Continuing our exploration of gender differences in humor, feminism expert Gina Barreca and I today present a serial short story. I wrote the first paragraph, Gina took the second, I did the third, etc. Chisholm groaned himself awake, his head rolling slow and ugly, like a cement mixer with thudding slop inside. His mouth told him he'd either been licking rickshaw tires in a Singapore slum, or it had been a night of expensive bourbons with cheap women, and all he'd managed to pick up was a lot of no leads on the case of his life. He grabbed his gat from a dresser drawer, filled it with bye-bye pills, set his fedora at an angle he hoped was cocky, and went out into the sneer of a morning sun that didn't give a crap about has-been private dicks blowing their one last shot at a big payday.

The scent of lavender wafted down the tree-lined street as Jake lifted his tired, importuning eyes to the sky. Yes, the sun was harsh, but the breeze was cool and carried the faint hint of renewal in the early June day. Jake allowed himself -- for the first time in many months -- to remember Rebecca, the girl he loved 20 years before when he was in the first blush of youth, when his soul was as clean and new as this morning. After all these years, he still hungered for her, for her carillon laughter, for the embrace that welcomed his sharp edges and softened them with its selflessness. Where was she now? Shouldn't that be the most important "case" on his agenda?


He didn't see the car until it was too late, and he couldn't catch the license plate without those glasses he'd had to start wearing since he turned 45, the glasses that he unwisely kept tucked away inside the pocket of his silk-and-worsted-wool sports jacket ever since the young salesgirl who sold it to him said its dark color brought out the fire in his amber eyes. Perhaps he should start shopping with women his own age instead of taking advice from some barely post-adolescent chippie who steals glances, and husbands, with equal casualness. Anyhoo, as the car sped around the corner, the back door opened and a man's body rolled onto the pavement.

No, it wasn't a man. It was dressed to look like a man, but a goat can't impersonate a fish. There was no hiding the generous curves beneath the cheap suit, the sort of curves that belonged to the sort of woman who turns a man into a sap with the careless flash of a calf. And she wasn't real young, okay? It's not like Chisholm was some freaking child abuser, for crying out loud, he just liked women who like to do the sorts of things to men that men like having done to them by women who like being women. The point being she was a real looker except for the ax that had split her chest like Excalibur. The body was deader than Dostoevski, and just as hard to read.

Not, of course, that Jake had much practice reading women, at least not in the last 20 years. Bimbos and hookers are a short, quick read, like a washing instruction tag, and about as satisfying. "Poor kid," he thought, sadly surveying the devastation at his feet. Then he looked again. It was Rebecca! Jake heard a sound like a mournful wail, like a thousand grieving voices raised in agony, and he realized it was coming from him. He swore by all that was holy that this was a murder he would solve.

After all, when a private dick gets some dame's body thrown at his feet, it's a challenge to his manhood.

Manhood that, as he may or may not have known, is completely defined by a man's willingness to openly express his emotional vulnerability.

Accidentally stepping on the stiff's face but not giving a damn, Chisholm commandeered a passing cab. "Follow that car," he barked, pointing at the taillights getting smaller in the distance.

Deep down, Jake realized that he was so upset and filled with sadness that he was thinking irrationally and his priorities were all askew. Suddenly he looked up to see that the cabdriver was Luisa, his lap dancer from the night before! "I can see that you're trying desperately to turn your life around!" Jake yelled through the bulletproof plexiglass divider. He was stunned, humbled and inspired by her indomitable will. She was a terrific driver, too.

That night they had sex, so the case turned out swell.

Gene Weingarten's e-mail address is Gina Barreca's is