The Old Rube, or so folks called him, was the funniest man in the whole durned county. If you didn't believe it, all you had to do was ask him, and he'd rattle off a joke to prove it. Truth be told, The Old Rube's Christian name was Rueben--Rueben Robesonian Robinson, the Third. Called himself the 3 R's: "Rueben, 'Riting & 'Rithmetic--old school." He could make the preacher laugh, and the undertaker, too. Wasn't a soul county-wide who wouldn't double over laughing when Rueben was around.
Just to look at him was hilarious enough. Why, that man could wiggle his ears, cross his eyes and pucker up his lips, all at the same time. Made the world's most God-awful funny faces.
Rube liked to mispronounce things in a comical way. If he disagreed with you, for instance, he'd start his next sentence with "Irresyphilis of the fact. . . ." or he'd screw up his face, real serious-like, and say, "On the other hand, . . . she had a wart."
Rube could be wildly inappropriate. After hearing about a bad car accident, invariably he'd ask, "What's that lying in the road, . . . a head?"
He was famous for his "two-liners," modified from bawdy songs, such as, "Get off the table, Mabel. Them two bucks is for beer." Or he'd talk about his old girlfriend, Freda: "Freda me, ten bucks for everybody else."
The Old Rube had a joke for every occasion. He was a veritable repository of jokes: dirty jokes, clean jokes, church jokes, bar jokes, farmer's daughter jokes, city-slicker jokes, old jokes, new jokes. Then there were his longer stories, of which he claimed, "Half of them are true." More like, pretty much all of them were half-true.
When Rube was on a roll, there was no stopping him. Had folks in stitches in half the shake of a young lamb's tail. That's why he won the talent show for Funniest, three years out straight. Wasn't a man on earth could beat him.
Rube liked to make up character names for his funny stories. One of his favorites was Prunella P. Phrump. "That's Phrump with a P-H, mind you," he'd say, in a droll tone of voice. "Prunella was the nosiest woman in all of East Montpelier, she was. Always had to be the first to know who got hitched, who got un-hitched, and who was pitching woo in the hay loft with whose hired girl. Prunella read the obits before the ink was hardly dry. Couldn't wait to get on the phone and say, 'You won't believe who died!'
"When the carrier for the Times-Argus wrecked his car, Prunella marched herself right down to the funeral home, she did. 'Who have you come to see?' the undertaker asked. 'I don't know,' Prunella told him, bold as brass. 'Show me who you've got!'" Folks started looking forward to Prunella's latest antics.
But came the day The Old Rube had himself some competition – a com-EE-dian from out of town, who had a radio show and everything. This comedian was no Amos and Andy, mind you, but all the same, he made a decent living out of making people laugh. Folks started ribbing The Old Rube about it, saying, "Do ya suppose he'll beat you out in the talent show this year? I hear he's pretty golldurned funny."
Rube didn't say a thing. He had first heard about this comedian when folks said a New Yorker had bought a piece of land over on the far side of the pond. Wanted peace and solitude, the man claimed, so's he could practice his routine.
Built an A-frame in the woods. Didn't have no curtains . . . none a'tall.
Now Rube got to wondering who in God's wide world could be funnier than him, so he made it a point to mosey 'round the pond one lazy afternoon. Rube was casting for perch from a rowboat near the A-frame. Saw that New Yorker talking up a stream. "All my hisself, he was," Rube later said.
"He was practicing – or so he called it -- with a mirror on the wall. Heck, I told him, you might as well be talking to a Guernsey cow. Ain't nobody on earth what don't laugh at his own durned jokes."
"You mean you talked to him?" the fellas wanted to know, as they gathered in the front room of the Texaco downtown. "We thought the man wanted all of us to leave him clear alone. Live and let live, he said, when he bought the place. Just let me live, and I'll let you live."
Rube pulled up a vinyl-covered chair and tore off a wad of chewing tobacco. He then went on to tell it like it was—how the funniest man in the whole durned county met the comedian from New York, face to face.
"He was talking up a stiddy stream," Rube said. "Laughing at himself . . . not to split a gut, mind you, but laughing just the same . . . then he was talking up some more . . . walking back and forth, holding a banana up to his mouth like it was a microphone. A banana, I say."
The fellas at the filling station dropped their jaws at that one.
Rube continued with his tale. "Then he spots me, out in my boat, so he comes outside and sez, 'What you fishing for? I can't get nothing but perch out of this durned pond.'"
"'Perch it is,' I sez."
"Sez he don't like perch. Too many bones. So I sez to him, 'I'm with you. I like bananas, because they have no bones.'"
"He don't say a thing. Not a durned thing. Don't laugh at me or nothing. So I sez, 'I seen you like bananas, too.'"
"That stops him in his tracks . . . for a minute, anyways. He knows I been watching him, I guess, the way he was using a banana for a mike. Then he tells me, real snobby-like, 'So you like bananas, because they have no bones? That's a line from the Hoosier Hotshots, you know.' Sez all of his material is original.'"
"You look about as original as sin," I sez. "Next I sez, 'So's my material. Aboriginal, I mean. Mostly stories from around these parts. Some I borrow. Some I just plain steal. But I always put in my own special touch. . . . Using names that sound familiar, don't you know? That's what makes them aboriginal."
"He kind of laughs at that word, aboriginal. Like he thinks I don't know no better."
Recalling his pond-side conversation with the comedian, Rube snickered softly to himself and went on with his tale. "'Say, why don't you moor that boat, and come on in?' he sez to me. 'I'd like to hear some of them aboriginal stories of yours.'"
The fellas at the filling station could hardly wait to hear which stories Rube had told. "Did you tell him the one about the poison mushrooms?" they wanted to know. This recycled joke of Rube's was an all-time favorite in town.
"Why, sho-uh," Rube said, getting himself comfortable. He could see it was time to spin that yarn again. "Seems there was a farmer name of Orville. Had a wife what died from eating poison mushrooms." Rube chawed a bit and spit. "Oh, it was a shame. It was a crying shame."
Chuckles started to ripple through the filling station. The fellas had heard this story before, but Rube had a knack of telling things a little different, every time.
"Long about fall, old man Orville gets hisself hitched again. Needed somebody to run the house, you know. Married a real nice looking gal from over on the Heights. Met her at a barn dance, that he did. She wan't too good at keeping house . . . fact is, she was dirty as a dog, but she was easy on the eyes." Rube rolled his own eyes to punctuate his sentence. "Oh, that she was." He traced an hourglass figure in the air, to emphasize his point.
The filling station crew was hanging on Rube's words.
"Come spring, this new one up and dies." He paused. "From eating poison mushrooms, don't you know?"
"Well-uh, this here was turning into a sit-u-ation with the troopers 'round about. They begun to wonder what was going on with Old Man Orville and his wives. 'One's a mistake. . . two's a habit,' they sez to themselves. 'You'd best be careful, Orville,' they sez to him. 'Better buy your next gal some of that-there life insurance before you gets yourself hitched again.'"
Rube waited a while before going on with the rest of his story. He spit again and wiped some dribble off his chin. "What happened next?" everyone wanted to know. Although they had heard the story dozens of times before, they knew Rube had a way of changing things around, and maybe this would be one of those times.
"Orville lived like an old batch for a while, but he started getting lonely. Besides, he was tired of washing his own dishes and such. So he went to the barn dance once again," Rube said. "Figured if he could pick up one wife at the dance, there might be another one just 'round the corner. Sure enough, he dosey-doed with a little redhead from the Valley. Next thing you know, he was shopping for a ring. Married that little gal a few weeks later."
Rube stretched his legs and fetched himself a Coca-Cola from the cooler. "At first, things went along all right. That redheaded gal could make a nice-enough apple pie, and once in a while she even swept the floor."
The fellas laughed. This was a new detail for them. "Warshed the sheets a time or two, she did . . . . But then she took to reading stories in The Grit, eating chocolates and poking them to see if they was soft . . . left Orville all the cherry creams after she ate up all the caramels and nuts. Orville--he liked caramels, he did. He didn't mind so much about the nuts, but them caramels, well, that was another story altogether."
"One day the troopers get a call. The Widder Potter hears about it on her party line. 'Better come on over,' Orville sez. 'My wife's lying deader than a door nail by the barn. Her head's bashed in, and she's bleeding like a stuck pig.'"
"The troopers, they come over right away. They find that little gal with her head stowed in, just like he said. And a bloody shovel lying next to her. Old Man Orville is standing there, calm as a cow."
"'I don't understand it,' one of the troopers sez. "Your first wife dies from eating poison mushrooms, then the next. Now this! This is looking pretty bad. Orville, tell us what happened here."
Before finishing his story, Rube hitched up his pants, belched theatrically, then drawled, "'Well, sir, it's very simple,' Orville sez. 'She wouldn't eat the poison mushrooms.'"
The filling station erupted in laughter. Jake, the head mechanic, had been holding his breath, wondering if the last line might not have been "Well, sir, she didn't like mushrooms," which was how Rube told the story now and then, just to keep them on their toes.
"How did the New Yorker like your story, Rube?" Jake wanted to know.
Rube grinned a sheepish grin. "Well, let's put it this way . . . he laughed."
So that was Rube's version of how the funniest man in the whole durned county met the comedian from New York. Didn't too much happen after that. Rube took the talent show four years running, which weren't no surprise. He even managed to work in a few new jokes and a story or two that no one had ever heard before.
As for the New York comedian, he kept mostly to himself. Lived out by the pond for a year or two, then up and moved away, without so much as a fare-thee-well. Rube suddenly became filthy rich for some unknown reason. Bought himself a brand new Buick. Fixed up his house a bit. Even installed an indoor toilet and a tub. Got himself a riding mower from Sears and Roebuck. Took to smoking big cigars.
"Where'd the Rube get all that dough?" folks wondered. "He didn't inherit no money. Lord knows, he's never worked a lick in his life. So where'd it come from?"
Finally, folks got it into their heads that The Old Rube might have sold the comedian some of his material, so they pestered him and pestered him to tell.
"Heck, no," Rube finally explained, to set the record straight. "I didn't sell him nothing. He stole my stuff, as plain as day. I sued the man for plagiarism . . . and I won."
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