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"All I Do Is Laugh," short story excerpt

Tuesday 10/19/21

People get divorced, the tales start, and they become gospel so fast—irrefutable, unchallenged—even though the actual gospels themselves are complete murk. You don’t know who wrote them. They’re unreliable. They were probably done by a bunch of people, chain-letter style. They read like fan fiction, but with classy parts.


After my divorce from my first wife, people liked to say that she spent a lot of money. I just started hearing it and I decided I’d go along with what was said and it became accepted. We’d moved apart in our marriage, which was worse because we were never close, though that wasn’t something I thought when we got married. I could see it later—actually see it. The day after the ceremony at a city hall we went to a nature preserve by the sea where there was this boulder you could pick out with every return visit. No other stone was remotely its size, as if the glacier that made that strip of shoreline had this one choice nugget to offer. Belch forth. Deposit, and say, “behold!” And also: “snap ye photos here, weekend hikers.”


We put the camera on a makeshift tripod made out of of a pyramidal stack of rocks the size of apple halves, set the auto-timer, and took three pictures of ourselves in front of the familiar glacial boulder. I thought they were nice at the time. Twelve years later, and we were long done and long gone from each other’s lives, it looked to me like two people who didn’t want to be in the same space together, which was worse because that space was all of outdoors. When we’d initially grown further apart—or further than when we started—our solution had been to believe that a house—our house, added on to—would save us, but that’s not how we put it, or how we principally thought it. You think two things at once, and tell yourself you’re just thinking the one that is easier.


She was in charge of the operations while I was at work. That was her job for a while. Overseeing the men of our yard and property. They seemed to carry a lot of marble. We agreed that marble was what you wanted. One of the men was named Lymon. He was Hungarian and Columbian. An unusual blend. I’d estimate how many people in the world had ever been half of each, which is what Lymon said he was. Was it less than 1000? But less than 10,000 would still speak to the rarity. Lymon the Hungarian-Columbian.


I liked him because I’d come home and we’d talk about books. Lymon the H-C read Stendhal. That’s who he preferred. The Red and the Black. I think that’s probably why I thought of Lymon as a craftsman—or an artist—instead of a contractor. Lymon could think his H-C ass off, in my view, but most of that probably had to do with the fact that he could talk to me, and he could talk to my wife, and both of us thought we were who Lymon felt the most comfortable around. That he was likely not all that comfortable around either of us in the presence of our failing marriage and neither of us knew it, would have spoken to how intelligent Lymon really was.


When the bulk of the job was completed, and there wasn’t anything either me or my wife could think of that would cause us to bring Lymon back, my wife confessed to me that she flirted with him, and even that when we were together—you know what I mean—she fantasized about Lymon.


“I pretend you’re him,” she said.


“The entire time?”


“At the beginning, definitely. And then again at the end.”


She didn’t say it to make me angry. I laughed. I consciously decided to laugh. In my head, I said, “Okay, big boy, do a sad, knowing laugh.” I was like a wind-up toy who could self-crank. We were over, and just waiting for the final touches on the house to be finished by Lymon’s men before we left it. Separately. When the done is done, there’s less anger to induce.


“He was always professional,” she added, like she wanted me to know. “It wasn’t anything like that.”


I think I did. I think I really did. I know I did. But only after, when it made me laugh.


***

I looked at a lot of online profiles when I was single after my divorce. I couldn’t tell the difference between most of them. After each two-month period of futility, I’d erase my profile, and then start all over with a new profile, which was the old one, because I’d just copy and paste in what I had written before. I rearranged the order of my photos. Therein was my fresh twist.


Old matches and profiles you had blocked came up again. I tried to take a “well, you never know” viewpoint. There was one woman I always remembered though. She was heavyset and reminded me of a large high school English teacher I had, but the English teacher was incredibly smart—a rumor was that she knew every word in the dictionary—and this woman didn’t seem to be. My mom had said my teacher was beautiful. I thought, “Okay, I can see that”—but under everything, if you will. Which made me feel like an asshole, but you have eyes. It’s not your fault you have eyes.


I thought the same thing every time I saw this woman’s profile over many years. She didn’t look happy in her photos. She looked like someone in the background of her own life. More like someone who walks into another person’s photo, like in a city where there are crowds, only it was her, front and center, intentionally rendered. There were only six pictures on her page—you could have up to ten—but in two she was drinking milkshakes at separate eateries. That’s a high percentage of milkshake photos. Thirty-three percent. That number makes me think of gospels. The Christ age, I suppose. What do you know at thirty-three, though? That’s a rocky foundation for anything. The makeshift tripod came to mind from the forest preserve, and it had somehow worked.


I thought it was possible she had milkshakes every day, given that thirty-three percent. She rebooted her profile often, too, because I’d erase her as someone I didn’t want to see again, but then a month later I would, because she’d started over, so I’d have to re-erase her. She kept the same line with all of the iterations of her profile. The one line that was there. Which she thought said everything, or enough.


“All I do is laugh,” she wrote.


I wondered, “do you?” And would that be the way to go anyway? Would that be any better than “All I do is cry?”


***

My grandmother used to tell me to go and get her teeth. She soaked them in a glass filled with blue liquid suggestive of whatever barbers put their combs in at the barbershop. A friend said it kills lice when we were eight.


“So many more people than you think have lice,” he said. “It’s a guarded secret.”


I’d never heard that phrase before, but then I heard his dad say it when they took me golfing because his dad had all of these conspiracy theories. He believed “certain” comets were really Soviet space crafts spying on us. I hated bringing my grandmother her teeth, because when I carried the glass, the teeth clacked against the side as they moved up and down with my walk. It should have been pretty funny, I figured. I watched Mr. Ed reruns, and the only reason anyone laughed during Mr. Ed was because of that horse’s teeth going up and down like he was actually talking.


After she died, my uncles and me went through everything she owned and threw most of it away. I didn’t like how aggressive they were. They weren’t gentle with anything that had been hers. There was a dumpster they’d rented and put in the driveway of my grandmother’s house, and it seemed like they were throwing everything into it hard. They could have just put it there—they didn’t have to whip it. I carried out the teeth that were in the glass with the blue liquid, because she died without them in, as they were in their cleaning state. I dumped the blue liquid on the grass because I wanted the teeth to be able to dry and to treat them like they were being used without the blue liquid that may have also killed lice. All of this despite being in a dumpster, into which I flipped them.


One of my uncles saw me with the empty glass, and said, “Don’t put that in there, we can use those,” by which he meant him and his wife. They didn’t have a lot of money. I did laugh a little then. But I wouldn’t say, “All I did was laugh,” though I was laughing. That was supposed to be my funny uncle, but he was serious about taking my grandmother’s glasses, and also her silverware.