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My mother’s first husband, who was the first mentally ill person I ever met, rents storage spaces all over D.C. He saves in crate after carton after crate: paper towel tubes, his son’s second grade science projects and college term papers, broken air conditioners, hammers, screwdrivers, curtain rods, weights, spatulas, pots and pans, old cans of paint, drills, sandwich bags, magazines and books and paper clips, window panes and big, long rolls of pink insulation and leather gloves and half-empty cans of shoe polish and arm chairs and tube tops and baby aspirin and vinyl records as well as the files of the court records (as well as their Xeroxes) of what was said before the judge between him and my mother more than forty years ago. When I saw him a couple of years ago, he was standing in my sister’s dining room organizing boxes of National Geographic, which he’d bought an estate sale and had now given to my sister and her husband. My sister was cooking dinner while talking on the cordless and thereby (and very cleverly) not paying any attention to him. He said I looked like my mother and that he’d always loved my mother no matter that the marriage didn’t work out and that my grandmother had always liked him and that she was such a beautiful thing, my mother, and wasn’t I the sister that said some awful thing to him on the telephone? Because who was I to tell him what kind of father to be? What was I? Crazy?
Maybe so, I thought, though I couldn’t remember anything I’d ever said to him on the phone.
What I did remember was the day my sister said she wasn’t coming home to live with him. She was sixteen at the time—full-grown, to my mind, and old enough. Her stories were that he wouldn’t let her go anywhere, kept a washing machine unplugged in the middle of his kitchen, ranted about her grades and her weight and her friends and their parents, and made her and his wife and very young son tie stakes in the yard every four inches so as to sow in a more orderly fashion the grass seed that never did get sown. They were standing in the hallway upstairs in my parents’ house and my mother was pacing, smoking cigarettes one right after the next and saying that no, she wasn’t going to send Lynn back this time, Lynn was going to stay with us. I remember watching the story develop from the doorframe of my room. I almost remember the desire to make popcorn, because it was better than any movie you could name. I mean, it was better than any boy-fight at school and beat the hippies singing and my parents’ late-night laughing and Laugh-In and bra-burning and Ms. magazine. Maybe my urge to spy originated in this precise moment of real-life human drama: this stand-off between my mother and father and her weird-assed first husband, with the girl/woman between them all like contraband. Because you have to admit it’s interesting .
Only nobody had a gun. My father’s an art historian, painter, and the youngest brother of three sisters and so he wouldn’t even know how to spell HUNT for the spelling bee that he would under no circumstances attend, but if he had owned a gun, during this moment he would have been polishing it or cleaning it or loading it, because that’s how tense things were—the whole hallway was like a drum or canvas or a fitted cotton sheet with four hearts smoking in the center. I can’t remember the exact words any person spoke, but I do remember getting the distinct impression that taboos were being broken. Black Panthers were frenching the Daughters of the American Revolution in that hallway—people were kissing zebras, were slicing their own tongues with razor blades and sodomizing vacuum cleaners. They were stringing themselves up to the light fixtures with embroidery thread and singing Christmas carols, were making flower arrangements with copper pipes and steering automobiles with their feet and wearing strapless dresses into Canadian snowstorms and serving white wine with roast beef. This is because, it suddenly occurs to me, that you can distinguish the crazy from the merely eccentric in this additional way: with crazy people you end up making a lot more concessions—you say X likes Y and so I guess he’s going to get it, because to tell you the God’s honest truth I can’t take another moment right now of the ranting and the raving and the weeping and the pouting and the drinking and the screaming. People in association with lunatics seem more often than not to give the lunatics what they want—they lie and capitulate and accede and relent until they really don’t mind watching baseball twelve hours a day, as they tell their friends on the telephone—they like digging in the backyard by moonlight and sleeping in a bed with coupons and magazines and Barbie doll legs.
My mother was not married to my sister’s father for very long—she had already left him by the time she was nineteen—and does not in any case choose to talk about him. Once by way of an excuse she told me that living with him gave her a headache that put her in the hospital, and now I think of this headache—which the doctors could neither diagnose nor cure nor dull with morphine—as my mother’s will rising up to save her—my mother’s will stomping its size eight Southern foot on the brain’s tiny blood vessels in order to get her attention so she’d finally assemble the courage to pack her bags and her Nova and her little baby girl and drive back home to Virginia where she would live a much better life than the one she’d started, by accident and mistake and mislaid longing, to live with my sister’s father. And here it was happening again in the long wallpapered hallway where I watched on gleefully from my antique doorframe: my mother’s will was rising like cream, like spring, like stormy ocean waves, and given the size of it— given how very ample her no was—all you could say was that it was a beautiful sight, indeed. Because the daughter would not be coming home, Mister-man, and you could scream and weep and threaten lawyers and courtrooms and murder all the live long day for all Mama cared, because Mama did not.
Once out of what is apparently a compulsion to study mental illness I took a group of students (all women, as I was teaching at the time at an all-women’s college) to eat lunch at a local homeless shelter. I suppose they thought I was offering them an experience they would not choose for themselves so as to help them see the world for what it really was. I suppose I told whatever supervisors I would have had—the department chair or the dean—that I was trying to encourage my writers to give what they could to their communities—to serve others, you know, and care (to use the far-too-empty expression) about the less fortunate. But because I don’t really believe we can buy ourselves the least bit into the heaven that I do not believe in or appreciate the piousness that too often leads people to donate their used coats to the poor, I’m certain my real motives were far less charitable.
After the sixteen of us walked though what can only be described as the lounge of the shelter (our shoulders slumped, our heads lowered) the director asked my students to sit down at long, light-brown fold-out tables. They were to each choose a seat between the men already gathered there. And so, one at a time, the young women sat, looking up at me every few minutes from their too-open eyes as one man said motherfucker and another drew circles on his arm with a steak knife and another touched a young woman’s red hair with his finger or his fork. The men smelled like vinegar and rotten olives; two or three bare light bulbs flickered from the simple fixture in the ceiling; the room was hushed, as though someone was about to pray.
Surely this isn’t so, the girls’ eyes said to me. Surely this isn’t true.
I remember I leaned against the doorframe (always the doorframe) of that meager, meager kitchen and watched my students pick at their food and stiffen and fuss lightly with their hair and stick a finger or two between their bracelets and their wrists. I remember I crossed my arms; maybe I took a sip of the sweet tea that one of the homeless men had given me and maybe I just held it there in the dim, yellow light while I waited for the beat to return to my heart. Maybe I nodded it’s true, it’s true, and maybe I didn’t. If I didn’t, I’m sorry.
Because it is true: we are mad, it is true. And spies as well, through and through.
copyright 2015 Adrian Blevins