700 words or less, one character tells a joke and one character cries.
I wanted to avoid the “Jokes used in sad irony” and “Jokes used to help someone heal or get through a traumatic situation” tropes which I suspected would be popular. I’d just been reading about insult and status on LessWrong (“to give offense is to imply that a person or group has or should have low status”). I decided to try the “Jokes used as weapons to hurt” angle instead. I think setting it in high school was the wrong move though, who cares about teenage status games? And the main character is pathetic.
by Eneasz Brodski
“I hear last year you let Pete toss you.”
Stanislaw’s book-bag thuds down next to my feet and he slides into the seat next to mine with a grin. Instantly I twist up my face in confusion.
“What? What are you talking about?” Curiosity in my voice. It’s not the strange slang Stanislaw uses, nor the last traces of his Eastern European accent, it’s simply a reflex. Deny, hope he drops it. Even when it works it does so at the cost of looking like an idiot.
Stanislaw gives me an incredulous stare. “Pete, last year. He pushed you around, then put a fist in your stomach and a fist in your face.”
I shake my head slowly, furrow my brow as if in strained recall. I hate my play at stupidity, my instinctive cowardice. And it’s only making things worse, people are beginning to take seats around us and may overhear the retelling. This could swell into a disaster that rings for weeks.
“Look, I am just wondering why you went and told Candace. If you remain quiet then no one would know. Why spread it?”
I went to Candace because she was my girlfriend and I didn’t understand human psychology yet. She was short, and curvy, and she was smart. She wore a “Who is John Galt?” T-shirt and had actually read all of Atlas Shrugged. That made us similar, the fascination with ideas and understanding the world. So I told her everything. She listened, and was sympathetic, and a week later she let me know that she thought things would be better if we were ‘just friends’. The hot tears of humiliation were much worse than Pete’s assault.
“Oh!” I say, as if hit by sudden realization, “I just thought… well…” I trail off and shrug, then turn and pretend to dig something important out of my bag. Please let him drop it.
“Thought what?” he presses. Now there are definitely people listening in. I had finally outlived that incident, started talking to girls again, and just as I was making some headway Stanislaw was again making this public. This was not a coincidence, this was an attack.
“Well, I guess it’s like they say: if you want to sink a Polish submarine you just knock on the hatch.”
There’s a single guffaw behind me, and Stanislaw’s offensive stalls for a second.
“I’m unsure how that relates.” He says.
“No? What I mean is, the quickest way to take a census in a Polish village is to roll a quarter down the street, count the number of legs, divide by two, and then subtract one for the Jew that eventually catches it.”
Stanislaw lets out a couple forced laughs. “Very good, we have those jokes in Estonia as well.” Emphasis on Estonia. “The Pollacks are very stupid. But how is that – ?”
John, having just sat down in front of us, turns now and joins in with a conspiratorial look.
“You know how you can tell you’re in the Polish part of town?” he half-whispers. “All the toilet paper hanging out to dry.”
Alice, on our left, waves that away as the work of an amateur and launches into an elaborate joke involving clergy and livestock.
Stanislaw laughs with them, but he knows. The others are eager to share the jokes not with him, but at him. No one cares that he’s Estonian, foreigners are interchangeable. He tries to play along, and his standing drops further as he submits to the degradation.
Soon class starts and the jokes are cut off. Stanislaw doesn’t look my way again.