Courtesy

Yellow cake. iStockphoto.com. i i
iStockphoto.com.
Yellow cake. iStockphoto.com.
iStockphoto.com.

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.

Ruth needs to rest her elbows on the table these days, even to reach out and cut a piece of the little yellow cake I bought at the supermarket on my way over. She flops a thin slice onto her plate and pulls it towards her. "What would my mother have said, to see me leaning on the table like this?" She laughs quietly and shakes her head.

Between bites, she tells me to look through her Christmas cards, stacked in a basket on her bureau. She used to tape them all up on her door, red and green and gold cards ajar for the reading, rolls of stamps on her table for the cards she'd send in return, even if it took her well into January. Now the standing, the bending, the lifting her arms above her head to tape up the cards, isn't worth the pain it causes. I rifle through the cards as she grows more bored with the silence.

"What do old age and Las Vegas have in common?" She asks me. I shake my head. "I forget," she says with a small smile.

Her brother Mark was released from the hospital last month. He'd been out chopping up an oak that fell on his land during a recent ice storm, procuring his own firewood despite being well into his 80s. A splintered width of log had ricocheted into his belly as his axe cleaved the wood. His gut pooled with blood, but the doctors fixed him, somehow. I wonder if they used a vacuum like the dentists, sucking up my saliva and drying my mouth until my tongue felt warmly reptilian, foreign to the touch.

Every morning these past few weeks, Mark has been walking his Dalmatian to the end of the driveway before becoming too exhausted and turning back to his house. Ruth tells me they used to wander miles through the woods, he and his dog, tracing a dotted line like the looping flight path of a honeybee drunk off springtime through warm fields of ragweed pollen. After his accident, everything changed. The doctors had accidentally found a spot moldering on his lung, releasing spores in his bloodstream. These things happen all the time, we've been told. Her eyes brim. She blinks the tears away and looks out the window.

Thick seagulls wildly spiral over the street, its peppered snowbanks riddled with enough grit to make a snowball welt sing. All the white wooden houses down below my grandmother's apartment fade off to the industrial city beyond. We can never see from one another's point of view. But we sit at her table together and squint at the clouds, suspending disbelief for the sake of conversation. We know this by heart.

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