Murray’s smile is warm and infectious, as always. The audience loves him. They respond to every joke with wild peals of laughter: Ha-ha-ha! Ha-ha!
Normally Arthur would laugh along with them. Now he is silent, lost in thought.
Hoyt deducted the cost of the sign from his paycheck. That means their budget will be stretched even thinner than usual. He tries to ignore the dull, bitter burn of rage simmering in the back of his head. To calm himself, he thinks about the pressure of Travis’s arm around his shoulders, holding him up.
Already, he’s starting to wonder if he hallucinated that entire experience. It’s been years since he’s had a hallucination that vivid, that complete, but the memory feels suspiciously like one of his fantasies—like something his brain engineered to comfort him. But then, how did he get to the payphone? He couldn’t have walked that far, not in such a short time.
“What’s wrong, honey?” his mother asks. “You’re quiet.”
The two of them are eating TV dinners, sitting side by side on the bed and watching the show. “I’m just a little tired.”
“You’re worried about something. I can tell.”
He stares down at the grayish blob of Salisbury steak, smothered in grayish sauce. He’s managed to eat only a few bites. The medicine affects his appetite even on the best days. Sometimes food is a lost cause. “I’m not worried. I’m just thinking.”
“Life’s too short to worry. Eat your dinner.”
If Travis was a hallucination, then what does that mean for him? Is he losing touch with reality? Is he going to end up back in Arkham?
Would that be so bad?
He’s always had the sneaking suspicion that someday he’ll lose his tenuous grasp on sanity and be sent back. Maybe it would be better to just get it over with. Except who will take care of his mother, if not him? She’s getting older. She gets confused sometimes. The other day he found her slippers in the refrigerator. God knows why. And sometimes she leaves candles burning too close to things that could catch fire, and—
He forces himself to have another bite of Salisbury steak, which has the consistency of boogers baked into a patty and smothered with lukewarm cum. His throat constricts. He chokes it down. He imagines he can taste the suffering of the animal that died so that it could be processed and compressed into this disgusting mass, this gelatinous substance that barely resembles food. “Next time I should buy the chicken casserole dinners. I’m not sure I like Salisbury steak anymore.”
“Really? You used to love it so much when you were a little boy. You would ask for it every night. That or cheeseburgers.”
This might be true. He has no way of knowing. His memories of his childhood are few and hazy—a side-effect of the shock treatments, probably.
He keeps eating, keeps thinking about Travis. His hand strays to his pocket, slips inside and touches the tissues that Travis gave him. They’re still wadded up in his pocket, stained with face-paint and tears. He must be real.
Does it even matter? They’re not going to see each other again. It’s not like Travis is actually going to show up at Pogo’s.
His mother falls asleep, snoring softly against the pillow. He tucks her in, presses a kiss to her forehead, and then goes to scrape the rest of his dinner into the garbage disposal. He feels guilty wasting food when they have so little money to spare (he thinks again of the cow, the bolt-gun slamming through its brain, ending its short, bleak existence, its body then stripped apart and processed into unidentifiable gray blobs). But he’s not going to save it. He’s tried reheating TV dinners before and they’re twice as disgusting.
* * *
Later, he sits on the couch, smoking, trying to ignore the sharp flashes of pain in his ribs. On the TV is another news story about the garbage in the streets, and Thomas Wayne droning on about how the strikers are betraying the city with their selfish demands for a living wage.
Not that Thomas Wayne has anything to worry about. He can afford private garbage pickup. If the city would just agree to the garbage collectors’ conditions, the strike could be over tomorrow. But the people in power don’t care. What does it matter to them if the city beneath their feet drowns in filth?
Arthur lets his anger build, embers smoldering in his chest.
He has a headache. Not unusual. He gets them a lot. Like storm clouds roiling in his brain. Flickers of lighting dancing behind his eyes, jabbing hot sharp little fingers of pain into the soft meat. It feels somehow connected to his anger, as though some large, dangerous animal is shifting restlessly in the confines of his skull, all bristling fur and razor-edged claws. He rubs two fingers against his forehead.
On impulse, he presses the smoldering end of his cigarette against the pad of his thumb, and his breath hitches. His eyes roll back, and a warm shiver ripples through his body. His bare toes dig into the dingy carpet. His tongue darts out to slick his lips as he grinds the end of the cigarette harder into his thumb, until the pain is blinding, whiting out his thoughts. He drops the cigarette to the ashtray on the coffee table, raises his trembling hand to his mouth and runs his tongue over the burn.
He never lets his mother see him doing things like this, of course, but pain is such a constant in his life, it’s oddly soothing to be the one inflicting it on himself. It gives him a semblance of control back, a sense of ownership over his own body.
He looks at the burn-mark on his thumb, bright red against the pale skin, then writes in his notebook, Someday I’ll make them pay. I’ll make them see me.
He doesn’t mean the kids who beat him up. He means the men behind desks, the men behind walls, insulated from the hell around them. Men like Hoyt. Like Thomas Wayne.
He looks down at the words and scribbles out I’ll make them pay, so violently that the pen tears through the paper.
I don’t want to hurt anyone, he writes beneath it. I just want to be seen.
* * *
The next evening, after work, he sits at a table at Pogo’s. It’s amateur night and there’s a new comedian on, one he hasn’t seen before, a guy perhaps a few years younger than himself—sandy hair, square glasses and a rumpled polo shirt. The jokes are the usual raunchy fare. Arthur laughs along with the crowd and jots down observations in his notebook.
He catches a flicker of movement from the corner of his eye. He looks up, and his heart jumps. Travis is sitting at a table across the room. He makes eye contact, raises one hand in a wave.
He’s here. He’s here.
Travis doesn’t move. Just waits, maintaining eye contact.
Slowly—as though in a trance—Arthur rises to his feet, tucks his notebook under one arm, and approaches the table.
“Hey,” Travis says.
“You promised to buy me a beer if I came. That offer still good?”
“I, uh. Yeah. Sure.” He stands awkwardly for another few seconds, then pulls out a chair and sits. It’s easier to interact with people when he’s wearing face paint. When he’s hiding behind a persona. He feels naked without the paint.
Arthur pulls out a cigarette and lights it. It’s something to do with his hands, which are currently shaking a little. He feels Travis’s gaze on him. Focused on him. His head spins. He came here. To see me.
He’s gotten so accustomed to moving invisibly through the world, becoming the center of someone’s attention is always a little frightening. He feels doubled, split in two. There is the Arthur sitting in the chair, the Arthur he inhabits, and the Arthur inside the other man’s head, reflected in his wood-brown eyes.
“What kind of drink do you want?” Arthur asks.
“Just beer. Whichever is cheapest.”
When the waitress comes around, Arthur orders two, because it seems rude not to drink if Travis is drinking. The beers arrive shortly, tall brown bottles beaded with moisture.
“Not that funny, is he?” Travis asks, glancing at the stage.
“He’s okay. The crowd seems to like him.”
“Guess I don’t have much of a sense of humor.” He takes a long swallow of his beer.
Arthur takes a tentative sip, then another, bigger sip. It tastes sour and unpleasant, but it tingles in his stomach and warms him in strange ways. Arthur smokes like a chimney, but he rarely touches alcohol. It doesn’t play nicely with the various medications popping and fizzing through his synapses. But one beer probably won’t hurt.
“How are you feelin’?” Travis asks. “Your bruises, I mean.”
“They still hurt. But less than yesterday.” He swallows more beer. It’s easier if he drinks faster, without letting the sourness linger on his tongue. “My boss made me pay for the sign.”
He nods. “I tried to explain to him what happened, but he didn’t believe me.”
“I don’t think I like your boss.”
“I don’t think I like him either.” Arthur lets out a loud, shrill giggle, hiccups, and giggles again. “Sorry.” The mix of carbonation and laughter seems to have dislodged something in his chest, and now it feels like there’s a big bubble trapped inside him, and he can’t stop hiccuping and giggling. His eyes water. “I, uh. I think I’m drunk.”
Travis raises his eyebrows. “You can’t possibly be drunk yet.”
“I d-don’t—ha ha ha!—drink much.” A flush rises into his cheeks. He hiccups again. Oh god. Already he’s making a fool of himself. He presses a hand over his mouth, aware that he is breathing too fast. This was a bad idea. Muffled by his palm, his laughter comes out sounding like a whine.
“Hey.” He feels a hand on his arm, a light squeeze. “Relax.”
Once Arthur’s gotten a hold of himself, he removes his hand from his mouth and takes a shaky breath. “I’m sorry.”
“You’ve got a condition. I get it. It’s fine.”
“I’m weird. I know.”
“So am I.”
Arthur looks at him from the corner of his eye. “You seem normal to me.”
“Trust me, Arthur,” Travis says, “I am not a normal person. I just hide it better.”
Maybe that statement should worry him. It calms him. “You don’t think I’m a creep?”
“I dunno. I mean, I don’t know you too well. You might be, you might not. But even if you are, that’s okay. I'm a pretty creepy guy myself. I’ve learned to accept it. Gotten comfortable with it, even. I figure if that's who you are, embrace it. Make it your thing.”
A short laugh escapes Arthur’s lips.
“That was it,” Travis says.
“Your real laugh. It sounds different.”
“Does it?” A warm, mellow glow seeps through his veins. Maybe it’s the beer.
For a few minutes, they drink in comfortable silence.
Arthur puts his head down on the table. He smiles, flushed and fuzzy-headed. “Hey. You know those Garfield comics in the papers?”
“Sure. The one with the cat.”
“I always thought they’d be funnier without the cat. You know. ‘Hi, I’m John Arbuckle, and this is my cat, Garfield.’ Except there’s no cat. Just empty space. And you wonder, what going on with this guy? Is he hallucinating? A comic about a schizophrenic guy alone in his house, talking to an imaginary cat, because he has no one else. I think that would be funny.” He hiccups again. “I’m babbling.”
Travis gives him a long, searching look. “You know, I’ve talked to a lot of people in my life. Being a taxi driver, you meet all kinds. I can safely say I’ve never met anyone like you, Arthur.”
“I don’t know if that’s a compliment or not. But thank you.”
“It’s a compliment. A sense of humor goes a long way toward staying sane in this world.”
“It gets me in trouble sometimes. I laugh at a lot of things that most people don’t find funny.”
Arthur raises his head and pushes his hair out of his face, wonders how much to say. He takes another drag on the cigarette. It’s killing him slowly, but it soothes him, steadies his nerves. His lips start to move, almost without permission. “The garbage in the streets. The rats. Ugly graffiti on bathroom walls. The fact that we’re all going to die someday, and most of us will die without ever doing anything important. Billboards. Porn. Cancer. Sometimes it all strikes me as funny.”
There is another long silence, and Arthur is aware that he’s just engaged in what his counselor once called self-sabotaging behavior, that he started forming a connection with another human being and then immediately said the craziest thing he could just to scare the other person away—to end it before the inevitable rejection could occur, and thus keep the pain within his locus of control. She occasionally makes a good point…or used to, before she decided he was a lost cause and retreated behind a bland professional mask.
Travis drains his beer. “I’m going to get us a couple more,” he says. He stands up and walks away, toward the bar.
Arthur suspects that he’ll just keep walking. He stares straight ahead, at the stage, where a musician is now strumming clumsily on her guitar.
This is fine, he thinks. It didn’t go as badly as it could have. He managed to have an actual conversation with someone, for once. He knows he will fantasize about this later, pathetically, as he has revisited every moment of physical contact and every friendly word, storing up those moments in his soul as ammunition against the temptations of oblivion. This was not a bad night. Just as well that it ended, before—
“Here you go.” Travis sets another brown bottle in front of Arthur.
He’s still here.
Arthur’s breathing quickens. He rotates the bottle between his fingers. Because he doesn’t know what else to do, he keeps drinking.
By now his head is a little spinny and he’s having trouble focusing his eyes. An unnerving feeling of vulnerability comes over him. “I should go home,” he says. “It’s late. My mother will wonder where I am. I don’t like to make her worry.”
Too late, he realizes that he—a grown man over forty—has just admitted that he still lives with his mother and effectively has a curfew.
“Mama’s boy, huh?” Travis says. He’s smiling, but it’s not a cruel smile. There’s something warm and teasing in his eyes, almost affectionate. “Shoulda guessed.”
Despite his gentle tone, Arthur flinches a little. “Do I seem like a Mama’s boy?”
“Yeah, you do. It’s not a bad thing. But you’ve got this…I dunno. This gentle way of talking. Like you were raised to be polite.” He picks at the corner of the label on his beer. “I haven’t seen my parents in years. I write ‘em a card every so often, let ‘em know I’m okay. Every once in a blue moon I’ll call them. But they don’t know where I live or what I do. Guess I’m afraid to disappoint ‘em. Being close to your folks isn’t a bad thing.”
“It’s just my mom. I never knew my dad.”
Travis’s gaze flicks up, meeting his briefly, then lowers again. “I was a lucky kid. Two-parent household, white picket fence, all that. Feels pretty far away now, though. Like that was another person.”
Silence hangs between them.
Arthur doesn’t move. He knows he should go, but he doesn’t want to. His gaze focuses on Travis’s hand, resting on the table near his, and he suddenly wants to touch the back of it, to feel the tickle of those small dark hairs against his fingertips, touch the tiny scar on his knuckle…
He squeezes his eyes shut. He’s drunk, that’s all. He’s having weird thoughts.
“Did you do that to yourself?” Travis asks.
He blinks a few times. “What?”
“This.” Travis reaches out. Warm, calloused fingers brush the edge of Arthur’s thumb, the one he burned the cigarette out on earlier.
Panic jabs through the cotton around his brain. He jerks his hand back, hides it under one arm. “I…” Suddenly, it’s hard to draw a full breath. Stupid. Why hadn’t he put a bandage over it? “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Never mind,” Travis says. “Dumb question.” He stares off into space and takes another swig of his beer. “I’ll see you around. Thanks for the beer.”
Arthur gulps. He starts to stand, stumbles a little, and steadies himself with a hand on the back of the chair.
“Whoa.” Travis stands. “You need some help?”
Losing his balance after two beers…and he hadn’t even finished the second one. Ridiculous. “Maybe. A little.”
He feels a hand on his back, a warm anchor, and feels himself going weak and shivery, his already unsteady limbs turning to liquid.
“Let me walk up with you,” Travis says. “Those stairs are a bitch.”
Arthur nods, his face burning. Travis walks behind him, up the steep and narrow stairs leading out of the club. At one point, Arthur stumbles and grabs for the railing, and Travis puts a hand on his back again. He presses against a bruise, and a strangled cry escapes Arthur’s throat.
“Shit. You okay?”
“Yes. It’s nothing.” He clings to the railing for a moment, waiting for the pain to fade. Then they keep going, out through the main door, into the cold and rainy evening.
“My subway stop is just down the street,” Arthur says. “I’ll be fine from here.”
“All right.” Travis stands, hands in his pockets.
Still, Arthur doesn’t move. Icy rain kisses the back of his neck and slides under his collar. If he stands here too long he’ll get soaked. But he can’t quite bring himself to walk away. “I was worried you were a hallucination,” he blurts out. “After the first time I met you. I thought that I made you up.”
“I’m real. But I guess that’s just what a figment of your imagination would say.” He gives Arthur that crooked half-smile, showing no teeth. Something about it makes Arthur ache.
Again, he thinks about asking for a hug. But even with his inhibitions softened, he can’t quite bring himself to do it. He grips his burned thumb, squeezing it, and the sharp pain is like a knife cutting through the fog.
Travis is still very nearly a stranger to him. Arthur doesn’t know what he wants. He would like to believe that Travis just likes him—that maybe, for once in his lifetime, he’s making a friend, like a normal person—but the world has let him down too many times for him to give himself over to that belief. Travis could be a serial killer, for all he knows. Maybe he’s scoping out new victims, planning to lure Arthur into his apartment and cut him open…
That might not be so bad, he thinks. To be killed by someone nice. Someone with warm hands. There are worse ways to go.
“Ha-ha. Ha-ha-ha!” He presses a hand to his mouth. “Sorry.”
“You apologize a lot.”
“It’s a reflex. I’m s—” he bites his tongue, hard enough to hurt.
Travis gives a little shrug. “Nothing wrong with it. Just an observation.” They stood in the rain, in the bleary yellow glow of the streetlight, looking at each other.
“I probably shouldn’t say this,” Travis says. “But those guys who beat you up…I want to hurt them.”
Arthur stares. “What?”
“Not saying I will. I mean, I didn’t even see their faces. No idea who they are. Just sayin’, part of me wants to. You’re still in pain. I can tell. I hear it in your breathing. I hate that those shitheads did that to you and got away with it.”
Arthur clutches his arm. “They were just kids. They probably grew up in Gotham. In these streets. They’ve never known anything else. This city is cruel. It makes people cruel. It’s—it’s not their fault.”
“I want to hurt your shithead boss, too.”
“Well, that I’m okay with.”
Arthur gulps, takes the plunge: “Can I see you again sometime?”
“Sure. I’ll be around. Maybe I’ll come back here tomorrow.” He turns. “I’m gonna go back in and finish my beer.”
Arthur turns and begins to walk. When he nears the end of the block, he glances over his shoulder, and Travis is still standing outside the club, watching him.
* * *
He takes the subway home in a daze. There’s a warm, not unpleasant buzz in the back of his head. He feels as though he’s floating.
He finds himself replaying the conversation with Travis in his head, his lips shaping the words as he repeats them softly to himself.
He steps off the subway—the last train of the night.
Only after it pulls away does he realize that he left his notebook at the club.