The Joke
Josh Maday

Peter tapped his toothbrush on the sink, poked it into the holder, and opened the bathroom door onto the bedroom all dark. A lithic bar of light spread over Pat's back as she lay in bed facing the wall. Even now, looking at the hills of her shoulder and hip, watching her breathe to see if she was asleep, he saw the scene play over and again—the approach of the punchline, the delivery, feeling halfway through how he would not be able to land it, and then the silent faces of these people he saw every year or two, who appeared nice enough at holiday parties (though Pat made clear what wolves they became in the office), whose clothing and posturing and jingling pockets intimidated him, whose talk and demeanor and habits of face made him feel small; but this year, unwilling to feel intimidated, he'd unchained his anxiety with a quick few drinks at the bar—alone, so as not to betray himself by any faux pas or unprofessionalism in front of Pat's colleagues—and he hovered near the circled group, watching, listening, waiting for a quick and clever response to come to him at the right moment, waiting for the conversation to recommend a story, an interesting fact, a witty one-liner, or, as it would happen, a joke; but before his buzzing mind could see ahead he had already begun toward the unraveling end that revealed itself as he spoke with bluster and bravado, almost with swagger, looking from face to face, each paying close and curious attention, including his wife, in whose face he saw the end of something, and he felt himself faltering in the beam of her blinkless stare, but he had gone too far, he didn't know if he could just stop and act like he'd lost his thought and walk away, or if that would be worse, so he went on spiraling and sputtering to the dead fiery end—

He turned off the bathroom light and shuffled toward the bed. He lifted the covers and slipped in, the startling chill of the sheets reminding him to change out cotton for flannel in the waning days of fall. He lay for a minute, listening to her breathing, his own breath still vapored with drink. After keeping still as long as he could, he began his restless attempt to get comfortable, a nightly ritual despite many efforts to simply stay still and fall asleep without sniffing or clearing his throat, and every night rolling side to side, adjusting and readjusting, eventually ending in his original position. Settled with his back toward her, he listened and looked around in the dark, feeling like she might say something. But she did not say anything.

You're ashamed of me, aren't you?

She took a big breath and sighed, but otherwise did not speak or move.

He lay blinking in the dark, going over everything again and again, all of the faces morphing from amusement to disgust.

After a few minutes he asked if she was asleep.

No response.

Peter reached his foot back in search of her foot, or the smooth skin of her calf, or any part of her, covered or bare. After spanning back for what seemed like the entire king-size bed and finding only cold fabric, he turned and sat up to see if she had gone while he was getting settled. In the dark he reached over; his hand found her hip and he let it rest there a moment; she was there, asleep, or pretending to be. Peter took his hand from her hip and lay down again, watching the shifting faces, feeling himself breathe in the dark.

Josh Maday has had stories in New York Tyrant, Barrelhouse, Action Yes, Phoebe and others.

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