Andrew Hudgins reads two excerpts from his memoir, The Joker, published in June by Simon & Schuster.
Catch It and Paint It Green
I was slow to delight in disorder, in which words didn’t mean what I’d understood them to mean and in which phrases had secret histories I couldn’t know. I was an anxious child, one who sat at his desk and, sounding out words so he could spell them, felt them dissolve on his lips. Or I wrote them with such attention to each mark of the pencil that they disintegrated into their component lines and curves, hooks, and squiggles. Clutching a child’s fat pencil, I painstakingly etched words, upstroke and downstroke, onto the lined paper of my Blue Horse Pencil Tablet, paper so near to pulp you could see brown flecks of bark and heartwood in it. I concentrated on the letters until they started to look queer, alien, wrong. I looked back and forth from the book to my handwriting, trying to see what I had copied incorrectly. When I found no mistake, I distrusted my eyesight. I often erased the word and wrote it again, spelling it the same correct way as the first time but trying to make it look right in my handwriting. I wrote and erased and wrote and erased till I rubbed holes through the paper.
The sounds of the words were even slipperier than their shapes. Certain small, obvious words were the most likely to crumble in my mouth. As I repeated them, the sounds shifted and the word warped. The word word was one of the worst. The w stretched out or shortened as I said it different ways. So did the ur sound following it. And the duh at the end could be the end of one syllable or break off and establish itself as a separate syllable if I overenunciated, which I almost always did once I started to think about what I was saying. I was terrified by the porcelain delicacy of words. Language was so fragile I could break it just by trying to grasp it, and since it was the only tool I had to make sense of the world, if I destroyed it I also destroyed my own identity. Several times I was so terrified by a word’s crumbling in my mouth that I stretched out on the floor between my brother’s bed and my own—a place where no one could see me—and cried until I was panting.
Maybe I should have asked my mother for help, but I remembered working myself into a frenzy when, trying to write a sentence for a homework assignment, I had a word slip out of my mind—a basic word, one I should’ve known. I burst into the kitchen, gasping, “Wuz! Mama, wuz!” I was frantic, my face sticky with tears, but even in my agitation I saw excessive alarm spread across her face. I’d been born two and a half months premature and then placed for several weeks on a respirator that stunted some babies’ development by over-oxygenating their brains. Mom had watched for it, braced for it, probed for it, and at long last brain damage had raced into her kitchen, clutched her leg, clamped its damp face to her belly, hysterically begging, “Wuz!”
“What? What are you saying?” she demanded as I clung to her, wailing, “Wuz, Mama, wuz?” Her body was stiff with fear.
Finally she grasped what I couldn’t put into words. I could feel her muscles relax. Smiling with more amusement than I thought my stupidity called for, she spelled out, “W-A-S.”
Wuz was restored to its essential was-ness, and I immediately calmed down. But words remained skittery. The was a persistent vexation, shifting between a short e sound and or a long e that knocked it up against thee from the Bible. Not much later, mama changed. One day she snapped, “Don’t call me Mama, boy. I’m your mom.” She didn’t want to be a countrified mama, as her mother was to her and her sister back in Georgia was to her boys. The wife of an air force officer, she wanted to be that modern thing, a mom.
Never Lose Your Head over a Piece of Tail
This is what my parents told me about sex: nothing. Not one word. Ever.
My brother Roger was so perturbed by my parents’ omission that one day when he was home from medical school he went into our youngest brother’s bedroom, closed the door, and explained to eleven-year-old Tim in dispassionate, clinical detail the physiology of human sexual reproduction.
When he was done, he came back to the living room, resumed watching football on television, and mentioned to my brother Mike what he’d done. Mike, who is closer to Tim’s age, waited till Roger left and then he too went into Tim’s bedroom and closed the door behind him. He’d heard, Mike said, that Roger and Tim had had a little talk and he just thought he’d come in and see if Tim had any questions. Did he?
“No,” Tim said.
“You understood everything Roger told you?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Any time you have any questions, just come to me and I’ll do my best to answer them. You sure you don’t have any questions?”
“Any time, just let me know,” Mike said as he stood up and reached for the doorknob.
“Uh, maybe I do have a question.”
“What’s a vagina?”
Good question, Tim! One I myself had long pondered. And I learned about sex in an even weirder way than you did.
In seventh grade at Del Vallejo Junior High in San Bernardino, California, two boys and I regularly slipped away from P.E. We saw no reason to exhaust ourselves racing after a soccer ball that we seldom got close enough to kick. In red gym shorts, white T-shirts, and sockless Keds, we dawdled around the edges of the playing field, trying to stay out of the coach’s line of vision as we talked, argued about our favorite TV shows, and told jokes.
One morning we edged along the outside of a fence along a concrete drainage culvert, curled our fingers into the fence’s chain links, our sole source of support as we leaned back, watching the exertions of our classmates. While we hung there, the hard California sun rebounding off the dry field and the concrete, one of our trio, a chubby kid with a blond crew cut whose name I’ve forgotten, asked us if we’d heard about the dog that was walking along the railroad track when the train roared by and cut off his tail.
The dog was very upset by this. What is a dog’s tail but his glory? Desperately searching for his tail, the dog sniffed and sniffed along the track, so engrossed he didn’t hear another train coming from the opposite direction. The train blasted over him, cut off his head, and killed him. “And what’s the moral of this story?” the crew-cut boy asked.
“Beats me,” I said.
“Never lose your head over a piece of tail.”
The two of them laughed, hanging over the culvert by their fingers, while I pulled myself up to the fence, uncomprehending, stupid, left out. I chewed it over, but got nowhere. The dog had lost its head while worried about its tail. Was the point of the joke that we shouldn’t let small losses lead to greater ones? The cute moralism didn’t jibe with the hilarity of my friends.
“I don’t get it,” I said.
They explained to me that tail had a meaning other than the one I already knew. Then they explained their explanation.
Jesus, did they think I was so stupid I’d believe something like that?
The year before, my parents, after much whispered debate, had signed a consent form permitting me to watch a sex-education filmstrip with the rest of the boys in my sixth-grade class at Del Rosa Elementary. The decision had been a close one, and I was exultant that I didn’t have to scuttle out of the room and sit outside the door with the unfortunate dork whose parents had elevated him to iconic dorkdom. I spent the first several minutes of the filmstrip wondering whether, if I’d been out sitting on the green bench with him, we’d have talked to each other.
The film itself was so discreet that, though I understood that seed left the boy, entered the girl, and fertilized one of her eggs, I was unclear how the transfer took place. Extrapolating from the shapeless representations of the implicated organs, I developed a vague idea that the boy shoved sperm from his mouth into the girl’s mouth with his tongue, and it then somehow slid downhill to her fallopian tubes. How it got to the boy’s mouth to begin with was a puzzlement. I was puzzled too that women, like chickens, carried around inside them a clutch of eggs, and that the eggs could still be eggs though they were not—I asked this—covered with a hard brown shell or suitable for frying. Not that they couldn’t be fried, they just weren’t.
I knew my junior high friends were goofing with me now because I’d read “Ask Ann Landers” and “Dear Abby.” For years, I’d pondered letters from pregnant girls who claimed they did not understand how they’d come to that delicate situation thanks to a boyfriend who’d taken off without leaving behind a forwarding address. My pre-adolescent heart went out to them. I could easily imagine how an impassioned kiss might lead to an accidental transfer of sperm. But as I learned more I began to wonder. If a girl had assumed a posture inelegant enough to facilitate a boy’s inserting his barely mentionable into her truly unmentionable, she could hardly assert she did not know how she’d been fertilized.
Nope, I wasn’t buying it. My friends were always feeding me some line so they could make fun of me when I went along with them, but I wasn’t falling for this one. As I pointed out triumphantly, how could they call it tail when it was in the front? They had no answer for that one.
As we walked back to take showers and then headed to class, the discussion nagged at me. The curly-headed boy had asked in exasperation if I hadn’t ever seen two dogs screwing, the boy dog on top, trying to stab his penis into the girl dog. I had, and I’d thought it was a peculiar way to wrestle. Now I was troubled to find myself wondering if humans might possibly make love—and babies—the same way that dogs might possibly make puppies. This new and startling understanding of procreation meshed so neatly with other stray bits of information that I couldn’t brush it aside. And my friends’ persistent derision of the sexually ignorant moron in their midst kept my anguished turmoil alive.
The crew-cut kid’s joke was what tipped the balance for me. He was obviously repeating a joke he’d heard, not one invented just to fool me. Didn’t there, then, have to be a core of common knowledge embedded in the punch line? But my still-immature body did not corroborate either the scientific information on the half-remembered filmstrip or the debauched version hooted at me by my friends.
Before the end of the week, I worked up my courage. As casually as I could, I sidled up to my mother as she shredded cabbage and carrots for coleslaw, and blurted out my question. I had composed and recomposed it to be sensitive to the feelings of a woman who might resent the insinuation she was an egg-bearing mammal who had squeezed three boys out of the darkness of her tinkle place nine months after having copulated like a wild dog. But the question also had to be so clearly stated she couldn’t weasel out of answering it.
“Do we have babies the same way dogs do?”
“No,” my mother said. “Not exactly.” Long pause. “Don’t you have homework to do?”
“No ma’am. Done done it.”
“All of it? Even your math?”
“Then work on next week’s homework.”
Reprinted from The Joker with permission of Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 2013 by Andrew Hudgins.