In a single moment, steel T-boned fiberglass. The drunken jackass in the ‘72 Ford F-100 ran the red light and slammed into Billy Anderson’s ‘91 Honda Civic. Fragments of glass rained sideways in silent slow motion. A pair of baby shoes that hung from the rear view mirror spun and tumbled to the dashboard. A Tupperware container slammed into the glove box. The lid popped off. Spaghetti noodles and sauce splattered the dashboard and windshield. Somewhere in the haze of broken glass and spent spaghetti, Billy heard a baby cry.
Billy Anderson, he muttered, “Mikey?” Then he laughed.
The collision had transformed the Civic’s driver side door into a giant blade that sliced into his left hip and ribs. The steering wheel contorted and pressed against his chest, pinning him to the seat.
At first there was no pain but as the blood and tears warmed his cheeks, Billy felt the pangs throb stronger with every beat of his pulse. His toes went cold, then numb. The chill climbed through his calves and thighs until they went numb, too. Sweat poured out of his chest and armpits as blood soaked his shirt.
And though tears fell, Billy laughed.
He couldn’t help it.
When he was three-years-old, a bee had stung him on the ear. Billy had cried out from the sharp pain and stumbled barefoot in the grass. His mother had come outside to see what was the matter and when Billy took a tentative step to run into the safety of her arms, his left foot trampled another bee. That one stung him too, and so he cried but his mother just scooped him up, cradled him in her arms, and told him to laugh.
“Laugh the pain away,” she had said.
And to show him how, she laughed and chuckled until Billy—well, he couldn’t do anything but laugh right along with her. So they laughed as she pulled the stingers out and they chuckled when she cleaned the wounds with soap and water. And they even giggled and guffawed when she applied a paste of meat tenderizer and water to his angry, pink wounds.
When his mother laughed, Billy laughed.
He couldn’t help it.
From then on, Billy learned to respond to pain with laughter. Like when he was six and learned to ride a bike without training wheels. The bicycle wobbled and toppled to the pavement, as though its wheels were a pair of baby shoes hung from a shattered rear view mirror. His knee required three bandages that day but he didn’t cry because his mother was there to remind him to, “Laugh the pain away, my little darling.”
He couldn’t help it.
He laughed all the pain away, just like she had taught him. When he was eleven and all the other kids teased him because he refused to play soccer, he didn’t cry—couldn’t cry. He laughed away the feeling of phantom pains that prevented him from padding out onto the field. Those bee stings had created such a phobia of grass in him that the only thing he could do was chuckled and look for a different game to play.
Before winter break, not a kid on the playground could beat him at Wallball.
But all those kids at school, they all said he was kinda weird because he laughed. Silly Billy laughed at the oddest times it seemed, especially when they teased him and so the bullying of Silly Billy began in earnest. When they picked him up and dropped him into a large trashcan, he laughed as all the other kids pointed, teased, and laughed right along with him.
Or was it at him?
After having his head dunked into a flushing toilet, Billy laughed alone leaning against dirty porcelain. He watched drips of blood and droplets of water drip-drip-drip from his hair and forehead to the white tiles below.
Billy Anderson heard the long howl of a horn.
He smelled antifreeze.
He looked down at his blood soaked shirt. Then his head flopped to the right and his eyes focused on the spaghetti covered dashboard. Sauce and noodles dropped to the floor-mat. Somewhere in his memory, water drip-drip-dripped onto cold, white tile.
Laughter echoed in an empty hallway.
Somewhere a bathroom door refused to close.
Laughter and stares.
Somewhere in the noise, a baby cried.
“Shauna…” Billy sputtered. Blood and drool fell, then with a chuckle Billy closed his eyes and slipped into a welcome reverie. Once he had been shoved into a locker and it was Shauna Ferguson who had pushed the other boys out of the way. And it was also Shauna Ferguson who pulled Silly Billy out from the steel prison of books and papers that the other boys had forced him into. It was not long before Shauna and Billy shared a joint, a slow dance, and a kiss.
He had fallen in love.
He couldn’t help it.
She was so beautiful, especially when she called him William. When she laughed, her eyes sparkled like broken glass caught in a brilliant shimmer of sunlight. She transcended total beauty when she told him that his disease of dichotomy did not matter two shits to her. “Who cares, William? Who gives a fuck?” she smiled. “I don’t and neither should you.”
They embraced and he cried.
She smiled and asked, soothed, reminded, “Them’s happy tears, right?”
Right she was.
The next time he shed tears it was at their wedding. A year or so later they both sobbed like babies when their son, Michael William, was born.
“Mikey,” Billy said, opening his eyes. Bits of broken glass sparkled in the sunlight. He couldn’t feel his legs and when he tried to wiggle his toes, he could not decide if they moved or not. Did it matter?
A simple trip turned tragic.
A surprise lunch only to be thwarted by a drunken jackass in a gas guzzling steel box on wheels. He and Mikey had been on their way to see Shauna, but steel T-boned fiberglass and put an immediate halt to their plans. They were going to surprise her with spaghetti for lunch but instead lunch was all over the dashboard.
Well, she’ll definitely be surprised, Billy thought with a painful chuckle.
He tried to look over his shoulder but pain tore through his neck as the steering wheel held him in place. He stretched and strained, laughing away all of the pain as best he could, though with each giggle, with every snicker his suffering only increased. He stretched and strained, laughing away all of the pain as best he could, but he quickly realized the imminence of his diminishing returns.
Billy Anderson’s eyes rained tears of realization. Blood bubbled up into his throat but he swallowed it back down. He sucked in a short breath and turned his neck until he could see the backseat. There was a car seat back there and in that car seat sat a one-year-old little boy.
The child looked scared and rightfully so.
Tears and snot coated the baby’s cheeks but there was no blood, not a sign of injury.
But Mikey was not laughing.
He was crying.
“Hey,” Billy said as blood sputtered from his lips. He licked them as clean as he could then cooed, “Hey, little man. Hey Mi-key,” he called. Tiny droplets of blood speckled the infant’s face. “Michael Will-iam…”
Mikey’s tears slowed when he saw his father’s face. Billy felt weak and it was difficult to focus clearly. The little boy in the car seat blurred and faded out of focus, but Billy forced himself to laugh, to take the pain, to shove it down and set it aside.
Mind over matter.
But then he had to turn because it refused to succumb as he coughed fresh blood onto the steering wheel.
Matter over mind.
After a moment, Billy finally heard it.
Mikey began to laugh.
“That’s it,” he cried, turning to look at his son again. “That’s it, kid.” Blood frothed around his mouth but Billy forced himself to laugh harder, regardless of the fact that he could no longer keep his eyes open. He wanted to sleep so badly but knew he had to continue laughing as best he could because he needed to help his baby boy, his one and only son, perceive something so important about life—Billy needed Mikey to know, to understand, to realize that he could laugh his pain away, all of it.
And for a single moment, father and son laughed together.
But staying awake was so much more difficult with each passing tick of the clock. Billy couldn’t keep the chuckle going and Mikey stopped, too.
“Mikey, it’s okay, kid.” Billy smiled at his son, “Come on, buddy, laugh. Just laugh the pain away.”
Mikey silently stared at his father.
“You can do it, buddy. Just laugh it all away.”
Four slow and labored heartbeats later, William Michael Anderson heard his infant son reply with the most joyous belly-laugh that he had ever heard. It was the sort of involuntary laughter that only comes from being truly happy and free. It was the single most beautiful sound he had ever heard and to Billy it was angelic.
It was trumpets.
It was the laughing buddha made manifest.
Billy felt hot tears stream down his face until they hit a roadblock of dried blood.
“That’s right, Mikey,” Billy soothed, still doing his best to laugh beyond the fresh tears falling from his eyes.
He laughed so hard that he did not hear the Jaws of Life grind away at Mikey’s door. Nor could he hear the firemen, the paramedics, or the police plead with him to stay, to not go anywhere, forgodsakes! “Laugh the pain away, buddy. Just keep laughing. Everything will be alright.” But as hard as he tried, he knew that if only one of them was to survive this wreck, it would be, had to be Mikey. And the only way to make sure Mikey was going to stay alive was if Billy could keep his son laughing.
And then Billy realized that every bit of energy he spent now laughing must be paid with blood. And the body can only hold so much of the stuff, or so it seems—he looked down to his shirt and pants. Both were saturated with it and Billy thought briefly that he had been involved in some sort of altercation with a bottle of ketchup. However, instead of the mixed aromas of sugar, vinegar, and tomato, what he smelled was cold spaghetti, antifreeze, and burning oil.
Metal. So much metal, he mused.
So much metal, he had become all too aware of the never-ending metallic smack in his mouth. As help worked hard to get father and son out of the crushed vehicle, Billy idly wondered about the status of the other driver, the drunken jackass in the truck. Eh, probably just had a bad day, he decided. Accidents happen, he decided.
Warmth followed by release warmed his loins and seat.
Everything around him slid in and out of focus. The spaghetti, the broken glass, Mikey’s outgrown pair of baby shoes, everything including the dashboard faded until that very everything became silence itself.
Everything but that joyous baby belly-laugh of Mikey’s.
But even that faded and Billy never heard the people yell and scream that the Jaws of Life, “We're almost through! Just hang in there, they’re almost done! We almost got the kid. Hang in there, they’re almost done! We’ll be with you…” Billy never heard the excruciating rip and pop and tear of the passenger side door or the fireman climb into the backseat to pull Mikey out of the totaled Civic to rush the child to the paramedics. Billy never heard those things because the last thing he heard, the last thing he wanted to hear was Michael William Anderson’s joyous belly-laugh.
And in his final moment of life, eyes softly closed, body weak and tired and depleted and ready to let go, Billy heard a pure truth in his son’s laughter. It was a truth so spiritual that it struck Billy. It forced open his eyes to make sure he wasn’t sleeping, wasn’t dreaming. As Billy watched a bee take flight from the broken windshield, he realized Mikey’s was a beautiful, perfect union of Shauna’s and his own laugh. And it was that beautiful combination that came out as Mikey’s very own unique laughter.
Mikey’s big body bouncing baby belly-laugh brought Billy a downpour of comfort and peace. Tired, so tired, and with eyes closed, Billy listened to nothing else around him but his son’s laughter as it softly lulled him back to sleep.