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Laughter is the story of Tony Pellar, a
man of fading fortunes and
Excerpt from Orange Laughter - Chapter One - Chapter Two
Source: Chapters 1 & 2
Author: Leone Ross
Angela Royal Publishing
Publication Date: April 27, 1999
I stooped over the child and looked at
him for a long time but I felt nothing
I wondered if he was garbage I hunkered down a foot away and stared at his
body at first he looked like a sack then a mattress torn apart I stretched and
I could see his arm and the tilt of his pelvis I stared hard WAS it a child
you know the darkness plays with all our minds down here I didn't want to
touch I tried to decide not to know but I'm not an animal baby so I reached
out for the pathetic coat he wore I couldn't see its colour and I wondered
where the sound was coming from a raw sorrow song I wondered who was crying
over his crumpled face dang I saw the tears falling onto his little arm I
watched them fall and I was thinking there are so many leaks down here then I
realised the leak was me
it was me
someone was screaming there were bruises
going purple on his cheeks his skin
was ashy he was raven lips and ebony cheekbones a coal jawline his tight jet
hair cupped his forehead and his ink eyes were open wide he had deep sable
nostrils I thought did somebody love you before you died I realised the scream
was coming from my throat God I held him he was cold all I had was a thin coat
but I wrapped it around him I hugged him to me and thought if only he would
cough and struggle like the end of any good book everything would be alright
his head was soaked with my tears how old was he why did he die alone down
here in this stinking place did the trains get you child
Agatha laughed at my tears I looked up
and there she was sitting on the steel
beam above my head smiling down at both of us you know you don't know fear
until you look straight into Agatha's eyes they are diamond chips they are
full stop diamonds you could bang her eyes against concrete and never dent
them Agatha laughed and she laughed and I hugged the little boy leave him
alone I yelled leave him alone he's dead I looked down into my arms and there
was no child anymore all I'm doing is hugging myself in the green coat I wear
with tears drying on my arms the little boy was lost he was gone like the sea
I got to my feet and Agatha was gone too
there was nothing but darkness and
me sucking the salt water off my arms
so the bitch is back with her head games
I call Agatha a bitch because that's what
she is a bitch in heat I thought
she'd gone that she'd left me alone but now she's back and it will be the same
old story her swishing her tail in my direction throwing her thick hair over
her shoulders wanting me to see her she will peek out at me from behind the
trains and I will hear that luscious heavy laughter once again she is tall
enough to break a man there are snowy strands in her dark hair and you
wouldn't believe her age with those breasts bullet nipples and though I know I
have never kissed the dark discs around them I still imagine that if I did she
would make sounds so good I'd go mad she leaves pools of energy behind her
streaming yellow from the soles of her bare feet her lips are naked she has a
midnight face her Momma must have started to paint that skin on then got
scared and tried some funky New Age design rippling and freaking out one side
of her face where the skin is scarred but she's still beautiful and each time
she laughs I see it light up the place her laughter is a flash fire in the
you want to know where I'm at I'm under
the Noo Yawk streets that's where and
I know the trains like they're brothers and you know down here we call where
we're at Underneath and the rats are as big as cats and five times as scary
staring at my ass with antique eyes and all of us down here call where you
live Topside I thought I'd escaped down here but no trust the bitch to come
back with that stunt that little boy is just her style let me give him a
corpse she must have thought to herself let me see if my Tony is still human
I haven't been Topside and watched the
breeze for over a year but I went out
the other night after the little boy lay dead in my arms I had to mail an
important letter and there was wax on my fingers it dripped from the angry
candle and made hot white circles on my skin pattering one two one two burn
baby burn I need a candle because it's dark down here the dark is thick like
oatmeal like nothing you've ever seen and I can hear the A train in the
distance sometimes it freaks me out big time because you feel like it's coming
to get you even when you know it's not scheduled baby you know down here we
all dream that the trains will get us and run us over or the third rail will
fry us one strange night when the balance goes when you're stepping over the
tracks you know what I mean about the third rail right the rail that they run
all those million watts through that's right Chaz is always saying that one
day she's going to drop kick it like a stupid motherfucker and deep fry
herself on that rail YOU CAN RING MY BE-E-ELL RINGIN MY BELL MY BELL DING DONG
I was writing the letter under the candle with the wax on my fingers and
I wanted to ask Chaz to mail it for me when she goes Topside she goes to pan-
handle but she's a jealous bitch too WHY am I surrounded by all these bitches
so I made a decision that I had to do it myself and I ran my thumbs over the
letter that I'd written and thought about Chaz telling me how she gets her
letters from her sister who thinks that her fine ass self is working as a
dancer but really she's living Underneath here with me Chaz said yeah Tony you
could get post at the gas station they good like that there's a fine brother
across the counter and he gives me free Hershey's and those cigarettes you
smoking all I know is she wanted me to cop an attitude because she called the
brother fine but I don't give a good goddamn I like Chaz and the pussy is good
but I can't love in a place like this
jealousy is for Topside it's for real life for 42nd street and
McDonald's and Queens and the Statue of Liberty whenever I tell Chaz about the
Lady she asks me who she ever give liberty Tony not to me yo and I tell her
she's just a cynic because this is the land of the free and the home of the
brave and she thinks I'm serious you could never say that Chaz had an ear for
irony or sarcasm I knew Chaz would ask too many questions if I asked her to
mail the letter so I took the few short paces up the ladder yeah up to Topside
I wanted to fall when the night hit me it wasn't dark enough and the
moon was so bright I hadn't seen it for a year and the silver shadows were
merry goddamn I still got a turn of phrase and I crushed the envelope in my
hand I kept saying this is the only way a man has to admit that he needs some
help sometimes not a lot of help just a little you know a man needs to ask a
friend for a favour sometimes and the moon laughed down at me
the letter is going to Doctor Michael Abraham Tennyson and when he gets
it we could have a great reunion yeah class of North Carolina 1965 so he could
remind me that she's DEAD Agatha's dead I know she's dead but I need him to
tell me the whole story of how we came to be best buds I know she's dead but I
saw her yesterday and I know you think I'm crazy but her face was so sweet I
swear when she laughs it's orange and there are yellow pools at her feet and
her arms are red with blood so I wrote him and now I'm sitting Underneath in
the subway tunnels where I live nobody knows I'm here I'm waiting because
Mikey was the best friend a man ever had and I know he's going to come through
for me it's a damn shame we haven't spoken so long how old were we twelve
thirteen nine when we first met
I've written him and told him I can't get
the Soul Snatcher out of my
2: Edene, North Carolina
The black boy picked pecans every day at
nine o' clock. Mikey started worming
his way under Miss Ezekiel's house at 8:30. His bulk made the venture
difficult, but he'd mastered the art, pulling his stomach towards his backbone
and crushing the small breasts on his chest against the rough dirt. The best
way was to lie on his prize winning stomach, sweat turning his shirt dark,
shuffling backwards. Once he'd wedged his legs and hips as far as they could
go, he braced himself on his hands and pushed backwards against the ground.
Inch by inch, his body complied. When he was in position only his fingers
showed, and he was trapped until the black boy left. Getting out was harder.
Each time he hid under the house, Mikey spent a few minutes in prayer. He
prayed that Miss Ezekiel would never see him struggling. From where he lay he
could feel movement inside the building: Miss Ezekiel and Agatha walking in
the kitchen, frying meat and making biscuits. Agatha stepping through,
sweeping the floors. In his most horrific imaginings he could see the moment
his grandmother spotted the big moving lump that was him, bending the
floorboards. She would call Agatha and she'd say 'What in all hell is that?
Agatha, come over heah, watch out fo' snakes and jes' you see what's the cause
of this heah hump.' Then they would find him, stuck, dirty, too slow and too
big to scramble out. The black boy would turn around and finally speak to him,
and the words would be damning: 'Whatchoo doin' watchin' me?'. It would all be
out and he would have to raise his eyes to heaven and die.
Mikey blinked as sweat trickled into his
left eye and sighed as the
back door opened. He heard the boy's soft footfall on the front steps.
Miss Ezekiel told him that you could
smell niggers before they came up
on you, if the wind was blowing right. She said she was surprised people
didn't just lay down and die when all of them got together. That was probably
why intelligent folks didn't encourage them to gather. She said when she
passed them nigger gin joints in town, she smelled them on the air. All drink
and sinning. She said she was surprised that these silver-rights goings on
didn't kill the police with the stench. Mikey had never smelt anything special
on the niggers. Just sweat and a Sunday afternoon, like him. Except Agatha.
Mikey smiled, thinking about her. Agatha, Miss Ezekiel's daily help, who came
six days a week, at seven in the morning. Agatha, who smelled good every day.
Even when the heat blistered the porch walls, and a man could drink shade like
lemonade, she smelled good. He shifted, thinking about her and the way she
made ice cream, cranking the old machine. One day her sweat had dripped onto
his arm as she handed him a bowl. It was all the best smells in the world. Her
skin was like hot butter in a pan. He could imagine her pouring herself over
He'd been in Edene for eighteen months, since Miss Ezekiel brought him over
from his home town in Georgia. Two days after they arrived, Agatha came to the
back door, looking for work. Mikey watched the tall, brown-skinned woman duck
her way into the house and then looked away. He was more concerned with his
own lingering disorientation. It had only been four months since his father
had died, and he didn't like Miss Ezekiel. The house his grandmother had
rented - with his father's money, he was sure - still looked unknown and
empty, despite the boxes and bags strewn in the front room and across the
porch. Miss Ezekiel hadn't let him bring anything that belonged to him. She
bought him all new clothes. She said all of his daddy's things smelled like
In Georgia, the people on the street had respected his daddy too much to
exclaim about his fat son. But in Edene, each new person he met widened their
eyes, as if they were trying to accommodate his body. He watched them pity
him. Mrs Jenkins - Miss Ezekiel's neighbour, who had her up in all the sewing
circles, all the church meetings - took one look at him and proclaimed him as
wide as he was tall. She said it in a loud voice. Mikey dipped his head and
scurried inside himself. That was where he lived.
Agatha was different. When she saw him, her eyes had widened too, but there
was something warm there. She looked at him thoughtfully, as if she'd been
about to say something but changed her mind. When Miss Ezekiel turned away,
Agatha put out one hand and stroked the damp hair off his forehead. She
wrinkled her nose at Miss Ezekiel's back, a conspiratorial gesture that made
Agatha was six feet tall if she was a mile, and her hair wasn't like any
colour Mikey had seen before. It fell from a widow's peak into slender black
ropes, past the bright cloth in her hair and down across her shoulders. When
she held her head just so, secret strands went blue. Her skin was high yellow-
brown and her feet were small. When you got up close your eyes were drawn to a
surprise in her face: thin lines crawled across her right cheekbone, around
the eye socket, scattered across half of her forehead, crept under her chin
and down her neck. She watched him looking and smiled, as if to say yes, I see
you looking, I see you've seen it, now what? He blushed and moved away. On
that ice cream day he sat down with his dried, sweated-on arm, smelling her,
until Miss Ezekiel called him, fussing, asking him what the hell he was doing.
He'd sniffed the Agatha-smell all day. It was the smell of love.
Four months ago, as July's weight bent down upon them like an old man with a
burning ambition, Agatha had introduced the black boy. His name was Tony. She
came to the back door holding his hand. Mikey climbed out of his room to look
at him. He wanted to hate him: Tony was as beautiful as a girl. Mikey was
awed, looking at the boy's bowed head. The sunshine made Tony's skin glossy.
He had a new haircut. Agatha explained that when Tony arrived at the bus
station from New York, his head was all rat tails. She couldn't untangle it,
so she sheared it off.
Tony looked up at her as she spoke. He was pretty, but he was going to be a
man. Thick eyelashes framed his bottomless eyes. Blackberry eyes. He looked at
Mikey looking at him while Agatha explained chores: Miss Ezekiel wanted the
lawn cut and she wanted the silver cleaned and boy, we've got to move on now.
Her voice was firm and peaceful.
Tony didn't speak. He nodded to show that he understood. Agatha said he never
uttered a word. Mikey wondered if the black boy was a retard. He knew that
Miss Ezekiel didn't like the lack of yessum, no-um. He'd realised early that
words like that made his grandmother happy. But there was nothing Miss Ezekiel
could change about the silent boy in her house all summer. Mikey listened to
her comfort herself out loud in the evenings as he did his homework at the
dinner table, knees together, hands flat on the table top like he was told,
doodling around the edge of the paper when he coudn't get the work right: the
boy was clean, Agatha was a decent coloured and the Lord, well He did send
things to test a body.
Mikey avoided Tony, as he avoided most. When the school holidays had started,
he'd found once more that he had no friends, and needed no more enemies. There
wasn't much to do except go into the woods, avoiding the swamp, lest Miss
Ezekiel start hollering, his niggershooter in one hand and food in a bag:
quarter of a watermelon, some biscuits, a handful of peanuts and one of Miss
Ezekiel's chickens fried up brown and smelling good, in case he needed to keep
his strength up. He tried fishing in the creek, but the fish just seemed to
laugh up at him, and he was tired of that, so he kept walking, looking at
squirrels and shooting at them. He knew he'd miss but it didn't bother him. He
liked squirrels. It was just that he couldn't take any joy in the summer, like
a nine year old boy should. He wasn't good at anything and eventually when the
sun became merciless, he decided to go home. It was like this every day, and
before he knew it, school was in again and the teasing began again and this,
he decided, was his life. Yells of disgust in the hallways and no-one ever
talking to him without contempt. Until October came, and the pecans began to
fall. It had been another long day when he happened upon Tony in the yard,
picking pecans, and talking.
Mikey wriggled, trying to get comfortable
as Tony walked forward into his
range. He grinned to himself, then frowned. It would soon be over. The pecans
were only good for a couple more days. When Tony had started picking they were
nearly three inches thick on the ground. Miss Ezekiel was mighty proud of the
pecan trees on her new land. Tony shook out the first sack and began to pick
When he first heard the black boy's
voice, Mikey was too shocked to make out
the words. He'd paused, excited, debating the wisdom of running out and saying
hey, or running into the house and telling Agatha, to let her praise the Lord
for a miracle. He would have given his whole lunch and a lot more to be
responsible for a light in her face. He moved behind a tree and listened, his
stomach churning. It was only a murmur, but the words were unmistakable.
'An' Elimelech, Naomi's husband died, an' she was left, an' her two sons....'
Mikey guessed that it was the Bible. He wondered whether it was such a good
idea to run inside and tell Agatha. If the boy was talking damnation maybe
that would make her sad. He leaned against the tree and listened. His daddy
once told him he had good ears.
'An' they took them wives of the women of Moab, an' the name of the one was
Orpah, an' the name of the other Ruth, an' they dwelled there about ten
years...' said Tony, picking up pecans.
Mikey had seen the coloured all hollering and shouting up in their churches.
Agatha's grandaddy had been a preacher. Maybe she knew. Maybe she'd been
teaching Tony the Bible. Maybe it was the only thing he could say. He listened
to the pleasant voice and decided that he liked it. It was soothing. His
daddy's voice had been good too: cutting through noise like water. Mikey
crouched behind the tree for a long time, hearing about Ruth's life, until
Agatha called for Tony and the boy went inside.
For three days Mikey hid under the house, waiting to hear Tony speak. He
didn't know why he was doing it. He only knew that it distanced the self-
consciousness in his belly. It was their secret, even if Tony didn't know.
Agatha was tearing out her hair about why this boy don't speak, but he, Mikey,
could see Tony doing it every day. Words running out of his mouth into the
combustible afternoons. It was like watching a miracle. He thrilled to himself
when he saw Miss Ezekiel muttering under her breath, cussing how this little
nigger better not be sassing her with his buttoned-up lip. He knew that Tony
was more than silence.
Mikey smiled as Tony took a breath and
'The song of songs, which is Solomon's. Let him kiss me with the kisses of
his mouth, for their love is better than wine...'
It was a good secret for a little boy who couldn't hit the house with a rock
if he tried. A boy who had comics on his shelf until Miss Ezekiel found them
and burned them, watching Superman and Spiderman go up in flames. He wanted
Spidey to jump out of that big old fire and give Miss Ezekiel a hiding. Then
they would be friends, he and Spidey, go up North on Greyhound and no-one
would think he was a sissy boy then. Spidey would teach him how to use his
Spidey sense and he'd know who was a bad 'un and he would leave all them bad
'I am black, but comely, o ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar,
as the curtains of Solomon. Look not upon me, because I am black, because the
sun hath looked upon me...' Tony said.
When Spiderman declined the offer and continued to burn, Mikey wasn't
surprised. Nothing good had happened to him since his daddy died. He saw
Agatha shaking her head. Later she asked Miss Ezekiel in that fancy voice of
hers - better, Mikey admitted than his grandmother's or his own - why Miss
Ezekiel felt the need to be burning up the boy's only pleasure. Miss Ezekiel
turned her back on Agatha and there was nothing more to be said. He noticed
that Miss Ezekiel didn't give Agatha any of the leftover clabber milk that
evening. Agatha's fancy voice fascinated him almost as much as her face.
Almost as much as Tony's incorporeal murmur.
'I have compared thee, o my love, to a company of horses in Pharoah's
chariots. Thy cheeks are comely with rows of jewels, thy neck with chains of
gold...' said Tony.
Mikey strained to hear, hoping snakes wouldn't eat his knees.
'We will make thee borders of gold with studs of silver. Thy lips, o my
spouse, drop as the honeycomb, honey and milk are under thy tongue and the
smell of thy garments....'
'Michael Abraham! Michael Abraham? Where is that boy?'
Mikey banged his head against the floorboards above him. It hurt so much that
he bit his bottom lip to restrain a yelp. Bruised air exploded from his lungs
in a sharp hiss. Miss Ezekiel was yelling from the house. He glanced back at
Tony. He was still talking. Panic hit him. Surely Tony would hear her calling
and shut his mouth. There must be a reason why Tony could talk and wasn't.
There must be a very big reason.
'I said, Michael Abraham, where you at, boy?'
'Thy plants are an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits,
camphire...' said Tony.
Mikey wished he would stop talking about campfires. His voice was getting
louder. There would be hell to pay if Miss Ezekiel heard him. He was talking
and talking, picking up pecans with his nimble fingers. They were nearly gone.
Mikey heard the sound of footsteps moving through the house above him. Miss
Ezekiel was heading for the back door. They'd both get a whipping. Miss
Ezekiel would know that Tony had been fooling her. She'd know that he, Mikey,
had been listening. She might say it was a plan. That Agatha knew all along.
She might tell her to get going. The thought made him bite his lip even
harder. And Tony was still talking, as if he couldn't stop.
'...with spikenard, spikenard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon.....'
Miss Ezekiel would be opening the back door soon. She was shouting at the top
of her voice. Why couldn't Tony hear?
'Michael? I said, Michael, where are you, boy?'
Maybe this was a punishment. He was going to be found out, lying and watching
a nigger talk out the Lord's words like he was somebody. Like he was black and
comely like Solomon said. He'd asked his teacher what comely meant and she
said it was another word for pretty. Miss Ezekiel was going to find out and
Tony was going on and on, as if he was in a trance, squeezing the plump nuts
in his small fists, dropping them in yet another sack, using his enchanted,
pained voice. He had to distract her. He could hear her on the steps.
'Mizz Ezekiel! Mizz Ezekiel!' Mikey yelled.
Tony jumped like the devil was coming and peered over the sack in his hand.
He looked alarmed, furtive, embarrassed and angry all at the same time.
'Michael?' Miss Ezekiel's voice sounded even more annoyed.
Mikey scrabbled at the ground in front of him, hoisting his weight forward.
He had to get to his feet. Miss Ezekiel was coming down the steps and around
the house. He could see her long feet and cracked toes in the sandals she
wore. He gripped at the ground. His nails scraped against stones that cut into
his palms. She was going the wrong way, heading around the left hand side of
the house, peeping, arthritis making her joints rustle. Any moment now she was
going to be standing over him, yelling out that he should be afraid of snakes
and ha'ants under the house, how you put yo' fat self up under that porch
anyhow, boy, is you a fool? A panicked tear squeezed itself out of his eye as
he tried to lever his feet into a position from which he could push. He was
A pair of brown legs appeared in front of him.
A brown hand reached out. Mikey gaped up
in astonishment as Tony grasped his
hand and pulled. He felt as if his gut would rip. A nipple scraped against
splinters. Tony braced himself and pulled again. Mikey felt himself sliding.
Tony flailed and lost his balance and the two boys fell to the ground, Mikey
almost in Tony's arms. They could hear Miss Ezekiel's patterned footfall
coming back around - 'Boy, where you at, looka heah, don' be playin' with me
now!' - and Tony tugged again. Then they were both on their feet, panting.
Tony's face was solemn. Miss Ezekiel turned the corner of the house just as
Agatha came to the front steps.
'Tony! Why you not pickin' those pecans? Get on, now!' she said. Her hand
clenched and unclenched her skirt.
Miss Ezekiel stared at Mikey's shirt. Dust painted the front and a rip hung
sadly on the sleeve.
'Boy, you a fool? I need you ta be inside these books! What you out heah
doin'? What you do to yo' shirt?'
Mikey looked down. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Tony hurrying back to
the nuts, picking faster than ever.
'Nothin', ma'am,' he said.
'Then get in the house, boy!'
He smiled up the steps. He looked at Tony but the boy had his head down
again. Mikey decided that he didn't care. Now they shared the secret. It was
out in the open and he didn't care about the fussing. Everything was fine.
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Reviews of Orange Laughter
A powerful ending, to say the least. I havent been
so emotionally caught upin a novel for a long time. This is a
remarkable, strong and highly intelligent novel, full of the
whole gamut of human passions: hatred, sexual desire, despair,
hope, violence, and above all, love - and written with
- A Reader, London
What a great story! You have restored my faith that
there is a new generation of black literary novelists. Bless your
writing hand, bless your writing heart. Go forth and work your
magic - dazzle the world.
- Jiton Sharmayne Davidson, USA
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How to purchase
Orange Laughter is now available in good bookstores in the UK.
It may also be purchased online at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
Mail order: Wings Mail Order, tel: 0181 443 5333
Leone Ross 1999
All rights reserved.
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