about the author

Jeremy John Parker is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s creative writing program and an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of New Hampshire where he’s the fiction co-editor for Barnstorm Literary Journal. His stories have been semifinalists for Carve Magazine’s Raymond Carver Short Story Contest and Missouri Review’s Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. You can find him at jeremyjohnparker.com.

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Punchline Number Nine  

Jeremy John Parker

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My name is Lloyd Reginald Rigby and the apartment was Jean’s, or at least it had been. Her door was unpainted cedar; it had been stained years ago but most of it had worn to bare wood, especially around the doorknob and the latch where who knows how many hands had rubbed against it. The oil, salt, and dirt of careless fingertips had replaced the stain with a patina of their own. The doorknob was brass, cool in my hand, and squealed like the brakes on my beast of a TransAm. As I entered the room I said, Hello? Excuse me? and my voice echoed into the far reaches of the apartment, greeting then excusing itself.

Everything in Jean’s apartment was different. I started to think that I’d opened the wrong door, but the hole in the ceiling where Jean had tried to hang a spider plant, that was the same, as was the crack in the tall, watery window near the kitchen. The air was stale and thick, as if the silence were solid and my words were fingerprints disturbing the dust. The hardwood floors were worse than the door, chipped and warped by salty snowy winter, partially hidden beneath a moth-eaten, threadbare rug mottled with cigarette burns. I flipped through the stack of mail on the coffee table. Everything was addressed to one Ms. Marion Hoyer, 1165 Baker St., Apt 2. It was Jean’s address to be sure, but no Jean.

The kitchen and its faded robin-egg blue linoleum squawked under my shoes. The countertops were invisible under yellowing fast food bags, Chinese rice cartons, greasy pizza boxes. The smell had taken a strange turn beyond pungent. As I moved toward the back bedroom where Jean’s studio had been, I played the worst-case scenario game: abandoned apartment, horrible smell, missing woman. I hadn’t seen or heard from Jean in over a year. You do the math.

As I touched the doorknob to the bedroom, the door crashed open, cracking against my hand. A typhoon of stench rushed out behind the vacuum of the swinging door. Sex and stale cigarettes mostly, and something like wet wool in a flooded basement. It had to be Marion Hoyer standing there with that can of mace in her hand, wearing only a faded Smiths T-shirt. Her skin was baked clay, her hair a late-winter bird’s nest. I tried not to look at the bit of nipple visible through a tear in Morrissey’s face or the thick tangle between her legs. Marion’s eyes were a jaundiced dictionary defining the term rage, tossing about idioms like wide as dinner plates and staring daggers. She wanted to know what I, a motherfucker, was doing in her fucking apartment.

I held up my hands. I apologized and lied. Told her the door was open, that I was looking for Jean, who used to live there, that I was her boyfriend. Marion deflated and wrapped herself in a crumpled sheet from the floor. Jean don’t live here, Marion said. She moved back home, got back with her husband. Jean doesn’t have a husband, I said. Well, she got a ring on her finger and a handsome guy who boxed up her studio. Jean had left a forwarding address on the refrigerator. I snatched it out from under a magnet for Golden Wok Chinese Cuisine. Got it? Yeah. Now get the fuck out, mister.

Jean was an artist and unlike most of the people who call themselves that, she made a good living at it. She’d had photographs, paintings, and sculptures at a bunch of galleries—Chicago, Los Angeles, New York. She’d even had a show at the Serpentine Gallery in London. She was supposed to be gone for three weeks, but came back early. She didn’t do another show for a while after that. She didn’t want to talk about it. Something had gone wrong and she’d backed out of the show, but before I could get the whole story, I’d gotten sent up to Pembroke for an eighteen-month stretch for impersonating a police officer. Eventually, Jean stopped answering the phone. She stopped writing me letters. Mine to her were returned first unopened, then undeliverable.

I got out half a year early. I’m thirteen months sober and planning to stay that way. I’m doing the program, the steps. Got my year medallion and everything. Early on I had problems with the God thing, but when I imagined the higher power as a bright light, like a sun or a star, I could make it work. I’m on number nine, making direct amends. It’s about as fun as it sounds. I have to hunt down the people I hurt and fix it. And it does feel like hunting, but more like they’re a deer I’d injured and now I have to follow a thin trail of blood through a dense, unforgiving forest and put them out of their misery. But it never feels like a mercy. Not to me, not to them.

I’d been avoiding step number nine with Jean, but then this subpoena came through from the Serpentine. See, when I got out, the county set me up with this shit job as a process server. It’s usually deadbeat dads and people who haven’t paid their credit card bills in a while. Chances are if you got sued in Lincolnshire County in the last few months, I’m the guy who knocked on your door. People have spit on me, punched me, called me every name in the book, but I didn’t know what was going to happen when I delivered Jean’s subpoena.

One time I got shot at. That guy, Leon Beagle, sure looked like he knew what he was doing with a gun. He had these big green eyes that didn’t focus so when he fired that cannon, the bullet hit the fire extinguisher in the hallway behind me and it spiraled like a firework, spraying foam all over the place. People came running out of their apartments, kids started screaming, and when they saw Leon with the gun, they slammed their doors. I didn’t see who hit the fire alarm. I barely heard it. I was sitting on the floor, hands covering ears already ringing from the gunshot. Leon shouted for everybody to shut the fuck up and then he fired another shot into the alarm. That time his aim was true, but it didn’t stop the alarm. It kept ringing and ringing. When I saw that Leon had his aim back, I scrambled down the stairs. I got to my car and realized I’d dropped the subpoena on the floor in the hallway. I marked that one down as served.

Before Pembroke, I did the private eye thing. It’s not like the movies at all. I never helped the cops chase down a serial killer and I never got caught up in a web of conspiracy surrounding a stolen gemstone. It was mostly odd surveillance jobs, wives who wanted to catch their husbands in bed with their much younger midlife crises, that sort of thing. It didn’t pay much, or rather it paid well, but infrequently. Overall, a little better than the subpoena gig. I’ve never had a lot of money, not like Jean. I had to borrow the money for a good camera for my surveillance work from her. I’m not a deadbeat; I paid her back.

I can barely afford the rent on my place. My landlord is always threatening to kick me out but he never does. Next week, I tell him, and he says okay. He held my room when I was in prison. I think he never kicked me out because I was a quiet drunk and not many people would pay for that dingy closet. And when I say closet, I’m not kidding. The Marksbury Hotel used to be one of the city’s finest establishments. Back in the day, it was for senators and railroad magnates, rich heiresses and the like. The rooms were these huge suites with living rooms and drawing rooms and two bathrooms and closets big enough to stable a pair of Clydesdales.

The room I rent is half of one of those closets. I share a bathroom with five other apartments, which means I don’t use the bathroom much. Most of my neighbors are on social security, disability, welfare. Some of them are drug dealers. I don’t mind the potheads much, but with these crack and heroin guys, there’s robberies and shootouts and overdoses.

Once, before I got sent up, I woke to someone pounding on my door. Kimmy, they yelled, let me in. Let me in, I need a fucking hit, Kimmy. I know you’re fucking in there, open the fucking door. I yelled back that I wasn’t Kimmy, to go away, asked if I sounded like a fucking Kimmy. I covered my head with my pillow but I could smell the bourbon and cigarettes on my breath and it made me sick all over again. When I finally took my head out from the pillow, it was quiet.

Back in my rusted beast, I read the address. It was Jean’s handwriting, a perfect cursive anachronism from the bygone era of good penmanship. I wondered why she left the address behind, if she thought I’d come looking for her. I brushed my fingers over the grain of the paper, as if she’d written in Braille. I turned it over, thumbed the edges, hoping it would open into a letter explaining what happened, where she’d gone, and why.

I’d met Jean at a gallery downtown, the Cinzano. It was a favorite haunt of mine. There was an open bar when new shows debuted. Put on a suit and mingle a bit and it was all the free liquor you could drink. That night was the opening of a set of Jean’s sculptures, faces on pedestals with telescopes rising like Pisa from their open mouths. The faces had fine wrinkles and lopsided cheekbones, some with cracked lips, some with hair in their ears, some with prepubescent peach fuzz, others with craggy beards, pillowy lips, or waxed mustaches. Some were famous, some were not, some should have been.

When you looked through the eyepiece, you could see, according to Jean’s artist statement, the figure’s soul. I was on my fourth martini—gin, dirty, three olives—when I stepped back from the shining soul of Thomas Jefferson and found Jean next to me. The look in her eye said I’d been caught out, that she’d seen through my cheap suit, as if she could smell the Marksbury meshed in the fibers. I wanted to be embarrassed, to flee, but I was mesmerized. My legs and wits abandoned me. I was stranded, a Mississippi riverboat stuck between shore and shoal.

The stomach is the seat of human sentiment. That was the first thing Jean said to me after I had offered a cautious hello. I didn’t understand. I was distracted by those dissecting sienna eyes, her fine, eggshell skin, almost papery, and the tarnished silver key dangling heavily from her throat. The stomach, she repeated, is the seat of human sentiment. I glanced down at my drink, like it was a stage director who’d whisper my forgotten line. Jean took the martini from my hand, finished it in a single swallow, then handed back the empty glass. She spun on her heels and injected herself into another conversation.

Two more martinis and three cigarettes later, I mustered the courage to approach her. Why it took so long, I couldn’t tell you. She wasn’t ignoring me and the silent brooding thing isn’t my style. But every time I glanced in her direction, past telescopes and tuxedoes, evening dresses and canapés, she was watching me, smirking, like we were sharing a joke. And I smiled back, knowingly, like how you laugh even when you don’t get the punchline.

That night was spent on her studio floor on a Pollock-spotted tarp amidst the debris of dismantled telescopes. When I asked her about her sculptures, she gave this spiel about suns and souls being the same thing and that inner-space was as big as outer-space but we’ve only built tools for exploring one but not the other. She lit a cigarette and drank bourbon straight from the bottle. We drank and fucked till the sun came up.

I don’t think it’s right to call it fucking exactly. It wasn’t making love and fucking seems too hard a word, too much of a frenzy to describe what Jean and I did. It was slow and tender, like washing out a skinned knee. If salve wasn’t such an awkward verb, maybe. We never said I love you. I need you was our I love you. I knew it wasn’t the same, but I imagined it was. Better even, stronger, more pure. Love was cliché; lust was base. I thought we’d had something else, unspoken.

We never lived together. She never asked me to move in. I never took her to my place. We never went out. I didn’t care. We’d get drunk together, just us two. She’d call me: I need you, she’d say, and I would drive across the city. Three in the morning, two in the afternoon, it didn’t matter. Sometimes I got too drunk and showed up at her door in the middle of the night. She’d take me in, make me a cup of coffee with a splash of bourbon. Whatever I was waxing drunk about, she’d eventually drag it out, then take me to her bedroom and we’d fuck, and for almost a year, that was us.

I was on the way to Jean’s new address when my phone rang, so I pulled the beast into a Dunkin’ Donuts lot. It was Shawn Kane, my sponsor. I met Shawn in Pembroke when I was sick to death detoxing. Imagine the jolly love child of Jesus Christ and a St. Bernard at the end of a two-year stretch for drunk driving, prematurely wrinkled and yellowing from a hard life of boozing and cigars—that’s Shawn. He’d already had a bunch of DUIs under his belt, but the last time, the time that got him sent up to Pembroke, he didn’t even remember. He woke up as paramedics pulled him from his car while posters of popstars and ponies silently judged him from the walls. The front of his TransAm was in some kid’s pastel pink bedroom; the rear end jutted out into the yard, crushing the hydrangeas. The car had rammed this eleven-year-old girl’s bed across the room while she slept, pinning it between bumper and bureau. The girl was startled but unharmed. Her parents hugged her and cried, “It’s a miracle, it’s a miracle.”

And it was a miracle, Shawn’d say when he told his story at meetings. He’d say a miracle is God intervening on Earth. Sometimes it’s just a finger with a helpful nudge, and sometimes it’s an open, sheltering palm. And sometimes it’s a full-fisted gut punch from God.

And God, Shawn liked to say, never pulls his punches.

When I got out, Shawn met me at Pembroke and handed me the keys to his TransAm. She’ll get you where you need to go, he’d said, then vowed never to drive again.

Shawn had known I was going to see Jean that morning and wanted to know how it went, knew that it would be hard for me, worried that it’d go poorly, that I’d slip, that I’d drink. So I told him she’d moved, about the husband in the frou-frou neighborhood.

I told you she was slumming you, man. He had, he had told me. Said Jean saw me as this low-rent Bukowski-type that’d inspire her, give some guts to her pretentious art career. I didn’t listen, not then. He said he was wicked sorry, that I didn’t have to do this. That I shouldn’t do it. There was an exhale of heavy sweet smoke from his perpetual maduro. Someone else can deliver that fucking subpoena.

No, I tried to explain, that it was step number nine.

That’s bullshit, he said. What’d you ever do to her?

I loved her.

Fuck that. Where are you? I’ll come get you.

No, I said, and promised I’d call later.

Lloyd, he said, let it lie.

I hung up and drove.

It was a breezy autumn afternoon and there was nothing remarkable about the weather. It should have been a terrible thunderstorm with clouds so thick it was like night and lightning so bright it was like day, but weather never cooperates like it does in the movies. The beast pulled me east and then north and I watched the weary pawn shops, bodegas, and payday loan places of my neighborhood crawl from the ocean, evolving into gentrified coffee shops and yoga studios. Along the way I passed bars I used to frequent and as if time had collapsed, I watched past versions of me crash and careen into each other like billiard balls stumbling in and out of those doors and alleyways. A car honked and I found the TransAm had weaved across the center line so I jerked her straight.

Slamming the squealing door, I got out of the beast and took in Jean’s house. I’d have called the neighborhood a gated community if only it had a gate. It wasn’t new construction, not the suburbs, but an old money neighborhood just north of downtown where it wasn’t difficult to imagine horse and buggy clapping down the cobblestones. The house was a Queen Anne-style monstrosity—elaborate gables and dentil moldings, a huge bay window, and on top, a turret with parapets like Rapunzel’s tower.

Knocking on that door was the last thing I wanted to do, but it needed to be done. So, I started up the walk, oxfords on flagstones. Every footstep echoed, a rap across the knuckles from a nun, each step a mortification. Up the stairs of the porch, my fingers gripped the handrail. Every breath was magma. Every blink, sandpaper. There was no doorbell, only an old-fashioned knocker with the face of Galileo. I raised my unsteady hand to the metal bob. It was brass and cool in my hand.

I closed my eyes and inhaled deep into my diaphragm. I imagined a purgative exhale, everything from Jefferson’s soul to the Serpentine Gallery rushing out in a deluge. I remembered Jean’s last sad glance before the cops sent me up to Pembroke a year ago. There had been no shine, no twinkle, no joke in her eyes. I took one last look at Jean’s door, and turned back to my car.

That’s when I heard my name. Lloyd? Jean stood in the doorway; I hadn’t even heard it open. She sized me up in a moment. She knew immediately that I was sober, my skin no longer sallow and bloated, but full, eyes focused, lacking those terrible shadows. I felt buoyed by light, not liquor, and Jean was surprised. She was radiant. She made a furtive glance back into the house then smiled invitingly. Lloyd, she whispered, what are you doing here?

I swallowed and spoke. With this subpoena you are hereby commanded to report in person at the Lincolnshire County Courthouse on Tuesday, October the 5th; Serpentine Gallery LLC vs Jean Kincaid. Then I handed her the papers.

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