My entry to NPR’s 3 minute fiction contest. It can be no longer than 600 words. One character must tell a joke and the same or a second character must cry.
I hitched a ride from Bellefonte and raised enough money at a service plaza near Milesburg to grab the local Greyhound home. I’m a wounded veteran, to hear me tell it, and a gimp. It was less trouble than I thought it would be, and no one got hurt.
The bus ran I-80 through central Pennsylvania, in the valley between the branches of the Susquehanna River. It’s pretty country in the three short seasons surrounding winter. I have travelled the route a hundred times, I suppose, and have worked the road gang up near Bloomsburg, by the College, where it was easy enough to get into trouble. I searched the bus for college girls, when I got on, but it was a weekday afternoon run, with just the dribs and drabs of the populace headed east to Hazelton, Wilkes Barrie-Scranton or New York City. The plaza at Milesburg is a drug dealers’ rendezvous, and I wondered for a while which of my fellow passengers was carrying what to where. Then, I dozed off.
I woke when the bus turned off on Route 11 to Berwick. From my seat, I couldn’t quite see the smoke from the power plant along the river, but I really didn’t need to see it to picture it. The bus, as always, struggled up the steep road. The driver dropped me off across from the McDonalds, by the gas station. McDonalds is my shrine of sorts, but I didn’t bother to cross the street. I could see it well enough from where I stood. Five years ago, almost to the day, I caught a police bullet with my left leg just outside that McDonalds. I walk with my right leg and drag the left along, just like so many other people you have learned to feel sorry for. You don’t need to feel sorry for me. It wouldn’t do either of us any good.
I headed north up 11 to “Daddy’s,” the most local of the local bars. It was no more than a half a mile up hill, but my leg had tightened up with the three hour bus ride and I had to stop now and again to catch my breath and mop my sweat up. The streets were deserted.
I got to Daddy’s around six. It was plenty light enough for me to get a good look. The five years I had been away had not made it any less of a dive. The windows, out along the highway, hadn’t been cleaned in twenty years and there was not a single car in the unlined parking lot worth stealing.
I took a deep breath and opened the door. Just as I walked through, I heard my cousin Charley—it could only be cousin Charley—say “and it was his old lady.” I walked through the sad, creaky door just as everyone in the damn place broke up laughing from Charley’s old joke. They were, one and all, howling with laughter. I knew in my head they weren’t laughing at me, but my body didn’t. I turned rash red, my blood came up and as I went for the nearest of the local drunks, my bad leg gave out and I flopped in the sodden sawdust. Still worse, as I started to get back up, I could hear from some dim corner of this forsaken hole at the end of the universe, the unmistakable sound of my mother as she began, very quietly, to cry.