“Togetherness in the Age of Terror” by Rachel Custer

Rachel Custer


After my father yells for the third time from the living
room to close the door, we’re paying to heat the world!
my mother looks at me and we all laugh. When is a door
not a door? she widens her eyes at the grandbabies, one
by one. When, Grandma? When? When? When it’s ajar!
And we laugh again, not because it’s funny, but because
the grandbabies can’t understand, and screw their faces
up trying to cram one thing into the wrong-shaped hole
of a whole other thing. This is us: bad jokes as ubiquitous
as open doors. Two men walk into a bar. You’d think
one of them would have seen it. HAR HAR HAR life
is funny that way did you hear about the priest and the
rabbit? And the children begin: knock knock who’s there
nobody nobody who nobody cares if you fall backward
off your chair and how they throw their heads back and
laugh is the best kind of heaven there is. Dad says what’s
so funny in there? Don’t make me get out of this chair,
come over here so I can hit you. And this is a joke, too,
as old as the other. Older than the joke we all make of
our youngest brother. (Hi, Josh!) If you can’t laugh,
what do you have left? So we laugh, and joke, and laugh
some more, and somebody says hey did you hear about
the man who blew himself up on a bridge in Russia
and, anticipating the punchline, we laugh. But our
brother has his phone in his hand, and his face has
gone still and his eyes are like rabbits trembling
beneath a fox. The children are late to silence, for
the same reason they couldn’t understand the door,
couldn’t fathom what was funny about a jar. Mom
pushes my brother’s plate closer: have some more
food, you’ve barely touched your food. And from
the other room, where he has been watching the news,
and taking our silence for a chance, my father says,
a smile like a whip in his voice: Hey! When is a man
not a man? When he’s a bomb! And we laugh. God
help us, we laugh, because this is us, and because
there is nothing else to do.

Poets Respond
April 6, 2017

[download audio]


Rachel Custer: “Human beings weather traumatic stress in varying ways, one being laughter. My family has always loved to laugh, and used laughter to get through tough times. Family get-togethers are a raucous time. Laughing can serve to distance us from the horror of the terrorist attacks that are taking place increasingly throughout the world, and which we now seem to read about in the news at least weekly. That distance is helpful, of course, but there is a sense that things are reaching a level of hopelessness when it begins to seem like we are no longer even emotionally moved by these attacks. People walk by the actual bodies looking at their phones; people don’t even read the news stories in detail anymore; people can’t maintain that level of fear for that long. So we laugh, then wonder if it’s okay that we laughed, then we cry, then we laugh some more.”

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