He said it was a twenty minute walk from the road, but it took us close to an hour to get there. It wasn't all his fault. He didn't know it would rain.
It was really coming down when we met at the overpass. He asked if I wanted to do this another day, but I was dying to see it. I'd tracked the story this far and couldn't wait to see if it stood up.
We slogged through the mud while the tall pines shuddered around us. He was a stout tree trunk of a man who looked like he hiked through punishing weather on a regular basis. I like to think he was impressed that a coddled city boy like me could keep up, but I don't really know what he thought of me. Mr. M, as I'll call him, wasn't openly judgmental, but I got the distinct impression I wasn't the sort of person he wanted to deal with. I know he was surprised to learn the yarn had travelled so far. He begrudgingly agreed to show me what I was looking for and gave me the facts straight from the horse's mouth. He'd even let me publish it as long as it didn't lead more people his way.
Mr. M was more personable once we'd met face to face. He never stopped talking during our trudge. He was brimming full of stories about his neck of the woods. There were funny ones, tragic ones, strange ones, and pointless ones. Each one led to another. Eventually the chain took him back to the story that brought me here. It was one he rarely told.
"It's true you can die laughing," he said after he'd finished testifying to the fact that clocks often stop when people die. "That's another one lots of folks say is an old wives' tale. That's just 'cause they don't want to think too hard about what it'd be like if it were true. It's true, though. It was true enough for old F. C." He said the man's full name, but I prefer to pretend I never heard it.
This was as the rain was dying down and I'd decided it was safe to take my notebook and pen out of my raincoat, which halted the story for a moment.
"I want to see that when we're done here. There's some things I don't want leaving this forest."
I acknowledged that and he continued.
"You get the funniest surprises in life. Crazy garbage that don't make no sense. Makes you wonder who's really up there turning the big wheels. A. G. got a preserved tongue in the mail. Postal mix-up. B. N.'s little girl found a suicide note from the school janitor collecting dust in some nook or cranny. The guy hadn't worked there for three years. Never offed himself, of course. He's in jail now for embezzlement. I don't know what the point of that was. Dr. K.'s got a silver coin his old man found in a largemouth bass. Minted in India or Nepal or one of those places. Can't remember. It's at his office if you ever want to see it. And C. J. at the bait shop has that big purple rock that was sticking out of his roof one morning. They say it's the wrong kind of rock for a meteor. Sure looked like it fell out of the sky. But what F. C. got...Christ Almighty! It beats all."
I asked for details about a few of those chestnuts, but he wanted to talk about F. C. instead.
"I wasn't there when that crazy thing turned up, but I was there when he gave up the ghost. I heard him and had to see what was so funny. Lots of us did. That laughter carried a long way. It wasn't just F. C. Everybody was laughing like damn fools when I got there. After a while they put themselves back together. He didn't."
I asked him to repeat something I wasn't sure if I'd heard correctly.
"He gave up the ghost. Don't they say that where you come from?" He paused a moment, as if thinking about the meaning of the figure of speech for the first time. "I sure hope his ghost made it out of that body all right."
There was another thoughtful pause before he returned to the story. "I got filled in on what happened, of course. He'd got a heaping eyeful of that whatnot and just lost his grip. Both really and proverbially. It fell off the porch into the snowberry bushes and he collapsed in a chair. Lots of folks gathered. It was a real odd moment. No laughing matter; except it was."
That last sentence was fortunate enough to be punctuated by distant thunder. We both stopped walking and looked around. The grey sky looked ominous, but not yet perilous. Mighty evergreens, colorless in the dim light, were writhing but not yet cracking.
After a minute's thought Mr. M told me we were probably safe. I didn't argue. We pressed on.
"His heart stopped. There was no doubt about that. Stopped too long to start back up. They can do that, you know. But not for F. C. He was long gone. The medics were giving each other the weirdest looks. Damnedest thing they ever saw. But there was no question of his condition. Dead."
My notebook was getting wet, so I put it away again. He asked about my note-taking, which led to a conversation about the different ways people record things. It took some prompting before I heard more of the story.
"Pretty near everybody thinks old F. C.'s six feet under. That wouldn't have worked out, though. Nothing in that coffin but sand. I'm one of not very many that know where he really is. Might be the only one left in these parts. Most of 'em moved out not long after. It was real troubling."
That was when Mr. M. pointed out an overgrown building up ahead. "We're here."
I walked a circle around it. I thought there was a decent chance I'd soon be walking into a prank. It was an unremarkable old shed dwarfed by the moss-strangled trunks that surrounded it. It was rusted metal with a wooden door and no windows. Nearby a cross made of two by fours was slowly being reclaimed by the land. There were animal tracks in the soft ground, but no person had been there recently.
When I completed the circuit, Mr. M was standing at the door fiddling with a key ring.
"Ready?" he asked once he'd selected the right key.
I really wasn't, but I said, "Yeah."
He removed the padlock and rammed his bulky body against the stuck door until it opened. He pulled a cord, and a dusty old bulb flickered to life.
I stopped in the door frame when the room lit up. The shed was partitioned to leave a rectangular space about six by eight feet. There in the middle was a rusty old chair with a body sitting in it. He was wearing the remains of a red flannel shirt, denim overalls, and leather boots. His willowy hands were folded in his lap and his torso and head were slumped against the back of the chair; his empty sockets looked right at me. There was nothing left of him but bones, cartilage, and a little sinew. He didn't have lips or even a throat.
But oh how he laughed.
His jaw never stopped moving. His voice was only a little weak, only a little hoarse. I can still hear it in my head. You could call it a loud chuckle or an understated cackle. An energetic but hollow laughter that followed an unending unvarying rhythm of eight beats to the bar. The laughter would rise and fall but never dwindle away. It rattled my nerves. It shook me right down to the bone. It just wouldn't stop.
Mr. M wore a troubled expression when he looked at what remained of his old friend, but it was clear he'd grown accustomed to the weird spectacle.
I hadn't. Hearing about it ahead of time did nothing to dull the shock. The cold air seemed to grow infinitely colder. It was hard to get it into my lungs. I almost fell on the floor.
"He never stopped laughing," Mr. M. said. With a nervous chuckle he quickly added, "Well, I don't have to tell you that. It's plain as day. I'll be surprised if either of us live to see him pipe down."
There were no other chairs so I sat on the floor in the farthest corner. Mr. M. kept talking while I recovered from hyperventilating, only once stopping to ask how I was holding up.
"He'll never stop," he continued. "Not 'til there's nothing left of him. Hell, maybe not even when the world ends around him. He'll get the last laugh."
Mr. M stared at the body in silence for a minute or two before his booming voice fired up again. "Christ! What a thing?"
He gave me a hand when I was ready to get up. Once I was steadily on my feet he held up another key from the ring.
"Want to see what made him laugh?"
Written by Floyd Pinkerton