Who ever said words can never hurt you? Try not to feel just a little bit eviscerated after reading Chris Okum’s story.
As far as Tony Hope could tell the easiest way to win friends and influence people was to insult them. This he had learned from his father, Bob. And so one night Tony found himself at Melvyn’s Restaurant surrounded by his father and some of his father’s best friends, including, but not limited to, Bing “Der Bingle” Crosby; General Electric spokesman Dutch Reagan; the Velvet Fog, Mel Torme; golf legend Ben Hogan; United States Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson; and William S. Paley, the founder of CBS. Bob had decided that tonight, May 16, 1950, was as good a night as any to introduce his adopted son to the world of men, and Tony wasted no time launching a series of insult jokes in the direction of his father, much to the delight of the men in attendance. Tony had thought up some choice cuts, including jokes about age, intelligence, hygiene, penis size, success (or lack of, at least compared to the success of power enjoyed by his compatriots) and eating habits. Each joke landed like a mortar round, spraying Bob with some of the shrillest, heartiest, and most concussive laughter anyone had ever heard (Ben Hogan’s scotch and soda shot out of his nostrils the instant Tony issued the punch line to a joke about Bob’s mother), including Bob, who took the assault in stride, albeit with mounting irritation once he realized that his son’s performances wasn’t going to end any time soon. What irked Bob the most was not the his adopted son was making him the butt of numerous jokes (although he could not understand where all this aggression was emanating from), but that Tony, not even ten years old, was delivering these jokes not in his own squeaky childish voice but in the voice of Bob himself. It was a perfect imitation, and this is what disturbed Bob the most, that it sounded, to him at least, like he was essentially insulting himself. For a man of preternatural confidence and boundless self-esteem, and who, on a daily basis had to marshal his interior troops to keep the forces of negativity at bay, this was almost completely intolerable. Bob waited until he got home before he grabbed Tony by the back of the neck, lead Tony into Tony’s bedroom, and closed the door. Bob put his hands on his knees, and slowly brought himself nose to nose with Tony. Bob said, I don’t know what got into you tonight, but if you ever insult me in front of my friends again I will make you disappear. Bob said, I could pick up that phone and place you with a pair of Pensacola foster parents so fast it would make your head spin. Bob said, I’m the comedian in this family, not you. Bob asked Tony if he understood what he was saying. Tony nodded. Bob stared into Tony’s wet eyes and dared him to blink. Tony held his stare for as long as he could and then looked away. Bob stood up, undid his tie, turned off the lights, and walked out of the room. Tony stood in the dark. He got into bed still fully clothed. He couldn’t have known it at the time, but the voice he had so deftly accessed, the one he had used to insult his father, was now beating a hasty retreat, quickly making a beeline from the surface to the depths, where it would hide, pretty much forever, except for once in a blue moon, when it would issue insults to no one in particular, murky missives that would sometimes rise topside, much to Tony’s consternation, as he could not account for them, or locate their origin. It was as if part of him had broken off and fallen into the sea.
Chris Okum lives in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Metazen, Opium Magazine, The Alarmist Magazine, The Olentangy Review, Blue Fifth Review, Digging Through The Fat, and Map Literary.