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
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
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
"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
"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
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,
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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