“I used to track all of my first dates in a spreadsheet,” I said, pausing like I’d rehearsed. “Turns out, I put out 58% of the time.” The packed room erupted in laughter, which eased my anxiety just enough to continue with my second joke. Smoothing my red pencil skirt and pushing my shoulder-length blonde hair behind my right ear, I began my set during the first round of the 2008 Funniest Person in Austin contest at Cap City Comedy Club.
My tight seven minutes flew by. Still slightly blinded by the spotlight, I made my way off stage right and meandered through a dark aisle of tables and chairs. Then I heard a strangely familiar voice coming toward me.
“Oh my gosh, Heather, that was soooo good!” the woman gushed. Even though I couldn’t quite make out the person visually, I could hear her smile as she spoke. It was my mother. Could this be happening? The first thing I thought of was my mother just sat through my entire set of sex jokes, and I had no idea.
“Mom?!” I said as we hugged. “What are you doing here?” She told me she and her friend were in Dallas for a wedding and decided to drive down to Austin to surprise me. Surprise me she did. She has a way of doing that. This time, I approved of the surprise, and it was especially endearing how my friends hid her from me all night as I paced and practiced my set. I was the last person to go on stage, the “headliner,” as comedian Matt Bearden announced. But I didn’t make it to the second round. I celebrated with mom and her friend anyway because we had something to celebrate: the fact that I got up on stage and tried it anyway.
Daddy was funny, too. He kept jokes folded in his wallet to pull out as entertainment on the fly, but he’d never been on stage telling jokes to 250 people and your momma. Laughter had helped us get through a lot over the years, especially through periods coping with trauma. The year 2008 found me in a good place, trying new things and writing jokes. But 16 years before, one of my jokes fell flat, and no one was laughing.
On July 22, 1992, I had to return to my house. After suffering through my first night without daddy eating cake out of the refrigerator at Tim’s house, I visited the pool store and my paternal grandparents before finally arriving home to mom’s house on Oak Ridge Road. The scene bustled like a Robert Altman movie peppered with intimate simultaneous conversations. Family and friends filled the couches and chairs and sat at the dining table discussing the news. When I walked in, everyone bombarded me with questions, but no one had any answers. The grownups sat in shock, sometimes crying, sometimes smoking cigarette after cigarette, figuring out how to put one foot in front of the other as they say.
Wednesdays usually stole my time with work at the pool store, but there would be no more of that. The next day, Thursday, also needed to be rescheduled to postpone my Freshman Orientation at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. And then, I was going to be on my way, I had thought just the day before. It was like happily driving down the road of life and then suddenly the road gives out from under you. But instead of flying off the cliff, my life came to a definite and dramatic halt. It didn’t matter if there was a cliff or a bridge ahead, I only could see and deal with what was right in front of me. Everything changed, and none of the grownups had a guidebook. Shock consumed us all.
How do you cope? How do you get through it? I wanted to get even with the killer or just feel a little better, so I wrote. Like I’d done for years, I retreated to my bedroom with my own thoughts. I thought about Scharmel and how I believed, without any investigation, she killed my father. Death is no laughing matter, but humor was the only way I knew how to deal with it.
I remembered the limerick she wrote and recited on the night of their wedding reception. She stood next to daddy at the top of the stairs in the house on Canal Pointe and read that thing out loud. Daddy’s friends joked about it under the stairs, and I wanted to write something to spite her. I thought back to all the stupid things Scharmel had written over the past year, some of them totally inappropriate, and I couldn’t help but write a dirty limerick about her. The limerick was my most aggressive way to basically say a big FUCK YOU to her. Killing her at her own game.
Emerging from my room, I announced I had written something. I sat next to my Uncle Ed at the dining room table and began to read the following:
There once was a girl named Scharmel.
Which is like toilet paper and caramel.
She supposedly loved my dad
For half his debt – which she can have,
Because that’s all she’ll be getting in jail.
Just like the Scottish play Macbeth,
She’ll be washing her hands of this mess.
No, she can’t fool me
With her MASTERS degree
In communications, but you might have already guessed.
She’s a crazy psycho-bitch, don’t you know?
“Fatal Attraction” is what we all call that ho.
She broke two tables and a vase,
And daddy broke her lover’s face.
She’s dug her own grave, little does she know.
Now as you hear the toll of the bell,
She’ll be suffering her days in jail.
She’s not getting one cent
(But she can keep those tits).
And I hope you BURN IN HELL, SCHAR-MELLE!!!!!!!
Crickets. And what followed was a major lesson in reading the room.
“I thought it was funny, but maybe it’s not the time for everyone else,” Uncle Ed, the sage judge, gently told me.
Seven years later as I made my first attempt at writing my masters thesis in 1999, I dug up that poem to analyze. I purchased an early version of language analysis software (LIWC) from James Pennebaker, PhD, at the University of Texas at Austin. The application analyzed my uploaded text file of the poem and determined the sentiment was 6.6% positive and 4.7% negative.
I never defended that thesis version because at the time, not a lot had been written about the concept of receiving positive effects from writing as a therapy. My theories couldn’t really be proven. I’m not sure if after 30 years my limerick humor holds up. But I can say 23 years later, I still stand by my theory of therapeutic writing, and others have gone on to prove it.