o neighborhood goes mad intentionally. Not at once. The mind’s pretty porcelain resents evidence of fissures. Lunacy’s club is exclusive, lest its members reveal what they knew all along — that the city or some greater entity resists truths they consider irrefutable. Where I live the mad are stylish. They’ve perfected arcane routines. They impress judges only they see, as if parading past sympathetic appraisers who raise cards with the numbers 7 or 8.5, or ones with scrawled compliments understood only to the chosen.
Take the woman I know only as “L”.
A decade ago, “L” worried she might be recognized by unnamed enemies. Tall, reedy, wealthy, she underwent cosmetic surgery at an expensive clinic to enlarge her lips and breasts. But something went wrong. The lips flattened and the marred breasts deflated. Microscopic insects she alone saw infected her forehead. She demanded the doctors restore her shorn flesh. “Put it back!” she hissed. Informed that the damage could be repaired but not undone, “L” chose to erect a separate truth: She was dead.
Death consecrated “L” to a new (daily) task: To walk through the affluent neighborhood in funereal black to remind the living of the perils ahead. “L” wears sequins, has inexplicably bandaged wrists, and inhales cigarettes once or twice before making them into flares. The exhausting of the cigarette supply keeps her close the family-owned tobacco shop. Unprompted, she intrudes into the conversations of passersby: “Don’t talk to me. I’m a dead woman.” She sometimes pauses near the piazza to admire the Egyptian florist’s new arrivals. “These flowers are not dead, like me,” she tells Hasim the vendor, who only nods. He sprays his flowers to avert her scanning stare.
Then there’s “R” — who refuses to walk on the same street as “L”. “R” believes “L” is crazy. Pazza. Dressed in a salmon pink jacket or a yellow shirt, “R” broadcasts a nuanced conversation with the pope. “But Your Holiness has not won the lottery yet,” he announces. The tobacco shop is also “R’s” favorite haunt (to the chagrin of its patient owner, who also contends with “L”). There, “R” probes battery wrappings. “R” is particularly intrigued by the size, shape, and provenance of the Asian-built batteries. “AA,” he intones, “What government made you?” After finessing the dangling packs of AA’s, he passes to the triple A’s. “Foul, foul, you are too small for His Holiness.”
On rare occasions “R” strides into the busy piazza to make an important declaration. The most recent was diatribe directed, it would seem, at dry cleaning. “You are fools,” he told stopped drivers, pointing at the local dry cleaning outlet, “to put the steam to death!” The neighborhood policeman, a stout, raw man with immense peasant hands but a calm presence, reassured “R” that the steam was safe from detractors. “R” nodded suspiciously and moved on. Another time, “R” denounced the perniciousness, made black, he insisted, by Satan’s knowing hand.
“F,” a man of 50, is predictable by comparison to “R”. He dresses in elegant tapered shirts and wears a cardigan in winter. “F” has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years and knows only one utterance, in the form of a banal question that to him underlies all things.. “F’s” technique come to a dead stop as he walks, as if made into iron by a artic death ray. “Do you have a cigarette?” This is “F’s” be-all Hamlet question.
Tell “F” “yes” and he’ll shuffle away before you can offer it. Say “no” and he’s paralyzed by the negation. He sulks and will not move. I often carry a single cigarette in the event I need to placate “F,” who has been known to stand still for 10 minutes or more. To “F”, life’s mystery is summed up by the availability of a cigarette, una sigaretta.
Finally comes “N,” a woman of about 65 who pampers a non-existent dog called (I think) “Gabi.” “Gabi,” “N” shouts at the street, “come back this minute or I’ll tie you up to the leash.” “N” wears a blue headscarf takes underwater strides, as if up against something. Gabi, the fiction-dog, has obsessed her since 1980. Locals suggest something terrible befell “N” that year, though no one knows for sure what. “N” is eager to keep Gabi from traffic. Occasionally, she enters the tobacco store to find “R” examining batteries. The two do not get along. “N” warns Gabi to keep her distance from “R” — whom like “L,” she labels as “that crazy man.” “R” ignores her and continues fondling the packages of alkaline batteries on behalf the pope.
I rarely see “L,” “F,” “N,” and “R” in one place. Such a prospect alarms me. “Do you think the pope will ever buy a battery?” Hasim asks me, pointing across the street at “R”. Pondering Hasim’s query, I see “L” closing in. “My flesh, my flesh,” she whines, “someone took my flesh” (actually, she calls it “my meat,” carne — “A girl mad as birds,” Dylan Thomas would say of her. This urban asylum, Thomas’s “heaven-proof house,” is like water above a drain waiting to cull a vortex from the stillness.
And I watch.