When I was six, Ma said my job with my baby brother Milo was to get the giggles out. I rushed in the door after school, anxious to help Milo release the pressure of his trapped giggles that she said had built up like bubbles of stomach gas and had to be popped. As he crawled away on the rug, I grabbed a stuffed dog and chased him, barking. I caught him, turned him over, and blew zerbits on his belly button, but he had a serious nature. It was hard work to raise a smile.
My aunt, who transported me back and forth from school said, "He ain't laughing because he ain't got a father." She glared at my mother. "Milly can't keep a man around here."
Our family was Milly, Milo and me, Marcus. And Aunt Jules who went to work at the Supermart so Ma could care for Milo. My mother's childhood with Jules, her older, jealous half-sister, left her determined to teach me to be a good brother to Milo.
"I'm the man around here," I said. I stood as tall as I could, pointed my finger at the bedroom and said "Go to your room young man and don't come out until you're ready to giggle."
Milo pushed himself up to his sitting position, stared at me for a long minute, pausing as he did when he was taking a pee in his diaper, then burst out laughing, smiles all over his pretty face which looked like our Ma.
As we grew older, at family parties, the aunts, ladies who weren't anyone's sister that I knew of, fawned over Milo's blonde curls, our mother's wide eyes and chubby cheeks, while the men, who we were told to call uncles, sorry for my plain face, took me outside to throw a ball around. They said, wasn't it odd I looked so much like Uncle Bill? Uncle Bill had a square jaw, a balding head, and smelled like cigars, but ever since he danced on the patio table once during a birthday party for Ma, I adored him. He would do anything I asked: serve ice cream for breakfast, hold a spoon on his nose for three minutes, or carry a Whoopee cushion in his back pocket for surprising everyone when we sat down to dinner. Before he left, he built my fourth grade Mission Project and said it was okay to tell the teacher I did it.
Into high school my brother's serious nature raised the bar for me and I had to work much harder to get laughs. No more knock-knock jokes: I had to develop full-on routines. By then Uncle Bill had moved away, and mother suggested I sign up for an improvisation workshop after school. Aunt Jules called me a show-off but Ma said I could be an actor someday.
I went to college on a church scholarship, but dropped out after a year. I yearned to work the clubs; I needed the stimulation of a microphone in my hand. When I look out from the stage, at the people sitting at tables, nursing a beer or a whiskey, a lonely old man, or two ladies together, heads bubbling up out of the smoky darkness, the smell of nuts, beer and sweat in my nose, I feel the desperation, the pressure inside them, the ache of sadness, swelling up like gas. They all need laughs to get through a lonesome Sunday, or a lost love, or wondering who their father was.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Jeanne Althouse. All rights reserved.