The Hardest Laugh

The laugh came. It came and came and came to the point of throwing up. I never did know what I was laughing at, but it was my jag and my funny bone. It was also sad, pleasant, and painful, like falling in love. But don’t worry, this is not a love story.

I started out giggling some years ago after losing my job without another one in sight—lost my insurance, my car, my wife, my children, and all my other mys too. I just laughed and got good and loud at it. I can laugh at anybody or anything. A long life looks funny at both ends. I could see everybody and everything trying to steal its first and last breaths. After laughing so hard, I finally took a deep breath and, against all odds, damned if I didn't take another and another after that. But the breath of a poor man always aches. We all breathe the same air, but it don't smell the same where you are.

You probably think this is going be a confession of some kind. But, no, listen, this is a warning. You are in grave danger. You need to run and you need to stay. I can’t advise. Either way, time is going to cut some new lines around your eyes.

Say, I think I’ve seen your face before. Maybe this morning at my haircut in front of the scary-big mirror where I look so damn old. Shearing day is the only time they let us see ourselves. Unless they make me, I only get my hair cut every six months, so I look like a different person every time I sit in that chair.

Be aware that, besides my natural talent for laughing, my meds tickle me too. They laugh at me and you too. They feel your pain, but they don't do much about it. For what I do best, I don't really need them, because I was a great laugher before the meds became part of the cackle. I knew long ago that what is inside anyone is a black hole that can never be filled with a prescription. Same thing out there in the real world: The greedy ones can't fill their appetites, and the poor ones don't have anything to put in the hole. The only choice for those who don't have pie for their pieholes is laughter. I think laughter is a form of uncertainty, all the good and bad combined — and which one is going to come out of your mouth this time?

I know you don’t feel it yet, but one day your colon and large intestine will come out of you, wrap around you and squeeze like a python. You’ll be lucky to see your fate, your life’s story flashing by, before your eyes pop out into the snake’s mouth. When you become the snake then, where will you crawl off to?

You think that’s funny? I think it stinks like snake shit, but maybe that’s just my laughter talking. We’ll all laugh about it later, right?

Listen, you can hear the others laughing too, or whatever that sound is. Some of them play drums with their heads while laughing. Some of them just flash that knowing smile. People like you try not to giggle, but why else would you cover your mouth?

I probably shouldn’t smile; I have bad teeth. I could never bring myself to brush the rows of tombstones in my mouth, and I used to be afraid I might bite someone or my own tongue. I sometimes have trouble eating the granite bread they serve here, but I don't go hungry and don't have to stand in line at the dumpster anymore. It's a damn good thing when you're a danger to yourself and others too. They have to get you off the street.

But the clothes they stuff you into, always the same orange convicts wear. They want us all to look juicy, I guess. Go ahead and squeeze me, and we'll both laugh. Actually, I may dress better now than when I slept in alleys. I know I eat more.

Their food won't kill you, and neither will the sex because it's only available in do-it-yourself. Anyway, it's hard to find a woman around here sane enough to perceive herself, much less perceive what sex she is. Let's laugh at that too.

Are you sure you want to stay for the rest of this story? You might start laughing uncontrollably. Then they’ll stick you in a closet for the last years of your life. You might want to cover your ears. If you can’t hear the laughter, you can just go on living your lie.

I heard that somebody named Buddha or Bubba — don't recall who — said that everything is an illusion. If that’s the case, how do I make it go away and get a different one? I can’t believe I chose this illusion. Of course, the alley life wasn’t any picnic either, but I somehow managed to imagine myself out of that one. Maybe at game time, if I pretend the Monopoly money is real, I can buy my way out of here. The whole damn credit-card world runs on funny money anyway.

Wherever I go, they’ll have to let me laugh. I mean as hard as I want, hard enough to break every rib, hard enough to wear me out into sleep. That’s the only way I get any rest. I go to bed every night in total darkness, laughing my ass off.

—first published in Bellows American Review