Drawing of the Masks
The facilities were atrocious. Paint was peeling from the walls. Pipes to the pluming were leaking contaminated water. Puddles were evident in several places. There was hardly any light, despite light fixtures hanging from the ceiling. One in five actually had working bulbs in them. The hallways were shrouded in darkness even in the light of day. Arkham Asylum was in tatters.
Bruce Wayne had proposed to the board of trustees of Wayne Enterprises to find funds to upgrade Gotham's zoo of criminals. The board thought he was crazy. That was nothing new. The majority of stockholders from his own company had considered him insane ever since he reappeared from a seven-year absence. Unfortunately for them, they did not have a say in what Bruce Wayne wanted. If he set his mind on something, nothing short of Armageddon would shake his determination.
He remembered what he said to the board in defense of his proposal. "If you give patients a place that looks like Hell, they will believe they are in Hell. But, if you give them better facilities, like a fresh coat of paint, brighter hallways, new pluming, the more they will want to stay and not think of escape. The place is getting packed as it is."
Some members of the board agreed with him. Most felt that giving the criminally insane a Heaven was not what they deserved. They earned their time in Hell. Money shouldn't be wasted on them. One of his strongest detractors on the board complained that Bruce wouldn't have a clue what a mental patient at Arkham would want. He sarcastically suggested that he take a tour to find out. In typical Bruce Wayne fashion, he took the man up on his challenge, therefore deflating the man's ego.
And here he was now touring the asylum with its new administrator, Dr. Rich Moss. The balding Dr. Moss was showing him around and pointing out specific areas that needed attention. He was so thrilled that Bruce Wayne was throwing money his way that he didn't even recognize Wayne in casual clothes when he arrived in his limo.
"I'm so used to seeing you in a business suit." the Dr. said.
"Wouldn't want to get a suit dirty, now would I?" Bruce asked.
The further he went through the run-down asylum, the more Bruce wanted to improve it. He actually wanted better lives for patients here. They had enough to deal with. Like their sanity, or lack thereof. He could imagine his former mentor and later enemy, Ra's Al Guhl, consider his compassion his weakness. Bruce saw it as one of his strengths. Coupled with his mission to share his fear with his enemies, his compassion was also important for the birth of Batman. Without it, Batman would have never existed.
And Rachel would be alive today.
Bruce mentally kicked himself as Dr. Moss was complaining how little the Gotham Waste Management came to empty the trash bins. Bruce couldn't concentrate on that for the moment. Occasionally, thoughts of Rachel bled back into his mind. He tried to shut them down, but thought perhaps that it was impossible.
Almost a year. This coming month will mark a year since her death. Harvey Dent's death was not long afterwards.
The new DA was good. He was no Harvey Dent. He was nowhere near as fearless. With the lack of cooperation from Commissioner Gordon–not by his choice–Bruce found himself inside his alter-ego more often than his own. Batman had been working overtime catching criminals and being hunted down by Gotham police in the past several months. It made him wonder, not for the first time, which persona was whose. Was Batman Bruce Wayne's alter ego? Or was it vice-versa? It was his own rhetorical question. As he passed padded cell rooms full of patients that Batman had caught, Bruce thought an advantage with this project would be to further separate his public image as Bruce Wayne from Batman's. What masked vigilante wanted to help the people he captured?
After Dr. Moss finished his complaining, Bruce spotted the specially made cell block he was looking for. His true reason for coming to Arkham. Only Alfred could see through to that reason. Bruce recalled what he said before he left the penthouse that afternoon.
"If I may say, Master Bruce, gloating is not your color."
Nevertheless, Bruce went on. He motioned to the room and asked Dr. Moss, "What is that room?"
Dr. Moss was slightly taken back. "You don't know?"
Of course, Batman did. Bruce Wayne wouldn't have a clue, nor should he.
Dr. Moss explained with his voice low, "That's where we keep the Joker."
"Ah. Him. I guess we shouldn't make his life any better, should we?"
"It wouldn't matter. The Joker could find his fun in any environment."
"Why the special room?" He already knew the answer.
Dr. Moss leaned in closer and whispered, "We had to give him a separate room. This wasn't in the news, but we tried to give him a roommate several months ago. The Joker intimidated him so much that he hung himself by his own chain."
Bruce gave a shocking expression. In truth, he knew of the situation through the magic of money. He had been getting regular reports from doctors on the Joker's progress. It unnerved Bruce as to why he seemed to be the only one who understood the psychotic. The key to understanding the Joker was to not understand him. The man thrived at creating chaos for no reason. To express frustration at not figuring him out was feeding the Joker's entertainment. Bruce decided the Joker needed a jolt of reality.
He made his voice cautious to the doctor. "Does he receive many visitors?"
Dr. Moss shrugged. "Sometimes psyche majors from Gotham University come to study him. They try to give him survey questions. You know, like they did in that movie with Hanibal Lector."
Bruce chuckled. "I doubt the Joker would reduce himself to cannibalism."
"I wouldn't put it past him." They approached closer to the room. Two guards watched his door.
Bruce put a dash of hesitancy in his voice. "Do you think it would be possible for me to meet him?"
The doctor looked at Bruce as though mice were coming out of his nose. "Are you serious?"
"I'm always serious."
"I don't know, Mr. Wayne. He can be quite intimidating. And I don't know his schedule. He may have a session soon."
Bruce cleared his throat. "You know what? That's all right." He looked across the hallway. "To tell you the truth, I'm not even sure I can get approval for this project. I just wanted to see it for myself."
The doctor gulped. "You won't be able to get the funding?"
"Well, initially, I was outvoted. You know what they think. It must be another one of Bruce Wayne's crazy ideas. But, I assure you I will keep at it and try to convince the board that this is a good thing to do. Perhaps in a few months time."
"A few months," the Dr. repeated.
"Give or take. The board can be stubborn sometimes."
"I'm sure they can." Dr. Moss looked over at one of the guards. "Excuse me a moment."
"Of course." Bruce waited while the doctor spoke to the guard. He came back to Bruce within a minute.
"It seems he doesn't have any sessions today. We can only give you ten minutes time."
"More than enough. Thank you." Money. It never failed to speak.
Dr. Moss went over the procedural ground rules when visiting the Joker. No exchanges of any kind. He had to surrender all metal and plastic items. There was to be a guard present, or at least within earshot. After Bruce acknowledged the rules, he was ready.
The doctor then called into the cell. "Joker. You have a special visitor."
The Joker's voice answered from within, "Perfect! Send him in. I'm famished!"
Dr. Moss turned to Bruce. "You did know he has excellent hearing."
The guard unlocked the door and it whined open. One of the guards stood by its side.
The doctor said, "There you go. He is chained up so there shouldn't be any trouble. Just call Lenny here when you're done. If anything happens, Lenny is fully armed."
So am I, thought Bruce. And I don't need a gun.
Bruce entered the bright rectangular room. To his left was a wide cot that was attached to the wall. Hung on the walls were several pieces of paper with drawings on them. They all had one subject. Bats. There was even one of Batman himself. Not a bad rendering either.
"Like my handiwork?" asked a voice in the room.
Bruce looked at the far end to see the Joker sitting Indian style in the corner. He wore the Arkham orange jumpsuit. His head was down, showing off his greenish black hair. There was a padded cuff on his left arm and leg that was attached to a thick chain. Bruce followed the chain to a hook set in the wall. This was the Joker's home for almost a year. The last time Bruce had seen him was as Batman and the Joker was hanging upside down.
Bruce didn't answer the Joker quick enough so he raised his head and uttered, "Did a cat tear your tongue out?" When the Joker looked up, he saw who his visitor was. "Welllll...look who it is. Gotham's own playboy and savior. Come to see how the lesser folks live?"
Bruce leaned in closer to him and extended his hand. "Bruce Wayne. Pleasure to meet you."
The Joker just stared at the hand. "You have to be kidding."
Bruce retracted his hand. "Sorry. I don't meet anyone who I don't shake hands with first. Blame the businessman in me."
There was an awkward silence before Bruce said, "Pardon me for asking, but did they let you keep your makeup?"
"Unfortunately, no. They do indulge me in allowing my inner artist to come out. I can only draw with chalk pastel. No pencils or paint brushes. It really limits the possibilities. But, I find that the chalk powder mixed with water makes an excellent base." He licked his lips.
"You feel the need to wear a mask."
The Joker pointed at him with his finger. "Now, now, now....don't try and analyze me like these so-called professionals in here. I expected more from a billionaire."
"It wasn't a question."
The Joker gave a look of interest at Bruce. "Hmm. Ok. Then, you're right. But, don't we all wear masks?"
Bruce chuckled. "What could mine possibly be?"
"Oh, yours is easy. It's in the shape of a checkbook."
Bruce smiled and stated, "Touché."
The Joker attempted mock seriousness and said, "Pardon me for asking, but why are you here?"
"Intrigued, I guess."
"You...guess. Well, let me take a stab." He stopped to call out, "That's not literally, Lenny!" He turned back at Bruce and said, "You had some kind of deal going on that fell through and you felt depressed enough to come and see the even more depressed. Am I right?"
Bruce stated plainly, "Not even close. I've heard so many things about you in the past year that I wanted to see you in person."
"Ah, heard rumors about little ole me? They're all true. I am such a legend."
"A legend in your own mind."
"Kinda like you."
"You know, people have that misconception about me. They think I'm all about the money. There was no skill in obtaining my money."
"Of course there was. It was the skill of the bum who shot your parents and his courage to not kill you too. That...took talent."
"You know my history."
"I know everyone's history. We all have one." The Joker licked his lips. "Do you remember getting breast fed by your mother?"
"No, you would have been too young." He glared at Bruce strangely. "Or would you? Do you miss being cuddled by her on those cold nights in the mansion? Oh, wait...that's right. You burned down that mansion a few years ago. Good thing you chased those guests away before you set the blaze. That would have really made the headlines if you didn't. Tell me, were you mad at someone. Dumped by a girlfriend? Come on, you can tell me? Who am I going to tell?" He laughed maniacally.
Bruce knew this would be coming from the Joker. It's what he did well. He pressed emotional buttons like no one else. The reaction he wanted was not the one that Bruce was going to give him. He smiled and answered calmly to the Joker, "You could say I was mad. And drunk."
"What a combo!"
"I still have the blanket that my mother used to keep me warm. The East Wing used to have a nasty draft. I kept it in a safe that survived the fire. And, I think I wasn't breast fed as a baby, according to my servant."
"Uh huh. Do you know how I got these scars?"
Bruce smiled. He knew it would happen. The Joker was bored. Show him you have an interest and he goes to the next thing to attract attention to him. Bruce played against him. "Yes, how did you get those?"
"Well, see, I had a life. Before all of this." He waved his hands around his face. "And one night after a party, me and my wife were walking in an alley downtown. We were rather tipsy, you see. Minding our own business. Then...suddenly, a man comes out in front of us. He had a knife. Not one of those little potato cutters. No, no, no, no, this was a knife." There was a hint of an Australian accent when he said the last sentence. Bruce figured it was to mimic the famous line from Crocodile Dundee. More attention.
The Joker went on. "He forced us into the alley. He pushed my wife against the wall and he lifted the knife to her face. He said, 'Let's start the show.' He was about to cut up my wife. I couldn't let him do that. So...I intervened. I pushed him down before he could touch my wife. He didn't like that. Not...one...bit." He overemphasized the T. "So...he threw my wife to the ground and he came after me. He forced me against the wall. He placed the huge knife inside my mouth. And he said, 'Give me a smile!' So...I did. He then quickly pulled the blade back...and I smiled. I always smile now."
Bruce sat on the side of the cot during his story and listened with great interest. "Ouch. That must have hurt."
The Joker went on as if Bruce had not spoken. He licked his lips. "So...there I was bleeding from both sides of my mouth, when my wife gets up and hits him on the head with a piece of wood. It wasn't enough to knock him out, but it was enough to make him very angry. He starts to go after her. I still don't let him. I reached out with my hands," he mimed the act with the chains clinking, "and I grabbed his neck. And I squeeeeeezed. I squeezed harder. And harder." He closed his eyes while describing as if he were in ecstacy." Suddenly, he looked at Bruce seriously and put his hands down. "Ever know what breaking bones feel like?"
"What? You've never snapped a chicken's neck? Oh, of course not. What am I thinking? You would just pay someone to kill the chicken. Let me tell you...when I snapped that fiend's neck...ah, it was exquisite. The sound of it cracking." He stopped again, staring at Bruce Wayne.
Bruce was staring back with only the hint of a smile.
The Joker licked his lips again and said, "You know, I told that story to a Gotham University grad student while she visited. Cute thing. She ran out of the room. Screaming. But you...you're still here."
Immediately, Bruce asked him, "What street?"
"Which street was the alley on?"
The Joker smirked as if he knew he was being tested and said instantly, "Figaro and Fifth Street."
Bruce Wayne started to chuckle. The chuckle grew into a laugh. The Joker looked on with curiosity. When Bruce calmed, he said, "Bad play, Mr. Joker. My parents were killed in the alley on Figaro and Fifth."
The Joker smiled and said, "Touché."
"I think I've heard enough." Bruce stood up.
"Oh, so you got what you came for, Mr. Billionaire? Are you going to buy Arkham so I can see your pretty face everyday?"
"Not likely. But, before I leave, I want you to understand something. You will most likely spend the rest of your days in here. Judging by the fiction you just told, anything you claim is true will never be taken seriously. I just thought you deserved to know."
Bruce bent down closer to the Joker's face. He prepared to use his guttural, rough version of his voice. Batman's voice. "Now, I am ahead of the curve. From one adversary to another."
He had only encountered the Joker face to face a few times. He had seen him on screen in action. He had never seen him look so shocked as he did then. Bruce stood erect again and glanced at the Joker's drawing of the Batman. He uttered with Batman's voice, "Nice drawing."
Bruce smiled as he stared at him. He reverted to his regular voice to call out, "Lenny. I'm ready to go."
Lenny, the guard, opened the door and let Bruce out. But, Bruce stayed standing in a specific position. Within the door at a certain height was a small rectangular hole used to slide meals through. Bruce calculated where he would need to stand so that the Joker would have a view of Bruce's face through that hole. When the door shut, all the Joker could see was Bruce's jaw and the lining of his lips. It was almost as if he were wearing a cowl. Bruce Wayne's true mask.
Dr. Moss approached him. "Well, how did that go?"
Bruce answered, "It was...an education. That man is clearly psychotic. He was even claiming that I was the Batman."
Dr. Moss laughed hard. "Oh, I'm sorry, Mr. Wayne. He certainly has the Batman on his mind. He has cooked up some good ones. It's funny, though, the Batman may be the only one who can make sense of the Joker."
"Maybe he is. When you catch him, maybe they could share a cell."
Dr. Moss laughed again. "Yes, that's a good one, Mr Wayne."
Bruce proceeded to say his thanks and goodbyes, as well as assurances that funding would be on the way much sooner than months. He climbed in his limo and the driver sped off.
Bruce thought about what he had just done to the Joker. He knows. He could tell. No one would ever believe him. Not even criminals. The Joker used fear as a weapon. He never came across a man who was entirely purged of his fear. Until now.
Maybe we're more alike than I realize.