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The Joke

by K.C. Mead-Brewer

     I’m alone in my apartment but I have the TV on so it sounds like a bunch of people are in here talking. This way people in the hall won’t walk by and think that I’m alone. I can hear the neighbors laughing through the wall. Is it me? Are they laughing at me? I knew that welcome mat with the parrots wearing sunglasses was too much. Sometimes I look at things to buy and I don’t know who I am. Now they’re laughing even louder. I press my ear against the white paint—not eggshell or anything; I left it like I found it; Empty Apartment White—and now I can hear the clinking of glasses as well. They’re probably not laughing at me if they’re drinking and clinking glasses. Probably someone told a joke. Maybe a guest. Guests tell jokes even if they don’t come prepared with anything specific. I know because that’s how guests work on TV. It’s a relief to know they aren’t laughing at me and I peel my ear off the wall. My hands jerk at my sides—they don’t always know what to do with themselves—so I go to the bookshelf and let them flip through a book. I’m not much of a reader but I spend lots of money on books. The authors don’t mind this arrangement. It isn’t for the authors that I buy them, anyway. It’s not because I’m some fancy supporter of the arts. It’s because this way, if anyone comes by, maybe one of the guests from the party next door—maybe they go out for a cigarette and wander back in the wrong door (my door), maybe they come over just to see what I’m watching, maybe my neighbor’s cable is on the fritz—they’ll look at my stocked bookshelves and they’ll think to themselves, Now here is a person who reads. My hands flip quickly through the pages and soon a tall stack of freshly opened and closed books is sticking out of the floor. It occurs to me that books might make for interesting bricks and that maybe I could build an interesting-looking book-thing to show off to any guests who wander by. Maybe if I had an interesting book-thing, like an archway or a fort, then wandering guests wouldn’t just wander out again. Maybe they would only leave to go bring other guests in to see what I’d made. You don’t need to look at my apartment for very long to know I’ve got plenty of space for guests and building things. I don’t own a lot of extra stuff. This’s and that’s. I don’t collect anything. I don’t have any hobbies or special skills. I don’t have any topics that I know more about than anyone else. So I start building with the books—not really sure where I’m going with them, just kind of waiting to see what shapes they make on their own—and I realize that maybe watching me build this book-thing might be even more interesting than simply seeing it finished. I turn up the TV as loud as it will go, a nonchalant way to pique the neighbors’ curiosity. The little green bars count to 180. I’ve never done this before and I worry a little that it might hurt the TV somehow. But why would they make a TV that could hurt itself? It’s so loud I can’t hear my neighbors anymore or even my own voice when I say, Well, that’s loud. I start back with building the book-thing. The book covers are trembling like water—that’s how loud the TV is—and I’m stacking and I’m stacking and I’m surprised no one’s come over yet and the walls are kind of shaking—the TV, it’s really loud—and the door and the floor and the windows are all shaking and the book-thing is getting bigger and bigger—I hadn’t realized I owned quite THIS many books—and it’s only when I get to the very last book, the shelves completely empty, the walls and ceiling and apartment all crumbling the TV is so danged loud, that I see I’ve built myself a boat. Well, the guests have missed out seeing me build the thing but maybe they’ll still be interested if they see me using it. The TV’s screaming. Plaster and wood and pipes are all bursting. It’s really loud. Is it possible they don’t hear it? Aren’t they curious yet to come see me, what I’m up to, what I’m watching? I consider trying to paddle the boat around but there aren’t any books left to make paddles with and anyway where would I paddle to? I sigh extra loudly but still can’t hear myself so I just ignore myself, my bad attitude—my teachers always said I had a bad attitude—and lie down in the boat on my back. The TV’s so loud I don’t even hear it anymore. The TV’s so loud that all I can think or smell or feel are its deep vibrations and it’s almost relaxing. I close my eyes and feel the world thrum and it really is almost relaxing. Almost like someone’s sitting here with me, and together, we’re drifting out to sea.

Author's Note

I often long to be alone. It isn’t shyness, though I can be shy. It isn’t introversion, though I am introverted. I simply love to be alone. At home alone, I can be as angry, petty, sad, slow, unwashed, unexplained, and unjustified as I actually am. At home alone, I can be Alone. But this doesn't mean I don't also fantasize about all the "normal" things—attention, respect, admiration, and so on. It means I want both: to be alone and unseen yet also known and celebrated. Because of this, The Joke’s narrator came to me very naturally. Someone who embodies these dissonant desires. Someone who is both too alone and not alone enough.

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