Comic Relief by Nancy Johnston Hall

Iowa City, 1961

Under the desk that Fred made from a door is a large wooden box from which emanates a constant odor of rancid fat. It is a container for human bones, darkened with grease and minus the skull – a headless man or woman lying in a jumble, making its presence known as a stinky aroma in our tiny study. Amazingly, we are getting used to the idea of the bones and the smell, just as I am getting used to the stench of formaldehyde on my new husband’s body. He comes home from his first year of medical school classes exuding this odor. Doesn’t exactly put one in a romantic mood, even a stars-in-her-eyes newlywed like me. Maybe it’s from his hands? Or from his starched white coat that I iron for him daily? (I have, in fact, just learned to iron.) But I know where the smell originates – stomach-turning if dwelt upon – it’s the chemicals used to preserve his cadaver. He and the other first-year anatomy students – all male, only four women in his class of 100 – stand over their female cadaver hour after hour, dissecting and memorizing each nerve, vein and organ. He spends more time with her than with me.

Sadly, I am also struggling to get accustomed to a man who seems so distant and lost to me that he could be someone I just met, and yet is sleeping in my bed. The daily stress of med school has dried up his emotions. Unfortunately, at 22, I am not mature and magnanimous enough to understand and give him a pass. I take it personally: bouts of crying, which I never was prone to in my previous life, get his attention. But his face only renders shock, not sympathy, at this alien behavior. Perhaps he wonders, as I do, who this stranger is.

This new life of ours began just two weeks after our magical honeymoon in the Smokey Mountains, a generous gift from my parents. We went straight from floating, hand-in-hand, through romantic, rose-colored days and nights to this: a two-bedroom aluminum shoebox, aka married student housing, $67.50 a month. Which we can barely afford.

We moved our few pieces of hand-me-down furniture into this corrugated metal, recycled army barracks, which the University bought as “temporary” housing for WW 2 vets returning to college on the GI Bill. That was 1945, but this is 1961, and it’s clear from the age of the rusty and dented appliances in the dark postage-stamp kitchen that a generation of married students have passed under these bare lightbulbs. In the tiny living room is a 5-foot-tall, brown oil heater, the sole source of warmth for this makeshift dwelling, and next to it an even taller water heater that grumbles and sputters like a cranky old man. The floors are cement, painted dark brown; the small, high windows let in only a weak shaft of light; the cardboard walls are so flimsy that I caved one in as I pushed on it and so thin that we can hear the fights of a couple from South Dakota who live in the other half of our aluminum box. Could this place be any uglier or more uncomfortable? This is our first home, I have just turned 21, I’m married to the man I love, and thus, according to all those 1950s women’s magazines, I’m supposed to be happy.  So why am I not bursting with joy? And where is that easy-going, good-natured young man I fell in love with – my prince charming? He’s drowning in a tsunami of stress, and I’m the last thing on his mind. I must try to get used to that too.

We have one escape-valve for the pressure that seems to build and build in our little apartment: slapstick humor bordering on manic silliness. One night early in our first year, after an evening of studying, we race around from room to room chasing each other with shaving cream, shrieking loudly when a good shot meets its mark, noises that are perfect for piquing the curiosity of our South Dakota neighbors. We also perfect face-licking contests. The most hilarious occur when, instead of a kiss, the recipient gets a wet swipe that’s as fast and unexpected as a lizard’s tongue. Tag, you’re it! The old lighthearted Fred shows up for these shenanigans, if ever so briefly.

During the first winter, we discover that a sticky layer of dark film has settled on everything. It’s the residue from smoke of the oil furnace. As finals week approaches, a darkness has settled over my husband’s spirit as well.

So our craziness continues, escalating in intensity. On frigid early mornings, so cold that a skim of ice lies on top of the toilet water, I have developed the habit of reaching around the shower curtain and flipping on the hot water. I let it run as I take off my pjs in the freezing bedroom. Then I return, naked, to a warm, steamy bathroom and, for a short while, I can relax into the luxury of warmth. One morning I go through this routine, noting that Fred is standing nearby. I fling aside the shower curtain and see a giant, pear-shaped, wobbly object, extending from the shower head all the way to the floor, filling the entire cubicle. Then it breaks. WHOOSH. A flood of hot water explodes from the giant pear, which turns out to be a condom Fred has attached to the shower head. His gasp after gasp of laughter, which follows my shriek of shock, is worth the watery mess we both must sop up before we head to class. My happy husband is back, at least temporarily. We are both amazed at the perfect timing of the explosion; we’re also stunned at the coefficient of expansion of this particular prophylactic device, and remain so to this day.

Winter finally becomes spring, and we’re nearing the end of Fred’s first year – the toughest year, we’ve been told. It’s also nearly Fred’s 23rd birthday, and I want to make him laugh. I hatch a plan. When Fred returns from class, he regularly flips on our 10-inch black and white TV and flops, exhausted, onto the couch, feet up, head on a pillow, ready for some mindless entertainment. He always watches Sheriff Steve from Cedar Rapids who wishes happy birthday to named children every day before showing Yogi Bear cartoons, Fred’s favorite. Ahead of his birthday, I send a letter to Sheriff Steve with a request. On the Big Day, Fred is lying in his favorite position on the couch when Sheriff Steve announces: “And I want to wish a special happy birthday to little Freddie Hall in Iowa City!” Fred’s shocked guffaw is priceless, as they say. I am so pleased that I could give him this carefree moment. And I’m hopeful. Maybe we’ll get through this ordeal after all. Maybe these rare moments of happiness will become more regular, perhaps even the norm. And maybe, someday, we’ll look back and laugh at those two crazy kids and their wild, silly antics.


We lived in our little metal house at 901 Finkbine Park for four years. It eventually began to feel like home, perhaps because we had our first baby there, a little boy who learned to crawl on those cold cement floors. His first memory, in fact, is of lying flat on the floor so he could watch the blue flame at the bottom of the grumbly water heater. Nine years after that first stressful, but successful, year, Fred became a psychiatrist and, in time, I became a medical writer. For more than 60 years, humor has been the glue that keeps our marriage solid through the tough times, and the honey that sweetens the good times – of which there are plenty.

Nancy is a retired medical and health writer living in North Carolina with her husband of 63 years. During the pandemic she started writing personal essays and joined a small writing group — both of which give her great joy.