The Joke’s on You – Trevor Morgan

I still remember the day I lost my mind. It happened on a cold November day, four years ago. It was one of those fall days where the rain isn’t coming down heavily enough to soak you, but the moisture in the air seems to sink right into your bones and freeze you from the inside out. I don’t remember now if I was coming or going, I just remember lying against the door, crying, unable to think or move. I thought I was dying. My wife called it the most ridiculous thing she had ever seen. The doctors called it a nervous breakdown.

My days were very routine. I would awaken to my alarm at five forty-five, walk through the closet and grab a suit. I had three identical copies of each of my five work suits, organized by day. My Monday suits were my favorite because they were blue with pinstripes. I would hang my suit outside the bathroom, rinse off, dress, and head downstairs for coffee and a biscuit before kissing my wife on the cheek, hopping in my Escalade and heading to the office. I would’ve preferred not to take the Escalade because driving downtown in a car that big was a pain, but I couldn’t take the Corvette because my boss told me it looked childish and irresponsible when I had to meet a client.

My corner office overlooked 4th Street, and most days I’d spend my first fifteen minutes drinking coffee and watching people go about their mornings. It was mostly an endless stream of suits, but there were a handful of homeless folks in the area.

One of these homeless men I had affectionately dubbed Rufus. Rufus was always picking things out of his beard. His outfit was as predictable as my own; he had worn the same leather jacket and the same red bandanna to corral his wild mess of curls every day since the first time I had noticed him. And every time I saw him in the eight years I worked there he had a big, toothless grin on his emaciated, dirt-stained face. I often wondered what the joke was that nobody else seemed to get.

Eventually my attention would wander back to my work and I would sit down at my desk and catch up on emails before diving into accounts and client meetings. I worked as one of four account managers at Midtown Advertising Design, a mid-sized advertising firm, which meant that I had a lot of freedom, but also a lot of work. Most days I would be lucky to quit by six, and I often didn’t even notice lunchtime go by.

One Friday afternoon, a couple months before I lost my mind, my boss poked his head into my office and asked if I had a minute.

“Sure, Jason, what’s up?”

“How are you doing with the bigger workload? I know we kinda threw a lot at you with the promotion last year.”

“Yeah, it’s a lot, but you know, I feel really good about everything. I’ve been able to stay on top of it all.”

“That’s good to hear. Listen, we had to let Marcus go. Sexual harassment. Whipped it out in front of Cassy down in Accounts Receivable. Can’t cut a guy any slack in this day and age. So I’m gonna need you to take over most of his accounts. I know that’s going to mean long hours, probably weekends here and there, but we just don’t really have any other options right now. We need you. MAD needs you.”

I had to cover my shock by faking a cough into my sleeve. I thought about the boat that had been sitting in my garage for two years without seeing water, but then I figured the extra dough couldn’t hurt, what with our outrageous mortgage and my wife’s credit card debt. Plus I figured it might get me out of some of those social functions I kept getting dragged into on the weekends.

The next morning, I got up to my alarm clock and headed into the closet. I stared at my suits for a long minute, not knowing what to wear, never having been to work on a Saturday. I figured the natural thing to do would be to wear my Monday suit. I’m still not sure, but looking back this might’ve been the moment it all started to fall apart.

After work, I came home fully intent on spending the next eighteen hours on the couch, but my wife was waiting at the door, cigarette dangling between her fingers, rhythmically tapping a stiletto.

“Honey, are you ready to go?”

“I’m dead tired, sweetheart. I think I’ll need a rain check tonight.”

The corners of her mouth turned down and her eyes narrowed. She was wearing her favorite red cocktail dress, her dark shoulder—length hair done up the way she used to wear it when we first met. Her stilettos accentuated her long, tan legs. 

She threw the keys to the Corvette at me and said, “Let’s go.” When I didn’t move, she looked me up and down coldly and said, “You are taking me to that damn charity event if it’s the last thing you do.”

An hour later, I was posted at the bar in the gold-encrusted lobby of some ritzy hotel, sipping a single-malt and watching my gorgeous wife flirt her way around the room. She was a social butterfly, fluttering from politician to business magnate, a touch on the arm, a sly smile, a quiet word followed by laughter. The only person I ever seemed to connect with at these events was the bartender.

That night wasn’t the first time I wondered if she was faithful, but it was the first time I realized that I really didn’t care. I wanted to be jealous, or angry, or hurt, but there was nothing there. 

The doctor’s plan to get me healthy after my breakdown was a leave of absence from work and a cocktail of mood stabilizers. For three weeks I sat on the couch in a daze, listening to my wife blame everything but my job and herself for my “incident,” and tell anyone who would listen that all I really needed was to get back to work.

I woke up one cold December Sunday to the sun in my eyes. I could hear the soft grunting of my wife sleeping next to me as I rolled out of bed and stepped to the window. The snow-covered lawn reflected the light of a clear blue sky. I got dressed in the fashion that had become my norm: sweats and a sweatshirt. I wandered to the bathroom, and stared at my face in the mirror for a long while. For the first time I noticed how many lines there were on it, especially around my eyes. I opened the medicine cabinet and pulled out my prescription bottle. It was empty. I tried to remember how long it had been since I’d run out. Maybe a few days now. 

I wandered down the stairs, into the kitchen. I lifted a picture off its nails on the wall, punched in a couple numbers on a pad, and pulled a few wads of hundred dollar bills out of my safe. The weird thing about it is, I never thought about what I was doing. I wasn’t nervous, or excited. I didn’t have a plan. I just felt like today might be a good day to go for a walk with thousands of dollars in my pocket. So I closed the safe, wondering idly if my wife had ever noticed it was there, and carefully hung the painting back in its spot. I walked to the door, put on my favorite pair of runners, and headed out into the bright winter morning.

To me, the most beautiful sound in the world is that of a wave when, after all those countless miles it spent pushing water across the ocean, it finally finds a sandy beach to release all that pent-up energy on. It reminds me of the feeling I used to get after a long work week when I would get home on Friday afternoon, drop my briefcase, loosen my tie, and hit the couch.

That is what I wake up to every morning now. I roll out of my cot, throw on a pair of ratty old shorts, and step out of my palapa-roof bungalow into the surf-washed white sand. I walk down to the point before the heat of the day arrives and fish for a few hours. This morning I caught three dorado and an eel. I kept one of the dorado for my dinner and took the rest to the market. I got enough for my excess catch to replenish my supply of rice and beans and get a couple canisters of propane for my two-burner Coleman. 

Most days I don’t even think about that other life that happened to me. Most days I live in the sun, thinking about beer and fish and dark-skinned women. But tonight, as I sit in the sand in front of my bungalow and watch the setting sun turn the world red, I remember. And I wonder. 

I wonder if my wife misses me. I wonder if she sold our house and all my things, or maybe she found a man that could give her the kind of devotion she coveted. I think of Rufus, and I laugh for a good long while. I finally get the joke, after all this time. 

I wonder if anyone ever found my mind, and if maybe they will bring it to me and make me want that other life back. 

I hope not. I hope they don’t find me. I’m happy here.