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Funny Baby

Ellen L. Saunders is staff, referee, and lap-bed for three opinionated cats who would prefer to be solo pets. They share a house with her and her partner on the wet side of Oregon, where Ellen writes science fiction, furry, fantasy, space opera, suspense, and anything else that tastes good to her brain. When not paying obeisance to felines or writing, Ellen sings, gardens, cooks, and occasionally dons garb Victorian or medieval. Past iterations of self have been a massage therapist, bumbling traveler, newspaper reporter, university public relations staff, and a writer for a nutrition education program. "Funny Baby" is her first pro short story sale (second ever) and she is all kinds of delighted to be in DSF.

Our daughter came out funny.
Yeah, I know all babies look funny, skin all wrinkled like wet laundry, so bald they seem ancient and new at the same time. I don't mean that.
No, I mean funny, as in cracking jokes or making fart noises. Our midwife was giggling so hard she could barely cut the cord.
See, my ex-wife Shara struggled for decades as a comedienne. She loved making audience erupt in cheers, taking grim people from, "life fucking sucks," to the joyous release of, "I haven't laughed that hard in years."
But it's hard work making people laugh. You fail as often as you succeed. The suicide rate in the business is outrageous. The performance pressure is intense; clowning and jokes can go so horribly wrong. Shara would come home destroyed and drunk if a single joke had failed, in that everyone-just-staring-at-her way. She was convinced our daughter was going to follow in her career footsteps and she didn't want her to experience the same pain.
During our required pregnancy consultations, Shara said no to the proffered designer hair options, the rainbow palette of skin tones, the perfect noses.
"I want a special mod," she said, and named some geneticist in Mongolia who'd proven certain people had an inborn ability to make others laugh. "It's a suite of genetic modifications."
The genetic counselor lit up.
I figured it was a joke, my wife bringing her work to bear in a stressful moment. I mean, who'd ever heard of a humor gene? Seriously? But I'd been raised to honor and humor pregnant women, and I didn't ask questions. May our daughter forgive me, I played along.
So we had a funny baby.
And I love my daughter Mylie. She's the light of my life. But we've trapped her in hell.
She's constantly making everyone around her laugh, even me. She can't not try. So she can't hear about someone's loss, can't speak her own frustration, without making it into a joke.
I can't count the number of her friendships shattered with some variation of a screamed, "Can't you take anything seriously?"
She can. She does. She just can't say so.
The closest she can come is telling bad jokes, ones she knows won't make anyone laugh anymore. I'd give my left arm to give her the ability to silently hold a friend while they cry.
Shara realized how screwed up Mylie's life was going to be long before I did. I thought she just couldn't compete with our daughter's effortless humor. But when Mylie's first-grade teacher suggested we homeschool, claiming our daughter had "compulsive behavior possibly hiding a learning disability," Shara couldn't take it. She split without a forwarding address. I don't even know if she's still alive.
Mylie cracked jokes through sobs as her mother carried suitcases out the door. The day of her eleventh birthday, she did an entire standup about it, without tears.
Sorry this story isn't funnier. I'm the straight man in the family.
We've tried dance, painting, clay work, dozens of other forms of expressive art, but the instant she grasps the fundamentals, her brain finds a way to warp it into comedy.
She can't even be serious in her own diary. I snuck it out one day when she was on a park playdate, hoping to find a window into my little girl. There were some long convoluted story jokes, the kind that make you sob-laugh. But mostly it was pages of pun combinations and jokes about Jesus farting rainbows. The humor gene doesn't ease up for an audience of one. Even as a baby I could hear her at night, chuckling.
That sound carries an edge these days. I'm afraid she's started cutting herself. I'm terrified she's going to make me laugh about it.
Last week I found her rocking herself on the bathroom floor, a razor in her fingers. She immediately went on pun riff. I wouldn't let her see my terror. She couldn't stop trying to misdirect me from her agony.
"I love you, honey," I said, squatting next to her on the floor. "I know there's a serious girl inside you. I'm sorry you're trapped behind all those jokes."
She let me take the blade.
She's only twelve.
Every day we meditate together, and afterwards, we talk for a few minutes. Bonding time. I'll tell her what's been going on for me at work. I use serious, straight-man words to express what I think is going on for her based on what she's been joking about lately. I ask her to keep joking about things that are bothering her. Then we riff on potential solutions for one big thing and one small one.
I always apologize for her being locked behind the need to make people laugh.
She says things like, "Could be worse. Mom could've been obsessed with me being a CEO. She would've picked the sociopath gene!"
I chuckle sadly, and she'll nod and catch my eye, intent.
I know she's heard me.
She knows I see her.
Right now, it's the best we can do.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, March 3rd, 2021


Author Comments

This began as a writing exercise four years ago. I was working with three words--beans, funny, baby. The last two made me think about that white lie that people tell parents at the hospital, "How adorable your baby is!" when newborns are really kind of prune-soaked and funny-looking. I typed, "My baby came out funny," immediately loved the line, and decided to take that sentence literally. The original ended, "And she'll look at me and grin crookedly and say, 'The answer to life is beans.'" OBVIOUSLY, I'm not a humor writer. When I picked the story back up to revise three years later, I realized that along with the outlandish premise and gene-editing ethics, I was really dealing with a story about a child who can't communicate the way everyone around her can, and I needed to be careful balancing the humor and the pain. I didn't want to hurt children who really face communication difficulties, or their parents. I almost put the story back down, but I have writer friends with life experiences I don't have, and I listened carefully. I hope this conveys the love and hope I was aiming for. Oh, and the beans ended up on the cutting room floor. (Revising is messy.)

- Ellen L Saunders
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