by J. Tucker White
Waiting in the Bradley International Airport, I scrolled, depressed, through a group chat chock full of memes. A bunch of my friends from high school and I are in this group chat where we share memes we find and other nonsense. Apparently, Chad Brigsby is a meme expert. Everything he posts in the chat gets upwards of twenty likes—and they aren’t even funny! He just plucks them from God-knows-where and drops them in!
I, on the other hand, I make my memes. I select the right pictures and concoct relatable captions. But I get one like at most. Usually from Chad, which makes it worse.
The highest number of likes I’ve ever gotten was four, but that was because Chad had sent me a meme but had lost it himself, so he asked me to put it in the chat.
I cried that night.
Now, it was past midnight, and my flight didn’t arrive for twenty minutes. I paced along the concourse, passing closed shops until I came upon a Lego model of Mark Twain’s house. It had red walls and a gray roof.
Mark Twain, American humorist. Author of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer and maybe some other novels. I don’t know. I stopped reading stuff after high school. Other than memes. But my English teacher always said he was funny or something.
Sinking further into the existential depression that comes from not getting likes on your memes, I slunk into my seat. If Mark Twain made a meme, it’d get tons of likes. Millions of people would like it and think he’s funny.
I skimmed the headers of Mark Twain’s Wikipedia page on my phone. He wrote some stuff, spent money, his family died, and he got depressed or whatever. But at least people liked his jokes.
I knit my arms, comfy in my coat. Lights skittered across the tarmac. Luggage wheeled across the floor. My head lulled forward. My eyes drifted shut. I wished… I wished that I could know how Mark Twain was so funny.
I wish Mark Twain could teach me how to make a good meme.
When I awoke, I was lying on my back on a city sidewalk. Sunlight glittered in nearby windows. “Where am I?” I asked.
I pulled myself up on the stairs of a nearby stoop and looked around. It looked like New York City, but I couldn’t see any skyscrapers in the skyline. I padded my pockets and found my smartphone. It said it was August 28th, 1896. “Neat,” I said, already pondering ways to kill time until I was transported back to 2019.
“Read all about it!” cried a nearby news hawker, “Mark Twain buries—“
I gasped and stopped listening. “Mark Twain’s alive? I thought he was like Civil War era.” I ran to the hawker, a blond boy, and shook him violently. “Where is Mark Twain?”
“You were passed out right in front of his house, mistah!”
I was thankful to the kid, but also sad because he’d probably die from polio or whatever.
I spun and raced back to where I was passed out. The mailbox out front said “Clemens.” However, before I ran back to shout at the boy, I remembered that Mark Twain wasn’t the guy’s actual name.
I strode up the stoop. The front door opened and two women in heavy black dresses shuffled out, eyes puffy, sniffling. They passed me, revealing another lady in black—was this just the style of the time? “Ma’am,” I said, “I’m here to find Mark Twain. Would you—“
“Are you one of Samuel’s friends?” she asked. “I don’t know if I’ve met you. You’re very young.”
Unsure if Samuel was Mark, I nodded slowly. “I’m sort of his student…”
“Oh, I see. From one of his lectures… If he viewed you as a student, I’m sure you’ll cheer him up. I’m Olivia. His wife.”
The parlor she walked me through was stuffy with the August heat. There was no sound but our footsteps on hardwood and the soft squeak of something coming from a room upstairs. Throughout the house were black and white pictures of a young woman. Pretty cute—about my age.
After getting this lesson from Mark, I ought to see if I could teach this young lady a lesson. In love.
The wife—Jane, I think—opened a door for me. Mark Twain sat at the far end of the room in a rocking chair. He stared out of a window, sipping an amber liquid. (I knew it was Twain because he had that mad professor haircut I always stared at after skimming his books for English class.)
He wore a black smoking jacket and red slippers. “Olivia,” he said, his voice gruff and intense. And I got afraid he was going to say the N-word, like people made a big deal about in school. But he didn’t; he just said, “I don’t want any more visitors.”
Olivia sighed. “Samuel, it’s a boy who says he’s one of your students, from a lecture you did.”
“Yeah, sure,” I said, corroborating.
Mark Twain squinted at me. “Oh is that the man who fell asleep on our sidewalk?”
I forced my way into his study and shook his hand. “Hey, Mark, will you teach me to be funny?”
His white mustache puffed with his humorless laugh. “You will understand, son, if I’m not too in the mood for a jape.”
“Neither am I. I want to learn how make jokes.”
He blinked at me. “The answer is no.”
“Why not? You’re American author Mark Twain. You wrote some funny books!”
“We buried my daughter yesterday,” Mark said, his eyes distant. “She was… Well, she was my daughter, you know.”
“Like as a joke?”
“Did you bury her as a joke? As part of a prank or perhaps…” I looked up the word, “…a jape?”
I don’t know why, but he got mad. He rose from his chair. “I will murder you if you do not leave immediately. Then I shall bury you too, as a jape.”
“Mark, I’m not here to talk about practical jokes, but instead about—“
“Boy, you’re young. I do not want to have to murder you.”
“I came a very long way to learn from you, and you won’t even look at what I have?”
“Boy, you can have a lesson right now: read your audience! Leave.”
“Dammit boy!” He grabbed my arm. “I won’t have you come into my house and… and… What in tarnation is that?”
Afraid of him dominating my pathetic body, I’d whipped out my phone and put a meme on the screen for his approval. “A meme, sir.”
“Like it?” I pointed at the picture of a sad dog and read him the top and bottom captions: “When have no gf / What is point?”
“What? The photograph is so crisp—and colored so brightly! And how did you set text at the top and bottom of—“
“Yeah, yeah, it was a meme generator. Is the caption funny or not?”
He squinted at it. “I think you’re missing a few words. What does it mean?”
I sighed. Of course he wouldn’t be up to date on meme lingo. “The top line means, ‘When you lack a girlfriend,’ which leads into the bottom line, ‘What is the point of life?’” I glanced back at my work. “I think that sad dog illustrates what it feels like to not have a girlfriend.”
He scrunched his nose at me. “Is this ‘meme,’ like a political cartoon, but about more run-of-the-mill problems?”
He already had such great understanding. This was great for me! “So? Is it funny?”
“I’d call it more marvelous than funny, the fact that you make the picture glow. There’s not much light in this room, yet I can read it marvelously!” He looked at the room, as if seeing it for the first time. “It is dark in here.”
I sighed. “Not my best anyway. How about this one?” This one just had a bottom caption, TFW nobody likes your memes. Then there was a picture of that crying guy. I was sure this one would tickle Mark Twain’s fancy.
“What is TFW?”
“That feel when.”
“That feel when.”
“What on earth does that mean?”
“Oh, right! The caption means, ‘When nobody likes my meme, I get this feeling.’ Then the crying guy.”
“You have the artistic merit of a toddler.”
“I didn’t draw it.”
“So you have a cartoonist draw them up for you?”
“As if you could do better!” I said.
“You know what, I probably could.” He stormed to a desk at the end of the room, took a sheet of paper and a sharpened pencil. After ten seconds of furious scribbling, he shoved the paper in my face.
“When a goop / Doesn’t leave your house,” I read aloud. In the middle was a drawing of an irate goose, wings flared. “What’s a goop?” I asked.
“That feel when,” he said.
“Oh, I see—“
“That’s a lie,” Mark said, eyebrows furrowing. “It means a stupid person.”
I re-examined the meme. “That’s one mad goose,” I said, chuckling.
When I looked back at Mark, he was glaring. “You are the goop!” he screamed. “Don’t taunt me with your strange and obnoxious cartoons! We had my daughter’s funeral yesterday, and none of your wretched—”
I brought up another meme. “What about this one?”
He darted to his whiskey, which he’d set down on the desk, and splashed it in my eyes. I stumbled back, and Mark began shoving me backward. “I’ve never known anyone as unfunny and with less people-sense than you! Scram!”
I ran away, trying to rub the whiskey out of my eyes but only making it worse.
“Take your memes and slink off to hell,” Mark shouted as I neared the stairs. He had a book in his hands, which he pitched at me. Its spine clocked me in the throat, and I tumbled down the steps.
I awoke. The sun crested the edge of the tarmac. My flight to Chicago had long since left.
Bitter, so terribly bitter, I downloaded some pictures of Mark Twain and put them into my meme generator. “Doesn’t even try / To teach me how to make memes.” “Pelts books / At his best student.” “A disgrace to the American literary canon / And his daughter died. What a loser.” By the time my phone was on one percent battery, I’d thrown upwards of fifty memes into the group chat.
The last notification I got was that Chad Brigsby had liked one of my memes and said, “Nice.”