I had just finished hanging the holiday wreath on the door and was debating whether or not November was too early to place decorative pinecones in the flowerboxes when the woman carrying a backpack and a reusable Whole Foods bag asked if I was okay.
“Oh, I’m fine,” I said, confused. My hair was a bit of an unshowered mess that morning, blown around from the morning’s walk, but I was wearing shoes and a winter jacket, presentable enough, I thought, to avoid being mistaken for homeless.
“You okay, you need money, you need food?”
“No, uh, no. I live here,” I said, pointing back towards my house.
“Live and let live and live and let die,” she said, twitching the side of her face. “Do you mind if I sit here a minute?” She sat, lit a cigarette. “Stranger things in heaven and earth. And my father said, my father said to me that he is not my father, my father and my mother and my brother, and Hoover and Nixon, they said, Stephanie, you in trouble, baby, you gotta go, get out, and I said I said Stephanie this is more to take in, housecat, too much, just too too too much to take in.”
She rested her purple crocs on the bottom step, pulled her thin velour sweatshirt sleeves over her wrist, clutching the keys secured by a thin plastic bracelet, the kind popularized by Lance Armstrong and the LiveStrong campaign. Hers was blue, with the words “I Served” imprinted in the flimsy underside.
The little old lady who lives a few doors down stepped outside, bundled in a huge overcoat and a fur hat. I see them on the block a lot and they make me sad, this old couple with a shopping cart that they chain to their steps at night, occasionally wheeling it around filling it with cans. They’re Asian. I get the sense their English isn’t great.
“Dragon lady,” she scoffed, under her breath. “Go back to China!” she screamed across the street. The older Asian woman looked at us, sad and momentarily puzzled, and then set off down the street, a slow deliberate shuffle. I tried to gesture I’m sorry, I don’t think that, I’m so sorry, I don’t know her, but I don’t think she saw. “Kill them all,” she muttered to me. “Put them in the hospital with the electrodes and the Taliban and the KKK, bodies in the beds running like a river, running like a river down deep dark into the ground.”
That was the moment I began to feel a little nervous.
Approximately 1% of the American population is affected by schizophrenia. One percent. I read that statistic again, unsure of what it was actually saying. Is it telling me that one in every one hundred people is a schizophrenic? Or does “affected” merely mean, “passing familiar,” that one in every one hundred people just happens to know someone who shouts at strangers and hears coded messages in radio jingles?
I read more. Another estimate put the rate of diagnosis higher, at 2.2% of the population. What the fuck, I think to myself, staring at my laptop, unsure if my reaction is a question or an accusation, Why? I sit and stare, unsavory clinical language in small type underneath pie charts and graphs. 2.2%. What the fuckkkk.
“They’re looking at you through the television, you know. You gotta television?” She turns to me.
“No,” I say, slowly. “No television.” It’s a lie. There’s a perfectly lovely TV on the other side of the wall from where we’re sitting. There’s just some part of me that wonders if the whole thing isn’t a ploy to get into my house and steal my stuff, a reaction of which I am ashamed.
“Phoooo,” she says, watching the wind blow the trees. “I tell you, I got George Bush’s name, he’ll know me when I come for him, he’ll know me when the world come for him and what he’s done, done to the one to the almighty one, to the top top top of the pops, gone and gone forever gone.”
The dude who works at the coffee shop around the corner from my house walks by. I see him in there a lot, but I’m embarrassed that I don’t know his name. He’s tall and thin and beautiful, with perfectly sculpted hair and these lean, long cheekbones, these bright, inquisitive eyes. All skinny jeans and sad smiles. I realize that I probably don’t know his name because I sometimes become nervous around incredibly attractive people, even the ones I don’t want to sleep with. It seems like an extra-silly affliction in this case, because I’m pretty sure handsome coffee guy is gay.
“No shame on you, baby, no shame game blame,” she says as he passes, mercifully not too loud. He keeps his headphones in, keeps walking by. “Paul was a gay, you know. No shame, no shame because you know that Paul, the disciple Paul, he said, Paul said, Hey, Hey Jesus, Jesus I gotta tell you something, and Jesus said What? and Paul said Jesus I just gotta tell you that my brothers and I, my earthly brothers, Jesus I gotta tell you we are more than just brothers ifyaknowwhatImean and Jesus said I know, man, It’s cool and Paul said For real? and Jesus said Yeah, for real and Paul said Jesus you are one slick motherfucker and Jesus said I know, now you get outta here, I love you man.” She took a drag on the cigarette, the ends curling up in twists of yellow and orange and instant ash. I grinned, loving the image of Paul and Jesus having this conversation, long robes and beards hunched over dimly lit barstools, that particular type of dude hug, the one with the sort of slap on the back, the kind that says I love you, man, no matter what. I looked it up later and it turns out that this is a very real theory that has been around awhile, that the disciple Paul was gay. Turns out some of Paul’s writings on lust and sexuality contain the same kind of violent shame-based rhetoric we associate with repressed Congressmen, the kinds of moral men in suits who preach hateful language from political pulpits all the way until that first young male intern steps forward with a story to tell.
“What’s your name?” I ask. She twitches a little, doesn’t look my way, looks up at the trees and the sky instead.
My aunt Kim is a paranoid schizophrenic.
We don’t talk about her very much.
Her hair, I start to realize, is probably a wig, or at the least, a weave. You can tell from up close that it’s plastic, though from far away it’s beautiful, dark black with the occasional tiny blond twist peering out, spiraling down into once-perfect curls, now matted with flecks of ash. She’s got an Eagles cap pulled down over it, and her eyes are bright blue. Too bright. Colored contacts blue.
“It cost me a lot, but it’s the one thing I got, it’s my man, it’s my man, it’s my man,” she half-sings, twisting the keys around and around and around her wrist. “My man who tells me Stephanie, my man who says, Stephanie, we will make it together, even though he hurts even though he hurts so much, even though he rips up everything apart and he crawls into me at night, vile vile vile inside of me crawling, filthy warlock inside me inside my skin, but he’s my man, even though he beats me too, what can I do, he’s my man.”
“Stephanie,” I say. “That’s your name? Stephanie?”
She turns, smiles broadly, slaps her leg, and laughs. “Stephanie! Stephanie T to the Jones, oh Miss Stephanie T. Jones, here in the flesh.” She shakes my hand, and then holds it, lingering, her dark fingers feeling my light ones as if I were a piece of fine silk, delighting in the texture. She runs a finger across my wrist, turns my hand over, running her finger down the length of my veins, pressing my fingernails to see them turn white at the ends.
A car whizzes by. “You drive?” she asks me.
“Sometimes,” I say.
Another car. She points, tilts her head back, her mouth agape. “Butterflies,” she whispers.
“My niece had a birthday,” she whispered. “My niece had a birthday and I walked and I walked and I walked and I walked to buy her a present, and I walked and I walked and I couldn’t get there, I tried and I tried but I couldn’t get there and my niece hugs me and there’s no present, there’s no Stephanie, there is a Stephanie but there is no present, and she says Aunt Stephanie I want to come home with you I want to come home and I say baby, baby, I say, baby baby ohhhh baby baby ohhhh.” And she is suddenly mournful, tilting her chin up, the lower lip beginning to tremble, seeing things in the sky above her, mysterious things other than mere telephone lines and sky.
A car parallel parks across the street, doors open and shut, Miss Toni and Roderick emerge. Miss Toni, the older woman who lives across the street, who always looks immaculate, her Sunday best every day of the week; and her nephew, Roderick, who comes by often to help around the house. They look alike, coffee-colored skin with freckles that dance back and forth, disappearing into shifting crinkling laugh lines as they smile, which is often. I don’t know them all that well, but they’ve always felt comfortable to me, the kind of people whose door I could knock on in a pinch.
Miss Toni steps out of the car, reaches for her shoulder, adjusts her purse strap. She’s wearing a long camel-colored coat, a black felt hat, sensible yet elegant shoes, timeless beauty in her seventies on a dingy Philly block. She sees us on the stoop, smiles, waves. “Hey baby!” she cries. I wave back. Roderick notices us, smiles too. “Hey baby,” she calls. “Now if I don’t see you, you have a blessed Thanksgiving, and holiday season.”
“Same to you,” I call, smiling, a palpable sense of relief.
“And just in case I don’t see you, you have a blessed 2014 as well! I think it’s gonna be a very good year indeed!”
“Cat in the Hat!” Stephanie T. Jones cries. My stomach turns.
Miss Toni looks surprised, then places a hand absently to her hat, smiles, laughs. “Why, thank you, baby.”
“Demon witch spy,” Stephanie says. “Milk of magnesia will cure those wrinkles, wash them off your face. Shame your face is black, black the color of the devil, heal the lines wash them all away.”
I arch my back, shift uncomfortably behind Stephanie’s Eagles cap, as she fumbles for her lighter and mutters further. I don’t know her, I mouth wordlessly, shaking my head and widening my eyes. I’m okay. I just don’t know her.
Miss Toni smiles uneasily, exchanges a loaded glance with Roderick. “Well, ya’ll just enjoy the rest of this beautiful afternoon, now.”
“And the same to you!” Stephanie cheers, laughing. Miss Toni’s eyes narrow as she and Roderick disappear inside.
There are a number of genes that contribute to susceptibility of schizophrenia, but it is not believed that genetics are the only factor involved. That is to say: if you are related to someone with schizophrenia, the odds are higher in your favor that you’ll develop the disease, but stuff in your environment can trigger it as well: drug use, high-stress situations, whatever.
There’s also this new research showing up, a lot of studies that are hard for me to decipher from their dense scientific language, but the basic idea is that a lot of mental illnesses are genetically similar, that major depression and bipolar disorder and autism and ADHD are all basic outgrowths of the same gene, the same chemical code pumping through our glands and our bloodstream and our heads and our hearts.
Which is basically to say that if you check the box labeled “YES” when the form asks if you have a family history of mental illness, you have to wonder what your own acids and proteins look like. If you aren’t sort of doomed on some chemical level, no matter what your life looks like, no matter what choices you make.
Stephanie lights another cigarette and looks into my eyes.
“I could really use a sausage,” she said. “Potatos, chitterlings, dumplings, pork. You a vegetarian? You ever eat the feast of the kings? You ever wander hungry through the desert?”
The last time I saw my Aunt Kim, it was at my cousin’s wedding, and she looked good. A little swollen from medicine, or maybe that’s just what getting older looks like, her hair the same coarse texture as my mother’s, the hair I’m grateful I didn’t inherit. She sat outside and chain-smoked, sneaking cigarettes to elderly relatives whose doctors had likely prohibited it, or the twentysomething crowd who were young enough to know better but drunk enough to want one anyways.
She was funny. Really, really funny. Childhood stories told in this wry, self-deprecating way, gesticulating minutely, punchlines landing and then landing again as it took a minute to appreciate the complexity of the joke, as she held court on a wooden bench outside a lavish country club. I hadn’t seen her in ten years or more.
Inside, a wedding, and what’s more, a wedding in Connecticut: botox-smoothed faces, Chanel lipsticks, that one rogue relative with the tattooed eyeliner. Family politics bubbling uncomfortably, fueled by years of absence and gin, posed photos forever memorializing this one, perfect, perfect day. Expensive plates of tiny appetizers whirled around, sating no one’s hunger.
Hard to tell who the crazy ones are, sometimes.
Miss Toni and Roderick reappear holding a broom and a garbage bag, taking this opportunity to sweep their stoop of leaves, glancing over in our direction every so often. They’ll later tell me that they were nervous for me and decided it was a good idea to devise a reason to be on their front stoop, just in case. That they wanted to make sure I wasn’t the type of naïve young thing who would let a crazy person into her house to try and save the world and wind up getting myself strangled in the process. I tried to explain that she wasn’t violent and wasn’t going to hurt me, but the discomfort dislodged in me somewhere, too: I always kind of thought I was the type of naïve young thing who wanted to try and save the world. Miss Toni, as it turns out, is a tough old broad who used to work with Vietnam vets and knows a thing or two about PTSD, about turbulent environments for the mentally ill.
“Sweep it, beat it, sweep it under your rug, never talk about it again, just sweep it, just beat it,” Stephanie says, half-Michael Jackson, half bitterly spiteful, watching the crunchy yellows and oranges and reds and browns of the fallen leaves disappear into the white plastic bag. “Scrub it clean, your secrets your lies, you filthy fallen beasts you lie you lie you lie, clean it, scrub it, I don’t want no scrubs, a scrub is a guy can’t get no love from me.”
She doesn’t seem hungry. I peek inside the Whole Foods bag: a container of half-eaten hummus. “Fire,” she says. “Set fire to the rain, oh, lord, send me a man, send me a fire, send me a cleansing fire, rid the world, and Stephanie T to the Jones will walk on its surface. You got a light, baby?”
I fish in my purse and offer her a Bic lighter, forest green and worn. “Do you want this? I have others at home. You can have this one, if you want.”
Her eyes widen, and she stands, backs away from me. “I can’t bring that home. Green. Color of envy. Color of jealousy. I see it now. You have the disease. You all do.”
She starts to back away from me, slowly, her mouth widening in disbelief. I wonder what she sees in me, what my face looks like to her now. I put the lighter back in my pocket, but she still shakes her head and walks into the street. Miss Toni and Roderick stare, all pretense of yardwork abandoned. “I see it now, I see it, I see your true colors, ugly as sin, the day you were born uglier uglier, stay away, stay far away.”
I look at her Eagles cap and I try to imagine what she looks like underneath, what her hair looks like underneath the wig, under her scalp, her muscle, her brain, her bones. I watch as she slowly backs into the street, her eyes distracted by the leaves in the street, following her gaze up to the tree outside my window, and she turns to me, points at the tree unexpectedly, her face mutating, shifting into a playground flirtation. She’s harmless, suddenly. Vulnerable.
“Trees line the streets with five hundred dollar bills, money grows on those trees, Ben Franklin’s face on there, too. You just gotta know where to look.” She raises her hands to her head, crouches, opens her mouth wide, a silent scream. She stands and raises her head. Slowly, she walks down the length of Dickinson Street, straight, narrow, and tall, a solider walking into the sunset. I sit on my front steps as Stephanie T. Jones walks on, alone through a garden of trees raining money and witches and warlocks, a tub of half-eaten hummus in her hands.