A Day in the Night of Joy

by Marc Zeedar,

Mortimer's head was uncomfortably twisted, propped with a pillow, his body sprawled across the hump they called a couch. One corner of the tiny, dark apartment was filled with a television, turned up deafeningly loud, blaring nonsense.

Mortimer's steel-grey eyes were welded to the set. A reversed image of the dusty western played across the silent pupils, colorless and faded.

The room was a jungle, a desert. It was hot and dark and the wild smells were prolific. There was the rotting carcass of an old kill, the sweet smell of victory mixed with death. Here was survival, survival of the fittest. Evolution was at work; only man kept it at bay.

Except for the radiating television and the glow of Mort's eyes, there was no light. The flickering television cast brief shadows across the stained walls, like characters across a stage. The beer can on the coffee table loomed to become a great monument in the middle of a desert; it reached for the ceiling, disappeared, then reincarnated as a small smokestack. There were stories in those walls.

Mortimer lay silent, relaxed in his own contentment. He was an old man; looked sixty but was probably forty. His skin was pale and grey, and hung from his dry frame like a snake's shedding skin. He smelled long unbathed, and he hadn't changed his clothes for at least a week.

But he was happy. There was a smile on his face and he was at peace, off in his own world. Even that thirsty look that so often haunted him was gone from his eyes.

In the kitchen, away from the jungle struggle, the Elephant rumbled busily about, banging pans and slamming cabinet doors. The faucet had been left on again and gushed nonstop. The sound flowed steadily, rarely varying pitch, a dull, lifeless monotone. It would ask questions, then answer itself. The hot jungle world was an ocean apart from the cool kitchen.

"Mort, have ya even heard a darn word I've said?" A sudden glare of light burst into the living room as the door to the kitchen opened. It was as though the moon had suddenly become the sun. A giant black shadow looming in the doorway stood dusting huge paws on a rag, sending dry puffs of cloud like rain into the scattered threads of an ancient carpet. Heavy footsteps lumbered their way to the couch, ignoring the crunch of stale popcorn and the snap of empty peanut shells. "Mort, I'm speaking to you!"

Mort didn't move.

"All day ya drink beer and watch TV. You'd be better off dead!" The bulk of the women bent over the back of the couch to straighten the red-stained remains of a one-time silk tie. "Ought'a string ya up with this, I ought'a. Only I doubt the frail thing would hold yer weight." Her eyes added up the almost negligible weight of the old man and she smiled.

Joy brushed lunch's crumbs off Mort's lap and laughed. It seemed loud and unnatural, like a burst of laughter in an empty house. The sound bounced eriely off thin walls unused to such abuse.

"Talked to Suzy today. She wanted ta talk to you, but I told her you're busy. She went on about the office 'n' ever'thin'. Does she always talk shop like that? Says the new product manager isn't as good as you. Says he never stays late like you did. I suppose that's a compliment, but I think she's just after yer job. Jealous about you gettin' the six months off, no doubt. And me getting my leave now too. Won't be long, either...." Joy was quiet for a moment, her hand caressing her heavy stomach.

"Says she's gonna have a baby, what ya think of that! No doubt it won't be his, though. Shouldn't wonder, the way she gets aroun'. Tom don't know though, believe that. There'll be changes if he finds out."

Joy stepped in front of the TV, blocking the light from her husband's eyes. "Look at your hair, Mort. You could at least try to comb it." Her hand caressed the gray wisps into place. She turned away and began clearing the table for dinner, occasionally restoring the glow in her husband's eyes by letting stabs of TV light dart into them.

"I'll bring supper out now. And thanks fer all yer help, Mort." The woman disappeared into the kitchen, blocking the doorway light for a moment.

Mort lay quietly, his face tired. It was always the same. Every day. Same dry speeches, same old shows, same faded food. Played over and over like a movie.

"Got somethin' new fer ya tonight, Mort." Joy came out of the kitchen bearing a tray. "Got yer favorite, country fried steak. I also got creamed carrots and some Jello. Ya hungry, Mort?" She set the tray on the table before him, but Mort didn't even bother to look.

"Come on Mort, eat up. You need yer strength. You know what the Doc said." Joy took a spoonful of Jello and forced into Mort's mouth. Most of it missed, the rest came back out and dripped down his chin. Joy quickly used her napkin to catch the excess.

"Mort, I've been thinkin'. We need ta get away. How does a cruise sound? 'member Love Boat yesterday? Or was it last week? I can't remember, exactly. But I've always wanted ta go to the Caribbean. There'd be beaches and sun and the beautiful ocean. Ya'd love the ocean, Mort. I know ya would.

"It'd be like havin' our own island, Mort. Just the two of us, like Robinson Crusoe. I could be yer Friday, and fix ya supper and everythin'. Perhaps we could even hunt and try to survive for real. It'd be a dream, Mort. A dream." Joy mechanically wiped Jello off Mort's chin and spooned in another mouthful.

"Of course we can't go. I know that. We can't afford it, as y'always say. But it'd be such a nice change . . . ." Joy began cutting the steak on the plate in front of her, alternating between putting a bite in her own mouth and trying to get Mort to swallow one.

"But then you weren't one fer change, now were ya. Naw, you just sit and hope things never change, I know you. Change can be good, Mort. Of course change can be bad, too, I'll not deny that. Just be sure ya know the difference, Mort. The bad kind of change ya don't never recover from."

Joy sat beside Mort, lost in thought, for a moment her hand frozen in the process of feeding another bite to Mort. Finally she stuffed the meat into her own mouth.

"Ya want some creamed carrots?" Mort did his best to look bored and Joy apparently took heed of the action. "All right, Mort. I guess ya've had enough. But I'm not givin' ya any dessert, Mort."

Joy gathered the dinner plates and took them to the kitchen. "Ya want ta help me do the dishes, honey?"

Mort was deathly quiet, and seemed to be holding his breath, as though hoping she'd forget the question. The kitchen door was closed again and in the dim room his eyes glowed brightly with the image of a man selling a box of soap. Water was faintly rushing in the kitchen again, gently rising and falling, like a human voice. The TV room was still. The television was quietly screaming for attention from the corner. Mortimer was busy growing a long beard.

". . . and I just know Tom's gonna leave her, and then we'll laugh last. Don't ya think so, honey?" Faded glimpses of watery speech echoed from the kitchen. "I mean . . . but of course things always change, they always do . . . but not with us, right dear?" For a scant moment the gushing stopped and the kitchen door opened a crack and the silhouette of a tiny head poked through the doorway, perhaps hoping for an answer.

Mort didn't move.

"Of course, not. Never. Things would never change between us. That only happens to people like Suzy. Why if you even thought of leavin' me I'd...." The head popped back into the kitchen as though it had never been out. Indeed, it was hard to imagine it had. The door snapped shut but one could hear that the faucet was now fully turned on.

In the TV room Mort rested peacefully, quiet as a soul.


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