Punchline by Scott Simpson

June 24, 2021

To celebrate our 2021 Writing Contest that is currently underway, we are FINALLY releasing audio performances of last year’s winners!


An unexpected mishap with a dragonfly sets in motion an existential contemplation of the significance of a missed punchline. Narrated by the author, this is “Punchline” by Scott Simpson. This submission won second place in our 2020 Short Story Contest.


Punchline by Scott Simpson

There was the time he accidentally swallowed a dragonfly. He’d been telling some silly joke instead of watching the trail and it just flew right in, between the setup and the punchline. He wasn’t even sure what had happened. He felt it, but some protective filter in his brain disallowed his recognition of the crunchy little body—still alive—working its way down his esophagus until it was all done. He saw his family’s faces—mouths open, shock, not sure whether to laugh or to help out. Then they laughed and he never even finished the joke. Of course, thinking of it later made him almost sick. But, then, it was all over. 

A done deal.

It still bothered him though, not the thought of the insect, but the incident. He wondered sometimes about how stupid he looked, what kind of face he made… where he was in the joke. He couldn’t even remember the joke now, or what had prompted it. He really wasn’t much of a joke teller. I’m a funny guy, he thought—but not really a “joke-funny” guy. He liked to think of himself as more of a spontaneous-clever guy. Someone who’d say something spontaneously hilarious at just the right moment when everyone else wasn’t prepared. That was his favorite thing to do—surprise everyone into big, loud belly-laughs.

That’s why he kept thinking about that stupid moment. Why was I trying to tell a joke? They were on a family hike—something he always looked forward to. He really wanted to be the wise father—the one who knew all about the history of the area, and the plants, the animals. The one who had a great literary quote that fit the moment—not in a funny way, but in a way that made the whole day memorable. A turning-point day… an experience when everything became really clear for someone, anyone in the group— for the people he loved, for his kids or for his wife. 

So, why a joke?

God was probably trying to shut him up for his own good with the dragonfly.

Sure—or the universe, karma, whatever. That’s the way it goes when everything is humming just right. You’re saved from your own stupidity, from a fatal fall or a relationship-breaking outburst… or even just a really stupid joke at a time when your people… your family need a real coalescing of wisdom, some touchstone of key insight, some iconic utterance. Fate or something stopped him before the lame punchline, before the obligatory but pitying, Hah—yeah Dad (eyeroll). And how many times had a deity or fate, or karma NOT intervened, and he didn’t even remember? How many times had he said or done something that now lived FOREVER in his children’s, his wife’s, his friends’ or his colleagues’ minds as the true sign of his character? You know Joe—he’s not always really all there, if you know what I mean. Sometimes he’s just… just, a bit OFF. But more than what they think… he wondered what pivotal role of positive change he had missed while telling a dumb joke, binge-watching episodes of Tiger King… or by deciding it would take too much energy to attend some gathering. Was the “being off” what kept him from greatness… or was it a result of swinging and missing too many times? And what if he’d been swinging at the wrong ball all along?

What age was she?  His granny… when she began her dementia, her Alzheimer’s? Sixty-one? Fifty-eight? Fifty? He was fifty-three now… and just sort of… treading water. He remembered times back when he’d sit down for hours with a notebook and open his head up to the wide sky and spill poetry—line after line, marveling at the connections, the images– all of it, stuff that was unfiltered, spontaneous, and brilliant. 

Or was it– ever?

He’d occasionally open up an old journal or notebook. He vaguely remembered that young guy—that idealistic sap. He wanted to be kind to his younger self, as kind as he would be to one of his own children or to a young teacher or writer he might meet now. But it was almost a sick feeling to see how much of a smiling-blind train wreck that kid was. He was hurtling toward disappointment, disillusionment, a dark, wounded view of the world… and he didn’t even know it. His wife didn’t know it. His children didn’t know it. Who knew? Who knows the end of this trail… the aspirations dashed… the friendships crushed, the faith abandoned, the heart broken and the mind, fearful, self-questioning? 

The medieval morality plays always funneled particular characters toward a violent exit, smoke and flames, stage left, into the “hellmouth” where the foolish and too-slow-in-coming-to-their-senses wound up gnashing their teeth and screaming amid the burning sulfur of their own words and actions. It was a visceral warning to keep the simple, illiterate masses in line, a frightening vision of what happens to those who flout the moral guidance of their leaders. We don’t live in a hell-obsessed world these days, he thought, we like to think we act in the affirmative rather than to avoid punishment… but, isn’t that exactly what you’d be thinking all the way up to some transcendent intervention?

He didn’t believe in Hell. Really. But what else do you call it when you delude yourself into thinking you’re still at the head of the crowd, leading in ideas, creative thought, knowledge of the terrain, the weather, the melody, the harmony, the outcome of the story, the play-on-words or the twist-of-fate or the flipping-of-roles that gives the punchline it’s punch… when really, you’re just walking the line sketched out in front of you… straight into the trap woven into your genes, unavoidable from the day you were conceived?

Still, he loved a moment in the sun, loved spreading his wings. He loved a cool breeze and a lift—losing his attachment to the ground like in those recurring dreams he always used to have. In them, he would strain just a bit—more of a mental strain than a physical one, almost a reflexive mind-clench— and lift up, just over the trees, the tips of leaves brushing his toes, the clouds lightly wetting his face, the fears of mediocrity, of letting his loved ones down, of being just one mild soul making little to no difference among the multitudes, all shrinking far below at the bottom of a deep canyon, obscured progressively by his progress toward the greater cosmos. It was almost like, with just the right mental trick, or maybe with the unconscious discovery of a some tiny vestigial muscle that no one ever used anymore because we all were too focused on getting the laughs or making the money or feeding our egos, suddenly he could be exactly what all of humanity and friends and family needed him to be: a soaring, multi-colored harbinger of insight and nuance and rightness….

Then, a sharp sudden wind, a sucking sound pulls him off course toward a limb-wrenching twist… a crushing, a splitting of the shell until the insides he’d held together for so long were released into a smothering peristalsis toward the belly of a foolish god who never even made it to the punchline.

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