I was slow to delight in disorder, in which words didn’t mean what I’d understood them to mean and in which phrases had secret histories I couldn’t know. I was an anxious child, one who sat at his desk and, sounding out words so he could spell them, felt them dissolve on his lips. Or I wrote them with such attention to each mark of the pencil that they disintegrated into their component lines and curves, hooks, and squiggles. Clutching a child’s fat pencil, I painstakingly etched words, upstroke and downstroke, onto the lined paper of my Blue Horse Pencil Tablet, paper so near to pulp you could see brown flecks of bark and heartwood in it. I concentrated on the letters until they started to look queer, alien, wrong. I looked back and forth from the book to my handwriting, trying to see what I had copied incorrectly. When I found no mistake, I distrusted my eyesight. I often erased the word and wrote it again, spelling it the same correct way as the first time but trying to make it look right in my handwriting. I wrote and erased and wrote and erased till I rubbed holes through the paper.
The sounds of the words were even slipperier than their shapes. Certain small, obvious words were the most likely to crumble in my mouth. As I repeated them, the sounds shifted and the word warped. The word word was one of the worst. The w stretched out or shortened as I said it different ways. So did the ur sound following it. And the duh at the end could be the end of one syllable or break off and establish itself as a separate syllable if I over-enunciated, which I almost always did once I started to think about what I was saying. I was terrified by the porcelain delicacy of words. Language was so fragile I could break it just by trying to grasp it, and since it was the only tool I had to make sense of the world, if I destroyed it I also destroyed my own identity. Several times I was so terrified by a word’s crumbling in my mouth that I stretched out on the floor between my brother’s bed and my own—a place where no one could see me—and cried until I was panting.
Maybe I should have asked my mother for help, but I remembered working myself into a frenzy when, trying to write a sentence for a homework assignment, I had a word slip out of my mind—a basic word, one I should’ve known. I burst into the kitchen, gasping, “Wuz! Mama, wuz!” I was frantic, my face sticky with tears, but even in my agitation I saw excessive alarm spread across her face. I’d been born two and a half months premature and then placed for several weeks on a respirator that stunted some babies’ development by over-oxygenating their brains. Mom had watched for it, braced for it, probed for it, and at long last brain damage had raced into her kitchen, clutched her leg, clamped its damp face to her belly, hysterically begging, “Wuz!”
“What? What are you saying?” she demanded as I clung to her, wailing, “Wuz, Mama, wuz?” Her body was stiff with fear.
Finally she grasped what I couldn’t put into words. I could feel her muscles relax. Smiling with more amusement than I thought my stupidity called for, she spelled out, “W-A-S.”
Wuz was restored to its essential was-ness, and I immediately calmed down. But words remained skittery. The was a persistent vexation, shifting between a short e sound and or a long e that knocked it up against thee from the Bible. Not much later, mama changed. One day she snapped, “Don’t call me Mama, boy. I’m your mom.” She didn’t want to be a countrified mama, as her mother was to her and her sister back in Georgia was to her boys. The wife of an air force officer, she wanted to be that modern thing, a mom. My calling her Mama, especially in front of her friends, undermined how she wanted to see herself. It was hard for me to imagine words having the power to change who we are and still being able to fall apart when looked at too closely, but there was Mama’s—Mom’s—clear demonstration of it happening.
Words were, I thought, like eggs. Hold them loosely and they fall through your fingers and splatter on the linoleum; grasp them too tightly and they are crushed, messily, in your hands. Or maybe words were more like the photos in the newspaper. If I looked at them from across the room, they blurred into blotchy gray shadows, but if I hovered over the pictures, my nose grazing the page, all I could see were individual gray dots. The discomfort of trying to focus on the dots made me suspect that eyes weren’t supposed to be used this way. To make sense of the photos, I had to hold them somewhere between too far and too close, just as I had to hold the egg firmly enough to control it but not so firmly that it cracked. Words worked the same way. Words, and maybe the whole world, had to be held gently and understood from the proper distance if they were to mean something.
• • •
The funniest thing about the first joke I ever heard is that my father told it to me. I was sitting on the living room floor in front of the couch, building a cage of Tinkertoys around a cabin made of Lincoln Logs. The long Tinkertoy spokes kept tapping the green roof slats of the log cabin out of place, which was infuriating to a seven-year-old. Frustrated, I was always on the verge of smashing the whole thing flat. I did not like the green slats. I was pretty sure, even then, that the roof of Lincoln’s childhood cabin wasn’t made of boards greener than lime Kool-Aid. The slats’ bright dye made me want to suck them, which I did compulsively, especially once I was forbidden to do so. They turned my lips a morbid gray-green.
Dad stood over me in his air force uniform. He was a captain. He had just returned home from work to the tract house on North Carolina’s Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. Craning my neck, I looked up the long expanse from his summer khakis to his pink face, pale blue eyes, and prematurely bald head, and in the tensing of his thin lips, I saw him hesitate. He seemed to be pondering—pondering me. Did the color of my lips give me away?
“What’s black and white and red all over?” he asked.
What? Wait. Why was he asking? This question sounded a bit like the bullets he fired at me over supper: “What’s four plus seven?” “What’s our address?” “What’s the capital of South Dakota?” “Why can’t you just do what you’re told without pouting and whining?”
But this question sounded different. There was something worrying and peculiar in the way he almost chanted, as if he both did and didn’t expect me to answer. He seemed amused by my answer before I’d given it. And what a confusing question. If something was black and white, it couldn’t be red at the same time. That was just basic to knowing what words meant, wasn’t it? My father’s lips were now pressed into a tight line. I was taking too long to answer.
The only thing I could think to say always meant trouble.
“I don’t know.”
“A newspaper,” he said, grinning.
I closed my eyes, retreated into my mind to absorb the answer. I couldn’t do it. I opened them, looked at my father, my head cocked to the side—apprehensive, stupid, trying to think and failing. Nothing connected. This was not unusual in my relations with the adult world. I must have looked like a beagle instructed to determine pi.
“I don’t understand.”
“A newspaper is read,” he said and nodded. He was encouraging me to keep working at it.
I conjured a picture of a newspaper painted red. I envisioned Dad painting the kitchen stool. He’d spread newspaper on the carport floor and then placed the unfinished wooden stool upside down in the middle of it. The paint often over-sprayed onto the Goldsboro News-Argus, covering much of the paper with a glossy coat of royal-blue enamel. In my mind I turned the blue paint to red. But that didn’t help. Where the newsprint was red, it was no longer black and white.
“A newspaper is read after you read it,” Dad said.
“But it’s not red. It’s still black and white.”
“Listen to me! It’s R-E-A-D, not R-E-D. The same word means different things.”
“That’s not fair! It’s cheating!”
“It’s not cheating. It’s a joke.”
“It doesn’t make sense!” I wailed.
“It’s not supposed to make sense. It’s a joke, you stupid idiot!” he snapped, and marched out of the room.
After he was gone, I remember sitting on the carpet, tapping one Lincoln Log with another. Read sounds the same as red. Now that my father’s expectant eyes were no longer locked on me, I got it. The joke had faked me out by leading me to think the sound meant one thing when it really meant another. If that wasn’t cheating, I didn’t know what was. But the margins in a newspaper, I thought, weren’t “read,” so it wasn’t actually read all over, was it? And what about the pictures? Did looking at them count as reading? I didn’t think so.
A few minutes later, Dad came back in the living room—to make amends, I now realize—and asked me why the chicken crossed the road.
“I don’t know,” I said. That seemed to be a safe answer to these joke things.
“To get to the other side.”
I nodded as if I understood, tried to smile, and he left the room again, appeased if not happy. In a way I did understand. The joke was a parable about simplicity. The chicken’s crossing the road was broken down to its simplest possible motivation, but one so fundamental as to be completely dull and unsatisfying. I’d come dangerously close to asking Dad what chicken we were talking about. The chickens in my grandmother’s grassless backyard waddled in circles, scratching the Georgia red clay for bugs and overlooked feed corn, and not a single hen had ever shown the least interest in crossing Vineyard Road. I had, though, seen plenty of others flopped dead by drainage ditches, their red and brown feathers erect in the backwash of air as our station wagon shot past, and I vividly remembered seeing a dead chicken humped at the base of a mailbox, a dog jabbing his muzzle into the carcass. Crossing the road was a skill in which many chickens were fatally deficient but maybe they possessed desires I was unaware of.
I was a single-minded little literalist and these jokes seemed like annoyances made of words, not life, the way math problems at school were annoyances made of numbers. If you had two apples and Mr. Smith gave you three, Mrs. Johnson gave you four, and Miss Ingle gave you three, how many apples would you have? I understood the mathematics behind the silly question, but I couldn’t imagine a world where grown-ups I didn’t know stopped me one after the other and gave me more than I could eat of a fruit I didn’t like.
Later, when I encountered more complex word problems in arithmetic, I believed them to be especially lame versions of jokes, dubious contraptions made of words that led to an answer that had nothing to do with life as I knew it. I couldn’t conceive of caring what time the train leaving Santa Fe at noon at forty miles an hour would pass the train leaving from Denver an hour later at fifty miles an hour. Maybe I’d care if I was on one train, my mother was on the other, and I could remember to look up at the exactly calculated minute and wave to her as we passed each other, but I doubted that would be possible. I’d get engrossed in reading a comic book, forget the time, forget to look for her, and then, later, I’d get fussed at for not paying attention.
• • •
At school, I met my father’s first joke again, and once more it flummoxed me. “What’s black and white and red all over?” asked the joke page of My Weekly Reader. Well, I know that one, I thought with jaded triumph. It’s a newspaper. Everybody knows that.
Wrong! said My Weekly Reader. It’s a blushing zebra. That’s just dumb, I thought, enraged. Zebras don’t blush. What could make a zebra blush? And even if it did, it wouldn’t blush all over its body, just as people didn’t blush all over theirs. My Weekly Reader helpfully printed a black-and-white picture of a zebra, its head radiating squiggly heat-lines of embarrassment as it looked back over its shoulder with an abashed grin. Its white stripes were shaded gray, to suggest it was blushing. But the picture made me crazier than the joke. Even in the picture, the black stripes of the zebra remained black, which was—aha!—a clear refutation of the joke’s logic.
What was this joking? It was challenging my grasp of reality. Was joking like what my mother often said as she flipped off the bedroom light after tucking me and my brother into bed? Hand hovering over the switch, she sang, “Where was Moses when the light went out?” Click went the light, and framed in the doorway by the hall light behind her, my mother, chuckling, answered her own question, “In the dark!” Other times the question had a different answer, one that made her laugh out loud: “Down in the cellar with his shirttail out!”
“In the dark” was an obvious non-answer answer, like “to get to the other side,” and “down in the cellar with his shirttail out” was nonsense with a hint of naughtiness. Other than that, all I understood about these moments was Mom’s pleasure in the words. “Where was Moses when the light went out?” was, I discovered many years later, the refrain of a novelty song from her youth. In the song, Moses is courting Becky Cohen, and when the lights go out, old man Cohen is relieved to hear Becky keep playing the “pianer” in the dark while he leaves the room to find money to feed the gas meter. He is, he tells Becky, sure her Moses was courting her respectably—“loving in a Yiddisher manner,” but Cohen still wants reassurance: “Tell me, darling daughter, while I went to get the quarter / Where was Moses when the light went out?”
The refrain broke free of its source, became a catchphrase, and people simply invented answers for it, including one I never heard at home: “Down in the cellar eating sauerkraut.” We Southern Baptists weren’t notable consumers of fermented cabbage, and the only Moses I’d heard of was the one who led the children of Israel out of Egypt. In my mind, he was the Moses in the dark with his shirttail flapping free. I wondered why he was not wearing the long heavy robe he wore in my illustrated Bible. My lack of understanding did not, however, keep me from absorbing (if not entirely appreciating) how my mother, after she had turned out the lights on another day that ended with me safely in bed, allowed herself a moment of carefree nonsensical pleasure imported from a time before I was born.
• • •
I slowly eased my grip on my natural literalism, and began to enjoy the unrealities that language made possible. Chickens yearn to cross roads, zebras blush, and newspapers are red all over while remaining black and white. You could play with words, just as you played with marbles, yo-yos, kites, and Matchbox cars.
Jokes were toys made of words. They were like the jack-in-the-box whose handle I spent hour after hour cranking, listening to the rink-a-tink tune of “Pop! Goes the Weasel” and then crowing with laughter when the clown shot out of his box, flung his folded arms wide, and bobbed at the end of his spring, idiotic and yet sinister with his huge hooked nose, bright red cheeks, and derisive grin. Frightening as he was, Jack was mine to control. I determined when he lunged out of his box, and once he did, I folded his hands across his chest and shoved him back down into his dark enclosure. I could spin the crank rapidly, frantic notes pelting from the box till the clown popped out. More often I turned the handle with obsessive patience, feeling the bumps on the roller inside the music mechanism flick over the tines, making “Pop! Goes the Weasel” unwind as a tinny dirge, until Jack’s spring overpowered the loosening latch and the clown once more launched to the end of his hidden spring. I loved the absurdity of the clown with his arms flying apart wider than the box that held him and his long black gown that, stretched over his uncompressed spring, made him look much taller than the box from which he’d leapt.
The tune tinked out of the box, and I screeched along with it, reveling in the song as I conjured the unsurprising surprise of Jack’s appearance:
All around the mulberry bush
The monkey chased the weasel;
The monkey thought ’twas all in fun,
Pop! goes the weasel.
A penny for a spool of thread
A penny for a needle—
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop! goes the weasel.
Half a pound of tuppenny rice,
Half a pound of treacle.
Mix it up and make it nice,
Pop! goes the weasel.
Up and down the London road,
In and out of the Eagle,
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop! goes the weasel.
I’ve no time to plead and pine,
I’ve no time to wheedle,
Kiss me quick and then I’m gone
Pop! goes the weasel.
To my ears the words were joyously cockeyed. I knew that weasels and monkeys didn’t belong together, and the two of them had no natural connection to mulberry bushes, which I had at least seen with my own eyes and not in picture books. The appearing and disappearing clown simply increased the mental anarchy that baffled, tickled, and intrigued me.
I loved the slight, giddy menace in how “needle,” “treacle,” “eagle,” and “weasel” inexactly rhymed. There was something eerie in the way the tune forced me to pronounce the last syllables of the words with unnatural weight: Wee-ZUL, knee-DUL, ee-GUL, whee-DUL.
The song changed a bit from songbook to songbook, class to class, and even singer to singer. Did it begin “All around the mulberry bush” or “Around and around” or “Round and round”? Once, in a new class, I launched into the song, and when all the other kids, who had belted out “Round and round the cobbler’s bench,” turned to look at me, I felt stupid and flatfooted, betrayed by my full-throated devotion to the mulberry bush. Though I was perturbed by the unfixed lyrics and the unmoored world they implied, the exuberance of the song and the sheer pleasure it gave me made it easy to understand that all our versions were basically the same—and I learned that what I knew was not the only way something could be known. More crucially, I learned that pleasure can lead us to want to understand something and that understanding is not entirely necessary for pleasure.
I had no idea that “Pop! Goes the Weasel” was a drinking song, the Eagle a pub, and that the beer mugs were raised and drained at pop!—as a teacher once told the class. Or, depending on whom you read, the weasel is a weaver’s shuttle, a tailor’s iron, a coat, or a stolen bit of silver—all of which could be “popped” at the pawn shop to pay for drink and food or a tumble in the hay. No one knows for sure what the monkey was. Perhaps, one writer speculates not very confidently, a Frenchman. And I loved the cavalier shrug of “That’s the way the money goes.” Money was never talked about so dismissively in our house, or in any house I’d ever entered. A world where money was splashed out casually with a laugh and without a second thought—I enjoyed a frisson of illicit extravagance just mouthing the words.
For years, I tried to understand the song and couldn’t, which was a huge part of its continuing appeal. Did “pop” mean the weasel exploded? That didn’t seem right. Did it mean the weasel had leapt on the monkey, caught it, and killed it? Might have been right. Had the monkey caught the weasel and squeezed it till it popped? That explanation made more sense than anything else and I was guiltily fond of the image it formed in my mind, though I still wouldn’t have bet my lunch money on it.
• • •
Looking back, I’m surprised all over again that it was my father who told me my first two jokes. He was a melancholy man, one who, as the ancient Greeks said of the unlaughing, had consulted the oracle of Trophonius. According to Pausanias, the seeker who consulted the oracle to learn what the future held was taken into a cave at night and placed, feet first, in a small hole, which then seemed to pull him in: “Then the rest of his body is immediately dragged along and follows quickly after his knees, just as if the greatest and swiftest of rivers were about to engulf one caught in its current. . . . The way back for those who have gone down is through the same mouth, with their feet running before them.” After enacting his symbolic death and rebirth, the seeker is brought to the priests, who sat him upon “the chair of Memory” and asked him what he learned in this quest. Then he is turned over to his relatives who “lift him, paralyzed with terror and unconscious both of himself and of his surroundings.” Sources other than Pausanias say that in the underworld the melancholy leave behind their capacity to enjoy life and never laugh again. In a significant way, they are already dead.
When I first read about the oracle of Trophonius, I thought of how my father would occasionally pull my brothers and me up onto the bed with him and lay still while we crawled over his body, sat on his chest, or stared up his nose. At first he laughed a little at our tickling, but then he fell silent. Slowly we realized that he wasn’t moving or speaking. Had he gone to sleep? How could he have fallen asleep with three boys clambering back and forth across his belly?
“Daddy, are you asleep?” we asked.
We poked his shoulder, but he didn’t rouse. We traced the bottoms of his feet lightly with our fingertips, tickling him and his sides. He was ticklish in those places, we knew, but now he didn’t flinch or jerk away.
“Daddy, are you okay? Are you okay?”
We peeled his eyelids back and peered into the motionless blurred circles. We pinched his nose shut to see if he was breathing.
“Daddy, are you alive?”
Dear God, what would we do if he were dead? Would we have to go live with our grandmother? What would we eat? Who would take care of us?
In desperation, sitting on his belly, I reared back my head and slammed my forehead into his face. Yelling, he sat up and swept us off the bed and onto the floor. Standing over us, he shouted, “We were having fun and you stupid idiots had to go and ruin everything.”
Huddled at his feet, we sobbed in relief and terror. We were thrilled that he had returned from the dead and terrified at what he’d do next. So it was a joke! I thought. Why aren’t we laughing? Why does every joke end with someone crying and someone yelling?
“Get out of my sight! Go to your rooms! Go to your rooms and stay there till I tell you you can come out.”
• • •
I grew up in a sour family, with both my parents secretly grieving and depressed. They had visited the oracle of Trophonius and lost the ability to laugh. I didn’t learn why until I was thirteen and my grandmother told me the family secret: I had a sister Andrea who died before I was born. According to my grandmother, my father believed God had taken Andrea back from him because in loving her so much he had committed idolatry before the Lord. My parents could not talk about her. Her life was too holy to mention. Her death in a car accident, my mother at the wheel, was a wound too raw for words to touch. By their silence my parents tried to protect me and my brothers from knowing about death. Instead, we learned sorrow and fear. The sorrow that pervaded our lives was the only world I’d known, and so it seemed natural, as did the rage that stalked in sorrow’s footprints. Human existence was a joyless conscription to be marched through dutifully till death released us. I assumed our melancholy and anger grew from our Baptist belief in original sin, the depravity of man, and our knowledge that this world was a valley of temptation and suffering we warily pass through on our way to judgment. I was right, but not entirely right. My sister’s death gave my parents’ beliefs a terrible emotional force, the force of lived experience.
Because of that bleakness, I remember clearly the times I heard my father chuckle; they were aberrations, so marvelous and strange that I studied him out of the corner of my eye, suspicious that he was playing a trick on me. If there were a word that means at the same time fascination, skepticism, affection, sorrow, recurring surprise, and something just shy of wonder, that’s the word that would describe how I felt when I heard him chuckle at The Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle—USMC, and The Beverly Hillbillies—all shows about Southerners who, through naïve goodwill and innocence, triumphed in the world. Was that how he saw himself? It was certainly the way he wanted the world to work.
His harshness grew not just from unspoken grief over his daughter’s death but also from an ongoing grief that the world did not conform to his faith. Church was his respite. Other than at worship services, the only times Dad relaxed were when his brothers came to visit, and those visits were rare. One uncle lived in Florida, the other in Ohio, and we, as a military family, were often in hard-to-drive-to military bases in Texas, New Mexico, England, North Carolina, California, or France—to list them in chronological order. When my uncles, both Methodist ministers, sat at our table after a long trip, my father didn’t talk much, but he smiled readily at their stories. He trusted them, as his brothers and as ministers, to act appropriately. I was always intrigued by these two men who looked like my father but had laugh lines around their eyes and banter on their lips. When he was around them, my father became a little like them, at ease and agreeable, even happy—a man foreign to me.
Their visits were odd oases in our unhappiness. When I was young, my mother occasionally spent afternoons locked in her bedroom. I could hear her full-body sobbing through the closed door. Sometimes I’d kneel in the hall outside her door, trying to figure out what my father or I might have done to devastate her so utterly. Slowly, careful not to make the bolt tap against the strike plate, I pressed my ear against the hollow-core door and listened. All I could hear were sobs—gasping sobs as she fought for breath, then moments of calm, then moans that almost became words, then stabs at prayer that turned back to moans. Her crying spells lasted for hours, and after a while, bored and helpless, I’d slink off to lie on my bed and read, while listening for her door to open. Returning to my own inconsequential amusements while her comfortless sorrow wept itself toward a stopping place, I felt cruel and crudely separate from my mother, a feeling I understood was crass, necessary, and salubrious. When she came out to fix supper, her face was swollen and she walked as if she had been beaten over her back and legs. I had no idea what was wrong, and after the first time or two, I learned not to ask. “Crying? I don’t know what you’re talking about. Maybe you were hearing the neighbor’s radio. I was asleep. You must’ve heard me dreaming.”
Because she was so volatile, her pleasures, more full than my father’s, were all the more my pleasures. She enjoyed listening to Arthur Godfrey on the radio while she ironed. His on-air folksiness and even his gravelly crankiness delighted her. He’s down-to-earth, just like us, she said, with a satisfaction I adopted as my own. The Breakfast Club with Don McNeill, broadcast from “the Cloud Room of the Allerton Hotel, high above Chicago’s famous magnificent mile,” was another of our delights. Settling in for a morning’s work, she arranged the ironing board so she could park her ashtray, Pall Malls, coffee mug, and water-sprinkling bottle on the kitchen table within easy reach. They often migrated back and forth from table to ironing board to table over and over each morning. In midmorning, the coffee was replaced by a Coke or Dr. Pepper. Mom dashed the wrinkled laundry with water from a Coke bottle with a cork-bottomed sprinkler cap jammed in it. When the sprinkler head went missing during one of our moves, she simply dipped her fingers into a bowl of water and flicked the laundry to moisten it. She loathed ironing, as she often told me, but she made the drudgery tolerable by balancing it with the workaday rewards of caffeine, tobacco, and radio.
I paid only fitful attention to Arthur Godfrey or Don McNeill. It was my mother I wanted to hear. I sat under the ironing board, and listened to her listening, attending to her chuckles, snorts, and muttered comments. “Well, that’s just ridiculous!” she’d say to the radio, and I could hear enjoyment even in her judgment and disgust. More than once, when she laughed too hard at a joke or huffed too fiercely at a story in the news, there were wild moments when the ironing board tipped, and iron, water, ashtray, lit cigarette, and parts of my father’s uniform flew past my head as she flailed at them to keep them from hitting me.
I happily sat at her feet and listened when she talked on the phone to her friends, trying to understand the whole conversation from the half of it I heard. What did it mean that Mrs. Wilcox had sat in the same pew as Jenny Carlow at church Sunday morning? That Mom’s sister Joyce was looking for a job at the towel mill? That Jack Somebody from Dad’s class at West Point had made colonel already? I couldn’t puzzle it out, and wasn’t supposed to. “Little pitchers have big ears,” she said into the receiver before skirting around a story she was telling, filling it in for her friend with verbal nudges and auditory winks. In a few years, I would find myself mostly relegated to third base or banished to right field in Little League, but I always dreamed of being a pitcher, so I was mildly stung by Mom’s derogatory assessment of my ears. For a couple of months, as I was getting ready for bed at night, she taped them to the sides of my head with white first-aid tape. She was training them not to stick out. Why, a big wind would blow me away. I didn’t want to look like Dumbo, did I?
Even when I didn’t know what she was talking about on the phone, I knew not to ask. If I did, I’d be sent from the room, away from her occasional laughter. When my parents laughed, they became, for a moment, younger and lighter. I sensed, though I could not have said so, a time when they had not been unhappy, and I blamed their unhappiness on the trials of raising children, the burden of responsibility. The burden of me. I was wrong. Or partly wrong. I was misinterpreting the burden: My parents were terrified that I would die, as my sister had, and they hovered over me, watched me with fearful vigilance, and corrected me vehemently so I would be careful, stay alive, not die. My father’s rage grew, I imagine, out of fear. My rage grew out of my fear of him.
When I was small, he clenched my wrists in his hands and smacked my face with my own hands as he laughed and said, “Don’t hit yourself.” I fought to control my hands, to keep from hitting myself, but again and again my own hands slapped my face. In the struggle, he sometimes hit me—or I hit myself—sharply. My cheeks stinging, my own hands hurting me, and I could not stop them. Soon I was sobbing with frustration, and I was a bad sport, a sissy who couldn’t take a joke. But when I clutched my brothers’ wrists and popped their palms against their cheeks, crowing, “Don’t hit yourself! Why are you hitting yourself?” my parents screamed that I was mean. I was hurting my baby brothers. Well, sure—and the joke was finally, for the first time, funny.
We seldom agreed on what was funny. On the last day of fourth grade, I raced home on my bike after a half day of class, and met my father getting out of the car in the carport, home for lunch.
“How’d school go today?”
“Fine,” I said. I was elated. Last day of school!
“Did you find out who your teacher’s going to be next year?”
“Yes, sir. It’s Old Lady Porter.” That’s what I’d heard the other boys at school call her. Old Lady Porter. I relished the tough-guy knowingness of the phrase—one cowboy talking to another about the lady who owned the saloon. I thought it was funny because I knew I was a kid trying to sound like a cowboy, a hood, a detective, a Bowery boy.
I was still straddling my bicycle, toes touching the concrete, when Dad grabbed my arm, jerked me off the seat, and shook me by my shoulders, his face jammed up nose-to-nose with mine.
“Her name is Mrs. Porter to you, young man! Mrs. Porter! And that’s what you’ll call her. Do you hear me?”
“Then say it!
“Yes, sir!” I shouted. I’d read this was how recruits addressed officers.
“Not that! Her name, you stupid idiot.”
The ensuing and scathing lecture on respect for adults in general, women in particular, and teachers especially, left me trembling with shock and, secretly, indignation. I could have understood the gravity of my transgression with a more temperate reprimand. But even as he yelled and I trembled, I saw that, though the yelling was probably unnecessary for me, for him, it was essential. Because of my thoughtless joking, he had to yell at me; he was morally compelled to correct a mockery I hadn’t intended. And jokes, I also saw, were not something to share willy-nilly. I’d have to be cagier about whom I joked with.
• • •
My childish sense of humor was a weapon I honed on my brothers, who were younger than I and, for a while, weaker. My brother Roger and I were eating fried egg sandwiches for lunch when he eagerly announced that he’d read Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” the night before. It had unnerved him so deeply that he’d spent the night awake, with the covers pulled up over his head. I must have been in the fifth grade then and he must have been in the third. I nibbled the bread and the egg white of my sandwich until one end of the naked yolk was visible. Holding it in front of Roger’s face, I intoned, “The beating of his hideous heart!” and squeezed the bread. The still-liquid yolk bulged toward him. Over and over again, I chanted, “The beating of his hideous heart!” squeezing the yolk till it almost burst and jabbing it toward his face as he cringed. When he broke down blubbering, I popped the yolk, let the yellow run like blood down the toasted bread, and ate the imaginary heart with exaggerated appetite.
But the real and impossible target of all the anger I channeled into crude wit was my father. Since I was terrified of him, I practiced my sarcasm in silence, fashioning put-downs so cutting he would fall at my feet and beg forgiveness, I imagined, if I’d been stupid enough to say them. I knew that the wit of a ten-year-old boy would be no match for my father’s intelligence, and even if it were, I’d simply be whipped for my success. I lived in my head, holding high-strung conversations with myself, forming witticisms and replying to them, topping myself, and then topping that top with even more cutting rejoinders. At the same time that I thought I was pretty darn clever, the Oscar Wilde of long division and the Oscar Levant of sentence diagramming, I knew to keep my mouth shut. My unspoken bon mots must have shown on my face as a smirk because both my parents snarled at me repeatedly, “If you don’t wipe that look off your face, boy, I’ll knock it off for you!” Sometimes, not often, they did. Usually, as soon as Mom’s or Dad’s right hand drew back, I assumed an expression of exaggerated neutrality and they were content not to have to slap me.
My father would sometimes hit us. But swear, never. Not so much as a “damn” or “hell” passed his lips in my hearing. “Fart” was verboten. Even “durn” and “darn”—my mother’s curse words—were dodgy. But in his rage Dad hissed “stupid idiot” so venomously that it devastated me. A couple of times in my early teens I worked up the courage to tell people, in his presence, that I’d just recently learned that my name was Andrew, not Stupid Idiot. He responded that I’d only recently earned the promotion—a joke. Kind of. The few times my father assayed verbal humor, it was the dry, wounding type. When I was in high school, one of my aunts gave me a used watch, and my father, seeing me sit in the living room, winding it and admiring the faux-marbled red dial, asked if the watch were any good.
“It says it has a ten-jewel movement.”
“Well, why don’t you pry them out and sell them? Then we’ll all be rich.”
I reacted to his comment like the character in Edith Wharton’s story “The Mission of Jane”: “It occurred to him that perhaps she was trying to be funny: he knew there is nothing more cryptic than the humor of the unhumorous.” Even at fifteen, I knew this was an inappropriate barb for a father to direct at a boy thrilled to flash around a watch with a red face, stiletto hands, and a snazzy silver-gray leather strap. I couldn’t tell him his wit was unsuitable. But I reflexively analyzed the opening he’d left unguarded. All the nasty things I could’ve snapped back at him raced through my mind: “Well, it’d be more than you’ve ever done.” “I’ve come to like being poor.” “What do you mean we, kemo sabe?” I was tempted by the last option, but I was pretty sure he’d respond violently to the tone of it even if he didn’t recognize it as a punch line. The Lone Ranger and Tonto are surrounded by hundreds of hostile Apaches, who are ready to sweep down on them. The Lone Ranger turns to Tonto, his faithful Indian companion, and says, “It looks like we’re in trouble this time, Tonto.”
“What do you mean we, kemo sabe?” Would the joke itself have amused Dad? Who knows? The joke is potentially racist and delights in disloyalty, choosing practicality over principle. I wasn’t going to risk it.
Jokes are often—some would say always—intricately wound up with power. Unable to reply with a cutting remark of my own, I was tempted to smile at my father’s joke, maybe chuckle subserviently to ease the tension of not laughing. Instead, I did something that many people have done to me in the years since: I stared at him, my head cocked with blank bewilderment—some of which was real—until he turned back to the TV.
How do you respond to the nearly humorless? Back in North Carolina, in the same house in which Dad told me my first joke, we were eating dinner at the kitchen table when I farted. Without a word, Dad, who was sitting next to me at the head of the table, lashed out and backhanded me across the face. I jolted backward with the blow, my chair tipped, and, falling, I smacked the back of my head against the washing machine.
Slumped on the linoleum in front of the washer, I blubbered, “I didn’t do anything. What did I do? You didn’t have to hit me.” The front panel of the washer had some flex in it, so I wasn’t hurt so much as shocked at suddenly being on the floor. By feigning more pain than I felt, I was trying to keep him from coming at me again.
“Quit making a show of yourself. You know what you did. You pooted at the table. Sit down, eat your supper, and if you need to go to the bathroom, go to the stinking bathroom.”
“But I didn’t know I was going to do it. It just came out.”
“Don’t lie to me. I saw you lean over to let it out.”
He had me dead to rights. I had shifted my weight from my right buttock to my left and leaned over slightly to ease the gas out. I couldn’t believe he’d seen me do it.
Forty years later, detached from the shame and ill usage I felt then, the moment seems irresistibly comic. I don’t know why Dad didn’t see the humor and couldn’t laugh, and I wish I could have. If he had read Augustine’s City of God, he would have known that flatulence has a long history as a public entertainment that the saint himself enjoyed: “Some have such command of their bowels, that they can break wind continuously at pleasure, so as to produce the effect of singing.” And if he were a joker, he could’ve said what the third man said to the devil. Three men who had sold their souls were given a last chance to redeem themselves. All they had to do was name one request the devil couldn’t fulfill. The first asked for a roomful of gold and the devil immediately conjured it up. The second asked for the most beautiful woman in the world to be his slave, and the devil, with a wave of his hand, produced her. The third man farted, and said to the devil, “Catch it and paint it green.”
In fifth grade, every time one of the boys farted, the rest of us shouted, “Catch it and paint it green!” It was our tribute to the embarrassment of the body and the vividly impossible. We did not know the joke goes back to at least 1560, when, in a German version, the devil was ordered to catch a fart and sew a button on it. The joke is so common that folklorists have given it a number and a name inside the larger category of “Tasks contrary to the law of nature”: “H1023.13, Task: catching a man’s broken wind. Type: 1176.”
• • •
When I was twelve or thirteen, I finally let one of my supposed witticisms escape my lips.
As we drove out of San Bernardino, California, to Lake Isabella, where the government rented old air force blue trailers for military families on vacation, my two brothers and I squirmed, whined, and elbowed each other in the backseat of a Volkswagen Beetle. In the un-air-conditioned car, our thighs sticking to the hot vinyl, we were practically pasted to each other from knees to shoulders. We were furious with Dad because, instead of taking the Chevy wagon, he’d opted for the VW to save on gas. We were miserable—ceaselessly, vocally miserable—and our jostling, quarreling, and carping must have been maddening to listen to. It was supposed to be.
As we approached a billboard advertisement for Volkswagens that announced, “It’ll grow on you,” my father read it to us and, with a triumphant snort, told us to settle down back there. “It’ll grow on you.”
“Yeah, it’ll grow on us. Like mold,” I said.
“Yeah, like fungus,” Roger added, and laughed. The giddiness of our own incessant bitching had made us bold, and reversing the needle that Dad had jabbed at us improved my mood briefly.
He jerked the car to the side of the road and sat for a moment, his hands clenched on the steering wheel, before, his face red with rage, he turned and glared at us over the front seat.
“Get out,” he snarled. “Both of you. You don’t like what I provide for you, so you can just get out! I don’t want you to ride in a car that’s not good enough for you.”
I froze. He was joking, wasn’t he? He had to be joking. He got out of the car, tilted down his seatback, and snarled, “Go on! Get out!”
Roger shrugged, and slipped out of his spot behind the driver’s seat, and stood beside Dad.
I sat where I was, waiting for Dad to say he’d made his point and we should just sit still and shut up till we got to the lake.
“You too,” he said, and jerked his head in the direction he wanted me to move. “Get out.”
I scrambled over Mike, who sat in the middle of the bench seat, his legs straddling the transmission hump, and stumbled out of the car. Blinking in the harsh California sunlight on the edge of Central Valley and near the desert, I looked through the window at Mike. He was safe because he was four, and he was studiously looking innocent.
Roger and I stood by the side of the road, nothing but sand and scrub brush as far as we could see. Dad slammed the car in gear and drove off. Roger and I watched till the car slipped around a curve and was gone. I kept staring at the last spot it had occupied before it had disappeared in the distance. Surely Dad was coming back. He couldn’t just leave us by the road in the middle of nowhere, could he? It was against the law to abandon children, I knew that, but I knew it because I’d read newspaper reports of people who had done it. And I was thirteen. I wasn’t sure I completely qualified as a child anymore.
After a couple of minutes, Roger said, “Let’s go.”
“Where?” I looked back where we’d come from and ahead to where the car had vanished.
“Let’s just go,” he said, and started marching down the shoulder in the direction the car had taken. After he’d gone about ten yards, I hurried to follow, my feet clumsy on the loose gravel and the steep rake of the shoulder. Before we’d walked a mile, my father puttered up on the other side of the road and braked to a stop across from us.
“Want a ride?” he called out the window. Beside him, my mother laughed. It was close enough to a joke for me. Almost whimpering with gratitude, I squeezed behind my father’s seat, while he bent forward against the steering wheel to make room for me. On the road, Roger kept walking, his back rigid, his eyes fixed on the distance, acknowledging neither my father’s presence nor my capitulation. Dad cut a three-point turn in the middle of the road, and crept along beside him in the car. Roger never turned his head. Finally, Dad yelled at him to stop being silly and get in the car. Roger ignored him. Finally, Dad got out and wrestled him into the car by the neck. He looked like a cowboy bulldogging a steer.
For weeks, my mother teased me about my craven gratitude and Roger’s stubborn refusal to be cowed, even though he was the younger brother. She laughed with a pleasure I resented, though I had to acknowledge the truth behind the laughter, and the justice of her repeatedly slamming it into my face like a cream pie. Roger was her favorite, as she told me, always adding that she loved me just as much. I was my father’s, as she also told me, and all my life I’ve felt a little like Israel. Being the Lord’s favorite is a difficult blessing. I wish I had been confident enough to laugh at the comedy of it all. But, like the devil, I couldn’t catch it and paint it green.