We sold canned laughter on the boardwalk, my ma and me. This
was how I spent my youth – hawking giggles as the sea wind blew my
dress every which way and seagulls squawked and swooped, swiping
soggy chips from tourists as they strolled past. During the day we sold
good times, and during the night we produced them. When I was a kid
she’d tickle me until I spewed shrieks and then she’d hold the cans over
my mouth and watch as the laughter convulsed out of my body and
into each can. As I got older things became more democratic. We’d take
turns cracking jokes over the kitchen table, the other one depositing their
laughter into the cans.
Ma was the expert on laughter. She could tell you the subtle but
significant differences between chuckles and chortles, giggles and snickers,
howls and roars. She could rattle off the different mental and physical
effects of each kind of laugh, what laugh was best for those looking to
reduce waistlines, for old friends remembering the past, for over-the-moon
newlyweds, for the bitter looking to hurt their betrayers. She’d learned that
laughter keeps best in warmth, so she knitted covers for the cans, stacking
rainbows on our boardwalk card table. The laughter market had grown
pretty scant over the last few years, and as unpaid bills made towers
in our kitchen, the manufacture of our high spirits waned. Sometimes it
wasn’t so easy to keep laughing through the worry.
Even so, we liked to keep a can or two for ourselves. When times
were really tough we’d sit around the old kitchen table, a three-legged
driftwood job, and we’d split a tin, taking turns sipping and letting the
giggles bubble under our skin and warm us in our knitted shawls. Winter
laughter was the rarest kind of laughter in those times, but also the most
potent and when you popped the seal on the can, the aroma of cinnamon
and cloves permeated the room, the hearty chuckles spicy and warm as
they tumbled down into your chest. While we shared the laughter my
mother would regale me with stories from the fruitful time in her youth
when the sitcom was king and the canned laughter trade was booming.
Her father would pile the kids in the back of their Fuego and they’d join
him while he made his deliveries to the T.V. studios. Ma said that the
actresses would flock from the lots to the car and lean into the passenger
window, taking sips from the can he would offer them and chuckling
huskily with lowered eyelids.
Once I asked her what had changed between her youth and mine.
She said, It was the times that did it. People don’t want to be told when to
laugh anymore. Problem is – they don’t know how or when to do it. They
Amaryllis Gacioppostudied writing in Sydney, Australia. She is currently
a drifter, and has had fiction published in three editions of The UTS Writers’
Anthologyand Going Down Swinging.