by Jessica Barksdale
The bad childhood joke is that everyone tells one.
The bad childhood joke is that your bad childhood is yours, the thing you clutch like the doll you clutched for three years and then lost, finding it one spring under a patch of overgrown weeds. You loved that doll, despite the bugs and weather that had eaten her hair, dug out her plastic eyes, torn her dress, lost her shoes. She was found! Oh, she was found, and then your father made you throw her away, your ruined baby, your love, all that feeling for three long years you'd whispered in her rubber ear, gone.
The bad childhood joke is that you pretend it doesn't exist, closing the door on its punch line, wham. Goodbye, stupid joke. But it knocks again. Who's there?
The bad childhood joke is that your childhood wasn't all bad. There are those summers at the pool, the girls you grew up with, swimming alongside them day after summer day, girls turned women you still lean close to and whisper with.
The bad childhood joke is death made it better.
The bad childhood joke was that even when it was better, the past hung in the house like your father's tobacco smoke. It cleared a little. You found you could breathe.
The bad childhood joke is three sisters walked into a bar. Only two walked out.
The bad childhood joke is that you tried not to tell it to your children. You told another joke. Maybe not as bad. Maybe worse. You have heard them tell it a couple of times to girlfriends, almost laughing. You tried not to cover your ears.
The bad childhood joke is expensive. You pay for it for a long time.
The bad childhood joke is the joke that keeps giving, even as you arc toward old age. It's the joke you tell best, perfecting each line down to the bone, your skeleton, the part of you that is made of light and air.
This piece came from a prompt on mimesis, and I chose to mimic Patricia Lockwood's Rape Joke. I started with "The bad childhood joke" because not too much before trying this prompt, my mother had gotten angry at me when I talked about our shared past, stating, "Oh, you had such a bad childhood!" So I wondered, How was it bad? I thought I'd lay down some tracks here. But also, I wanted to show how a bad childhood is passed on, even if you don't want it to be. The joke that keeps giving. My friend Marj Hahn was one of my first readers and helped me refine both the above ideas.
Jessica Barksdale's fourteenth novel, The Burning Hour, was published by Urban Farmhouse Press in April 2016. A Pushcart Prize and Best-of-the-Net nominee, her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in the Waccamaw Journal, Salt Hill Journal, Sou'wester, and So to Speak. She is a Professor of English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California, and teaches novel writing online for UCLA Extension. She holds an MA in English Literature from San Francisco State University and an MFA from the Rainier Writers Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University.