Cruelest Joke


From above the single stall of the library bathroom, a boxed half-gallon of grapefruit juice swung upside down like a gymnast on a high beam, balancing just before the peak as the homeless man on the other side of the stall took one long drink. By the time I had opened my door, the container was already hidden in his backpack.

“Know what the cruelest joke in the world is?” he asked, wavering into what I feared would be a monologue.

From the sink washing my hands, not wanting to be rude, half acknowledging his general direction, I guess in my head “that grapefruit juice is so sour?”


“Oh.” I say in reply as I look for a paper towel, “I’m sorry, yea, that’s the worst.”

My feet hurt too. Not like his, I imagined, but according to my intuitive chiropractor, the stiffness in my toes was already osteoarthritis. She could just feel it right there, and while I trust her, I’ve been in somewhat denial about it. I thought of my aunt, also, who suffers from the rheumatoid variety.

The man with the sour punchline is in his fifties (maybe), dirty and tan and gray shoulder-length haired, about five-four, with a cap on, and old shoes. We walk out together and I mentioned to him what Savannah had suggested to me just a week before when I’d admitted to my problem, the only thing that I felt was reasonable to say to this stranger who was suffering and perhaps was looking for some help.

“I’ve heard that one thing that helps is stretching,” I said. I didn’t mention that it was perhaps the only thing that helped, but it was a free bit of advice, as cheaply as it felt to pass it along in my escape. We parted down separate sides of a bookshelf, and I walked along my edges of sympathy and apprehension.

“Thanks,” he said in front of the hold section, the books between us. “I will have to investigate that.”

He walked out toward the exit, and all of my prejudice masked behind apprehension and fear cracked open by the way he slowed down over each syllable of “investigate.” Like he was secretly tender toward himself despite whatever else had befallen his whole life. But why not start that investigation now, I thought. Why not have offered to go look for some books with him? We both needed to investigate.

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