Charles' Joke

                Julia walked into the nursing home slowly, double checking the slip of paper with the address on it to be sure this was the right place. Damn her sister for putting him in this place without telling her!

                "I'm looking for Charles Mahetti." The woman at the desk looked up from the television. A voice from the cracked screen proclaimed that the Cowboys were ahead by a field goal. Julia wondered if her husband was watching the same game at home, and wished that he were here with her instead. This morning she had asked him not to come, placing a mug of steaming water and a tea-bag in front of him at the kitchen table, and now she understood what a mistake that had been.

"Are you family?"

"I'm his daughter."

"You're not the one that came last month."

"No, that was probably my sister."

"Ah…. Two sisters means you only have to come half the time, right? Anyway, he's down the right hall. Room 140."

"Thank you." She turned and headed for the corridor when the slow country accent of the woman at the desk stopped her.

"Why don't you take his mail to him. They've forgotten to take it for a week or so. It's piling up." And as she took the mail the woman said, slyly, "Likes his magazines, eh?"

                She looked at the pile of mail in her hands. They were the magazines she remembered from his home, the last Christmas she had actually visited him: MAD, Laurel and Hardy, Cat Fancy.  The latter reminded her of the large white cat that had been attempting to eat the Christmas Tree that entire visit. What had her sister done with the cat?

                The room was small, white, sterile. The hospital bed dominated the far wall, and her father was a small pale spectre upon it. Asleep, and she was glad for that.

The tight feeling in her gut relaxed a little. She hadn't really wanted to see him, hadn't wanted to acknowledge that what her sister had done had been right. He had been failing that Christmas, and she knew that that was the reason it had been her last visit. Not her job, not her obligations to her family, just the simple knowledge that she did not want her father to be weak. For christsake, he still subscribed to MAD Magazine! He was still the man who never took anything seriously, who said that life's only purpose was to enjoy it until the end. The man who could make fun of the withdrawal from Vietnam, and the bullet meant for Reagan, and even at the failure of his own marriage. 

"Julie, why did the dead baby cross the road?"

"That's a stupid joke, dad."

"Come on, it's only stupid because you don't know the answer."

"Alright, what's the answer?"

"The dead baby crossed the road because it was taped to the chicken."

She remembered that she had tried so hard not to laugh. Could still feel her cheeks turning red at the strength it took when she had seen his face, completely serious, worried that his newest joke hadn't impressed her. He was still that man, at least in her memory. It may have only been a farce to hide his pain, she had once even called it "the secrets of his overcharged soul" when she had felt more poetic, but even as she grew older Julia knew that it was the one thing that made him truly special.

                She placed the magazines on the nightstand beside the bed, accidentally knocking over a piece of paper that was there. As she was replacing it she noticed that it was only a page cut out of a travel magazine, showing a section of ocean marked with a triangle. Underneath the triangle were the words "A Place to Conquer Fear." Underneath that, in his own fragile handwriting, were the words "a place feared to conquer." A joke. A stupid joke. The father Julia had always loved.