By Mr. Fish
Our summer began with me and my best friends, Beats, Lewis and Zeeker, peeing on the roofs of houses.
This was in 1979 when I was 12, and we were all doing it for Zeeker, who hadn’t been the same since he saw the Easter Bunny drop dead at Pennebaker’s Drugstore three months earlier. Three months before that, Lewis, who was always trying to one-up everybody, claimed to have seen his next-door neighbor, Mrs. Jerblonski, run out of her house shrieking and windmilling a flaming Miss Piggy puppet that she’d tried to use to pull a meatloaf out of the oven. According to Lewis, the puppet was still holding the meatloaf when Mrs. Jerblonski was tackled on the lawn by her husband, who rolled around with her, beating out the flames with his fists inside a bedspread—a large toast-colored replica of the Shroud of Turin with the words to “Jingle Bell Rock” printed across it—that had been a Christmas present from Mrs. Jerblonski’s mother.
According to a conversation that had bled out through the Jerblonskis’ kitchen window and into Lewis’ tree house on the other side of the fence, Mr. Jerblonski admitted that, yes!, he might’ve tackled his wife sooner had he not taken so much time digging through the hall closet to find the bedspread, and that, yes!, perhaps he might’ve been able to save his wife the humiliation of having the rubberized pig snout of the puppet fused to the inside of her hand. Lewis went on to describe how the sound of Mrs. Jerblonski’s pounding on the counter to make her point was not unlike the sound of CPR being performed on a rubber ducky, the nostrils on her palm kissing the Formica like the pope blessing, with super-suctiony lips, a fatal disease over and over and over again. Still, I and Beats didn’t think it compared to Zeeker seeing the Easter Bunny drop dead.
Here’s the story.
A week or so before the Easter Bunny drew his last rabbity breath, I cracked a joke that nearly got me suspended from school. The joke was about a 500-pound restaurateur in New Jersey who had made the national news for raping a little girl. I was sitting at the lunch table in the cafeteria, and everybody was talking about the crime and the case when somebody asked the obvious rhetorical question: “Geez, how would you like to be raped by a 500-pound restaurateur from New Jersey?” For me, even without the rape, the New Jersey part of the equation was upsetting enough, particularly since there existed all around me proof positive that New Jersey had the ability to rub itself up against anything, animal, mineral or vegetable, over and over and over again and to magnetize it to attract the sort of mediocrity and dimwitted acquiescence to broken dreams that gave the Jersey stereotype real credibility.
Then, looking from face to face and watching while the question sunk into each person’s visual cortex with all the grace of a halved onion being eased into a bouquet of lilacs, I noticed, sitting next to me, Kimble Hoffbeck, a brittle Methodist notorious for her sensitivity to both full-frontal verbal engagement and any subject matter that couldn’t be whispered to a sleeping baby. Anticipating high hilarity from my actions, I leaned into Kimble’s doe-eyed innocence, as if listening to her response to the question, and said loudly in mock disgust, “It depends on which part of him weighs the most?! Jimminies, Kimble! That’s … not even funny.”
Looking back, I guessed that I could’ve tried harder to catch her head before it hit the floor, but I drew the line at assuming I had any control over: (1) the floppiness of her Birkenstocks, which she somehow got tangled up with the flailing metal legs of her chair when she was wrestling her enormous Christian redundancy out of her seat for the purpose of running away or (2) her misconstruing my joke to be the sort of sexual harassment that stopped just short of dry humping. “What were you expecting?” asked Beats on the bus ride home that day. “That’s like waving a lighter around in front of Frankenstein and then getting pissed off when he upsets the coffee table by uncrossing his legs before charging headlong into the woods with his eyes bugged out and a load in his pants.”
“Is it my fault that that knucklehead doesn’t have a sense of humor?” I said.
“Forget about her sense of humor,” he said. “You gave her a black eye! Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”
“So I gave her a black eye,” I said, slumping down in my seat. “Who cares? What about my fucking First Amendment rights?”
“You have the right to bear arms, too, you jackass,” he said, “but you’re not allowed to shoot people! Freedom of speech doesn’t mean shit so long as people have broader rights protecting them against things they don’t want to fucking listen to!” I didn’t answer him and just stared out the window, determining that I’d kill myself if I didn’t think killing everybody else was a better idea. He was right, of course—but it would take me another 20 years to figure out just how right he was, when editors would start refusing to publish individual cartoons of mine because they were afraid of a potential misreading of its content or intent.
There are three categories of speech that are considered “unprotected” by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. They are: obscenity, libel and “fighting words.” Obscenity is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as anything that is: 1. offensive to morality or decency; indecent; lewd 2. abominable; disgusting. Libel is defined as: 1. a. defamation by written or printed matter, rather than by spoken words; b. the crime of publishing such matter. “Fighting words” are considered to be any words used intentionally to incite violence.
Let’s take each one of these separately, beginning with obscenity. Leaving aside the rather damning detail that obscenity is much more a matter of personal taste than public opinion, let’s focus on the experiential disparity that seems to exist between saying and hearing a so-called obscene word. Everybody knows that he or she can say the word fuck, for instance, over and over and over again inside his or her own head and not feel any of the deleterious effects of the obscenity. Spoken out loud, however, is a different story. Why is this—what makes auditory obscenity so much more explosive than the unspoken sort? First we have to ask if obscenity is innate or idiosyncratic. If it’s idiosyncratic, is not its power to offend endemic to the listener and therefore a matter of choice, no more an incontrovertible fact than, say, the obscenity of somebody having a different favorite color than you? Conversely, if obscenity were innate and not conjured by the imagination, then wouldn’t it still be imperative that we learn to live with it, just as we have had to do with the mosquito, inclement weather and bad luck? Wouldn’t our supersensitivity to obscenity demand, over time, that we develop a mental callus against the steady erosion of our peace of mind? After all, what would be the point in wanting to willingly make the choice to beat the absolute crap out of our own well-being with a toxic concept concocted specifically to be acerbic?
Equally ambiguous are the definitions for the remaining two forms of unprotected speech, libel and fighting words, neither of which are precise or specific enough to avoid being misconstrued one way or another. Specifically, because the definitions for defamation and inciting derive their meaning from how a listener interprets them as opposed to how a speaker enunciates them, then there can never be any First Amendment protection for any speech, at least not so long as the burden of elucidation lies much more with the recipient of the speech or obscenity, than the one producing the speech or obscenity.
The punch line:
Zeeker had gone to Pennebaker’s Drugstore, for me in fact, to get Kimble Hoffbeck either a box of chocolates or a fistful of lousy flowers, something to show her that I was sorry about braining her with a joke that wasn’t even that funny. I told Zeeker that I would’ve gone myself, but my bike was still in the shop from crashing into that goddamn chicken that had gotten out of the Kwoong’s backyard coop a week earlier. “What’s the matter with you Koreans?” I asked Dae-Ho the day after the accident in study hall. “No. 1 rule when moving to another country: learn the fucking language!” When he reminded me that we were talking about a chicken and that the chicken had been born in Mayetta, N.J., and that, irrespective of where the chicken was from, screaming Oh the humanity! at anything standing in the middle of the road was not exactly the clearest instruction for it to get out of the way. I accused him of arguing semantics with me and chalked it up to a language barrier.
Anyway, the gift for Kimble Hoffbeck was what I’d plea-bargained down from a suspension, which was by no means a difficult feat when it came to my middle school. Achilles Grammatico, for example, was once caught masturbating in the driving simulator in Drivers’ Ed behind Tiffany Glenn, and rather than getting suspended, he simply had his Italian horn necklace confiscated and was moved from the standard transmission simulator to one of the automatic transmission simulators, where it would be easier for him to meet the both hands on the wheel requirement. He was also made to sit behind Casper Bruno, who smelled strongly of acne medication and had a cowlick that could turn your stomach. Consequently, all of Tiffany Glenn’s prior citations for speeding on the simulator were forgiven as she set down the long, hard road toward learning how to look into her side view mirror without dry heaving.
“Don’t get her any of those things,” I said, still smarting from the implication that I should learn to shut my mouth and soften my sense of humor into a piece of vanilla ice cream. “Not the chocolate, not the flowers, nothing. Get her a doormat—one with the word WELCOME printed on it,” I said, opening the Velcro on my wallet.
“I don’t get it,” said Zeeker, screwing up his face.
“I’m going to tell her to put it on the inside of her front door instead of on the outside. That way she’ll be reminded every morning on her way off to school that the outside world is what she should be acclimating her thinking to, rather than thinking that the weird and completely scentless Christian voodoo that she practices inside her own head is useful to anybody.”
“Oh,” he said, “so you’re going to save her.”
Forty minutes later, Zeeker was walking around Pennebaker’s looking for a dime on the floor, having calculated an eight-cent discrepancy between the money I’d given him and the welcome mat that he was carrying around the store. He was also reminiscing, as we all were prone to doing whenever we walked into Pennebaker’s and heard that 40-year-old bell tinkle above the door, about how special the place used to be when we were younger. He remembered all the many thousands of baseball cards he’d gotten there and how he used to come in on Sunday afternoons with his grandparents and how he’d get a sundae in a tall parfait glass and sit at the soda counter and eat it with a long metal spoon. Mr. Pennebaker would serve the ice cream, himself, and use flattery to exaggerate Zeeker’s size or congratulate him on his cunning, and everybody would laugh easily and life was a beautiful and predictable routine. But now, with the soda counter having been removed with sledgehammers and replaced with a chirping lottery machine and a cloudy Plexiglas case full of cigarettes, and with Mr. Pennebaker having become so sullen and quiet, much of his generation dead or scattered across the Sunbelt like optimistic seeds left to die on the pavement, nothing was the same. Gone even was the old drugstore smell of popcorn and floor wax and bubblegum. In fact, the only thing that he could smell was what he guessed was dog shit.
Rounding the far end of the candy aisle after checking the soles of his shoes and finding nothing, he came upon Mr. Pennebaker dressed as a giant white rabbit in a grubby striped vest and bowtie, his brown wingtips looking horribly discordant with the rest of him, his black dress socks narrowing his ankles into gruesome sticks. He was sitting on a folding chair at the mouth of the greeting card section, his enormous bunny face frozen in an expression of happy, unblinking hysteria, as if he was imagining the body of his worst enemy being torn apart by wild animals. The shit smell was especially strong then, and the shabbiness of the costume’s fur made Zeeker think of a hopeless animal too repulsed by its own decay to lick itself. Startled by the spectacle of the whole scene, Zeeker stopped and gave a nervous grin and a little half-wave. When the rabbit didn’t move a muscle, Zeeker turned away, embarrassed by the strange nudity of the moment, and quickly turned down the next aisle and was almost knocked down by a pint-sized version of himself, same red hair, same tattered Chuck Taylor sneakers, running in Pennebaker’s direction with an empty Easter basket, the child’s mother apologizing as she walked cheerfully by. “No problem,” said Zeeker, momentarily allowing himself the deeply surreal sensation that he had just blessed the rebirth of his own enthusiasm as he watched it round the corner and disappear out of sight.
“Probably the creepiest thing that happened was the cashier shouting at me, ‘We’ve got to take off his head! We’ve got to take off his head!’ ” said Zeeker the next day in Lewis’ basement, where we’d all congregated for the purpose of dissecting what we were ready to imagine might be the greatest story ever told, not because we were looking for a respectful place to apply our sympathies or because we wanted to test its viability with a dismantling logic, but rather because we wanted to know what sort of psychic wind had howled through the center of our friend when he first realized his incredible good fortune at getting to see an actual dead person—something that we all prayed for nightly to witness ourselves. “What broke my heart was watching this little boy who wouldn’t let go of Mr. Pennebaker’s hand. All I could think was here’s this kid who came to see the real Easter Bunny and some maniac with fluorescent orange fingernails and gum in her mouth is screaming about taking its head off, like she’s going to find a person to save inside.”
Six weeks later we were silhouetted against the nighttime sky and unzipping our flies on the spine of Muffy Fulbright’s house, desperate to reclaim the narrative of our own lives by committing a wholly meaningless act before Zeeker’s constant retelling of his experience threatened to morph his story into a useful parable that might turn us all into corroborators of an invented wisdom by which none of us wished to be made spectacular.