Fiction / Ben Briggs
:: Laugh Track ::
I just need him gone.
Seeing him makes me think about the girl. I don’t want to think about the girl.
I brought it up to my therapist, Emily, and she agreed. It’s my personal space. It’s my home. The weekend was one thing. Now it’s Sunday night. Now I need him gone.
He’s watching Seinfeld in my living room, still drinking beer, still not using a coaster even though I encouraged him to use one. I don’t care that he’s my cousin. I don’t care that he’s trying to help me. I like to read on Sunday nights so I can get my mind ready for work in the morning.
Even from my room I’m unable to do this because he has the volume turned above 40 on the TV. It sounds like it’s at level 45. I put down my copy of The Dance with Anger and walk back into the living room so I can find out when he’s leaving.
Adam’s lying down on my couch as if he owns it. The shreds in his jeans were cool when we were kids, but he’s thirty now. And his hair? Christ. I would tell him to cut it, but if he won’t listen to me about using a coaster, he certainly won’t listen to me about that.
To think he’s a father.
He has to move his feet, leaving only inches for me to sit down. Both hands are behind his head like he’s lounging on a hammock.
“My guy,” Adam says. “You hiding in a cave back there? Thought we were gonna crush a couple movies together.”
I only partially agreed to that. Never actually confirmed.
“I have work tomorrow. I’m getting mentally prepared.”
“Pssst. Feel you on that. The Scaries are no joke. I figured I’d take a few days off myself. Too much going on at home, with all the remodeling and Aria starting school.”
It’s hard to concentrate on what he’s saying because the volume on the TV is so high.
“Have you heard from Lillian yet?”
This makes him sit up straight.
“I was just gonna tell you. She’s gonna stay at her Dad’s for another couple days. It’s good for them to get away.” He pauses. “Anyway, cool if I crash here one more night? Construction guys are gonna be at it in the morning. Too much riff raff.”
He again puts his hands behind his head and leans back on the couch.
“I have work in the morning.”
“It’s no stress on me. I know you’re getting back on the horse, and believe me, by the time you get home tomorrow, I’m gone. Promise you that.”
I nod and take a deep breath. Inhale and exhale, just like I do in my sessions with Emily. I feel my feet on the ground, my back pressing against the couch. If he’s going to leave tomorrow, that should be okay.
“Could you please keep the volume to a minimum?”
Adam looks at me with a sly grin. “It’s the least I can do.”
As I walk back to my room, I can hear the laugh track playing on the TV. Before Emily, I used to think the laugh track was about me. That these people were mocking me. Laughing at me, not with me. Now I imagine it differently. I imagine a group of people locked in a room with seatbelts on their chairs. All of a sudden, a bright light shines in front of them. “LAUGH” the light tells them. So they laugh. They don’t know what they’re laughing at, or about, but they do it anyway. Until it becomes a calling. A way of life for these people. They laugh and laugh until they can’t laugh anymore.
I’m driving to work and it’s raining.
It’s very important I’m on time today, as it’s my first day back in over two months. After the incident, Emily recommended I take time to decompress. But it’s been too long.
Very rarely does it rain in the Bay Area and I didn’t account for this. I’m going to be late because of it. Adam kept the volume above 40 all night. At 1:13am, I went into the living room to tell him to turn the volume down. Of course he was already sleeping. Of course he was. Fortunately, he’ll be gone by the time I get back.
The rain will make me late, but as Emily says, that’s out of my control. She tells me to heighten my senses when I’m stressed. So I start with the rain, knowing I should appreciate the sound it makes against my windshield. It’s a pattering sound. Rhythmic. It lets me absorb everything around me. I feel my feet on the pedal of my Honda Civic. I feel my back against the leather chair. One hand on the wheel, the other resting on my lap. I can taste the banana I had this morning. Deep breaths in. Deep breaths out. There are beautiful things in the world, really. I just have to notice them.
I see the cars around me as I merge off the highway and into the city. There’s a crosswalk up ahead so I slow down. Commuters are still out, even in the rain. Someone’s walking very slowly through a crosswalk so I ease my breaks. They have rain boots on, a blue windbreaker and a black umbrella. I see each step the person is taking. Right. Left. Right. He’s about to pass my car so I put my foot back on the gas. My car starts to move forward, but then he slips. I slam on the breaks. Slips. He’s on his knees, trying to re-balance. He slipped. No one pushed him. Slipped. I didn’t push him. My breaths are fast. Stop it. Deep breaths in, deep breaths out.
The person gets up and waves at me for stopping. I finish my commute to work.
Even with the rain, I’m the first one in the office so I take a seat in my cube. My screens. I missed them. Breathing is easy here.
When people ask what I do for a living, I tell them it will be too complex for them to understand. All they need to know is I’m at a company that values me greatly. It’s also a company I own, as I am a shareholder.
My manager Angela tells me I’m on the fast track for promotion.
I’m an Inventory Control Analyst now, and assuming my performance stays in line, which it will, I’ll become a Senior Inventory Control Analyst in two years. More plants, more dollars. After that, it would likely be another three years before I’m eligible for another promotion. But then, the possibilities are endless. I could become an Inventory Control Project Lead, or I could do a lateral move and become a Senior Production Control Analyst. Unfortunately, the Senior Production Control Analyst role has to line up with East Coast hours with our plant in Massachusetts. So I’d either have to relocate to Massachusetts or be at work by 5:00am each morning. Neither of which I’d be willing to do.
After a few moments of checking email, Angela walks by and stands outside my cube. My colleagues are filing in.
“Well. Hello there, Richard. Welcome back.”
Angela’s leaning against the wall with her left hand on her hip. I don’t know why she stands like that. She’s chewing baby blue gum, just like she always does. It matches her baby blue dyed hair. When she chews, she looks like a dog gnawing at a bone. Which is okay. I can acknowledge this, but not let it bother me.
But, even if it doesn’t bother me, it does impact my performance. I don’t know how to address the issue because the corporate policy states I should discuss disturbances like this with my manager. I plan to re-read the policy for a loophole one evening. Maybe tonight as Adam will be gone.
“Thank you,” I say.
She glances around and lowers her voice. “Did you have any issues with HR, you know, getting paid or… Anything like that?”
I have a lot of work to catch up on, and don’t have time for small talk.
“Nope. All seamless.”
Our team meeting starts in five minutes which will derail my productivity. She’s still standing there though, smiling at me awkwardly.
“I know you like your space, so I’ll leave you be. But remember, my door’s always open if you ever want to talk about your… break, or anything really. Happy to have our number one worker bee back.”
I tighten up for a second, but I have to keep my composure. I have to remember comments like this come from a good place.
“It’s great to be back,” I say.
And it is. This is why, gum chewing aside, I like Angela. She realizes the worth I provide to the company. She can spot talent a mile away.
The team meeting was pointless.
The more time I talk about what I do, the less time I can actually do it. I’m back at my desk now. This is where all the money is saved. I open up my documents and look at all the part numbers. I imagine the dollar savings I’ll be able to generate.
I copy a part number from Excel that’s no longer going to be produced by our company and paste it into the Inventory Management System. I check the inventory levels in all of our plants. I have all the power. 37 units on hand in Tecate, MX, 45 units on hand in Shanghai, CN and 172 units on hand in Champaign, IL. I email the planners for each facility and inform them the parts are going to be discontinued. We won’t be making them anymore, so they need to bleed off the inventory. I’m doing good by the company. Brick by brick. Part by part. I repeat the process for the next part number, and the next one, and the next one.
Before I can blink it’s 5:42pm. I skipped lunch, it appears, but I forgive myself because it was such a productive day. My breaths were controlled. I was present and in the moment. Adam is gone now, so I’ll have my space. I can read, I can make dinner. I can do whatever I want.
I’m in the hallway of my unit, about to open the door when I hear noise from my kitchen. I must be hearing things. It’s impossible for me to be hearing noise from my kitchen as Adam is gone. But when I open the door, it hits me like a tidal wave. Clanging pots and pans, the sizzling of bacon, eggs being battered. Adam is moving throughout the kitchen, playing music on his phone, lining up plates and making a mess. He’s in the kitchen. He’s not gone.
“Ricardo! Welcome back amigo.”
He’s wearing an apron. I had it tucked away above the oven. He must have searched the whole kitchen. Each and every drawer.
“What are you doing here?”
“Your shelves are thin, my brother. Fortunately a little breakfast for dinner never hurt anyone. Want any?”
It’s a mess. Everything is a mess. Why is he not gone?
“I thought you were leaving today.”
“You won’t believe it,” he says, pausing his operation. “Powers out at our unit. Something the contractors did. Maybe a snip where there shouldn’t have been a snip?” He laughs. “I’m no expert though.”
He puts his hand up in mock defense, as if I would ever insinuate him to be an expert in anything. I start to shake when I realize what this means. Not only is he not gone. He’s not leaving.
“Wouldn’t our Mom’s love this? Just me and you, bunking just like old times!” He grabs the skillet and starts pouring eggs on his plate. “Say… Why don’t we just chat tonight? You could tell me about work, how you’re feeling…”
I can tell he wants me to nod my head or to give him some sort of cue that it’s okay he’s still here. Like I can’t read through these little “check ins”. Like I don’t know he’s just the mercenary my family puts on the front line with me. Years ago they were more frequent. But it’s been a while.
I feel like my body is frozen in time. Breathing is getting harder, and I realize it’s inevitable. The longer he’s here, the more I have to think about the girl.
“All the stuff you’re doing with Emily,” he says. “Seems pretty chill. I’m sure I could learn a trick or two myself.”
“Great,” I blurt out.
But I immediately go to my room. I lay with my back on my bed and stare at the ceiling fan. The spinning usually calms me. Should I call Emily? I inhale. No, I can’t. Not right now. I exhale. I can’t let her down. Besides my family, who have no choice, it’s typically two minutes before someone becomes disinterested in me. They turn their head. They change the subject. Emily gives me fifty five minutes. No matter what.
She deserves my best.
For her to see me like this? Not composed? No. She was the only one that believed me. Of course the family didn’t. Why would they?
But the girl. We talked at the social. The girl, with her tight jean jacket. The girl, with her freckles. She should have remembered.
“Are you going to apologize now?” I said to her.
I shouldn’t have said it like that, but I did. It was later in the night. On the dock. It was foggy. It was crowded. It was right before she slipped.
She looked up, then back at her phone. Like I wasn’t there.
“Hey,” I pressed. “What’s wrong with you?”
How could she not have remembered? What happened next was an accident. I know I moved closer. Too close, probably. But push her? No. I didn’t do that. I didn’t.
The ceiling fan is giving me clarity.
Adam’s done this in the past. Stayed at my place, “kept” an eye on me. So why does it feel different this time? Yes, his house is under construction. Yes, Lillian’s parents don’t like him. Yes, he can be a jobless deadbeat. But maybe it’s something more.
Maybe this is all… A set up? Yes. That’s it. Adam supposedly saw everything. Or so he claims. He was only ten feet away from us on the dock. Tops.
But not only that night. A few days later, when it was all settled, when the girl finally got “clarity” and falsely accused me — Adam stepped in and talked to the police, to the girl’s family. I assumed he was helping me. But what if he was doing the opposite? A set up. How did I not think of that? A set up, yes. Is he trying to lure someone here to trap me? It was only a matter of time before someone tried it. Something’s been off. That sly grin on his face. I know he’s working with them.
Stop it. Adam’s my cousin. Deep breath in. We were born in the same town. Deep breath out. The same month. Deep breath in. Our Moms would take us school shopping together. He helped me move in here when I couldn’t afford it myself. Deep breath out. He’s here to help me. Even if I just want to be alone.
I grab a remote from my bedside and turn up the ceiling fan power. It spins faster, but I can still hear the TV volume. It’s above 40. Probably close to 50 now.
Order. Cleanliness. Rules. Emily told me to establish them. They will calm me.
I take more deep breaths and feel the oxygen flow through my body.
No one’s accusing anyone of anything. But, if Adam is going to be here, in my home, I need to address the rules with him. If the house is orderly, there won’t be any problems.
I walk out of my bedroom and into the living room where he’s already stretched back onto the couch. He left his half-eaten plate of bacon and eggs on the floor, not the side table where it should be. I pick up it up stare at the TV. It’s the Seinfeld episode where George, Jerry and Elaine are at the car dealership. Kramer is out test-driving a car.
I turn to Adam.
“Okay, so a couple rules if you’re going to be staying here for a few more days. Over the weekend we were going out. Now it’s the week. Now I have work.”
“Of course.” He perks up.
The TV is blaring. George can’t get food out of the vending machine. The laugh track plays. That laugh track.
“Would it be okay? Could you just turn the volume down?”
Adam flips the volume from level 47 to 42.
“So a couple of rules.”
George is yelling at the dealership owner now. He’s demanding his money back from the vending machine. More laugh tracks. LAUGH.
“Actually could you turn it off?”
I see Adam trying to be patient with me. But I know he’s getting irritated. He doesn’t respect my rules. Inhale, exhale.
“Okay, so just a couple rules. This is a pro-coaster household. I’ve put them on all the counter surfaces for you to use. If you’re drinking beer, which you’ve been drinking a lot of, and I get it, it was the weekend, there’s no problem there. But now… There’s only a few left. For those last few beers, it’s best to use a Koozie. Trash goes in the grey bin. Recycling in the blue bin. I try to recycle as much as I can to eliminate trips to the garbage room. Apparently, there are rats in the garbage room at night. I never go in at night. From 7:00am to 3:00pm is fine in my experience. So if you’re making a trash run, that’s when you make it.”
He nods his head a few times.
“All clear?” I say. “Okay, one last thing. During the week, I’m typically lights out by 9:30pm. 40 is the magic number for the TV volume. You can watch TV all night as long as it doesn’t go over 40.”
“All good bro.” Adam says. “Did you feel better being in the office?”
I shouldn’t have agreed to talking with him.
“I always do.”
“For sure, for sure. You mentioned looking at numbers relaxes you. How was all that?”
Emily is the only person I want to discuss this with. Not Adam. Not now.
“I’m going to read in my room. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Emily would be very satisfied. Expectations have been set. I made rules that everyone, myself included, can follow. I communicated calmly and effectively. And now that I’ve made myself abundantly clear, there shouldn’t be any more issues.
It’s Thursday now. Adam has re-programmed the TV. The volume says it’s at 34. I checked it. But it’s over 40. I know it is. The laugh track plays and plays and Adam joins in as well. He’s laughing at the same pitch. It’s an endless loop of laughter that plays in my head. It won’t go away. It’s been three more days.
I’m trapped in my room, where I’ve been trapped all week. There’s no sign of Lillian or Aria. Adam says Lillian is picking him up tonight, and he’s leaving. But I don’t believe him. I’m running on empty. Every time he starts to follow one rule, he breaks three or four more. Rules I didn’t even know existed.
On Tuesday he was singing in the shower. Loudly. I could hear him from my bedroom. Singing in the shower, that loud, is worse than the volume being over 40. Then later, he left the window open all night. It’s an icebox in here bro, he said Wednesday morning. I wonder why? And then last night, he fell asleep on the couch after ordering delivery. Someone rang the doorbell. Three times. Past 10:00pm. I was already in bed, and not to mention the unit doesn’t allow visitors that late.
Now I can hear the laugh track again.
I look at the clock and see it’s past 7:00pm. It’s officially nighttime. He knows the rules and he’s not following them. I open the door to my bedroom. His bags are packed. He’s really playing the part, pretending that he’s actually going to leave.
I’m panting as I walk up to him on the couch and snatch the remote out of his hands.
“It’s past 7:00pm. The volume is over 40.”
Of course it comes to this. After it happened, after the girl slipped and fell fourteen feet and everyone was shouting and throwing her a life jacket, and everyone was focusing on the girl and only the girl, Adam was looking straight at me. From the other side of the dock. He wasn’t looking at her. He was already accusing me.
“Easy my guy. Are you okay?”
I’m more than okay. I finally understand.
“It’s you. That’s why you’re here.”
Finally, I can hear them. The sirens. They’re coming for me. They wanted to lull me to sleep. It’s been two months since the girl slipped. Just enough time for me to finally become happy again. To get back to the job I love, to find someone like Emily who believes in me, and now it comes crashing down. The only good thing is that the laughter is drowned out, but it’s replaced with the sirens which are getting closer. And louder. I’ll take the laughter over this. Anything but this.
“How long have you been planning this?” I press.
It’s his fault I was even there in the first place. His Mom’s dumb “social” gathering with her college friends. An annual dinner and cruise for the Beta Kappa class of 87. What a scam. I shouldn’t have let him drag me there.
I was outside the restaurant, playing Tetris on my phone, when I met the girl.
“Why are you out here by yourself?” she asked.
When I told her I had work in the morning, and that it was an important call, and my voice couldn’t be raspy, she rolled her eyes.
“It’s not like you’re the CEO,” she said.
“Well, I do own the company,” I said. “I’m a shareholder.”
And then she laughed. Right at me. All night she was laughing, walking around the social, telling other strangers how ridiculous I was for thinking the truth. Laughing. What if someone there worked for my company? She had no right.
I’m standing firmly over Adam now, and that’s when I see the girl on the dock, backing away from me. Adam’s scared of me. Just like she was.
“Hold on dude,” Adam says. “What are you talking about?”
The stupid grin is off his face. It’s about time. I knew he was up to something.
“Answer the question.”
“Easy bro.” He puts his hand up. “Can you back up just a little?”
I take one step closer.
“I let you into my house. And you treat me like this? I thought we were family.”
There are more sirens. Fire-trucks too. The whole city is coming. There’s no crowded dock this time. Just me and Adam.
“Bro, we are family. Why don’t you sit down. Have you called Emily?”
I clench both my fists and I’m shaking. He can see it and I don’t care.
“How long have you been planning this? When you called me to stay here, was this the plan all along? I bet it was! I’m sure Lillian and Aria are just laughing their asses off. What about the police? What did they have to say about me?”
His expression flips again. He looks at me with clarity, like he’s finally going to spill it. That it’s all a set up. That he made a mistake.
“You did it… Didn’t you?” He pauses for a few seconds. “You pushed that girl off the dock.”
My heart is racing. The sirens are getting louder. They’ll be here any second.
“No. She slipped. I didn’t push her.”
I’m closer now to Adam. I could reach him if I wanted to.
He wags his finger and stands up. “You know what? I don’t need this. Lillian’s gonna be here any minute. Here’s to thinking you actually wanted my help.”
“Wait. I didn’t push her.”
“Yeah. Tell it to your shrink.” He grabs his bag and walks to the door. He’s shaking his head, refusing to look at me. “Fucking lunatic,” he mutters.
Once he leaves, I walk over to the window and know I’ll see the police, the ambulance, the fire-department, everyone. They’re all here to arrest me for something I didn’t do. But when I look out the window, I see a car I recognize.
She’s standing outside her car on the sidewalk. Aria is in the back seat. Adam walks up to Lillian and whispers something, which makes her look up at the window. I duck and sit down on the floor now. They can’t see me. The laughter is gone. The sirens are gone. So I close my eyes.
But I open them back up immediately. I can’t rest. I start pacing and feel it coming through me again. Like a lion, ready to pounce. My apartment is spinning and winding in every direction. I walk to the kitchen and grab a hammer. Do I hear the laugh track again? I don’t know. The breathing methods, my rules – they’re all useless. Especially to a piece of shit like me. A piece of shit that scared a girl off the side of a dock. I pick up my phone to call Emily. My heart’s pounding so hard it hurts.
“Richard,” Emily answers. “Are you okay?”
I’m dizzy. I can’t say it but know I need to. I’ll spend a whole lifetime like this if I don’t.
“It’s just… How come I’m not better?! You said I would be!”
The line is silent. I’m gripping the hammer tight.
“I admit it, okay?” I point my finger at my chest “I scared her, and she slipped! But why? Why aren’t I fixed yet?”
I glance out the window. Adam and Lillian are gone. The police aren’t here. No one is. Emily finally answers. “I want you to take a deep breath in.”
So I do. I slouch on the wall and fall back to the floor. The hammer slips out of my hand.
“Now take a deep breath out.”
I do that too. Deep breaths in, deep breaths out.
“This is a process,” she says. “A slow one. But you can’t give up now.”
My breaths are slowing down. The room’s no longer spinning. I want to start everything over. Go back to that night and change it all. But I can’t.
“Let’s do an exercise,” she says. “I want you to think of a time when you were happy. It doesn’t matter when. Let’s go to that moment.”
Happy? I can do that. Just one time. I close my eyes and think of how I’ll answer.