Popsicle Stick Humor
Alternatively titled: An Exercise in Futility (get it? heh?)
The cheap birch wood of the sticks were sticky in the palm of my fist as I ran. I clenched them tightly. I was pretty sure I had a popsicle stick splinter in my thumb for my labor. I had five, and I was close to getting a sixth. There was no way I was dropping one now.
I numbly kept going, trying to ignore the sting of sweat trickling into my eyes, the sharp pain in my side, and the heaviness of my feet. My shirt clung to my body like a vine, and my skin itched everywhere. My shorts rode up on the inside of my thighs and most of my hair had long ago given up on staying in the short ponytail. I gasped and panted and tried to get more air and it felt as though I was breathing through water. My face was bright red, and I could feel the heat emanating from my cheeks.
Middle School gym class was the WORST.
“Keep on going! You are doing great!” Mr. Seymour, ever encouraging, yelled from the lap line. He looked at me. He smiled at my round face. “C’mon! You are almost here! Hustle!” I made a pathetic effort to hustle. I reached him and held out my hand. He slapped down a popsicle stick, and I curled my fingers around it as my feet carried me past him. My prize. “Only two more mandatory laps! You are so close to finishing!”
I knew I wasn’t going to make it unless I got a boost. I was too tired. Popular Jim raced past me, looking alert and cheerful. Heather kept pace with him, lean and leggy. She clearly had hit puberty a little earlier than the rest of us. I eyed the rest of the competition. Many people had already finished the exercise entirely and were now gulping down water. Only people who enjoyed running, like Jim and Heather, and people who hadn’t yet completed their mandatory minimum number of laps, like me, were still out here. I passed two girls who were walking and talking together- they only had four popsicles sticks each. That was something, at least.
My feet felt like elephants, like planets, thumping down on the red dust again and again. I couldn’t wait any longer. I needed motivation to continue.
I slowly uncurled my fingers and looked down at the popsicle stick in my hand. In black sharpie it said:
“What’s the hardest thing about learning to ride a bike? The pavement.”
I tripped and almost fell. Damn it, just a joke.
I tried to keep going and stay strong but having read one stick with nothing on it but popsicle stick humor, I couldn’t stop myself from starting to check the others. I wanted to win something, even if just a jolly rancher. Still jogging, but slowly now, I read, in the same black sharpie:
“Why don’t seagulls fly by the Bay? Because then they would be bagels!”
“What does a tree do when it is ready to go home? It leaves.”
“Why are owls always invited to parties? Because they are a hoot.”
Seventh lap completed. One more popsicle stick in hand, given to me by my irrepressible gym teacher. Three left to read. Three chances left for something more than dad-humor and bad puns.
This was awful enough to pause for a moment to consider.
Who wrote these? I imagined Mr. Seymour and Mrs. Seymour (was there a Mrs. Seymour?) drinking red wine at the dinner table and giggling as she read from a children’s joke book and he carefully etched lame punch-line after punch-line down on thousands of tiny sticks.
My feet slowed and stopped. My leg muscles twitched. I had half a lap to go. I made a deal with myself – I’d check the last two, and if both of them were only puns, I wouldn’t have to finish. I’d stop, I’d rest. But if they read that I won candy, or the elusive pizza party, or prize of all prizes, the three free passes to skip gym class, I’d finish the race. I’d do it.
I looked down. “Why did Beth go to the river when she was sad? To fish for compliments.”
And then: “What do you call the last bit of snow to hit the ground? A slowflake.”
I looked out at the vast expanse that lay before me, at Mr. Seymour yelling at us that we had to finish, at the sun and the sky. My hand fell limply to my side. I didn’t want to be a slowflake, but I was. A plump grump of a slowflake. I started walking towards the finish line, not impressed by my own ultimatum.
I limped my way to Mr. Seymour once more. He was giving Jim his fourteenth popsicle stick. I would hate him if I weren’t too tired to bother. I gratefully held out my hand for my eighth chance at the lottery.
I saw down on the grassy ridge next to a friend of mine who finished earlier. She understood my need to catch my breath and didn’t seem to mind when I didn’t talk. Three of her eight popsicle sticks had prizes on them: two jolly ranchers and one free T-shirt!
Red faced, hopeful, and smelly, I looked at my last popsicle stick.
“What time is it when you are out of ice cream? Time to die.”
It took months for my inexplicable rage against popsicles to die. It took years for me to look back at myself at that age in fondness.