THE JOKES ON HIM
It’s the fifties. My brother Dan and I sit opposite each other at the Formica kitchen table; my mother and father sit on each end.. We are eating Swiss steak, mashed potatoes and mushy-looking peas. My father is telling us about this sales call he had today. As he begins the story, Dan and I listen carefully. We want to see who can be the first to figure out if it’s regular boring adult conversation or a joke.
“So the man says to me,” my father says.
I screw up my mouth and nod at Dan. He nods back. It’s definitely a joke.
Some fathers like to train their kids by tossing them balls, wanting them to hone their catching and pitching skills. Dad tossed us one liners and puns, watching to see how quickly we caught on.
“My brother called the other day,” Dad would say and we all believed that Uncle Lou really had called until we were socked in the stomach with the punch line.
As we got older, Dan and I learned to keep our faces deadpan, to give my father no hope, no clue that we knew he was trying to be funny. We learned to sit still for several seconds after we had been surprised by a punch line and then, dissolve into spirited laughter if it was really funny or loud groaning if it was really terrible.
Despite all this exposure to fabulous stories, great deliveries and rollicking punch lines, neither my brother nor I are joke tellers. I like to throw spontaneous one liners into conversation, but cannot remember a long involved story. My brother has always been laid back, offering at most an occasional bon mot.
Fast forward to the nineties. We’re at a family reunion and it’s raining for the third day in a row. Twenty of us are crammed into my parents’ motel room eating a picnic lunch off drooping paper plates. My nephews squirm around, playing with various plastic weapons; my daughters and my niece sprawl languidly on one of the queen-size beds. Mom and I and a couple cousins camp on the other bed. Dan sits in a chair, reading a Richard Ford novel. My father paces in front of the television.
The noise in the room builds and my father stands still, then smoothes his shirt. I can tell from his posture that he is going to tell us a joke. My father does not silence the room. He does not have to. Dan and I are always alert for the first sign of our highest role: audience. Dan looks over at his two sons and cocks an eyebrow. I look at my daughters and nod once. They instantly quiet.
“This rain reminds me of the time I took my dog to the movies,” my father says.
Dan and I grin at each other. There is no dog in the history of our family.
“This dog was smart and loved for me to sneak him into the movies.” My father’s voice is so smooth and lulling, I almost believe this dog was part of our household. “One day I got caught and the manager made me promise to never bring that dog to the movies again. But one rainy night, I couldn’t resist.” He looks to Mom for confirmation and good sport that she is, she smiles back. “I sneak the dog into the movies. As we are leaving the theater the manager pushes his way up to me, pulls aside my jacket where the dog is hiding, and says in an accusatory voice, ‘So, how did your dog like the movie?’
‘ Oh pretty well,’ I answer. ‘But he liked the book better’.”
For a moment, the room is still. Then my nephew slaps his thigh and we all dissolve into laughter.
“And since we’re talking about dogs,” Dad says, taking his rightful place in center stage, between the television and the dresser. “Our next door neighbor has the most obnoxious dog.”
The jokes continue, each grander than the next.
Right after the one about the woman and the dry cleaners, my brother suddenly says, “I had this experience with my shoes the other day.” His voice is calm and plain. I smile, figuring the joke telling is over and we are moving into general conversation. Then I listen more carefully.
Dan tells a long and complex story– decidedly a bold mood in this charged atmosphere. My father has a patient expression on his face. My brother is articulate and calm, no histrionics, no mugging for the crowd. He may simply be telling an interesting story. I pray, “If he’s telling a joke, let him tell it well.” Dan stumbles over a word and I wring my hands. I feel like I am watching a tennis player’s first time on the court in an intense competition. I want my brother to win.
And then, Dan delivers the punch line. It’s smooth and elegant; sliding into us so unexpectedly, so easily that even Dad is caught off guard. Even Dad has that moment of hesitation and that flash of realization before he bursts into laughter and applause.
The applause dies down and my father segues right in. Dan folds his hands, content. I smile at him. I have read different accounts of coming of age. Yet here is one I have never seen before. My brother, emerging from years of quietly being in the audience, elegantly seizing the stage and then graciously giving it back. He has been heard. He has let us know, he is his father’s son.
“It’s stopped raining,” one of the boys says. “Let’s go out and play.” With a great roar, the boys take their swords and rush out to the nearby playground. The girls gather their purses and go to the quick shop for a diet drink. The cousins go off to do some shopping.
The room is quiet now, just my dad, my brother, my mom and I.
“I had no idea that you were such a great storyteller,” Dad says to my brother.
My brother shrugs. “After a while,” he says, “you catch on.”
Deborah Shouse is the author of Connecting in the Land of Dementia: Creative Activities to Explore Together and Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey.