along,” says the atheist. “Maybe there is some kind of afterlife. But this ain’t heaven, and I haven’t seen my childhood flashing before my eyes, so I’ll ask you again: Is this all some kind of joke?”
The bartender leans forward. “You want to hear a joke? Here’s one. A priest, a rabbi, and an atheist are driving to a peaceful conference. Some whacko blows them up in the name of God. The end.”
“That’s not funny.”
“Here’s another. A priest, a rabbi, and an atheist are on their way to heaven, but the atheist cocks it up because he can’t so much as order a drink without questioning the nature of existence.”
“Now you’re just being an ass.”
“One more. The whole human race sits alone in the dark. They hear a noise. Knock, knock.”
The barman doesn’t answer. The silence stretches on.
“So that’s it, then,” says the atheist. “Life really is a joke.”
“No.” The bartender pours himself a shot of Jameson. “It’s a joke without a punchline. All setup and no payoff.”
The atheist shakes his head. “It stinks to be right.”
“Almost,” says the barkeep. “You were on your way to finding out what the payoff really is, but you made a wrong turn in Albuquerque and ended up here. Too bad for you.”
“Why too bad?” The atheist eyes the whiskey as the bartender slugs it down his throat. The bartender sighs.
“Because a punchline doesn’t work if you see it coming. So now you’re stuck here.”
“Could be worse.” The atheist looks around. “Where am I, exactly?”
“The bad joke factory. The substrate of human consciousness. This is the shared level of human experience where mankind tries to make sense of the senseless. It’s a lot of work, let me tell you, but I could always use someone to bus tables.”
“But what’s the point?” says the atheist.
“Haven’t you been paying attention? What’s the point of any joke? To alleviate pain. I mean, why do you think people would rather blow each other up? Dying’s easy. To relieve human suffering, even for a moment, that’s hard.”
The atheist eyes the bartender and the pale horse in the corner as if trying to decide whether they’re pulling his leg.
“And this is where all that comes from?”
The bartender nods.
“Okay, then,” says the atheist. “Let me try this again from the top:
“A priest, a rabbi, and an atheist die in a car bomb, but instead of the pearly gates, they end up in a bar. The priest orders a beer and says ‘This beer is so good I must be in heaven.’ And poof! He goes to heaven. The rabbi asks for wine and likes it so much he says ‘Hey, I must be in heaven too!’ And poof, there he goes.
“The bartender asks the atheist what he wants, and the atheist just asks for water.”
“Water?” says the bartender.
“Yeah,” says the atheist. “I don’t believe in spirits.”
This story is copyright 2014 Jared Millet.
It was performed on March 18, 2014, at the Hoover Public Library Flash Fiction Night, sponsored by the Hoover Library Write Club.