a serious joke: chapter 10

“misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows”

– The Tempest, Scene II, Act ii


Mikhail Josef Batrachian strapped on his Kevlar vest, fastening the buckles and pulling it tight, then took his trusty Mossberg and racked it; ready now for whatever calamity might befall him on the four or five yard walk outside to his mailbox and back. Several other firearms adorned his hip; a glock, a magnum, a .45 hidden in his boot. Knives strapped across his chest, over the vest. Serrated hunting knives, switchblades, various kinds of daggers. Finally, an SKS rifle fastened by buckles hung rather loosely across his other hip. Ready to go, ready to fire. Ready to blow the head off whatever menace he might encounter in the four or five yards to and from his mailbox. And there were sure to be plenty in the way of menaces. This he was sure of. He knew a menace was always ready, always out there, ready to attack. With his Mossberg and SKS and glocks and daggers, he knew he would always be ready.

Josef would always be one step ahead of the faceless menace out to get him. And he knew there was always something out to get him. Josef had the right to bear arms. The right to conceal carry. He no longer bothered to conceal, however. Wherever he went, he was strapped and ready; like a paramilitary trooper on the hunt…shopping for new underwear at the Super Wal-Mart, or buying Hungry Man dinners at the Safeway. No matter what the occasion—buying new underwear or stocking up on frozen entrees…indulging in a scrumptious breakfast at Aunt Sarah’s Pancake House…no matter the location or the mission—it was imperative, needed, completely and totally necessary. Strapped. Armed to the gills. Shopping for new undies at Wal-Mart. Josef would be ready to kill his enemy before his enemy killed him. He would aim his Mossberg straight and kill his enemy before his enemy killed him; without his Mossberg he was nothing; without him his Mossberg was nothing; this was his Mossberg; on his honor, he would kill his enemy with his Mossberg before his enemy killed him; on this he swore…he would. …While shopping for new underwear. At the new Super Wal-Mart. He would…

No mail. A sedan drove down the cul-de-sac, slowly. Mikhail gripped his Glock, finger probing the trigger eagerly, with anticipation. The sedan passed by and was gone. Mikhail’s finger went flaccid. No mail. Not today, anyway.

He was strapped enough this day, a walk down to the pub seemed in order. No clouds in the sky. Crisp, late Autumn warmth. Nothing could sneak up on him in these conditions. The notion of underwear shopping passed through his mind, even. But one thing at a time. The one-story shacks, run-down abandoned houses with boarded up windows lined his walk down to the bar. Utility poles, closed-down chicken joints, crack dealers and panhandlers loitering on every other corner. Mikhail had no qualms with the crack dealers. Strapped too, they shared a mutual respect for the gun. An equalizer. A “Hello…my name is ____” tag.

The gun speaks.

Bums. College students and college dropouts. Burnouts. Hipsters. Trash. Perusing second-hand shops and consignment boutiques. Record shops. Barber shops. Hookah lounges. Trash. Trash everywhere, rings through their lips and noses, ridiculous hair…ridiculous pants. Mikhail moseyed on by the trash, gripping his gun belt tight and proud…moseying like John Wayne, past the trash and the panhandlers and the crack addicts. None of these types would be a threat. Mikhail was confident of that. But he was strapped nonetheless.

The gun speaks.

The sun beat down on his bare shoulders…his wife-beater now soaked and his muscles sore from the weight of the Mossberg hanging about his torso. The bar—no signage of course—was nearly pitch black inside. Mikhail pulled out a stool, for a moment having trouble locating the seat, and took a load off. Placed his Glock gingerly down on the bar and snapped his fingers at Patrick, the bartender. “Pat,” Mikhail said, now whistling, “Pat! Water!” Patrick, left ear cauliflowered and near deaf, turned his head slightly, left eye drifting to Mikhail’s position. “Pat, Water.”

“Water.” Pat, ambling reluctantly down the length of the bar, threw a dirty old towel around his shoulders, picked a booger from his nose and wiped it on his jeans. “You come in here you want water.”

“Water. Pat.” Mikhail’s eyes were flickering bright white. Fixed on Patrick’s face.

“Water. Pat.” Pat poured some tepid tap water into an unclean mug. Particles floating to the surface. Greyish. “I got you, Mike.” Pat slid the mug down the length of the bar, spilling and splashing along the way. Mikhail grasped it by the handle and gulped it all down, particles and all. “Good?”

“It’s a hot one, Pat,” Mikhail said, tepid water dripping from his chin.

“You’re strapped to the gills today, Mike. Special occasion?” Mikhail shrugged, eyes flickering white and hot, still. “All that hardware…no wonder you’re hot.” Patrick went about wiping down the bar, cleaning out mugs. “So…what’s good? Any new trannies you wanna report on?” Pat smirked sharply. “Chicks with dicks? Give it to me, Mike, I ain’t bashful.” Pat smirked; wiped another booger onto his jeans.

“No, Pat,” Mikhail said, eyes undeterred, still flickering white hot light, intently staring right through anything in their path. “No trannies lately. Nothing like that.” Mikhail’s eyes flared just then, the white light dancing violently. “I had a dream, Pat. I had a dream I was pouring some water into a glass…” Mikhail put the mug back up to his lips…only a drop or two of water left, meeting his tongue slowly, uneventfully.

Mikhail set the mug down. Still parched. Tongue fuzzy. Like cotton. “…a lot of water into a glass. And the glass was on a table. And at some point I guess, Pat, I took a look under the table for some reason and I saw the water—all the water—just pouring—gushing out the bottom of the table. Out the bottom of the glass, I suppose. And I kept pouring more water in. Just kept draining out. Out the bottom of the glass. The bottom of the table.” Mikhail caressed the muzzle of his Glock, eyes glassy. Translucent. White light still dancing… Somewhere else. “What do you think it means, Pat?” He whipped his pistol out from a shoulder holster, jamming it in Pat’s face. Joking, maybe. Maybe not.

“Fuck, don’t do that, Mike!”

“Sorry…” Mikhail holstered the pistol. Still waiting for the answer to his water question. The eternal water question. Filling a glass that doesn’t want to be full. That question. Pat, the slovenly bartender with 11 or 12 felonies and half as many kids under his belt—all from different women—a lifetime’s worth of alimony and child support to answer to… Pat was not quite qualified to answer the water question…

“Don’t know, Mike,” he said shortly, slapping the damp towel over his shoulder, wife-beater damp also with the sweat and grease of the day… “How should I know? I pour beer—booze—into cups and glasses and steins all damn day…some gets on the bar. I mop it up I move along. Why so hung up on spilt water? Just a dream, right? Nothin’ even happened.” Pat cupped his hands around a cigarette, protecting it from the nonexistent breeze and stagnant damp air of the empty bar; lit it. “You know what I hate, Mike?” …expelling a plume of noxious smoke from his nostrils…

“You can’t smoke in here, Pat.”

“I hate it when people talk about their dreams. It’s only interesting to the mope who dreamt it. Nobody else. I ain’t interested. Don’t care. Didn’t happen to me. Everyone dreams about the same shit, anyway. Teeth crumbling…losing control of a car…can’t reach the brakes, right? You had that one…” Pat smirked, knowing he was right. Everyone has the same dreams. Drifting off for a moment, then coming back to the point, tethered by the persistence of Mikhail’s intent, white hot gaze.

“So, okay,” he went on, looking away from Mikhail, “Sex dreams…fucking Cindy Crawford…then you wake up, and you’re not fucking her anymore. That sucks. Now that’s a dream I’ll talk about…” Pat’s eye’s flickered a hint of life. The flicker died down quickly. His eyes dead and umber colored again. The usual, dead umber color of a bartender’s eyes… “That’s a dream I’ll talk to you about. No pouring water into a glass. What’s the point in that?” Patrick’s eyes were dead, umber, set deep in his head and fixed straight ahead…away from Mikhail’s intent, vacant stare. He pretended to do something, wringing the excess moisture from his bar towel. None came out. Pretending. “You’re just pouring more and more water down a bottomless glass…what’s the point? No point in it, Mike. Is that what you want me to say?”

“That’s the point!” Mikhail loosened the strap around his shoulders and set the unnecessary weight of his Mossberg down on the bar. Swiveling his neck and shoulders, feeling the weight and the relief of the weight off of himself… “You’re pouring water down a bottomless glass. Or the glass has no bottom…maybe. It’s not like a bottomless pit. More like…it just has no bottom…the water’s going down and it doesn’t fill the glass…just keeps going down the bottom, down to who knows where. And I keep trying to fill it. You do get it, Pat. You’re not stupid.” Mikhail’s eyes were vibrant…flaring bright white with each word…nostrils flaring too, breathing heavy sighs in and out with every syllable.

“Yeah, sure I guess,” Pat said after a time…proceeding to mop down the bar, puffing noxious smoke. “It’s like…a metaphor.” Pat flicked his cigarette butt in no particular direction. “Isn’t it?”

“Like a metaphor,” Mikhail said, eyes fixed, burning white hot light direct at Pat…unflinching. Calm, white hot light. “Like a metaphor with no bottom. Like that, Pat.”

Mikhail gathered his arms, fastening them to his person, tight and snug. Nobody coming for him this day. Not strapped like this, he thought. Strapped well enough, he thought, that a trip to the grocery store might not be out of the question. He was running low on milk.

Walking like John Wayne out of the bar, a bit bow-legged, ready for a fracas or a scrap or two. “Hey Mikhail,” Pat shouted as he was halfway out the door… “Shit’s like a metaphor, ain’t it?” Patrick smiled. His lips curled insincerely. Eyebrows arched. “Forget that water shit, Mike. Pour away. There’s more than enough water. Why worry?”

Mikhail shrugged, and gripped his gun belt proudly. Strapped. On the way to the supermarket. Ready to blow the brains out of anything that looked at him sideways.