Cather­ine Bar­nett

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - —Cather­ine Bar­nett


Of­ten when I’m in de­spair I turn to the back page of The New Yorker and try to think up some­thing funny to say. The lit­tle drawings are so suc­cinct it can be hard to tell who’s talk­ing. Ber­ry­man’s Life, friends, is bor­ing, though re­cited by po­ets ev­ery­where, has prob­a­bly been the win­ning cap­tion for no car­toon. Last sum­mer I was so low I ran out of mag­a­zines.

I got ob­sessed with en­tropy.

Is the world more closely al­lied with chaos or with or­der? I asked ev­ery­one I love. Chaos, my sis­ter said, be­cause she’s a doc­tor. Or­der, my mother said, be­cause she’s an ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ist. I showed my fa­ther a car­toon of a psy­chi­a­trist wear­ing a halo and a man stretched out on the couch.

I’m afraid I can’t help you with that one, he said, and I was sure he’d win. I told my sis­ters look, dad’s okay, his mind still works, he’s still a funny man.

It took me all these months to re­al­ize he was only an­swer­ing me— I’m afraid I can’t help you with that one, you, who­ever you are.

I keep send­ing that cap­tion in, ev­ery week, hop­ing one day to win, one day soon, be­fore we lose him.

Truth is we ought to buy a book of jokes and prac­tice them over and over un­til we per­fect the hos­pice of it, things are that bad.

My fa­ther’s name is still funny, one syl­la­ble, rhymes with pain. Our friends used to call him Pain and my mother Wacky, but I don’t think any­one could make me laugh right now. If you’d laugh, I’d feel less alone.

Do you know my fa­vorite joke, about the man con­demned to be hanged? When the pri­est asks if he has any­thing to say be­fore they spring the trap, the man says yes, this thing doesn’t look safe.

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