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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
We Might As Well Leave Now, Fanny (An Excerpt from The Joker)
Love is the fart of every heart:
It pains a man when ’tis kept close,
And others doth offend, when ’tis let loose.
Sir John Suckling (1609-1642)
When I think of the women I have loved or almost loved, I remember the luxurious, almost lascivious, delectations of shared laughter. When a woman and I moved apart, I missed the laughter nearly as much as I missed the love, the affection, the companionship, and the sex. Laughter’s plush harmonies were integral to all of the other pleasures.
When we were first dating, my ex-wife once said plaintively, “Everything’s a joke to you, isn’t it? Can’t you be serious about anything?” We were both in college, working minimum-wage jobs, living with our parents, and learning who we were together while learning who we were individually. One evening in 1970, after finishing my shift at the dry-goods wholesaler, I picked her up at the office where she typed for a buck-sixty an hour. We decided to grab a quick supper in a small restaurant in a strip mall. We each ordered a small burger, small Coke, small fries, and I was fretting about the cost. Tuition, books, gas, the room and board my mother wanted to charge me and which I’d been ignoring—how much was this rare indulgence of dinner with my girlfriend going to cost?
We talked about what we might do for livings. I was working on a high-school teaching certificate. Kathleen wasn’t sure. Maybe teach, maybe law, maybe who-knows-what? Did we want to encumber our lives with loud and dirty babies? Then the conversation went global. God, we were stunned by the wrenching pictures we’d been seeing every night on the news from a 120-mph typhoon that had blasted into the Ganges River delta and killed between 150,00 and 500,00 people. Perhaps 100,000 more were missing. To this date, no one knows the exact number, but even then everyone knew the typhoon was one of the worst natural catastrophes in history.
Even the lowest number would have been the equivalent of our entire city of Montgomery and most of the surrounding county being eradicated. The higher number would have represented the deaths of every citizen of Montgomery and Birmingham. The equivalent of our friends, our families, our high schools and college, churches, and families obliterated–and we were doing nothing. Hadn’t we studied, with dread and sorrow, the famous gut-twisting photo of a man, a holocaustal specter, holding the emaciated body of his wife, daughter, or a dying woman he had picked up? She was emaciated too. A ratty shawl looped across her torso half-revealed the full swell of one breast. The other, the one against the man’s chest, was fully exposed, but fuzzed out, the nipple airbrushed away so the picture, in all its poignant horror, could be published in family newspapers. Her face, tilted back over the man’s arm, was reduced to a stark abstraction of disease and starvation, the high sharp cheekbones only two ghastly steps past the gaunt beauty of a fashion model. The picture, we said, was the Pieta with the virgin herself as Christ.
What could we do? Nothing. According to the papers, cholera was now spreading through the camps. With as straight a face as I could muster, I asked Kathleen, “Let’s get serious, though. How’s Alabama going to do against Oklahoma in the Bluebonnet Bowl?” Because she loved me, she laughed.
I was reeling at my own inability to do anything but lament the disaster—as earlier in the year, I had reeled from the massacre at Attica, the U.S.’s expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia, the two-week war between Indian and Pakistan, the re-election of George Wallace as our governor, and the rise of Idi Amin in Uganda. I was unable to do anything but lament. Or unwilling. If I were a serious person, I could quit school, work full time, and give my wages to the Red Cross, couldn’t I?
In a way, my joke question was a real question. We both knew that Kathleen, her mother, and I would watch every minute of the football game, screaming so loud that Wally the dog would cower in a back bedroom for an hour after the game ended. Even then we’d have to entice him out with a Milk Bone. If the Crimson Tide lost, we’d sink into the couch, exhausted by a grief more intense and personal than we ever could have felt for the Bangladeshis. How many of them died, I wondered, during the last movie we saw, during the game, or during the week between the movie and the game?
“How do you stop a tsunami?” I asked Kathleen. Before she could tell I was shifting from near despair to humor, I answered. “You throw half a million Bangladeshis in front of it,” I said, laughing.
“Oh, Andrew,” she said as she laughed, “That’s terrible.” Terrible. That was the point. The answer to the joke seemed to be God’s answer.
So when she then said, “Can’t you be serious about anything!” I was jarred. Didn’t she didn’t know I joked about terrible things because I wasn’t willing to forgo my date with her to save the money and send it to the Red Cross? I wasn’t going to forgo watching Alabama play Oklahoma to a 24-24 tie or my chance at graduating from college and living a more-or-less comfortable life. Since I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do anything to help the dying thousands in Bangladesh, wasn’t any kind of exaggerated concern merely histrionic hypocrisy? When I made the joke, however feeble, I knew it was on me and my failings, and on life itself, not on those poor refugees dying of dehydration and malaria. Laughter was the one way I could approach the deep, appalled fears that haunted me—a hopeless sense of helplessness, a life-long dread of death, and—couldn’t she see it?–an apprehensive and growing commitment to love.
I had a young and driven man’s urgent need to conceal that I was young, driven, and frightened. Most of the time, I hid my futile empathy behind a selectively permeable membrane. Without out that shield, the world’s miseries would hammer me down to an oozing mound of useless guilt. Don’t we all, except the saintly, learn the limits of love’s jurisdiction? And don’t we also feel vicious and even sinister because of our necessary callousness?
The refrain of the marriage was “Oh, Andrew….”
“Oh, Andrew….” meant she did not understand why I thought something was funny, and if I thought about it, I should have known she wouldn’t laugh. But as jokers do, I persisted, knowing that if I could overcome her resistance the joke would be even funnier, provoking the moment when she would, laughing, say, “That’s not funny.”
Six years later, when we were moving toward divorce, Kathleen said, “What’s wrong with you? You never laugh anymore.” In the months before, as she’d moved out of the house and, relenting to my entreaties, returned, then moved out and then relented again, I brooded over the past we had shared. One of us alone could decide it meant nothing–or not enough–and that understanding got to be true for both of us. And the person who was moving toward and retreating from this decision for the both of us expected me to laugh?
Seven years after our divorce, I was sitting on a porch at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference late in the evening, talking and joking with people, one of them my former teacher, the poet Don Justice. What were we talking about? Divorces? Exes? Women in general? I don’t remember, but after several drinks, my tongue grew as loose as my brain, and I began to tell stories about my ex-wife.
I told them that soon after we were married, Kathleen took a job as a secretary in the Geology Department at the University of Alabama, where I was a graduate student. In the job interview, she had told the department chairman, her prospective boss, that while she was happy to attend to her secretarial responsibilities, she was not going to make coffee for the office, one of the hot-button issues at the time. Secretaries were professionals, not servants, not maids, and not substitute wives. They shouldn’t be expected to clean the coffee maker and keep it brewing unless they wanted a cup of coffee themselves, dammit. The boss was happy enough to agree since he had an office manager who already took care of the coffee, and because Kathleen could out-type the capacity of an IBM Selectric, tripping the keys so fast that the machine occasionally locked up and pitched a row of hyphens across the page.
But once the other woman quit, and Kathleen was promoted to office manager, the previous office manager’s job of tending to the yellow-stained dilapidated Mr. Coffee fell to her, a lack of respect that infuriated her. She grudgingly brewed coffee first thing every morning, while complaining about it sourly and often at home. After several months, I noticed she hadn’t mentioned coffee in a while. I asked her why not. Had she trained the boss to do it for himself?
She laughed gleefully. No, she said, she still made the coffee. But she’d stopped tossing out the old damp grounds from the day before. She just threw new coffee on top of them each morning, splashed in water, and flipped the switch. By Friday, the paper filter was full, so she tossed it out and started over on Monday. Or, it being summer in Alabama, when the coffee grounds turned green. What made her laugh was this: since she’d quit washing the machine and changing the grounds daily, the boss, practicing positive-reinforcement management techniques, bragged to visitors about what a good job his office manager did making coffee.
The men I was telling the story to laughed. But one guy was disturbed. “She didn’t dump the grounds unless they had mold on them?”
“That’s what she told me.”
After the anecdote of the coffee machine, I told them that what she did when the geology professors in her office condescended to the secretary who couldn’t be very bright because she was after all a pretty little carefully-made-up Southern girl and they were Yankees with Ivy-League degrees. She took their requests for travel reimbursement, slipped them into envelopes, scrawled “Physical Education” across the top, and dropped them into the university’s internal mail. Sometimes the paperwork slowly found its way to where it was supposed to go; sometimes it didn’t.
Did my listeners laugh at that story? They did. I’m pretty sure they did; they wanted to hear more stories.
So I told them that when she was in law school, students wrote only their student numbers on exams, not their names. Though her professors insisted class participation was important and would factor heavily in final grades, she quickly surmised that they wouldn’t actually bother to do the extra work of lining up numbers and names, and reconciling class performance with grades earned on the final exam.
Not wanting to participate in the un-Socratic hazing they called the Socratic method, she refused to talk. When professors called on her, she smiled and shrugged, and they usually went on to another victim. Occasionally, though, she couldn’t shrug her way out of answering. In contract law, the professor asked another student to lay out for the class a complex case involving a defaulted loan, and then snapped, “Mrs. Hudgins, what do you learn from this fact pattern?”
With a note of finality that made it clear she wasn’t open to follow-questions, she answered, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” The professor was so taken aback that, after only a moment or two of silent stalemate, he moved on to the next student. He never again singled her out in class. Did he think she was stupid? She didn’t care. It wasn’t going to affect her grade.
If I’d had a third or fourth drink, I’d probably have gone on to tell my Bread Loaf listeners about the time the professor of constitutional law asked her to stand up and summarize a case involving a traffic stop. Bored, annoyed, and determined not to be called on again, she stood up in her law class in Syracuse, New York, and said in a nasal hillbilly accent, “Welllll, when the PO-leece stopped this WO-min in a speeding VEE-hikle, they…”
Slowly I noticed that the stories I thought were riotously funny, the stone-cold determination of a woman not to be taken advantage of, had made my listeners uneasy. Their laughs were fewer and strained. Understanding broke like moonlight through thick clouds when Don Justice, puzzled at the affection and skewed admiration in my voice, asked, “Andrew, why’d your ex-wife leave you?”
I was mortified at the perverse nostalgia I’d put on display. I thought we were just swapping funny stories, and Don had turned my humorous vignettes into serious conversation.
“Got a better offer, I guess,” I snapped, and laughed by myself in the ensuing silence. Now I was even more mortified. My fond anecdotes, which I thought simply good stories, still held too much of the love I assumed had leached from them. And I hadn’t even got to Kathleen’s spot-on, hilarious impression of her mother’s speech impediment. After a few moments, everyone stood up, seized by a sudden need to freshen recently refreshed drinks. The next day, I sought Don and apologized, and he, still flustered, insisted on apologizing to me.
As I lamented the loss of Kathleen’s and my life together, I lamented too the private jokes we had created, and I thought over and over of Ezra Pound, who, when informed that T. S. Eliot had died, said with genuine grief and some self-mockery, “And who is left to understand my jokes?” Who will understand not just the jokes but the riffs we played off the jokes, the jokes that spun us into intimacy as we tested whether we understood things in the same way? As Kathleen and I broke up, humor fled these private jokes because we no longer risked being silly, childish, or even deliberately stupid with someone we were in the process of un-loving.
Two months after we married, we drove to a stranger’s house to pick up our first pets, a couple of kittens. On the way there, Kathleen, in the passenger seat, slipped her sandals off, stuck her bare feet in my face as I was driving, wiggled her phalanges, and crowed, “Toes!” Her exuberant silliness sent us into nearly uncontrollable hilarity, and to cement the moment in place, I named one of the cats, the big dumb tabby, Toes. When friends asked why the cat had such a peculiar name, they never laughed when we told the story. It wasn’t funny to them or touching, just strange. Neither would they have laughed, if I had told them about the exaggeratedly childish, almost retarded way she called me her Q. T. Pie.
After a quarter of a century, my heart tightens still just a bit when I remember Kathleen waking me in the morning, singing “Wake up, snake. Peas in the pot and the hoe cake’s baking.” Her mother woke her the same way when she was a child. Neither of us knew it was a corrupted (or maybe an alternative) version of a nonsense song recorded by Leadbelly called “Green Corn, Come Along Charlie”: “Wake snake, day’s a-breaking/Peas in the pot and the hoe cake’s a-baking.” This lost pleasure must sound like over-ripe corn to anyone hearing it now. It is. That’s the point.
After the marriage ended, I became enamored of a Polack joke that I changed to a Little Moron joke. The Little Moron comes home and finds his wife in bed with another man. The other man jumps out the window and runs away, while the Little Moron, enraged, pulls a pistol out of the dresser drawer and points it at his own head.
His wife, in bed, the sheets pulled up to her breasts, starts to laugh, and her laughter infuriates the Little Moron.
Still holding the pistol to his head, he snarls at her, “What are you laughing at? You’re next!”
The joke captures how the self-loathing of rejection outweighs the anger of betrayal, though logically it should be the other way around. Changing the character from Polock to Little Moron eased the ethic unpleasantness of the joke while tightening the connection between the joke and how stupid I felt.
During the year-long break up, Kathleen, as I mentioned, said, “When we first met, you laughed at everything. Now you don’t laugh at anything.” True enough. But I can name the exact moment my sense of humor returned.
After the third and final time she moved out, Kathleen invited me for supper. We were going to try, she said, to be just friends.
Her apartment was in a house in an older, more fashionable part of town than our neighborhood, where we had lived in a sixties tract house on West Vanderbilt Loop. The streets were named after elite private universities: Cornell Road, Northwestern Road, Colgate Drive. Seeing our old furniture arranged into a comfortable and homey nest and my wife bustling out of the kitchen with the superficial gaiety of someone cooking a business dinner for a potential but not very important client threw me. Down the hall, I glimpsed the bedroom that was of course off limits. We made awkward stabs at small talk. How are your parents? How is your dad? Work going all right?
I had entered her apartment with a sodden and hopeless resolve to be civil, even charming. I’d practiced good behavior in my head; I’d imagined, step by step, being gracious: What a lovely home you’ve made! It was good of you to invite me. I’ve always loved your Chicken Marbella. But once I was there, the disorienting strangeness of familiar furniture in an unfamiliar place and my wife’s breezy withdrawal of intimacy undid me. She was trying to force me to acquiesce genteelly to the role she had chosen for me, and I was frantic to fracture to the façade of politesse.
I do not, and I am grateful for this, remember what snippy unpleasantness issued from my mouth, but Kathleen informed me that if I couldn’t be civil, I’d have to go home. She was right of course, but I couldn’t bear the stiffs we had become, unable to talk easily and intimately with each other. Not five minutes went by before I made another nasty crack, probably mocking her taut propriety.
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” she said. I had become the boss who expected her to make coffee, the geology professor who had condescended to her, the law professor who expected her to participate in class.
I walked out her front door miserable, humiliated, and defeated, heading down the walkway to my blue Volkswagen parked at the curb, the one with the leaking shocks that she refused to ride in because the ride was rough and the engine deafening. It was also ugly. I’d hand-sanded the rust off the doors and brushed a can of DAP Derusto over the entire car. The Montgomery night was suffused with the scent of spring flowers, freesia and honeysuckle, and halfway to my car, in the middle of her front lawn, I began to laugh. If she were standing at the door, I imagine she heard my laughter as nasty pride at my crummy behavior. It wasn’t. I was ashamed and laughing at my shame–but laughing even more at the soap opera portentousness of “I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to leave” and the way my own robotic anger, which possessed the limited virtue of honesty, made me act like a jerk. We had become the puppets of our own pretensions. The me that was walking out that door and to his battered blue Volkswagen beetle felt infinitely superior to the me I had been just moments ago, and I was relieved to have left him behind.
Standing in the middle of her rented lawn, I laughed and laughed, gut-deep and wholeheartedly. I had done exactly what I had vowed not to do and confirmed all of my wife’s worst opinions of me. How could that not be funny? And I laughed at the loss of love, the loss of faith in that love, and the loss of my understanding of a life that had been shaped by that love. It was a laugh of freedom, and of terror at that unsought emancipation.
Andrew Hudgins is the author of nine books of poetry, two collections of essays, and the forthcoming The Joker: A Memoir (Simon & Schuster), from which this essay is excerpted. He teaches at Ohio State University and lives in Columbus, Ohio.