I breathed a muffled grunt at the overheard joke now forgotten. Although I had thought my exhalation barely audible, it did not go unnoticed.
“Darn!” said the guy who had made the joke. “I almost got Henry to laugh out loud!” As if getting a chortle out of me were some magnificent achievement to aspire toward.
Somehow or other, I had gained a reputation for being a humorless drag. Perhaps it was because I never shared jokes of my own, never laughed nor hardly acknowledged anyone else's funny stories, almost never even spoke to anyone on matters unrelated to business, and basically expressed no interest in anything at all. I don't think I had a negative presence, more just a blank or neutral non-presence. People were kind and respectful toward me, though they generally left me alone. But perhaps there was a certain strangeness of character to me that occasionally excited others' curiosity.
At any rate, my eyes fixed on my work (since we were supposed to be working), I did not offer so much as a glance of recognition in his direction. He took this correctly to be a sign that the business was concluded, that he would get nothing more out of me, and that work was to resume without further deliberation on the matter.
And yet, after a pause, something compelled me to keep it going. I was the one not quite ready to let it go.
“It happened once,” I said.
“What happened?” he asked. The pause had gone on long enough that nobody was sure now to what I was referring. (Yes, I'm a bit slow.)
“Me, laughing out loud,” I clarified.
“Oh, I've got to hear this!” he said.
And suddenly the entire room was focused on me. But this was what I wanted, right? It was why I couldn't let the moment just pass.
“Have you ever read My Brother Sam Is Dead?” I asked.
The only responses I got were some raised eyebrows, a few reflexive grimaces, and the guy next to me backing up a bit in his chair. Perhaps your reaction is the same at my bringing up this grim title to a grimmer novel as the introduction to my “funny” story. But please allow me to continue.
“It was back when I was in fifth grade. We were studying the American Revolution. My Brother Sam Is Dead is a novel about this guy whose brother, Sam, joins up with the Patriots. At the end of the book, Sam is executed by his own army for being a deserter, or some such thing. It's a bogus charge, but the general is determined to make an example of him as a warning to other soldiers. In the end, the narrator just has to watch helplessly as his brother is gunned down by the firing squad. So, it's a book about the Revolution, but it's not black-and-white on the side of the Americans. It's also a commentary just on how ugly war is in general.
“Anyway, after we finished the book, our assignment was to write about how we would have felt or acted in the narrator's place, knowing that our brother was going to be executed on false charges. We were just writing in our journals during class, and, when time was up, the teacher asked for volunteers to read theirs aloud.
“Now, the thing is, I don't remember anything at all about what I wrote, and obviously I didn't read mine aloud. But the kid next to me did. And I will NEVER forget his.
“He came up with this entire alternate ending, where, as the narrator, he and his brother's girlfriend would have somehow devised this miraculous rescue plan to bust out Sam in the middle of the night before the execution. And, some time immediately before or after—I can't remember which exactly, though I don't think it matters much—he would have burned down the house (or was it office?) of that evil general, with the general still inside. And not only that, but he would have made another stop, in order to burn down the house of the other commander—the nice one who had been sympathetic to Sam's situation but had, in the end, been useless to stop the execution. Then he, his brother, and his brother's girlfriend would have made a run for it. God knows where to.
“Anyway, maybe this guy's story doesn't sound that funny, but it must have been the funniest thing I had ever heard, or maybe it was just the way he told it—so earnest and enthusiastic—that was so funny to me, because I started laughing out loud almost as soon as he started, and I couldn't stop myself at all until he had finished. Basically, I was sitting right next to him, laughing uncontrollably through his entire story. This must have lasted close to five minutes.
“Now, to give some context, this shouldn't surprise you, but I had a reputation back then as 'the quiet kid.' And I don't mean it the way a lot of people look back and remember themselves as being a quiet kid in class. I was THE quiet kid. Freakishly so. Like, I literally almost never spoke a word unless called upon by the teacher.
“But I was also known somewhat as 'the smart kid.' That reputation wouldn't last, but, in elementary school at least, I was still top of my class. So maybe the other kids saw my quiet as of the more dignified sort, rather than of the arrested development sort. So they respected me, and they respected my silence, as if it were a valid stance, instead of some personality deficiency, which was really the case.
“But that was my identity. I was the quiet kid, presumably focused on his studies, who never spoke, never acted out, never joined in. And this was many months into the school year, and most of my classmates had known me even longer from previous years. They knew (or thought they knew) what I was about, what to expect from me. I never 'broke character,' so to speak, and it was one of the reliable truths of their world that Henry was 'the quiet one.'
“So what did it mean that I was laughing like a drunken lunatic in that moment in the presence of all my classmates? Well, it was certainly uncomfortable for me. I mean, I was laughing because I genuinely thought what I was hearing was funny. So, in that sense, I was enjoying it. But I didn't mean to be laughing out loud, drawing attention to myself. I was really trying to suppress it, which was usually not difficult for me. My self-control was always a point of pride for me. But, this time, I just couldn't seem to help myself. Maybe it was just too funny. Or maybe I was experiencing a nervous breakdown.
“I don't know how it came across to everyone else. Even as I was laughing, I was also nervously looking all around me. Not a single other person was laughing, but everyone was staring at me. No one else was even smiling, except for the guy reading. I'm not sure if he appreciated my laughter, or if smiling was his own way of coping with the embarrassment. But everyone else looked mortified. And, like I said, this lasted for a few minutes.
“When it was over, what was the reaction? The girl across from me pointed at the other kid and said to me, 'He's crazy.' She was referring to the kid who had been reading, not to me. And she wasn't smiling as she said it, but seemed actually kind of disgusted. Aside from that, nobody else made any comment whatsoever on what had just happened. The teacher said nothing about the kid's story, said nothing about my laughing, and moved right along to the next volunteer. Nobody asked me to explain myself. Not then, not the next day, not for the rest of the school year. None of my classmates ever mentioned it to me ever again.
“Honestly, I think they were all just too afraid to acknowledge it. The teacher too. Like I said, it was one of the fundamental truths of their world that I didn't talk, didn't laugh, basically didn't show emotion. If what just happened really happened, then everything they knew and understood about the world was thrown into question. Suddenly, up was down, left was right, the Earth orbited the Moon, cats barked and dogs meowed, Mommy and Daddy didn't really love each other, Jesus never gave a damn! . . . Bigfoot existed. In short, if that really just happened, then maybe the world was not what they all thought it was. And I don't think anybody was ready or willing to face that possibility. So they all just collectively agreed to pretend it never happened. Obviously, I was more than happy to go along with that.”
Perhaps my story sounded a bit rehearsed. It surely was. For, although I myself had had no occasion in a long while to discuss that moment in my life, it was nevertheless a singularly poignant memory for me—the only time I ever so lost command of myself in a fit of genuine laughter. Perhaps it was the most honest I had ever been in public. Indeed, were I to reduce the story of my life to just a few key moments, I believe this would easily make the top ten. And so I had rehearsed it many times in my mind. You never know, after all, when you may be required to give an account of your life before some cosmic panel or for the ultimate interview, and you had better be ready to present your own best self when that time comes. I dare say I told my practiced story well, and it was met this time, not with mortified stares, but clapping and good cheer.
“I'm gonna get you to laugh out loud. Just like back then,” said the guy next to me.
He sounded quite determined, but, despite his best efforts, he never did get more than the occasional audible breath of amusement from me. Indeed, I'm proud to say that the My Brother Sam Is Dead story still stands alone, and I have never since so lost control of myself.