Although best known for his 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury was also a prolific writer of short stories, having published his first while still a teenager. This previously unpublished story likely dates to 1950, the year The Martian Chronicles appeared. Bradbury brought a fertile imagination to bear on his works of fantasy, horror, and science fiction—some of the most popular of the last century. As his close friend and bibliographer Donn Albright remembers, that imagination kept firing even while the writer was asleep. “Ray woke in middle of the night,” Albright recalls, “and would write dreams down, then later go back and ‘finish’ them. It’s the case here and in many of his stories.” Bradbury, however, never quite finished “The Joke.” According to the scholar Jonathan Eller, the writer meant to compose one additional scene, in which the protagonist, a young writer named Charlie, meets his friend Hank at a bar, on the night of his 30th birthday. Bradbury sketched the scene out in three sentences, which we include here in italics. —Ed.
I sometimes think it’s all a joke. You know that on the morning you wake up and find yourself 30. You know then that someone has put it over on you. Up until then you were the child in the crib with all the toys. Then on your 30th birthday you find the crib empty, the toys gone, and it’s a joke.”
He spoke quietly as he poured milk over his morning cereal. His wife across from him, only 28 herself, yawned happily.
“It’s different with you,” he said. “You’ve got a while to go yet.”
He watched the clock ticking in the living room, on the mantel.
“Take time,” he said. “Or rather, don’t take it. We kid ourselves it exists. It doesn’t. We build a lot of little dikes and run around keeping them in repair, and then one night the flood gets in and ruins everything. When I came downstairs this morning, I could see everything that had shrunk and changed color and had funny marks on it. Jesus, what damage water can do in a few hours.”
“I don’t feel any different than I did when I was nine,” said Annabel. She scraped a piece of cindered toast.
“That’s a joke, too,” he said. “You just think that. And all the while they’re changing you over and taking things away from you.”
“It’s an even exchange,” she said. “You give up a year of your life to get something you want, to learn something, find something, to have a house or a baby or an education. It’s even-steven.”
“A snare, and, as they say, a delusion. You only think you want things. That’s part of the trap, that’s what keeps you going, that’s what tricks you, wanting things, going after them so continually you never notice how time is slipping away from you.”
“Darling,” she said. “Everyone goes through this. Amelia told me that Hank had this last year. He was no good for weeks after his 30th birthday. But he’s picked up now, you notice.”
“Of course he has. Don’t be childish.”
“There’s a difference between being childish and analytical. I’m observing facts.”
“Oh,” she said, good-naturedly, “go call Hank and you can have a good cry, both of you.”
He sat there for a moment, the toast dry and lumpy on his tongue. “By god, I think I will.” He got up and moved into the cold living room. He dialed the number from memory and heard the remote click, and Hank’s friendly but aged voice say, “Hello?”
“Well hello, Charlie, where you been keeping yourself, for gosh sakes?”
“Well, hell, we’ll have to get together.”
“What about tonight?”
“Tonight?” He was startled and then pleased. “Sure. Okay. Just a sec while I check the wife on that.” There was a murmuring pause. Hank came back on. “Sure, Charlie, the bar about eight?”
“You know, Charlie, I been meaning to call you. Funniest damn thing happened a couple days ago. Gave me the willies. I woke up one morning and got out of the house in such a rush, I was halfway to the bus stop before I realized I had a stack of books under my arm. Old geology and math books, my English Review Grammar, and my chem book from Center High. Wasn’t that a hell of a thing, Charlie, wasn’t that a screwball thing?”
Charlie sat with the phone in his tight hand. “That sure was.”
“And heading in the wrong direction. I almost got on the bus that took me to the high school. I had to go home and leave the books. Kept them ever since school, thought some day my own kid could use them, you know. Amelia’s been joshing me ever since.”
“Well, see you tonight.”
“Give my regards to Annabel.”
Charlie put the phone into the cradle. Then he walked upstairs and looked into the bedroom. There, on the sunlit carpet on his side of the bed, lay an ancient baseball, a greased mitt and a long, gleaming bat. When he had awakened this morning, he had seen them there and thought, “We’ll play out by Fox River all afternoon and eat wild strawberries, Hank and me.” And then he had heard the baby wail and his wife stir, and he knew that that was some other afternoon some other time already done with, and he didn’t know how the ball and bat had got there.
He went into the dining room and said, “I’m seeing Hank tonight.”
“Do you good,” said Annabel, and that was all there was to it.
At the bar with Hank they compared notes on their lives, they discovered they don’t want things, only actions, only doing. The young writer comes for advice. He goes to bed.
In the middle of the night he awoke and it was raining. The rain was coming down the glass shimmering windows and it was cool. Almost immediately he sensed a lightness of his body, and he lay for a while not daring to put the light on. Then, carefully, he arose and stood swaying in the pouring, rushing light, and he walked through the house. He opened the nursery door. Beyond was darkness, but a sudden flash of lightning brought everything to a focus and in that instant he saw that it was no longer a nursery, the crib was gone, it had long since been fitted out as a boy’s room. There were boats here and there, and footballs, and a man’s room, there were college pennants, and now it was empty of anyone, the bed neatly made. He shut the door and came back to bed and stood looking down at his wife. Again the lightning flashed and this time he saw her face, like an apple that has been left on the ground, wrinkled and dark, and his hands wrinkled, stretched out to touch her chin. The pounding thunder that followed the lightning jolted her upright in bed at that instant and she cried, “Charlie, what’re you doing!”
“Now do you see?” he said. “Do you believe me now?”
“Go back to bed,” she said. “Grandpa, go back to bed.”
The words were like a blow of a great hand upon him. He turned and stumbled back around in the raining darkness and lay in his cold place. “Do you see now?” he said. “It’s all a joke, all a joke.”
“Go to sleep,” she said.
“Go to sleep. There. There.”
“But don’t you know what they’ve done? Last night we went to bed and it was my 30th birthday,” he said.
“I know,” she said.
“You know? You know!”
“Yes,” she said.
“But isn’t there something we can do?” he said.
“No,” she said. “Except pretend it isn’t so.”
“I’m afraid to go to sleep the rest of the night. Who knows what’ll happen by morning!”
“Go to sleep anyway, there’s no way to fight it. Sleep.”
“Then you admit at last it is a joke?”
She nodded in the raining darkness.
He fell back and shut his eyes. He felt her move the blankets over him with even pats, like the falling of earth upon his cool body, spade after spade, pat after pat, and there was a scent of flowers.
“Of course, it’s your perfume,” he said. “Annabel, it is your perfume, isn’t it?”
In the rain and darkness, she did not answer.
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