The Gag

by Daniel Ball

The reception hall had floral-print maroon wallpaper that reminded him of his grandmother's house. He slipped on the heel of his new shoe as he stepped through the vestibule and held the door for a bored-looking man who passed without a word as he withdrew a cigarette from its pack. The softened twang of an acoustic guitar from a popular song pushed through the wall of the adjacent room. At the door a pile of folded cards was arranged on a decorated end table. He hovered his extended pointer finger over them until he found his name: Gilbert Graham, written in calligraphy, the small checkbox for "and guest" conspicuously devoid of marking.

Gilbert picked up his card and fixed the narrow red tie cinched around his collar. He stepped into the main room, where the salads were already being served for the wedding party of Mr. and Mrs. James Dirk, his old college friends, they with degrees in business and art history, respectively; Gilbert with one in microbiology, for which his thesis on macroscopic organisms of local ponds was awarded high honors.

He held the card out at the ideal focal distance of his glasses and navigated the maze of closely packed, white cloth covered tables. From the center of each rose a cluster of balloons, royal blue with a mylar centerpiece that had "Jim and Kate" emblazoned across it. They swung in the drafts of the air-conditioned air. After circling the room twice he finally matched the 9 on his card with that of his table. He quickly jolted toward it, not seeing the waiter crossing his path. A collision ensued, the waiter sighed and continued, and Gilbert scrambled for a napkin from the table.

After wiping the sticky vinaigrette from the back of his neck, he looked around table 9. Its only other occupant was an old man in a wheelchair who appeared to be asleep. His head lolled sideways into the notch of his shoulder and a string of glistening drool made its way down the side of his half-open mouth. Gilbert wriggled out of his twill sport jacket. He stretched his head up high and peered around the room. The sounds of blended conversations and clinking dishes filled a room full of strangers. The bride and groom were nowhere to be found.

At last, though, he caught a glimpse of a table where four of their college friends sat in a tight semicircle, leaning inward and laughing. There was Elyse, another Bio major whom he'd had a crush on, Chris and Paul, who were brothers with very similar slick-gelled hair, and a red head whose name Gilbert could not recall. Still standing in the yellow glow of the miniature crystalline chandeliers overhead, Gilbert excused himself to the unresponsive old man, then hung his jacket over his twig-like arm and began to walk across the floor to them.

Not a head turned when he stepped up to the edge of table 4. They continued chattering. After twenty seconds Gilbert turned and twirled an unused chair from the next table and dragged it across the polished floor. It emitted a hellish squeal and a harsh grinding that echoed off the walls and drowned out the music. He stood before them and they looked at him with bemused squints instead of smiles.

"Oh," Elyse said, "It's Gilbert."

"This seat taken?"

Eyes rolled.

He put his jacket on the back of his chair and sat down stiffly. When nobody spoke to him, he looked down at the salad set at his new place. He licked his lips as he admired how the light reflected off the dressing on the carrot shreds. He unrolled his silverware and began to tuck the cloth napkin into his collar when the waiter swept in a whisked away his plate, along with the empty ones scattered around the table.

Gilbert put on an exaggerated comic frown and looked up at the uninterested others. The elusively-named woman flipped her red hair with her fingertips and spoke into Chris's ear. He smiled and glanced at Gilbert momentarily.

Silence followed. Gilbert broke it. "So can you guys believe that Jim and Kate got married?"

"Yeah," Paul said, staring toward the door, "Crazy."

The others nodded amongst themselves.

But he continued, laughing, "And, I-I can just remember them in college, Jim would be all—" he snorted, "You know, the ladies' man— 'I'll never get hitched, he'd probably say and—"

As he leaned over the table the waiter returned and dropped a plate of mushroom risotto in front of him and the others. Gilbert fell silent and sat back. His cheeks felt hot. The four friends picked up their forks and wordlessly began to eat. Gilbert pressed a prong of his fork into one of the flakes of Portobello when a smile spread over his face. He couldn't help himself.

"So," he said with another snort, "A mushroom walks into a bar—"

"There she is!" Elyse interrupted, turning with a smile, "Mrs. Katherine Dirk!"

The bride scampered over through the narrow corridors between tables and hugged her. They hopped up and down like schoolgirls, and her long lacy earrings became tangled in Elyse's blonde hair.

"El-yse!" she screamed, "I'm so glad you could make it! It's been forever!" She released her and turned to face the rest of the four. "And you all look so great all dressed up."

Gilbert cleared his throat loudly, "Uh, h-hi Kate!"

"Oh, Gilbert...I didn't know you were at this table...thank you for coming." Then she pulled a chair out and turned it toward the four, completing the circle.

Gilbert, outside of it, poked at his food and tugged idly at the ribbon that descended waveringly from the balloons. He traced the path of the ribbon upward with his eyes and had to bite his lip to suppress a grin. Breathing quickly, he slowly pulled the ribbon to reel in the mylar behemoth. They did not watch. With his dinner knife he cut the balloon free and pulled it to his lap under the table. Their conversation continued. He slit a tiny incision in the base of the balloon and pinched the hissing hole shut between his fingertips. His arms shook as he giggled in anticipation of the gag.

"Hey guys, look!" he said before he curled down and inhaled too big a gulp of helium from the sphere. He stood up to take stage, and could only utter the word "Listen!" in his hilariously high voice before his vision faded to gray, all swamp water and diatoms, and lightheadedness cut his act short. He stepped outward to steady himself but caught his ankle on the leg of his chair and crumbled clumsily to the ground. His head struck the hardwood with a dull flat thud.

And as he stared up at the dark ceiling and the blurred faces above him, the laughter began, wild and cruel and intoxicating.

BIO: Daniel R. Ball has a B.A. in English with a concentration in creative writing from Rutgers University. His work has also appeared in Foliate Oak, and he is currently working on a short story collection to keep his recently completed novella warm.