a serious joke: chapter 7

“I tell ya’, I get no respect…no respect at all…”

– Rodney

Bryan Hannick stood arms crossed and high on several Percocets or more over the recommended dose in the doorway, high…thick goon neck loose and drooping to one side very slightly. Eyes glazed over happily and rolling back into his boorish face from time to time.

The doctor sat straight ahead behind his desk, admonishing with steely intermittent glances. Jon sat straight ahead in front of the doctor in an uncomfortable chair with the back of his head to Hannick, bald spot a fixed point of stoned curiosity. Hannick’s eyes began to roll back into his Neanderthalish head. Doctor Usher flashed a subtle admonishing glance. Hannick’s eyes rolled back down and out, fixed laboriously on Jon’s bald spot.

The beginnings of an aggressive alopecia. Classic. Exemplary. Hannick tried further to focus himself by thinking of his own head of hair. It’s said that male pattern baldness is determined almost exclusively by the father and the maternal grandfather’s baldness, or lack of baldness, he recalled. Your dad and your mom’s dad go bald, you go bald. Simple as that. It’s a lock. No escape. Unfortunately, Hannick thought, he never knew his dad. A drinker, the man had disappeared prior to his birth. He’d never seen a picture of the drunk. None existed as far as he knew. And his grandfather had been killed by a drunk driver at a relatively early age. Too early to tell. Bryan Hannick’s own baldness was therefore an unknown quantity. Anything was possible. The uncertainty of his hair’s lifespan bothered him. Greatly. For now anyway, it was a good enough thing to chew on; adequate food for thought to keep him from nodding out completely on a handful of Percocets. The tooth no longer pained him, anyway. He kept it in his breast pocket. Stained a bit with dried blood.

“Do you understand so far, Jonathan?” Dr. Usher asked. Dr. Usher, a man with an obnoxiously lush, full head of hair at the ripe old age of 60 or 65 perhaps, inched closer, the wooden legs of his chair scraping the tile floor with a loud screech as he adjusted his spectacles and removed a pen from his coat pocket. A man in a white coat. One of the fabled ‘men in the white coats’. Jon found himself in a small antiseptic room with one. The man—Dr. Arthur Usher—couldn’t fit the role of ‘man in the white coat’ more aptly had he come direct from central casting.

“I’m having trouble, Doc,” Jon replied. Jon had settled down. He had lost control a bit, yelled a bit, even kicked and screamed a bit, some time prior. Kicking and screaming. Jon had filled his role as the fabled ‘mental patient’ just as well, perhaps. But the Ativan was now working quite well. Jon now felt relaxed. Maybe too relaxed.

“Oh…?” Doctor Usher urged.

“I’m having trouble, Doc,” Jon replied. “Some trouble.” The wooden chair Jon sat in was unspeakable rigid, and old. One would not be wrong to wonder if the chair was purposefully uncomfortable. Why should a mental patient be comfortable? Jon wondered if perhaps the chair had been specially designated to make the mental patients uncomfortable, physically. Exceedingly. An intentionally—strategically—uncomfortable chair. Some sort of shrink interrogation tactic. For those mental patients who act out. Maybe there is a different chair in a utility closet somewhere, with fine leather upholstery, and armrests, for all the good little boys and girls who don’t kick and scream…?

“What with, Jonathan?” Doc Usher asked gently, leaning forward, elbows on desk, wrists crossed, strategically casual.

“With…,” Jon paused to pinch the bridge of his nose. He had a terrible migraine. “…with…how I ended up here. Doctor Usher.”

“Please, Jonathan. Call me Arthur.” Doctor Arthur Usher leaned back and interlocked his fingers behind his head, even more strategically. His chair was also wooden and lacked padding. But it certainly looked more comfortable. Or maybe he only made it look that way.

“…Arthur…,” Jonathan recited, Ativan coloring the tone and inflection of his voice. “…Arthur…I have never been suicidal, in my life. Whoever called you, or the police, or whoever it was who had me sent here…that person doesn’t know me. No one who knows me would ever think that. Whoever put me here, that person…” Jon stopped himself. Through the haze of Ativan, he still was circumspect. Not to the point yet of speaking his mind. Not to the wrong person, anyway.

“Finish that thought, Jonathan.”

“No,” Jon said. “No. I forgot what I was going to say. It doesn’t matter anyway. I’m just…tired. I’m sorry, Doc…Arthur…I apologize for acting up. It’s just that, I thought I could leave. I didn’t realize I’d been committed…or why.”

“Well, Jonathan, I do sympathize with you. I see these things everyday. It’s just that we are committed here…” Doctor Arthur Usher stopped himself with a silly smirk, a crooked half-smile. “…no pun intended. So sorry. We, uh, Jonathan…we are dedicated to safety here. If we determine one of the patients in our care may be a danger to himself or others, we feel it is a moral and a medical obligation to protect that patient, until it’s been determined he or she is past the point of crisis. I understand it can be frustrating. But we only have the utmost best interest of our patients in mind.”

Arthur Usher straightened his spectacles and leaned forward again, gesticulating with his wrinkly old hands, “As for your ‘acting up’, when that happens—when that happens—“ he emphasized with a stiff wave oit is cause for concern. Again, I understand the frustration. But we only have your best interests at heart. You have made some progress since admission, but…,” Usher paused, strategically, looking Jon straight in the eye in a peculiar way, “…but Jonathan. You must understand the position it puts us in. When something like that happens. The position it puts your peers in. The other patients. It’s not a good example. So, sometimes, Jonathan, we have to—you understand I’m sure—“ Arthur Usher gestured laconically with his wrinkly right hand, letting it finish the thought for him. His wrinkly right hand, liver spots and all, white hairs on the knuckles and all; suspended in space and time for more than a moment or two. It said more than his nothing words could say till now. An ‘example’, it meant to say. We must make an example of you. An uncomfortable chair and a wrinkly old hand, they said more than Doctor Arthur Usher in all his ersatz kindly old gentleman act could or would say. Jon saw it was futile. Chinatown. There was nothing he could say to successfully reason with an uncomfortable chair and a wrinkly old hand. They said it all.

The sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach signaled the expiration of the pleasant Ativan half-life he’d been enjoying up to now. Now he felt sick again. Sick and helpless and alone. Defeated by a wrinkly old hand. And the goon with the wide neck and broad shoulders standing arms crossed to his back. Words were useless. Someone had called the police, or a rescue squad, or the men in the white coats, or the men with the butterfly nets—on him. It was indelibly clear there would be no answer to the questions of who or why. Doctor Arthur Usher let his hand fall, rested it atop his other wrinkly hand, the pair of them rested comfortably atop his desk. The doctor rested comfortably in the uncomfortable wooden chair. “Jonathan?”

“I apologize for acting out, doctor,” Jon said, eyes down, a naughty schoolboy caught red-handed in hurling firecrackers at something he oughtn’t have been hurling firecrackers at. “Arthur.”

“Think nothing of it,” doctor Arthur Usher said with his crooked smile. His crooked tooth protruding from his gumline. His bad coffee breath wafting over the desk. Obnoxious quaff of silver hair taunting Jon. Beautiful, full, exemplary head of old man hair. Nicely groomed. A testament to his father and maternal grandfather. “Kyle will show you out,” he gestured with his wrinkly old man hand towards Bryan Hannick.

Jon stood up slowly, reluctantly, beaten. Beaten by a wrinkly hand and nothing more. A nice beating. A polite beating. Every whack—every punch to the gut and kick to the balls well-mannered and strategically measured. A kindly, old, polite ass-kicking. Not quite as polite, Hannick (masquerading now as ‘Kyle the orderly’) laid his meaty paws around Jon’s comparatively diminutive, chicken-wing shoulder blades and guided him roughly out of the shrink’s office and down the hall. Meaty paws squeezing his shoulders, Hannick uttered something sort of past Jon but no doubt addressed to him all the same. “That ain’t near the worst that room’s soon, pal. Kicking, screaming. Tsk, tsk…..ask me, you got off light.” Jon was frankly scared to even acknowledge the comment. This ‘Kyle the orderly’ character had a boorish edge about him he thought best not to engage in any way. Bear-sized mitts shoving more than guiding now, Jon became no less than a rag-doll in the clutches of an oversized schoolyard bully. A man with the characteristics of an overgrown child large enough to crush another grown man’s head like a beer can. “In you go,” Hannick said obnoxiously, more or less tossing Jon’s rag-doll of a body into his solitary unit for the remainder of the night. “Don’t let the bedbugs bite.” Hannick took the giant-sized key ring from his giant-sized belt and locked the door with a loud clanging sound; walking away, with the obnoxious, boorish tone to match his bully-ish, overgrown child demeanor, let out an infuriatingly resounding “HA!!!”

Then and there, Jon decided he would like very much someday to beat Kyle the orderly’s head in with a blunt object of some variety. A baseball bat, a tire iron, an appropriate length of steel pipe or rebarb. Anything. As he sat Indian-style on the cold concrete of the 8ft by 8ft cell (which contained no bed, and not even an uncomfortable wooden chair to sit in), he eventually tried to lie down; and realized that day with the blunt object and the smashed-in skull of Kyle the orderly would not be coming…at least, not anytime in the near future. If he should be lucky enough to fall asleep on the cold, hard floor, however, he might be fortunate enough to dream of it…and in dreaming of it, hopefully, he would not go on to wake the following morning having turned into a giant vermin. Hopefully, Jon thought as he curled up into the fetal position on the cold concrete of his tiny cell, it would be a justified dream to have dreamed. Justified, just enough not to find himself changed into a monstrous vermin upon waking. Not a pious dream…that much he knew going in. Just somewhere—plausibly deniable enough—between piety and impiety. The concrete hurt his bones. As the hours dragged on and he eventually began to find himself somewhere between awake and sleep, however, flashes of vermin began to flit behind his eyelids and in the cobwebs of his brain…

For this reason, Jon decided not to sleep. And sat awake, Indian-style on the concrete floor instead. And instead of counting sheep, thinking of all the different kinds of blunt objects he could think of. No possibility of vermin creeping in. Sitting, counting blunt objects.

Until morning.


Bones aching, Jon found himself awake, and not a monstrous vermin after all. I must have dozed off, he thought. But then, he could feel the phantom UV rays of the morning sun percolating like a spiteful marrow in his every bone. The way you can just tell sometimes what time it is upon waking in a dark, lightless room. The sun has a cruel way of penetrating even the darkest cavern or tomb or ossuary or sarcophagus…no matter how dark—if a live human should wake in total and complete darkness to a world outside that’s moved forward with the regular rotations of the earth—morning light—it will always find a way in. Jon used to stay up late…real late…attempting his masterpiece detective story, back in those days when writing the perfect American mystery novel still mattered to him; and always, he would wake in a completely dark room, only to feel the cruel sunlight radiating somehow into every bore in his bones. The fluorescent hum of the nuthouse lights outside masked the natural trajectory and radiation of daylight to some degree…but it was still there. In any case…Jon found himself a man…the same man as the night before…no hint of vermin.

Directly in front of him, shrouded in pale shadows, crouched another man now; crouched over a particular spot in the concrete floor of the 8 x 8 cell, apparently chipping away as best he could at the concrete with a rusty old spoon. A spork, actually. Head shaved unevenly, patches of black hair sprouting from his scalp in indiscriminate spots along his head. Even with the unevenness of his shaved head, Jon noted a distinct pattern of alopecia beginning in the usual tell-tale spots. A marked man. A bald man going bald. The chipping away at the concrete gave way to a rhythmic ‘chink chink chink’ which was probably too low for any orderly or other passerby to really hear. Jon found himself a human, which was a relief. His attempt at counting blunt objects—objects of some grisly future murder—in an effort to stay awake for fear of dreaming impious dreams had failed. That fact irked him. The bald balding man with the spork had yet to look up, even though it was quite obvious at this point he had been aware of Jon’s waking. Then, suddenly, the man with the rusty old spork said something. Still without looking up. “You coming with?”

Jon, at this point in time somewhat mesmerized by the cadence of rusty metal against rough concrete, took a moment to respond. The rusty spork man could’ve been addressing anyone, it seemed; though he and Jon were the only two nuts in the cage, so it must’ve been a question posited to him. “Come with?” Jon gestured, unnecessarily. Rusty spork man still looking down, still chipping away, cadence still lulling Jon into a sort of fugue state.

“Yeah.” Still chipping, rhythmically.

“Where are we going?” Jon asked, not thinking too critically about the question beyond that. The cadence had lulled him into an agreeable state.


“Japan’s really far away,” Jon said, now bent over the construction site in progress on all fours, inspecting the tiny dent in the concrete floor that god knows how many hours of work had yielded.

“No shit, Sherlock,” the man with the rusty spork replied, gruffly.

“Keep digging, Watson,” Jon added, reflexively. Not even thinking.

“Ah-Ha!” the rusty spork man managed. More an acknowledgment of something being a joke than a laugh naturally elicited by one. “I remember that. Good one. My friends used to say that one all the time.” He stopped his chipping for one moment and looked up, smiling artificially. Yet at the same time, it seemed genuine.

“Seriously though…you realize this is crazy, right?” Jon waited a moment or two for a reply. Anything. “No offense.”

“Lot of things are crazy,” he replied, finally. His attitude seemed cavalier. Relaxed, yet determined. Somehow, if he had been a betting man, Jon felt inclined not to put his money on ‘crazy’ in the rusty spork man’s case. “What’s really crazy? Endless war? Famine? Car insurance? Taxes? Cats?” He stopped chipping again, only for a moment and looked up, this time stone-faced. “Or a nut in a nuthouse trying to dig his way to Japan?”

“Have to think about that one….” Jon said. And he did think. “Hey…I didn’t catch your name.”


“Harry.” Jon eased up, sat back down on the floor Indian-style again. “Hey, Harry.”

“Yeah…” …still chipping…

“Isn’t it digging a hole to China?”

“What?” Harry asked, mechanically.

Jon gestured, again uselessly. Harry, still busy chipping away, did not especially wait on the edge of his seat for Jon to elaborate. “I mean,” Jon said finally, elaborating nonetheless, “anytime I’ve heard of someone digging a hole to get to the other side of the earth, the destination is usually China.” He waited for Harry to respond. “Instead of Japan.” Jon stopped talking again, and the cadence of rhythmic chipping continued. Harry remained silent. “It’s like…what do you call it…” Jon struggled to think of the word, “…it’s like, a colloquialism. I think that’s the word I’m looking for.” Harry was silent. Jon almost felt like pinching himself…making sure he wasn’t in the middle of some odd dream. He had apparently disappeared right before this strange man’s eyes. If this strange man had even been looking at him to begin with, that is. “Interesting. Kind of.”

“What are you in for,” Harry said, suddenly. Still chipping, still looking down.

“In here for? This cell?”

“In here for. This cell. Then, this nuthouse. Let’s go in that order.”

“I tried to leave, AMA. I thought you were allowed to do that…against medical advice, you kno—“

“Know what ‘AMA’ means,” Harry interrupted. A brusque fellow, apparently. Still looking down, still chipping.

“Yeah, well,” Jon continued, quite enjoying the company despite the strange fellow’s acerbic tone, “…you know…then they pretty much roughed me up.”

“That ol’ ‘kicking and screaming’ chestnut.”

“Yeah. That.”

“So they throw you in here.”

“Yeah. Right.”

“You go before Usher?”

“Yeah. I did…”


Jon did as instructed, and thought about it a moment. “Well. He ‘niced’ me. You know, how some people can kind of beat you down with a smile on their face. You know what I mean?”

“I’m familiar with ‘nicing’,” Harry said, mechanically. There was a certain caustic tone to his words, but Jon felt it was harmless. Certainly more harmless than the ‘nice’ but totalitarian way Arthur Usher and his goon had about him.

“How I got in here, then,” Jon continued. “The god’s honest truth. I don’t know.”

“BULLSHIT!” Harry with the rusty old spork suddenly burst out shouting, throwing his digging tool against the concrete wall to Jon’s back—the spork clanging—echoing the sudden outburst with additional clangs as it ricocheted off the wall, onto the floor, and sliding against the adjacent wall. Jon sat, perfectly quiet and surprised, but not quite stunned. “Excuse me,” Harry said as he wiped beads of sweat from his forehead and scrounged about the floor in the dark for his digging tool. He sat down, Indian-style, set the rusty spork in front of him next to the tiny dent he’d managed to make towards freedom—towards Japan. “Excuse me.”

“No worries,” Jon said, curious now more than anything.

“You know why you’re here. That’s why I get upset. I’m not upset. That’s why I get the way I get. You know? You know what I mean?”

“I’d hate to give the wrong answer,” Jon said, beginning the foundations of a crooked smile only to quash it right quickly.

“Don’t worry about giving right answers or wrong answers, damn it. Just be honest with yourself, doofus.” Harry inhaled deeply. “That’s my thing in life. Always be honest with yourself…and try to be honest with others. But if you can’t do that, at least be honest with yourself.”


“You’re not even listening.”

“I am. I’m just…thinking, too.”

“Oh?” Harry said, acid dripping from his intonation and expression. “Then tell me…I didn’t get your name, hold on…”


“…then tell me, Jon, WHY are you in here to begin with. It’s just, something tells me you’re lying to yourself. So, I want to help you. I do that. I’m a helper. I want to help you stop lying to yourself. Why are you in here? Do you have amnesia? Let’s get that one out of the way first…”

“No, no amnesia.” Jon paused, pregnantly. “Well…actually, maybe a little. There are some things I can’t—“

“Here we go again!” Harry groused, flailing both arms up into the air. “Either you have amnesia or you don’t. I’ve never heard someone give that answer when asked that question, ‘do you have amnesia?’” He sat and propped his chin up in his right hand, like a little boy listening to a storybook. “Jon?”


“Here’s where you say something.”

“I know.”

“Then say something, Jon. Entertain me. Regale me. Your turn. Tell me the Story of Jon. Tell me how you don’t remember if you have amnesia.”

“Well,” Jon began, feeling the embers of a distant flame beginning to glow in his gut, “first of all, it’s really not that crazy.”

“What’s not that crazy?”

“It’s really not that crazy for a person with amnesia to say they don’t really know if the have amnesia. Imagine you had amnesia…”

Harry put his hands over his eyes, ridiculing the scenario in a way that Jon found not so harmless as before. “Okay, Jon. I’m imagining. It’s imagination time with Jon the Nut. Now what, Jon the Nut?”

“You don’t have to be a dick,” Jon spat out, the embers of that distant fire burning slow and low now. “I was just saying, there are things I don’t quite remember, and it’s not my fault I don’t remember them. I’m trying to piece it all together. You don’t think I want to know at least as much as you why I ended up here? Look at you…you’re digging a hole to Japan. Who’s the nut?”

“If I’m a dick, Jonny the Nut, it’s only because I want to see you be honest with yourself. I’m not perfect, dude. Of course. Lookit!” He gestured laconically toward the little dent in the cell floor and the rusty old spork. “Look at that! I’m nuts all the way! But I admit it! What else is nuts in this world, though, pal-o-mine?! Is a nuthouse nuts? How about the interstate highway system? That shit’s nuts! You realize we have the exact same infrastructure in this country we did, what, fifty, sixty years ago when all that shit was first constructed?! How’s that for nuts? Shit’s breaking down everywhere you look, and who gives a damn? Nobody, that’s who. The computer systems that keep the millions—MILLIONS—of nuclear warheads our country has locked away in silos across the land are controlled by antiques, that’s right, antiques—floppy disks! That’s nutty to me, brother. We killed the electric car, we happily eat chicken that isn’t even fucking chicken, never mind the hormones you used to hear about it being pumped full of! We eat pink sludge in the shape of chicken, that’s nuts; kids don’t even go out and build forts anymore, you know that? They make “play-dates”. That’s the most nuts bananas shit of all! But…..I’m the nut for passing the time…..thinking hey, maybe, who knows……if I keep on chipping away at this thing, maybe I’ll make it to Japan.” He stopped abruptly. Caught his breath, wiped his brow. Picked up the rusty spork and looked forlornly at the tiny dent in the nuthouse cell’s floor. “Nothing wrong with a little hope. Ya know…” Jon at that moment thought much better of his cellmate Harry the Nut, with his rusty old spork and his tiny dent of progress towards freedom—towards Japan. “Polemics. Perspectives. Just….never lose those two things.”

Jon suddenly felt a wave of deep, dark, all-consuming grief stir in the pit of his stomach, snuffing out the embers and igniting a new fire. A spark within milliseconds growing to an inferno. A conflagration. A feeling like none he had ever felt before. It was a terrible sadness. And with it, a terrible, equally all-consuming bile of hatred and bloodlust. “I know why I’m here,” he said, finally, looking down, all the way towards Japan…

Harry sat up and received the words with a brotherly kind of stoicism, listening intently.

“…my wife, my son, my other son. They were murdered.” Jon looked past the miniscule dent in the concrete. In his mind, following an imaginary tunnel that would lead down—down—down—all the way down to the other ends of the earth. All the way to Japan. Two nuts, mentally, metaphysically—long gone and at the opposite side of the world…commiserating over the horror and falling sickness of it all. Jon’s fear of unsettling dreams and monstrous vermin fell with it. Burned to ashes in the furnace of his mind; for better or worse.

“They were taken from me. And I know who did it.”