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Punchlines and Plot Twists

By the end of fifth grade, my role as class clown had been firmly established. Sure, it annoyed the living shit out of my teacher, Ms. Essington (Assington), but disrupting her lessons for laughs had been a consistent way to earn positive attention from my peers, even if her attention was the opposite. Humor could build my onramp to a better life, so I made as many jokes as I could — in and out of class. That summer, the Y became a stage to practice daily, and I loudly declared that I was going to be a comedian when I grew up. 

I kept the comedy going in sixth grade, much to my new teacher’s chagrin. Mrs. Wells couldn’t stop me from cracking wise, and I couldn’t keep her from sending me out into the hall for an average of one hour per day. I never got sent to the principal’s office or suffered any consequences worse than all that time on my ass outside our classroom door, so I never saw that time in the hall as a punishment. It felt like an escape. 

Mrs. Wells rarely banished me from class empty-handed. But the assigned work was usually simple enough, and once finished, I could start writing a story. 

The days of selling stories for a quarter were long gone. For the first time, I wasn’t sharing my writing with anyone. The work was purely for me, a simple way to amuse myself, passing time while trapped in the hallway, taking whatever might be happening in my life at the time and spinning a fiction around it. Or rewriting something I saw in a movie or on TV.  

I remember exactly three of these stories: the first, the last, and the most significant on3. 

I wrote the first on November 9, 1988. George Bush had been elected the day before. Mrs. Wells wore all black to school, and because she was in mourning, her ire was especially dark. She wasn’t in the mood for jokes, especially mine. When sent out into the hallway shortly after lunch that afternoon, I wrote a story about a coven of witches where the head witch taught sixth grade at Lowell elementary. 

The second memorable story came several months later, some time during the third week of May. My half-sister, Laura had been getting into some serious trouble, fourteen years old and dating an adult man (and ex-con) in Westfork, Arkansas, where she lived with my other, older half-sister Katie, and their mom

Laura came to live with us early in ’89. I moved into a smaller room that was originally part of the kitchen so that she and Megan could share the larger space. Laura only lived with us for a few months, until the Friday before Mother’s Day. Pop had a massive pile of cash on the bathroom counter to pay for the holiday flowers at market. Laura took the cash and hitchhiked across the country, back to her boyfriend in Arkansas. That story was closer to true crime than anything else I had ever written before. 

I don’t remember the last story so much as a single scene and the result of turning it into Mrs. Wells. Unlike all of the other narratives that I wrote for myself, this one came at the end of the year as an actual creative writing assignment. I can’t recall the prompt, but there was a scene in the finished story where someone smooshes out their cigarette in a pile of mashed potatoes. I had seen a bad guy do that on a TV show while threatening someone once and I thought it looked cool. So I stole it. Mrs. Wells was impressed. When the school year ended a few weeks later, she wrote a goodbye letter to the entire class predicting what each of us would be when we grew up. Mrs. Wells divined that I would one day be a writer. 

But it would take another twenty years for me to prove her right.