by Brad Koski
John Adams called to say he’d be visiting my town soon. He’d be speaking nearby, at a convention in New Orleans, and he wanted to have dinner with me at some point. He said something that made me laugh. I don’t remember what had been funny, but there was an awkward silence afterwards, and then I remembered that I had stolen his laugh. It made him stop cold in his tracks – he never regained the thread of our conversation.
John Adams was a rommate from college. He had been on the fast track since birth. I stole his laugh years after college, shortly after he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as the youngest head coach to win the NCAA basketball championship.
I didn’t feel bad about stealing his laugh. John lived 800 miles away, and I knew he’d probably never find out. Besides, I had rationalized, he’d probably stolen it from somebody as well.
John called me the week before his arrival. He unveiled his plans regarding me: we’d meet for drinks Saturday, go to dinner, and visit some jazz clubs.
The day before John arrived I woke earlier than normal. In a series of previous apartments, it never failed that my bedroom windows admitted too much light. The curtains or blinds were always of the cheapest quality and very filthy. But this apartment came with a pulldown shade, and it was rare that I didn’t receive a restful sleep.
The alarm clock vibrated alive with an FM morning show. I liked to wake to that station because the real-life couple’s rehearsed banter drives me out of bed with such aggression that my adrenaline juices me a bit. I had things to do that day. A kid had threatened to quit the team if I didn’t talk with his girlfriend at Denny’s.
Binh Nguyen was a sophomore receiver, listed at 5’ 8’’ and 135 lbs. He’d gotten it into his head that he should be a starter. He thought his girlfriend would communicate better than he, so he arranged for me to meet with her at 7 A.M.
Lastrada was chewing a piece of bacon when I arrived. I sat opposite her in the booth and ordered the $2.99 deal.
“Don’t know what you’re missing,” she said. “He’s fast.” She also had the $2.99 deal and had put her green wad of gum on the edge of her plate. Its green-apple flavor penetrated the breakfast smell, even the bacon.
“Is that a new piece of gum?” I asked.
She looked at it. “Yeah.”
“You put a fresh piece of gum in your mouth when you knew your breakfast was about to come?”
She wore dangling, faux-Arabic earrings that probably spelled her name. “Here’s what I want.”
Lastrada was in my American History class. Like her sister, who had graduated two years earlier, Lastrada had a problem with her mouth hanging open. It must have been a genetic problem, something to do with the hinge of the mouth, if there is such a thing. Though unlike her sister, who was dumb as dirt, Lastrada was equipped with an encyclopedic knowledge of history. Her lowest score in class was a 97. When her chin is resting on her hand, her mouth closed, she is a rather attractive girl whose attentive brown eyes and resolute nose bridge become the focus of her face.
“Run a play for Binh. It’ll shut him up or prove him. Either way, you win.” She picked at her eggs.
“He’ll get crushed,” I said.
“Like you care.” Her nose held a silvery fleck of a nose ring, like morning-after debris from a New Year’s Eve party.
“True. But I’d hate to see you with a maimed boyfriend.”
My food arrived. The eggs were runny.
“I won’t grade your papers anymore,” Lastrada said, her mouth firmly shut, serious. “And name one student who could correct your answer keys.”
I sprinkled some black pepper over my eggs. I mixed it in. “Tonight’s too soon. I’ll run a play in practice next week, see what happens.”
Lastrada smiled, popped her green-apple gum in her mouth, and slid out of the booth.
I’d been an assistant football coach for ten years at East Plaquemines High, and then our head coach became an assistant with Louisiana Tech. I had the reputation as being a motivator of the straight-shooter method, so my name came up and I accepted the head coach position.
It had its perks. Mainly, my teaching load (I was a history teacher) was cut in half, and I was given a large pay raise.
The downside was that my office, formerly two doors down from the library, was now attached to the boys’ locker room. It was usually peaceful, but when the kids came in to dress or shower, the reverb was unbearable. Plus, it was very humid; at times a mildewy taste settled in my mouth. I probably wore that smell and didn’t know it.
That night’s game was at seven, so I hung around and reviewed plays with the team, threw darts, and recorded grades. And though I planned to avoid laughter in my dealings with John Adams, I took a few private moments to practice my old laugh, just in case.
It took me a few attempts to nail it. It was a disorganized laugh, a chopping sound with no beginning, middle, or end. But it was my laugh, the laugh I’d come up with on my own.
The game was a blow-out. We were up twenty-eight points going into the fourth quarter, and Binh was hanging all around me, begging to play. He became such a nuisance that I let him in the game. He was thrown to twice: once ten yards over his head (he dove for it anyway); once on a quick slant across the middle, the most dangerous place to catch the ball. The entire crowd got silent, all thinking what I was thinking – this could mean death. I’ve seen NFL tight ends knocked out of games with concussions on these routes. But the pass hit him in stride, and Binh caught it and blew by every player on the field. He scored and the place went bonkers. Everyone was excited except me. I knew it was a matter of time before someone nailed him, and now that he would have that swagger, he wouldn’t even see it coming.
In the post-game walk to the locker room, as usual, half the crowd wandered onto the field. Lastrada jumped on my back in her excitement and squeezed me tight. Binh actually knelt in front of me and made the sign of the cross.
“Nice game,” came a familiar voice from behind.
I turned around, Lastrada still on my back, to see John Adams.
“Thanks,” I said. “Didn’t expect to see you tonight.”
Lastrada hopped down. “Cougars in glory.”
John and I shook hands. His dark hair was now gelled back in his signature wet look, and a pattern of wavy creases noodled across his forehead. Otherwise, he seemed the same. He was five feet nine, tanned, and slim. His face was uncomplicated except for his pinpoint expression, the alert brown eyes pleasantly inviting in a good-natured pulling.
Binh said, “Coach, bout time you woke up and played me.”
John laughed. The laugh was the same as always: the squarish head tilted back, the eyebrows pinched, and the singsongy Ah-Ah-Ah smoothly transitioned into the wing-flapping, tongue-stick Ahhhhhhhh.
“Cute,” Lastrada said. “You have the same laugh. That’s your brother, Mr.
There was a floating ball of gnats next to Lastrada’s head, each gnat bouncing around like an electron, never going beyond a set boundary. I waved them away with my clipboard.
“Do we have the same laugh?” John asked.
“I think so,” she said.
“He’s a friend from college. John Adams.” I introduced them. “He lives in North Carolina.”
John said, “It must be something we picked up in college, the laugh.”
A couple of parents congratulated me, and then Binh.
“You should take him on our swamp tour,” Lastrada said. “What are you doing tomorrow? I’ll set it up.”
“Swamp tour?” John said.
“Lastrada’s family runs a swamp tour,” I said. “A boat takes you out on the bayou. Lots of gators, snakes.”
“Gators.” John turned his exaggerated focus on Lastrada. “I’d love to see gators.”
“We even pick you up. You’ve been, haven’t you, Mr. Hebert?”
“Yeah. It’s fun.”
“If you want the royal treatment, catch the shuttle in front of the Ritz. We have a special deal with them. We serve Bloody Marys on the ride over.”
Binh said, “They dangle a whole chicken above the water, and they jump up and take it.” He was still breathing hard.
John laughed. “Count me in. Hebert?”
“I’ll tell Mom to schedule you. Do that laugh again.”
John belted out the laugh, his eyes slits.
John and I boarded the Jean Lafitte catamaran at nine in the morning.
The shuttle ride had been a quick one. Lastrada’s cousin was the attendant, and she had served us two Bloody Marys apiece before we were dropped off in an oyster-shell parking lot next to the water.
The catamaran was a floating rectangle with green metal rails lining all sides. We were the first ones there, so we hopped aboard and walked around.
The captain’s chair towered at the left end, and underneath it a few stairs led down to a bathroom. On the floor next to the stairs a metal tub was filled with ice and drinks. A cardboard sign was duct-taped to it, reading “Pay the Captain.” We each took a Bud.
“You can pay me,” Lastrada said, hopping onto the catamaran.
“Are you old enough to serve alcohol?” I asked.
“Old enough, unless you’re going to pay my way through college.”
“I’d be happy to write a letter of recommendation.”
“Or how about this? You can serve yourself, and then pay me.”
“Can I take your picture?” John asked Lastrada. He’d brought along a camera that probably cost more than my car.
“Hebert, you get in there too.”
Lastrada put her arm around me, and John took a photograph. “Hebert, now take one of us.”
In a few minutes the catamaran was half-filled with about fifteen people, and the captain, Lastrada’s Uncle Wayne, lumbered aboard and told us that he’d been out earlier and it was a little dangerous due to the drought. The gators were a little aggressive, he said, and besides that, they were very big this morning. “Keep your limbs from the edge of the catamaran.”
Uncle Wayne was a burly young guy, probably around thirty. His black hair was short and wiry-straight, combed forward to fill out his receding hairline, and he wore a two- or three-day growth of stubble. He had a grave way of talking, but he forced a winking smile to let us know it was all for entertainment purposes.
Uncle Wayne eased the catamaran into the bayou and gradually built up speed. The water was a dark brownish black, and the banks smelled of drying mud, a sour, primordial stench.
Pretty soon the bayou narrowed, and we were yards from either bank, constricted by the overgrown tangle of trees on both sides, so dense we couldn’t see daylight past the first few feet of land.
John and I sat on a bench next to the rail and took in the scenery.
“How was the pep talk last night?” John asked.
“Short. They lose focus after a pummeling.”
“Same with my bunch. What do you tell them?”
I took a sip of Bud. “I held a cheese-eating grin for a full minute until there wasn’t a sound. They were all curious, nervous. They looked at me and then at the ground. Then I congratulated them on beating a bunch of sissies.”
John laughed. “Sissies. Very nice.”
Uncle Wayne slowed the boat. He turned left into a fork in the bayou, and the banks narrowed a bit more. He stopped the boat and dropped anchor.
John clinched my shoulder and patted it gently. “Hebert. Good to hang out with you. Good to be around real people.”
“You should come more often. It’s a good place.”
I pointed to an enormous spider web, thick as a net and spread across two cypress trees. The spider was centered between the trees and was large enough that I could make out the yellow and green design on its shiny black body.
“I’ll definitely be back,” John said. “I need to keep tabs on my laugh.”
Uncle Wayne opened a blue Igloo cooler and pulled out a raw chicken. He attached it to the end of a thick rope by tying a knot around one of its wings.
“How is it working out for you, the laugh? The laugh I practically focus-grouped.” He patted my upper back, rubbing it in circles.
“I’m on top,Adams. Your laugh propelled me to the top.”
“Head football coach of the 5A Plaquemines Warriors,” John said, pretending to be in awe.
“My laugh should’ve at least gotten you into some rinky-dink Division III college by now.”
“High school football’s big here.”
A boy wearing flip-flops trotted to the front. Uncle Wayne gripped a knot on the end of the rope, told the boy to stand back, and heaved the chicken over the side of the catamaran. It plopped into the water, and he pulled it out and dunked it in over and over, the water rolling off like a thin, dark gravy.
“Tell me this much,” John said, “has it at least gotten you a woman?”
“It’s just a laugh.”
“My ass. Our laugh is the king of laughs. Let’s hear it, big boy. Give it your best.”
I looked him in the eye. “Drop it, Adams.”
“Come on, Hebert. Let me analyze it.”
I ignored him.
“I could check its timbre. The nuances.”
I watched Lastrada mix a Bloody Mary for a man in a Cabella’s cap.
“I’m curious,” John said. “Were there more? Did you try others before settling on mine?”
An alligator, really the alligator’s head, appeared a few feet from Uncle Wayne’s hovering chicken. It appeared quietly. No loud splashes from the bank, no choppy swimming noises. It surfaced like a quiet machine.
John pointed to it.
I looked at his finger. “Yes, the gators.”
Uncle Wayne dangled the chicken a few feet above the water. He lowered the chicken slightly.
“No more about the laugh,” John said. “I need photos.” He took a quick shot of Uncle Wayne.
The alligator went for the chicken, and the passengers hustled to the side. John stood up to get more photos. The alligator jumped out of the water a few feet, perfectly vertical, but Uncle Wayne jerked the chicken higher. The alligator landed with a tremendous splash. It was a very violent moment, the alligator floating in stealth one second and then exploding through the air the next, hitting the water with a seven-hundred-pound slap. A couple of passengers applauded, and then everyone joined in.
John viewed a few of the pictures he’d taken. “Hebert, this is the life. You don’t deserve this. I deserve this.”
Uncle Wayne, voice shaky with adrenaline, said, “Sally’s a twelve footer.” He lowered the chicken again toward Sally.
Sally circled the chicken. Uncle Wayne held it above the surface again, and Sally sprung toward it, her body coiled and then straight, her snout inches from the chicken. Uncle Wayne teased the chicken higher, and Sally missed.
“I’ve always gotten a kick out of watching these things,” I said. “How does it leverage itself on the water?”
“Hebert, I can’t stand it.” He let his camera hang around his neck. “Let me hear it. Do the laugh. Please.”
“Screw off, Adams.”
“Come on. I’m begging you.”
Uncle Wayne cut the rope and let the chicken drop into the water. Sally disappeared with it just as quietly as she had surfaced.
Lastrada held up a beer and mouthed the word “beer.” I pointed to the man in the Cabella’s cap and mouthed “Bloody Mary.”
“I’m going up front for a while,” I said to John.
“You’re such an Hebert.”
Lastrada mixed me a Bloody Mary, substituting the celery stalk with a chunk of sugar cane, and Uncle Wayne accelerated slowly.
“Thanks for bringing him,” she said.
“He’s driving me nuts.”
“Whatever you do, don’t throw him overboard. Wouldn’t be good for business.”
Someone shouted something from the back of the boat.
It was John. “Hebert. Get over here.”
I rolled my eyes to Lastrada. “Thanks for the Bloody Mary.”
John, with a couple of men holding his legs, was leaning over the edge of the catamaran, dipping his beer can into the water. “It’s oil! It’s fucking oil!”
Uncle Wayne slowed us to a stop.
I pulled John up by the back of his collar. At first he had this look of excitement on his face, like he’d just discovered sunken treasure, but then Lastrada started crying in her uncle’s arms, bawling, while her uncle covered her head in his huge hands and glazed out into the water, which now was coated in the rusty film we’d been nervously watching every day on TV.
“They said it wouldn’t get in here,” Uncle Wayne said.
Passengers scattered to their cars and to the shuttle. “I’m not going,” John said, after jumping onto the dock. “I have a few calls to make, get a crew down here. I’m not letting this go.”
“There’s nothing you can do,” I said. “It’s done.”
Lastrada walked almost into me and collapsed into my chest and sniffled while John trotted after Uncle Wayne.
“Looks like community college,” she said.
“We’ll look at scholarships on Monday.”
“Me and a thousand others.”
“Yeah, but they’re all dumb compared to you. Besides, Binh will be in the pros before you know it. He’ll take care of us all.”
John had Uncle Wayne cornered next to the souvenir shop, waving his cell phone around. I heard him say something about practically living here himself, but Uncle Wayne shoved him aside and barreled into the shop.
“I just want to help,” John shouted.
“You really want to help?” Lastrada said, as we neared the shop.
John’s frustrated face softened. “I’ll make this my cause.”
“Make it go away.” Lastrada patted my shoulder and went inside.
“Want to get a po-boy?” I said.
Brad Koski is currently living in New Orleans and teaching at Delgado Community College. He’s a graduate of University of Southern Mississippi’s creative writing program and has had short stories published in G.W. Review, Minnetonka Review, Carve Magazine and the Journal of College Writing.