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The Punchline by Daniel Patrick Griffin| music: What Song the Sirens Sang Jon Corelis

The Punchline

The navy blue blazer that you wore to Mass lies in a rumpled heap beside your Pop’s recliner. Inside your blazer pocket is your red tie and one of the $5 bills that your Nana put in all the plastic Easter Eggs that she hid throughout her garden in the back yard. Next week you will spend that $5 on several bags of plastic green army men and two comic books, but now it is Easter night and you are playing Hide and Go Seek in the dark in your grandparent’s basement den. You are with ten of your eighteen first cousins that you have on your father’s side. You are ten years old. 

Tucked away in an empty cedar chest, you stifle your giggle as your cousin Fran ambles by shining a flashlight haphazardly around the room. Suddenly, he stumbles upon your cousin Jimmy, who is hiding under Pop’s desk, and the game is up. Fran jubilantly yelps as only a five year old can and Jimmy, also five, emerges from the desk and wraps Fran in a hug. Your other cousin Pete, admonishes Jimmy from across the room as he reappears from behind a coat rack. “Jimmy! You can’t hide in the same place every time!” 

Your sister, Jane, and your four girl cousins are bored with the game so they flip on Nickelodeon. The girls sit Indian-style on the floor and become thoroughly enthralled in an episode of ‘Hey, Dude.’ You wish that ‘Salute Your Shorts’ is on instead because you think that Budnick is hilarious. 

It is then that Pete floats the idea of a sleepover to you. Being that you are on Easter vacation and neither of you have school on Monday, you decide to go ask your parents for permission. As you climb the stairs, you can feel the rough Berber carpet on the steps through the hole on the sole of your sock. When you near the hallway leading from the kitchen to the dining room you hear thunderous, irreverent, laughter. 

You squeeze between the hips and legs in the hallway and find your parents in the dining room and before you can ask if it’s okay to sleep over at Pete’s house, you are hushed. Aunt Eileen has the floor and she’s going to tell another joke. Your aunts, and uncles, and great aunts and great uncles, and cousins and second cousins are crammed in the dining room. They are huddled over cups of coffee and tea, bottles of beer, and glasses of wine. 

Your aunt’s eyes light up and she asks, “Okay, has anyone heard the one about the guy who takes the retards to the baseball game?” 

Your father’s three sisters, all giggle in unison and your Dad groans, “Jesus Christ … ” 

Your grandmother, who surrendered hope for an appropriate Easter about an hour into dinner, is the only person that answers Eileen, “No, no, we haven’t heard that one.” 

Aunt Eileen smiles and begins the set up, “Alright here we go. There’s a fella who, you know, works in one of the group homes with the handicapped and his job one day is to bring the residents to a baseball game. So when he gets to the game, he says to all the retards that are excited as all hell to be there – they’re laughing, clapping, and bumping into each other. He says, ‘Okay, nuts! Listen up! Today, everything is going to be one word commands. When I say ‘Walk, nuts.’ You walk. When I say ‘Stop, nuts.’ You stop. When I say, ‘Sit, nuts.’ You sit. And when I say ‘Quiet, nuts.’ You be quiet.

Alright, nuts?’ And all the retards, they cheer and they file out of the bus and into the baseball park.” 

Your Uncle Terry laughingly interjects, “Leenie, you are so terrible.” 

“Oh come on, no I’m not.

“Ter, you’re interrupting. Let her finish the joke!”

“Yeah, come on, let her finish.”

Aunt Eileen regains her composure, “So the retards get to their seats and he tells them, 

‘Stop, nuts!’ And all of the special people stop in front of their seats and the guy says ‘Now sit, nuts!’ They all sit but they’re being a bit rowdy so the fella shouts ‘Quiet, nuts!’ Then they all calm down and a few innings go by and the guy feels proud, he thinks to himself, ‘This is going pretty well.’ But right then a person walks by and shouts to the row full of retards, ‘Peanuts!’” 

The room explodes just as it had when you were climbing the stairs. But this time you are there to see it. You are there to see your father laugh with his mouth wide open and your mother bury her face in his shoulder while her back heaves. Your Nana smirks and feigns disapproval while to her left your Pop’s grin is spread across his face and you can hear his laughter above that of his children. Aunt Diane wipes happy tears from her eyes, Aunt MaryBeth and Aunt Joanne collapse into each other giggling like teenage girlfriends, Uncle Andy holds his belly as his chuckle reverberates through the dining room, and your Uncle Terry with his white hair, pink cheeks and impish smile bears a strange resemblance to one of David The Gnome’s mischievous friends. And you laugh, too. You laugh because you got the joke but you also laugh because you want to join the laughter. 

Fifteen years pass, you’ve learned the set up, the delivery and the punchline and you know that when someone tells you to wait so they can get to the good part – you wait. After a charmed New England childhood on the gridiron, the ice, and the diamond, frolicking on beaches and zooming down frosted hills on sleds and skis, you go to a Jesuit college in New York City then return home to teach history and coach ice hockey at your local diocese high school. You have a girlfriend that you love and a group of best friends that would give their lives for each other and, most importantly, you have your clan of Celtic Swamp Yankees. 

At family dinners, you and your cousins are now given a bottle of beer or a glass of wine or a cup of coffee and, like your aunts and uncles before you, it is your generation’s turn to hold court. Pete delivers one liners about his job on the docks while your Dad divvies out slices of apple pie and cheesecake at Thanksgiving. At Andrea’s engagement party, Jane does her impersonation of her college roommate from Staten Italy to ‘pah-feck-shun.’ In the summer, one lazy afternoon, while lounging with iced teas and hot dogs on Nana and Pops’ back porch, you tell stories about when you threw a dead possum in your boss’s office at your summer groundskeeping job or when your harmless Golden Retriever inexplicably bit your best friend’s ass in the middle of a friendly wrestling match. 

And it is around this time that God decides to take Uncle Terry from the dining room table. After twenty or so years in Philadelphia and Providence with the Drug Enforcement Agency, it wasn’t the bullets from the guns of the Hell’s Angel muscle that caught up to Terry but the carcinogens from not knowing to wear a hazardous material suit while dismantling crystal meth factories. At Easter that spring, you spoke to him as he sipped a glass of red wine, chatted with you about his in-the-works novel, a crime thriller, and complained about constant heartburn. Three months later, Terrance Patrick Coogan died of esophageal cancer at the age of fifty-five. 

The week of his death felt like a bottle of Beaujolais that had been spilled at
dinner. Terry is gone and sadness poured and bubbled and spread and rippled, deep and red and indelible. Between the plates, under the breadbasket, in Dad’s eyes when he watches the Red Sox, in Pop’s stride when he walks his mutt, in your smile when a David Bowie song comes on the radio.

Uncle Terry is everywhere but nowhere. 

Slowly but surely, a steady hum of conversation fills the wake at the DiNozzo Funeral Home in Narragansett, Rhode Island. You talk to your cousin, Lea, whom you haven’t seen in three years, about books. You explain to her the book that Uncle Terry wrote a biography about Pop’s first cousin, Buster McShane, an Irish mobster who had spent time in Alcatraz. The conversation veers through different genres as you trade authors and titles with your cousin – each of you constructing a mental reading list. Then you are interrupted by your Uncle Hank, your mother’s sister’s husband. He looks uneasy and unnerved as he is slightly foreign to the customs of your father’s tribe. 

“Hey sport, is it okay that everyone is talking in here?”

You look around and there are about three hundred and fifty people packed in the
room. Family, friends, friends of friends, family of friends, and strangers. Cops, federal agents, state police brass, and attorneys. Trading stories, whispering, consoling. And you think of the dining room table, a place where Uncle Terry mediated and soaked in the words, laughs, and stories of his family. He would hate for his wake to be silent. 

You answer, “No, it’s fine. I’m certain that he would want us to talk.” Your uncle pats you on the shoulder, “Ok, sport. If you say so.” 

At the final viewing, a thick silence is punctuated by the weeping gasps of your family especially Uncle Terry’s wife, Aunt Helen, and their daughters, Bridget and Andrea. There are black rosary beads woven in his fingers in which at the end hangs a silver Celtic cross. Terry’s once red Rosacea nose is now muted peach by the mortician’s make up. When you kneel beside his coffin, your mind goes blank. 

You ask God to welcome Terry into His Heavenly Kingdom. Then you thank Terry for letting you look at his record collection because it inspired you to buy your own copy of Elton John’s Madman Across The Water, which in turn led to ‘Razor Face,’ the third track on the album, to become one of your favorite songs. And that indirectly led to that time in college when a girl went home with you after you drunkenly sang ‘Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters’ at a keg party. You pause and think that thanking your dead uncle for making you an Elton John fan and helping you meet women is stupid. But then you reassure yourself that he would be happy to know that as he must have kept those records around for a reason. You bless yourself and let Pete and his sisters, Maggie and Rose, say their goodbyes. 

You are in your car and driving in the funeral procession with your sister and Pete to Saint Francis of Assisi Church in Wakefield, RI. Jane is dabbing her eyes with a tissue and Pete is slumped in the backseat with his arms crossed, looking out the window through his aviator sunglasses. 

Out of nowhere, Pete says, “I can’t believe that Ed Farrell is here.” 

Ed Farrell is Aunt Eileen’s soon to be ex-husband. Eileen met Ed at Alcoholics Anonymous, got married and had two boys – Little Eddie and Denis. The second half of their marriage was pocked with Eileen’s mood swings and Ed’s frequent and costly expeditions to the tribal gaming casinos north of your hometown, Groton, Connecticut. Ed is an especially peculiar man and Pete has made a sport out of mocking his peccadillos. 

Pete leans forward, “You guys ever hear his bird calls?”

“Bird calls?” You have no idea what Pete is talking about.

Jane sighs, “No.”

Pete chuckles and smacks his knee, “Aw, shit. You guys gotta hear this one.” 

“Let’s hear it.” 

“Alright, so my Dad is over at Sacred Heart picking up Rosie from school and Ed is over there too picking up Little Ed and Denis. But Ed isn’t standing with the rest of the parent’s who are just shooting the shit in front of the school – you know, talking about vacation and tee
ball. The ass is standing underneath a tree, looking at the birds.” 

“What?” your sister asks. 

“No, I swear. So none of the other parents pay attention to him. They’re still making small talk. When out of nowhere this sound interrupts them, ‘Ka Caw! Ka Caw!’” 

Your sister bursts into laughter at Pete’s noise. She is still clutching her tissues but laughing hysterically. 

You join in the laughter with your sister and watch the limousine carrying your grandparents in your rear view mirror. 

“So my Dad and the rest of the parents are scared shitless. They’re startled and they think some big ass Egret is gonna come and take a giant bird shit on their cars. But then my Dad looks over and there’s fucking Ed squawking at the birds under the tree! ‘Ka Caw! Ka Caw! Ka Caw!’” 

You shake your head, “Jesus Christ…” Laughing at both Pete’s story and his brash commitment to irreverence. 

“Yo, can I smoke a butt in here?”

“No, Pete. Just wait ‘til we get to the church.”

Just about fifty yards ahead of you, you see something unexpected. A green 2001 Buick LeSabre has abruptly cut over the grassy median dividing Route 1 in half and heads directly for your car. Your sister shrieks and you cut the wheel to avoid a head on collision. But you can’t avoid the charging car and the Buick slams into the right corner of your bumper, its hood bends with a screech, and your windshield cracks from the force of the impact. 

Jane screams and repeats, “Oh My God!” over and over again. 

Then, before you know it, the Hibernian horde begins its charge. Your Uncle Andy, who had just retired from the police force three months ago, reverts to old habits and pounds on the hood of the Buick with both of his fists, shouting, “License and registration now, asshole!” 

You look behind Uncle Andy and see your father gritting his teeth, red faced in a sprint, reenacting his high school football days, rushing the Buick like a defensive end. Around his waist is your Aunt Patty, employing a restraining technique that she had utilized when she babysat Dad. Now it’s just an exercise in futility. 

Your father punches the driver’s side window of the Buick and screams, “Do you realize that you just hit my son in the middle of my brother’s funeral procession?” 

The driver of the Buick, an octogenarian out on a date with his sweetheart from the assisted living home, starts to wave his arms and shout, but his cries of protest are muted by jammed doors and broken power windows. 

Uncle Andy turns on the funeral director, a flabbergasted obese man, “And you’re a fucking idiot! We should’ve had a police escort!” 

You don’t remember getting out of your car but there you are standing in the middle of the road and voices swarm around you. 

“Are you okay?”

“My fucking car.”

“Holy shit! How did that happen?”

Aunt Dianne’s husband, Uncle Bob, a state trooper, begins to direct traffic around the accident.

“Someone call the police.” 

“Aiden is going to be a pallbearer for you. So just stay here with Uncle Bob and tell the police everything that happened.” 

“Can you believe this shit?”

Dad has regained his composure and is on his cell phone with the police and Aunt Joanne, 

the emergency room nurse, is asking you if your back and neck hurt. Your mother is holding Jane as she sobs into Mom’s shoulder. And in all the commotion, you lost Pete. 

Panicking slightly, you look around and spot him. He is standing on the side of the road with Jimmy and Fran, his face is void of emotion, and a cigarette is hanging from his mouth. The chaotic interruption to a somber procession reflects off the lenses of his sunglasses. 

Pete puts out his cigarette and approaches you. Together you are now staring incredulously at the wreck in the middle of the road and the endless stretch of funeral procession and beach traffic behind your car. 

Pete kicks your front tire, “Well, I guess Uncle Terry is going to be late to his own funeral.” 

You and Uncle Bob arrive at the funeral about forty five minutes late and in the middle of the Irish priest’s homily. Entering the church, you feel just like you used to when you, Pete, and Andy would sneak into R rated movies when you were young. Back then the theaters felt like they were at a different emotional temperature then you and the rest of the prowling boys. The audience had been set up with opening credits, soundtracks, dialogue, and story development. You were an intruder to the theatre, trespassing to see boobs and gunfights, an outsider to the emotional experience of the movie. 

Now you are walking in on the aftermath of the requiem, of Jimmy reading the 23rd Psalm, of Gabriella reading The 2nd Epistle of Letters of Paul to Timothy, ‘for I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.’ People are drying their eyes, sobbing, backs are heaving. Your eyes are dry. And like the theaters when you were a boy, the congregation at the chapel is at a different emotional temperature than you, once the sly intruder, now the tardy straggler. 

The homily ends and you stumble through the Nicene Creed and the final line, ‘We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come’ resounds throughout the church. Before you know it you are walking past your uncle’s sealed casket, covered with the Stars and Stripes, you receive Communion then find a seat next to Pete. You turn around to catch a glimpse of your family behind you. Mom and Jane are crying and clasping your Dad’s hands. Dad’s head is down and you can see the tears are running down his cheeks. Pete is kneading a tissue and his eyes are red and glassy. 

Your eyes are still dry and then suddenly your heart breaks and you bury your head in your hands. Your heart breaks because now at the time of their greatest despair you cannot join your Nana and Pop, father, mother, sister, cousins, aunts and uncles in their time of sorrow. You are alienated from your family, your clan, your tribe, something that you’ve depended on being a part of for the entirety of your life. You, the late comer, are on the outside.

Then you look up and see Ed Ferrell, your bird calling former uncle, sitting a few rows in front of you.

He is oblivious to everything around him and is staring at the ceiling of the Chapel. You hear a noise in your head. The noise is Pete crying out, seconds before impact, ‘Ka-Caw! Ka-Caw! Ka-Caw!’ At that moment, you trap your giggles in your throat, bite the inside of your lip, and bury your head in your hands once more but this time you are hiding laughter. 


blueshirt

Daniel Patrick Griffin is a raconteur, gourmand, and bon vivant. He earned his B.A. in History from Fordham University in the Bronx, NY and his M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Emerson College in Boston, MA. This is his very first publication.  He lives in Somerville, MA.  You can visit his much neglected blog at forthillblues.blogspot.com.


punchlineJon Corelis was born in  California and grew up in and around Chicago.  He has degrees in Classics from Chicago and Stanford, and after teaching classics and humanities at several universities entered on a career as a software specialist in Silicon Valley.  He now lives in Northeastern Wisconsin. His poetry, criticism, essays, reviews, and translations have been published in books, magazines, newspapers, and web sites in nine countries, and he has given lectures and readings by invitation in America and Europe. Learn more about Jon Corelis at his web site.

The Flexible Persona was founded in 2013. We are an independent home for emerging and established writers and poets.