a serious joke: chapter 1

“There was a funeral for a woman who had henpecked her husband, drove her kids half nuts, scrapped with the neighbors at the slightest opportunity, and even made neurotics of their cat and dog with her explosive temper.

As the casket was lowered into the grave, a violent thunderstorm broke, and the pastor’s benediction was drowned out by a blinding flash of lightning, followed by terrific thunder.

“Well, at least we know she got there all right,” commented her husband.”

– traditional American joke

Jon was fairly content. By content, his mind edged the definition from time to time, not brimming with heinous grievances, mostly. Jon’s grievances were few, that is. And the lid was more or less pretty goodly secure over them. And that was good enough, as far as being ‘content’. A good definition for a fairly bland word which regardless holds a lot of meaning, as far as life goes. Jon, a married man with two boys of differing ages and a few or more differing personal characteristics, had the lid pretty well sealed on ‘content’. A good looking wife, who takes care not to get fat, keeps her mouth shut more than a lot of wives, and doesn’t use sex all that often as a bargaining chip. That was also good enough for ‘content’. As for his work, Jon was a man of letters. A writer of direct mail advertising slips and letters—leaflets, contents of coupon and sales adverts, those postcards from your dentist that are meant to look like real postcards, perhaps from a long-lost friend but are actually just reminding you of your cleaning on the 15th. Jon wrote the copy that goes into the junkmail of the world. A man of letters. Most of those letters crammed into notices for Labor Day sales at the used car lot, a buy-one-get-one at a discount clothing outlet…this sort of thing. In this case, Jon’s lid on the deep, dark well of ‘content’ was not quite as secure. Though he struggled to find time to pursue his true ambition with letters, he’d found paltry success thus far. Short stories, most unpublished. A novel, sitting on the shelf, rejected by every publisher he knew to name. So it was the good old fashioned detective story that brightened Jon’s day…on the toilet. For him, this was sacred time. It came the closest he’d ever seen to putting that lid on the ‘content’, the bottomless pit, of letters. At his age and experience in a fickle print industry, Jon required little more than a good old pulp detective story on the toilet. Not by design. He kept his standards low. And that’s a good rule of thumb for anybody in life. Aim low.

Jon growled slightly, leaning forward, knuckles white around the original edition of Murder Most Foul, and then gently eased back, shaking the remaining tail of his stool into the bowl. A fine product. You can tell a lot about a man by the shape and color and odor or lack thereof of his stool. Jon’s was exemplary. Textbook. Always perfectly formed, color consistent with the contents of his stomach and diet, which was also exemplary, and with no more odor than a hot biscuit. So clean you could eat off it, he thought. As he took the last swipe with the bunch of toilet paper (always one to crinkle, not fold), he looked back to confirm. Everything’s in order. Nice form. Average pigmentation. No odor. But something caught his eye…what at first he’d assumed a piece of TP underneath the log of his issue, he now saw with a more scrutinizing eye as something else. A card. Like a greeting card…it was perfectly folded in the middle and the stool sat moribund right along the crease, holding it in place like a scatological paperweight at the bottom of the toilet bowl. Jon stood with his pants around his ankles and still gripping that last wad of toilet paper in his right hand for quite some time. There was no mistaking it. There was a card—a greeting card, or an invitation of some type, or a birthday card (though it was certainly not his birthday)—in the toilet. Maybe one of the kids. Of course, the kids. The little one had clogged up a toilet with a toy elephant one time. It took the plumber all afternoon to clear the obstruction. After hours of toil, he came up like a pearl diver proudly holding the elephant by its trunk and displaying it high above his head….”here’s your problem, Mr.”

‘Here’s your problem.’

Nevertheless, the thing must be fished out of there. Jon finished the particulars of his regular morning bathroom ritual and used the toilet brush to gently hold down the card as he flushed the log into the labyrinth of pipes running through the walls and floorboards and foundations of his house. I wonder where it goes anyway, he had to think. To think that thing, exemplary and textbook as it may be, is flitting about—underneath my and my family’s feet—over my wife’s head—past my kids as they sleep in their beds—that every time you flush, there’s a loaf of scat or a special delivery of urine zooming past, over or under you, zigzagging and loop-de-looping in all directions, like a carnival ride of human waste; a piece of you or your wife or son or other son rushing with the touch of a lever through a network of pipes in your own home, on an amusement park ride (one of those scary ones you’d never go on as a boy) that eventually ends somewhere deep down in the lower depths of the sewer system. And it goes from there to float along a channel where other families—other fathers’—loaves and logs and yellow streams converge into one bigger stream—a neighborly stream, a river, of scat and piss. And, Jon continued to not be able to think, all that scat and piss, the collective waste of you and your friends and neighbors—even the neighbors who are not your friends, the weird neighbors, the unfriendly ones, the neighbor who refused to return your ball as a kid when it ended up on his lawn, the one who as an adult made a big stink about you blowing your leaves into his lawn in the Fall and instead of asking politely and congenially to mind where you blow them next time marched across the way at 6am on a Sunday morning and pounded on your door to demand reparations. All that waste. All those people. They all meet in the sewer, in the end. And people you don’t even know, way down the way and out into the neighboring towns, cities, counties, states and so-on…all eventually have that in common. Your scat doesn’t hold grudges, or play favorites. It’s a neutral, almost democratic force of nature. A river, and it all comes back to you and your neighbors—the ones you’re friends with and the ones you aren’t—a perfectly sanitized, treated, chemically purified source of life. A cup of water. You end up drinking what you flush away. Like a boomerang, it comes back to you. Perfectly clean and sanitary. Exemplary. Textbook.

Jon was now trying to fish the card out of the bowl without touching it, no sense of how much time had passed since the odd discovery. A bead of sweat traveled down his forehead, caught in the wilds of his unkempt brow. He decided he’d need a pair of those yellow rubber gloves his wife uses to scrub the bathtub and other such surfaces. Pulling the right glove on, like a surgeon, over his wrist and straightening out the fingertips, and snapping it tight up to his forearm. He finally took the plunge and daintily took the card—as it came out of the water what appeared more eggshell colored than plain white—and awkwardly set it down onto a hand towel on the bathroom floor, careful not to let it drip. That will have to be washed, he thought. Just then his wife yelled out for him. That shrill yell she does when food is on the table and a member of the household isn’t there in front of it. Like a harpy.

“I’m coming, ___,” he yelled back. Lovingly. A vein in his forehead pulsing irregularly. At this point, Jon had been in the bathroom for quite a long time. Even longer than usual. Not having kept track of the time, but aware of its passage…”I’ve been in here forever.” Surprised the wife hadn’t come to make sure ‘everything’s alright in there’. Well, he mused, staring down at the object fished out from under the log…the pearl retrieved from the deep…the elephant he now held by the trunk, thinking “here’s your problem”…this is the first time in I don’t know how long it is not textbook. He’d had a problem with hemorrhoids a long time ago. That was not textbook. Or, it was textbook, in that it was a textbook case of hemorrhoids. Nothing some Preparation H and a lot of fiber won’t take care of. And as a younger man, one time he had kidney stones. Again, non-textbook textbook. And painful as the dickens. Now that was the kind of pain, he thought, bent over staring vacantly at the greeting card from the toilet, you don’t wish on your very worst enemies. Women can’t understand that kind of pain. To have a jagged rock, a razor sharp piece of calcified whatever moving through your urethra, causing uncontrollable spasms of pain—unspeakable male agony—with every tiny movement towards the ultimate ending place: your dickhole. A jagged rock coming slowly, painfully, out of your dickhole. Childbirth is women’s work. If it were to scale, you’d see a baby coming out of a pussy is nothing. Babies are soft and smooth…and slimy, at first. Imagine a jagged boulder coming out of a dickhole, on the same scale anatomically as a woman giving birth. A much more frightening prospect. And line them up side by side when all is said and done; a beautiful, smiling new baby boy. And a giant, jagged, bloodied-up stone. The pain men experience is both unspeakable and, often, there’s no reward. It’s just a slow, painful inching towards that ultimate destination. Every day shredding your urethra like tissue paper until you reach the end; a dickhole. And your reward: a bloodied, grotesque stone made of minerals, acid salts and calcium crystals. More or less the old from dust to dust thing. The vein in Jon’s forehead now pumped quite regularly. Forcefully. His wife screamed again. “I said I’M COMING!” Jon yelled back. And not in the usual familial room-to-room yell fashion. A fierce, bordering on hostile yell. A bellow. It was clear at this point Jon was engaged in serious men’s work. Now down on his hands and knees, and no longer taking care to not drip toilet water where toilet water oughtn’t be, Jon began the process of inspecting the toilet’s greeting card.

A greeting card from the toilet. What a strange thing to get, after so many years, so much time spent together; so many early mornings with a good detective story. A good friend. To suddenly receive a greeting card from a great friend—more than a friend—a brother…it seemed so bizarre. Perhaps not as bizarre as the wandering Jon’s mind was now doing. Breakfast with the wife and the boy and the smaller boy seemed like life on another planet now, stooped over this thing on the bathroom floor, bringing his face centimeters from the card. No particular objection now to the odor of the thing, which was in fact quite odorless. Or to touching it with bare hands. The yellow rubber glove now wadded in a squishy pile next to the plunger. Not taking any care not to drip on the bathroom floor. Or anywhere else in the bathroom for that matter. Until now not compelled to look closer at the card and read the message (“greeting cards have messages, right?”), Jon took the eggshell colored card, plain in all respects with no beveling or embossing or graphics or writing on the outside—just a plain eggshell white card—and proceeded to finally open it up (it had folded closed upon fishing it out of the bowl). There was a light brown smudge of scat across the inside. Textbook color. But it was a large smudge. As he held the card in his hands, kneeling down next to the toilet like a muslim praying to mecca—perhaps the can being The Rock—with a greeting card in his hands rather than prayer beads, Jon noticed something else. This smudge was far too loose. Viscous. A lack of fiber in his diet. Jon spent a time thinking about his choice of bran cereals and whether the wife may have bought the cheap stuff again without telling him…trying to slip one by the man of the house. Brand names, without fail. He would tell her this before grocery shopping as sternly as a religious practice. To think, the daft woman would try and pull one over on her husband. She ought to know better. Beautiful woman. Smart. Loving. Caring, mostly. But she CAN NOT take simple directions, he thought. We’ll sort that out later. Jon proceeded to take a baby wipe and gently scrub the more viscous than textbook smear of brown from the damp surface of the card. It covered most of the message. Jon could only make out a few words and some letters. “Guy.” “Bar.” “Best friend.” Scrubbing gently, as if using a coin to reveal the losing numbers on a lottery ticket, more words slowly were revealed. “The bartender pours the guy another.” “This one’s on the house.” “Pack her bags and get out!” Scrubbing, scrubbing, scrubbing. No winning numbers.

His younger boy pounded on the bathroom door and yelled. “Daddy! Daddy Mommy wants to know when the F you’ll be done reading your stupid detective stories and get off the shitter! It’s pancakes!” Jon had a feeling the littler boy had improvised a bit; that ‘F’ was probably not just a letter of the alphabet when given the message to recite. ‘Shitter’ was probably an improvisation. Same for ‘pancakes’. And the ‘pancakes’ were also probably the only bit of that currier pigeon’s scroll that was delivered with any sense of enthusiasm. Not to blame the boy. She makes damn good pancakes.

At first not responding, the boy pounded again and began to yell before Jon cut him short. “You tell that Mom of yours I’ll be out ANY minute. Go tell ‘er, sport!” Jon sneered. Wonderful woman. ‘That mom’. But she’s given me more grief over my bathroom habits than any adult should ever give another adult, he ruminated. “I’m a child learning to go potty each and every time I go sit down to take a dump…”

Treating the card like a priceless artifact, Jon had just about scrubbed away as much of his stain as he could manage. Forgetting completely the origins of the artifact—the how and the why—only somewhat mesmerized by the task of decoding this scatological Rosetta Stone. Fingers stained a yellowish, earthen brown, and down on all fours on the bathroom floor, staring intently on the message scrawled in cursive before him. Flawless penmanship. Exemplary. Textbook. It read something like:

“A __________ a bar and orders a triple scotch. The bartender pours him the drink and the guy downs it in one gulp. “Wow”, says the bartender, “Something _____ have happened”. Yeah, it did, he says. “I came home early today, went up to the bedroom, and found my___ having sex with my best friend.” The bartender pours the guy another triple shot. “This one’s on the house”. The guy gulps it down once again. The bartender asks, “Did you say anything to _______? ” The guy answers, “Yeah, I walked up to her, told her to pack her bags and get out!” “What about your ___?” asks the bartender. “I looked him straight in the eye and said ‘BAD DOG’!”‘

A joke. Apparently. At least, it has all the ear-markings of a joke. A dirty one apparently, Jon thought. Around this time he realized he had a terrible headache. Sitting up, sweating for no apparent reason, that vein pulsing violently, he struggled to decode the missing pieces. The words. And he knew it shouldn’t be such a difficult riddle. It’s your standard dirty joke. Textbook. Any American male over the age of 15 should be able to guess the missing bits. Jokes are like air. You grow up around them, hear them on TV, in movies, on the radio. Men absorb jokes. Dirty ones in particular. Most times it’s not the joke itself but the novelty of hearing one you haven’t happened to absorb before. Being caught off guard. That’s comedy, he mused. But Jon definitely had the feeling he’d heard this one before. So the question of why it was becoming such a strain to fill in the blanks, to complete the setup, started to worry him in a way he found hard to feature. Even if you hadn’t heard this one before, any average person has still heard enough jokes in his life to easily fill in the blanks, within moments. But Jon couldn’t. The words…the setup…escaped him. More than the matter of how he’d found himself on the bathroom floor, half-covered in his own feces and toilet water. All the while, a delicious pancake breakfast waits in the kitchen. Getting cold. Colder. The spastic vein in Jon’s forehead was pulsing as if to burst. He had to close his eyes. His boy, the bigger one this time, was knocking on the door. “Dad. Everything alright in there?” he asked. A more mature currier pigeon. His recitation sounded sincere. With no enthusiastic proclamation of pancakes. Your boy is worried, Jon thought…that’s kind of nice, for some reason…

Now curled up in the fetal position, and twitching, he called back as calmly and collected as bewilderment allowed, “All good, son…” he managed.

“Okay. Breakfast’s on the—“

Before the larger boy could finish, Jon added, “Son! Tell your Mom I love her. Tell that nagging, shrill, rat-faced creature from the ninth circle of Hell that I love her….to death…”

The boy was apparently gone, without another word. Jon, a man who made his living with words and letters, at the present time found himself absolutely and retractably at a loss for the tools of his trade. Never mind those tools were used to craft the stuff of American junk; the height of crap, as the application of words and letters go. They were tools even so. Apparently broken.

…something ironic about a broken tool…

It felt as if, maybe, all the fluids of his body were swiftly, quietly flowing out a common exit somewhere in his body. Like all the scat and piss of the world exiting through the sewer of the world. Where was this exit? He couldn’t tell. He just felt cold. Cold and dry. At a loss for words. Missing all the letters to make those words. The words to fill in the blanks of the joke; to complete the setup.

…what good is a joke without a punchline, he thought.

Well…more importantly, what good is a joke without a setup?