The Cobra and Mongoose
The guard wore a fluffy hat. He resembled a Q-tip—except he carried a sword. He took ten steps to the side of the gate, rotated, and took ten steps back. His limbs snapped into place and his body went still. The crowd applauded. He stifled a smile.
It was noontime in the city. Tourists stood outside the palace, awaiting the changing of the guard. Little children licked the air and crossed their eyes, trying to make the guard flinch. His expression was unchanged, his body rigid. He was trained for the stillness of the two-hour shifts. In his five years on the job, he had never once broken pose.
A church bell tolled out the hour. The guard counted down the seconds until his replacement marched over. The two cops on crowd control were talking football. They didn’t see the comic until it was too late.
The comic emerged from the crowd, smiling at the guard as he approached. The guard looked past him, keeping the countdown going in his head. The comic stopped beside him. He leaned his head in, lips nearly touching the guard’s cheek. He whispered for a few seconds, paused, and whispered for a few more.
The crowd hushed. The guard fell to the pavement. His sword clattered away on the concrete; his hat tumbled off his head. The cops carried the comic away in handcuffs. Tears sliced down the guard’s cheeks: he couldn’t stop laughing.
Five years earlier, the guard became a guard. Ever since his visit to the palace at age ten, he dreamed of the uniform, the sword, the hat. First he had to serve in the army. He was a mortuary affairs officer in a sand-blasted Middle Eastern country, promoting democracy by giving each army casualty a proper burial while the unclaimed civilian bodies rotted in the sun. His two-year deployment was preceded by six months of body-weight exercises, off-duty beer binges, screaming wake-ups, casual homophobia, and casual homoeroticism—in other words, basic training. None of this prepared him for becoming a guard.
Fortunately, the guard was a natural at guarding. His marching was assured yet plain, and his sword snaps echoed beyond the palace gardens into the ears of inattentive pedestrians. More than anything, he was a master of the standstill. His face was stony, a gargoyle’s.
In the five years leading up to the comic’s joke, the guard rose through the ranks of the royal guard. The promotions came every six months—the earliest his supervisors could approve them. Soon, men who had trained him were scrambling to find cream for his coffee. He easily could have become a desk jockey, spinning the discs of bureaucracy to a cushy retirement; but when scheduling shifts became his responsibility, he gave himself more hours. He loved it that much.
The guard’s only other love was his wife. They met during basic training, at one of the army bars—she was there by accident; she wasn’t one of those types of women who frequent army bars. He proposed the day before his deployment. During their engagement, she spent her sleepless nights reclined in an armchair, her eyes shutting out visions of his dog tags shaped like headstones. He wrote to her every day, leaving out any references to the disposal of bodies. They married the day he returned and became a guard. He took her out to dinner every Friday night at a different restaurant in the city. Two years in, he swapped liquor for coffee, then coffee for decaf. He had no other friends; he didn’t need them.
The night before the comic’s joke, she told him, “I’m pregnant.” She sang the words, her smile wide with possibility. They lay together in bed the rest of the night, watching headlights dash across the shuttered blinds. Neither of them slept: they were too consumed with joy.
Lack of sleep contributed to the guard’s first failure. At least, that was what he told the regiment commander afterward.
“It was a fluke,” the commander said, setting his hand on the guard’s shoulder. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
The guard didn’t tell his wife about it. He didn’t want her to worry. The next day during the changing of the guard, he fell over in a fit of laughter. As he recovered and marched away, he saw the comic lingering on the edge of the crowd. The day after, it happened again, and when he reported to sign out of his shift, there were other officers in the commander’s office.
“Look, we appreciate your years of service,” the commander began. “But…”
He was honorably discharged. The guard was no longer a guard. When his wife asked him how work was, he told her.
“Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” she asked.
He didn’t have an answer. To her, the silence was worse than any response. She shut herself in the bedroom for the remainder of the night. He lay back on the couch, remembering the uniform, the sword, the hat. Five years of service gone, the noble position of palace guard now unattainable.
A midnight bell chimed out across the city. The guard roused himself. He went outside, walking until his disappointment turned numb as the evening air. The face of the comic appeared on a flier taped to a lamppost. He tore it to shreds. He turned a corner and saw the buzzing neon of a bar sign.
The guard took to drink again like a shark takes to chum. He snuck pulls before brushing his teeth, and slipped nips into his decaf and water. He stashed vodka under couch cushions, behind bookshelves, and in empty cartons of orange juice. His wife discovered the relapse a week later, when she went for a run with a CamelBak and keeled over in the middle of an intersection, gagging on the whiskey spouting from the drinking tube. She took a cab home and threw the CamelBak at his feet. He didn’t have any answers; his face was as stony as ever. In the crippling solitude of their bedroom, she thought about him as a father, a cocktail teetering over the crib, staggering around the house with his eyes bloodshot and her baby dangling from his arms. She woke up with the same reservations, so she called an abortion clinic.
On the day of the appointment, she faltered at the door. He tried to kiss her goodbye. She shrugged away his stinging vodka breath and told him. The guard blinked, his body swaying. Her explanation was garbled, just lips and sounds. He grunted something vague. She drove to the clinic.
She returned, setting a magazine on the table. The guard was less drunk. He greeted her with a casual kiss, as if she had come back from mailing a letter, not aborting a fetus.
“Are you going to ask how it went?”
His expression was blank: he didn’t remember why she left. She told him again and his face reddened. He shouted at her. His arms careened around like doll limbs and came down on the living-room table, smashing a vase into two thousand shards. A rope of blood pulled down on his left arm. He didn’t feel anything.
The guard looked at the magazine on the table. The comic’s face sneered out from the cover, the headline reading, ‘King of Comedy.’ The guard’s eyes crinkled, his body tumbled over, and he was on the floor laughing. He didn’t notice the bits of shattered vase below his body; he was too far gone in the throes of hysteria.
She packed his clothes into two suitcases and drove him across town. He laughed for the entire ride, only finishing when she pulled into his brother’s driveway. She left him there. She hired a divorce lawyer and never saw the guard again.
At his brother’s urging, the guard re-entered the guarding business. He drifted between security jobs, working at high-end hotels, private residences, and banks. The comic’s face appeared to him more and more: the same burnt-orange hair and freckled cheeks smiling out from newspapers, billboards, kiosks, televisions, phone screens. Wherever the guard went, the mocking green eyes followed. They traced his path between bars and liquor stores, from hard-hitting hangover to five-beer buzz to out-of-orbit drunk to the gutter. The eyes watched him descend through the lowest nightclub bouncer jobs until the guard was no longer the guard. He was merely a man.
On a Monday night, with the gutters swamped and the rain covering the streetlamps like filters over stage-lights, a man walked into a bar. It was actually a pub, with a two-noun name the man promptly forgot. He sat down and ordered two double whiskeys for himself. He was thinking about leaving the city, starting anew in a place without the picture of the comic plastered over every defunct telephone booth and urinal billboard. His ex-wife and never-born child crossed his mind—they usually did at that time of night. But their image was obliterated as the first whiskey hit, the second hit harder, and a spotlight beamed on.
The day of the joke, when the cops hauled the comic away in handcuffs, the crowd applauded. Children laughed, babies gulped in delight, and the bravest women blew kisses at him: the first man in history to make a royal guard fall over in laughter. Even the guard managed to break out of his mania to glance at him. One of the city cops opened the door of the cruiser for the comic, his lips quivering in restrained amusement. They drove him to the station and booked him for trespassing. In twenty minutes’ time, his bail was paid in full by two members of the crowd. They took him out for drinks afterwards. One asked him what he said to the guard. The comic shrugged.
He woke up the next day in his moldy apartment and his life was forever changed: he was an internet sensation. Less than a day later and millions around the globe had already seen the video clip “Man Makes Guard ROTFL.” By tea-time, a news station was knocking on his door. In the edited and condensed TV interview—later aired by every station in the city—the raccoon-eyed reporter asked him about the joke and the comic shrugged. He mentioned his stand-up gig at a pub called ‘The Cobra and Mongoose.’
On that night, lines of curious pub-crawlers fanned out into the streets, waiting to hear the joke that made the guard laugh. The regulars disappeared, disgusted by the influx of youth and money. The bartenders called in the part-timers; they still had to pick half-finished pints out of the street until four in the morning, two hours after last call.
At the center of this mayhem was the comic. He took the stage—or, more accurately, the space between the bar and bathroom—and the crowd cheered. The clock read eleven and the comic was right on time—an error he stopped repeating as he became accustomed to his celebrity. The jokes poured out of his mouth, emptying into the ears of even the latest of latecomers, who listened two blocks away inside a construction site. The crowd expected to laugh, so they did. And the comic was truly funny.
During one of the comic’s pauses, a heckler yelled, “Tell the guard joke!” He shrugged, replying, “Next time.”
A week later, the comic sold out his first mid-sized theater. A month later, it was stadium gigs and Netflix specials. Television shows offered him cameos and Hollywood studios offered him full-fledged roles—albeit, as a main character’s funny best friend. He did standup on talk shows, then sat down to be interviewed by the fake-tanned hosts, who asked him about the joke, eliciting the usual shrug. He married and divorced in a two-month period. In the cities he toured, he frequented every comedy club, breakfast club, supper club, poker club, nightclub, dance club, and strip club. A respected newspaper ran a long-form interview with him superciliously titled ‘The Art of Comedy.’ Tabloids tracked his affairs with female groupies and female prostitutes when, in reality, they were female groupies and male prostitutes. He traded out the weak weed of his broke and buggered days for pillows of uncut Columbian cocaine, which he snorted from every granite, gold, and diamond surface in his penthouse. He drank Italian wine in Provence and French wine in Tuscany, just to annoy everyone. He met queens and princes, but refused knighthood. He featured in underwear ads for a global clothing and child labor juggernaut—the ads were humorous; he wasn’t famous for his looks. He had the world in stitches, chasing the laughter wherever he went. Without it, what kind of man would he be?
A year later and the public had long forgotten about the video. He had told and sold twenty thousand jokes, but never that first one.
It was a heavy-drinking night for the regulars at The Cobra and Mongoose when the comic took the stage again. His appearance was unadvertised and uncalled-for: the regulars groaned, bracing for the yuppie invasion. The pub doors stayed closed. The comic’s eyes blazed, fueled by a cocktail of opiates, amphetamines, and dirty martinis.
He started with new jokes. Even the crustiest, most curmudgeonly of the regulars chuckled. Newcomers shuffled in, yet no one left. Laughter swelled and the bartenders scurried around fetching empty glasses. The comic delivered a punchline and fell silent, relishing the audience’s open mouths, closed eyes, and contorted faces. Everyone found him funny, except for the man bent over two empty glasses. The comic met the man’s stony gaze and the man nodded.
The crowd went quiet, anticipating the next joke. The comic cleared his throat and told the first joke—the joke bail-posters and A-listers had been asking for, the joke that made the man who was once a guard fall over in laughter.
A single laugh rang out like a maniacal church bell. The comic was rooted in place, stunned by his own joke. The crowd gave him thirty seconds of silence and he didn’t move; they gave him two minutes of murmurs and he didn’t move; they gave him a hailstorm of heckling and still, he didn’t move. The crowd hissed out the door, wondering why the comic became a statue halfway through his set, and why a man was laughing alone at a table. “Were we supposed to laugh at that?” someone wondered aloud.
For the comic, the fall was faster than the rise. At every theater, stadium, movie set, and television studio, he saw the man’s stony face: red-rimmed eyes and slabs of cheekbones, always nodding. His body went still, his voice failed him. Lights and cameras flickered off and morning show hosts shook their heads: the comic had stopped telling jokes. Producers called his agent to cancel shows, then his agent called to terminate their relationship. Piles of drugs disappeared through his nose and veins, replaced by piles of debt. His ex-wife sued him for libel, his ex-groupie sued him for libel, and his ex-prostitute sued him for libel. The government launched an investigation into his tax returns and the city cops arrested him for driving under the influence, soliciting an underage prostitute, heroine possession, resisting arrest, and driving with a broken tail light. He attended court-mandated rehab, where he stole his psychiatrist’s car and disappeared on the highways to the north.
Two days later, he overdosed in a motel room, needle in arm. In his last string of convulsions, he realized he forgot the man’s face. But he knew it was somewhere nearby, nodding at him.
It was his brother who saved him. He poured out the man’s bottles, took away his car keys, and drove him to AA meetings. The ultimatum: sober up or leave my house.
At first the man resisted. He grumbled and swore. He snuck out to bars. One night he took a swing at his brother, breaking a lamp instead. He apologized and started packing his things, no idea of where to go. His brother’s two-year-old daughter walked in the room and asked him what he was doing.
“Your daddy wants me to leave.”
“I’m a danger to you.”
She didn’t understand. In that instant, with his niece’s face crinkled in confusion, the man decided he was done drinking.
On his way out the door, he asked his brother for a job at his marketing firm. The brother laughed until he realized he was serious.
“Go to sleep,” he said, pointing upstairs. “We’ll talk about it tomorrow.”
The brother made some calls. All security positions were full. But there was a secretary job available. The man interviewed for it. The hiring director asked him about his qualifications. He talked about working in the royal guard, emphasizing his scheduling responsibilities. The veteran card didn’t hurt. Otherwise, he had no relevant experience. He was hired a week later—because of his brother’s status at the company, not his qualifications. He logged sixty-hour weeks, saved his money, moved out of his brother’s house, rented an apartment, and took up yoga. The stillness suited him.
It wasn’t guarding, but it was something.
The man closely followed the comic’s fall. It was impossible not to: the media obsessed over the details of his self-immolation. When the comic died, talking heads raged about drug laws and mental health. Distant relatives gave personal interviews. Newscasters wept on air. Churches and schools held candlelight vigils for a soul they never knew. He was such a sweet man.Two days of this and the world turned its head, moving on to the next tragedy.
The man never forgot. He hung a magazine cover in his bedroom: In Memoriam. Whenever he looked up at the comic’s face, he felt a laugh building in his gut.
By the time everyone left The Cobra and Mongoose, the man at the table stopped laughing. The comic walked over and sat down beside him.
“Enjoy the show?” he asked the man.
“It was good for a laugh,” he said. “Not much else.”
Henry Hietala grew up in Montana. His writings have appeared in Medusa's Laugh Press, FishFood Magazine, and Chicago Literati. He is very active on anti-social media.