Excerpt: Punch Line: Stories

Punch Line

The other day, while shopping for Christmas gifts, that thankless task, I happened to duck into a catch-all shop. It was the kind of musty, cluttered place that allegedly deals in antiques but in the main offers at wildly inflated prices all sorts of forlorn curios that nobody really ever wanted in the first place. Like unborn souls they gather in dusty expectation. Sooner or later, wanted or not, these objects do eventually wind up being bought, wrapped, and offered as Christmas gifts which, though accepted as thankfully as possible, eventually are returned to the same wretched desolation, those dank shelves upon which they wait until called upon to enact once again their grim inversion of our most cherished of myths, the cycle of death and rebirth.

As you might imagine, the holidays have never been my favorite time of year.

I was having no luck among the usual assortment of perfume atomizers, ghastly oil paintings, rhinestone brooches, and ceramic ashtrays—these often made "for mom" by high school Arts & Crafts students. I did find one curio curious, though: A wine rack made up of a dozen horseshoes, welded together and spray-painted silver. It must have weighed twenty pounds. Never having met a cowboy with a taste for Bordeaux, I considered this object some kind of minor absurdist masterwork.

Within moments I was rummaging through a stack of books. These struck me as melancholy. I recognized few titles, and among those had read none. I doubted anyone ever had. These were tomes destined from inception for the dusty shelves of second-hand stores by way of the multi-family garage sale. They lay there in a moldy heap—parched, fading, never to participate in the imaginative life of their times but, and this at best, to remain forever mere footnotes to significance. Mainly bound in shades of grey, together they reminded me of nothing so much as the senior faculty of a certain university with which I am acquainted.

One title did snag my glance, though. It was priced at two dollars. I wound up purchasing it more for what it failed to do than what it proclaimed to be. It was McElroy's Encyclopedia of Humor.

The Encyclopedia, printed in 1967, remains a remarkable achievement. It separates jokes and anecdotes into a variety of categories, each pretty much self-explanatory: The Distaff Bunch, The Imbibers, Around the Water Cooler, About Face!, Law and Disorder, Have Patients, and so on. There's even a brief and very tame ethnic section, Pat and Moishe, into which most of the priest and rabbi jokes fall—and fall delicately they do! Here is an example from McElroy's catalog of snickers, chuckles and guffaws:

One young schoolboy, having not so illogically confused the great philosopher's trial with his marriage, felt quite confident in responding to the professor's examination question, 'How did Socrates die?"

"Socrates died of an overdose of wedlock," wrote the youth.

Here is another:

The undertaker was growing increasingly frustrated with the corpse, for it seemed that all his efforts to secure the deceased's hairpiece were in vain. As each passing truck rumbled by on the road below, the black patch of fur would slip away, revealing a large white bald spot.

The grieving widow overheard the undertaker's sighs of discouragement, and offered to go to the nearest store to purchase some glue. When she returned, she discovered that the undertaker had solved the problem.

"Did you find some glue?" The woman asked.
"No, I used a tack," the undertaker replied.

Or, finally, this pearl:

A businessman walked into a bar and ordered two martini cocktails. He drank one, and then the other. Then he got up and left. He did so every afternoon for many weeks. Finally, the bartender asked him, "Why don't you just order them one at a time, so the second drink doesn't get warm on you?"

The businessman replied, "I order these two martinis because for many years I had lunch with my business partner, and we always began with a martini. Just before he left on an important trip, he made me promise him that, should any misfortune befall him, I would always carry on our tradition by ordering two martinis: One for myself, and one as a silent tribute to him."

"Sure enough," the businessman concluded. "My partner's airplane went down in a heavy fog over Detroit."

The bartender nodded sagely. Some months passed, and the businessman came into the bar and ordered but one martini. "Why only one? The barman asked. The businessman was quick to answer: "I'm on the wagon now, and so I'm not drinking!"

And so, on and on for the course of nine hundred pages, reads McElroy's Encyclopedia. At its most interesting, it is a document of much different times. There is, for instance, something like forty-seven "humorous" endorsements of wife-beating. In general, however, it stands as a mighty paradox, for this encyclopedia is—as evidenced—utterly, profoundly, almost deliriously unfunny.

But then again, on what grounds do I judge?

You see, I myself have never been good at joking. I can, when called upon, deliver a snappy retort. I can lance; I can barb. But I cannot tell a joke. That was my father's talent, never passed down to me by flesh or by lesson.

The problem is not one of memory. My memory is solid. Yet, while I have at my command a host of one-liners, by the time they've reached me they always seem stale. How often have we learned what Ph.D.'s and hemorrhoids have in common? Do we need another explanation of how many White Protestant Males it takes to change a light bulb? If my father bore a multitude of jokes, my own jokes only bore the multitudes!

More spontaneous than studied, my father would never have understood the concept of an encyclopedia of humor. He knew intuitively, that encyclopedia and humor were two antithetical concepts. Humor is something that can't be wedged into categories, much less carved in marble; rather, it's something synthesized, a product of a timeless anguish and a very present pain, melded together by the heat of wit and transformed into some new metal never exactly reproduceable.

He wouldn't have used those words, of course. My father's formal education stopped at high school, and the language he possessed right up until his premature death was the language of the barroom and bowling alley. I hesitate now to analyze just how it was my father was able to transform a kitchen full of graduate students into a uniformly heaving mass of laughter. My father's talent was as ephemeral as that of the butterfly: In such cases, to dissect is to render meaningless. Still, some things seem safe to note. Part of my father's comedy was based upon physical technique. My father had a way of winking—you thought it was a nervous tick, but it was not—and glancing this way and that over his shoulder, giving you the idea that you were being let in on some pernicious conspiracy. His ice-blue eyes glinted with a combination of mischief and glee. If he aged, and he did, terribly, as his life wore on him, his eyes certainly did not. They were ever the eyes of the sixteen-year-old class clown, the constant disruption which the teachers could not expel for they too, against everything, were caught up in his spell.

Those eyes, those rapid-fire glances over his shoulder, created a kind of magic circle into which his victims willingly spiraled. I recall coming home once from the university. My graduate school roommates and I sat spellbound as my father, just home and still in his ridiculous hairpiece, recounted a particularly bizarre event that had happened to him on his way back from the office:

"I was about five miles back on the interstate," he began. "And I came up on this car full of Catholic priests. And wouldn't you know they had a flat. Well, seeing as how they were priests..."

It all seemed so credible, so matter-of-fact. He winked, he glanced. Transfixed, we were so far gone into the story that when our disbelief finally slipped out of suspension and we realized we were in the middle of what was actually a joke, we were already hurtling irrevocably toward the punch line with all the fire and velocity of a meteor entering the planet's atmosphere.

In this particular case, the punch line was some sort of blasphemy involving the sacred wounds of our Lord. I can't quite remember it and if I tried, regardless of how close I might get, I still wouldn't get it just right. That was the real secret, I think: Timing the punch line so well, the joke just drove itself. There came the pause, a moment as breath-stealing as the one in which the trapeze artist sails between bars with no net below and only heaven above. Your heart stopped. You anticipated an almost necessary failure. And then, despite all odds, my father brought down that last line as swiftly and as surely as the grisled executioner his blade.
You would suspect that after one or two such experiences, you would have grown wiser and more weary. Not so. Again and again he'd catch you unaware. He might be sitting over a mug of breakfast coffee, lighting up the first cigarette of the day. He might be lying on the couch, pretending to watch a football game. He might be just in from outside, where he'd spent a half hour wrestling with the lawn mower or crabbing at crabgrass. Before you knew, you'd find yourself launched into a new, perfectly ordinary story—

You might join my father for lunch with the parish priest who, after having been offered a sexual service by a downtown B-girl, timidly approached the mother superior, inquiring as to the nature of the act. You were perhaps just a half step from catching on before it was revealed to you that the mother superior's answer indicated that she, too, was a practitioner of the particular erotic craft—and in the same price range—

You might sit with my father in a church pew behind a particularly obnoxious drunk who keeps dozing into a deep, hungover slumber, listening in as the priest roars rhetorical questions and the drunk, stung into consciousness by his angry wife's hat pin, howls back the correct answer: Jesus, Hell, the Devil, Damnation and so on. Never mind that the scene seems much more likely to take place at a Baptist revival than one of our own subdued Catholic services. Faith! That punch line had to do with Adam, Eve, a plethora of children, and what the drunk intended to do with the hat pin if his wife didn't stop impaling him with it.

You might, on the other hand, find yourself sipping a beer and scrutinizing a very large man with an disproportionately tiny head, a fellow patron seated next to you at the neighborhood bar.
You see, with my father, you did an awful lot of drinking.

One might attribute my father's drinking to simple alcoholism, although he did not fit the classic profile of an alcoholic. I sometimes prefer to think of it as a case of life imitating art. As McElroy's Encyclopedia documents, a substantial number of jokes of the period began with a fellow stepping into a saloon. My own father stepped into a good many of them over the years. Also, like the harried husbands in the Encyclopedia's Marriage Go Round section, my father was enmeshed in a miserable union. Unlike McElroy's husbands, however, my father never once raised a fist against, let alone struck, his wife, my mother. Despite her nightly litany of his failures—he was as bad a management-type as he was good a comic—my father never raised his voice. I've come to believe that humor represented for him the only area of his life over which he could exercise some control. If he could not construct a marriage or a family, at least he could construct a story. When, as the years wore on, his humor began to run dry, his liquor bottle increasingly made up the difference.

Toward the end of his life, I often saw my father drunk, although I almost never saw him drink. He would come home sometime after midnight, stinking of gin. How he got home, I could never fathom. Either he'd been guided by the patron saint of drunks, whomever that might be, or else he'd learned to operate a vehicle at the Helen Keller Driving Academy. Mostly, he'd sulk his way to bed. Sometimes, he'd go to the bathroom, where we'd find him the following morning, curled up around the toilet, his face emptily serene as a greeting card cherub.

One night my brother and I looked on horrified as he made a great show of grabbing the trash can from under the sink and parading out back to the old oil drum we used as an incinerator. There, against the moonlight and my mother's cries, my father removed his wedding ring, tossed it into the drum, covered it with trash, and set the mass aflame.

The next morning, hungover and penitent, my father recovered his ring, miraculously undamaged, from the ashes. He spent the next afternoon, a Sunday, on his knees, dismantling the lawn mower and meticulously cleansing each part with a gasoline-soaked rag before arranging it neatly upon a spread-out retired linen tablecloth to dry. Manteled by the late-day sunlight filtering down across his shoulders, my father looked like nothing so much as a kind of priest—perhaps one from one of his own jokes. There, adorned in oily vestments, his sacramental implements laid out before him, he knelt somberly, awaiting some ordinary miracle.

That was the end's beginning. From the ring-burning incident onward, my father's behavior became increasingly erratic. It was not until the autopsy that we learned that his actions resulted from a massive blockage in the artery that feeds blood, and oxygen, to the brain. It was another blockage, however, that killed him, this one closer to the heart. It was not unexpected. Like most of his generation, my father had for all his adult life dutifully partaken of the four basic food groups: Red meat, coffee, cigarettes, and martini cocktails. One New Year's Eve, my father bolted from the dinner table, grabbed his keys and, muttering something suicidal, ran out of the house. My brother and I bolted after him, my brother arriving first. He caught up to the old man and brought him down with a hastily executed tackle right in the middle of the front yard. The snow was virgin, a foot deep. My brother knelt across my father's shoulders, pinning him. Hot tears splashed down on my father's face. My father, hysterical and witless, flailed away with his arms and legs, carving into the snow something much like the snow angels we made as children. It remained there, wings and gown glistening in the street light long after my father, settled finally, had gone to bed.

That night over a bottle, I warned my brother that we should prepare. I predicted we had less than two years. Two weeks to the day later, my father died.

My mother dispatched the funeral with an icy professionalism that shocked virtually everyone but her own children, who knew. Shortly afterwards she disappeared into Florida, far from all memories of that waste that had been her marriage. My brother and I returned to college. He wound up in Washington D.C., working for the government. I drifted for many years, coming at last to Los Angeles and a succession of unsatisfactory jobs. I did not return to Detroit for many years, until business called me to what had once been home. I rented a car at the airport, checked into my hotel, and drove to the old neighborhood, marveling at how much of the city had come to resemble photographs I'd seen of Dresden after the fire-bombing. The old neighborhood had not much changed, though: It was greyer, flatter, sadder. An atom of melancholy seemed bound to each falling snowflake, making it settle more heavily than the snows of memory.

I drove past the house, slowed, but did not stop. Four plastic carolers stood on the lawn, marvelously impersonating Bing Crosby in a crackly rendition of "White Christmas." Behind the big picture window, shadows flickered before a fire. I made a silent wish that whatever family lived there now, such warmth would bind them always.

The night was still young. Not wanting to return just yet to the sterile comforts of my hotel room, I drove around the old neighborhood, stopping now and again to draw up a memory from youth. At length I came to the corner bar. It was the kind of neighborhood bar you do not find in Los Angeles: Dark yet friendly, with a row of hardwood booths covered in red Naugahyde that over the course of years had weathered dark as sweet cherries. In one corner stood a well-worn pool table. Not far from it, a dart board. It seemed always smoky, even when no smokers numbered among the patrons. My father had taken my brother and me inside on occasion to sit and sip ginger ales and watch the men shoot pool. I remember our feet dangling, how far it seemed to the floor beneath our stools. It was in this bar that my brother and I acquired the bulk of our curse-word vocabulary. My father's eyes would twinkle bluely as he explained the meaning of each new acquisition, always cautioning us that these were words for use in the company of men only. Never in anger or in jest were these to be repeated in the presence of mother.

That night I sat down at the bar a few stools away from the only other patron, an older gentleman about the same age as my father at his death. Resting on his elbows, he nursed a martini before him and stared at the pearl onion in the bottom of the conical glass with a meditative intensity. He seemed unaware that I had joined him. "Whatcha havin', sport?" The barman asked. He was rugged and lumpy, with a big shock of white hair and an unlit cigar permanently wedged between his thick fingers.

I ordered a Stroh's, tap, then—heeding the voice of mischief—changed my order.

"I'll have one of what he's having," I said, pointing.

My order caught the interest of my fellow, who looked away from his onion for a moment. His eyes were a most peculiar blue.

I sipped at my drink. Excruciatingly dry and bitter, almost astringent, it reminded me quite articulately why I had never shared my father's taste in liquor.

I must have winced. My fellow, watching me out of the corner of his eye, chuckled.
"It's acquired," he spoke.

"I'll say," I agreed.

The man swiveled on his stool.

"You're Mike's kid." He pronounced.

Then he added the last name, correctly. I nodded, a little astonished.

"You take after your old man."

No one had ever before made a similar claim. In fact, I looked so much unlike my father's side of the family that my father had frequently made the sly aside that the milk man, not he, had been responsible for my conception.

"Thanks," I said.

The man made conversation, not so much with me as with the room, the atmosphere, the night. There was an otherworldliness in his voice. It seemed to come from somewhere a long way off.
"Quite a comedian, your old man."

I agreed.

"Sure could put 'em away, too."

I nodded.

Then there was a silence, which I broke only after some time.

"Did you know my father well?"

The man ignored my question.

"He sure had a way with a joke, your old man." He said. "He'd sit there and have us all laughing our heads off, and I'd swear that I'd remember at least one to bring home to the wife, but I'd be damned. Never could hit it head-on."

"Me neither."

"Another round?" The barman called out.

"Why not?" I asked. "And one for my friend here."

"There was this one story he used to tell," the man began. "Let me see if I can remember it..."

The man began the joke, stopped, circled back, began again, and again, each time losing the thread of the story, or stumbling over a detail. On the fifth attempt, he stopped to scratch his head.

"Let me try," I said. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes for a moment, and began.

"It seems..."

This drunk stops off one night for his usual round of ten or twelve, sits down at his usual spot, and promptly falls over dead. Now this drunk was a Catholic and despite his troubles with the bottle, had lead a generally good life. So, instead of arriving in the Devil's back yard, he finds himself standing outside the Gates of Heaven.

"Your name, please?" Saint Peter asks.

So the man gives his name, and the saintly gatekeeper runs a long slender finger down the page of a large black book.

"Yes, indeed," the Saint says at last, smiling radiantly. "We've been expecting you!"

Well, at first the drunk is overjoyed. Heaven, it turns out, is a lot like a luxury hotel. Everything is whiter than white and immaculately clean. His room is white: White walls, white carpet, white sheets, white draperies. His closet is filled with perfectly-tailored white suits. There's a white telephone next to the bed, atop a white table. When he picks it up, he gets room service. He can order anything he wants, and it's all free. The drunk can't believe his good fortune. He's overjoyed. He's ecstatic. But there's just one small question nagging him. "Yes, sir." The voice on the telephone chirps. "Just take the elevator to the penthouse and exit left. It's at the end of the hall, behind the big white doors."

"Saints be praised!" The drunk shouts.

Five minutes later, the drunk is sitting at the bar, sipping at the finest martini he's ever tasted. The room is a little bright—everything's white, after all—but the drunk figures, what the heck, it's heaven, after all. Standing before him is the bartender, who is actually an angel. Two big white wings sprout out of his back, and he looks just a little uncomfortable in his white tuxedo jacket.

"Another round, sir?" The angel asks.

"Sure, why not!" The drunk says. "And while you're at it, how about a round for the house?"

A couple of hours and a number of martinis later, the drunk drifts off into a peaceful, dreamless sleep. He wakes up the next morning back in his bed, figuring that the angel must have brought him around. He looks at the white clock. It's ten a.m. He gets out of bed and the moment his feet hit the carpet, he realizes something peculiar is going on.

"Geez," the drunk says to himself. "I feel great!"

Now sure enough, despite the fact that the drunk put down a dozen or so cocktails the night before, he has no hangover whatsoever. In fact, he's never felt better in his life—or what used to be his life, that is. "That God," the drunk thinks out loud. "He's thought of everything."

So it goes on like that night after night. The drunk checks in at the bar at seven-thirty, drinks till he falls asleep, and wakes up the next morning feeling terrific.

A month goes by, and then one morning Saint Peter is startled by the sight of the drunk, carrying his suitcase, apparently intending to depart Paradise and make his way along the hard dirt road that leads back to Earth.
"What's the matter?" Saint Peter asks. "Did you find the accommodations unsatisfactory in any way?"
"Nope," says the drunk. "The accommodations are fine."

"Then what's the problem?" Saint Peter asks, genuinely confused.

"It's that darn liquor you're pouring," the drunk explains. "You see, Saint Peter, every night I stop in at the bar, and the angel pours me a double martini, extra dry. Then he pours another double. Then another. And so on. And every morning I wake up feeling great. No hangover. Nothing."

Saint Peter scratches his chin. "So what's wrong with that?"

"It's simple," the drunk says, passing St. Peter at the pearly gates.

And here I paused. In the fragment of a moment that followed, I did not breathe. Something hovered in the air between my fellow and me. The hairs on the back of my hands measured it; the skin relayed that measure wordlessly to the heart. I looked into the eyes of my fellow, sensed there the punch line of the joke begin to take shape out of the clouds of a memory misted over with years and gin. He almost had it. The words were just a breath away from trembling on his tongue—

I glanced quickly over my shoulder, turned back, and delivered.

The line came confidently, quickly. It fell with a hiss, slicing the space between us, the air leavened with anticipation. Then I sat back. My hands wetly worked each other, palm over fist over palm.

At first, the man began to chuckle. That soon swelled into a howl. It rolled, it roiled, it rumbled like thunder. Louder and louder it grew, until it seemed about to tear the very building from its foundations. The room shook. The noise was deafening. The man slipped off his stool, staggering backwards, clutching his gut. I reeled, wondering if I'd been poisoned, something in my drink—

And then I recognized at last the voice, the laugh that itself recognized the drunkard's rationale, the awful necessity of pain:

"It's simple," says the drunk in passing. "Without a hangover, I've got no way of knowing when I've had too much to drink. And at the rate I'm going, I'm liable to become an alcoholic!"

I laughed, too—laughed so hard my eyes filled with tears as cold and clear as the dryest of martinis. Through those tears I watched as smoke conspired behind the man to take the shape of wings. Beating softly but full of force they did not raise the man aloft, but merely bent his shoulders broad and straight. There, for the moment free from the weight of failure, the man considered me, my father's son.

Standing laughing amid the bitter smoke that gathered itself to him, he had redeemed the shrinking figure lost to the snowfalls past. That was how that night my father revealed himself to me: Angel, stranger, audience to the absurd. This is how he now reveals himself to memory: Fierce in his loss, terrible in his sorrow, he rises before me always, wielding that furious blade, the Moment, though whether to slay or to anoint I dare never guess—

While everywhere all over the world, this guy walks into a bar.

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