The Lazar House of Nancy
I am driving through Rouge Park in an ice storm today. The voice on the radio says the glazing of ice on the trees could cause those limbs to break and fall. The lane markers where the road bends and forks alongside the river are covered in snow.
On winter days like this, I think of visiting my Aunt Nancy in Northville Psychiatric Hospital. Seeing Northville at 14 was like being at a circus freak show. The ladies in her ward were not bearded, but many of them had that dim five o’clock shadow that comes with experimental psychotropics. There was general excitement in the ward over the carton of cigarettes my mother carried. That was how sick Nancy was; she didn’t remember that she should be ravenous over cigarettes. When she got “well” for periods of time (usually a month or two at the most), chain smoking sustained her.
My mother had lied about my age to get me in. She waited out front near the nurse’s station while a nurse accompanied by a burly guard led me to the small visitor’s room. A woman with a long swirl of hair wrapped about her head like a birthday cake shit on the hallway floor as we passed by. I had 15 minutes.
Nancy sat behind a folding table. A chipped-out halo of grey cement hovered above and behind her head. In the light from the bare hanging bulb, I felt like an interrogator. (Tell me why you are pretending to be mad.) She wanted to know if there had been any murders in the family. I assured her that everyone was well. I offered the carton of cigarettes as a bit of good news. But the nurses who held them had already poisoned them it turned out. So I sat there and listened to her talk of how she had been raped by an orderly who didn’t know she was Jesus for what passed like a brief, startled minute before a large woman opened the thick steel door to our little room and muttered, “Visit’s over.”
With psychosis, Christ and persecution become almost insufferable clichés. I was always intrigued, though, by Nancy’s dialogues with satellites on the topic of metaphysics and her affair with Billy Joel, a fellow ward of the state while she was in Northville. It is unclear how their clandestine relationship took place within the strictures of gendered wards and his busy tour schedule, but my aunt insisted she had had sex with this “genius” musician. And good for her, too, I think, to cull some pleasure there.
Excepting her affair with Billy Joel, Nancy really did have good taste in music. Between stints in the mental hospital, she would take my cousin Ben and me to the Gaelic League in Detroit where Larry Larson played traditional Irish and American folk music on his Guild 12-string guitar. She also introduced me to Bob Dylan and Steve Earle while we drove around in her beat up Ford Taurus smoking cigarettes with the stereo cranked.
In her bedroom at my grandparents’ house she had a cheap Ecko six-string on which she could fingerpick standards like “Wildwood Flower” and “Freight Train.” Few in our family knew this about her, and I wondered what she would have been capable of if not for the illness. I had my first beer and my first cigarette with Nancy, which isn’t what my parents had envisioned when they made her my godmother, but in her way she fulfilled that role for me.
My aunt hasn’t driven a car in over a decade now. She swallowed a fistful of pills and almost died in 1997. She lay in a hospital downtown with pinking gauze over her bleeding eyes. Larry Larson showed up, bombed to the gills on vodka and prayed and sang over her comatose body. I’m pretty sure that’s what brought her through as the doctors and nurses had given her no chance. “No chance,” they had officiously repeated to my Uncle John. But her organs had refused to fully fail, her body surviving with the will to hear more music. Larry’s Irish tenor voice, “Where is the ring I gave sweet Nancy Spain?”
When I was a teenager, my mother called Nancy’s boyfriend an enabler. He’d lie and tell my grandmother that she’d been taking her pills and seemed fine even though she told him she planned to kill my uncle’s friend, Billy Hatcher, and they had found an actual hatchet in her room, homology and association taking a dangerous turn.
Nancy was in her mid-30s; her boyfriend, Theron, was in his early 70s, recently widowed and nearly as lonely as my aunt. It was a strange match that made perfect sense in terms of codependency and love—a sick something we cling to in another—as if to say, take this pathology as a symbol, wear it for the rest of your days. Love.
Theron had drawn for Max Fleischer studios and later Disney before coming to Detroit to work in Buick’s design department. He was an animator who had been on teams that created iconic cartoon characters like Betty Boop and Donald Duck. He loved Nancy. When things went wrong he blamed the diros right along with her.
Diros were restive metaphysical figures that Nancy and Theron had invented, catlike in their ability to rearrange things and make people look foolish and/or psychotic. The diros were all about chronological brokenness, dissembling Nancy’s day to day. They were responsible for spilled coffee and threatening satellite messages; there were also wrong turns down snowy roads as a result of their meddling. A mutual investment in the messes they left held Theron and Nancy together during Theron’s final years.
Diros were also capable, it struck me as I inched along, of obscuring the road with snow and guiding this car into the river.
Before Theron, when Nancy was still in her 20s, she was engaged several times. She was working as a nanny in Pittsburgh during that period, and she’d bring each of her fiancés back to Detroit to stay a weekend with my grandparents before ceremoniously dumping them during the return trip. It literally got to the point that my mom and her siblings would laugh when my grandmother would call them all over to meet the latest love of Nancy’s life.
In that Irish-Catholic family of eight, attention was hard to come by, and my mother and her siblings all had their favored methods for garnering it. For my mother it was hypochondria, breast tumors one week, multiple sclerosis the next. For Nancy it was a series of engagements and breakings off. I remember being there for dinner one Wednesday when my grandma told my parents that Nancy would be getting married in the spring and she was bringing her fiancé, Kevin, by for a weekend visit. When my dad joked that he’d take the under on the length of the engagement, my grandmother became enraged, banging her little fist on the table and saying, “Goddamnit, John and Peggy, your sister is getting married, and if you’re going to sit there and laugh like hyenas about it, you’ll be on the outside looking in when it comes time to stand up in the wedding.”
That was before Nancy was what my mother would come to refer to as “full-blown schizophrenic,” but she was already behaving oddly. My mother says these poor, hapless souls were head over heels for her. That they were handsome and well-employed and she’d simply rip their guts out. Nancy spat out six different guys over the course of five years, yet with every new engagement my grandmother would keep a straight face and try to get the family into a celebratory mood. My mother referred to my grandmother as a “dry alcoholic,” which was a faux clinical way of saying she had a bad temper. I look back and it just makes me sad. She’d sit at that kitchen table shucking cards from the deck, smoking her long brown Doral cigarettes and playing hand after hand of solitaire imagining that this house could be the kind of place where an idyllic spring wedding would occur.
Years later Nancy would speak of those Pittsburgh days of nannying and dead-end engagements as the best of her life. “I was fucking so many doctors and engineers,” she’d tell me. “They’d beg me to marry them, but I hated every last one of them. Bunch of fucking yuppies.”
Part of me believes Nancy’s tough talk, but another part of me knows that none of those young professionals who fell in love with my aunt could accurately explain the world she saw. None of these men would allow themselves to get lost in a Michigan whiteout on a Monroe County road, and if they had they certainly wouldn’t have dared to explain the navigational problems in terms of diros. It would take a septuagenarian retired animator in the early stages of kidney failure to accomplish that.
My mother is a nurse, so it often fell to her to prescribe a course of action in dealing with her sister’s psychotic breaks. The pattern would be the same. Nancy would stash household weapons (kitchen knives, scissors, nail polish remover that could double as poison) in her room against a perceived threat from a family friend or neighbor. My grandmother would find her tiny Clozapine pills hidden in the knifed-open back of a stuffed toy or in the soil of a potted plant. My mother would then bring her to our house to stay, explaining to me in a calm, measured voice that Nancy was “sick.”
Mom would swipe her mouth with a finger after the administration of pills to be sure she hadn’t stashed them in her gums. She termed this “building her chemical levels.” Nancy would elude my mother; none of us knew how.
She’d crank her white clock radio (all sullied with nicotine and fingerprints) that perpetually blinked a random time and shuffle through channels, channeling in a literal sense messages the “metaphysicalists” were sending over the radio waves. The small speakers blared Top 40 rock n’ roll that sounded like a knife blade being run over sheets of tin. It would play like this all night. My grandmother told us to leave the music on, that music was the only thing that soothed Nancy when she got this way.
Building her chemical levels never lasted much more than a week before my parents would have her committed. After a couple years it became clear to me that my mother was addicted to the catharsis Nancy’s illness brought into our lives, so my aunt always followed this simple trajectory from non-compliance at my grandmother’s house to our house to the state-run institution where they would switch her to injections until she got lethargic and well enough to silently smoke. This hungry smoking while kicking her left leg was a modicum of wellness.
The time Theron and Nancy got lost in a snow storm it was the fault of the diros. They were in Monroe County looking for a restaurant with a view of Lake Erie. My grandmother called our house to say she was worried.
My mother woke me up and took me to drink tea in her mother’s kitchen and await their return. I was 12 at the time, and it was fun sitting up like that watching my grandmother smoke and play cards. My mother asked us to say a prayer to St. Christopher. My uncle John said, “Goddamit, Peggy, knock it off,” while pacing the floor. I don’t remember what time Theron and Nancy walked in, laughing about the diros.
This particular February refuses to end despite its foreshortened count of days. I’ve been trying to read something that will inspire me to write well about my godmother, to avoid the clichés of madness as well as the merely sentimental. The truth is I don’t know my goals. I find a line in a Barrett Watten interview: “here the sound of writing is a continuous verbal gag… its insufferable length and redundancy yields titters, then genuinely throaty haws.” Then this uncanny line in Foucault citing “The lazar house of Nancy” in France where they kept lepers until the 1630s. Once leprosy had disappeared from Europe in the mid-17th century, the lazar house of Nancy became a house of bedlam, what we’d now term an asylum. Before the advent of modern psychology, Nancy’s condition was called “Dementia Praecox,” which to my mind sounds more apt.
Because with progressive schizophrenia it isn’t that the mind begins to split, as the name suggests. It’s really that disparate parts of the soul are spliced together without proper inhibition, mannerisms, or caution. The suspicions we all harbor about each others’ nefarious intentions and the faint suspicions about the world conspiring to crush us beneath forces we cannot control (the very real technocratic inclination to destroy this soul) snowball without check. Nancy had to understand the structurality of the radio message structure in order to save us from what we were consuming and being consumed by, and she used the poison metaphor indiscriminately. I cannot count how many times my mother and my grandmother served Nancy poisoned food.
There were always too many voices in that brick colonial on Shenandoah Street, too many drunken brothers shouting. There was my grandmother drinking vodka out of a coffee cup labeled “Justice” telling my mother’s friends that my mom had been sired by the devil. It’s as if eventually those noises finally just took up residence in my aunt’s head, and I wonder how old Nancy was when radios and household appliances started messaging her, when satellites began delivering apocalyptic omens through the lit ends of her Marlboro red cigarettes. I wonder at what age she became perpetually terrified of the world around her.
Foucault points out that during the Renaissance the mad were thought to possess an exclusive wisdom. They revealed the ironies of everyday behavior, the absurdity of our sense of propriety. Like fools entertaining the very courtesans they mock.
Once when my mother took her grocery shopping, Nancy walked up to a middle-aged fellow wearing khakis and a golf shirt and said, “Hey, I know you.”
The man squinted his eyes and shook his head no.
“Yeah,” my aunt insisted. “I gave you a blow job in Hamtramck for a cigarette.”
“Nancy, we are going,” my mother had said, leading her out by the elbow.
My grandmother and Theron are gone now. Dead, I mean. They croaked, as Nancy would put it, within three months of one another 14 years ago this winter. My aunt is still alive.
My uncle John has legal custody of her. They live together in my grandmother’s house. Two years ago John bought her a beagle mix named Sam that snaps at just about anyone who visits. Sam has the jaws of Nancy’s mind. He is her animus, the spirit totem of that desperate and lonely tribe.
She made her attempt a couple months after Theron died. We all agreed this was predictable. I hate that euphemism, “her attempt.” It sounds cold. So does, “She tried to kill herself.” I don’t know what to say. I don’t find her there when I visit, just that dog and a machine with blackened human lungs that puffs down cigarettes quicker than we can buy them. They don’t put you on Clozapine unless nothing else works. It causes seizures and blood clots. Nancy has minor seizures now fairly regularly. The last time I dropped off some smokes she told me that she still speaks to Theron. I hope this is true.
My parents advise my uncle that he should get out of that house and place Nancy in a program, that the mess and living with a paranoid schizophrenic would depress anyone. It hasn’t been cleaned since my grandmother died. There are rats in the garage that burrow into the old potting soil and mince discarded newspaper for bedding. One night last winter my uncle punched a hole in his bedroom window because the cat was meowing to get out. He didn’t have the energy to walk downstairs. The window has been taped but not replaced. He flies both an American and an Irish flag above his garage. The rats continue to proliferate despite the poison and giant traps.
My uncle was recently banned from his favorite bar for harassing a waitress. He’d leave notes on her car and tell her he was in love with her and that her boyfriend was an asshole.
I got a text from him the other day that read, “I just wanna eat a revolver. Being scorned and unwelcome by the staff at Elmhurst is unbearable. Don’t let your mother shit you with more complicated theories.”
Days before she tried to kill herself Nancy told me, “When the human race has abandoned you, it’s time to abandon the human race.” I told her everyone loved her, that we would be terribly sad without her in our lives. It changed nothing about her intentions. When I didn’t respond to my uncle, he wrote, “From what I guessed and your mother confirmed, your concern about me is perfunctory.”
I take a slow turn onto Outer Drive and head toward their house. I don’t know if I’ll stop. Maybe just drive by and keep them in my thoughts. Euphemisms are like the snow, deadening the effect, padding the cold landscape. My aunt and uncle have been in my thoughts and prayers this winter. And if you asked Nancy, she’d probably tell you that this does them a fuck of a lot of good.
Cal Freeman was born and raised in Detroit. He received his BA in literature from the University of Detroit Mercy and his MFA from Bowling Green State University. He is a recipient of the Howard P. Walsh Award for Literature, the Devine Poetry Fellowship, and the Ariel Poetry Prize, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His writing has appeared in many journals, including Commonweal, The Journal, Nimrod, Drunken Boat, The Cortland Review, /nor, and Rattle. He currently teaches at Oakland University and lives in Dearborn, Michigan.