a serious joke: chapter 5

“See, there were these two guys in a lunatic asylum…and one night, one night they decide they don’t like living in an asylum any more. They decide they’re going to escape!

So, like, they get up onto the roof and there, just across this narrow gap, they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in the moonlight…stretching away to freedom. Now, the first guy, he jumps right across with no problem. But his friend, his friend daren’t make the leap. Y’see…y’see, he’s afraid of falling.

So then, the first guy has an idea…He says ‘Hey! I have my flashlight with me! I’ll shine it across the gap between the buildings. You can walk along the beam and join me!’ B-but the second guy just shakes his head. He suh-says… he says ‘What do you think I am? Crazy? You’d turn it off when I was half way across!’”

– humorous anecdote between two nuts

So, Jon had spent a long time deciding on what exactly it was he had lost. To rephrase that: “what had been taken from him….stolen…somehow”. As certain as he was now that something of priceless value had been taken from him, he seemed just as uncertain as to the question of ‘how’, or even ‘why’.

For the time being, he found himself in the nuthouse. It was indisputable. Fact. Verifiable. Bona Fide….that he was not only a home-owner, but a married guy with at least one young boy for a son…his hunch was there had also been an older boy…also a son. But that detail called out to him quite a bit more faintly…almost as faintly as the meow of his former AM transistor radio kitty friend. Still, he was sure of these things. A wife. Good looking. Could stand to firm up a bit, lose a few pounds, but what wife couldn’t that be said about? Sometimes nagged…but then again, what wife couldn’t that be said about? All good things, he reasoned. Her nagging and being a bit soft in the middle aside. And reasonably, in Jon’s mind, things worth reporting stolen—as he stared vacantly through the bars on the windows in the lounge, twisting his neck just to see the urban blight of smokestacks and power lines and transformers in the distance…fast food signs lined up one right after the other—aligned like a constellation—the Big Dipper, Aries—fried chicken, microwaved pre-processed hamburger patties containing who knows what percentage of a once living animal belonging to god knows what species—the taco joint with its tall, proud sign jutting up behind the other two—perhaps ground up dog meat, rat meat, meat substitute or byproduct of some kind, who knows—another chicken joint, sign lit proudly in large neon bulbs behind the previous three, luring hungry, indiscriminate travelers to the meat-like pink sludge substance sold on the dollar menu after a good dip in the deep-fryer—the crab nebula…and so-forth.

Jon, craning and spraining his neck just for a somewhat decent view of the seemingly endless succession of power lines and smokestacks and fast food road signs displayed proudly in bright neon one after another, aligning behind the bars on the nuthouse window like crass substitution meat versions of the planets of our solar system. There’s Earth—pink chicken sludge injected with hormones and made into ‘nuggets’…there’s Venus—reheated beef byproduct patties sitting days on end under a heat lamp…Mars—dog and maybe even cat meat tacos…most likely some rat meat thrown in the chop for good measure…a veritable chop-suey of hormone-pumped mystery meats…look, faraway, and then there’s Pluto—more pink sludge molded into the shape of something vaguely reminiscent of chicken…fried enough, no one would ever care anyway. ….And there were the constellations, from behind barred windows no larger than 6×6 inches apiece. There were the constellations of Jon’s universe. Worth spraining his neck to get a good look on a clear night such as this? No. But on the other hand there was quite very little else to do.

The report Jon had made of these missing things—these stolen things—had somehow landed him in this place, with the 6×6 inch barred windows. If nothing else, being in this place had given Jon a new perspective on so many of those things he’d never otherwise give a second thought. A plume of polluted smoke rising from a chimney atop a commercial fabricating and manufacturing building somewhere in the distance earned itself a whole philosophical/metaphysical consideration which, in truth, likely warranted neither designation…to any sane man at least, or any man not confined to a very small room and not told exactly why. But Jon’s mind had need of a metaphysical thing—a buoy—to grab onto…to hold onto…otherwise no telling where it may end up and in what state of utter disrepair at the end of it all, assuming he should ever be released from this figurative rubber room. So he would take his time from behind these bars, examining not only the artifice of utilitarian objects and structures in the distance—things built purely to serve a specific function and not to provoke critical thought or please the eye; but also he would take inordinate amounts of time examining—up close—the grout dividing the linoleum squares of the nuthouse floors…each line of grout like the branch of a tree, each square another leaf on that tree, the grouting between them leading to another square—another leaf, and the grouting that lined and linked that square to the next square—leaf to leaf, branch to branch—the latter square adjacent to the former—tracing the lines and the grouting which he’d decided define a square as a square—without which the metaphysical concept of a ‘square’ might still exist, but also without which the actual representation of the square ceases to be. A concept he remembered as relating somehow, in his limited philosophical education, as belonging in some capacity to Socrates…and taking into consideration his current expansion on the work of Mr. Socrates and the concept of one’s ability to ‘describe’ an object yet never be completely able to recreate that description in a physical sense….yes. ….To Jon anyway, it seemed this study of grout and linoleum nuthouse squares was more than worthy of an in-depth, philosophical/metaphysical analysis. Currently down on all fours and examining the grout, which through its very being served as an attempted physical representation of Socrates’ metaphysical ‘square’, Jon had in fact never felt more sane. The mundane, the prosaic, the nuthouse floor tile, would itself have to serve as a metaphysical description of sanity. And, for Jon at this moment, the description and the representation of sanity were close enough to call it even.

He remembered, as he got down once more to his hands and knees (his unexplained wounds from days prior now only a minor nuisance), that it was said Socrates had been executed for—among other things—“corrupting the youth”. Jon had no idea what that meant. But he had also read, in his limited reading as a man of limited philosophical education, that Socrates was also quite a ‘pious’ man. As he inspected the grout from quite up-close, the tip of his bulbous nose nearly touching the dirty psych ward floor, Jon also wondered what it meant—in those days—to be ‘pious’. Further, he wondered just as earnestly what it could possibly mean to be ‘pious’ in these days…in the world we live in now, where the flick of a switch can annihilate an entire village with a drone strike, somewhere ‘over there’, in that middle east they always talk about on the TV…where the only constellations you can make out in the night sky are Arby’s, KFC, MacDonald’s, Bed Bath and Beyond…where a man detained in the county nuthouse is down on all fours tracing the grouting between linoleum squares on the psych ward floor, in stern pursuit of some sort of metaphysical truth about things….

…is this a ‘pious’ world?

A more unsettling thought came to mind just then. “What if I am not a ‘pious’ man?” Both the gravity and the vagary of that thought brought Jon’s nose up from the linoleum floor; he straightened himself and knelt there in foreboding stillness, atop all his profundity of grout and squares. Looking dead ahead, eyes affixed to nothing. “Am I a ‘pious’ man?” The words this time were verbalized. Softly, and to himself, yet verbalized nonetheless. Carefully making sure no one had seen him appear to talk to himself, Jon’s eyes darted from side to side. But he was utterly alone. The charge nurse was nowhere to be found…no doubt comfortable in his office, feet up, smoking a Pall Mall while eating a sub sandwich and watching the game. Nothing to worry about there. The rest of the inmates, it would seem, showed no interest in running the asylum. Theirs for the taking, but the interest simply wasn’t there. A full-fledged nut mutiny could in theory erupt at any moment. At the least, the metaphysical description for one existed. But, like Jon himself, many of the other nuts were far too busy examining mortal truths in the frequency and hum of the fluorescent lighting…or the texture of the extremely course bed sheets…or the seemingly aimless, pointless wobbling here and there of a silverfish scaling the bathroom mirror…and all of them, concurrently down to the individual and altogether as one—something approaching a nuthouse hive-mind—thinking, “AH-HA! EUREKA! I’M ON TO SOMETHING NOW…I JUST KNOW IT!”

In a certain sense, the inmates had more than run the asylum. They owned it…had built it even, brick by brick. It was their personal property. An endless amount of research on the profundity of the utterly mundane was obsessively/compulsively performed here…with little to no interruption by the nurses and techs and charge nurses and administrators. The metaphysical description of authority existed, but no accurate physical representation was to be found up or down these halls. As Jon thought on it, perhaps it was this nuthouse hive-mind that kept the grout from forming the square, so to speak; as long as the nuts were occupied by their false profundity, perhaps an actualization of authority was not needed. Perhaps not every metaphysical description begs a real-world representation. There was another unsettling thought headed down that avenue….. But getting back to the issue of that furtive darting back and forth of the eyes, Jon began to have an inkling of some other discovery he had yet to consider. Why had he darted his eyes back and forth, as if some vague disciplinary action might result from the charge nurse noticing him talking to himself? An unformed square can’t discipline the lines that have yet to describe its shape…

Still kneeling square in place on the linoleum grouting tree he’d made his area of study, Jon wondered for the first time if that simple movement of his eyes for fear of discovery had in reality meant something greater. It wasn’t a genuine fear of authority; authority that, unlike his square tiles, lacked the requisite grouting to first describe the shape and therefore the consequence. Any authority Jon had observed so far lacked verisimilitude. Whatever description existed for it was not aligned with the reality of the thing described. Certainly, some authority had landed him in the nuthouse and would likely keep him there on its own terms; but nevertheless, it lacked verisimilitude. A square before it becomes a square…perhaps still a square in theory, but Jon found it difficult to find himself fearful of a theory alone. Authority so far was just an unmade box. An incomplete square. No, it was something else that caused his eyes to dart from side to side and kneel in such foreboding. Fear of something much greater, more defined. Something beyond this. Something ‘pious’, perhaps? Without even having a satisfactory definition or context for the issue of ‘piousness’, it was something Jon greatly feared violating—perhaps more than anything in this world.

Is it ‘pious’ for a man in a rubber room, down on all fours—tracing the lines that form the linoleum squares of the nuthouse floor, the grout in those lines without which one might lack any working definition or concept of ‘square’—is it ‘pious’ or ‘impious’ to even approach the thought that doing such a thing may in fact serve as sufficient evidence you belong in the nuthouse to start with? In short, “am I really nuts?” All ‘piety’ or ‘impiety’ aside, Jon had to wonder for the first time if he was in fact insane—a part of that nuthouse hive-mind entertaining delusions of profundity. Under his working definition of himself as a man and a person, the mere whiff of that suggestion had been completely out of the question. It was laughable. But then, how had he landed in the nuthouse to begin with? Jon was steadily, without moving an inch, lifted high off the grout and the linoleum thesis he had been constructing for uncounted hours and days. It was because of those things he still held with such conviction. Those things he held were taken—stolen—from him. The nagging, soft around the middle wife. The boy. The son. The other boy. The other son. These things he knew he had. And he knew they’d been taken from him. By someone. It was not insanity. Taking a magnifying glass to the hospital floor or any other object or structure with the sobriety he had, however, might take him close to it. “Imagine that…going in the loony bin perfectly sane and coming out nuts…”

A flash of what felt like deja-vu. Either that, or one of those things where you can’t remember if you dreamed it or if it actually happened in real life. Whether something recalled from a dream or a real-life memory, it eluded him in any case. The only thing he did recall, at that moment, still kneeling on his linoleum thesis, was that his good friend had pointed out something that should’ve spoken to insanity then. The little kitty friend who suggested his house was so big, yet he seemed to be the only occupant. And of course the fact that womens’ undies were lying around. And what about that observation and then the kitty’s tactless comment about ‘bitches’ had caused Jon to lose his temper? If anything were to point towards insanity, Jon reasoned—gravitating either towards or yet further from ‘piousness’—that incident would oddly enough not be it. The compass pointing to insanity could only lie in the direction he found himself now, in this moment. Kneeling on the floor, attempting to reveal some hidden truth of things through the grouting between linoleum tiles. And knowing that half the other inmates were presently engaged in quite similar pursuits…like watching a spider trying to crawl out of the basin a nut had just washed up in…losing it’s footing…all eight of them…and tumbling down to the bottom again…and then starting that arduous climb back up…tumbling down again…a spider engaged in a Sisyphean loop of futility. A spider with not enough sense to look for another solution. And there was another inmate, not unlike Jon, playing overlord during the entire process; analyzing…attempting to reveal some inner or outer truth of things through the observation of a silent, critical-thinking deficient arachnid in a wet basin. Something almost approaching torment. In that particular case, Jon felt confident in saying this was not ‘pious’. “But what of myself?” he thought, finally struggling to his feet, standing perfectly still, eyes again affixed to nothing. “Is there ‘piety’ in the abandonment of this game of grout and linoleum tile? In deciding I in fact am NOT insane? NOT a nut? That I don’t belong here, and whatever they say to me, holding to what I know…that my family was taken from me…my life, in effect, taken from me?”

These words too were verbalized. Spoken out loud. And not in a particularly ‘inside voice’, either. And this time, Jon’s eyes stayed deeply set, staring dead ahead at nothing…no furtive movements one way or another. Whatever the tile study may have yielded, on artifice alone, it put him one precarious tilt away from true insanity. Whatever ‘piety’ the study may have in fact proved. Still, it would have proved it to no one. And still without an actual definition or context for the word in the first place. Jon decided then and there he was no Socrates. Not even a Plato. No Aristotle. Of course, no Archimedes. He decided, standing there—trampling the intense, meticulous study that had only moments ago spellbound him—that whatever the damn word actually meant, it would be more ‘pious’ a thing to stop there and recognize that he was sane. Sane, and a victim. And that a single moment’s continued pursuit of staring at flooring tile would likely put that evaluation at serious risk.

Perhaps the mention of the cat when he’d gone to file a missing persons report had landed him here. That, and the fact that the police when notified of the situation, seemed to give each other a knowing look. That knowing look still haunted him. Details of that first scatological incident—the missing time between it and finding himself watching movies with a talking cat, injured and estranged from the layout of his own home of over twenty years, and filing a report for this missing wife and kids of his—all continued to flit in and out of Jon’s consciousness. Since that one morning in the bathroom, he’d seemed to slip into a mental coma…only to emerge, for the most part oblivious to the events preceding it…and so-on, in this manner. The missing (or taken) wife and sons in particular seemed to have been a sticking point in his commitment to the nuthouse. Going to file the missing persons report, he might have diagnosed in the officers taking his statement the same sort of metaphysical quandary at play in their minds; it seemed he wasn’t being taken seriously…as if their evaluation of the claim included a definition of three people who for whatever reasons they considered non-existent. Square tiles lacking the grouting necessary to define the shape. To them, perhaps, a woman and two boys defined in theory but lacking those same basic lines that make a square a square. A metaphysical family, lacking any hint of verisimilitude. The question for Jon remained ‘why’. What did these two small-town do-nothing cops know of him, or his soft around the middle wife, or his boy, or his older boy? They were treated as a metaphysical box, undefined by the necessary representation-forming lines. But what gave them the right? Maybe, Jon mused, they simply ceased to exist the moment they disappeared—the nagging wife, the boy, the older boy…? “Ridiculous.” …but then he happened to think of a skit from a British comedy program he’d seen long ago: a young girl goes missing one day, so the little girl’s concerned parents decide to take her to the police station so they can report her missing. “We need to file a missing persons report,” the mother says, hysterical. The policeman on duty says, “Okay, fine. What does the girl look like? Height? Hair color? Eye color?” and so-on. The concerned father turns to the missing girl—his daughter—and urges her to tell the nice man how tall she is, her hair color, her eye color, how old she is. The missing girl, sitting between her parents, describes herself in full detail and the policeman writes it all down and says, “Okay, your report has been filed. We’ll call you if we find her.” …and the missing girl goes home with her parents. Report filed. “Why do I remember things like that…?” Jon thought to himself. “Well. Maybe if my wife and two kids had been there when I filed the report, they’d be found by now…”

Jon decided to shrug it off for the moment and moved at last from his spot on the tile floor. Finding his way to the charge nurse—a sleazy looking man with weasel-like features situated on a melon-like head—Jon decided to test the theoretical powers that be. “I’d like to check myself out,” Jon said from behind a partition of bulletproof glass. “I’m better now. I’d like to go now.”

The charge nurse—a grossly obese man of about 40 with acne and greasy hair carelessly pulled back into a straw-like ponytail—only averted his eyes fleetingly from the TV set mounted on the aluminum medical tray in front of him. Quite ignoring Jon, as if he were the spider trying to climb out of the bassinet, the weasely charge nurse only took another bite from his cheeseburger…chasing it with a mouthful of Big Gulp. No recognition whatsoever. A lunatic amused by a spider attempting to scale a slippery incline.

“I said I would like to check myself out now.” Jon leaned against the bulletproof glass window and tapped morse-code-like with his left index finger the next words… “Excuse me.” Tapping. “I’m better now. I need to check myself out.” Thumping. The office no larger in square-footage than a toll booth, the rotund lunatic in charge of the other lunatics could barely fit inside. Jon brought his face right up to the very small window and peered in; the man inside seemed to defy the laws of physics with his generous proportions spread out quite leisurely in a swiveling leather office chair, a small black and white TV propped up in front of him, stacks of papers and wrappers and refuse of all type cluttering up every conceivable space not already filled by his person. Tapping on the glass again, next to a sign instructing the nuts not to tap on glass, Jon tried again, “Excuse me. I want to check myself out, AMA.”

The sloth on the other side began to look irritated, unable at this point to ignore the spider, now free of the basin and rapping persistently on the tiny bulletproof window. Reluctantly, he set his beef byproduct substance down on a bed of gauze, took a swig from his Big Gulp, and spoke into the one-way microphone. Irritated, petulant words buzzed from the round metal speaker next to the outside window… “Yeah, well if you do that you’re gonna get TDO’d, chief…then, no sayin’ how long you stay here. So…might wanna think about that request of yours. Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time, know what I’m sayin’?” he chuckled—almost gurgled, electronically through the speaker. His attention immediately reverted back to the game playing on his black and white TV. Beginning to set the microphone down on a small side table, he stopped short and brought it back up to his melon-sized head to add something else…cheese and bits of cow byproduct flying from his mouth as the words came buzzing through on the other end again. “In other words, NO. Checking out against medical advice is really asking for it. You’re pretty much here till we say you leave, boss. Besides, it’s a shit ton of paperwork for ME. Now beat it.” He disconnected the speaker system and expended what looked to be copious physical effort to lift himself out of his seat, then slid the iron covering on his side of the tiny bulletproof window closed, resulting in a faint ‘thwack’.

Jon found himself immediately closer, in his mind, to a working definition of ‘pious’ and ‘impious’. “Should have known it doesn’t work like that….” He said as he walked away, staring down at the linoleum tiles. Unfinished work. “Devil’s in the details…”

Again, no longer caring who—if anyone—might hear him talking to himself. He decided it was the ‘pious’ choice not to. “Whether that makes me a pious man…”

…Jon still felt uneasy about that one.55