“Mom,” said Houston. “How come Wade-pa never laughs?”
“What are you talking about?” asked Houston’s mom, whose name was Darla. “Wade-pa laughs all the time. He’s hilarious.”
“Wade-pa” was what Houston called his grandpa on his mom’s side. It was all because his grandpa on his dad’s side’s first name was “Grant,” so when he was little, Houston thought people were telling him to call his dad’s dad “Grant-pa,” so by that logic, he decided that his mom’s dad, whose first name was “Wade,” should be called “Wade-pa,” and the name had stuck ever since. Even Houston’s cousins used it, even the ones who were older than him. Houston had been a real trend-setter with the “Wade-pa” name.
“I’m not saying he’s not funny,” said Houston. “He makes everyone else laugh. But he never laughs. You’ve never noticed that?” Houston braked the car at a railroad crossing as the stop-arm came down in front of them. Soon, a train would come down these tracks, or so the stop-arm would have everyone believe.
“He laughs,” said Darla. “Our house was always filled with joy and laughter when I was growing up.”
“Well, I don’t remember ever hearing him laugh,” said Houston. “What does his laugh sound like?”
“It’s just a normal laugh, Houston!” Darla was getting angry, Houston could hear it. “Your grandfather has lived a happy, fulfilling life and it hurts me that you’re trying to imply otherwise. I’ve been a good daughter!”
“I’m not implying anything, Mom,” said Houston.
“Let’s just watch the train go by,” said Darla.
“OK,” said Houston, but he suspected that wouldn’t go well either. Sure enough, a minute later a train car went past with a swear word spray-painted on it legibly enough for even Darla to read.
“Why?” asked Darla. “Why do they have to write that?”
“I don’t know, Mom,” said Houston. “I guess they just want to.”
“But why?” asked Darla. “Why do they want to?”
The next day, Houston dropped in on his grandpa Wade early in the evening while Wade was still sitting on his front step and pecking away at his laptop, which was plugged into a yellow extension cord which fed into the house through a hole Wade had cut in the screen door with a little knife.
“Hey, Wade-pa,” said Houston, sitting down next to his grandfather on the step. “What are you working on today? Forwarding emails?”
“Yep,” said Wade. “You got it.” To Houston’s knowledge, Wade had never actually composed and sent an email of his own, but he had forwarded thousands. He adhered to a strict personal code when it came to forwarding emails: each email could only be forwarded to one carefully selected person, the right person for the right forward. Sometimes an email would sit in Wade’s inbox for months or even years before it was forwarded, set aside but never forgotten, waiting for the perfect recipient, the perfect moment.
Houston watched as his grandfather typed an email address with extreme caution. Wade considered use of the backspace key dishonest so he did everything in his power to avoid using it. Having correctly entered the email address of his next forwarded email’s recipient, Wade hit “send,” closed his laptop, and set it between he and Houston on the step.
“You’re all finished?” asked Houston. “Don’t let me interrupt.”
“That’s enough for today,” said Wade. “What brings you by?”
“Well, I’ve got kind of a strange question for you, Wade-pa.”
“Ask it,” said Wade. “I like strange questions.” He extended his legs and crossed his ankles. His shorts, long and youthful, concealed his knees but not his nearly-hairless shins, one of which sported a fine bruise. Wade had shaggy gray hair and sideburns that he trimmed with far less caution than he applied to his typing. His glasses looked like they’d come from the future and they always had looked that way, for as long as Houston remembered.
“Do you ever laugh?” asked Houston. “I mean, have you ever laughed? My mom says you laugh, but the more I think about it, the more I’m sure I’ve never seen or heard you laugh.”
Wade nodded and used the middle finger on his left hand to wiggle a loose, lower-front tooth. “No, you’re right, Houston. Your mom’s wrong. I never laugh, but people usually don’t notice. Actually, I don’t think anyone’s ever noticed before, but that’s by design. I’ve always tried to be funny ‘cause when people are laughing, they kind of assume everyone’s laughing.”
“Yeah, well, it worked on my mom,” said Houston. “When I asked her about it, she thought I was attacking you somehow. Or maybe that I was attacking her. Or both of you.”
“That sounds like your mom,” said Wade. He smiled, a familiar sight for Houston. It was a smile that, Houston now realized, had been carrying the entirety of the mirth-load for Wade.
“So wait,” said Houston. “When did you stop laughing?”
“I’ve never laughed,” said Wade.
“Not even when you were a baby?” asked Houston. “How do you know?”
“Because,” said Wade. “Listen, I know this is going to lead to lots of follow-up questions, but I know I didn’t laugh when I was a baby because I believe I had my vision while I was still in the womb, or possibly even before that.”
“Your vision?” asked Houston. “You could see in the womb? And you remember that?”
“No,” said Wade. “Not that kind of vision. I mean, like, a dream you have when you’re awake.”
“Like a prophetic vision?” asked Houston.
“Sort of,” said Wade. “But mine was a conditional prophecy. I saw it and I understood that if I didn’t laugh, then what I saw would never come to pass.”
“And you had this vision before you were born? And you still remember it? What was it, Wade-pa?”
Wade smiled, although he clearly wasn’t substituting this one for laughter. “It was terrible,” said Wade. “The vision was the defining moment of my life, it shaped everything that came after me, which was everything. Sometimes I wonder if I am that vision. But in human form, you know?”
Houston felt weird. He resisted the urge to reach out and squeeze his grandpa’s wrist to assure them both that Wade was a tangible man. “But what was the vision?” he asked again.
Wade wiggled his tooth in silence for a few moments. Perhaps it was the tooth adjacent to the one he’d been wiggling before, Houston couldn’t be sure without asking and he had a more pressing question still hanging in the air. “It’s hard to explain,” Wade said. “But the simplest version is that I saw Multioak destroyed. Utterly annihilated. And I understood implicitly that this destruction would only come about if I were to ever laugh. I understood this before I could talk or walk or crawl, before I was even aware of myself as a person. I understood in a deep, powerful way that my laughter, if I were to ever let it out, would cause the death of everyone around me, would just…just wipe out my community.”
“But how?” asked Houston. “How could that be true?”
“I don’t know,” said Wade. “I don’t have an answer for that. I just know it’s true.”
“But what did the destruction look like?” asked Houston. “Was it, like, fire? Or did the ground open up and swallow the town? Or what?”
“No,” said Wade. “Neither of those. That’s the part that’s hardest to explain.”
“Just try,” said Houston.
“It was,” Wade began, then stopped. “I saw,” he began again before stopping. “There were,” he began for a third time before doing what he’d done the previous two attempts: he stopped.
“Did everything just disappear?” asked Houston. “Were there explosions, maybe from bombs?”
“No, no,” said Wade. “It was…” he paused, perhaps realizing he’d circled back to his original unsuccessful beginning. “It was a sound first. I saw Multioak, but a timeless Multioak. Not as it was when I was born and not as it is now, but not from the distant past or the distant future either. Multioak outside of time. And then, in the vision, I laughed. I think either someone told me a good pun or I saw some excellent slapstick or maybe I read some sharp satire, so I laughed. And then, in the distance, I heard a sound. A low rumble, coming closer and closer. Getting louder. It got so loud. It was the sound of hooves. Hundreds or thousands or millions, I’ll never know, because those hooves and the beasts they belonged to were invisible. I could hear them but I couldn’t see them. And then they swept over the town, smashing through everything in their path, crushing it beneath their hooves. Buildings, trees, cars, people. The streets and sidewalks were pounded into dust, the yards were churned into a deep mud. The stampede was as wide as the entire town, and when it passed and the sound of the hooves receded, nothing remained. Multioak was reduced to…to…not even recognizable pieces of things remained, everything had been reduced to an indistinguishable black...gray…sludge…” Wade trailed off.
“And, OK, hold on,” said Houston. “You think that will really happen if you laugh? Like, literally? An invisible stampede of some kind of animal will trample all of Multioak?”
“Yes,” said Wade.
“But even if your vision is true in a general sense,” said Houston. “Couldn’t the stampede have been symbolic? And couldn’t your laugh have been symbolic, for that matter? Like, maybe your vision meant that if you didn’t take life seriously enough then, I don’t know, maybe that would somehow result in a big business moving into town and changing Multioak for the worse? Ruining it like that? You know, like, an evil corporation? Making the town bad?”
“No,” said Wade. “I know what it meant. That’s never been a question. That was the one good part about my vision: I never had to worry about other possible interpretations.”
“But how are you so sure, Wade-pa?” asked Houston.
“If you were me,” said Wade. “If you’d seen the vision before you were born, you’d be sure too.”
“I don’t know,” said Houston. “I’m not really sure of anything.”
Wade shrugged and his smile returned. “I guess that’s a luxury reserved for people who get to laugh.”
Houston spent the next week trying to think of ways to make his grandpa laugh. It wouldn’t be easy. Wade had spent his entire life conditioning himself to not laugh. Even if he hadn’t really avoided laughing since birth, which Houston suspected, he’d still probably had decades to master techniques for laughter suppression. Just telling him a funny pun or showing him some excellent slapstick or reading him some sharp satire wasn’t going to cut it. He was prepared for all that stuff. Houston had never noticed Wade avoiding comedic material before. In fact, he cracked jokes all the time, which usually helped foster a jovial mood in which other people would then crack jokes. And everyone knew his favorite TV show was Up, Down, and Around, which, although Houston didn’t find it funny, was certainly intended to be funny. So it was clear that Wade felt confident enough in his own ability to control his laughter to freely engage with funny stuff. Houston was pretty certain that he would never be able to break down his grandpa’s defenses. Therefore, he’d have to circumvent them. But how? How could he take him by surprise? What were some other ways to make someone laugh? Maybe, to discover the answers to these questions and more, Houston would need to look within himself. It was worth a shot.
“Hey, Houston,” said Russ. “Haven’t seen you in a while.” Russ had never been thin, but Houston could tell he’d gained weight. His bulky body filled the doorway of his parents’ house.
“Yeah, it has been a while,” said Houston. “Can I come in? I want to talk to you about something.”
“I’d rather you didn’t,” said Russ, scratching the stubble on his face with the back of his hand or scratching the back of his hand with the stubble on his face. “My parents moved down to the basement and let me have the main floor and I’ve made a real mess of it. You’ll probably say you don’t mind a mess, but I don’t want you to see it. It’s actually very gross. I mind the mess and I’m the one who made it, so you’d definitely mind it, I promise.”
“Ah, well, OK,” said Houston. “You got a couple of minutes to talk, though? Out here?”
“Sure,” said Russ. “We can sit on the patio out back. Go around the side of the house and I’ll meet you out there.”
The patio, comprised of one large slab of concrete, had partially sunk into the earth. Russ let Houston have the better chair, which was still a very bad chair, but it was an extra generous gesture because Russ’s body mass made his sitting on the worse chair a riskier prospect than it would have been for Houston.
“So what’s up?” asked Russ after the ominous creaking of the two men’s chairs had ceased.
“Eh, I just found out something weird about my grandpa the other day,” said Houston. “I wanted to see what you thought about it.”
“Oh, wow,” said Russ. “No, dude, I’m not equipped to handle anything like that. I don’t want to hear it.”
“No, no, no,” said Houston. “It’s not like that, he didn’t do anything wrong, he just…well, yeah, I can see how the way I said that could be alarming, but it’s just that I realized he’s never laughed, like, I’ve never heard him laugh, so I asked him about it and he said that yeah, I was right, he doesn’t laugh, but then he said he’s never laughed. Never in his entire life, even when he was a baby. Isn’t that crazy? That seems impossible, right?”
Russ made an “I-don’t-know” face. “I don’t know,” he said. “How come he doesn’t laugh? He just doesn’t? He doesn’t know how? Maybe it’s just a thing about him. I have a cousin who’s never sneezed. It’s maybe like that. Like, in the same category.”
“Yeah, that could be,” said Houston. “But that’s not what he says. He says it’s because he had a vision before he was born that if he laughed, Multioak would be destroyed. So he’s been keeping himself from laughing his whole life ‘cause he actually believes that if he laughs, Multioak will be destroyed and everyone in it will be killed.”
“Destroyed how?” asked Russ.
“By a stampede of some kind of invisible animals or something,” said Houston. “It’s insane. Which is why we have to make him laugh.”
“Wait,” said Russ. “Why do we have to make him laugh?”
“Are you asking why he has to laugh or why it has to be us who makes it happen?” asked Houston.
“Let’s start with why you feel like he has to laugh at all,” said Russ.
“Because,” said Houston. “He’s in his 80s, I think. He’s gonna die soon. He’ll die without ever having laughed. How tragic is that, right? He’s so funny, he’s made so many people laugh, but he’s never laughed himself. That’s not a full life. That’s not how people were meant to live.”
“But it sounds like he doesn’t want to laugh,” said Russ. “We won’t be doing him any favors if we make him do something he doesn’t want to do.”
“Yes we will,” said Houston. “Because he’ll laugh and, yeah, he might be scared or angry at first, but then when he sees that Multioak isn’t destroyed, when he sees that nothing happens, he’ll realize he was wrong. And then he’ll be able to let himself laugh again and again and again for the rest of his life. He’ll be able to spend his last few years on Earth just, like, yukking it up.”
“But won’t that make it worse?” asked Russ. “Won’t he feel like he wasted decades of his life? Isn’t it maybe better to just let him die thinking he did a noble thing? Especially if he doesn’t seem all that unhappy. There are lots of people who laugh all the time but they’re miserable. I’d say that if he feels good but just doesn’t laugh, then he’s got it better than a lot of us.”
“I’m not saying he’s miserable,” said Houston. “I’m just saying his life would be better if he could laugh, if he didn’t have to hold it in. If he didn’t have this pressure of having to hold back a localized apocalypse by himself. That’s the gift I want to give him. I mean, there are all those studies about laughter being the best medicine, how it extends your life, how it releases endorphins. You know about endorphins, right?”
“Yeah, I guess,” said Russ. “I’ve heard of them.”
“So that brings us to the next part of your question,” said Houston. “You wanted to know why we had to be the ones to make him laugh, which I think you meant more as, like, why did I ask you to help me, right? Well, it’s simple: you’re the one person who’s made me laugh the hardest out of everyone I know.”
“Oh,” said Russ. “Really? When was that?”
“I mean, lots of times,” said Houston. “Your stories. About your life. Just the way you tell them.”
“Which stories though?” asked Russ.
“You know,” said Houston. “Like, when you sang at your aunt’s funeral. And when you got a concussion during that football game but you kept playing. Oh, and when your dad made you pretend to be a mugger so your mom could practice self-defense moves. And when you spent that whole day on the phone trying to clear up the issue with your disability checks. And when your girlfriend dumped you because of your weird sobbing.”
“Yeah,” said Russ. “So, all the bad stuff.”
“I’m already laughing again just thinking about those stories,” said Houston, thinking and laughing. “It’s just how you tell them, dude. I mean, you know that. You’re the master of taking bad stuff in your life and making it funny. It’s probably how you cope, right?”
Russ leaned back in his awful chair and it creaked like the little-used back gate of the underworld opening to admit a deliveryman. “That’s right,” he said. “That’s how I do it.”
“It’s a valuable skill,” said Houston. “I really hope you’ll be willing to use it to help my grandpa.”
“I’ll meet him, at least,” said Russ. “But I’m not promising anything.”
“Hey,” said Houston. “Remember when we were kids and our parents both started going to that crazy church for, like, two months? And remember how our Sunday school teacher told us that if we laughed during the church service, God would see us and He would hate it and He would do something about it? I never really knew what she meant by that, but I believed it. I think we both did. I was legitimately scared of what God was going to do to me. But we still laughed. Every sermon, we’d crack each other up. At the time, I thought we couldn’t help it. But we could have helped it if we really wanted to. And, looking back, I’m glad we laughed during church. Aren’t you?”
Russ stood up. His chair would see another sunrise. “So when do you want to do this? You free to go see your grandpa tomorrow?”
“Sure,” said Houston, rising from his own bad chair. “We should go before 6, though, when he’s still on his porch.”
On his way back to his apartment, Houston reflected on the fact that Russ had not responded to his question about whether or not he’d been glad they’d laughed during church. Maybe he’d taken the question as rhetorical. And maybe it had been rhetorical. But sometimes it was nice to have your rhetorical questions answered, just for fun.
Wade was on the porch, but he didn’t have his laptop with him this time. He sat with his back against the side of the house just outside the front door, watching the light rain darken the sidewalk. Houston and Russ trotted up the front steps and, slightly dampened, took shelter from further dampening under the porch’s low roof.
“How’s it going, guys?” Wade gestured to the unoccupied floor-and-wall space on his left. “Have a seat. Sorry I don’t have any chairs.”
Houston sat down next to his grandfather and Russ sat down on Houston’s left side, letting out a pained grunt as he lowered himself to the floor, no doubt feeling it in his bad back. The men sat lined up in a row, watching the rainfall intensify.
“So what brings you back so soon?” asked Wade.
“Oh,” said Houston. “I was just driving Russ home and he doesn’t live far from here, so I thought I’d swing by and see if you were on the porch again.” This was the ingenious explanation he had prepared in case Wade asked why they were there. He was relieved he’d planned ahead. Houston had also had a discussion with Russ about the best way to bring the conversation around to his hilarious tales of personal misfortune. The plan, in its most basic form, which was the only form in which the plan existed, was that Russ should just be normal and let Houston steer the conversation in the direction of one of his stories, at which point Houston would say something like, “Hey, Russ, don’t you have a story about…?” And then he’d end that question with “football” or “funerals” or “disability checks” or whatever. And under no circumstances was Russ to bring up what Houston had told him about his grandfather’s belief that if he laughed, an invisible stampede would destroy Multioak and everyone who lived there. “Oh, and Wade-pa, this is Russ, by the way. Russ, this is my grandpa Wade, I call him ‘Wade-pa.’”
“Nice to meet you,” said Wade, leaning forward to look down at Russ and give him a head-nod.
“Nice to meet you too,” said Russ. “So Houston tells me that you’ve never laughed because you believe the whole town will get destroyed if you do?”
Houston couldn’t believe it. He glared at Russ and mouthed, “What are you doing?” but Russ just leaned forward to look around him at Wade.
“Houston didn’t want me to bring it up,” said Russ. “But I had to.”
“Yeah,” said Wade. “I understand. Houston, there’s no reason to be upset. I never told you not to tell anyone. I don’t really care who knows, I just never bring it up because I don’t think most people would believe me.”
“But you really believe it?” asked Russ.
“Yes,” said Wade. “I do. I mean, it’d be true whether I believed it or not. But if I didn’t believe it, none of us would be here right now. Multioak would have been destroyed sometime around 81 years ago.”
“But why do you believe it?” asked Russ.
“We don’t have to talk about this, Wade-pa,” said Houston, shooting Russ a sharp look as impotent as all the other sharp looks he’d been shooting him since he’d diverted from the plan.
“I don’t mind talking about it,” said Wade. “It’s kind of a relief. And Russ, the reason I believe it is because I saw a vision that showed me that if I laughed, an invisible stampede would trample the whole town.”
“But how do you know the vision was true?” asked Russ.
“Its truth was part of it,” said Wade. “That was just baked into the vision from the beginning. It’s impossible to separate what I saw in the vision from the fact that the vision was true. Although, again, I saw the vision before I was born, so I don’t know to what extent I even existed when I saw it. I think that the vision actually preceded me in a way, or that I am the vision, or that the vision is, at the very least, an integral part of me. I was born to not laugh.”
Houston watched Russ’s face as he looked at Wade for a long time in silence. Russ’s expression, both slack and intense at the same time, didn’t change until he suddenly sat back, resting his head against the siding, and again looked out at the rain and the street and the houses across the street and a handful of mailboxes and stuff like that. “Well, Wade,” said Russ. “I think I know how you feel. A little bit, anyway. Not that I’ve ever seen a vision or anything. But I believe you. What you’re saying makes sense to me. ‘Cause there was a time that I laughed and it didn’t destroy the town, but it destroyed my life. Everything since then has gone wrong, it’s been a total mess.”
“Hold on,” said Houston. “You’re not talking about when we laughed in church, are you?”
“Everything since then has gone wrong,” said Russ. “Everything before that was great.”
“We were eight,” said Houston. “Of course everything is going to seem like it gets worse after you’re eight.”
Russ looked past Houston like he wasn’t there. “Wade, this one time,” said Russ, “my aunt died unexpectedly. My favorite aunt. I still don’t really understand what happened to her. They explained it to me at the time, but I didn’t get it and I haven’t looked into it since. Anyway, I begged my parents to let me sing at her funeral even though I don’t sing well and I’d definitely never sung in public before, not in front of an audience. But I think they thought this was how I needed to process my grief, so they agreed to let me. So I picked out a song and I got the backing track for it on cassette tape, and I don’t know why my parents didn’t screen this better, but the song I picked was totally inappropriate for a funeral. I just picked it because it sounded sad, but the lyrics were clearly about a woman trying to choose between two equally no-good men. But I didn’t really pay much attention to the lyrics of songs back then so I figured no one else would either. They’d just hear how sad the song sounded and agree with me that it was a good choice for my aunt’s funeral because the funeral of a loved one is the perfect place to feel sad. So fast forward to the funeral, I get up there in my little suit, I’ve got the mic, the backing track starts playing, and I start singing the words. And right away, I notice that people are getting uncomfortable. They’re giving each other weird looks and some of them are even trying to conceal smiles. And it hits me that I’ve made a grave error, no pun intended. Because the people are listening to the words and they’re realizing that I’m a stupid kid who’s chosen to sing a wholly inappropriate song at his beloved dead aunt’s funeral. But I don’t just want to bail in mid-song. But I definitely can’t keeping going for the remaining, like, three minutes of the song, ‘cause it’s not going to get any better. So the only thing I can think to do is to fake being overcome with emotion, like I’m crying and I can’t hold it together. So with everyone watching me, I start making a big production of wiping my eyes and then lowering my head and holding up one finger like if everyone will just give me a moment to compose myself, I’ll pick up the song again. And the backing track is still playing through all this, by the way, and now I’ve totally lost my place and probably couldn’t remember the words even if I wanted to, so I just have to find a way to end this mercifully. So I pretended to faint, but I didn’t want to actually fall down to the ground because I was already having serious back problems then and that had been a rough few months, it seemed like the chiropractor I was seeing then was just making it worse, so anyway, I sort of just slumped against the podium with my eyes closed and the mic dangling from my hand. But no one really understood what was happening. No one thought I had fainted because I obviously hadn’t, so they just sat there in silence. I don’t know why my parents didn’t step in, but I guess they were just as confused as everyone else. And then the backing track for the song stopped, so now I’m just leaning against the podium with my eyes closed and it’s just complete silence in the room. So now I’m really stuck until someone comes up and ‘wakes’ me, but no one’s making a move and I’m wondering what’s taking them so long. So I sort of squint to see if anyone’s coming to ‘wake’ me so I can end this sham and sit down. But through my squint, I see that everyone’s just watching me as if this is all part of the performance, which I guess it sort of was, but not how I intended it and not how they were perceiving it. So now we’re just in this stalemate and I realize I might just be stuck standing there forever unless I do something. So I make myself jolt suddenly and open my eyes and I give a big, fake yawn just to make it clear to everyone that yes, I was actually asleep. And then, since everyone’s still watching me and I still have the mic in my hand, I say, ‘Aunt Janie gave the best back rubs,’ and I set the mic down on the ground and I return to my seat and the funeral goes on as scheduled from there.”
When Houston had heard Russ tell this story in the past, it had never failed to make him howl with laughter. But this time, Houston couldn’t even muster a smile. Russ hadn’t told it right. He hadn’t been animated, hadn’t made amusing faces or demonstrated any of his childhood fake-crying techniques. The way he’d told the story mostly just made it sound sad, like the tale of a mourning little boy who didn’t know how to deal with the inexplicable death of his favorite aunt, the only person who knew how to make his aching back feel better. Houston looked at his grandfather and saw that Wade was frowning, so Russ was achieving the exact opposite of the effect for which Houston had recruited him, this was just great.
“And then there was the time I got a concussion during a football game in middle school but I didn’t tell anyone my head hurt or anything so I just stayed in the game,” said Russ, flowing right into his next story. Which, again, should have been uproarious, but his telling was off again, and Houston felt his eyes prickling as if he might cry as Russ explained how the whole reason he had even played football was because his back issues made him feel weak and feeble, so he’d gone out for the team against his doctor’s recommendation just to prove to himself and his peers that he could do it. So of course when he finally got to play in a game and he took a shot to the helmet, he hadn’t told his coaches that his head was throbbing and he felt dizzy and he wasn’t exactly sure where he was. And then when he got hit again on the next play, his head got really scrambled, and he didn’t know what was going on and he just ran amok, staggering around and trying to tackle his own giggling teammates, successfully tackling the referee, and then careening toward the sideline and an attempting to tackle his coach, who stiff-armed him into a high school girl who was serving as the athletic trainer for the game and on whom Russ and all of his teammates had intense crushes. The collision knocked out three of the girl’s teeth and one of Russ’s teammates pocketed one of them and kept it for years, rejecting Russ’s every offer to buy it from him.
Russ barely paused before launching into his next story, the one about his dad making him pretend to be a mugger so his mom could practice self-defense moves, the one where his mom kneed him in the groin way too hard for practice and his dad couldn’t stop laughing so Russ called him something obscene and his dad made him brush his teeth with shampoo and then later, when the pain in his groin had persisted for two days, Russ went to the doctor and found out there was a good chance he’d be infertile, so his dad, feeling guilty, made Russ watch him brush his teeth with shampoo.
Houston had heard all these stories before, none of the details were new, but hearing Russ tell them like this, without any emphasis on the stories’ funny parts, made Houston actually consider the tragedy that was woven through all of them for the first time. Like, his friend was infertile, probably. He could never have kids, probably. That was heavy. Houston looked at Wade again and saw that the frown had deepened, that signs of strain had appeared around his grandpa’s elderly eyes, that signs of tension had appeared around his beloved Wade-pa’s old jaw.
“One time I spent a whole day on the phone trying to figure out why I wasn’t getting my disability checks,” said Russ. “It was incredible. Hours and hours on the phone, but I wouldn’t give up, no matter how long I was on hold or how many times the call got cut off. But I was on my parents’ landline and the phone had a cord, and not a very long cord, so for all that time, I could only move as far as the cord would reach.” The story spiraled downward from there. Russ eating out of the garbage can because the cord couldn’t stretch to the refrigerator. Russ urinating out a window because the cord couldn’t stretch to the bathroom. Russ watching a neighborhood kid almost get abducted and not doing anything to stop it except ineffectually shrieking “run away, run away” from inside the house where the kid couldn’t hear him because the cord couldn’t stretch to the front yard. And then, of course, the issue with the disability checks was never resolved because Russ fell asleep face down on the floor, and since the phone was off the hook, he missed a call from his parents asking him what size pants he wore, so they guessed and brought him a bunch of pairs of pants from a garage sale that were far too small for him, which irritated them and embarrassed Russ.
Wade made a noise and Houston looked at him with concern. Wade’s eyes were glassy and watery. He kept pressing two fingers to his forehead. “Hey, Russ,” said Houston. “I think it’s time for us to go.”
“My girlfriend,” said Russ. “The only girlfriend I’ve ever had. She caught me crying one time. Sobbing, actually. But the sound of my sobbing is so weird, she didn’t believe me when I told her what I was doing, she said it sounded too gross to be sobbing and that I had to be doing it on purpose and she dumped me on the spot. Not because I was sobbing, but because of how weird my sobbing sounded.” Russ stopped talking. This was the part of the story where he would usually attempt to recreate the authentic sound of his sobbing, this was now the empty space where the punch line should be.
Wade, with his lower lip overlapping his top lip, sat looking at his lap where his hands were locked together, his eyelids almost closed.
“This is kind of how my sob sounds,” said Russ. “Let’s see if I can get this.” And then he made a loud, absolutely absurd sound, a sort of honking, wheezing, hacking, yelping, hiccupping, barking, belching sound, a sound that Houston could only imagine Russ making, a sound that had often left him in stitches, a sound in which he now heard nothing but anguish incapable of finding expression in normal human sounds. And beside Houston, he could feel his grandfather shaking. Houston turned to look at Wade, and saw that he had both hands clamped over his mouth, his face red, tears leaking from both corners of both eyes.
“Wade-pa?” said Houston, grabbing Wade’s shoulder. “What’s wrong? Are you choking? What’s wrong!?”
“He’s laughing,” said Russ, struggling to his feet, pressing one hand to his lower back and grimacing. “He’s doing what he should have done a long time ago. He’s ending this terrible place.” Then, with a forward hunch, Russ walked out into the rain and down the sidewalk, stepped off of the curb, walked out into the street, and there he waited, standing up as a straight as he could, facing his obliteration with the best posture he could manage.
And Wade’s hands fell away from his face and he lay sprawled and writhing on his back and his peals of laughter rang through the neighborhood, a lifetime of imprisoned laughter shaking his shriveling body like a dusty rag as it burst out of him. And in that laughter, Houston heard a not-insignificant quantity of terror.
“You were right, mom,” said Houston as he walked into the kitchen and took two yogurts from the fridge. “Wade-pa does laugh. I just came from there and he was laughing a lot.”
“I told you,” said Darla. She was at the kitchen sink trying to scrub the stain out of a towel. She set the towel down on the counter and turned to face Houston. “I didn’t want to tell you this the other day, Houston, but what you said really bothered me. Because I started trying to remember what Wade-pa’s laugh sounds like because I know I’ve heard it so many times, but I couldn’t think of it, probably because you’d upset me, and it’s been driving me crazy.”
“Yeah, well, I was wrong,” said Houston.
“And just remind me,” said Darla. “What does his laugh sound like?”
“Oh, you know,” said Houston. “Just normal. Like yours, but with a man’s voice.”
“Oh, right, right, right,” said Darla. “Now I remember, of course. I don’t know why that slipped my mind, it’s such a silly thing to forget. I’m glad I can stop thinking about it now.”
But Houston had stopped listening. His mind was back with his grandpa, back on that porch after Wade’s laughter had finally subsided, after Russ had called, “Now we know, Wade, my burden beats yours,” and walked away, wet and wincing.
Houston had knelt next to Wade, who was exhausted, too spent to even lift his head. “That boy,” Wade had whispered. “He wanted the invisible stampede to come. Why?”
“It doesn’t matter, Wade-pa,” Houston had said. “The invisible stampede didn’t come. Now you know you can laugh all you want, right? Your vision wasn’t true!”
Wade had closed his eyes and shaken his head. His patience had run out. “No, Houston, my vision was true. The vision didn’t reveal that the invisible stampede would come immediately after I laughed. There was no time-table. It only assured me that it would come. And now I’ve laughed, I’ve failed, and the invisible stampede is already on its way.” Then he laughed again, a weary, rueful chuckle. And Houston, now removed from the symbiotic delusions of Wade and Russ, standing here in his parents’ kitchen with his mother chattering away, had to admit that the chuckle had been a noticeable and significant step down from Wade-pa’s regular smiles. Houston wondered if he’d ever see one again.