Recently, I sent the following to a short story contest. The challenge was to write a story that included a joke and someone crying. Oh, and it had to be less than 600 words. Sadly, I didn’t win. Short stories are tough for me, which is one of the many reasons I’ll be entering an MFA program this summer. Thought I’d share the piece here.
Emma was mesmerized by a guitar-playing lemur bounding across the television screen on its way to scouting zebras in the Sahara. She lifted the hem of her polka dot nightie, revealing striped Barbie panties and a bandage covering a scrape on her knee. Mark reached out to lower the hem, but the five-year-old swatted his hand away. As Emma became more enthralled by the Saturday morning kiddie show, Mark bounced one of her pink rubber balls on the floor and thought of what to say. He hadn’t been home much lately, what with prepping for the Endicott case. Still, he’d fantasized himself the beloved papa whose arms Emma would run into whenever he made an appearance.
Mark was in love with her in the sweet way he used to love his own mama, his grammar school crush, his Mary the first time he saw her hiding in a corner at senior prom. But his love for Emma was even sweeter, the kind of deep down adoration where he knew the world really would end without her.
Mark grew up in a family of men. Eagle Scouts and football players, military men and firefighters. He thought this put him at a disadvantage. But Emma was his girl. Spawned from his seed. There was no way he wouldn’t break through.
“Knock knock,” he said, tapping his coffee mug.
Emma turned, considered him for a moment as if she’d forgotten he was in the room. “Who’s there?”
“Interrupting Cow wh—”
“Moo,” he said before she could finish.
Immediately, he sensed the eruption catch fire in her belly. It began with her smile turning into a frown and her cheeks glowing red. Finally, the volcano blew and Emma let out a wail that echoed through the halls. When he went to her, she dropped to the floor kicking her heels.
“You never let me say what I wanna say,” she whined through a throat clogged with mucus and tears.
Mary came into the room holding a bunch of roses she’d been arranging for a client. “What happened?”
“I was just telling her a joke.”
“What joke?” Mary held her trembling daughter. “You obviously scared her.”
“Interrupting cow is scary?” Mark shouted. “Interrupting bear maybe. Interrupting jackal. But interrupting cow?”
“You always bark at people.” Mary bounced Emma in her arms. “The whole world to you is a court room. You have to be sensitive. She’s a girl.”
The room became agonizingly quiet. The only sound was Mary’s sloppy kissing noises against the side of Emma’s head. She’s a girl. As if this was the answer to every question on Earth.
This was his first mistake. The next mistake would find him suggesting Emma not wear her princess crown to the grocery store. The next he’d warn her about her belly growing pudgier if she kept eating whoopee pies. Years later would come the weekend she locked herself in her room after the neighbor’s puppy was hit by a car. Mark never rapped on the door. The next year, she’d nurse a painful crush on a mascara-wearing drama dude with a girlfriend. Mark’s only words of encouragement were, “you’ll get over it.” In between were the moments she’d shut the door during phone calls or he’d sit at the dinner table listening to conversations he knew nothing about. But all those moments evolved from this one. If he’d known he would never get Emma back completely, he would have told a different joke.
Mary plopped Emma on the floor and returned to the kitchen. Mark rolled the pink ball between his hands. He was about to leave the room when Emma giggled, opened her mouth and said, “knock knock.”
[Image from http://www.thetwentyfirstfloor.com]