"please," they told him at night - "use Marty to press function twice and say out loud what you want to type?" and the boy would agree, would kiss each of his fingers good night and tell them he loved them and cared about them, and would turn over a new leaf from now on, and the next morning he would awaken, stumble to the bathroom blearily, often running into walls, doors, doorknobs, try to ignore his fingers’ screams of agony on the way there, not very fun, kind of annoying, because he got they had feelings but they were so sensitive, like he barely had to do a thing and they were outraged, it made it hard to go about his daily life, and sometimes in school when they were being annoying while he was trying to fill in scantron bubbles, being all "this hurts could you press a little less hard, the skin of my face is pressing right up against the bone" but more muffled and he couldn’t remember if it was B or C, if the leader of the Confederacy was Andrew Jackson or Robert E. Lee, and it was so frustrating he wished his fingers would just shut up, would just die
"don’t punish us," they whispered to him, "it’s not our fault it hurts when you hurt us" and he’d say he knew but later when it got too much to take, all their whining, he struck them against keys, felt better pounding their whirly faces into these, typed words while ignoring pleas
later, when he was calm, the boy listened
Bill the index finger was the most persuasive, talking about future technology that would soon exist, ”soon you’ll just think words and they’ll appear on the screen, you won’t need us then, will you? you’ll let us go then?”
the boy said, “it would be my pleasure”
and used Bill’s face to bang out H U J M and N,
and J again, for good measure
When I was little, and all of me were, I used to dream nested things. I’d be in a supermarket, carrying a bag full of jelly beans. Then I’d wake up, a floating eight year old with a bag of jelly beans, daring my bed to float up and meet me. Out the window a few more of me would be playing in the dark. Jump rope, that one. Two playing tag, another four or five swimming in the pool. I understand that these are all me in different dreams I already had, or haven’t yet.
Looking around is okay, but there are words on the walls. Big and red, and I can’t read them. It’s not until I’m older that I start to read in dreams, and at eight years old, the words drop me and I wake up without the jelly beans, under my bed.
I must have fallen through, or else I roll out from under expecting to find another one of me still asleep, and maybe one above him, floating with a bag of jelly beans. But at eight, no. This doesn’t happen until later, when I’m twenty-four.
I’m twenty-four and this isn’t a dream.
Joey didn’t usually have trouble sleeping after they made love. He’d just roll over and wake up the next morning.
That night he lay staring at the ceiling until his back hurt, then turned on his side. Mary was asleep already. What had he thought she did afterwards? Knit or read or something? That hadn’t happened. Why had he assumed she had to be doing anything at all?
When his side began to hurt he turned the other way. What time was it? It had to be getting late now, hadn’t it? After midnight, at least. His stomach growled. Enough of this. He’d get up and walk downstairs, make himself a bowl of cereal and drink some milk. Watch a bit of television. Maybe fall asleep in the chair.
His stomach growled again. Louder. He swatted at it. Three seconds later and the sound came once more. It confused him - it didn’t feel like his stomach was growling. Three more seconds and he realized it was coming from Mary. He smiled in the dark, marveling at the volume of his sleeping wife’s digestive tract. He imagined it full of food, pushing air bubbles around. It sounded animal. A bullfrog chirping in a pond somewhere. He imagined Mary’s belly blowing up in the dark like the sack under the frog’s chin.
Three more seconds and it came again.
He counted along, tapping his finger on the bed between them. One. Two. Three.
This was uncanny. How long could it go on for, at this rate? The growling noises coming from a stomach were usually from the resettling of whatever was left inside, weren’t they? Shouldn’t it settle already? Surely the noises would stop.
But they didn’t stop. He counted off nine more times in the dark, fascinated. He put his hand on her belly and felt them ripple. One. Two. Three.
He froze. It wasn’t his wife’s voice. It sounded like the frog. Her belly had said his name. He stopped counting but three seconds later it came again.
“What?” He said, too stupefied to keep silent. What did he expect it to say next? Surely it wouldn’t answer him. Had he even heard it really say his name at all?
“Oh my God.” He wanted to shake her, to wake her up and make it stop, but couldn’t bring himself to move. Instead, he counted. One. Two. Three.
He felt his head go flat, his eyes saw ribbons of white in the dark. Was his nose bleeding? His finger started tapping again. Tap. Tap. Tap.
Joey held his breath. What would it tell him next? That it was hungry? What would he do if it said it wanted a sandwich - would he jump from the bed and throw himself out the window? He already wanted to, and who the fuck cared if it said “hungry,” or not?
If he had been himself he would have dismissed the entire thing. But he was tired, traumatized. He had also started thinking about his mother and the puddle of blood that had looked like Jesus. This was like that. Joey wasn’t religious, not to the letter, but he went to church and he pretended to understand. He’d tried to read the Bible, at least. “You are?” he asked his wife’s gut.
If someone had told him he’d one night be talking to God in his wife’s belly growls, he would have probably turned around and walked away from that man as fast as he could. Now, he was surprised at how easily he accepted it.
For the next five minutes he kept quiet, listening to it speak. The Lord said, in two syllable pairs at the same three second interval:
“There is - a child - inside - Mary - he will - become - the Christ - reborn - I am - telling - you this - so that - when he - is born - you will - love and - keep him - as though - he were - your own.”
“He’s not mine?” Joey said, confused.
“Oh. Right. Do I have to name him anything? Like, should he be called Jesus, or what?”
But Mary’s belly didn’t shiver again.
He went downstairs and ate his cereal, unsure of how to feel. He was numb. He sat in front of the television and watched high definition insects devour each other until he was too keyed up to do anything but pass out.
The nine months went by fairly quick, Joey getting promoted in his construction job to assistant foreman. Mary stayed at home and made baby clothes out of multicolored yarn. When it came, it was darker than both of them, and Middle-Eastern looking. Mary was apprehensive, afraid of what Joey would say, but he didn’t. He figured God had just made this one look like the last one.
They named it Jesse, and Joey did his best to love him.
When Jesse was five, he set fire to the neighbor’s house. Joey maintained it was an accident, but kept his reasoning to himself. He’d been at work, and Mary had been out shopping for groceries. Still, it had to be a coincidence. No son of God was going to commit arson. Child protective services came by and asked a lot of questions after the fact, but Joey didn’t know what to say. He wasn’t around most of the time, and while sure, little Jesse had his tantrums just like the next kid, he wasn’t the type to be playing with fire. Mary was convinced they were going to slap the two of them with neglect and take Jesse, but that didn’t happen. After a while it all just went away.
In elementary school, Jesse and the principal got to know each other too well, and Mary kept having to go down and apologize for the other kids who went home with black eyes and bloody noses. Every time Joey heard about it he got concerned, because he knew how cruel other kids could be to someone who looked a little different. But no son of God was going to be a bully. That much he was sure of.
In middle school Jesse got caught selling drugs to sixth graders. Ecstasy in pill form, little crosses printed on the sides. He’d told one girl it would give her a religious experience, and she’d had a minor freakout in one of the bathroom stalls, sweating through her sun dress and tearing her hair out. She’d had to get stitches in each of her palms, from where her fingernails dug in. By this point, Joey couldn’t fool himself anymore. His kid was one of the troublemakers. What if that whole talking belly thing had just been his imagination? His conversation with the Lord just a waking dream? But he’d believed it so long now that there wouldn’t be any going back, even in the face of doubt. Jesse was just a late bloomer, he was sure of it. When the time came, he’d show the world who he was. Lamb of God, version two.
Jesse fought with his mother often, belittling her and often threatening physical domination. He was taller than both of them by then. Joey kept out of the disputes, and before long he could tell Jesse despised him as well. Any time Joey spoke up, Jesse just sneered at him. “You’re not my father,” he’d say. “Look at you. Whiter than she is.”
In high school, Jesse started a cult. It started with a few kids, jocks and bruisers, but that little group persuaded and intimidated a bunch more to join. By the time any of the teachers found out about it, kids were already cutting off bits of themselves and feeding each other as a kind of sacrament. Of course, they couldn’t prove it was Jesse, even though he admitted it freely. The trouble was, every kid in the cult also freely admitted to being its creator. The school couldn’t kick them all out (by that point there were almost two-hundred of them) so they made an example of the few they thought had the most likelihood of having a hand in it by suspending them. Jesse was one of these.
By sixteen the boy had turned inward, and kept to himself in his room. Joey hardly saw him, and even his mother who was home all day only saw him for brief moments in the afternoons, when he’d take whole boxes of cereal into his lair, where he played crashing death metal and read Nietzsche. Mary didn’t bother trying to speak to him anymore, because any word or look she made was always taken as a provocation, and turned into an argument. At that point, she had no recourse. He would yell, and she would end up crying. At night she told her husband. Joey felt bad for her, but he had more responsibility than ever at work, since he’d been promoted again, to foreman.
One night, Jesse stole a car and led police on a high-speed chase for over an hour. When they caught him, he told them he was the son of God. They cuffed his wrists and ankles and brought him in.
Joey came to the station and bailed him out with some money he’d been saving in a high yield account for retirement. The boy scowled at him and didn’t speak the entire way home.
That night, after his wife fell asleep, Joey cried. He did it quietly, and only allowed himself to keep on for ten minutes. After that, he pulled it in and tried to sleep. He couldn’t.
His wife’s stomach growled.
Joey’s heart quickened, like it always did when Mary’s belly did this. Maybe this time it would be the Lord telling him it had made a mistake. “Sorry,” it would say, in its two syllable halt, “I was - was wrong - not Christ - just a - bad kid.”
"Please," he hissed. "Please tell me what to do."
He counted, breath held.
The sleep was thin and cold and he felt at all times to be just a part of him submerged, eyelids dipped under a pudding skin of consciousness. As he slept he dreamed of being naked. He dreamed of walking the dog she’d had, a little mix that was wearing jeans and a button-down shirt, out and around the neighborhood and back again. He was naked and he walked the dog that never seemed to get tired. He walked to get his mail but being naked had no key. He walked the dog past an apartment and his landlord waved from a window. The dog acknowledged the wave, nodded his head at the landlord and hunched forward and got very small, and the leash went slack as all of a sudden the dog pretended to be very tired. So he turned the dog around and walked it back inside, where it plopped down on his bed and yawned a violin-stroke of relief and took its shoes off. He laid down on the kitchen floor and licked Cheerios from under the dishwasher. Later he dreamed he and this dog walked on a desert road, and the dog (wearing leather now) lost itself among the cacti (but where here, in Nevada, were cacti?) and then the dream shifted again and he was with the dog - found now - under a giant fiberglass sculpture outside a chocolate factory and the dog pointed to an open car door where another dog was hanging out the driver’s door chewing grass and vomiting, and then the sky turned dark and his eyes were opening.
life is stratified
like layers of limestone
like layers of lime, cherry, orange
in a jawbreaker
mine go in four year licks
the second or third layer of my lifebreaker
I was ten, eleven and started in my spare time
to crawl under the barn
consider Michigan - summer, dry
cicadas fiddling eardrums
air rippling between eyes
berries within constant reach
rusted red lipstick on wooden teeth
a dusty mouth grimacing open
above a bottom lip of dirt
I was a spider, a rat, a tongue
slithering in I thought of my parents
finding my dead body weeks later
chewed apart by ground rodents
such a shame - and swam further
breathing sideways through my nose
reliving how I felt when Sara
sat on my chest if I annoyed her
tickling the wind from my sobs
but the ground scooped out, bowed in
and between the dusted blades of light
I wrapped myself in courage
and went exploring
this was a horse stable we didn’t use
this the room of odd tools and pulleys
this the recess behind my shit shoveling
ten cents a pile
in the silence beneath the barn
I made peace, I made time
like a visit to the treetops
frequent, dangerous, perfect
after the bedroom door shuts
and your legs no longer know standing
and the AC hasn’t kicked on
and your brain is no longer pushing out your eyes
with the oozing hot itch of coffee-built wakefulness
and your inner ears are flush with head wind
the rain between your temples
not quite a pitter patter but almost
the first time you’ve been alone with your breathing
in days and it’s a train whistle
your jaw is track - your teeth pennies
your eyelids shutter like clapboards
like leaves on branches whipping trees in a storm
and it’s too late or it’s too early
but you’re alone
drenched in soothing silence
that won’t let you sleep
So like inside yourself you’re you
But outside yourself they’re them
Not even people necessarily, all of them
Just a pile of unpredictable smelly not yous
You’re a pungent zoo animal too
You know that because senses, and sniffs
And you build a shell of language around your animal self and interact with other shells and speak other languages and pull in and push out and life is an abstraction of death and how at every moment we’re just a layer away from being forgotten and that is the fear that drives
And the things you think are wrong but you hang on
You wrap them in language and let them warp you
You pull in and push out and
So long as others are forgotten
And you last, you hold hands
We hold hands
a moment floated by
one you wanted to keep
maybe you thought
"I’ll remember this" but you didn’t
you couldn’t, it’s gone
not sure if it’s time that takes it
or lack of consideration -
can’t rule out drugs
your childhood is not
even in your memories now
how can that be if
every self you sell comes from there
why can’t you remember
the cornfield, the crick
the cricket bucket?
ice skating between farms
wolf spider discovering
your sister in a castle
your dog a dragon
why won’t it come
Sure, right. Okay.
I’m sure any number of writers would give you different answers, but I guess if you were asking me (which it seems you are) I’d probably say “surprise.”
Surprise: Something you didn’t know or couldn’t predict would happen…happens anyway.
It all comes down to the reason stories are told in the first place - and jokes, for that matter, which I feel comfortable including since you mentioned Carlin. People tell stories because they have a payoff they think is worth setting up well. And the most satisfying way for an audience to receive a payoff is with surprise.
This could be a very specific example, like the end of Shirley Jackson’s “Lottery,” or cases in which the premise of the tale is what is most surprising, like Lord of the Flies, or we could just be speaking of the way in which stories, or books or jokes, are boxes of an unknown quantity to a reader or listener. These boxes promise surprise by just existing.
People always wanted to read the next Harry Potter, not because Harry himself was such a great figure but because anything might happen to him this time - what could it be?
The great thrill of reading stories or listening to jokes is just that - finding out what happens. The joy of Carlin is he’s going to say something you didn’t expect, and you know you’re probably going to agree with it, even though you might never have thought of that particular thing that particular way yourself.
There are other telltale signs of a good story, but I don’t care how well your relationships are rendered or how three-dimensional your characters are if I’m not in a constant state of wanting to find that next thing out. There’s timing to think about, there’s beats, and pacing. Look at Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and tell me if you think it’s good writing. It’s not, for the most part, but the man knows how to keep you turning the page. Stephanie Meyer must know the same trick, and more power to her.
Another element here that I think is important and easy to miss when considering the “surprise” is that it has to make sense. You can’t just surprise me by having all the characters die (LOST) or changing the rules midstream (LOST) because that’s lazy and I’m more likely to burn your book than finish it. The setup has to be justified by the payoff.
So my goal as a writer is to surprise you. If I can do that, just enough, by flipping a premise or presenting you with a situation with no predictable outcome, and that gets you to turn the page or skim to the next paragraph and keep going, I’m happy.
You make cool art, by the way.
While browsing my Tumblr dashboard a few weeks ago I saw that comedian Rob Delaney was planning to release an hour-long comedy special online, under the same ‘pay for it once, own it forever’ model Louis CK made popular. This was exciting to me - I’d known about Delaney for more than a year, followed him on Twitter, heard him on some podcasts, and had always found him hilarious-if-not-raunchy. But I hadn’t really seen him do standup.
Delaney, regarded in many circles as the hands-down funniest tweeter on Twitter, (and most of those circles are actual comedians), would be forgiven if he was only really good at that - no need to try his hand at standup too. But he tries his hand — and wins.
Nodding along with a story my girlfriend was telling me, I clicked the “I Want This In My Life $5” button and downloaded my forever copy of “Live at the Bowery Ballroom.” I watched five seconds of it on mute (I didn’t want her to know I’d started watching), paused it, then talked to her on Skype for two hours because that’s how boys who are friends act. It was only later, after she thought I’d gone to sleep that I fired up Delaney’s “Live” again and started pacing around to watch.
Holy fucking shit, you guys.
Delaney comes out of the curtains with a wave and a smile and begins a bit about inviting his favorite fan out to his creepy van - a bit he disguises as crowd work until it’s obvious he’s turned a comic’s idle chatter into a way to talk about trying to have sex with you in his van outside after the show, and you didn’t even see it coming. His bits are truly enjoyable, and somehow he manages not to offend too deeply, and while clearly he’s verbally crossing the line constantly times with the actual words he’s using, somehow it doesn’t seem to matter. The man’s demeanor makes it impossible to get mad at him.
Still, does he get away with too much? Sure. Like, I’m not sure how comfortable I was about the bit where he wants to literally eat his baby, and describes in detail how he would cook it, and how good it would smell, but I understand the premise is deeply funny to others. Also, I’m not a parent, so what do I know? And even though I might not have resonated with that one bit, I still appreciated the distance Rob puts between himself and the material. He’s saying these things, sure, but his persona doesn’t allow you to believe that he believes the things he’s saying, which gives him the room to make his material more…line-crossing.
For example, about halfway through the set, and sorry if I’m spoiling it for you, Delaney subjects himself to some prolonged heavy petting to illustrate a ball cancer premise and just as you’re wondering, did this guy just think it was funny to make people pay $5 to see him squeeze his bag? it ends, and Delaney seems genuinely embarrassed that you saw. But only after admitting, “I have a microphone and lights on me and I can do this, and make you watch, and that makes me happy.”
I forgave him, because he still maybe (in the joke) had ball cancer.
Each of Delaney’s stories seems to take a turn for the absurd, and while it’s hard to sort out the actual “true facts,” he does give us enough to get the gist. In the first fifteen minutes he gets into a story about explosive and unavoidable diarrhea, and part of me really believes it’s all true, that it happened. And part of me thinks Rob’s just talking about the funniest possible thing that he could have imagined happening on a run with his wife. Sitting here now, I think I’m probably both right.
Delaney has no qualms about making fun of himself, which makes it hard to condemn him for anything. He seems to know how he’s coming off, and he’s really sorry. Yes, there are rape jokes, and far be it from me to say whether they’re all necessary, but I will say they aren’t in the same category as the ones you hear at your local open mic, because Delaney is someone whose sincere loathing for sexual and violent abuse shines through.
Toward the end of the special he does a public service announcement of sorts regarding a certain slang term for a bedroom act that doesn’t quite rhyme with “monkey punch.” “Shut the fuck up, what did you just say you did to a person, you monster?” Delaney shouts, echoing his own reaction to a story “usually your shitty friend Corrie” tells as a sexual anecdote meant to be appreciated, maybe so much you’ll even give him a high-five.
"It’s a terrible thing that I hope people don’t really do - but I think they think it’s funny, and it isn’t."
The best part is this: There were men in that audience (and now, watching the special) who were/are expecting him to make light of this too, to hear a joke condoning something many of them had probably done or thought about doing, and when instead he simply “translates to Earthling” the heinous nature of the person who would do something like that, these guys realize maybe they’re the “fucking piece of shit” he’s referencing, which may or may not have any effect at all on them or their future behavior in society.
Let’s say it has no effect. But it wasn’t because Rob Delaney didn’t try.
“Live at the Bowery Ballroom" is a special thing. I’m glad I’m poorer $5 now than I was yesterday ago. And that’s pretty cool.
You can also find this post here forever.