The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.
The woman in the truck has haunted me ever since I heard the story. I didn’t see her bloated body on that sweltering night, but my sister and carloads of townspeople did. How could folks, from babies to grannies, be allowed to line up and view the dead woman behind the wheel of her Chevy pickup? Where were the police?
They were right there. Directing the traffic coming across the moonlit field. This was one of those things that happen only in small rural towns or Eastern European countries. Bucharest, Romania or Roberta, Georgia.* They have a lot in common.
The woman had a gunshot wound to the head. Was it suicide or homicide? Either way, her life had been an act of rebellion. One that she or someone else could no longer abide.
I was a rebel by birth. Practically at conception. As my cells formed in my mother’s womb, I was already threatening. My cells fought her cells―and vice versa―due to Rh factor incompatibility. We waged all-out war for individual survival, and both of us could have died. Somehow we lived.
Humor has been the key to my freedom, even as a child. The ability to see life’s minute-to-minute absurdities―as well as the plainly funny in everything―means that I laugh from sun-up to sundown, every hour, every day, and frequently in my sleep. The average four-year-old laughs 300 times daily. The tyke has nothing on me.
I don’t know why I was given this perspective, but it’s always been there. Not in any mindless way. In fact, I’ve managed to endure bone-deep pain only because I kept my wits about me. It is the ultimate coping skill. I’m a jolly person alright, but I distrust anyone who smiles too much. Certain televangelists, for example.
I came up the hard way. My childhood contains that litany of words you’d expect: poverty, abuse, neglect, addiction, violence. I’ve done my time at the bottom of the gulch, perfecting my backstroke in the cesspool. But I’ve also emerged on the other side of this, winning my freedom as a result. My laughter reflects my boundless joy in just existing; perhaps it makes some more aware of what they do not have.
Folks have disapproved of my laughter since I was little. My Me-Maw introduced me to her friends as follows, “This is my granddaughter, the one I told you about that laughs ALL the time.” Her mouth contorting like a cat’s butthole as she said it.
As a teen I was admonished by a priggish aunt, “Young lady, if you’re not careful that cackle is going to get you kicked right out of college!”
I confess that my laugh is full-throttle, loud, deep-belly style, and fierce. Spinal Tap 11. You know when I am in the building. On my third day working at a tony prep school, they redistributed the policy on “maintaining a quiet workplace climate.”
I suppose laughter threatens because it can also signal freedom from societal controls. I once spoke about my memoir before a group of Atlanta’s elite. These were the whitest of the lily-white gentlemen; the oldest old-money crew the city has ever stooped to bow before.
I launched into some self-deprecating jokes about growing up poor and Southern, on the wrong side of the tracks. I played it safe, and they laughed. But then I quoted Leo Tolstoy and revealed that I was halfway well-read and very much unafraid. Bluebloods shifted in their seats. Amusement was replaced with tension.
Trailer park girls can’t be cackling one moment and reciting literary greats the next. Class boundaries must be observed. You can’t be freer than us. Yet again I found myself being the Wrong Kind of Southern. There was no shame in my game, and I didn’t worship at the columns of their Big House.
After my talk, a man flicked a $20 bill at me and said, “Have fun with this, little lady.” The little lady returned the money.
Thanks to the publication of my memoir, I am known for my laugh. People write to say that my laugh helped them to heal―or at least relaxed their sphincter. It’s been suggested that I go to nursing homes and let the residents hear the laughter. I offer a women’s retreat titled “She Who Laughs.” (Note: there’s nothing more rebellious than a group of self-possessed women howling their heads off.)
Maybe next year I’ll present a 24-Hour Giggle Fest. (Okay, that was a joke.) But you get the point: I found my mojo in the very thing that others mocked and tried to squelch. In the end, far more souls are with me than against me.
I need to tell you a bit more about the woman in the truck. Once state authorities arrived at the scene, the local police were ordered to transport her and the vehicle to a secure, secret location. They told the cops not to touch anything. A tow truck arrived and whisked her away.
Inexplicably, the driver took the pickup, with woman in view, straight through town on the way to the location. Another relative witnessed this as she looked out the window at the Dairy Queen. Others saw her head slamming into the steering wheel and bouncing back against the headrest as the driver hit potholes.
I guess I connect to the woman in the truck because her voice was silenced at a time when I was a teenager still finding and doubting mine. My sister regrets going to the field that night. Thirty years later she can’t get the image out of her head. Thirty years later and I have finally told her story.
*The incident did not happen in Roberta, Georgia.