The Joke

Maria Kuznetsova | Fiction

There’s a joke my grandmother loved to tell that starts with an old man wilting on his deathbed. His friends and family have gathered downstairs to await the inevitable as his wife prepares an elaborate meal for them. The old man hasn’t eaten in days but the scent of potatoes and herring wafts up the stairs and he is suddenly ravenous. He calls up his young grandson and says, “Do me a favor, boy. Go steal some food for your dear grandfather.” The boy obeys him, and the dying man waits in the darkening room as the savory smell invades his nostrils. He hears the boy’s pitter-patter up the stairs but is disappointed when he returns empty-handed. The boy tells him, “Grandmother told me the food is for afterward.”

Whenever Baba told the joke, I laughed because I pitied the old man. After she died, I understood the joke was not about the dying man but his wife, trying to carry on and feed everybody. I could hardly laugh at all after she died. Any time I saw Papa or my students, or even our cat, Mr. Snuggles, all I could do was picture them old and withered on their deathbeds.

Papa said I was too morose but mostly left me alone. During the day he was an adjunct physics professor; at night, he puttered away on his creations in the basement. After work, I joined Mr. Snuggles in Baba’s bedroom and held him when he allowed it. Things came to a head when Papa found me at the door telling Baba’s joke to a delivery man who had come to drop off some beakers.

“Enough of your foolishness,” he said after the man had gone. “What do you have to be so upset about? You are relatively young. You have your future ahead of you. Your grandmother died in her turn, don’t you see?”

“All I can see is oblivion,” I said. “Please help.”

He sighed and put his head in his hands. “I try not to do this anymore,” he said, but he lifted a finger and disappeared below. I supposed he was not wrong—I was only thirty, but I felt ancient. He emerged with a handful of herbs and began brewing me a cup of tea.

“Tea?” I said. I was expecting a potion, or at least a balm.

He sighed. “You are a difficult case, Yulia. Drink this tea and you will have the power to see any person change into their oldest selves. Focus on the person’s nose and hold your breath for ten seconds and he will appear old until you breathe again. After a while, the matter will become so mundane it will no longer worry you.”

I downed the tea in one gulp. It tasted like lilacs.

“Two rules,” Papa said. “One, you cannot tell anyone about what you see. Two, you cannot try it on yourself. If you do either, you will lose your powers.”

I followed Papa’s instructions and watched him change into a dignified old man with a white mustache and oversized ears, which soothed me. Next I grabbed Mr. Snuggles by his black, mangy paws, desperately trying to conjure him in his dotage as he tried to pull away.

“It will not work on pets, darling. Or children,” Papa said. He gave me a strange, wistful gaze and patted my head. “A difficult case,” he said again, before leaving me alone once more.

I had fun with the powers for three menstrual cycles. I met men for drinks late at night, and if I decided they had potential—though most of the time they did not—I would conjure their older selves as they sipped their flat beers. I was always disappointed, seeing their flaky hands and saggy necks and weak old man jaws materializing before me. But I took them to bed anyway. “Men are like appetizers,” Baba used to say, putting lipstick on at the mirror as she awaited a suitor. “There is no limit to how many you can sample.”

One time, I felt compelled to use my powers when one of the appetizers was fucking me. I couldn’t help myself. I looked up to find a bald old man with three warts on his nose, rather jolly I must admit, wildly thrusting into me. I shrieked so hard the man put a hand over my mouth, thinking I was voicing a profound pleasure. I did not correct him. After that, I couldn’t help but do the trick on every man during the deed. It didn’t take long for this to ruin sex for me, or men, so I returned to the reluctant paws of Mr. Snuggles.

Papa made creations to cheer me up. Countless batches of food—blini and borscht and vareniki galore—with Baba’s face on them. A doormat that made me levitate until I crashed down with a thud. An elixir to make me relive a day of my childhood in Kiev, except I turned into a fat baby and spent most of the day breastfeeding. It was nice to be so close to Mama again, even if she was mostly obscured by her heaving bosom. I wanted to come up for air, I wanted to reach out and stroke her face, but I just ended up choking and choking on her milk.

When I returned home, I went back to Baba’s room and stared at myself in the mirror where she used to primp, wondering how I would age. A thought occurred to me when Papa crept up the stairs, bringing me Baba-faced dumplings.

I asked him, “Can’t I just drink more tea if I break the rules?”

“There is no more tea, little idiot,” he said, gazing out the window. “Your grandmother made it.”

A man came to the door to deliver a large glass sphere. This was two tubes of toothpaste after I had given up on dating. Through the glass, he looked like a hammerhead shark and I was pleasantly surprised to find him quite handsome when he put the object down. Not my type—dark-haired, thin, tattooed, sad-eyed—but handsome under the hot sun.

“What is it?” he asked me.

“You delivered it,” I said. “Why don’t you tell me?”

He smiled. “I’m new at this job.”

I smiled back, foolishly. “Aren’t we all?”

I made him a cup of tea and gave him a towel and watched him wipe the sweat from his face, and I felt the urge to see him old, though I hadn’t used my powers for a while. I stared at his nose and held my breath and saw him with white hair and a more wrinkled face, but not nearly as old as the other men looked, hardly past middle age. This made me suck in my breath.

“What?” he said. “Do I have something on my face?”

“Nothing,” I said, and he moved his feet toward mine under the table and my toes tingled.

“Hasn’t anyone ever told you it’s not polite to stare?” he said.

“It never occurred to me,” I said. “Would you mind carrying that thing to the basement?”

He followed me down to the dank dungeon, holding the sphere over his head. I flicked on the lights to reveal a fish tank in the corner of the room, tiny creatures I could not identify floundering inside. A cactus with the face of Brezhnev sprouted next to it. Beakers of neon liquid bubbled on the counter and photographs of Baba hung from scythes on the walls. Papa and Mama’s wedding rings spun around each other so fast they made a ball of gold light.

The man set down the bubble and said, “What is it all for?”

“To help pass the time,” I said.

He ran a hand over a terrarium swarming with tiny sickles. “Beautiful,” he declared. But he was looking at me. My blood quaked.

“Can I tell you a joke?” I said. He nodded and I told him Baba’s joke and I trembled when I asked him who he thought it was about.

“It’s obvious,” he said, stepping closer. “It’s about the guests at the reception, trying to drink and have a good time in spite of the man dying upstairs.”

The guests were so beside the point that I laughed. Then I stroked the cheek of this wrong, wrong man. How good it felt to be with someone who knew nothing.

We spent every day together after that. I went on deliveries with him after teaching, feet on the dashboard of his truck as the fire-colored trees zipped by, music nearly blasting us into immortality. When he kissed me, it was like I had stuck my finger in a socket. An image of my grandmother hovered over me, lifting a finger in the air as she said, “Falling in love is like stepping in dog shit. There is no questioning whether you have done it or not.” The first time, he brought a blanket to the woods and we got pricked by hundreds of little thorns as we rolled around, bleeding wildly, but it didn’t hurt. I was as aroused and indestructible as a teen. After that, I did not try to see his death face again. I didn’t need to.

But I wanted answers. I visited Papa in the basement. He did not see me yet. He was cleaning a fish tank crowded with floating, sentient manicured hands while Mr. Snuggles helped by licking the outside. Papa had been more ambitious with his inventions when I was younger. He had tried to bring Mama back from the dead or reach God or make me comprehend science, but it was to no avail. But he was just playing around now.

Two giant floral bushes bloomed on either side of him, and they both had Baba’s big blue eyes and wild orange hair. A small ferret in a cage sang old Soviet war songs. The sphere my lover had delivered was crawling with iridescent throbbing hearts. A hologram of Mama as a teenager with garlands in her hair danced above our heads. She looked tremendous, her dark hair as thick and beguiling as seaweed on the tide.

“Papa?” I said. “I have a question.”

“Oh, Yulia,” he said, his shoulders sagging. “I have many questions, but do you see me throwing them around helter skelter?”

I was distracted by the floral Baba bush and I stroked her flower face, her cheeks rosy and lovely. A stack of Baba latkes sat next to Papa, and he was absently munching one of them, a dollop of sour cream on his nose. I took a bite of one too and it filled me with peace.

I wanted to ask Papa about the man’s face, if seeing him not so old meant what I thought it meant. But seeing my father hunching below the Mama hologram, I already knew the answer.

“Actually,” I said. “I don’t have a question for you. I wanted to tell you something.”

“Well?” he said, munching another latke. “What is it?”

“I’m in love, Papa. I’m getting married.”

“Is that so?” he said. He looked almost as devastated as he did when I found him at the top of the stairs telling me Baba had died in her sleep.

We got married by the time I raked up forty-four bags of leaves. Papa sat in the front row with his far-off, wistful gaze next to holograms of Mama and Baba. “Marriage,” Baba used to say, “is the tie that binds—and the knot that cuts off the circulation to the brain.”

My husband and I moved across town, and soon after I gave birth to a beautiful daughter. She was followed almost immediately by a beautiful son, whose arrival was dampened only by the fact that Mr. Snuggles died the same week. We loved each other madly.

It wasn’t always easy, of course. My husband would go on deliveries across the country and I would stay up wondering who he was with, but when he was gone longer than he said he’d be, I never asked where he had been. I took long walks in the morning, chasing the fog, wanting to disappear in it until I taught my third graders, making them follow me down the halls like little ducklings, relieved I would likely not outlive a single one of them. When I grew melancholy, I used my powers on my neighbors or strangers at the store, finding a slight peace in it.

We had a good life together, on the whole. We were busy, but at least a few times a week, we would sit on the porch in the morning, laughing at the joggers breezing by, desperate simpletons trying to outrun their fates. Though every day his hair got whiter and whiter, I was sure he had at least a decade to go. I could bear it. Maybe we had even more time than that. I hoped he aged well, my husband.

“What is it?” he would say, whenever I stared at him for too long.

“Nothing,” I would answer. “I just feel so lucky.”

“Secretive girl,” he would say, smiling slyly and shaking his head. “Secretive father,” he would add, sometimes.

Papa came around to play with the kids and brought us treats. He made a ten-pointed starfish, but it only lasted in the tank for a day before it began singing the soundtrack to The Little Mermaid and we had to bury it in the yard, leaving a little air hole out of pity. Another time he brought a lotion that made the children invisible and they had fun playing hide and seek for hours until I collided with my daughter in the yard and got a concussion.

Papa’s efforts weren’t all for naught. He once gave me and my husband a potion for our anniversary that transported us to Imperial Russia on a cushy sled buried under a mountain of fur coats, and we sped through the snowy spires and stallions of the country sipping vodka and gazing at the stars and not once did I conjure my husband’s death face. Mr. Snuggles was there too, did I mention that? This was right before he died. He sat between us and when I stroked his bushy idiot head, he did not pull away. He rested his soft chin on my arm and licked the snow off my mitten. I will never forget it.

Thank you for that, Papa. Can you hear me? I refuse to believe you are nowhere. You did not raise me to think so.

The children had lost fourteen baby teeth by the time Papa was on his deathbed. They sat in tiny chairs beside him, kicking their feet in starched clothes, visibly bored. I told them to bring their grandfather a cup of tea. When they pattered down the stairs, I understood Baba’s joke anew. It wasn’t about the old lady trying to hold it together, but the grandson who had to carry on long after his grandparents were gone. How would the poor boy manage?

Papa stroked my hair. “Problem child,” he said. “Problem adult.”

“Problem father,” I told him, and he nodded, not without pride. It was strange to see him out of his element, in his bedroom. He had only carried the sphere of throbbing hearts and a few photographs of Mama and Baba up with him. Then he stroked my hair and gave me his signature wistful gaze, like he wasn’t really seeing me but someone else, and I finally knew what it meant.

You drank it too, didn’t you?” I said. “You’re seeing me as an old woman. Or hopefully an old woman.”

He smiled slowly. “You have figured me out, my darling. Your father is a difficult case too, you see. Seeing you this way from time to time has brought me great comfort, particularly after your grandmother passed away.”

“Can’t you tell me what I look like?” I said, but he just gave me the same stupid smile.

“Beautiful,” Papa said. “All of it is difficult, my darling,” he added, and then he died.

I began to panic by the time my husband resembled his death face. His black hair was white and fell to his shoulders and his eyes had retreated into his face, sad as ever. Our children were cunning teenagers by then, sneaking out in the middle of the night to meet lovers, though we didn’t stop them. We still laughed at the joggers in the mornings and had vigorous afternoon sex and were fit enough to rake on our own. He would be gone any day now. By then, I had used my powers enough to see plenty of people in the same sad situation, but they were strangers.

I would wake up in the middle of the night and beg the moon to let my husband live. If it was a quiet night, I could hear the faint trills of the starfish we were not able to kill bubbling up through the grass in the backyard—I’m ready to know what the people know, over and over and over. Stubborn creature, I was glad we didn’t have the heart to bury it all the way.

“What’s gotten into you?” my husband said. “Look, I know your mother is dead and your grandmother is dead and your father is dead, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to go any time soon. I’m not nearly done with you yet,” he said, squeezing my side, and it was all I could do to keep from telling him everything or bursting into tears.

“Don’t forget Mr. Snuggles,” I said. I still cried out to him in my sleep, sometimes.

My husband rolled his eyes with a sad smile. “He never took to me.”

“Me neither,” I said, and then we fucked madly all afternoon long, while the children were at the movies with friends. Every time we fucked after that, I asked myself, is this the last time? Is this the last? Is this? It occurred to me that he could die in the middle of fucking me, which horrified me at first and then delighted me, because there are worse ways to go out, after all, and there’s something lovely about leaving the world the way you came into it, naked and bewildered, slick with a woman’s fluid.

I came twenty-seven more times before he went. He did not die while fucking me, however. He was driving a truck to deliver lab equipment and had the courtesy to pull over on the side of the highway before his heart gave out.

I nearly disintegrated at the funeral. I couldn’t stand any more people clutching my hands and telling me they were so sorry, he was too young to die, nobody saw this coming, who could have guessed it? Me, that’s who. My children helped me set the oily food out on sad little platters, all of which was catered except the Baba latkes, the only thing Papa ever taught me to make. Outside the window, I spotted two determined joggers running like they were never going to die. Our children and the guests heartily drinking and stuffing their faces and telling stories about my husband were acting the same way, shameless fools. I saw I had been wrong about Baba’s joke yet again. Or, depending on how you look at it, I had been right in parts but had not put it all together until that moment.

The joke was on everybody.

It was time to rid myself of my powers. What good had they ever done me? I went up to our bedroom and sat before my mirror and stared at my tired but not-so-old face. I smelled the sauerkraut and potatoes and salmon roiling through the somber air. It nearly made me gag.

I followed Papa’s instructions one final time. I held my breath and focused on my nose and it wasn’t long before the change began. My edges blurred and my features melted until a new but familiar face appeared before me, one with larger eyes and wilder hair and a sour but kind expression. The cheerful face of my dear grandmother. She stared back at me and her lips curled into a smile and I knew what she was going to say.

“Go on, get out of here,” she said, glaring at me lovingly. “The food is waiting for you.”