He can accept being nobody.
He can accept the leaky pipes in his apartment, the cheap reheated pasta and chemical-laden TV dinners night after night, the sense of being a ghost. He can accept the reality that the only woman who ever has or probably ever will love him is his mother. Some people don’t have even that.
His pain is not special or rare. He knows, he knows. The world is awash with suffering; it builds up in the streets, accumulates like the garbage that keeps piling up on the curbs. He sees the same flat despair in the eyes of people on the bus, the men sleeping on park benches. His misery is not an aberration, it is mundane, it is everywhere, and this makes it harder, not easier to bear.
Shared misery does not make people kinder to each other. It makes people hard, cruel. It makes them cling to the crumbs they have and burn with resentment toward anyone whose misery threatens to take attention away from theirs. If he dares to speak his pain, angry voices will rise up to shout over it, to declare that he is being selfish and unfair to those who have it even worse than he does. Knowing that, he keeps his misery silent and small, balled up in a dark corner of his chest. Nothing good can come from letting it out.
But he can accept this if the world will just let up and—for one day—stop finding new ways to twist the knife.
The world never does. And he has to admit, it is kind of funny.
* * *
Arthur lies on the pavement, still in his full clown get-up. His bruises ache. In the distance, he can still hear the laughter and whoops of the teenagers who beat him.
Slowly, painfully, he sits up and pulls off his wig, letting his limp, sweat-damp hair tumble free. He removes the red Styrofoam ball from his nose. With shaking fingers, he pulls a cigarette from his pocket and lights it; it is a struggle to hold the flame steady. He sits with his back propped against the brick wall of the alley and smokes, his wig balled up in his other hand, resting in his lap. The dull roar of traffic fills his ears. Outside the alley, pedestrians walk by. A few people glance at him, but no one stops. He doesn’t really expect them to.
Arthur closes his eyes and holds the cigarette between his lips, one hand pressed against his aching side. He’ll be fine. He’s been jumped before. If there’s anything Arthur Fleck knows how to do, it’s take a beating. He’s more worried about the sign. He knows there’s a good chance he’ll be blamed for losing it.
“Hey. You okay, pal?”
He opens his eyes. There is a man standing before him. Early thirties, brown hair, dark brown eyes, clean-shaven. His expression is hard to read.
“I’m fine,” Arthur says quietly. He keeps his eyes downcast. He doesn’t sense any hostility from the man, but it’s always difficult to be sure, with strangers. An outstretched hand can easily become a slap.
The man surveys the fragmented pieces of wood below. “What happened here?”
“Some kids grabbed my sign and ran off with it. I chased them, but…they jumped me. Smashed the sign.” He takes another unsteady drag on his cigarette.
“They hurt you?”
“Just a few kicks.”
“Want me to take you to the hospital? I’ve got a taxi. Parked right over there.” He jerks a thumb over one shoulder.
Arthur hesitates…then shakes his head. He can’t afford a visit to the ER. The last thing he needs is more unpaid bills piling up on the counter. He doesn’t even have any money for cab-fare. “They’re only bruises.” He hopes that’s the case, anyway. There’s an alarming, sharp flare of pain on the left side of his ribs each time he breathes in, making him wonder if one of them is cracked.
The pain is funny, somehow. Of course, by now he is accustomed to laughing at his own pain. His feelings, too—sadness, humiliation, fear—all these absurd animal reflexes pulling him like a marionette. Life is a melodramatic puppet show, yet there is no moral or unifying theme, no punchline.
He starts to laugh. The laughter wrenches itself from him in spasmodic bursts. It hurts his chest, but he can’t stop. “Oh god…” He keeps laughing, even as tears blur his vision and trickle down his face.
He presses a hand over his mouth and nods, hoping the man will just leave. He doesn’t want to explain this. He doesn’t have his card with him, either; he left it in his regular jacket.
“They hit your head or somethin’?”
Arthur shakes his head, muffling bursts of laughter against his palm. More tears roll down his cheeks.
The man hunkers down in a crouch and leans forward, until their faces are mere inches apart. Arthur blinks a few times, confused, hiccuping laughter, hyper-aware of this stranger who is now firmly in his personal space. Arthur can smell the coffee on his breath, and the sharp mintyness of gum, which doesn’t quite cover it. “Wh-what—” he uncovers his mouth and giggles. “What are you—?”
“Checking your pupils. To make sure you don’t have a concussion. You’re acting a little screwy—no offense.” He holds up a lighter from his pocket and moves it back and forth. Arthur’s eyes follow it. “Good. Any pain? Dizziness?”
He gulps in a breath and manages to blurt out, “No. I’m not—this isn’t—” he squeezes his eyes shut. His throat constricts. “My head is fine,” he says, speaking slowly and carefully. “The laughing—it’s normal. For me. It’s a medical condition.”
The man raises his eyebrows. “That’s a funny medical condition.” After a half-beat he adds, “I wasn’t tryin’ to make a joke there.”
“It’s…rare. B-but it’s a real thing.” The doctors at Arkham called it pseudobulbar affect. Often a result of brain injury or stroke. But sometimes it had no definite cause.
He shrugs. “Okay.” He fishes a few tissues from his pocket and offers them to Arthur. “Here. They’re clean, promise.”
Arthur exhales a shaky breath. “Thanks.” He takes the tissues and wipes the tears from his cheeks, smearing his makeup. “Sorry I’m such a mess.”
The man remains where he is, crouched, arms folded loosely over his knees, brown eyes looking at Arthur uncertainly. He opens his mouth, then closes it and looks away. “Do you want me to go?”
Arthur clutches the red-and-blue stained tissues in his hand.
“I don’t like walking away from someone who just got the shit beaten out of him,” the man says. “Doesn’t feel right. If you need help, I’ll help. But if I’m makin’ you nervous, I’ll go.”
Arthur hesitates. A part of him wants to be alone. He can feel the hot itch of laughter building up in his chest again, and he doesn’t like losing control in front of other people. But there is another, deeper part of him that wants to beg the man, Stay. Please stay. The man’s voice isn’t warm, exactly, but it’s low and calm. Calming. “You’re a taxi driver?” he asks.
“Will you—will you please just drive me to the nearest payphone? I need to call work and tell them what happened.”
“I can do that. Sure.”
He snuffs out his half-finished cigarette on the pavement and tries to stand. His legs give out, and he slides back down, gasping at the hot skewers of pain in his back and sides. He can feel his breakfast (plain oatmeal and black coffee) shifting uneasily inside him, and wonders if he’s going to throw up.
“They really did a number on you,” the man says. “Look, if you won’t let me drive you to a doctor, at least let me take you to a place you can lie down, or somethin’. You live around here?”
“My apartment is a twenty-minute drive away, at least. And I only have a few dollars with me.”
“I’m offering. I’m not gonna charge you.”
Arthur doesn't want to go home. Not yet. He doesn't want his mother to know about the attack. She'll just worry. “Just take me to a payphone,” he repeats in a faint voice. “Please.”
“Okay.” The man offers a hand.
After a few heartbeats, Arthur takes it. The man’s skin is warm.
He pulled Arthur to his feet. Arthur stumbles a little, and the man puts an arm around his shoulders, steadying him.
It’s been a while since anyone except his mother has touched him in a friendly way. Another bubble of laughter rises up from his chest and bursts from his throat before he can stop it. The man—perhaps mistaking the reaction for discomfort—pulls his arm away, and Arthur feels a pang of regret.
The man opens the door of a yellow cab. Arthur slides in and sits, clutching at his wig, along with the wadded-up tissues. The man gets into the driver’s seat and pulls onto the road.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
“Arthur,” he murmurs. “Arthur Fleck.”
“Travis Bickle.” Brown eyes flick toward him in the rearview mirror. “So. You’re a clown?”
“Yes.” He leans back in the seat, trying not to get makeup on the faux-leather, though it’s not very clean-looking to begin with.
“Kids’ birthday parties? Stuff like that?”
“Sometimes. Mostly just standing outside stores. Spinning signs.”
“It’s work,” Travis says. “People gotta take what they can get, in this world.”
“Well…I’m not going to be doing this forever.”
He stares out the window, watching the gray blur of Gotham slide past. “Sort of. I—” he stops. He has only shared that goal with his mother and counselor. He hasn’t told any of the guys at work, because he knows exactly how they’d react. Are you shitting me Arthur? Your jokes aren’t even funny. Stick to spinning signs.
But he’s probably never going to see this man again, after today. He might as well tell him. “I’m trying to become a stand-up comedian. I know it’s a tough business to break into. But I’ve been doing research. I go to Pogo’s—you know, the comedy club—every Friday after work. I take notes. I think I can do it. I think my material’s pretty good. Though I haven’t really shown it to anyone, yet.”
“Well…good luck. This world needs a few more laughs.”
Arthur met Travis’s eyes in the rearview mirror. “Did you hear about the man who died of laughter?”
Travis shakes his head.
“They say it’s the best medicine. But apparently it’s really easy to OD on.”
A smile quirks at the corner of Travis’s mouth. It’s a small smile, but it’s something.
Travis drops him off at a corner payphone. Arthur fishes through his pockets and realizes, with a sinking feeling, that he doesn’t have any quarters. “Um.” He holds out a wrinkled dollar bill. “Do you have any change?”
Travis hands him four quarters and waves the dollar bill away. “Just take it.”
It’s just a few coins. But that small kindness—on top of the tissues, the ride, and the half-smile—pushes him over the edge, and suddenly he’s on the verge of tears. Pathetic. He clutches the coins, head bowed, trying to get a hold of himself.
Travis hangs back, hands in his pockets.
“Thank you,” Arthur says. “For being nice to me.”
“It’s a rough old world. Might not be so rough if people stopped and helped each other once in a while.” He shrugged. “I used to be kind of a loner. Still am, mostly. Not so good with people. But I try to help out when I can.” He took a step toward the cab, stopped, and turned back toward Arthur. “Anything else you need?”
For a moment, Arthur is sorely tempted to ask him for a hug. But he stops himself. The last thing he wants is to ruin the moment by making it creepy. So he shakes his head and extends his free hand. “It was good to meet you, Travis.”
“Nice to meet you too, Arthur.” Travis grasps his hand and shakes it once, firmly. His grip lingers for a moment, then slides away. He studies Arthur’s face, his gaze strangely intent.
“What’s wrong?” Arthur asks.
“Even if you don’t go to the doctor, try to take it easy for the next few days. If you got a cracked rib in there, pushing yourself is gonna make it worse.”
“I—I’ll try to take it easy. But I have to go to work tomorrow. I’ll just take some aspirin, if I need to.” He kneads his wig in one hand.
Travis frowns, and Arthur wonders uneasily if he’s made him angry. Dim memories echo down the corridors of his brain—memories of a deep male voice shouting, a fist thudding into flesh—
“If you say so,” Travis says, snapping him back to the present. “See you ‘round.” He starts to turn.
“Come to Pogo’s tomorrow night, if you’re free,” Arthur blurts out. “I’ll buy you a drink.”
Travis gives him another half-smile. “Maybe.” He raises one hand in a wave and gets into his cab. As he disappears around the corner, Arthur watches, knowing they'll probably never see each other again.