Punchline

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December 15, 2020 by The Citron Review

by Albert Abonado

 

Your white friend let you know that it’s okay for him to make jokes about black people as long as he joked about white people too. This is a democracy, after all, he promised. See how whiteness uses whiteness to justify itself. Your parents sent you to a high school school full of white boys like him where you learned how to be friends with them, how to share your Doritos with them on the bus, how to dislike the smell of dried fish and soy sauce. What else does he have to offer? 

He told another joke, this time about Mexicans, about Indians, about the Polish, about Italians and blonde women. You were on the late bus returning home or the backseat of his car while his father drove. You showed your white friend that none of this bothered you, that you knew how to ride alongside him, that you weren’t sensitive, not a whiny punkass, you knew how to take it, and each time you laughed you made your jaw wider, you showed him your teeth, you dared him to look into your mouth to see the metal bands straightening your jaw into an American smile, yes, you gestured by tipping your chin up. You have always had other ways of surviving with your mouth that doesn’t involve eating. 

Your white friend didn’t stop there—he joked about the Chinese too. Do you get it? You are not Chinese—you are Pinoy—so you say you do. Of course. Obviously, you get it. Your white friend didn’t know about the Philippines and you didn’t tell your white friend the jokes you knew, the ones about the money lost at cockfights, about lateness, about the blood your relatives see as nurses, as caretakers of wealthy children, not the ones about the money they send back to their provinces, not the dogs that your family would supposedly eat. Your father joked he once ate dog and washed it down with San Miguel. This was how you pictured your father then: at a card table with a spread of dog kaldereta and dog adobo and dog lumpia, a bowl of rice and banana leaves, the clatter of mah jong tiles sliding around on a table you don’t see, smoke from the fire over which they roasted a dog, from the cigarettes your father tried to quit. No, you didn’t tell your white friend this story about the father you dreamt about, scooping dog into his mouth, your father as a young man with his original teeth. 

Older now than your imagination, your father no longer dyes his hair black. Each visit to your father reveals a new line on his face around his lips or eyes, lines that deepen over time, your father who sleeps in the reclining chair while noise from the gameshow The Chase clots the living room—a plate of rice and chicken bones and mango skins rests on the coffee table in front of him. Your white friend doesn’t know your father like this, your father who covers his mouth after removing his teeth for the evening, your father interrogated by police officers at night while he adjusted the attachments to the sprayer, his tractor starlit, parked along the road, your father who checked the tank for leaks, who drenched the air with malathion. 

The officers pulled over to ask your father why he worked so late at night, the officers who didn’t know about the overnight shifts he worked for the MTA until retirement, the officers who never witnessed your father in Chinatown on Saturday mornings, your father who told them this is my farm, told them I live here, have lived here since I retired, your father who said this is what I wanted, to care for these bushes, to protect the bees, who chose this sun, these hills, your father with dirt under his fingernails, dirt of glaciers and volcanos, your father at the Knights of Columbus, your father who donated to the sheriff’s association. The officers who wanted your father’s identification said they heard reports of a gunshot, and how does your father answer for that? You imagine the kinds of guns that thrive in their heads. Gunshot? you say. Out here, someone is always firing a gun.

 

Albert Abonado is the author of the poetry collection JAW (Sundress Publications). He is a 2020 NYFA Fellow in poetry. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Colorado Review, Hobart, Poetry Northwest, Zone 3, and others. He teaches creative writing at SUNY Geneseo and RIT. He lives in Rochester, NY with his wife and a hamster.

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