by David Clager

 

It was a hit that first and only night when he wore it to the party and everyone that didn’t even know him didn’t care since the visor hid his face anyway, and so they just called him Top Gun and Maverick and Iceman and poured beer down the oxygen mask hose between audible clamps of his teeth.  He seemed popular for a while, and the whole performance would be legendary.  Too bad most of the hangovers stamped the memory of it out well before it could congeal, and the prop, the piece de resistance itself, had disappeared between the festival and the late AM, and a big black guilt grew in Joseph, even though his Pop didn’t even realize it was missing that week.  Or even that year.  In fact six years went by, up until when his folks decided to downsize their empty nest, and packing up his old gear, his Pop couldn’t turn up his old helmet from his first squadron with his call name on it that he’d worn throughout his whole career, through Top Gun and Desert Storm and during that ejection, 7.2 seconds before the F-18 exploded and charred his whole body, and through countless flawless night landings on the Enterprise, on the Stennis, his bone dome was gone, and after some confused moments of flummoxed rummaging and serious noodle-scratching, he knew, in that way that parents just know, it was Joseph.

Who’d been a good kid and never got in trouble, never needed to be told twice.  Stepped up, helped out, told the truth every time, Scout’s Honor.  Had been so upstanding, if hesitant, and careful, what teachers said was shy.  Kid had never ever been in hot water.

So when his Father unleashes on him, before the front door could close behind the dirty laundry dragged home X-Mas break, demanding to know not where the helmet is, where it is is likely a lost cause as an avenue of inquiry, but where he got the nerve to steal the helmet in the first place, from his own Father, which is one of those questions without answers that parents instinctively ask since the unanswerability contains the initial uncoiling of shame and remorse that blossoms and blooms unceasingly as each second passes, and this new dread grows to eclipse any and all guilt that could have festered, up until now, in the shadow of his Pop’s ignorance.

But Joseph laughs.  Which is unanticipated by either party.  Part of Joe knew the assault was coming, it was just a matter of time, and his Pop had fully expected to wring out such a pathetic confession that the whole dress-down could be done and over with before supper, but Joseph is laughing, and neither man knows why.

In lieu of tears or trembling lower lip, or the drooping of eyes or bony shoulders, he just laughs, uncontrollably, full-bellied, snorting through deep, gasping chuckles as his Pop reams him about the long-gone standard-issue equipment he’d spit shined and cared for and carried all those years in the service.

And laughing as a response to such a scolding is just bizarre and weird and only makes Pop angrier and louder because who wouldn’t in the face of that kind of thing?  Someone laughing at your serious frustration and disappointment?

And Joseph laughs harder and harder, completely aware of his Pop’s (completely reasonable) perception of his own (seemingly) laughing in the face of— sentiment, but it isn’t brave or rebellious, this laughter here, it’s…he doesn’t know, but the fear his Pop was hoping to elicit is very Real and Right There even though he can’t see it.

Worse yet – he fears his own laughing too.  It’s an unreasonable response, a stimulus-reaction whose wires got crossed.  He feel powerless, out of control, knowing Pop’s getting  even angrier and there is nothing he can do.  He feels a distance growing between his Pop and him.  And then a different distance, between his selves.  No amount of zen-like self-control can dare still the full bodied mysterium tremendum that Joe’s desperately sucking in more and more O2 just to howl his way through.  The gap between his cogent, analytical brain and his vibrotic corpus widens and widens, the realization of which adds further fear to the fire.  Tears eventually emerge from his crinkled ducts, but they’re not even from shame or sadness but from some distant shore of his suddenly alien psyche.  Joe flees.  He’s officially out of his body.  The screaming and yelling come flying across the abyss separating his brain stuff from his ears which barely manage to capture the higher and higher Db scolding from Dad – those lobes are flapping so badly in the wake of his guttural, guffawing spell.  The third person perspective he has of himself is ghostly and as such will haunt him for years to come and he’ll even develop a nasty knee-jerk reaction to free-spirit types who hazily yearn to exit their earthly vessels since to Joe it sounds like some landlubber naif waxing on and on about what a poetic experience faring the high seas must be to an old crusty sailor who has battled storms and been swept overboard and been tempted to drink the awful only water that surrounds you when you’re adrift and lost, and has seen the monsters that swell up from the deep and known men who’ve drowned, seen them drown, out of reach, helplessly watching them writhe and gurgle their final breaths before slipping away to feed the death eaters that peck at them from both sides of the sea until even the bottom-most bottom feeders can’t stand the bloat and decay and leave them to a fate that’s yours and mine and if we’re really lucky only not so awfully painful or lonely or swallowed up in chaos.  But before all that he passes out and would’ve cracked his head on the linoleum tile if not for that sack of dirty tees.

 

*

 

David Clager studied History in Virginia, Teaches Math in the Bronx, thinks the new Yankee Stadium looks like a Mausoleum, biking past at 0530.

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