{ Punch Line }
Robert Isenberg
illustration by Dawn C. Bisi

punch line - dawn c bisiDear Boston Globe,

Most of your readers already know who I am: Ted Smith, the guy with the moose head. You've already laughed aloud at my follies, and I don't hold it against you. But I want to set the record straight about my decision to move to Mongolia.
   Ever since the tabloids tracked me to my house and forced an interview on me—three such papers to date—most of America now knows that I've been an avid hunter for years. When I was a kid, my father would take me each autumn to this creek out in Massachusetts, where the deer were plentiful and we always managed to bring a doe home for supper. One doe, mind you, for the whole season. That's all we wanted, and that's all we got.
   My .22 is very old, and my great-grandfather shot it back when our local sawmill was still in operation, and the general store was only half-stocked with dried meats and canned vegetables. He told me about the woods back then—thick as a jungle and just as wild—and when he handed that gun to me, on his seventieth birthday, I told him I didn't want it. Too much responsibility, I said. He just frowned, wrapped the gun in cellophane, and passed away that very night. Heart failure, the doctor said.
   My father also died earlier this year, and I set to the task of arranging his things. As I rummaged through his attic with my girlfriend, I found the gun hidden inside some musty Salvation Army blankets. I nearly dropped it—a misfortune that would have saved me a lot of heartache today—but instead I examined the wood, pulled out the bolt, and decided that this fall, I would try to bring back some memories.
   Keep in mind that I loved and trusted my girlfriend. We met in a gazebo in a Springfield and, in the four years after, things had been perfect. We lived together in a third-story apartment, and our schedules lined up like clockwork—she went to the vet to take care of people's pets, and I ran the morning shift at the Radisson's front desk. She's a really open woman, but she didn't like the idea of a gun in the house. All summer she joked about me hunting—she called it "shootin' some wabbits"—but when hunting season hit, she got anxious. At first she said she wouldn't eat venison, and I said that was fine. Then she busted out every dietary book on the subject, and spent afternoons listing off strains of bacteria that came from undercooked meat. We never argued about it directly. Just her on the couch, angrily chewing on a carrot as she watched some trashy TV show, me at the kitchen table, reading a magazine.

That morning I packed the station wagon and headed for the state park, my girlfriend smiled widely and gave my hand a tight squeeze. When she giggled, I asked what was so funny, and she said, "You'll see."
   I still can't believe, after twenty years, that I actually found the creek, gurgling as always in the remote forests outside of Greenfield. The air was crisp, the leaves were tightly packed on the ground, almost glowing with red and orange. I toted the gun along the rocks, a few miles from my parked car, and waded in the slow-moving tide, letting the water seep through the seams in my boots and soak into my wool socks. The cold reminded me of long winter nights in the mountains, the way things used to be.
   I raised the gun to the canopy of trees and fired it. The twenty-two made a small popping sound, echoing along the streambed. My shoulder tingling from the small kickback that seemed so insignificant now that I was older.
   I stood there watching the sun, thinking I could see it gliding slowly through the gray overcast, and finally, as I began to shiver from the cold, I hiked along the bank back to the car.
   I opened the door, and the rest you know: An entire moose head sitting driver's seat, severed grotesquely at the neck. I reeled back in horror, letting the door swing open, and the bloody sinews slipped out, dangling and dripping onto the gravel parking lot. I screamed, crabwalking away from those dead eyes and the lips pursed into a menacing scowl. I kept screaming, ignoring the gun that I had thrown away in panic. I hardly noticed that my great-grandfather's twenty-two had broken in half.
   Then the cameraman appeared from the glade, laughing as he pointed at me. I didn't know who he was, why he was pointing, but suddenly a mic boom was swinging over my head, recording my screams. A dozen more men, wearing suits and ties, emerged from the woods, holding their laughter in their fists, and then, dizzy and trying to stand up, I saw him.
   Greg Tomer. The biggest comedian on television.
   His eyes burned beneath his fluffy widow's peak as he knelt down beside me, microphone in hand, and started yelling, "How do you feel now, tough guy? Mr. Big Hunter? Mr. Hunter With A Gun? You like to shoot the animals? You like to kill the animals? Mr. Killer Man? Kill, kill, kill?"
   I had only caught his show a few times, and I didn't care for his sense of humor. The time he put a tarantula in a baby carriage gave me a stomachache. And here I was, the punch line of this guy's joke, one of America's Favorite Celebrities, live on camera for all to see. Tomer was wearing a camouflage vest and a whistle around his neck, which he started blowing in my ear.
   "Turn out, men!" he cried. "We've got a killer on the loose! Mr. Deerslayer! What do you say, Teddy? Kill any forest creatures much?"
   He ran to the car and started to caress the moose head, running his fingers through the tough fur.
   "I love you, Mr. Moosey-Moose! Why did you have to die? I love you, I love you!" And then he began to lick its eyes, to run his face along the moose's head, until his cheek was caked with crusty blood.

When I got home, I just sat on the couch and stared at my girlfriend, who sat in her wicker chair. The phone was ringing off the hook. I ignored it. The TV was switched off, thank God. I stared at her for nearly two hours.
   At last she closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and said, "I didn't know he was going to do that. Come on. He's funny."
   The next day, the reporters came and picked the lock on my door while I was sleeping. I'd called in sick to work, and now I had to deal with more attention.
   I called the police, and when they asked my name, they just laughed and said, "Oh, you. You were hilarious, man."
   This morning I moved out of the apartment, leaving most of my belongings on the sidewalk. I walked twelve miles along the highway, huddled in my coat. People honked the whole way, jabbing fingers at me and laughing. I tried to hide myself in the ditch by the road, sloshing through the mud and pulling my wool hat down over my eyes. I wanted to burrow into the grass, vanish into the ground. Even now, my face is all over the airwaves, ratings are climbing. I know how it goes. Greg Tomer made another shmuck infamous. Another shmuck who will never get his life back. Struggling in the mud as trucks fly past, spraying him with water.
   When I reached the airport, I went to the barbershop and had the clerk shave my goatee and head. The barber didn't say a word.

At the flight desk, I asked the rep where she would go if she wanted to be alone. She was primly dressed in a tight-fitting blue suit jacket, and she only blinked a few times.
   "Alone?" she asked.
   This poor woman has been standing behind a counter half of her adult life. She wondered what I meant by that word. Surrounded by customers, the line building around her day after day. Seen and forgotten by so many people, like I had at the Radisson. It's the kind of attention that leaves you alone everyday. She didn't even wear a nametag—probably forgot it at home. And now someone was asking her where she would go if she ever wanted to be alone. In the silence I could practically hear her mouth the words, Right here, sir.
   After a few moments she picked up her phone and called someone. She murmured quietly into the receiver, then hung up.
   "Mongolia," she said.
   I don't know who she talked to, or why Mongolia, but there you have it, readers. I'm going to Mongolia. This is my last hour in America for God knows how long, and I'm spending it in an Internet cafe writing my goodbye letter to the American public. I'm telling you, the people I don't know but who know me too well. I'm leaving because I can't take a joke. Sorry.


Ted Smith

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