We judge people on the quality of their jokes as crowd in on slanting picnic tables. Elbows knock pint glasses, some we catch in time, others we don’t. After an hour, we shift to the next table, like voracious insects moving to the neighbour’s garden.
We keep a mental tally, and later that night, when we’re alone and reheating hamburgers in the microwave, we go over our lists. Less than three good jokes, three real laughs, and you get a tick beside your name in the ledger we keep.
Three ticks and we start finding excuses to decline your invitation.
All Squirrel needed, what she kept telling herself, was for the world to stop spinning for just one little second so she catch her breath. On really bad days, she’d listen to shitty alternative rock from the 90’s and wonder if that shallow, stabbing pain in her heart was nostalgia or her blood vessels exploding.
Probably neither, she decided, stirring her vanilla yogurt with a plastic spoon she found on someone’s desk. New diet. She was starving. At least work wasn’t busy. She scrolled through her messages again, and didn’t reply, again.
Her little sister was getting married next weekend.
How many geniuses had he sired in a wad of toilet paper, he wondered. How many champions? How many middle of the road schmucks stuck in loveless marriage, too afraid to do anything that might upset the status quo? How many miserable bastards dragging their feet from one day to the next?
He figured the odds were against him. People like him should let their lines die out. Someone else can take their spot at the bottom.
His date kept talking about how incredibly validating her work was, but he hadn’t listened when she said what it was she did.
People like it when you pretend to be interested in them.
They’re starved for human contact, and once a connection is established, they’ll open up and offer just about anything to keep it alive, even if only for a few more minutes, as long as they never find out you don’t really care.
Before that inevitability, I’ve gotten clothes, weeks worth of homemade frozen dinners, a couple of suits, cash, plane tickets… all because I smiled and asked how they were doing, and then kept quiet, so they just kept talking, unburdening themselves. Sometimes I’d nod or make comforting sounds.
“Oh, that was a big one. Some kind of beetle.”
They were guessing which bugs were splattering on the car’s windshield. They’d left the city that morning, moving from packed eight-lane expressways, to cluttered four-lane highways, and now, after stopping for lunch, drove alone, a single lane in each direction cutting a narrow swath through stony hills and pine forest.
“Will they like me?”
“Are you sure?”
They drove past a sign saying that from this point, rivers drained north. The sun set quick, dropping behind the pointed tops of the trees.
Years later, when they were old men who could only grasp at fleeting memories of their adventures, they’d sit together on porches, benches, in pubs, restaurants, pulling at the hair growing from their ears or scratching their beards and wonder how either of them ended up alive.
Or however close this was to it.
When the storm smashed their rowboat against the rocks. When a spurned former lover fired his rifle into the crowd at their cousin’s wedding. The innumerable hospital beds. Miles and miles of bloody bandages. The near-constant convalescence.
One would cough and the other could only nod.
Prompt courtesy of the Daily Post: Unpredictable
The tailor’s daughter, Priscilla, pushed through the crowd and reluctantly accepted the Skeleton King’s invitation to dance, taking his bony hand in hers. The King nodded and they began a minuet, forcing the fiddler and the flute player’s music to match their movements. The crowds pushed back tight against the walls whenever they came close, letting out a small unified gasp.
The king swung her in close, his arm tight around the small of her back, as they began a lively waltz around the room. They stopped dancing, he bowed low and Priscilla realized she’d been smiling the entire time.
He told himself that once Momma died and the house was his outright, he’d sell it for whatever he could get and then he’d into town and knock on pretty little Emmylou’s door and when her father answered he’d say sir, I’m here to take your daughter as my wife. He imagined the old man would balk, but he’d stand firm. And if the door closed, well, he’d sit right down on their porch and play his banjo until she come out.
But Momma lived through the first winter and the next, even though the doctors said it was impossible.
At the fork where one river feeds into the other, the boys found a man sitting cross-legged on an outcropping of rocks, fingerpicking a guitar.
“Hail,” they cried.
The man stopped playing and watched them and the raft bob.
“Whatcha doing out here?” they asked.
He scratched at his chin, weeks away from a shave.
“Going to meet Ol’ Scratch,” he said. “He’s due any minute now. If I were you, I’d push off back into the middle and get.”
“Watcha meeting him for?”
“A man’s got to pay his dues. One way or another. Run along now boys. Goodnight.”
Written while listening to this
Bill was never late for lunch, so Edith went out to the front porch to look for him. The tractor idled in the middle of the field. She took off running, forgetting about the vegetable soup bubbling on the stove.
Prompt courtesy of Only 100 Words – 3 Line Tales.