‘A judge tells a condemned man he’s going to hang next week, but he won’t know when until the hangman comes a-knockin’. The judge only says one thing, that it’ll be a surprise.’ The man with dark rimmed spectacles pauses to smoke, his hair is black and slick with Brylcreem.
‘So, when he’s locked up and waiting to be hung, this guy thinks to himself: “This shit ain’t fair, they have to tell me when I’m going to die. I’ve got rights.” So he decides to work it out. He figures if hasn’t been hung by Thursday, he can’t be killed on Friday because it wouldn’t be a surprise, he’d know it was coming.
‘Then he thinks: “How can any day be a surprise?” It can’t be Thursday, because if he’s not dead by Wednesday, the surprise will be gone. And etcetera, etcetera, same for the rest of the week. So the condemned man, relieved, relaxes in his cell confident the hanging won’t happen at all.
‘The next week–’
‘Is this going anywhere?’ The only woman at the table says. Her blouse is done up to her neck and a neatly folded blazer hangs over the back of her chair. She doesn’t smoke, but half-melted ice cubes clink restlessly in her empty tumbler.
‘Not enjoying my story?’
‘It’s fucking wonderful, I just like ones that have a point.’
‘How about,’ chimes in the second man, black and bald, his tie pulled slightly loose at the collar, ‘how about we just let the man finish?’
‘Fine.’ She pushes her chair out from under her as she stands, the wood grates against the concrete floor, and wanders over to a cabinet not lit by the dim bulb that hangs above the table.
‘What’s her problem?’ The third and final man says, with a flick of a head towards the darkness.
‘The same as ours,’ says the man with glasses. The woman with the light-coloured blouse comes back to the table and places an unopened scotch next to the pistol, which lies dormant on the table. She uncorks the bottle with a dull pop and fills her glass. The others do the same.
‘Can I continue?’
She nods before draining her glass.
‘The next week, the hangman knocks on the guy’s door at noon on Wednesday to take him to the gallows. The prisoner, terrified, pisses his pants. He’s completely shocked. The judge was right, it was a surprise after all.’
‘I don’t get it,’ says the third man.
‘Me neither,’ says the bald man.
‘You’re so full of shit,’ says the woman, ‘talking a load of crap.’
‘You didn’t like it?’
‘No. And fuck you for making us sit through it.’
The man with the dark rimmed spectacles pours a drop of water into his scotch before taking a sip. He flattens a burnt stub into his ashtray and lights another one. The third man, when offered, takes a cigarette. His hands shake, the flesh stained. The bags under his eyes droop into his cheeks. On his fourth finger, a tan line stops just above the knuckle and the pale skin soaks up the dim light flooding the room.
‘So,’ says the bald man, his tie now undone, ‘there was no point to that story?’
‘Of course there fucking wasn’t,’ she says, spilling her drink onto the table, staining the dark wood.
‘I don’t know,’ says the bespectacled man, ‘but I like it. It makes me laugh.’
‘You need to learn how to tell a fucking joke,’ says the man with sagging eyes.
‘I’ll give you a few tips,’ says the woman, rummaging through her blazer.
‘Because you’re a fucking laugh-a-minute riot,’ says the man with glasses and slick hair as he places his empty glass down.
The woman lets out a bark of a laugh. The others soon join in. The pistol still lies on the table, cocked, loaded, waiting for its turn to tell a joke.
Header photograph: By Mika Järvinen from Finland (Thunderer) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons