As I was leaving the gym last week, I noticed an older, grey haired man sitting on one of the comfy chairs across from the main desk. It took second for me to recognize him. I’ve only ever seen him in my neighborhood.
This wizened, flannel-clad man looked small, benign and harmless perched on the edge of his seat. Before we could make eye contact, I jerked my gaze away. I didn’t want to establish a connection, or start even the most banal of conversations. This man scares me.
B is schizophrenic. When he’s on his meds, he’s supposed to be a happy, easy going guy. When he’s not, he’s frightening. Two years ago, he beat up his wife. She called the sheriff and had him admitted to the psych ward. She also vowed she’d ‘never let him return home.’ As is unfortunately true in many abuse cases, she took him back – though after his medications had stabilized his actions.
His neighbors complain of spotlights being shown in their windows after dark, and midnight peregrinations through the neighborhood. One had to get a restraining order against him; another worries about her young children. This family has placed a surveillance system around their home, complete with cameras recording activity on their property. B carries a cudgel. He walks at odd hours, stick in hand. Allegedly he’ll swing it at anyone or anything that seems threatening to him.
I’ve learned to keep interactions with B to minimum. I won’t risk anything more than a nod and a short greeting. During one of his ‘episodes,’ he sprang out of bushes as I walked by with the dogs, waving the club in one hand and road kill in the other. He threw the carcass at us, bellowing ‘Take this meat! You starve those dogs! They need to eat! Take it!’
Before the Big Guy became too old to do anything more than amble a quarter mile down the road, we’d take long walks, frequently passing B’s house. The house itself is hidden behind an 8 food stockade and big trees, so as I pass it is easy to let my imagination run into dark scary places.
Early one August morning, the dogs and I headed past his house and up a road bordered on either side by cornfields. B — or aliens — had carefully paved about 100 feet of the road with shucked corn – a hallucinatory version of the Yellow Brick Road. It must have taken hours to arrange the ears so perfectly. We kept to the shoulder, and left the design intact; as I drove home for lunch and dog care late that morning, the corn had been flattened by traffic.
I felt a twinge of guilt as I hustled past B in the gym. He is, after all, ill and a neighbor. I’m no better than the next guy in my biases and fears around mental illness, embarrassing and shameful as it is to admit. It’s also difficult to overlook the fact I’ve seen this man standing at an intersection urinating in broad daylight.