My students want to proclaim Joaquin Phoenix’ Joker a hero for our time—an anti-hero, I counter them, not a hero. A hero is strength, courage, self-sacrifice. No, a hero. We want him to win. I stand before their pleased faces; they are being intentionally provocative with their professor, confident that they have answers to my insistent questions. So, I smile back, tentatively, for ever since viewing this movie, I have been trying not to think of my mother and her years at the Hudson River Psychiatric Center. I’ve learned a smile hides a lot. The patients begging for cigarettes or quarters—before the state hospital was shut down and so many were sent out to live in the streets—they’re here, not dancing like Joaquin Phoenix’ Joker, for the drugs are over-prescribed here—they’re here, staggering by us, desperate. What an eight-year old sees: empty eyes and lopsided smiles. We visit my mother here, her four children, not understanding heroes or anti-heroes, only knowing our mother has been brought down to us, to the overheated lobby, and she’s asking when she will go home. Pop’s answer is always: Soon. Soon. His doubling is his tell: he loves us, but he’s lying. We knew it even then. Our mother was broken. We circle around. We want her home. We grin good-kid smiles at her, at our Pop, until our teeth hurt, until our tongues are dry and papery, for we know that we are the reason she isn’t returning home, even if no one says that. We have learned to blame ourselves. What about good versus evil, class? Where does the Joker fit in this equation? The students swoon over this line of inquiry. I’m listening now, scribbling notes, and holding close the remains of soon, soon.
Caroline Bock’s debut collection of short stories, CARRY HER HOME, won the 2018 Fiction Prize from the Washington Writers’ Publishing House and her work has been published recently in SmokeLong Quarterly, F(r)iction, Little Patuxtent Review, The Writer, and the 2020 Furious Gravity anthology among other literary journals. Bock is also the author of the critically acclaimed young adult novels: LIE and BEFORE MY EYES from St. Martin’s Press. In 2011, she earned her MFA in Fiction from the City College of New York. She lives in Maryland and is a lecturer in English and creative writing at Marymount University in Arlington, VA.