CHARLES RAMMELKAMP: Laughter In The Dark, and other stories

Flash fiction by Charles Rammelkamp

Consolation Prize  

“If it’s a story you want about a marriage, I can’t really come up with anything,” I told Christa. “I guess I qualify for the medal or the certificate, the gold watch they give you at the retirement party, working on forty years with Lisle now. But no heartbreaks.” I shrugged, almost apologetic. “The kind of thing that makes a story a story.”  

I felt uncomfortable talking to Christa. She’d had two failed marriages and plenty of drama, and I just didn’t have anything to add to the conversation. Maybe it was easier to glorify infidelity and abuse if you were a woman, I thought, but then I worried that might sound sexist and I tried to erase it from my memory, to unthink it. No, it was all my fault that things had worked out as they had – and Arlene’s too, of course. The shame was all mine, a marriage like one of those feel-good holiday movies whose happy ending is so anticlimactic. But damn it, why did Christa get all the good heartbreak stories? It wasn’t fair. 

“It’s OK,” Christa reassured; not my shortcoming if things hadn’t gone wrong. “At least you didn’t have to spend seven years with a violent drunk who cheated on you with your own sister, or another twenty with a bully who wouldn’t have sex with you.” Well, at least there was that.

Laughter in the Darkness   

Harris had a gravelly kind of laugh, short but full-bodied – unh-unh-unh – that made people direct their jokes at him at the lunch table in the cafeteria. The joke tellers could always get Eddie to cry real tears of mirth – plucking the moisture out of the corners of his eyes while his body shook – but it was Harris’s that gave the real satisfaction of a joke well told, a punchline delivered with skill, the timing just right.  

Taking his tray of dirty glassware to the conveyor belt, Eddie considered the art of telling a joke.  A good joke teller can make anything funny, even stuff that’s not so funny, and he remembered the rape jokes Swanson had told the all-male crew at the lunch table; he could hear Harris’s unh-unh-un, like a thumbs-upEddie hadn’t laughed that time, not that anybody noticed. He was too busy remembering something that hadn’t been very funny at all.

She Came in Through the Bathroom Window 

I didn’t go to school dances. It just wasn’t my style. I liked bands, concerts, live music, collected records, but dances – just not my style.  All through high school I’d avoided them – proms, after-sports-game hops, private dance parties (which was possibly one reason I never got laid), and I saw no reason to change my ways in college. 

“Come on, dude,” my roommate Mark urged. Mark was the kind of guy who liked “cutting a rug.” The minute the lights went out in the gym or the cafeteria, tables and chairs moved aside to create a dancefloor, and the strobe began to oscillate, Mark had his shoes off, boogying up a storm, arms waving, feet shuffling to whatever live band was up on stage. 

I went with him one time to a freshman mixer after we’d smoked a joint, but I left after a shitty cover of “Light My Fire.” But here was my dilemma. One of the sororities was having a Sadie Hawkins dance, and my gawky wallflower friend from Math class, Judy, was going to invite me. I knew this because Becky Goodman told me, probably feeling me out first, and I didn’t outright say no, for fear of hurting Judy’s feelings. 

Partly it felt like I was the only chance at a date that shy, homely Judy had, for whatever reason – who else from the Delts or the Gammas or whatever Greek letter they went by was going to ask me? – and, more to the point, who else would Judy dare ask? Rejection was about the worst thing that could happen to anybody. 

“Do it, dude!” Mark urged when I mentioned it to him. 

But did I really want to go through with this simply because I didn’t want to hurt Judy’s feelings? What would that lead to? Was I going to be trapped into something I didn’t want, couldn’t foresee? I liked Judy, don’t get me wrong, but I didn’t want to go to a dance with her. I didn’t do dances, just wasn’t my style. 

And then here in the Student Union, “Light My Fire” coming in over the sound system from some jukebox in a distant room – here came Judy and Becky. “Peter!” Becky called, Judy hanging back, shy, but definitely two girls on a mission.

“Peter!” I nodded, smiled, broke for the boys’ bathroom. That flushing sound you hear? It’s my heart swallowing my conscience.          

Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore. Two full-length collections have been published in 2020, Catastroika, from Apprentice House, and Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books. A poetry chapbook, Mortal Coil, is forthcoming from Clare Songbirds Publishing.  

Flash Boulevard is edited by Francine Witte. Banner photograph Wes Candela. All rights revert to author.

Published by poetrybay

George Wallace is a poet, professor and freelance editor living and working in NYC. Writer in residence at the Walt Whitman Birthplace since 2011, he is author of over 3 dozen books of poetry and editor/co-editor of such fine literary publications as Poetrybay, Great Weather for Media, Polarity, Flash Boulevard, Long Island Quarterly and Walt's Corner. George travels internationally to perform his poetry, and his many honors include the Naim Frasheri Prize (Tetova Poetry Festival), Orpheus Prize (Plovdiv Poetry Festival), National Beat Laureate (Beat Poetry Festival), Suffolk County Poet Laureate, CW Post Poetry Prize; and the Alexander Medal, from UNESCO/Greece, for his contribution to the arts.

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