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The Jane Austen Death-Match

by Tony Conaway

Photograph of stcaks of books

I have been writing since 1990 and have published many articles.  In the humor arena, I have been a stand-up comic and have sold jokes to other comics, including to "The Tonight Show."
Twitter: @tonyconaway

            I was at work, bartending at the Carville Icehouse. It was just down the road from the Carville leprosarium, situated between a polluted bayou and a tire dump. It’s not what you’d call a fancy place.  The only customer in the place was ignoring me, cursing as he played our illegal Joker Poker machine.  I was using the break to work on a pet project, translating Beowulf into Esperanto.

            That’s when Buster “Blitz” Bowman sauntered in.

            The state made all bars go non-smoking. So, as he sat at the bar, Blitz extinguished his cigar on the palm of his left hand.

            “What’s new, Maggot?” he asked, using his affectionate nickname for me.

            “Well, I got a collection of Jane Austen’s novels as a gift. I’m deciding whether or not to re-read them. I read them all in college, but I’ve forgotten a lot.” I set a boilermaker and a bowl of pork rinds down in front of him.

            Blitz grunted in response as he dunked his whiskey shot into his glass of beer. Then he lifted his glass in a silent toast. I toasted him back with my mimosa. That’s one thing about a dive bar like this; no one cares if the bartender drinks.

            Blitz seemed to want me to go on, so I continued. “You know what the French say about Marcel Proust?  ‘You should read Proust three times: once as a youth, once when you’re grown, and once when you’re old.’ There should be a rule like that for reading Jane Austen.”

            Blitz thought a moment, then said, “OK, try this -- You should read Jane Austen twice: once when you’re a virgin, and again after you’ve killed a man with your bare hands.”

            We were both silent for a moment. “T-that’s…very profound, Blitz.”

            The Joker Poker player cursed loudly, and wheeled around on his barstool to face us.  His name was “Stumpy” Stanley Rodebaugh. He was a powerful little fireplug of a guy, with just four fingers on one hand and six fingers on the other. Don’t ask him about it; you might end up losing a finger of your own.  He cursed us again.

            “You got somethin’ against killin’ a guy bare-handed?” Blitz asked.

            “Nah,” said Stumpy. “Ah got me a problem with reading Jane Austen. There’s no passion in Austen, nor fightin’ neither. Did you know that the Napoleonic Wars t’were going on while Jane Austen was alive?  Y’all never know it from her writing!”

            Blitz wasn’t intimidated by anyone, not even Stumpy. “So what? That’s not the only basis to judge an author by!”

            Stumpy strode over to us, slowly. Dangerously. He doesn’t like his literary judgment impugned.  Silently, I placed a refill on the bar in front of him. Stumpy drinks something called a Blood Shandy, and he wouldn’t like it if I told you the recipe. 

            “You want t’ read 19th century female authors,” Stumpy growled, “try the Brontė Sisters. THEY knew ‘bout passion. THEY wrote ‘bout violence.”

            “THEY weren’t fit to sharpen Jane Austen’s quill pen,” Blitz said as he rose from the barstool.  “And besides, their brother Branwell did all the writing for them.”

            This 200-year-old calumny about the Brontės stopped Stumpy in his tracks…for a moment. Then he shouted “LIAR! Ah’m a-gonna kill yew!”

            As the two men started pounding each other, I couldn’t help but observe that Stumpy was still experimenting with his dialect. A week ago he would’ve said, “Ah’m gwine kill yuh!”

            We only have one rule about fighting here: don’t bleed on anyplace that can’t be hosed off.  Since the entire place is covered in linoleum and tile, that only eliminates bleeding on the doormat. Even the rarely-used dance floor has a drain in it.

            Blitz and Stumpy started pounding away at each other, calling each other “Philistine,” “Churl,” and “Revanchist!” Neither seemed able to get the upper hand. Then Blitz threw the Foosball table at Stumpy, and I got hit by one of those little plastic Foosball men. Everything went gray for a few minutes and I slumped down behind the bar.

            When I awoke, I stood and looked around. The place was empty.  Both Blitz and Stumpy were gone. As my vision cleared, I realized that what at first appeared to be a Confederate flag was actually two crossed swaths of blood on the wall. There were blood splatters and broken furniture everywhere.  There was also a severed finger, sticking jauntily out of a glass like a swizzle stick. Whether the finger had belonged to Stumpy or Blitz, I couldn’t tell.

            Sighing, I swept up the detritus and hosed down the blood. I hurried; pretty soon the factories would let out, and the TOUGH crowd would arrive. They’re bad news:  ex-cons, junkies and poets.  There’s a long-standing grudge between those that write Petrarchan sonnets and those that write Shakespearian sonnets. Kind of like the Hatfields versus the McCoys.

            The next day I quit bartending so I could get a safer job. That’s why I’m now repossessing lions and tigers for an exotic animal dealer. Here’s some advice: never buy a large carnivore on credit. The interest rates will kill you.

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