The Punch Line


Back then I was a car barreling down the road without anyone at the wheel. It wasn’t anything to get loaded off dashboard margaritas on my lunch break and take off early to hit the bars. Then, instead of going home to my wife and kid in the evening, I’d wait until dark and my buddy, this dentist named McKisson, would have me and a couple of girls into his office after hours and wheel out the nitrous.

We’d pass that mask around, like a big Groucho Marx nose, and take turns inhaling it as long and deep as we could until it felt like our lungs were going to explode. Pretty soon the four of us would be laughing like we’d heard the funniest joke in the world. McKisson would crank that gas up as soon as the getting got good and he’d give the signal, the signal we’d agreed on, as to which one of the girls he’d wanted.

McKisson had told me, a year or so earlier, that it was his office and so he got first choice. I didn’t have a problem with that. We’d been sitting up at the Sportsman’s and downing pitchers. Life didn’t seem like life back then. Nothing seemed serious. Nothing seemed imminent.

You done this before? I asked him.

You kidding? This is an every-weekend kind of thing.

Really?

Really.

The first time for me was that night. McKisson disappeared into the back of the bar and made a couple of calls. The girls were over at The Palace and they were what the locals called Good-Time Girls. We didn’t have cell phones so he called over there and got the bartender. They were such regulars they might as well have paid the phone bill.

We got to McKisson Family Dental a little after one and he led us through the waiting area and into one of the examination rooms. One of the girls, a brunette named Tammy, had grabbed an issue of Highlights on her way in. She was showing her friend a maze in the back and the two of them were giggling like they’d already gotten into the gas.

Look at the little Indian girl, she was saying. How do we get her back to her teepee?

Her friend was squinting and studying the trail. I thought maybe I’d gone to school with her at some point but I couldn’t be sure. Well, she said, seriously, whatever you do, be on the lookout for those wolves. They look nasty.

While McKisson got the gas ready they showed me the maze. It was a children’s puzzle, a looping trail that went through a dark forest. On the edges, whenever you made a wrong turn, was a mangy-looking wolf with sharp fangs. What do you think? the brunette asked me.

I traced the path. Here you go, I said. Looks like we got her home nice and safe.

Well, well, well, the girl I thought I knew said. Guess we got a smart one here.

My buddy rolled a tank in on a little handcart and when he turned the valve the mask started hissing. Let’s check this thing, he said and got himself a big pull. I watched him suck it in and his chest filled out like he was inflating. When he finally exhaled it was punctuated with a chuckle. That’s the good stuff, he said.

Pretty soon we all had some and I could feel my arms and legs and fingers and toes tingling. I felt warm. Everything started fuzzing at the edges. I looked at the girls and they were leaning on each other and whispering. McKisson had a few beers stashed away in his private fridge and he came in with them and we all toasted.

To modern medicine, he said.

Later he gave me the signal and took the brunette into another room and left me with the girl I thought I recognized. We finished our beers and she laid out on the examination chair. I think I know you, she said.

I think I know you too, I said.

When I got back home after four in the morning the gas was wearing off. I was thirsty as hell, a little nauseous. My wife was asleep on the couch in front of the TV. The channel she’d been watching was signed off for the night and all that was left was a placeholder and the long, constant tone. She was wearing her robe, a plush, purple number she’d wear all weekend if I didn’t say something. The belt had come loose and the robe fallen open. I could get a real eyeful from the doorway.

I didn’t wake her up. Just fell into bed and didn’t come to until three-thirty. By then the kid was in the living room playing with his blocks and my wife was drinking a Pepsi mixed with some bottom-shelf rum.

Good morning, she said.

Morning.

Long night?

Yeah, I said. Reckon it was.

The kid looked up from his playing. He was a year old but still as docile and pleasant as a newborn. There was no malice or evil in him, but I couldn’t help but see my own death whenever I looked his way.

Da-ad, he said.

Morning, I said. Hon, I said, you make any coffee?

There was still some in the pot. I went in to fix a cup and she came in, still wearing that purple robe. What’d you get into last night? she asked me.

Nothing much, I said.

You sounded awful this morning. I could hear you snoring and choking from the living room. Woke me up.

I took the cup over to the china cabinet we’d inherited from her grandparents and looked to see what there was to give it a little life. The bourbon was all gone so I settled for some of her rum. Sorry, I said.

I’d like you to stay home tonight, she said.

I can look into that, I said.

Please?

I had every intention to until McKisson gave me a ring from his office. The girls were already giggling out-of-control in the background.

For a year and a half that’s how things went. He’d scrounge up some Good-Time Girls from wherever he found them and we’d have ourselves a little party. Occasionally one of our buddies would come in, even had the chief of police one night, but most of them lost a taste for it after a time or two.

I tell you what, the chief said to me out at the Elk’s, I never had a hangover that bad. You and the dentist? You’re messing with some real shit out there.

Truth is, I couldn’t of agreed more. The mix of gas and booze was a potent one, left me feeling like I’d slipped out of time somehow. There wasn’t a morning I woke up that I didn’t feel like I’d really gone and knocked something out of whack. I told McKisson about it and he just gave me a smile.

That’s what I like to call the punch line, he said.

What’s that?

You know, like the end of the joke. You hear the damn thing, all that tension’s building up, and all of a sudden you get to the end and all that’s left is that ‘huh’ feeling.

I’d had my share of punch lines. I knew that for sure. It got to the point where it wasn’t even fun anymore. Got to be habit. We’d go in there with whatever girls he’d found and hit the gas and then him and his choice would disappear and me and mine would get down to our business. Something about that, about the day-after-day-ness of it, took its toll.

One Sunday I swore it off. I got out of bed feeling like I’d been deep-sea diving and come down with a bad case of the bends. My wife and kid were in the other room playing some game and there was a show on the TV with singing puppets and cartoons. After getting my coffee I settled onto the couch and watched them.

Here, my wife said, picking up a plastic cow, what does the cow say?

Moo, the child said.

And what does the cow make?

Milk, the child said. The cow makes milk.

That’s right, she said. Good morning, she said.

Morning, I said.

I sat there and watched them play on the floor like I wasn’t even in the room. It occurred to me that I was watching them live their lives without me. That they’d been living their lives without me.

For a couple of weeks that set me straight. I’d sit around and watch them play, even got in the floor and played myself. There was a cow and a pig and a horse and a bunch of Lego’s. I helped them build up these big barns so the animals could go inside and sleep. When I put the roof on I said to my boy, There you go, there’s the roof.

Good, he said. They’re safe from the rain now.

We were safe. I remember thinking that. I’d beat the gas and I’d beat the temptation.

But it didn’t last. All it took was another call from McKisson. I was outside working on pulling the weeds that’d gotten out of hand. They’d grown up thigh-level by then and the city had come by and let us know it was getting past the point where they could turn their heads. My wife called my name from the door. She looked like somebody had died.

On my way out I had to step past my boy. He had that barn we’d built and all the animals were standing around it. The horse was missing. Dad, he said, I don’t know where the horse.

You don’t know where the horse? I said.

I don’t know, he said.

Tell you what, I said, we’ll find that horse when I get back, all right?

He said okay and I told my wife I’d be home in a bit. She was on the couch in her purple robe. She wouldn’t look at me as I walked out the door.

By the time I got to the office the party was already started. McKisson had his shirt off and was carrying around a drill. In his other hand a beer. Ah, he said, howdy stranger. How you been?

Just fine, I said.

Good, good, he said. We’re in Room Four. Gonna take care of a cavity for this gal.

I followed him back. A redheaded girl was on the chair with packing in her gums. She was in her bra and a pair of cut-offs. The mask was firmly attached and running.

All right, McKisson said, giving her bare thigh a squeeze, let’s get this thing out of the way so we can have us a good time.

She mumbled something. I took a seat nearby and helped myself to what was left of a beer on the counter.

McKisson got into place, the sweat on his bare chest shining in the light from the overhead. He shakily put the drill into her mouth and when he pressed the peddle under the chair it started to wine.

I was trying to think of reasons to leave. I’d made a mistake in coming, I knew that much, and I should’ve just walked out. It didn’t seem possible right then. Didn’t seem like I was capable of just standing up and taking off. For whatever reason, it wasn’t even an option.

And then she walked in. It was the girl from the year before, the girl I thought maybe I’d known once upon a time. Her hair was cut shorter, styled a bit different. She’d lost some weight or gained some weight. The fact that I couldn’t tell which made me feel just as lonesome as I ever had.

When she came in we caught eyes and I tried to give her a look of recognition, but there was nothing in return on her end. Instead, she just plopped right down in the seat next to me.

Hey, I said.

Hey, she said back.

McKisson finished with the girl in the chair and just as soon as he had he lifted the mask off her face and passed it to us. I took a deep huff and the girl next to me followed. McKisson was next and then he gave it back to the girl in the chair.

How’re you feeling? he asked her.

She’d spit out the packing into a waste can. Great, she said. A little out of it.

Good, he said and gave me a wink. So, let’s go talk about your payment options.

He helped her out of the chair and they went around the corner and out of sight. I was left with the girl and she opened a beer that’d been sitting in the corner. I watched her take a long gulp and then she went and got another hit off the nitrous.

You know, she said, giving the mask a look, this thing used to make me laugh.

I took it from her. Inhaled. That old familiar feeling came over me. Like I was in a fog. Yeah, I said.

Like, I used to look around and think there wasn’t anything in the world that wasn’t funny.

Yeah, I said, thinking I was sure of it now, that I’d known her way back when, that maybe we’d split a beer at a party at some point, shot the shit maybe. Then I had a moment of clarity. I remembered her name – Shawna – and how she’d disappeared in high school and the rumor had got around that she was pregnant and had been forced to drop out.

I don’t know, Shawna said, taking the mask back.

A few minutes later she was in the chair, just like she had been the year before. I was still in the fog, still trying to make my body do what I wanted it to. She looked up and we met eyes again. Hey, she said, I think I know you.

I was only half paying attention. I was thinking about who she had waiting for her at home. Yeah, I said, I think I know you too.

We were just about to get to business when I took off. My whole body was vibrating and felt like it was about to shatter. The state I was in, the way that gas had my mind, I panicked and ran for the door. The girl yelled for me but I didn’t stop.

The next thing I knew I was outside, in the warm, quiet night.

The streets were deserted and all the houses dark. I looked at my car and decided to hoof it. If I’d got behind the wheel I would’ve probably wrapped it around a tree. Instead, I started running and I made it a full block before my air was in short supply and my lungs whistling like they were shot full of holes. But I didn’t slow down. I made it half a mile, four or five streets from home, before I realized I wasn’t breathing anymore. I slowed out of necessity, but then I picked my pace right back up. I didn’t know what it was chasing me, what it was waiting for me in the dark, but I knew for sure I didn’t want to find out.  

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