“Whatever you got,” he said. “Phone, cash, whatever you got. You got a watch, man, I’ll take the watch. I don’t wanna have to hurt you, but I’ll fuckin hurt you if I have to man, I been to jail before, I do what I gotta do, but you don’t gotta get hurt, here, man. Just give me the watch, and your phone, wallet, whatever you got.”
“Wait,” I said.
“Just give it to me, man, you don’t want to mess with me. Slowly, just—”
He claps his foot down on the snow-dusted pavement and skips toward me, one hand defensively in front of him like a boxer, the other in his coat pocket, jabbed forward in such a way that I can see an outline of something. Whether he’s holding anything or not, I have no idea. Schrodinger’s weapon.
“Five seconds and I start fuckin you up. I’m serious.”
I show him my palms. “Just listen, I’m—”
The mugger’s whole face seems to shrink in on itself. He appraises me through squinted eyes, his nose scrunched, his mouth agape but drawn back.
“Yeah, you’re unhappy,” he says, “you’re gettin fuckin mugged, you fat fuck.”
“No, not because of this, I’m just—unhappy. I don’t know. It … really hurts.”
He looks around, still slouched, still confused. He shifts balance from his left leg, to his right. “Well,” he says, and licks his lips. “Why?”
My raised arms turn into a helpless shrug, and then fall. “I don’t know, I mean, I just—my mom just died, and—”
There’s the slightest flash of concern on his face despite everything.
“No,” I say, “I don’t even know if—if that’s it. I mean, of course, I loved my mom and when my girlfriend told me she died I was fucking devastated. You know what she did?”
“Karen—my girlfriend. When she told me my mom died, she … Christ, she—”
“She laughed. She—I mean, she wasn’t—it wasn’t ha-ha laughing, it was like… like an I-can’t-believe-this laugh. A hopeless laugh.”
The mugger breathes. He’s no longer jutting his pocket at me. “Jesus, man, that’s—that’s fucked up.”
“It’s like, I always thought—I don’t know—I always thought that laughter was this pure thing, this real, real, true language. If we didn’t laugh we wouldn’t know how to react to half the things that happen to us. And it was good—it used to be good. It was all I had. Making people laugh. And now…”
“I think I’ve been unhappy a long time. Comedy was the only thing that made me forget that.”
“Comedy. I’m a—I’m a comedian.”
“Yeah. I mean.”
“Like, a professional…?”
“Yeah. I guess.”
“You don’t—man, you’re not special for bein fuckin unhappy.”
“No. Fuck you. You’re unhappy? Look, man, I’m sorry your mom died, man, but look: everybody’s unhappy. You think I’m happy?” He takes his hand out of his pocket and I flinch, but he opens a bare palm and flips it front to back a couple times. “I’m out here mugging fat, depressed idiots and I don’t even have the balls to carry a knife. You think this is something a happy person does? Man, happiness isn’t even, like, a state of being, man, you can’t be happy all the fuckin time or it’s not happiness. Happiness is an elevation. You shouldn’t mistake not happy for unhappy. It’s just, like, pauses between states of happiness. Like the silence before a heartbeat.”
He looks genuinely angry, but far less threatening than before. I don’t know what to say, so my mouth hangs open in case words happen to flow forth. What can I say to someone so desperate as to steal from fat, depressed idiots like me? How can I compare my plights to his? Is there even a measurement, a median point of comparison?
The man presses his fingers to his eyebrows and drags them down to his cheekbones, making his lower eyelids stretch, but he doesn’t stop looking at me. Mouth between his hands, he exhales and says, “I went to university, you know. I even graduated. I wanted to write a poetry book.”
“But you went to jail,” I say.
“No,” he says. “But sometimes I think that might be easier.”
A car passes by, makes a splashing noise as it drags through the winter runoff that pools at the side of the road. I can see my breath misting because my mouth is still open.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
“What’s your name, man?” he says defensively.
“Will. People call me Willie.”
The mugger shows his teeth, chuckles once, throwing a puff of mist from his lips. My teeth clamp together at the sound. “Like the penguin,” he says.
“Comic needs a funny name.”
He nods backwards. “Jamie,” he says after a moment.
“What makes you happy, Jamie?”
“If happiness is—what, an elevation?—then what makes you happy? What elevates you?”
He crosses his arms and looks at the ground. Shamefully, I expect him to say beer or heroin or even something equally cliché, if opposite, like spending time with his daughter. But, as though hearing my thoughts, he shakes his head. “Golf,” he says. “I actually really love playing golf. It’s relaxing. Clears my head. But you can’t play golf in the winter.”
“No,” I say. “But you can in the spring. That’s your elevation period.”
“Winter is a shitty time for a lot of people.” He nods.
“I guess, I mean, if you don’t have a roof over your head.”
“I have a roof.”
“What makes you happy, Willie?”
I was waiting for him to ask, so I say it. “It used to be making people laugh.”
“Then you made yourself happy for a living. That’s pretty fuckin lucky, man. Past tense or not.”
“I know. I took it for granted. Now it’s different. My mom always used to tell me that laughter is the best medicine, but only for the one laughing. If you’re not in on the joke, laughter can be more like poison. It’s like I fell outside the joke somewhere along the way, and I can’t find my way back in. And I’m blaming Karen—my girlfriend, Karen—I’m blaming her, I think, and I need it back, I need it to be medicine again, because it hurts, it hurts, it hurts, and everyone’s telling me to stop and be sad for a while, about my mom and about Karen’s—she’s sick, and I just want to be funny again and not hate myself and Karen and everyfuckingthing because the laughter is wrong, now, it’s a fucking poison inside me and I can’t—” I feel my knees crush the snow on the sidewalk as the impact makes my teeth chatter—“I can’t—fucking—“ and I’m staring at my hands, half-buried in snow, and they’re blurry from the tears and the mist as I breathe in ragged starts and blink and blink.
For a moment, I feel a hand touch my shoulder. And then it’s gone and all I hear is the soft crunching of snow one and two and three fading and fading behind me.
Day 299’s three random writing prompt categories were, “All dialogue,” “A funny story,” and, “Pharmakon.”
Pharmakon. The poison and the cure.