Death & Other Dirty Jokes


poem by Tom C. Hunley


For years I went to AA meetings and told the same
stories, puffed-up with streetwise bravado:
the time I sat on a departing city bus and watched
through the window while my drug dealer was
held up at knife point, the time I woke up shirtless

on a stranger’s lawn, the time I drunk-dialed
the previous night’s first date from the steel-barred
city drunk tank. None of these stories were lies,
but, as Melville wrote in Billy Budd, “Truth
uncompromisingly told, will always have its

ragged edges,” and my ragged truth was so much
more pathetic and dull: walking for miles in
Seattle rain without bus fare, collecting beer bottles
in my sister’s basement, missing class and giving
the same old excuses, hollow as worn-out jokes

that weren’t funny in the first place, like the one
about growing up so poor my mama cut holes
in my pockets so I’d have something to play with.
I repeated that groaner over and over to my eye-rolling
wife, not knowing where I’d first heard it, until

my uncle —whom I hadn’t seen for thirty years—
told it at my grandpa’s funeral. Those wasted years,
I like to think I was a forgotten Stratocaster trapped in its case,
but in truth, I think I was Esau, unable to see
past the edges of my hunger and the steaming bowl

of stew. I was a stupid kid, eager to toss away his life.
Grandpa, I barely knew you. I know you hand-crafted clocks,
worked for Standard Oil for like forty years, and loved
your 1960 Studebaker. I’m pretty sure you never
wore makeup outside of the coffin. I know you

got old and now I want to know what that’s like. Tell me,
have you heard any good jokes lately? Tell me about
those last coughing fits, the fight to keep your soul
from bursting out of your body like a blurt or a fart.
Tell me something crude and coarse and side-splittingly true.





Tom C. Hunley