My First Dirty Joke


First Person


Photo: Michael Philip Manheim.

Revisiting is what I do. I am a pathological revisitor, I think—my ex-wife ventured to suggest a time or two when, late returning from some errand, I’d admit to having taken an excursion into one of my old neighborhoods. I’m always driving back through my old neighborhoods, the places I have lived within the city from the time I was four until my early teens. The five great ages of my youth, as I conceive them—each as sweeping and portentous, as distinctly toned and lit as Thomas Cole’s five stages of Empire in that famous series of paintings. When I drive through—pretty slowly with the radio off and the windows open—I’ll get into this tour guide state of mind. I’ll fall into this line of patter, actually talking to myself as if into a little microphone. I don’t intend to speak out loud. But here I go. As if it’s Rome or something. Each obscurity enunciated. Each about to fade away to nothing as I pass and call it forth. Oh yeah, right there in front of Bobo Riefler’s house is where I heard my first dirty joke (though, curiously, not from Bobo Riefler, who was usually so precocious in such matters, but from Stevie Smith, the effeminate kid who lived across the street), whose punch line, even to me, seemed so contrived and forced it failed to function as a joke—seemed more a sort of ritual utterance. My God, it all comes back (I probably whisper to myself), the whole thing just for a second, summed up in this feeling, in this fleeting understanding like an utterance whose meaning strikes and vanishes. No residue of sense yet such a powerful sense of meaning having passed. Perhaps if I keep driving around like this with the windows down, I might somehow acquire it, grasp it, breathe it in and hold it. Like you do—are told to do—when passing a graveyard, but to the opposite effect I guess. The air comes in the windows and you think it is the same. The air cannot have changed at all. Say this aloud: “The air cannot have changed at all.” And sense the truth of it—the past is like the air. It’s here. “The past is here,” I speak into the microphone. I’m driving much too slowly. I pull over, let the car behind me pass. And here, right here on the right, on the corner—this little yard in front of this bleak little orange-brick house; this yard is the first I ever mowed for pay. One dollar. Big old Briggs and Stratton reel-type power mower, its pitiless self-propulsion ramming over and over into those concrete steps. You had to yank it back on its rollers every time to get around those steps. To get the dollar bill your mother framed—exchanging for another. And, of course, the grass the same as well. You see? Just like air. The same. I turn and say to everyone—however many ghostly iterations of myself, identical selves, I am addressing.

David Searcy is the author of Shame and Wonder, selections of which appeared in our Spring 2012 issue, Spring 2013 issue, and Fall 2014 issue.