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Comedy Stories

Riddle of the Sphinx

A thing there is whose voice is one; / Whose feet are four and two and three.

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Four feet. A baby crawls over to his father reading a newspaper at the breakfast table. He pulls at his father’s pants leg. The father picks him up, while folding the newspaper open to the funny pages. Blocks of color. Jumbles of words.

The baby points at the newspaper, knowing that his father has the power to make the mysterious characters come alive.

“Well! Here comes ol’ Charlie Brown! Good ol’ Charlie Brown . . . Yes, sir! How I hate him!” his father reads each panel in a funny voice, overemphasizing each word. Then his father laughs. The baby laughs and places his chubby hands on either side of his father’s face. They stare at each other in delight.

Ten years later, the baby has become an awkward boy who can bike himself down to the Varsity Thrift Shop to spend his allowance. He skids his red Schwinn Deluxe Racer to a stop and hops off before the back tire quits spinning. He leans the bike against the painted brick exterior of the small storefront, and he feels everyone on the street staring at him. Yes, his hands and feet appear larger than they should be, but his mother assures him that the rest of his body will soon catch up. In truth, the boy is trying to completely ignore his traitorous body since it seems so much greasier and dirtier and hairier these days.

The boy opens the thrift shop door to the tinkling of bells and calls out, “Hi, Mr. Chapman!” The greeting is returned from somewhere far in the back of the shop, as Mr. Chapman is usually opening, sorting through, packing, or unpacking various cardboard boxes.

“What are you looking for today?” Mr. Chapman cheerily queries, while emerging with the latest edition of Mad Magazine to put on the shelves. “How about The Brave and the Bold?”

“Nah,” the boy’s voice cracks into a honk. His mother says that is normal these days, for him to squawk like a goose when he talks sometimes. His larynx is growing. It isn’t his fault. “You got any Tarzan or Prince Valiant?”

“You still looking for anything by Hal Foster?” laughs Mr. Chapman. “I’ll have to look in the storeroom.”

“My dad likes him,” the boy smiles, thumbing the new issues of the Justice League and Fantastic Four.

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Two feet. Ten years later, the boy has grown into a young man. During his freshman year at college, his father arrives to bail him out of jail when the young man gets drunk and shoots out all the street lights in town. Where the money comes from to pay for the lawyer and to pay off the judge never occurs to him.

During his junior year, the young man is certain he impregnates a girl he no longer cares for. His father listens to him on the telephone while the young man complains of how unfair it all is. When he is done feeling sorry for himself, his father simply offers him his quiet, sagacious wisdom, calm and reasonable as the gods. In short order, the young man discovers the girl has lied about the pregnancy after all, just as his father suspected.

At home on break between college semesters, the young man and his father discuss their political opinions while reading the latest Doonesbury cartoon together. When the young man attempts to discuss the counterculture movement and drugs and Watergate and sexuality, his father gives him a forum to express his opinions. His mother cannot possibly understand what he feels; instead, she sticks to her Bible and wonders why women want to wear pantsuits all of a sudden.

Newly graduated from college, still dressed in a billowing black gown, the young man descends the stairs with diploma in hand to find the one person he wants to embrace.

His father is both smiling and crying.

His mother does not tell him until much later that his father had taken a second job to pay for his college tuition. The night after graduation, the young man arrives home after celebrating with his friends. Inebriated, the young man interrupts his father watching Bonanza, places his two hands on either side of his father’s face, and tries to adequately express his gratitude. The father pats his son on the back, a simple act endowing the young man with all of the paternal blessings he can offer.

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Three feet. Ten years later, the young man has married and is a father to his own children. His mother has died and his father, now a tragic hero, painstakingly walks with a cane. His father’s hearing is not good, and the man occasionally becomes frustrated with the old man, making him have to repeat himself more loudly and more slowly.

The man has sparkly pink daughters who climb on his lap to laugh at the cows in The Far Side and chuckle at the tiger’s antics in Calvin and Hobbes. Ever since the new baby is born, he and his wife argue over Bloom County, since another decade has upended the culture wars and the comics take full advantage of the chaos. Almost immediately after he and his wife read Berkeley Breathed’s panels, he wonders what really keeps his marriage together since they fundamentally disagree on almost everything—especially the number of children they will have. Did his own father feel the same way about his mother? Did he wonder if their children, the ties that bind, were enough for them to stay together? Did he excessively worry about the direction society was heading or how he was going to pay for his family’s endless needs? Did he think he was failing as a man, a father, a son?

The man wants to ask his father these among many other things while they wait for doctor appointments and pharmacy prescriptions. But the man does not want to burden his father, only flawed by the curse of all men: old age.

“Should we look at the Sunday comics today?” his father asks, while the man holding a baby picks up a few necessities at the grocery store. The old man taps his way over to the meager stand displaying the few newspapers still in print. He sits to read.

“Well, dad,” his son says, jostling plastic shopping bags while attempting to calm a fussy baby. “What’s in the funny pages today?”

“You know, I like this Zits comic strip. Jeremy reminds me of you,” his father remarks with a mischievous look in his eye. The old man passes his cane to his son to hold while he flips through the newsprint pages. Blocks of color. Jumbles of words. “. . . and Jeremy’s father says, And that’s my advice on flossing!” They both laugh. “Oh, boy. That’s a good one. I think this is my favorite comic strip.”

“I thought you still liked The Family Circus,” his son counters.

“Please. No one likes The Family Circus. Especially Jeffy. He’s an arrogant little brat,” his father wryly observes. “Besides, I always thought Bil Keane sugar-coated things far too much. Big people just take care of little people,” the old man says, tickling his granddaughter’s tiny foot. The baby coos and snuggles more deeply into her father’s arms.

“It’s all the same, I guess,” the man says.

“Yes, it’s all the same,” his father says philosophically, refolding the newspaper, putting it back on the rack, reaching out for his son to help him stand.

Holding his baby girl who just recently learned to crawl, a man steadies his aged father by handing him his cane.

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