Frozen Laughter

Magnolia and Camellia, by Teresa Fasolino

 

James is emotional for the first time in his life. 
Only thing, his muscles controlling both laughing and crying
are frozen. He can only make funny little noises.

I found the note in a stack of books when I was cleaning out my parents’ basement, tucked inside The World According to Garp. My mother’s loopy handwriting. She dated it September 1974, a month before my father died of ALS.

 

I want to talk to her. Really bad. I want to ask her how she could tell he was emotional if he couldn’t laugh or cry. Ask her to describe the “funny little noises.” Ask her why he didn’t show emotion until the end. But I can’t. She’s gone too.

“He has to use a feeding tube.” That’s the sort of thing she told me near the end.

“He can’t swallow properly.”

“He can still write notes.”

“His friends are loyal. They come around.”

She said nothing about frozen muscles. Nothing about laughing and crying.

Did I ask? I didn’t go back to Virginia that September to see for myself.

Then he was dead.

I cried for my mother. For my father, I just felt relieved that he had escaped the prison of that cruel disease.

~

 

Mother was always laughing; that’s how I remember her. The two of us laughing so hard I would collapse on the floor. And we shouted, both of us, and slammed doors. We cried in the movies, cried when we hurt each other, sobbed when my Boston bull terrier was hit by a car.

I was thirteen and Dusty was my first and only dog. Small, mostly black with a white throat. And every time he saw me he smiled. The houses on our street were frame, painted white, and close together, with large, grassy back yards. Perfect for children and dogs. We ran in and out of each other’s front doors, usually without knocking. On that winter evening, around dusk, I dashed across the street to my friend Elaine’s house to borrow a record. Just as I opened her door, I heard the screech of tires. And I knew. A man in the middle of the street was bending over what looked like a bundle of rags and a puddle of blood. I picked up my dog, held his warm, limp body close, and ran sobbing into my house.

“It’s my fault,” I kept screaming. “It’s my fault. He followed me.”

Mother put her arms around both of us, and we stood like that in the kitchen, rocking back and forth, crying, Dusty between us, his blood dripping on the linoleum, spreading into pink circles on my nylon sweater.

And my father? He stood there frowning, not with disapproval, more like puzzlement. Then he said, “It’ll be all right. We can get you another dog. There are lots of dogs in the pound.”

~

 

The day I left for college. I was all packed, dressed in new clothes—a print skirt and a white cotton blouse. I was scared; I’d never left home before.

“Where’s Daddy?” I asked.

“At work,” Mother said.

“He better get home quick,” I said. “We’re ready to go.”

“He’s not coming, honey.”

I had imagined him dressed in his brown business suit, carrying my bags, shaking hands with my roommate. Being proud of me.

I raced upstairs to my room, threw myself face down on the bed. I remember clutching the knobby bedspread in my hands. By the time Mother pried me off the bed, the pillow was soaked.

“He doesn’t even care that I’m leaving,” I screamed at her.

“Of course he cares. But he has to work.”

I knew that wasn’t true. He sometimes took off from the hardware store to play golf. Or go to baseball games.

“He doesn’t love me.”

But I must have loved him. Why else would I have cried so hard? I don’t remember. What I do remember, looking back twenty years, are his stiff shoulders when I hugged him, his head tilted to the side. Not touching mine.

By Thanksgiving, his failure to take me to college that first day no longer mattered. I watched this tall, sandy-haired man, slightly stooped, carrying my suitcase into the house, frowning at pictures of Little Rock on TV, cutting into small bites the T-bone steak my mother had broiled in honor of my homecoming. And I didn’t feel a thing.

Did I make a conscious decision that weekend to somehow let him go? To block out my feelings for him? I was so young, so easily hurt, so sure he had failed me.

Besides, I had fallen in love with Larry.

~

 

I didn’t want to marry somebody like my father. When Larry bounced into my life, freshman year in college, I fell hard. At the time, Larry was doing his best to keep from flunking out of law school, while performing in campus musicals. He clowned (South Pacific), he danced (Singin’ in the Rain), he sang (The King and I). I followed him from rehearsal to show to cast party to bars and dance halls, always on the move, laughing, yelling, hugging, fighting, kissing.

“I understand you’re studying law,” my father said when I brought Larry home for the first time.

“Whenever I have the time,” Larry said.

My father frowned

“Joanie tells me you’re in musicals,” Mother said.

“It’s what I live for.”

“I can’t wait to see you on stage,” she said.

And then, after college, on an airplane trip to Atlanta to interview for a teaching job, I heard the stewardess’s voice on the speaker. “Would the passenger in seat 11B please raise your hand?”

I looked at my boarding pass. “That’s me,” I said to Larry, who was sitting next to me.

“Raise your hand,” he said.

The voice continued, “I have a message for the person in seat 11B.”

The passenger across the aisle turned to stare at me.

“Mr. Larry Martin would like you to be his wife,” the voice said. “If you accept, please kiss the man who is seated next to you.”

I sat there dumbfounded, staring at Larry. People were now standing in the aisles, peering over the back of seats.

“Well,” said the voice, “is it yes or no?”

“Are you serious?” I asked Larry.

“What do you think?” he laughed.

I kissed him. The passengers applauded. And I was engaged to be married.

“I’m glad he’s going to be a lawyer,” my father said. “You’ll need a steady income.”

He walked me down the aisle, his arm folded stiffly in mine, his face frozen into a smile.

~

 

After my luscious, tender baby Gail arrived, my parents flew out to Los Angeles to meet their new grandchild. We’d moved there after college for Larry’s job. He represents the Screen Actors Guild, which means he gets to hobnob with actors, yell obscenities at studio executives, and occasionally talk his way into small parts in the movies. You can see why I married him.

My mother was the lively, silly grandma I expected. She sang to baby Gail, danced with her, dressed her in frilly sundresses, pushed her all over my sun-drenched neighborhood in the fancy carriage she insisted on buying.

I don’t remember what my father did. Read the paper? Watched TV? I must have been hoping to shock him with my California world. My bright red sofa, slightly sagging; the faded Persian rugs; my weaver’s loom plopped right in the middle of the living room. I wanted to show my father my world, wanted him to really see it. To see me.

One conversation sticks. I was sitting at the kitchen table in my stained yellow bathrobe nursing Gail when my father walked in, freshly shaved, a sharp crease in his blue slacks, his short-sleeved polo shirt open at the neck. He sat gingerly in the only chair that wasn’t piled with clean diapers.

“Well, well. Look what we have here,” he said, shifting his eyes from my uncovered breast.

“Isn’t she beautiful?” I said, gazing at my child.

Neither of us spoke for several minutes.

And then, “I just want to say, Joan, that I am very satisfied with your life out here.”

Satisfied?

“I know it’s a challenge to have a new baby. But you are handling everything in such a sensible way.”

I looked at the dirty dishes stacked all around, the tangled pile of diapers fresh from the dryer, balls of wool here and there. My messy California life, which I adored precisely because it was as different as I could make it from my father’s bland orderly existence. And here he was, satisfied that I was being sensible. In that moment, I thought there was nothing I could ever do to make him see me.

Now I wonder. What was he trying to say in his clumsy way? What didn’t I hear?

After that, it was too late. A continent separated us.

~

 

He was in a wheelchair the last time I saw him. We were in Virginia for our yearly summer visit. His chair had a little tray on it with a pad of paper and a pen for him to write notes because he could no longer speak. Gail, who was ten, loved pushing him through the house, out into the grassy backyard. She would park him under a wooden trellis cluttered with grape vines and tell him stories she’d made up about her stuffed animals. Occasionally he would take up his pen and scribble out a note. She would read the notes out loud and explain her answers so seriously, so tenderly. And he would nod.

Sitting on the back porch of my parents’ wood frame house, on those stifling July days, fanning myself with a paper plate, I watched the two of them. I remember my mother coming out to join me, her yellow-white hair hanging loose around her face, shoulders bent. Exhausted. I remember crying, the two of us, like old times.

I’m sure I talked to my father that summer. I must have.

~

 

James is emotional for the first time in his life

I hand Mother’s note to Gail. She’s thirty now, an entertainment lawyer like her father, and she’s come to pick up her baby daughter, who has spent the afternoon with me. Gail drops her briefcase and, clutching the note, falls into the plush red sofa in my living room.

“Poor Grandpa. It must have been so awful.” She’s crying.

I sit down next to her, fold her in my arms, kiss her hair.

“I don’t know how to read this,” I say.

“It’s what it says. He couldn’t show emotion in the end. It’s a cruel, cruel disease.”

“But was he feeling it at the end? Emotion?”

She wipes her eyes and stares at me.

“What do you mean?” she says. “You saw it.”

“Saw what?”

“The notes. All those notes he wrote.”

“Not to me.”

“To me,” she says. “So many notes.”

“Do you have them?”

“I wish I did. But don’t you remember the one about the carrots?”

“Huh?”

“Surely you remember. He wrote something about carrots in one of the notes. I don’t remember exactly what it said, but he pointed to you. You must remember.”

“Carrots?”

“He was in the back yard, in his wheelchair. I gave you the note.” Her voice is insistent. “He told me about it once, when he was first sick. He was mumbling then; it wasn’t easy to make him out. But he could still talk. He said something about a garden and carrots. And he got real agitated. Don’t you remember?”

I try, but it’s been so many years. I do remember my father had a garden. He never spent time outdoors, except for playing golf, and he was never fond of vegetables. But that one year, when was it? I was about ten or eleven. That one year he made a garden. I see him now, out there digging, sowing seeds from envelopes that had pictures of vegetables on them. I’m out there too. Following behind him, in shorts and a Dodgers shirt.

It’s coming back. I have a garden too, a small garden patch of my own. I’m out there with him, stooping, patting seeds into the dirt, my fingernails black, feeling the cool red-brown earth as I pat it over the seeds. Warm water from the sunbaked hose soaks my sandals and shorts. I remember green, bushy plants. Carrots! That’s it. I’m growing carrots. I anticipate pulling them out of the dirt, washing them, cutting them into slices. I’m excited, not because I particularly like carrots. I don’t. But because I grew them.

I tell my mother, “I have a big surprise for you. You’ll never guess.” I’m hopping from one foot to the other. She loves carrots.

“Is it time?” I keep asking Daddy. “Is it time?”

“Give it a few days,” he says. He’s smiling at me. I see it now. We’re a team.

But there’s something wrong. The bushy plants are leaning to the side. I pull at one and it pops into my hand. A broken bit of carrot hangs limp from the stem.

“Gophers,” Daddy says.

I’m running from plant to plant, pulling them. Sobbing.

He holds me. Right now I’m feeling his arms tight around me. He’s kissing my hair, my cheek.

“I’m so sorry, honey,” he says. “I’m so sorry.”

Are there tears in his eyes?

“He showed emotion when it counted,” Gail tells me. “Not just ‘funny little noises.’ Real passion.”

What she’s talking about?

“You know,” she says. “The way he died.”

“He died of ALS.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about.”

“What do you mean?”

Gail looks at me, frowning. “He was climbing out the window, fighting off the nurses.”

I’m trying hard to take this in.

“He had the tube in his hand,” she says. “He was gripping it. They had to pry his fingers open to get it out. By the time the doctors got there, he was dead.”

“How do you know that?”

“Grandma told me,” Gail says. “After we saw him at the funeral home. She was crying and she told me about it. Didn’t she tell you?”

“I remember something about a scuffle in the hospital. She was so upset when she told me, I didn’t ask questions.”

“Mom, he couldn’t breathe without the tube. He knew that and he took it out and tried to climb out a three-story window. He almost made it. But he stopped breathing first.”

I try to picture it. My father struggling to climb out a hospital window. It’s the last thing I would have expected.

But he did it. Gail says he did. He didn’t want another three or four miserable years of that suffocating silence, that clumsy flesh. So he did it. He burst free.

And I missed it.

I want to go back. I want to say I’m proud of him, proud that he pulled out that tube and ran, proud of his anger against that dark disease. Proud of his passion.

But more, I want to relive all the times he tried, in his frozen way, to reach out to me. Not just the note about the carrots. Earlier. He was trying.

And I missed it.

 

Author's Comment

Several years ago, a cousin sent me a letter my mother had written shortly before my father’s death of ALS. The lines at the beginning of my story were in that letter. It made me cry, but it stayed with me. “Frozen Laughter” was the result. My father also tried to climb out the hospital window when he’d had enough. The rest is fiction.

Bio

Since retiring as a public school lawyer, Nancy Bourne has been writing. Her stories have appeared in Persimmon Tree, Upstreet, Carolina Quarterly, The South Carolina Review, Blue Lake and many other publications. Several of her stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. For a list of Ms. Bourne's publications, please see nancybourne.us

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