Soft-Shoe

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For Round 6 of our contest, we asked you to send us original works of fiction where one of the characters tells a joke and one of the characters cries.

"What do you call a sleeping cow?"

A bulldozer, I think. I try to think it as loudly as I can, as though the words could cut through the haze of medication and leap into Joseph's head. But Joseph doesn't say anything, and I know he is watching me. I can almost hear him at it, as though the steady beeps and mechanical whirrs are marking his gaze and not my vitals. Go on, I want to say. He needs more punchlines in his life.

"Why did the snail paint an S on his car?"

So that people would say, "Look at that S car go!" I shout in my head. My eyes seem plastered shut and I can't move my head, but I wiggle my fingers at this one. A delicate, grubby finger wraps around my thumb. I wonder if I'm smiling. This is a routine we used to have, still have in a way, a tandem soft-shoe that we do to check in with each other, to say I love you, cheer up, or I'm bored, entertain me. He tells a joke, then I tell a joke, and the comfort is in the eye rolling. It's always the same set. The only difference now is that I can't answer, and he can't be certain I'm listening. A notable shift, Ill admit. I use what I can now, finger squeezes and groans, and hope that they convey all the knock-knock jokes I know.

A shushing noise comes from some corner of the room. My mother-in-law has settled her ample, loving self into some hospital chair, and I wish she didn't have to be here to watch this. But Joseph is 6, and we are all he has, and one of us is practically vegetal. She begins to weep softly, again, and I imagine what we must look like, my boy and me. Joseph never cries, hasn't since his mother died, which makes him a lot like her. My good-hearted mother-in-law finds this unnerving, and encourages him to sob whenever she can. Joseph ignores her now, except for the cue to be quieter, and leans in to whisper, "What did the dog say to the tree?"

The sound of morning talk show laughter drifts in from the next room, an assault that goes unnoticed by everyone but me. But I am beyond caring about the trivial indignities of my body, which is prodded and measured by dozens of people each day. It is transformed by the accident into something quite apart from me, and I observe it along with everyone else as it does its own bidding, like now, when it breaks wind with a loud and emphatic announcement of life. Biological slapstick. The soft crying abruptly stops, and I am almost positive there is a snicker from my mother-in-law.

Joseph's giggling — proper, beautiful 6-year-old laughter — bubbles out before he is able to clap his hand over his mouth, and I want to say to him, go on.

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