It was his customary chair, a battered, wooden lawn chair painted so many times it looked like a chair in hiding. Spencer was seated in it, silent now and swirling pink lemonade in a glass given away by a gas station in the 1950s. The ice cubes clinked and revolved. Overhead an ancient oak tree stopped the sun except for points of light on the grass.
Spencer was deep in the throes of private worry. He was concerned about the condition of the far distant future. Will there be a sense of humor in the 23rd century? he wondered. Will there be wit and whimsy in the year 2221? What will be funny then? Will there be any ''funny'' at all? Will men and women retain the capacity to laugh with each other? Will there be parody, satire, and belly laughs? Will humor flourish among the infinite galaxies?
He took a sip of lemonade. Charlie Chaplin. Laurel and Hardy. Red Skelton. Bob Hope. Phyllis Diller. Mort Sahl. Rodney Dangerfield. Richard Pryor. Who will make us laugh in 2221?
Then he said to the oak tree, ''Did you hear the one about the unemployed car salesman who was walking along the beach and found an old bottle? He rubbed it and out popped a genie. 'Any wish at all, master,' said the genie, 'is mine to give.' The salesman knew that foreign cars were selling like hot cakes, so he said, 'I want to be a foreign car dealer in a busy, metropolitan city.' 'Yes, master,' said the genie. The man went home. The next morning he woke and discovered he was a Studebaker dealer in downtown Tokyo.''
The oak tree, in its own way, managed a rustling laugh. Spencer took another sip and tried to imagine the year 2221 caught up in some kind of laughter over the interstellar foibles of humans. Perhaps satire over black holes with tollbooths, he thought, or parody aimed at the flight plan from the moon to a sun-splashed beach 36 constellations to the right of Orion. And what will be the equivalent of a pie thrown in the face if the pie and the face are free of gravity?
Just then a small, barefoot boy shot out of the house and ran over to Spencer with a huge chocolate chip cookie in his hand. ''Grandpa,'' he said, ''who's the funniest man in the whole world?'' He took a bite.
Spencer swirled the lemonade like primeval soup. He said, ''Buzzy, all men are very funny, especially when they are serious.''
''But who's the funniest in the same way that one guy can jump the farthest or run the fastest?'' He munched on the cookie.
''Can't do it,'' said Spencer, sipping lemonade. ''Can't measure funniness that way.'' Maybe, he thought, everything will be all right because funniness is a scientifically permanent principle, a universal, unstoppable giggle that is Law with a capital L. Cavemen must have laughed at something. Astronauts laugh. The people of year 2221 will be belly-laughing too. No sweat, Spencer boy. Men, women, and the stars will guffaw together.
''Grandpa, tell me something funny.'' Munch, munch.
''OK. Once there was a man who dreamed he ate a big marshmallow. When he woke up his pillow was gone.''
''I've heard that one before.'' Munch, munch.
''But is it funny?''
''Not the second time, Grandpa. Tell me a brand new one.'' Munch, munch.
''Two peanuts were walking down the road. One peanut was assaulted.''
Buzzy wrinkled his nose and laughed. ''That's corny,'' he said. ''Make me really laugh.'' The cookie disappeared in the last munch.
Spencer swirled the lemonade. ''I'll have to think a minute. You're a tough audience.'' Buzzy stood waiting, his face primed, his whole being wanting to laugh. That's it, thought Spencer. Nobody ever does not want to laugh, and everybody absolutely needs to laugh. Therefore there will always be laughter. The year 2221 is saved.
''OK, I got it,'' said Spencer. ''Once there was a boy who brought home his January report card with really low marks, and the boy's father said, 'What happened? Did you have too much excitement over the holidays?' 'Well, Dad,' said the boy, 'you know how it is. Everything is marked down after Christmas.' ''
Buzzy turned inside out, his laughter tickling the moment pink and spinning himself helplessly until there was nothing else in the world but laughter. ''Oh, Grandpa!'' he said when he caught his breath. ''Maybe I'll laugh forever!''
''But how will you brush your teeth?''
They laughed and laughed and laughed.