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Laughter Incidence by Ander Monson

03/30/2009

He could hear occasional laughter through the dark air. He couldn’t tell how far away it was, how much air was between the laugher and the listener because at night space opens up, distance begins to flex—perhaps because of the dearth of visual stimuli the mind discerns more from the world around it, catches more of what is thrown constantly at it, all the everything fighting for your attention, and it must decide what is important and what is not, and this becomes more difficult at night, so everything strikes you completely new. There was this guffaw that repeated ten times over the space of an hour, at irregular intervals. He marked this down on graph paper: Laughter Incidence, September 27th, and proceeded to start creating data points. There was also the sound of cases of bottles rattling, likely the result of stacks of beer bottles being transported to a party by several different individuals. Some murmuring occurred. Another laugh—this one went on for several minutes, and then the sound of broken glass. And with that Jeremiah was up. He couldn’t sleep again, not that he had tried all that hard to do so for the last several hours, interested as he was in the spontaneous occurrence of sounds happening in the world outside his fourth-floor apartment that overlooked the city.
     It was late. Surely teenagers were out having fun, and that would explain the incidence of laughter. He made another tick on the graph and thought with each data point that he would be able to track the engagement of his neighbors and their guests in entertaining activities. This was good enough, some nights, to keep him involved, for him to feel like he was part of society. He didn’t go out during the day, causing his neighbors to wonder if he was even there at all and not some poltergeist trudging through the apartment building. He met the girl downstairs, who had quite obviously locked herself out and had to ring the series of doorbells—this was just before noon, and he was the only one home, she said, and he almost didn’t let her in, since he had never seen her before either. Why should I believe you? he asked—I’ve lived here for three years and never seen you once. This was possibly not quite true. He had seen several of the neighbors surreptitiously through the windows late at night. Not that he went out of his way to spy on the girls who lived here—they were mostly nurses who worked at the hospital less than a mile away, the hospital that was responsible for the airlift chopper service that happened probably three times a night most nights. He wasn’t a voyeur or anything like that, but he was interested, and people were interesting, and he had seen some of his neighbors when they did not know they were being watched, and he thought maybe he had seen this girl from behind in a bra one time. Not like he could tell her that, or ask if she ever wore a maroon racerback, so instead he just let her in, said fine, came down to the door and flipped the switch. Thanks, she said, which apartment do you live in?
     The top floor, he said, gesturing upwards for no good reason. Which car is yours? Because that’s the only way he knew most of his neighbors was through glimpses caught at night or by their cars parked out back in the covered lot.
     Gold Probe. I live downstairs on the North side.
     She had said her name too, along with thanks, but he had forgotten it already. His apartment had an excellent little deck. He sat out there at night a lot. He recorded some of these nights on tape to play back later when he couldn’t make something out. He did this for no real reason except that he felt the night could use more attention paid to it. Bad things happen then, and you never know what might need documenting later.
     He could have overheard a crucial piece of dialogue that might be used later to win an argument, or he might have evidence of some crime, conspiracy or something else, on tape that he could use much later. He did a lot with tape. Ripped vinyl to CD, mostly, cleaned up the sound, did some light remastering. It was lucrative. It was all done through the mail or through his high speed connection to the Internet and by extension the rest of everything. Very occasionally he would consent to talk on the phone, but that was only with the few clients who had earned this through years of contracts. As far as anyone knew, he physically might not have existed. He had disappeared.
     He was sort of pale, though he used a sunlamp to give him some of what the medical texts said that everybody needs some of. He just preferred it later, when most of the world had returned to the domestic details of their lives, the casseroles they were concocting (and the smoke that their cooking sometimes resulted in, curling through the air like very tiny eels), their episodes of Jeopardy or All Things Considered played via podcast at their convenience. He wasn’t really part of that, he knew. He had given up his role. Had been married, or almost married, twice, to two different girls. Had left one at the altar in front of her and his families and nearly five hundred guests, stood her up as the phrase goes; he had froze, could feel it in his toes in the shoes he was wearing in the rented car on the way there, and he did feel bad about this, but had simply disappeared. No one knew where he had gone. The pressure must have got to him, someone said. Surely he was the victim of foul play, someone else surmised. I wouldn’t have gone through with it either, the father of the bride said, confidentially, afterwards to his wife, who knew their daughter could certainly be a terror. But still I would love to kick his ass when I see him again, if we ever do.
     He had given all that up. It was no great loss. The machine of it could have carried on regardless. And it did. The reception went on. Songs were played. Food was consumed. It was a practical conclusion to a failure of a day. People might as well eat up, the bride’s father said.
     Help us celebrate our loss! said the mother, before she amended it, I mean help us celebrate whatever we have left. Forget about the past. Though the open bar has now become a cash bar. Sorry.
     He knew all of this because one of his friends had done a documentary of the wedding, at his request, and posted it on the web a couple days later as a monument to his presumed sadness. It got out when the news media had descended on the story.
     He missed it sometimes, the world of humans interacting, but not all that much. He’d go to Wal-Mart or one of the 24-hour FoodUSA supermarkets and talk to the unlucky wackos who worked the night shift if he needed conversation. It wasn’t so bad to be gone from it. He was efficient. Set his own hours, obviously. His recordings and his graphs took up a lot of time. And light was so much more pleasurable at night, when it came in smaller doses and illuminated less of each individual story at one time.

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Ander Monson lives in Tucson, where he teaches at the University of Arizona. Two books are forthcoming in 2010: Graywolf Press will publish Vanishing Point, nonfiction, and Sarabande Books will publish The Available World, poems

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