The Joke

Feb 14, 2013 by

(NPR has a special contest series, Three Minute Fiction, in which listeners are asked to send in original fiction that can be read in three minutes or less.  In this instance, the requirement was one character had to tell a joke and one character had to cry.  I didn’t find out about the contest until after entries were due, but I liked the premise so I wrote one anyway. – Barclay)

I stood in the doorway, watching her lay diagonal across the bed.  She was falling back into heavy sleep.  She’d been laughing just a few minutes before.  I like her laugh, I like that it still happened.  I like when I’m the one inspiring it.   I stayed a minute longer, listening to her breathe.  Then I walked out as usual.

I drive the same way every day.  It’s one of only three ways I can drive my son to school.  It’s the same way I used to drive to work; when I worked.  I used to work a lot.  It slowly ate my soul but I pretended it didn’t.  It was harder to play the game after the breakdown.  Those days I barely got out of bed.  I fell asleep at my desk and sometimes in the bathroom.

The drive to school reminds me of back then, but only in passing.  Mostly I just drive.

There’s a Gas-Mart on the way. I spent a lot of time at the Gas-Mart back in the day.   My “unwind on the way home” beer.  Something cold and tall, preferably malt liquor, something strong, like me after a long day.  I still want a beer whenever I see the old ‘Mart.

Billy, an old black man missing the last digit of his index finger, worked the counter.  It’s weird but my dad was missing the same digit, he lost it digging a well.  I liked Billy; he smoked behind the counter and smelled like motor oil.  We exchanged knowing glances and manly interludes.  I was the white kid buying a tall beer that he could identify with.

I’ll never tell a soul, but I think that was it.  I think it was those beers that tipped me over the edge.  I come from a long line of men who drank, they did it every day.  I never thought a thing about it.  Her parents drank; she never even considered it.  Drinking was what we did.  But still, I think that was the start.

I bought a pack of cigarettes from Billy on my way home one day and started smoking.  I’d never been a smoker, but suddenly I couldn’t get enough.  Every time I lit one up it was like I was fighting the devil, taming his magic, inhaling his strength to calm the madness.  It didn’t feel weird or out of the ordinary, it was just another part of my day.   I remember having a drink with a friend after work and she expressed her concern.  I was flummoxed; I couldn’t understand why she thought there was a problem. “It’s never good when someone who’s never smoked, suddenly starts smoking.  It’s a sign of instability.”  I stopped getting beers with her after work.

I guess my smoking coincided with my first panic attack. I don’t remember exactly when they started, but they became so frequent I learned to live with them.  I thought they were normal, like my smoking.

I talked to myself in gas station bathroom mirrors; I didn’t know who I was talking to.  I banged my head against walls and I drove as fast as I could.  I drove around drinking and talking to myself.  Soon I stopped talking to myself, unhappy with what I was saying.  I kept driving though, and I kept drinking.  I guess that’s when I really started drinking alone.

Eventually I did some things.  Things I may not be able to come back from.  But I did them all the same.

There’s some distance between us and the things that happened, but time hasn’t closed the distance between us.  When I think about it, I don’t know if I’ll ever cross it.  But when I don’t, when I let myself fall into the patter of the day, sometimes, it doesn’t seem so far.

Today’s one of those days, one of those days when she laughs.  She said she fell in love with me because I made her laugh.  But then, later on, she told me I wasn’t serious enough, that all I ever did was make jokes, stupid ones at that.  So now, when she laughs, it’s like light on my dark soul.  I feel like everything is possible.  If only for that moment, I can pretend that everything will be alright.

I don’t work these days, so after I drop him off, I go home.  She’s working today, but gets to go in late, so she’s still in bed when I get back.  I walk into the room and hear her crying.  She’s under the covers, head and all, quietly crying, like she doesn’t want to impose.  I ask her what’s wrong, but I know it’s me.  It’s always me.  I sit down beside her and think of all the times she wanted me to reach out to her and I didn’t.  Of all the times she wished that I would touch her and comfort her.  I remember sitting, stymied, not knowing what to say and always thinking that whatever I could say would be wrong.

How can I comfort her when I’m the thing she needs comfort from?

I reach out, with my big clumsy hands, and pat her on the shoulder.  I pull the comforter down and softly stroke her hair, before leaning forward, kissing her cheek and gently whispering in her ear, “An old man’s sitting at the bar.  He’s been drinking all day long.  He calls the bartender over for another drink but before he can ask, he pukes all over himself.  He starts to wail, “oh no, I’m going to be in so much trouble.  My wife… my wife is going to kill me.  She’s going to kill me.”  The Bartender, feeling sorry for him, pulls a ten out of his wallet and sticks it in the old man’s puke covered shirt.  “No problem fella, you go home and tell your wife that somebody ELSE puked on you, and this ten bucks is what he gave you to cover the cleaning costs.”  So the old man goes home and stumbles inside to his wife’s disapproving gaze.  She asks him why he’s covered in puke, and he reaches into his pocket, pulls out the money, and gives it to her.  He repeats the bartender’s story, and to his amazement, finds his wife to believe him.  She tells him to go change.  As he walks by, she looks at the money and asks “Hey, I thought you said he gave you a ten?  This is twenty dollars.”  He keeps walking and replies “Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you, he shit in my pants, too”.

I feel her laugh between her quiet little sobs.

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