Theme II: Free Write

By Yorai Vardi

 

Altenmeyer used to think of laughter as divine.He used to mine for it, everywhere, constantly. As

an American mines for oil, as a child mines for the other side of the earth, Altenmeyer dug,

prospecting for joy. To Altenmeyer there was no other explanation for laughter other than

divinity. He could feel the laughter, born in his loins, could feel it rise upwards from his center;

flooding his organs with light. He had seen it enter the ears of those he laughed around, and

had seen it mirrored, illuminating them. He had seen it make the old young, had seen it erase

the burdens of illness, or death, of every calamity that Eden willed upon mankind. He was very

sure that his was the answer. “To laugh is to see God”, he would proudly declare to his friends,

to his family, and to his pets. Sometimes when the drug of humor weakened his lucidity, he

would even manage to wheeze the phrase out to his plants between shuddering sobs of hilarity.

For years Altenmeyer lived in pious worship of his one divine virtue, and for years he felt

blessed beyond words that he was allowed to practice his religion of mirth. He felt blessed that

his deity came to him when he called on it. He did not dwell on its leaving. He did not consider

what he was doing when he was not laughing. His entire existence was centered on his quick

chuckles and long snorts. He did not consider that when he was not laughing he was unhappy.

Altenmeyer laughed at everything, even at very important things, like death, or very tragic

things, like birth. He did not consider it disrespectful to laugh when others were silent, he simply

accepted that his religion was superior to theirs, and therefore hidden from them; as only an

individual of superior value can fully embrace a cult of superior merit. Altenmeyer was very very

happy.

But one morning, Altenmeyer woke up, and staring at the ceiling noticed that he could no

longer feel the transcendent tickle of divinity in his breast. And when he tried to laugh off the

emptiness there was only a wheeze. And when he tried to laugh at his wheezing, Altenmeyer’s

dark bedroom echoed with a hollow bark. After that Altenmeyer preferred to lay in silence. For

several days and nights Altenmeyer lay thus, not moving, not laughing, unable to fall asleep,

and unable to fully wake up; waiting for a gust of heavenly wind to throw open his curtains and

let in the light of day. It did not, and Altenmeyer lost hope that anything would disturb his stupor.

He resigned himself to knowing that his universe now was confined to the several feet around

his bed, and anything beyond his sphere was permanently beyond his reach. Learning this,

Altenmeyer fell blissfully asleep.

He awoke refreshed, and though he was not cured of his curse, Altenmeyer recognized

that something in him had changed. It was on this day that Altenmeyer began counting the

movements of the shadows on his walls again, and so was aware that he had woken with the

sun. It was also on this day that Altenmeyer’s memory returned and when he looked back on

the time after he lost his laughter, the endless hours of darkness and solitude hardly registered

in his mind, for which Altenmeyer was grateful, if a bit nonplussed that he had gone through a

time so painful as not to register. And so Altenmeyer’s new reality commenced.

On the first day, Altenmeyer turned on his reading light, and was blinded by it’s

brightness, but quickly regained his sight and reached over to his bedstand. Here he had

collected a stack of classics and hoped to find some semblance of truth in the works that man

has turned to for centuries. Altenmeyer read several pages of Shakespeare, but could not find in

himself any laughter. He moved on to Homer, and quickly closed that genius too, as the war in

Troy offended him, and though he thought of promiscuity and infidelity as comical, he was for

the first time struck by the tragedies that accompanied Helen’s elopement, and once again

could not bring himself even to chuckle. When Altenmeyer attempted Proust, he fell asleep, and

when he awoke and pried open his anthology of Borges, Altenmeyer very quickly lost his ability

to breathe at all, as he felt consciously the weight of genius pushing on his chest, leaving no

room for air; much less laughter. Dejected, Altenmeyer returned to sleep.

On the second day, Altenmeyer felt adrift, and nauseous, he tried to see something in

his ceiling. He spent most of the day tracing imagined patterns, trying to find in the blankness

some story of a land far away, whose customs would be so foreign to him they would jolt him

into hilarity once again; but his eyes would always eventually land in the center of his ceiling,

which, when Altenmeyer focused on it long enough, stretched outwards into infinity. Eventually,

infinity caused Altenmeyer to lose his balance, and, adrift in this ocean of white, he fell

backwards, sinking endlessly into the abyss of slumber, never once having attempted to laugh

that day.

On the third day, Altenmeyer felt guilty. He could not figure out why. He closed his eyes

very tightly, but the feeling did not go away. He decided he must figure out what was causing his

guilt, seeing that it would not go away by itself. So Altenmeyer gathered all of his strength, and

sat up, propped upright by his pillows. He slowed his breathing, cleared his mind, and lifted his

palms upwards, grounding himself. Once, not so long ago, Altenmeyer was incapable of

meditating; every time he would close his eyes an idea or image would pop into his head and he

would start to giggle, which would of course turn into chortle, which of course in turn

transformed to guffaws, as limiting one’s laughter is the greatest way to multiply it. This time

Altenmeyer meditated for a very long time. Longer than he had ever sat without doing anything.

The silence did not bring him answers, it only brought him closer to death. Altenmeyer sobbed

for at least twice as long as he was silent.

On the fourth day Altenmeyer grew bored of his ceiling and had a friend bring him

painting supplies. He painted his entire ceiling with stars, suns, and moons, and fell asleep with

his face a masterpiece of paint drips.

On the fifth day Altenmeyer woke up filthy. He resigned himself to the squalor and tried

one last time to amuse himself. He grabbed hold of his member and let loose a stream of urine

that had been building since the night before. It flew gracefully, in a perfect arc, light from the

drawn curtains filtering through it in a shimmering display of golden silk striking its liquid

counterpart. A rainbow flickered on the wall above Altenmeyer’s head for a few brief moments.

This surely would have amused the poor man had he seen it, but his eyes, shut tight against the

self inflicted bombardment, saw nothing. Now Altenmeyer felt he knew true wretchedness. Now

did he understand what Dante understood in composing his Divine Comedy. Altenmeyer had

not the strength to get up and wash himself. He cried for much of the day and fell asleep in a

grotesque, sordid heap.

On the sixth day, Altenmeyer did not open his eyes. He merely mumbled to himself

anything that he could think of to assuage his misery. He pointed out to himself that most of his

life had been happy. “Why should the oppression of a few sad days wipe out a happy life?” he

murmured to himself. “This can’t be real.” He tried to convince himself at one point. “It’s

nowhere near funny enough to be real.” Altenmeyer fell asleep on the sixth day having never

really woken up at all. His feverish mumblings became fainter and fainter throughout the day

until only silence accompanied his weakly wiggling lips, and then darkness came to release him

from his miserable cell.

On the seventh day Altenmeyer rose quietly and washed himself. His ceiling was gone,

and in the light of the sun rising above him he recognized that the world had changed greatly

since he had gone to sleep. After he brushed his teeth he noticed that a tree had taken the

place of the sapling in front of his home, and its branches were casting a shadow into his

topless room. Altenmeyer took this quite calmly, and put on his slippers, eager to make himself

breakfast after over a week in bed, but before he could make his way to the kitchen, an

arresting song stopped him in his tracks. Seemingly in time with the swaying of the branches

above him, a voice which reminded Altenmeyer of figs was singing:

Frogs and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails

And dirty sluts in plenty

Smell sweeter than roses in young men’s noses

When the heart is one-and- twenty

Hawthorns and britches and overstuffed bitches

And a bust like Mama Hen

Their tastes are askew, they’ve nothing to do

When the heart is seven-and- ten

But show ‘em your leg and see how they beg

And offer to make it a quickie

Just give him a chance, and he’ll pull down your pants

When the fucker is five-and- fifty

Altenmeyer heard each syllable of this melody, and with each syllable felt something rise in

him. He closed his eyes quickly and waited for the feeling to pass, praying to whichever God

had yet to forsake him to spare him the trouble of vomiting on the floor. As the voice continued

to sway, spewing rhyming profanity the feeling ballooned in his torso, threatening to overcome

him, yet for a time, Altenmeyer resisted, keeping his composure for a few seconds. The feeling

was uncontrollable, however, and though he fought with all the weight of his will, Altemeyer

burst forth in a rolling, twinkling laughter, a pure expression of joy, as is only heard from

between the lips of small children. It took Altenmeyer almost a full minute to discern among the

swinging boughs of that seemingly ancient tree an almost translucent creature. She appeared

before him, a girl of indeterminable age, swaying, eyes closed, angelic, crooning this anthem to

love. It seemed at first to Altenmeyer that she would not notice him, but as soon as she was

seen, that fig colored voice fell silent, and then once again rang out, not losing any of its melody,

“What are you doing here?”

Altenmeyer was taken aback, his laughter immediately stopped, but the accompanying

mirth still painted on his cheeks and dancing along his soul. The question of what happened to

his roof, and where this tree had sprung from crossed his mind, but fearing that voicing these

questions would make a fool of him, he replied, “What do you mean what am I doing here?

What are you doing up there?”

“I am paying attention to what is paying attention to me!” She called back, her voice clear

and confident, easily overpowering the whistle of the wind flowing over the hole that once was

Altenmeyer’s ceiling to create a hollow whistle, as if a giant were blowing over a bottle.

“But there’s nothing up there to pay attention to you!” Altenmeyer did a quick sweep of

the branches surrounding the girl, to corroborate, and was relieved to find he had spoken truly,

the girl was entirely alone in her tree; there was not a single other living creature in her vicinity;

just her: a Venus among the vines.

“Of course there is!” She exclaimed jumping to her feet in order to stalk down her branch

into the confines of the room, and then dropping nimbly into it. “Every one of the leaves heard

me sing and joined along. I even got the wind to sing with me before you woke up and ruined

everything with your ridiculous eyes. Why do you even have them if you can’t see anything?” By

now this girl, who upon closer inspection appeared to be no more than 12, was standing

defiantly in front of Altenmeyer, the crown of her head upturned so that her eyes, level with

Altenmeyer’s shoulder stared accusingly directly into his nose. “And if you won’t use your eyes,

then at least open your ears!” She raged on, “People have more than one sense for a reason! I

would hope you haven’t gone your entire life not seeing and not hearing! It’s no wonder you’ve

been in that bed for so long! You’re an invalid!”

“What exactly do you mean?” Altenmeyer cried, his shoulders once again heaving with

the ridiculousness of his situation, “How long exactly have you been up there?”

“I’ve been waiting for you since the moment I started waiting, which is quite a long time

to wait, if you want my opinion.” At this point she took on a much smaller aspect, gingerly toeing

the ground, her hands clasped behind her back. “If I wasn’t afraid of waking you up I would have

gone out long ago, but your door is the only way out of the building, and sometimes the people

in that bed go back to wherever they came from; so I didn’t want to force you to stay, in case

you didn’t want to be here.”

Again, Altenmeyer felt the strong urge to request clarification, but again hoping to

maintain his credibility in the eyes of this iridescent child, he merely nodded. “Well, I’m going out

now if you’d like to join me. I need to buy groceries I’m sure, and I can’t remember the last time

I’ve left this room, so I’d be happy to have you along.”

The girl nodded vigorously and bounded to the door, opening it wide for Altenmeyer,

who amused by her eagerness was smiling broadly. The two of them walked out into the hall,

and turned into the elevator shaft, beaming at each other as the doors closed, and together they

descended, giggling all the way, forgetting that their present is Altenmeyer’s past. Forgetting

that they have been living like this for all of eternity. Forgetting that what has passed has never

really passed. Children in born again, and again, until all is black, and only a sarcastic chuckle

disrupts the void.

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