I can hear my children laugh whenever I’m in the basement; I can hear them laugh from down there. I can hear my wife laugh with them, too. I can hear my whole family shake and tremble deliriously to the point of choking with the finest kind of laughter there is or will ever be; so light; so melodious — but only when I’m out of sight.
I didn’t discover it right away; it didn’t occur to me at once. It had just happened — just like that — one fine day, one perfectly typical day, when I had gone down there to fix that goddamn leaking pipe. It was still silent up there; admirably silent even, like inside a school cafeteria after a lunch hour. But the very moment I disappeared behind the door, the very moment I crossed the threshold, I could hear a gradually rising wave of laughter. At first, it was delicate; it was frail, almost timid, as if uncertain whether it should or should not invade our orderly household—our superbly organized household, I might add. It was as if it weren’t certain whether it was appropriate, whether it was acceptable, whether it was alright, to violate the exemplary silence reigning there, as if it were a child for the first time telling a joke in the company of adults. Then it transformed itself into a hint braver chuckling and giggling, only to, a moment later, rise and swell impossibly, and, in the end, erupt with the full force of a long-repressed laughter, like an enormous lake ramming into an enfeebled dam.
I wouldn’t have been alarmed, or, at the very least, surprised, had it lasted a few seconds, a minute maybe, but after a full quarter of an hour of uninterrupted howling and yapping, my mind became boggled — and I along with it.
Was I missing some fun while struggling with this accursed pipe down there? Was I missing something good? Like a compulsive sleeper during a pajama party?
I promptly diagnosed and fixed the leak, then I wiped my hands in my overalls — I wasn’t any kind of do-it-all and know-it-all jack-of-all-trades or anything; I just used them on such rare occasions when I had to repair something around the house, like an unruly toddler donning its bib only when there are generous aunts and uncles in sight. Impatient to find out what all that fuss up there had been about, I slipped out of them and threw them on the old washing machine sitting in the corner by the stairs, like a forgotten prop from an old movie set.
When I climbed back up the stairs, when I came back there, I found them oddly silent and motionless, like a band of puppets. They sat there, around the table, all of them, their backs straight, their hands and legs perfectly aligned, like dolls put on display in the toy shop window. It was as if they were hiding something; it was as if there were some conspiracy underway. As I approached them, their still mirthful eyes rapidly jumped from one of them to another, however, while stubbornly avoiding catching my gaze, like interrogated suspects trying not to look straight at a blinding lamp. Their cheeks were still aflame, still tinged with the telling blushes from all that laughing till breathless. They cleared their throats — sore from prolonged snorting and guffawing — whenever I wasn’t looking.
I tried hard to feign amusement and to infect my tone of voice with a dash of levity, like a student who has forgotten to do his homework and who now tries to sweet-talk and charm his way out of this predicament.
Then I asked them: “What’s the matter, gang? What’s the matter?” a fake and wide smile didn’t leave my face for a second, then for another one. “I could hear you laughing from down there. Probably even the people living down the street — what am I saying? — the whole neighborhood could hear you laugh. What’s so funny? Tell me.”
But the only kind of response I could elicit from them was more of that blank staring and looking innocent, like a drunk policeman being stopped by a sober one.
That was how it had happened.
As I said it before, I wouldn’t have been troubled by it, baffled by it, or so much as interested in it, had it happened only once, just once — that one time. But it turned out to be only a beginning.
I would often hear the whole house resonate with the cheerful notes and tones of their delirious laughter; I would hear the windows and glasses tremble in accordance with the joyous vibrations of their wild roaring and cracking up — but I would also find the pipe, that damned pipe in the basement, leak more and more often.
I would go there; I would march down there resolutely, like a general preparing himself for a battle. I would put on my faithful overalls waiting for me on top of the carcass of the washing machine that would hand them to me, like a loyal aide. Then I would pick up a pipe wrench — my only weapon and true friend in this fight — only to be reached by the first and shy testimonies to their merriment.
I became furious. I couldn’t eat; I couldn’t sleep; not to mention that I couldn’t focus on my job, where I would constantly find myself gazing into nothingness, gazing right through the window, gazing at the pleasantly tranquil cityscape in search of the faintest displays of serenity and harmony, only to become violently startled out of that stupor, out of that elusive haven of mine, whenever I heard someone so much as giggle at the office — where I was a chief accountant. I would jump up at the sound of it, like a thief seeing a flickering police beacon. I became allergic to laughter — an innocent smirk would upset me and get me all worked up for the whole day as strongly as if it were an insult.
I couldn’t go on like that anymore; I had to confront them, I had to confront my wife about all that shrieking tomfoolery — the sooner the better; that was that.
But before doing it, I had decided to meet with some of the guys in the local bar, and ask for their counsel, like a warrior before departing for a decisive duel. I met with them there, and we discussed my roaring problem minutely amid the general clamor of this crowded place and the meowing of a jukebox in the corner — it was too loud for me; it was too loud for me there. One of them, a bearded fella with the ludicrous trucker hat — I had never liked him, all the more so because neither was he a trucker nor could he afford a car — suggested I should go home and deal with it, deal with all this silliness, right away. I stared at him tipsily — he was right; I couldn’t deny it. I had to deal with it; with all this silliness, that is. And then this other guy, a burly grocer, went over to some girl at the other end of the bar, and our little war conference was over.
On my way home, I found out that I was more sloshed than I had suspected, than I had thought before. I knew that I had had a few — of that I was sure — but what I had to face now exceeded my expectations, as if I were a sworn gambler finding not only his pockets empty but also his house locked up and auctioned off.
I was angry with myself; I was even furious — after all, I was in no condition for a serious talk, for a serious discussion, for laying all the cards on the connubial table. How could I be? I slurred my words so much that I could hardly understand them myself. But I tried to do my utmost; I tried to play the part the best I could, like a novice priest who forgets the text of wedding vows.
I fumbled with the key in the lock for too long not to raise anyone’s suspicions — a dead man would have guessed that I could barely tell a keyhole from a nostril. Then I did it; I eased my lanky body inside. I was there; I was home.
I stumbled over the toys scattered all over the hallway floor, like hot coals before some burning ritual or other, and I cursed, too loud not to be noticed. I had broken my daughter’s favorite toy cup — it had a chipped rim now. I closed my eyes helplessly; I could already imagine the uproar she would raise in the morning, in a few hours, when she found out about it, like an alarm siren that no one remembers how to turn off.
Having blundered my way into the dimly lit kitchen, I discovered my wife there, standing over the cold stove, her back to me, her shoulders trembling oddly — as if she were sobbing secretly. I sighed resignedly; I closed my eyes and I sighed again; I swallowed hard, as if I had been professionally eating fire the whole evening.
“What’s the matter, honey?” I blurted out like a fool, trying to prolong this comedy, trying to stall for time, already knowing the outcome of it. “Is it something I had done? Is that what this is all about?”
Then she spoke without turning around to me.
“You’d better go down to the basement, dear,” my wife said, hardly suppressing her laughter. “I think the pipe is leaking again. You’d better go down there.”