A Joke

We were five: John and his wife Lydia, and Thomas the Artist, and Kevin and me. The table seats eight for foresight and we sit unbalanced at the end of the table for dinner, a bottle of wine and the first course, salad.

Our party’s noise echoes off the cabinet doors, similar words again and again in our voices. Across the table Kevin leads the conversation on politely like his grown-up hand in a child’s down the sidewalk: John tells a story about his lawyer’s breakdown in court, Kevin counters with a failed meeting earlier in the week. Kevin with his answers to the conversation. Kevin replies.

“We were thinking of taking a trip south Friday, see Lydia’s parents.” John has a statement.

Kevin starts a sentence with we. Kevin says something. Kevin keeps saying. While I take bites Kevin’s saying becomes something that isn’t saying but another thing entirely, a gradual change. His mouth is too wide. With each sentence it is wider, out and up and down, and I try in disbelief to watch to see if Lydia sees, if Thomas– Thomas who has to see– the shape-shifting. The sounds change. Each word is a morph of the noise itself and his face, contorting. The whole length of each sentence is a process of flattening– the accuracy of his features into unreal exaggerations of shapes descending to sharp lines. Sounds that started human and then flattened to shreds of gutted noise. Savage or alien the change is sickening, like watching a bone twist brutally from its place.

The conversation continues as everyone else nods toward this unrecognizable thing as though they can’t see, the horror not in their faces but in the grotesque figure that began as Kevin as my husband as human. To make it stop I want to reach across the table: I want to reform him first and then I want to tear the whole thing apart, to stop the movement of his absurd muscles and terrible jaw. Deaden the sounds. Alone I would claw at him, sharp teeth and sharp fingers, until there was nothing left of his mouth. His jaw is moving. His jaw moves. Moving and screeching with bones and tendons of a misshaped animal.

With a bare excuse I stand up, make my way around the table. In the bathroom I use the surface of every counter and door and wall to stop the temperature of my skin, running the water to not hear my pulse in everything. Closed or open I see his whole parade of selves in the back of my head where my eyes were supposed to show me the sink or faucets or floor. His thick voice was still a murmur through the door, and it came and went and came and went until a brief pause, enough silence to know how inevitably I would need to go back. Shaking into the mirror I moved to exit only to hear one final murmur, a final word.

As the door opens I hear their laughter rattle like a deep breath out in the room, Lydia with her hand placed briefly and gently on Kevin’s arm in adoration, the light in the room of an entirely different shade. The laughter rolled and boomed up to the final whimpers of praise, John and Thomas wiping their eyes in a gesture of the recognition of a man’s clever mind while Kevin nodded, proud. Around the table I faced him and something had emptied and he’d returned– my husband. As I opened the cabinet doors for the final course I caught his eyes for the upturn of his normal, average smile.

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