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The Laughing Man

The bus, as usual, was quiet when he climbed in as proportionately quiet, at any rate, as a theatre with dimming house lights.

The Comanche club, you may not have heard of it, is an organization devoted to the betterment of young boys through camaraderie and physical fitness. The boys range from eight to ten or so, a good distance from the perilous hormonal threshold that will transform their lives in every way possible. As such, their primary focus is to be boys and have fun doing boy things, which involves first and foremost the pursuit of age-appropriate sporting activities (baseball) as well as the development of a narrative that each boy has, a narrative of where he came from and where, if anywhere in particular, he is going. I say boys tend to possess such inner stories not because girls don't as well, but because little girls tend to mature much more quickly than little boys and, with similar speed, develop values that they will keep for life. A girl can be fully-formed around fourteen; a fourteen-year-old boy never possibly could. A young teenage girl may have loved and lost and loved again; a young teenage boy will have gotten a glimpse at this mysterious power from only two sources: from books, in which love may play a greater or lesser role, and from observing older boys, whom we eventually begin to call men.

What is a man? Every society has its list of ingredients. Being familiar with not too many men at this point, our Comanche club members unanimously nominate their Chief (all Comanche tribes need chiefs) as the best example of what they think a man is. A description is provided by our narrator:

John Gedsudski, of Staten Island. He was an extremely shy, gentle young man of twenty-two or -three, a law student at N.Y.U., and altogether a very memorable person .... he was an Eagle Scout, an almost-All-America tackle ... and it was known that he had been most cordially invited to try out for the New York Giants' baseball team. He was an impartial and unexcitable umpire at all our bedlam sporting events, a master fire builder and extinguisher, and an expert, uncontemptuous first-aid man .... The Chief's physical appearance ... is still clear in my mind. If wishes were inches, all of us Comanches would have had him a giant in no time. The way things go, though, he was a stocky five three or four no more than that. His hair was blue-black, his hair-line extremely low, his nose was large and fleshy, and his torso was just about as long as his legs were. In his leather windbreaker, his shoulders were powerful, but narrow and sloping.

What elements of this passage are poppycock and what are the plain truth? Well, in the Chief's "leather windbreaker," which will not be worn at a key moment later in our story, his shoulders were probably indeed "powerful." What they were for certain is more powerful, more manly, and more imposing than any of the shoulders of the Comanches, with our nine-year-old narrator being no exception. Everything about the chief says man, strong man, tough man, a man's man. We have left out, however, the Laughing Man.

To describe the tortures the Laughing Man endures to achieve that hideously ironic moniker is hardly worth our consideration. His tale, as it were, is merely a pile of well-boiled clichés woven into a preposterous and never-ending plot. It was begun by the Chief to appease his weary tribe on the bus ride home every afternoon, a time in which what weighed upon the Comanches' minds was why they could not always be Comanches:

We Comanches relied heavily and selfishly on the Chief's talent for storytelling .... Once he started narrating, our interest never flagged."The Laughing Man" was just the right story for a Comanche. It may even have had classic dimensions. It was a story that tended to sprawl all over the place, and yet it remained essentially portable. You could always take it home with you and reflect on it while sitting, say, in the outgoing water in the bathtub.

The story even features one of literature's oldest chestnuts: the child who was kidnapped by bogus parents, and who is really the child of a king waiting to be rescued. Except that the king and his queen are not royalty at all, but a pair of missionaries, and the kids who so adore the Laughing Man's tale are his own progeny:

I was not even my parents' son in 1928 but a devilishly smooth impostor, awaiting their slightest blunder as an excuse to move in preferably without violence, but not necessarily to assert my true identity. As a precaution against breaking my bogus mother's heart, I planned to take her into my underworld employ in some undefined but appropriately regal capacity. But the main thing I had to do in 1928 was watch my step. Play along with the farce. Brush my teeth. Comb my hair. At all costs, stifle my natural hideous laughter.

Perhaps I had not mentioned that these events occurred in 1928; perhaps it does not matter. We have all known young boys who like to think of themselves as secret operatives in a world of infinite codes. Yet the Laughing Man, forced into his despicable life by despicable cruelty, has somehow evolved into a hero for these callow ignoramuses; he is the literal lone wolf, with his best friend being a canis lupus called Black Wing. When the Chief stops the bus on an unusual corner, "some twenty back-seat drivers at once demanded an explanation," but he simply hushes the jeers with another installment of the saga. Again, this does not matter; only a fool would expect more. What matters is the Laughing Man, which doesn't seem to interest the chief quite as much as a young lady by the name of Mary Hudson.

Mary Hudson is one of the three girls the narrator has ever seen who were blessed with "unclassifiably great beauty at first sight"; the other two are so superbly and pithily described that we shall leave them as enigmas for the curious reader. This fact is important in the way that, however much he may deny it, a woman's beauty is important to a man. A woman's beauty is what most makes her different from men; it remains her most feminine ability, the ability to be something completely different, and exotic, and delicious, and wonderful. Over time, some men grow immune to all but the most ravishing of beauties, the true "lookers" or "knockouts" (women are attributed some of the finest terms in a man's imagination, as well as many others) that one comes across once in a very blue moon. But we are still dealing with the world of little boys, little boys who "for poise" would "pick ... up a stone and throw it against a tree," who sometimes display that "some-girls-just-don't-know-when-to-go-home look," a policy most of them will radically reverse with time. So when Mary Hudson insists on playing baseball, insists that the Chief, to whom she nurses an unknown relationship, let go of her bat, and then swings "mightily at the first ball pitched to her and hit[s] it over the left fielder's head," we get a most complimentary remark from our narrator: "It was good for an ordinary double, but Mary Hudson got to third on it – standing up" (later on we are told that "she happened to be a girl who knew how to wave to somebody from third base"). We wonder, however, with all this admiration, whether she would take umbrage at the Laughing Man's referring to her as Black Wing.

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