The Prankster’s Laughter Stone-Skips Across the Lake

by Zoe Rhine

However old you are when you can walk down a long yard without falling down but your legs are still chubby, is how old I was.

My father was standing at the end of our dock looking out over the water. Even at an early age, I hadn’t known my dad to be pensive, but he had on his black ribbed polo shirt and black cotton pants. When I reached him at the end of the dock, and held up my hand, he turned to me. It was not my dad, nor any man I knew. I turned and ran screaming back up to the house where my mother stood, having watched it all. She was bent over laughing so hard she couldn’t stand up straight. She couldn’t pick me up and hold me.

When my brother and I were still very young, our parents took us to a drive-in movie theater to see the 1960’s Hitchcock movie Psycho. At the most horrifying moment in the film when the camera turns to a woman’s corpse in a rocking chair, Mother turned to my brother and me in the back seat and with both hands outstretched she screamed. My brother, five years older, said it took him months to be able to sleep without a light on.

When I was nine or so, I came across a neat trick. You get an egg out of the refrigerator and set it on a table beside you. Then ask someone to sit down on a chair facing away from you. You put a cupped hand on top of their head, smack it with your other hand and then draw your fingers slowly down over their head. I tried this on my friend Wayne. I can barely remember what he looked like—a bit chubby. He played Tom Sawyer in our sixth-grade play. My mother watching it all, said, “Let me try.” She walked around behind Wayne, picked up the real egg, cracked it on top of his head and laughed until she almost couldn’t breathe. After I remembered this story, I wondered if Wayne ever came back to our house.

Mother was, I guess, born a prankster. She told me once about being in the barn loft and peeing down on her younger brother Budd below her. I’m sure that was hilarious to her.

We lived at Turkey Foot Lake, the largest of the Portage Lakes outside Akron, Ohio. I swam before I could walk, and we ice-skated in the winter with car tires on the banks blazing with small fires.

We lived next door to a boat landing, Howie’s, that had a restaurant. One winter evening we walked across our snowy front yard for a fish dinner. I fell down in the snow, and Mother said I had a funny look on my face. When she bent down to brush me off, she realized she had forgotten to put underpants on under my dress. Did she laugh and did she run back to the house? I don’t remember. But it was a story she liked to retell.

Some nights I would crawl in bed with her. One night I overestimated the width of the bed and after crawling over her legs I kept going and landed on the floor. I can see how the plunk of my body would have made her laugh. I laughed, too, for a little bit. I fell asleep next to her feeling her body moving like hiccups, trying to stop laughing.

I sit with the Prankster tonight, as she’s dying. She used to put little notes in my lunch bag most days. Often, when I got home from school, she would have me sit cross-legged on her lap on the couch and tell her about my day. When my dad was away late at night, she’d make popcorn and we’d sit and watch TV.

And then, so quickly, mother is dead, but looking just like she has to me for so many long days I’ve been sitting with her. It was not scary at all. Nor was her actual death. It was actually kind of efficient, a letting loose of the liquid buildup in her lungs, once, twice, a frown each time, the sound of her passing gas, like a great exhaling. I was sitting on her bed with her and holding her hand, telling her I love you, I love you, I love you.

After I had packed up her belongings at the nursing care center, I sat with her one last time. I looked quietly and calmly at her face. It was all right, even though I had had to carry the burden of her dying all along because she would never accept the reality of it. And then, all of a sudden, I realized she might sit straight up in bed, raise her hands with her fingers outstretched and scream.

I think that at the lake now, even eight hours north and some sixty years later, you could still hear the notes of the uncontained, unapologetic, upended laughter, if you listened close enough.

Zoe Rhine is a retired Buncombe County special collections librarian where she started an Asheville history blog in 2013, HeardTell, and then compiled a book from the posts, Hidden History of Asheville, published by Arcadia’s History Press, 2019. She received her Master of Fine Arts from Goddard College, Montpelier, Vermont in 1989. She has published creative nonfiction stories and taught creative writing at UNC Asheville. Along with her creative nonfiction, she continues to research and write about Asheville’s historic Black community. She is currently writing “Mother Stories.” She finds joy in flower and vegetable gardening, swimming, and tending to her milk goats and chickens. She lives with her wife on their farmette in Weaverville, North Carolina.