Years ago, in a previous life, I had a friend who lived in an apartment close to Chicago’s lakefront. We’ll call him Ed, because for reasons I could never fully understand, people used to mistake him for Ed Begley, Jr. There was a slight, superficial resemblance, but not enough that any reasonable person would have confused the two of them. In spite of this, people would sometimes greet him on the street or buy him drinks at the bar because they thought he was that guy from St. Elsewhere.
Ed was always a good storyteller. I haven’t seen him in at least 20 years, but a few of his stories live on in tales that I’ve told my children. There’s the story about the polyester shirt, and how he got a beer bottle broken over his head. There’s the story about the dumbass cousin shouting at a TV star. There’s the story about his Korean girlfriend, who won a contest picking up marbles with chopsticks.
And then there’s the story about the night there was a possum on the back porch.
I don’t repeat that story, because there’s a part of me that keeps wondering: If I change the story — if I omit one tiny, insignificant detail — would it still be the same story?
Ed told the story at work one morning, describing the strange thing had happened the night before:
"…So it’s kinda late, and I’m in the kitchen. All of the sudden I hear this loud noise, like somebody banging around a garbage cans, and then I hear somebody swearing. So I poke my head out the back door, and there’s this big black guy standing on the porch. He’s got a flashlight and he’s shining it down the back stairs. So he sees me, and he shouts out, ‘Did you see that?’ And I said, ‘No, what’s going on?’
"And the guy says, ‘That was a possum! Right there, on the goddamn porch! Right on the landing!’ And all of the sudden, the guy pulls out a gun. He starts heading down the stairs, holding the gun, and he says again: ‘That was a goddamn possum!’ And then he must have seen the look on my face, and he says, ‘Don’t worry, I’m a cop.’ So said, ‘Well, even so, I don’t know if you ought to start squeezing off shots.’ And the guy put the gun away, but he stayed out there, walking around the porch looking for the possum. Finally, I just went back inside."
The story finished, Ed Begley, Jr. just shrugged, as if he realized there was no real explanation for the guy’s apparently intense dislikes of possums, and no explanation for the idea that someone would think seeing a possum was a good reason to pull out a firearm.
"I hope he really is a cop," Ed said. "Otherwise, he’s just a large black man with a gun."
I laughed. Hard.
Even now, it still makes me laugh. I think back to the brief pause, the perfect comic timing, the deadpan delivery of the punchline: “Otherwise, he’s just a large black man with gun.”
So here’s what I’m wondering: What if he had left out that one word? What if he’d said:
"Otherwise, he’s just a large man with a gun."
I replay the story in my head, with the slightly different punch line, and it’s not as funny. It’s just not as funny. Why?
Maybe it’s the rhythm of the words. What if he had said:
"Otherwise, he’s just a large bald man with a gun."
It’s still not the same. Something about those original words plays on an underlying fear. At some level, an unsettling, prejudiced level that I don’t want to acknowledge, a large black man with a gun is more frightening — and therefore funnier — than a large white man with a guy.
What we find funny reveals things that we might prefer to keep hidden. My conscious mind tells me that the color of the man holding the gun shouldn’t matter. My subconscious doesn’t give a damn.
I’ve been thinking about this story quite often lately: First, when LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling threw a racist tantrum about his girlfriend bringing blacks to a basketball game, and again when actor Gary Oldman stuffed his feet in his mouth while babbling about poor, misunderstood Mel Gibson and the Jews who control Hollywood.
There’s no reason we should be surprised when celebrities say stupid things; they’re as prone to muddled ideas and stupid opinions as the rest of us. However, just as there are celebrities who can be remarkably dumb, there are also celebrities who can be remarkably smart. In the wake of the Sterling incident, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a brilliant, concise, perfect essay about prejudice. Oldman and Sterling would probably wholeheartedly agree with Abdul-Jabbar’s blunt assessment: “The truth is, everyone has racism in his or her heart. We feel more comfortable around people of similar appearance, backgrounds, and experiences.”
Oldman’s tirade could be boiled down to: We all have racist thoughts, so why condemn someone for saying them out loud?
Unlike Oldman, Abdul-Jabbar understands. Yes, we all have racism in our hearts, “But, as intelligent, educated and civilized humans, we fight our knee-jerk reactions because we recognize that those reactions are often wrong and ultimately harmful.”
We’re not absolved of our foolish and shallow thoughts, just because others are equally foolish. We have to aim higher. We have to try to be better.
A large black man with a gun. A large white man with a gun. What does it say about me, that the first sentence seems funnier than the second? Maybe it means that I have more in common with Oldman and Sterling than I would like to admit.
Let’s set that aside for a moment, just long enough to tell another of Ed Begley Jr.’s stories. This one, however, I witnessed firsthand. Ed’s girlfriend had, some time before, married a Polish immigrant to help him get a green card. It was a marriage in name only; they got married, he got a green card, she got an undisclosed amount of cash, and they went their separate ways. Unfortunately, the Polish guy pissed off one of his acquaintances, and the acquaintance anonymously called the Immigration and told them that the Polish guy’s marriage was a sham. This put Ed’s girlfriend in a precarious spot. She probably didn’t care that the Polish guy would get deported, but she did care that she’d be in trouble for her role in facilitating the fraud.
Their solution was to continue the sham. The Polish guy moved into her apartment, sleeping on the couch, just in case the INS showed up. This went on for a while, until finally Ed’s girlfriend couldn’t take it any longer. Another arrangement was made: the Polish guy would remain in the apartment they supposedly shared, and she’d go elsewhere.
On the morning she was moving out, Ed and I showed up at the apartment to help.
When we walked in, the Polish guy was asleep on the couch.
So we hauled boxes from the bedrooms, boxes from the kitchen, chairs, tables, and everything else, all while the naked guy remained asleep on the couch.
We moved more and more boxes, realizing that sooner or later, the only thing left would be the couch with the naked guy on it. Ed imagined him waking up in a fury, grabbing a gun concealed beneath the cushions, and shooting us both. “Tomorrow’s headline,” Ed said, “‘Naked man kills 2, self.”
Fortunately, it did not happen that way. The naked guy woke up, wrapped himself in a blanket, and we hauled away the last of his girlfriend’s things, leaving the naked guy alone in the empty apartment.
Now, here’s the question: what do I do with that first story, about the large black man with a gun? Knowing the truth about what’s inside my head, I don’t really want to tell the story the same way that Ed Begley Jr. told it to me. But it’s a shame to take the edge off a good story, isn’t it? So maybe I’ll just mix and match:
"Did I ever tell you about the time I was helping Ed Begley Jr. move out of his apartment? Gary Oldman had moved in with Ed, and he had this pet possum. It would shit all over the place. Ed kept trying to tell him that he had to find a way to train it to use a litter box or something, but Oldman would just say, "You know, you shit, too! We all shit!" So finally, Ed just decides to move. So we’re carrying his couch down the back stairs, and the possum runs out the back door and takes off down the stairs. So Gary’s shouting at us, and Ed’s trying to calm him down, and I’m trying not to drop this ugly-ass couch, and RIGHT THEN this naked guy comes running out from one of the other apartments. And he’s got a gun. He’s waving the gun around, shouting all this crazy stuff about how he owns a basketball team and he doesn’t have to take this from the likes of us, and he respects possums but he’ll be goddamned if he’s going to have possums on HIS porch…
"So Ed and I just looked at each other, and Ed says, "Oh, fuck it.’ We dropped the couch right there on the stairs, and then we went over to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s house and drank fruit smoothies."
It was deep in the woods, far from the road, and the realtor wondered how the old man knew about the house, and why he’d want it. Never mind why, the realtor said to himself, as long as it sells.
Wooden siding with the paint long peeled away, a sagging porch with broken railings, shingles torn away by the wind, cracked windowpanes coated with dirt on the outside and dust on the inside. Twisted trees encroached on every side, and dead leaves rustled through the tall weeds that had long since strangled the last traces of a lawn.
"It looks pretty bad, I’ll grant you," he said. "Nobody’s lived here for at least twenty-five or thirty years."
The old man stepped onto the porch and peered inside. Faded wallpaper was slowly peeling from the walls. A single wooden chair laid on its side at the foot of the lopsided staircase.
"A lot of history here," the realtor said. "Supposedly, the house was built in the 1800’s by the local hangman. Quite a fancy house for that day and age. Apparently executioners were pretty well-paid."
The old man said nothing.
"It would take some work," the realtor said. "But if you got a contractor out here, you could fix it up. You could make it look nice and cozy."
"Why the hell would I want to do that?" the old man asked.
The realtor smiled, as if the he understood the old man’s joke, all the while knowing that it wasn’t a joke.
"It’s far from town," the old man said. "No goddamn neighbors. That’s what I’m looking for. You go get the deed, I’ll go get my money. You’ll sell me the house now, and after that, you’re not gonna bother me again."
"Fair enough," said the realtor, and the deal was done.
* * * * *
Goddamn noise, thought the old man. Middle of nowhere, middle of the night, and still there was noise. First it was at the windows, a slow, persistent tapping. Some tree branch, he supposed, hitting the pane when the wind blew, but he could never find it, and for that matter it never really seemed like there was much wind. There was wind, though, and he knew it, because he could hear it rising up from the cellar: Somehow, through some open vent or broken damper, it found its way into the cellar, and from there it became a long, low sound, a hollow sound, that moaned in the background as soon as darkness fell.
Alone in the dim kitchen with the rust-stained sink and the bare lightbulb and the broken cabinets, he took another bite of his gruel. (It was oatmeal, but he liked to think of it as gruel, because that fit his personality better. An old man eating gruel conjured images of Scrooge, in the beginning of the story, when he was so deliciously bitter. An old man eating oatmeal conjured images of Wilford Brimley, with his goddamn stupid mustache and his goddamn made-for-a-Hallmark-TV-show fake gruff exterior pasted on a warm-hearted Grandpa.)
There it was again, the goddamn tapping. He expected it; he hated it, yes, but it happened every night, and now he expected it. He expected the tapping, and the scratching at the door. That, too, had been going on for weeks. Some damn animal trying to get in, he supposed, some animal too damn dumb to know that it wasn’t going to claw through and inch and a half of solid oak.
Now, as he sat at the table, craving silence and solitude, there was something new: A thump. A loud, very distinct thump, and then, silence. True silence. No tapping at the window, no scratching at the door. Silence.
The old man frowned. (Actually, he was already frowning. His face had only two settings: Frown, or Scowl.) He sat in silence, and considered getting up from the table and walking toward the sound. Instead, he decided to wait, listening intently.
One minute passed, then another. He heard nothing. There was only silence until he resumed eating his gruel. The only sound was the clink of the spoon against the porcelain bowl, which was in itself annoying, and the old man wished that he had a plastic bowl, which would have been quieter.
* * * * *
Another night, another bowl of gruel. Another round of scratching at the door. Another sudden silence, and then, once again, the loud thump. This time he could tell where it came from. It came from beneath him, somewhere in the cellar.
Some damn animal, he thought. Some damn animal has gotten into the cellar. But, he thought, it had to be a large animal. Something heavy. He turned his head, moving his gaze from the broken cabinets to the lopsided door on the other side of the kitchen. The door to the cellar: how long since he’d been in the cellar? He’d gone down there shortly after buying the house, and hadn’t been down since.
From behind the door, a board creaked at the bottom of the cellar stairs.
He waited. He waited for one minute, then two, three, and there was still nothing. Finally, he resumed eating, shattering the peace and quiet with the annoying, ear-splitting noise of his spoon, clinking against the porcelain bowl.
* * * * *
It was yet another night, but all the old man’s nights ran together. Perhaps if he had looked out the window, he would have seen a full moon, probably with gnarled branches silhouetted in front, looking like angry, clutching fingers. He never looked out the window, however, so he saw only the bowl of oatmeal. (Sorry, gruel. He saw only the bowl of gruel.)
On this night, there was no tapping at the window, and no scratching at the door.
There was, however, the thump in the basement, followed by the creaking at the bottom of the stairway.
This time, it was followed by another creak. There was a long pause, and old man briefly thought that the noises were done for the night. Then, there was another creak from the stairs. Then, another.
The old man’s eyes became narrow slits.
Another step creaked, the long slow creak of old wood beneath a heavy weight.
From behind the cellar door, the old man heard a sound. No, not a sound: A voice.
It wasn’t his imagination; the voice was strained, but distinct.
He heard the creaking of another step, then another, each one closer to the top of the stairs. closer to the door. The voice was clearer now:
One more groaning step, and the voice was on the other side of the door.
The old man stared at the cellar door, and saw the knob turn. The door began to swing open, into the kitchen. A gray, decaying hand reached out and clutched the frame of the door. The brittle voice behind it gasped:
"You killed me!"
The door creaked on its hinges, fully open. The figure became fully visible: Dry, dead skin stretched tightly over a skeletal frame, torn clothes from another century. Wild, twisted hair spilled out from the skull, and its eyes, black and dead, protruded from deep sockets. One hand clutched at a frayed gray noose around its neck.
The thing let go of the noose and pointed an accusing finger.
"You killed me!"
The old man remained motionless, his eyes still narrow, his jaw clenched.
The apparition shuddered, as if wracked by fury. It threw its head back, a pose of righteous condemnation. "You killed me!"
The old man slammed the spoon down on the table. “You’re an idiot!” he shouted.
The ghost stopped shaking, as if stunned. Then, as if drawing on a reserve of anger and resolve, it said again: "You killed me!"
"I heard you the first time," the old man snapped. "And you’re an idiot. I didn’t kill you. You’re looking for the man who built the house. And he’s as dead as you are."
The skeletal face was too ghastly to show true emotions. In spite of this, something akin to confusion registered in the thing’s eyes. It seemed to consider the old man’s words, searching for a new strategy. Its withered hand gestured at the room around them.
"This place is cursed!"
"It’s cursed, all right. It’s got the same damn curse as the apartment I lived in before I bought this place. Idiots coming up the stairs at all hours, making too much damn noise. Might as well have stayed there."
The creature’s eyes seemed to grow larger. The remnants of its lips curled back, baring yellowed, broken teeth. "You will be cursed!" It took a step forward, slowly, unsteadily.
The old man slid his chair back and stood up. (In truth, he didn’t actually stand, but he had made up his mind that he would stand, as soon as his knees were ready to support his full weight.)
The thing reached out toward him, and its mummified fingers seemed to crack as they spread open, ready to grab the old man’s throat: Two hands, dead and ancient, moving closer and closer. Then, suddenly, there was a third hand. It grabbed at the rope around the thing’s neck, and pulled. The thing stopped, dead in its tracks, (yes, literally dead) and reached futilely at the noose. Behind the thing, another figure stepped forth from the shadows. Clad in black, a hood over its head, the second figure pulled the noose tight around the thing’s throat.
"Return to Hell!" the hooded figure shouted, and as he did, the first phantom vanished in a cloud of dust.
The hooded figure stood there, motionless. The old man said nothing; he sat down (in his mind, since he’d actually never stood up), and reached for his spoon.
"He will not trouble you again," the hooded man said.
"Hmmmph," the old man grumbled. "I suppose you told everybody that when you hung him the first time."
The hangman stood there, awkwardly, as if he had anticipated gratitude, and was not quite sure what to say now that it hadn’t been awarded. The silence was broken by the clink of the spoon against the porcelain bowl.
"My work is done," the hangman said. "I will leave you in peace with your oatmeal."
"It’s gruel, dammit," the old man snapped, and then the hangman was gone.