Laughter

Margo put her thumb on her nose, waved her curled fingers at me, and giggled. “Goo-bye!” she said, and I laughed too. She planted laughter in others wherever she went.

The moment she entered the building, Margo announced herself with her high-pitched, unprompted laughter. She was short, with small bones and tiny hands, but she was wide and heavy. Her face was round and irresistible, and she was wearing blue jeans and a blue sweatshirt. As she came down the hall, her walk was slow but lively: dropping one shoulder, then the other, with her head following from side to side, she looked like a merry milkmaid. Margo walked next to the wall, slapping it solidly every few steps. She greeted the supervisor at the lunch cabinet with some standard lines from her repertoire, lines she delivered with spirit: “The boys think I’m silly!… I am not a horse!… The boys want to play football!” These were followed by the jolly laughter that, like her slaps and her strange remarks, accompanied her everywhere: we were always aware of Margo’s presence. I never saw her sad or angry or still; she was always animated, always lighthearted.

For someone so mirthful, though, she was strangely isolated. In the lunchroom she talked a lot, but she conversed little with staff and never with other clients. Yet she was not talking to herself, either. Rather, she broadcast her one-liners over and over, for the benefit of anyone who might be listening. What she said was unrelated to what was going on around her; it was simply a random replay of lines recorded over the years: “I don’t like the Dallas Cowboys!… The boys play basketball!… What’s so funny? Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.” Between remarks she slowly ate her meal, then scavenged crumbs from the table or floor. When she ran out of food, she busied herself by slapping the lunch table, or by picking at the scabs and sores that always dotted the backs of her hands. Every day she sat in the same seat. Her eyes jumped about the lunchroom, not staying anywhere very long: she saw everything but focused on nothing. Throughout the lunch period her laughter, though shared with no one, conveyed good cheer.

On the workfloor, Margo’s performance didn’t vary. Never making an effort, never even looking at her work, she was totally unconcerned with the results. When filling envelopes, she paid no attention to what her hands were doing, and so would end up with crumpled bank statements inside torn, misshapen envelopes. That didn’t bother her a bit. If I asked her to look at what she had just done, she’d sigh and say, “I’m soooo tired. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.” If I tried to guide her hands through this task, they’d become limp; while I manipulated her lifeless fingers, she’d look across the room and grin.

She wouldn’t even go through the motions unless a supervisor was right next to her. She spent most of the work period looking around, laughing gaily at nothing, slapping the table, and resting her head on her hands. Sometimes when her table-slapping got on people’s nerves, we had her stand for a few minutes. As I dragged her leaden chair out from under the table, she’d sit like a lump, laughing. Slowly she’d stand, not resisting, not even frowning. But then, nimbly, she’d get one last shot in, bending over suddenly and rapping the table with her fist.

One chilly afternoon, when clients and staff were milling around outside, waiting for the buses, Paula, our nurse, noticed that Margo’s coat was unbuttoned. She went over to help.

Margo stood passively while she was being buttoned, looking everywhere but at Paula. She saw me, grinned, and squinted playfully. She put her thumb on her nose, waved her curled fingers at me, and giggled. “Goo-bye!” she said, and I laughed too. She planted laughter in others wherever she went.

Her own laughter passed through the world but did not spring from it. Nothing made Margo laugh like Margo.

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