Let Me Lay One On You
That’s dad’s signal that he’s about to tell a joke,
usually something racist, though my sister and I
have told him a million times we wish he wouldn’t.
“Two black guys fishing in a boat – ” and we’re off!
I look to Richard, who pastes a smile on his face.
I warned him this might happen. We’re standing
in the parking lot at Cracker Barrel, dad’s choice
for breakfast. And we’d almost made it to the car.
“- and one of them gets bit on his penis by a rattlesnake.”
Every part of that sentence defies logic, but I let it go.
I know the joke – the unbit fisherman races to a doctor,
explains the situation, omitting the specific location of
the bite, and the doctor tells him to make an “X” on the
fang marks and suck out the poison. And I wonder why
on earth dad chose this joke to tell his gay son and his
son’s partner at their introductory breakfast? Is he really
that unaware? Or maybe he’s just nervous and this is his
way of coping with it. Or – could this be dad’s attempt to
say it’s okay that I love another man, that this is my life,
and why can’t the three of us share a little laugh together
to mark the moment? And whether that’s true or not,
I realize that it still matters that this man – who I have often
made a joke – accepts me. And dad says “So the guy gets
back to the boat, his friend says ‘So what’d the doctor say?!’
And he says “He said you’re gonna DIE!” And dad gives us each
a clap on the back and saunters off, jingling his car keys happily
in his hand. And we climb into our rental car and just sit there,
staring straight ahead. Then we turn to one another and say,
“And why were they black?”
It’s the quarry beach and the air is all
Coppertone and the top 20 countdown
blasting over the snack bar speakers;
there are corn dogs and sno-cones
and the jabber and squeeze of people
sunning on every side of us.
I’ve never seen Michael with his shirt off.
He always seemed so student council
and swing choir, but there he is stretched
out on one elbow with his squinty smile
and his Submariner stomach and all I can
do is keep cracking jokes.
And then we’re holding hands
and everything feels like church.
Everyone on shore stands looking at us,
a chain of us, walking slowly through
the shallows toward the bobbing buoys,
searching for the drowning boy, the only sound
the steady dribble coming off the end of the big slide.
And as the water inches up my chest, I shiver
thinking of brushing up against something
beneath the surface.
Later, on land, we watch them bring him
to shore like they’re teaching him to walk.
He’s skinny, in bright floral trunks, eyes shut,
not a boy like I’d imagined, but hovering
somewhere between boy and man – hovering
there forever now – for when they lower him
to the wet, foot-printed sand, his limbs go
every which way like a puppet cut loose.
And I feel Michael wrap his towel around
his girlfriend from behind. And I watch
the lifeguard kneel to kiss the young man’s lips.
And all I can do is keep cracking jokes.
Dan Butler is known primarily as an actor whose credits include major roles On and Off Broadway, on television, and film where he has also written, directed, and produced. In 2011, Dan adapted and directed a screen version of Poet Laureate Ted Kooser’s verse poem “Pearl” starring Francis Sternhagen and himself which had a great life on the film festival circuit.