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I take as my theme the mentally ill, understanding as I do just how tepid the bathwater is. So let’s not neglect for a moment the voyeur’s own affliction—her writerly custom of knotting her hair at the neck and looking with enthusiasm into other people’s gritty windows. Who does she think she is, anyway, sitting up there all high and mighty while the zoo animals shake the dandruff from their tails and lift their lips off their gums in the two-way mirror? Isn’t she observing in others what she might be too cowardly to recognize in herself? Because why else would she be so prying for the details of her husband’s sorrowful childhood or stare out from under her cat-eye glasses while the neighborhood crazy frightens the little children back into their houses with his bile-colored belly-yells? Besides, like divorce and death, mental illness is depressing. Or at the very least unnerving. Let me also say right here at the get-go that I have never been able to understand psychology. I went through a stage once where I read it—well, read Freud and Jung and Karen Horny—but there must have been a new baby in the house at the time or a loud dog in the neighborhood. There must have been a party to slice some lemons for, because I can’t remember much, if anything, that I took from that psychology stage save the distinct impression that I would not be repeating it. Thus I can only offer you a few portraits—these drawings, in black ink, of some people I have known.
There was, for example, the boyfriend who seems now to have been constantly slobbering. He wasn’t, of course, but memory’s like that: a tin lid reflecting the mind into the most grotesque of pastures. Or maybe the writer/voyeur remembers the crazy boyfriend slobbering because slobbering is a good metaphor for lunacy, as though what we can’t fix on the inside will eventually seep out, leaving a filmy white water mark on the good wool rug. He—I’ll call him Nigel—was crazy as a June bug, and no, I do not mean crazy in a funny-ha-ha kind of way. I mean crazy in a I-hope-he-won’t-ever-see-this-essay kind of way. He attacked people and stores and bands and towns and roads and bridges and cultures and universities and mothers and fathers and children and cats and dogs and birds and Christmas and Easter and Halloween and marriage and divorce and friendship and gays and Jews and blacks and Harley Davidson motorcycles as though everything under the sun were a baby rabbit on an eight-lane highway, saying that the offending person or animal or institution or race was anti-intellectual, ignorant, hillbilly, uneducated, misguided, deluded, Southern, Northern, Trailer, Uppity, Hippie, Suburban, and in a multitude of other ways not worth his raising even his eyelids the slightest bit toward—except, of course, for how much they deserved this condemnation, this sputtering curse smelling of cognac and pasta that he—Nigel—was kind enough to spit at them, good man that he was.
He lived in his dead stepfather’s love shack when the weather was warm enough. If it wasn’t, he stayed at his mother’s house and watched public T.V. He read books that no person in any state of mind at all could really want to read and then puked out the conspiracy theories he found espoused there. When I met him, he was going back to college, and I suppose this covered up his craziness for awhile, since I thought—well, here was someone turning over a new leaf, as they say, and if he’s down on his luck just now isn’t that sure to mean he’s closer to the epiphany he’s bound to be walking toward? Because didn’t Emerson say that intelligence was the ability to adapt to change? And who cared if he did because weren’t times pitiful and lonesome and wasn’t Nigel rather pleasant to look at? And didn’t Margaret Atwood say something once about boys that have “short attention spans, falling apart clothes, old beat-up cars, if any”? She says:
The cars break down, and they try to fix them, and don’t succeed, and give up. They go on long walks, from which they forget to return. They prefer weeds to flowers. Tell trivial fibs. They perform clumsy tricks with oranges and pieces of string, hoping desperately that someone will laugh. They don’t put food on the table. They don’t make money. Don’t, can’t, won’t.