Big Alabama and the Limits of Humor – James Valvis
Big Alabama and I sat in St. Peter’s cafeteria. Though we always packed lunch, we never ate it because inside stale bread sat a slice of stinky liverwurst, so named, my sister said, because it was made from the worst liver possible.
At the table, we opened the bags, laid out our sandwiches, then told jokes. I should say my sister told jokes because mostly it was her telling them. Big Alabama had a knack for the punch line, like all other kinds of punches.
Sometimes kids gathered around to listen to The Alabama Humor Show, where I was Abbot to my sister’s Costello, and it was during this show I told the joke about catching a fish, the one where you spread your arms to show how big the fish is and smack the other person in the mouth and you say, “It wiggled its tail like this…” while continuing to smack.
So I did this to my sister, not smacking hard, just enough to get laughs, and everyone thought it funnier than that time Eddie March played Joseph in the school play and fell off his donkey and said, “Jesus H. Christ!”
And for a moment I didn’t feel bad about being the biggest wimp going.
But St. Peter’s principal, a nun so small she was shorter than most kids, saw me do the joke, and she called me over, the whole place looking on – must have been 300 kids – and she asked me why I was smiling? Did I like hitting people? Did I think I was funny?
I was about to say no, you don’t understand, my sister and I… when she smacked me so hard that side of my face felt stung by bees.
Tears puffed my eyes, not just from the pain, but also from the shame of getting struck by a nun half the size of a hobbit in front of every kid I’d ever known.
The entire cafeteria collapsed into a sickly silence, and even the bullies, the ones who chased me after school and pushed my face in the dirt, shook their heads and sighed, as if Jesus himself was trying to tell us about justice in a fallen world. I saw them all through wet smudges as I waddled to my seat, where Big Alabama sat at the long table, not smiling, joking, just munching her liverwurst sandwich.
- – - – -
James Valvis lives in Washington State with his wife, daughter, and cat. His poems or stories have recently appeared in Arts & Letters, Nimrod, Atlanta Review, Hanging Loose, Pank, Southern Indiana Review, Crab Creek Review, Rattle, LA Review, Linger Fiction, and River Styx, and are forthcoming in Midwest Quarterly, New York Quarterly, Pearl, Pinyon, Verdad, and many others. He will be the featured writer in Re)verb 7. In addition to being a multiple Pushcart and Best of the Web nominee, a novelette was a storySouth Million Writers Notable Story. His first poetry collection, How to Say Goodbye, is due in 2011.