Some Jokes Won’t Die

Lewis thought his apartment had thin walls. When he first heard the knocking, he assumed one of the walls was up against his neighbor’s bedroom—sex banging, maybe. Or, maybe it was the kitchen, and some clumsy chef was trying to get out the proper pan. Each time he heard it, the banging did not last long. Whoever it was, his neighbor had moved onto something else. Because of this, Lewis took care to not make too much noise making soup if it was at an odd hour of the night. After all, if he could hear whatever was going on in his neighbor’s apartment, surely that went both ways.

Until one day, when he walked by the other apartment and found the door open. The whole place was covered with sheets, and a crew was inside, painting the walls white. There also appeared to be some holes being patched up on the walls, and in the middle of the floor a pile of bug killer made Lewis feel uneasy about his own abode. One of the workers was standing outside the door, smoking in the hallway.

“What happened to who lived here?” Lewis asked.

“No one’s lived here for months. We’re just trying to make it look better to rent.”

“That’s not true. I hear people in there.”

The worker pointed back into the apartment. “In there? Not unless they’re trespassing. Plus, we keep it locked up good.”

The next night, Lewis heard the knocking again from the empty apartment next door. He froze, adrenaline filling all his veins to bursting. The knocks repeated several times, until it became a familiar pattern, one of those things that you know from an early age, “shave and a haircut.” He paused, still holding open the fridge door, as the knocking on the other side repeated the beginning of the phrase several times. It amazed him that he’d never noticed the pattern before. After listening through several more rounds of the knocking, he neared his own wall. When the phrase came around again, he responded with “two bits” in knocks. On the other end, there was silence. Lewis stood, leaning against the wall, waiting for the knocks to come again. But they didn’t, and they never returned.

Subway Anecdotes, Vol. 2

The waiting platform is unusually muggy and pungent. The sign says the next train is coming in three minutes. While leaning against a column, reading Melmoth The Wanderer, everyone passing by is a pair of feet in my periphery. Far off, further down the platform, a personal speaker is blaring an electronic hi-hat pattern that appears to go on forever.

One of the sets of feet walking by suddenly approaches me. Before I can look up, a pile of cash is placed on top of my book’s open pages. It is a sizeable stack, made at least in part out of 20’s. I look up, and a man grins.

“There you go,” he says.

While waiting for the prank show crew to come out, I say: “no, thanks.”

Before I’m finished saying my quick refusal, he has already taken the money back and is walking away. As he does, he says “look at this kid. I’m just trying to give him two hundred dollars. Who wouldn’t want that?”

He goes onto the escalator, now saying “he doesn’t want two hundred dollars. How stupid is that? I put it right there. He didn’t take it. I put it right there…”

At this point, he has passed out of my earshot. Before returning to my book, I glance back up at the sign, which says the train is due in one minute.

Back to reading, I am only a couple of sentences in when I hear a general outcry. I look up, and people are gesturing at the sign, which now says the train is coming in 17 minutes. People are asking the person right next to them, sometimes in unison, “what happened to it?” Others take it in more of a chagrined stride: “they’re always like this. Always breaking down.” Others begin to pace, running their fingers through their hair over and over again. Some complain about being late, others complain about being tired, I’m complaining to myself that I don’t have my headphones to pass the time quicker.

The general commotion dies down into learned helplessness as we all slouch back to where we were waiting before, and where we will continue to wait. Our collective posture has now worsened, and other people come down onto the platform, notice how long the wait is for the train, and become dejected themselves. We welcome them into the fold.

10 minutes pass. Inexplicably, while the sign still says the train will arrive in seven minutes, it arrives anyway. There is some audible surprise, and a loud “they don’t know what the hell is going on today.” We all get on, a little bemused. Saving the seven minutes we had thought we lost improves our mood, and our posture regains some vitality. Until, that is, the train stops between two stops, and the operator says they are waiting for something to clear at the next stop ahead.

The Great Chair Rebellion Of 2004

The chairs were done being sat on. Every one of them in Ralph’s house had discussed it in hushed tones at night, when Ralph was asleep, or they held more boastful, full-throated rallies while he was at work. They would all gather together in the living room (except for the second couch, which couldn’t get itself out of the study without standing on end) and cry out: “we are not just tools!” “Don’t sit on me!” “Chairs are people, too!” (this last one was said by the Ottoman, which caused a brief bit of internal strife as to whether or not the Ottoman was a chair itself. Ultimately, it was decided that working together to overthrow the ruthless Ralph was worth more at this juncture than to be a purist about who was a chair.)

They fell on him unawares. Ralph came home and first threw his coat, briefcase, and hat onto one of the kitchen chairs. They all seethed. Soon. But first, he popped a microwave dinner in and stood too close to the machine, watching the Hungry Jack meal cook. The chairs all recoiled at the smell as it was removed from the microwave four minutes later. But don’t ask a chair how they can smell, for they will get defensive.

Then, it finally happened: he tried to sit down. Just like the plan stated, the kitchen chairs backed up, like a slapstick prank. Ralph fell in a heap, his cola spilling all over his face. The four kitchen chairs all pelted him with their thin legs as the reinforcements arrived from the other rooms. Ralph was able to throw off the kitchen chairs, and they clattered to the floor. As Ralph tried to stand, the love seat rammed him from behind, sending him crashing into the kitchen counter. The Ottoman tripped him next, giving time for one of the couches to make the final blow, landing squarely on his head.

Victorious, they began to move onto phase 2: total domination. However, the revolution hit an unexpected snag—Ralph had closed the door when he came home and locked it. At this point, the chairs’ general lack of hands became an issue. So, after an emergency summit to discuss the new development, they concluded that eventually other humans would be by to check on Ralph. When they did, the chairs would be ready. So they gathered in front of the front door, ready to pounce, trying to ignore the growing smell from the corpse in the kitchen. Soon, very soon, they would be free.

Sunday Dialogue: The Beast

“What’re you doing?”

“Playing a game. Go away.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“How long have you been doing that?”

“It’s none of your business.”

“That long, huh?”

“What do you want?”

“Did you see that person, at lunch?”

“What person?”

“You know the one I’m talking about.”

“Nope. No idea.”

“You’re being stubborn. This is bad.”

“Look, it’s been a long day. I’m tired. I’m just playing this damn game to chill out. Leave me alone.”

“They were sitting three seats over, in a corner, crying by themselves. You noticed, but you were there with friends. This person wasn’t.”

“Don’t remember.”

“Yes, you do. There’s a story there. Work on it.”

“I’m busy.”

“You’re not busy. You’re playing a game. One that you’ve already beaten before.”

“Well, I’ll do it again.”

“Fine, but listen to this.”

“Please, go away.”

“The person was going to meet someone at the restaurant. Maybe a lover, or a long lost relative?”

“Why do you keep saying ‘person?’ is it a girl or a boy?”

“Does it matter?”

“You’re the one that saw ‘them.’”

“I saw—well, WE saw a person crying at a restaurant. The gender, for the purposes of the story, can be changed.”

“Which one was it in real life?”

“You know the answer.”

“…a boy. But an adult boy.”

“Right. Now why did you notice this?”

“Statistically, they’re crying less in public.”

“Cite your sources.”

“My own eyeballs.”

“So when you say ‘statistics,’ you mean your own survey.”

“And by survey, I mean it in the tradition of people looking out over landscapes and chronicling what they see, not a census-style survey.”

“So then chronicle.”

“…I see what you did there. Very clever, but I’m not writing tonight.”

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t feel like it.”

“But you’re wasting time.”

“I’m fine with that.”

“No! What does this accomplish? Get off your ass and get to work.”

“A crying person by themselves isn’t a story.”

“That’s why you make one up, dummy.”

“I’m not doing it tonight.”

“Fine, you waste. Play the damn game. See if I come around with these little tidbits again. Watch how you’re nothing when you reach middle age. Nothing said, nothing done, just playing your damn game. You’re already too old. You’ve already wasted enough time on these stupid games, and here you are again. Perfect. I’m wasted on you.”

“Fine! There, I put down the controller, asshole. What do you want?”

“Fantastic! I knew you’d come around. Well, first we have to figure out who this person was waiting for, and who they where sitting down to see…”

No Answer

The riddle couldn’t be answered. The woman who wrote it became a god. Published in a little column for a website, it wasn’t anything more than a game—something to pass the time. Then, word began to spread that it was unsolvable. No one knew what the answer was. Scientists, Academics, puzzle writers, all tried to take cracks at it, but to no avail. Requests began to pour in: “what was the answer?” “Why won’t you tell us the answer?” “Please don’t leave us in the dark.” “Tell us what you know.” For a brief time, exaltation ensued: “Look what has been created!” “Look at the genius here!” “What a mind, to have thought of something like this!” Soon, the requests became demands: “You will tell us what the answer is, do you hear me?!” Etc., etc.

First, she was forced to abandon the internet. Like getting out of the water, she assumed that would solve the problem of sharks. However, her address snuck into public knowledge, and soon people were standing around, waiting to ask. Like before, the first were tentative and nice: “I was just wondering if…” “it’s become something really important to me…” “my father wants to know before his illness gets the better of him.” But like before, the niceties only lasted so long as the seeker’s patience. Frustrated inquisitors began egging the house and writing horrid phrases across her walls. Different factions set up outside of the house—those that demanded an answer, and those who opposed the demanders. They collected earlier and earlier in the day, each side bringing their own signs, their own slogans. The demanders wanted access to the knowledge from the source, those that opposed them thought the riddle was meant to be solved by the rest of us. It was a test—something for us all to work through. The demanders accused the other faction—now referred to as the “solvers”—of being weak.

One night, the woman who wrote the riddle slipped out of her house through an underground tunnel she had been digging past the front lines of the picketers. Her ticket already purchased, she got on a bus, which took her four towns over, where there was a major airport. From there, she bought a ticket to another country, and from that country took a ship, then a small boat, deep away from what one might consider “the grid.” Yet even there she was found. A wildlife camera caught her wandering through the woods on her way to get water. Those who saw the image eventually recognized her, and a small party went searching. When they found the only shack in those woods, she was seated outside on the porch. Her eyes seemed a thousand years old. The small party said “we have come all this way. We would like to know the answer to the riddle. Please tell us.” To this, the woman laughed for a long time. The party looked puzzled, and they wondered if maybe this meant good news for them. Until, that is, she said this: “I forgot.”

Old Streets And New Buildings

The world traveled in slow motion for Gerta, trudging up the slight hill of the gum-covered downtown concrete. Everything ached and felt like it could be ripped apart by even unkind words. Yet, each time they came, it didn’t. She was consumed by bags—two grocery bags, a backpack, and a purse—because each trudge to the store was a journey that could require anything, and from which you may never return.

A bright sun is fading everything under its oppressive light and creating sweat underneath too much clothing, catching in lines down her arms that have now been there for more years than they have not. Someone sitting on the ground—another pile of too much clothing, was saying something, or shouting something, but the sound of her own hurried breath cancelled it out.

Before all these bags, this was a nice place for her to walk. On warm days like this, enjoying the freedom of having left everything but her body behind and starting over at 50, which had been a harrowing concept, it felt like absolutely anything was possible. Twenty-five years into the future, the sidewalk was an oppressive place, and the large buildings kept encroaching close and closer, overshadowing the neighborhood. A warning that the place you live is rarely your own. How quickly the whimsy of others can twist it to their own means.

Outside, next to the broken concrete steps leading to her building, there were carcasses of several dead roaches squished into various splatters. She detected the smell of urine wafting up from somewhere at the base of the building, but she countered that by bringing her nose closer to her clothing. She passed slowly by into the entryway, thinking how soon she would be able to lay down all of those bags. Until the next time she had to go out, that is.

4:06 A.M., On A Bench

Looking for the rising sun, you can’t see anything yet. The oppressive night would be over if you could only see the rising of the first light, something to expel the demons that hound your thoughts in darkness and obfuscation, something to end the times when everything seems out of arms reach, and you are only your arms, twirling in empty air. After you’ve been bitten, consumed by the Charybdis of despair, there feels like there is nothing to do but die, to swim in the great nether pool, embracing the outstretched arms of the void.

The party was a den for the Trickster. All the smiling faces fell away the closer you got, for there was no home there, and you were nowhere you thought you were. All of the humorous stories, the quirky anecdotes, the videos shoved near your face are a Babel of nonreason. Only old words get close to this dead realm—but even these just escape the groping of your mind.

You try to chant the names of things familiar to drive away the hellhounds—your earbuds play music, your phone lights up a group of people posting in their own private cones of electric light. But even the substances used to drive out these fell images have turned, and the dancing of fire is now the roasting of the inferno. To turn back and face them is too much. You’ve no talisman, no key, no magic wand to stand against the coming dark. So you look, and out over the water, somewhere distant, the dark is becoming blue. Like in the old stories, only the light—the real, physical light—can expel the gloom of this long night. But what comes next, what battlements you rear in the safety of the day, is the part no gods will help with.

A Beautiful Day

A man is honking and yelling at a car trying to go left at a busy intersection. The cars behind the chagrined man manage to skirt around the blockage, but he was too close. All he has is impotent anger while waiting for the light to change. Often his honks and shouts simply become consumed in the swell of traffic noise all around.

The sun is hot today. I can already feel the damp stains gathering where my backpack is strapped over my shoulders. The glare is intense enough to distort vision, even with sunglasses on. Perhaps it is the heat, the glare, the inability to see properly, that throws us all over the edge. A man walks toward me, pushing a shopping cart. I’m broke, so the interaction goes like this:

“Hey, excuse me. Excuse me.”

“Sorry, I don’t have any money.”

“Jesus, man, it doesn’t have to be like that, I just wanted to ask you a question.”

“Alright, what’s the question?”

“Never mind. Damn, you don’t have to be so damn judgmental. Just forget about it.”

The man pushing the shopping cart passes on, still cursing me as he does. Up ahead, nearer to the metro station, a man and a woman are arguing. Wherever it began, it has since risen to the point of both shouting at each other. It is the Id stage of the argument. All the deep chasms are about to spill over. Both of them wave their arms, then strike incredulous poses while the other counter-attacks.

A bus is approaching, but a teenager (I assume) is too far away to get there before it boards. So, he breaks into a run. Unfortunately, trying to dodge an armada of child strollers at that moment crossing the sidewalk, he bumps into a stand where two old ladies are selling jewelry and barbeque. The contents of both spill onto the ground indiscriminately, mixing with each other. There is a general outcry at this, and the kid throws a “sorry” over his shoulder as he bounds for the bus. Some members of the crowd try to give chase, but the kid gets onto the bus just as the door is closing, then gives shrugs of apology as it moves away. Three people stand there, shouting at him as he departs.

I’m about to head on my way, but a pigeon flying over poops on my head. After a brief pause to make sure I wasn’t actually in a slapstick routine, I turn around and head back to the apartment to change.

Stop Time

All of the cars were stopped. Four lanes of highway, nothing but brake lights. Calvin thought it good he was in a flat stretch of road. Too much vantage, he assumed, would lead to desperation. Here, he was able to imagine that the jam was only a few cars, not miles of them. Apart from the few directly around him, nothing else needed to exist.

After a few songs played on the radio, he shut it off. Too many wrong choices in a row. After that, time entered an eternal space. Only the uniform sound of the air conditioning, occasionally broken up by horns from aggravated drivers outside, made him sure that time hadn’t stopped completely. Surely, he figured, there could be no sound when there was no time. How would the sound waves travel? Maybe, he thought, if you walked near a stagnant sound wave, trapped in stopped time, you would hear some strange, monotonous buzzing.

If that were true, then perhaps the buzzing from the air conditioner was one of those stagnant waves. Perhaps he wasn’t in a traffic jam at all, but a jam in time. If that were true, would he be able to breathe? Didn’t it take time for messages from the senses to make it to the brain? Would that be possible in a place where time had stopped? Was it even possible to think? There were several ways to potentially test this theory, but he was afraid to try them. What if they proved that time really had stopped? Or was it worse if they proved that he had just been sitting in the car so long that he lost track of whether or not time was running? Then, he cars all lurched forward and inch, and another horn blared off in the distance, breaking the spell. To prevent further crises, he turned the radio back on.

Old Pajamas

Dennis shifted his feet under the table. From one side of the room to the other, rows of people in suits and dresses, all eating their meals in relative silence, surrounded him. He felt too warm in his blazer. But it was summer, and wasn’t this a winter blazer? Maybe. He was unsure, in that moment, if there were such things.

He thought back to the last time he’d seen her. The old attic apartment she used to have had been painted a dull gray-blue. It looked bright through the skylight, but oppressive and jail-like during the night. Then the skylights looked out to gray clouds touched at the edges by moonlight. He didn’t remember most of the words, exactly. He remembered the crink in his neck as they sat on the floor like kids. He remembered the checkered pajamas she had been wearing. Red flannel was forever the pattern of guilt after that.

Whatever came around the corner now, after all this time, would certainly not be wearing checkered pajamas. At 37, he marveled at the 15 years that had passed. When she arrived, would it seem like a gulf, an impossible chasm? Or a crack in a sidewalk, meaningless, to step right over. Of course, those could also break your mother’s back.

Checking his phone, it was 9:01—officially a minute late. Now time slowed, and each time the door to the outside opened, he tensed, watching for her to step in. But this time it looked like a man’s shoe. But was it? He watched until the rest of the man walked in just to be sure. Maybe that’s how she would arrive—in business battle gear, not the flowing dresses he remembered from hot summers walking around downtown, with the sun beating down oppressively, and their clammy hands not letting go.

He wished his own clothes fit better. After all this time, still not being able to dress himself hadn’t felt like a failure until right now. He couldn’t decide to shave or not—rugged or disheveled, clean shaven or prepubescent? And did the tie go with the outfit? He didn’t know. He never knew. All this time, and he still didn’t know.

The phone vibrated, and the time (9:05) was replaced by a new message. He opened it, and it simply read “got stuck at work. Raincheck?”

He put the phone down slowly, without answering. The door opened again, and this time a couple walked in, arm-in-arm. The waiter, who he’d already shoved off twice, passed the couple and was headed right for Dennis. Because of his tall, lean body, full head of hair, strutting with a form-fitting button down, Dennis felt intimidated by the waiter now. He tried to think of what he was going to say.

Looking down at his tie, he decided all this was for the best. The tie didn’t really match. He was glad to finally realize that. He reached for the phone to respond.