Where the Laughter Starts
I’m 35, and I just got my sense of humor last week.
Everybody thinks they have a sense of humor – I always thought I did – but the truth is that almost nobody knows how to laugh when it really counts.
I’ve been in prison 10 years.
Armed robbery is funny, but I didn’t see it at the time. Running into that liquor store and waving a gun around, seeing the expression on the faces of the winos and the Pakistani cashier and the old men and the three college girls buying Bailey’s, was a power trip. Was a sexual rush: I had a better time thinking about making those girls suck me in front of a closed circuit security camera than I ever did really fucking. Maybe because I knew they took me seriously.
I was on the receiving end for the first few years in jail, stuck here with a manslaughter conviction, telling myself that I wasn’t a looser just because the gun had gone off accidentally – that I was as much a man as someone who fires on purpose. Telling myself, too, that I was innocent because I hadn’t meant it to happen – that I was powerful and innocent at the same time.
Nobody here has that.
And I’d lie on my bunk at night, wishing the sound of that damn drip-drip-drip faucet away, and replay the moment in my head. Over and over again I would turn to watch the pretty girls while the foreign kid reached into the cash register to get me the money, watching their faces as I pointed the gun at each one of them – one by one – and then blew the last one a kiss. I got off on that, for years, while every week somebody beat me down on my knees one more time for saying the wrong thing. I’d replay the way I turned around, pointed the gun at the Pakistani, then, wanted him to know I was in charge, and accidentally took over his life.
And the only time I ever heard laughter, somebody was getting hurt. The only time I laughed was when I was coming out on top. After five years, I learned how to fight. And I’d make the fantasies more elaborate – I’d known the gun was going to go off. I’d done more than blow that bitch a kiss.
I’ve been denied parole twice, and this year they decided to send me in for counseling, some new program that won’t be here in two years when the asshole who administers it gets a better job running the payroll department of a sweatshop. And they walked me into a room with two chairs, and they handcuffed me to one of them – I’m a bad man – and then who walks in but the girl. The girl. The fucking girl I blew that kiss to. She got her degree, went to graduate school, and is a prison shrink. Ten years later and she still has that hair with the blue highlights, the long eye-lashes, the impossibly presented chest, the eyes that are just off-color enough that you’d think they’d pour polluted tears, and the lips, yeah, the lips, that I remember aiming for.
I know that face. I sleep with it at night. It kept me warm when I was bloody.
And here’s the punch line: she doesn’t remember me.
She doesn’t blink when she sits down, she doesn’t jump when she reads my name, and when I tell her my story. . . it. . . doesn’t. . . register.
It’s her. I’m not wrong: but 10 years of daydreaming have turned my story into something she doesn’t even recognize. She must have missed the kiss: I must have read something else on her face. Maybe she was staring at the gun the whole time. For a few minutes, I had the power of life and death over her. But now she can’t pick me out of a crowd.
What the hell really happened back there? I must have killed somebody – I’m here, right? But what else?
I can’t stop laughing. And nobody’s getting hurt.
I don’t know anything, anymore, but I get it. The bars; the concrete walls; the way we’re woken up in the morning and thrown to bed at night by hacks on a state pension plan; the beatings I got; the beatings I gave; the tears and aches that I got through by remembering what I needed to think happened; the color of the applesauce they serve on Thursdays; this is what a sense of humor is for.
Because after the fact, it’s all a joke. Memory is just a set up for the present, a story you tell to illustrate a point that can’t be made with facts. And even the look of a blown kiss at gunpoint, followed moments later by a squeeze and a shattering and a boom, have no more impact then the words “Knock knock,” or a stage fading gently to black.
Benjamin Wachs has written for Village Voice Media, Playboy.com, and NPR among other venues. He archives his work at www.TheWachsGallery.com.
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