Nobody likes my favorite joke. I suppose I don’t even think it’s all that funny, or that it even makes much sense. But I like it the same way I liked the Yankees as a kid, or I drink Pabst Blue Ribbon now: pure brand loyalty. And I don’t mind the disparaging half-chuckles and dull-eyed stares that inevitably follow every retelling. I laugh every time; I’m not a fair-season fan. It’ll come through some day.
Have I told you, by the way, about what happened to my friend Steve the Duck? Well, you see, Steve’s a duck — I know, go figure. So Steve’s in Cincinnati on business and after a long day of consulting decides to hit the local bar — shit, you would too, if you had to deal with those assholes over at headquarters.
So Steve waddles into the bar, hops on a stool, and asks the bartender for a Tom Collins. At first, the bartender isn’t looking at Steve, and machine-like begins to mix the lemon juice and gin and soda water. Just as he’s adding the sugar, though, he catches a glimpse of Steve. He drops the teaspoon in embarrassment.
“Sir,” the bartender stammers. “I’m sorry Sir — it’s company policy, you see — but we don’t serve — and you can look it up in the rulebook — we don’t serve…you see…we don’t serve ducks here.”
Steve claps his beak (a well-known duck expression of general weltschmerz) and hops off the stool.
“I should have figured,” he quacks. “It’s not the first time, you know.”
The following day, six o’clock rolls around and Steve’s back. He waddles into the bar (which, we’ve been warned, must remain anonymous for legal reasons) and hops onto a stool. He’s flipping through the drink list (a sight to see, by the way, a duck trying to turn laminated pages) and after a minute or so calls out to the bartender.
“Bartender, get me a Negroni spagliato, please, extra bitter,” he quacks, before turning to an unmistakably wing-ruffled copy of the New York Times Magazine.
This time, the bartender’s staring right at him.
“Sir,” he enunciates, this time with far greater poise (and what has, by now, clearly emerged as a transplanted Southern accent), “I believe I told you yesterday that we don’t serve ducks at this establishment.”
Steve looks up from the magazine and gives his wings a woebegone nod.
“Ah yes,” Steve replies, shuffling off the bar stool and out the door.
A day later, Steve’s back. He duck-walks into the bar toting a (rather foppish) satchel and a paper bag of half-eaten Chinese takeout. He takes a seat at the bar and begins reading through the specials list.
“Bartender,” he calls, “I’ll take a mojito, pleas—or no, actually, can you make that just a whiskey and coke?”
This time, the bartender’s ready. He grabs a kitchen knife from the cupboard and waves it threateningly in the air.
“Now you listn to me!” he shouts, red-faced and with now-unmistakable Southern twang. “You dummmmb duck! You come her once — I tell you in plain English that we don’t suh-erve ducks her — you come her tah-wice — I tell you agin that it just ain’t our company policy, we don’t serve yur kind — and you have the goddamm nerve to come back her three times! Wuh-ell, dis time, Duck, I’m perty confidunt company policy would stand behind me if I wer to slit yur meaty throat!”
By this point all twenty or so bar patrons are out of their seats and slack-jawed and gaping at Steve. Steve glances around the room, and then back at the bartender.
“Wait a second,” he asks, tilting his head, “is this the same bar?”
There’s no good way to typographically delineate the space that comes after a joke. Any attempt at an onomatopoeic “ha” or “heh” comes across as facetious. It’s okay. I couldn’t care less what you think. It’s my favorite joke.
I’ve told it so many times now that I feel like I’ve grown up with the character. My duck friend doesn’t always go by Steve, but at joke’s end always retreats from the bar with same puzzled duck mien, some combination of woundedness and ennui. It’d hurt him even worse, I imagine, if he knew how often I repeated his story.
But I’m not laughing at him, I swear. In fact, for him I’ve nothing but sympathy and admiration. Who among us isn’t stuck in the endless loop of some acquaintance’s recycled story? If we’re that lucky in the first place. Most of the time, all our follies — all the bumblings of primates dropped in business suits or gods with anuses and clipped wings — end up unrecorded and unloved, more vacant than the laugh line that never happens.