Fiction - Autumn 2020

The Joke

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By Ray Bradbury | September 1, 2020
Left: Flickr/isaacd; right: Flickr/nicksie2008
Left: Flickr/isaacd; right: Flickr/nicksie2008

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 This previously unpublished story likely dates to 1950, the year The Martian Chronicles appeared.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.”

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