It’s my daughter’s tenth birthday, and Montpellier the rattlesnake is telling her to kill me again. This is what she screams from the living room as I prepare her favorite blueberry pancakes for lunch. She is trying to talk Montpellier down. We don’t have to kill Daddy today, she’s saying. Today’s my birthday, Montpellier, go away already. Leralynn is an early-onset schizophrenic, and her imaginary friends are not particularly friendly. Montpellier is one of her most frequent visitors. They all make demands of her in their own way, medulla-dance her in the hopes she will enact their justice, which more often than not looks like swift violence to the innocent and unsuspecting. The visions take the form of wild animals that she swears she can see (and who is there to say she can not?), and they threaten to bite her or strangle her or take her away, smuggle her to some dark underground if she doesn’t follow their instructions. She names them after state capitals, but this is all the control she can exercise over her condition.
We’ve had the diagnosis for her since she was six, but my wife and I had the sense early on that something was awry. Looking back at videos taken during her first few years, it becomes clear that her eyes are always elsewhere. Always she is following something that moves across the ceiling, something secret that only she can see. And when her eyes do meet the camera, when she looks straight at the lens, it is so clearly not the face of a well child. Her eyes now are glassy creeks with puffy dark sockets below that seem to contain half-formed understudies. The doctor in Laramie told us that children under ten make up only .1% of diagnosed schizophrenics. “It’s very rare in a child her age,” he said, belaboring the point and looking at Leralynn the same way Sam Neill looks at his first dinosaur in Jurassic Park. Sometimes I wonder what he saw as the benefit of relaying this information. We certainly hadn’t asked for statistics. We knew enough to know it was abnormal. Who wouldn’t? We worried about so many things after Leralynn was born—crib death, home invasion, autism, faulty fire alarms, dogs of aggressive breed—and never even thought to consider the possibility that she’d live her life the way she does now, in a near-constant state of compromised lucidity, native of a land we can’t comprehend no matter how many books we read or times she tries to tell us about it. My daughter, in another country.
There’s no history of mental illness in my family—at least, no more than the average A+P Catholic repression—and in Sherry’s there is only a distant cousin who disappears for weeks at a time and is most often found shadowboxing in the frozen food aisle of a grocery store three states away. Sherry was defensive the first time I brought up the cousin. I hadn’t set out to blame her, or perhaps I had but didn’t fully know that was my intention. A thing I think is true about marriage is that frequently you don’t know why you’ve said something until well after you’ve said it. But I know this is a blameless situation, which is one of the more insufferable and unjust aspects of this life. Nothing is anybody’s fault. There is no one to finger when Leralynn is writhing on the kitchen linoleum, pulling off her clothes, sobbing like a coffinside widow, full of such elephantine emotions her frail body should not know, yelling at Montpellier or Little Rock or Topeka to please leave her alone, just this once, our daughter inarticulate and mad and broken-brained, pulling her curly brown hair as though with it she might pluck out these pervasive ghosts. There was no one to put on trial that night we woke up to the awful clamor of Leralynn trying to drown the kitten we’d adopted that day in the hope that it’d bring her some comfort. She had tried to flush the feline down the toilet, and more or less succeeded by the time we reached the bathroom. I was the one who pulled the kitten’s thin, matted neck from where it was stuck at the bottom of the bowl, but her eyes had already turned up like dirty crystals, or marbles. We’d learn later that Bismarck, the wolf, was allergic to cats and he’d demanded Leralynn amend the situation immediately or he’d never visit her again. And what would be so bad about that, Lera, we asked her. Oh, she’d said, Bismarck’s one of my favorites. I’d miss Bismarck.
It is a blameless situation—our marriage, my daughter’s illness, that we must lock her in her bedroom when she sleeps, little lithium angel—but this is not to say that my wife and I don’t engage in blame, don’t trade in it, don’t make it our currency, our language. It has taken the place of love and is easier to access. Once there were moments where I thought not all was lost, where I thought that somewhere deep and private we harvested boundless love for one another that was more steadfast than our daughter’s illness, but it’s been a long time since I’ve thought that. So long that having ever thought such a thing, having ever had such hopefulness, seems remarkably unlike myself.
The pancakes are golden brown with melted butter but Leralynn isn’t hungry. Montpellier’s telling her not to eat, that my pancakes are poison. I tell her what I always tell her, what all the doctors instruct us to tell her. We are not to invalidate her hallucinations—‘not that I can see’ is the party line—only remind her that she has free will. She can do whatever she wants no matter what the voices tell her, that’s the intended message, though I can’t imagine that this approach does any good, mostly because never have I seen it do so.
“I wish for my birthday you could have my brain, Daddy, and I could have yours,” she says, pouring a river of syrup over her plate and eyeing it suspiciously. “Not forever, but for a while.” My heart drops somewhere below my kneecap and I have to hacky-sack it back up to my ribs. This is not the first time she’s said something to this effect, but today it’s eight ball, corner pocket: I’m crying before I even realize I’m about to.
Before we had Leralynn, before I was a father, I rolled my eyes at the parent in celluloid or in life who proclaimed that, had they the power, they’d take on the pain of their children in a heartbeat. I’d think, If you had the power to work that magic, surely you’d have the power to just take away the pain in general, no? Why not just wish the pain away and skip the heroic transference nonsense? But I understand now that in between taking pain away and taking it on is being known, being witnessed, and that this is exactly what matters. That I can not know her is what pulverizes me. That she can not truly grasp how much I am reduced to fine pieces, how much I am glued-together molecules only, is the minor benediction.
“What time is Jessica coming?” she asks, still scrutinizing the short stack. Jessica is Leralynn’s best and also only friend. We met Jessica’s mother, Beth, at a seminar in Cheyenne last year for parents with developmentally impaired children. Her husband left soon after Jessica was diagnosed schizophrenic, sends child support from Florida but hasn’t been back to Wyoming since. She is one of the most prominent realtors in the county, and her face can often be seen on paper placemats in diners. Beth and my wife did not hit it off, not exactly, but still exchanged phone numbers, for the same reason the traveling firefighter visits a local station to swap company badges: to be a part of the patchwork of those who have known Hell. We often arrange playdates with our daughters which, for the most part, don’t go terribly. Watching the girls together, when it’s going well, is concurrently uplifting and devastating; I’ve come to learn that it’s the occasional sliver of normalcy—seeing them braid each other’s hair in the blue light of the television, laughing along with the cartoon’s laugh track, popcorn kernels stuck in their teeth—that has the power to completely unfasten me.
“They should be here soon,” I tell her. “Jessica and Mrs. Brayman. They’ll be here in time for your dinner.”
“And Big Guy,” Lera says. “Don’t forget about The Big Guy.”
The Big Guy is Jessica’s primary hallucination, an eight-foot crossdresser who never leaves her side. On our fridge is a drawing that she made of him at last month’s sleepover and, from a certain angle, his likeness could be seen to resemble the early work of René Magritte.
I pour her a glass of orange juice and hand her 20 milligrams of Clozapine, ten in each tablet. She doesn’t notice I’ve been crying, doesn’t protest the pills, never does, never has. She palms them, pops them in, sticks out her tongue to show two dissolving moons, then swallows their light.
Do the pills work? As much but no more than a vending machine. In this analogy, the machine is my daughter, the dollar bills are antipsychotics, and the two to five partially unruffled hours the transaction licenses would be equivalent to the bag of chips waiting in the contraption’s dropped-jaw. What a reductive comparison, you’re probably saying, but please do not make the mistake of thinking you could possibly understand or that I want you to. Sometimes I think it is recognition I want, or review, or simply noiseless acknowledgement and an observer of my days, but I know better by now than to yearn for something like understanding. All of my hopes are tailored by feasibility.
The phone rings, and though I don’t recognize the number, I know it’s Sherry.
“I can’t come tonight,” my wife says, which is not a great start nor a surprising one. I wonder if it is all she will say, or if she’s looking for pushback, or what. Sherry wants to leave me. I know this because three months ago she woke me up and she said, Jack, I want to leave you.
“Why can’t you come tonight.”
Because she does not answer, I ask another basic information-gathering question. “Where are you?”
“Why are you in Rawlins.”
“You know why I’m in Rawlins. Don’t do that,” she says. “I hate when you do that.”
“When I do what?” I ask.
“When you ask questions you already know the answer to just so I have to come out and say it and feel terrible. I’m in Rawlins with him. There. Happy?”
“Hardly,” I say, though she’s not wrong about the small pleasure of hearing someone admit that they’re wronging you. It’s another kind of being witnessed.
“You could spare me from time to time,” she says. “I know I might not seem worthy of being spared, but truly, would it kill you.”
Him is Sherry’s co-worker at the high school. I believe he teaches AP environmental science. I know he does, actually, I know that he teaches AP environmental science, but I like what it suggests when I’m not quite sure what he teaches. Sherry is an art teacher. The school is underfunded so mostly what she teaches is art history, which is a low-cost operation that need not account for the price of acrylic paint and splined canvases.
“It’s her birthday,” I say.
“I’m going to hang up if you keep doing that,” she says.
“Is it not her birthday?”
The line goes dead. I imagine her slamming the phone back into the cradle in whatever two-star hotel he has booked for the two of them in Rawlins. In the last several months, she has disappeared with him half a dozen times. She does not leave in the middle of the night, she leaves in the middle of a conversation. Never for more than a week. Just long enough to suggest that she’d consider it permanently, but not so long that I’d stop awaiting her return. She returns because I still want her to, which as it turns out is not the same as returning to fulfill that want. She returns as if she has received notes from a network on how the audience was reading her absence.
When she’s gone, I tell Leralynn that she’s doing another sleep study at the hospital, which is what I told her this morning when she asked where her mother was. Sherry thinks herself a remarkable sleeper and worthy of being documented, and so has participated in several sleep studies throughout the course of our relationship. The special thing is her heart rate: it drops to that of a hibernating bear when she’s out, allowing for a deeper sleep than most people will ever know. The studies are well-compensated, or well enough, and are anywhere from one week to two months in length. She has always justified this pseudo-hobby by saying it will help our financial situation—a situation that being the middle-class parents of a psychologically impaired child who requires frequent doctor visits and hospitalizations has rendered frequently challenging and occasionally unsustainable—and I can’t disagree, though she fails to acknowledge it for what it really is: an escape; a paid vacation from an impossibly difficult life. When she’s there, the room she sleeps in is windowless and robbed of time: no TV, no clock, no phone. It is a required element of the sleep study that the patient lose sense of day and night; doing so eliminates some essential circadian variable that allows for the most accurate results. The tendency here is to reiterate that when she’s in there, we can’t make contact, she can’t hear me, I am all alone in this, because wouldn’t that resonate, wouldn’t that be in just the right key, wouldn’t that say it all—but I am trying to tell you a story, not trying to break your heart. This story is not about why me and it is not about why our daughter and it is not about can my wife leave me any more than she already has and it is not about have pity on me a weary traveler. It is about where the fuck is the refuge, the sweet reprieve.
“Finish your pancakes, Leralynn,” I say, when I realize she has eaten only a few bites.
“Would you stop calling me that,” she says, though it is her name and she knows that it is. “And I don’t believe in these pancakes. I don’t believe in them at all.”
“What do you want me to call you?”
“Nimbus Cloud, MD,” she says, and I can’t help but laugh at her turn of phrase, how clever she can be, but my laughter upsets her, contorts her face immediately, and she storms off into the living room and then it’s back to me in the kitchen, cold pancakes and feeling godawful. She gets angry because she can tell you’re laughing at her, Sherry said once. You’re making fun and she can tell. But that’s not it at all and fuck Sherry for saying that, for not understanding that when my daughter says something so strange, so nonnative, so poetic, that I laugh, it is because I feel, ever so briefly, that my daughter is undivided and I am seeing her without filter; that all she is is funny and we exist in the same world, the same plane of existence that is fraught and merciless and so often unkind but also beautiful and sporadically endurable, and that this is a reason to live, this is the hook upon which I am hanging my fragile and compact happiness.
I scoot Lera’s pancakes into the trashcan, wash her dishes and put away the orange juice. I can hear her in the living room, clapping her hands in 3/4 time to some private music, her delusions waltzing her. Inside the refrigerator is her birthday cake and because it is what she begged for it is shaped like a coiled rattlesnake, with ascending curls of black chocolate icing and spliced strawberries for the red stripes. Its extended tongue is pulled pink taffy. Leralynn had given the woman at the bakery a crayon drawing of Montpellier as a blueprint and I think she’ll be fond of the translation.
On the way to pick up the cake, we passed the children’s hospital where Leralynn is often kept. It is unfortunately located on Graves Boulevard. The street was there first. At the hospital, the window-washers often dress in superhero costumes and make appearances outside of the pediatric oncology windows. This is a brightening that might benefit but yet is not extended to the psychiatric ward, one floor above, whose windows, if ever they get washed, are certainly not tended to by a Spider Man samaritan.
“My home away from home,” Leralynn said, looking out the passenger window, her breath fogging up the glass. She said it without a trace of the sardonic self-awareness you’d hope such a remark might occasion in its delivery. In the canvas her breath had made, she fingered an outline of Montpellier’s body, said, Hey pal, my smile’s the asylum and my teeth are the crazy ones.
“That’s a good one,” I said. “I like that.”
“I wasn’t talking to you,” she said, though I had not, for a second, assumed she was.
Before Beth and Jessica arrive, Leralynn takes a shower and I try to do what every self-help book, therapist, and spiritual capitalist tells you to do: meditate. It helps not at all, but it also doesn’t hurt. I get maybe a centimeter below my consciousness every time I try, far from the place miles down where the books and the healers promise there exists a bright, white, and wallless space into which one might fold oneself and know serenity. Mostly what happens is that, in my attempt to think of nothing, I think of random shit and then overanalyze. I close my eyes and for no discernible reason surface a string of anecdotes. Once, in San Francisco with Sherry, I saw a plane that skywrote a great punchline: But How Do I Land? Once, I ejaculated at the exact moment my automated air freshener spit lavender. Once, I went to a photography exhibit where the artist had photographed cancer survivors holding up dry erase boards on which they’d written the date they were forecasted by doctors to die but did not. The artist had been compiling the photographs for years. I met the artist. I asked him, Are they all still in remission? The artist sighed and said, “If the answer matters, then you’ve got your answer.” Once, I dreamed I was a swimming instructor in purgatory who gave lessons to the drowned—the purposeful or accidental drowned—before their rebirth. Last night, I dreamed I’d hired a hitman to kill Leralynn and the hitman was played by Michelle Pfeiffer and Michelle Pfeiffer really wanted me but I was making her work for it.
The doorbell rings before I have time to process any of this, before I can piece these things together and try to find some unifying thread, but it’s not to worry, it wasn’t going to happen, because what thread.
“Lera,” I shout through the bathroom door. “Jessica and her mom are here. Put some clothes on.”
“No Sherry?” Beth says when she walks in. She looks furtively around the small house as if my wife is perhaps only playing a deft round of hide-and-seek. Jessica hides behind her leg, half-smiling, holding a gift for Lera inelegantly wrapped in Walmart circulars.
“She couldn’t make it,” I say.
“She’s an asshole,” Beth says. Then she says, “Oh shit, that’s not my place.”
I like Beth because she cusses unapologetically around children and because she tells good jokes and because when I relayed a synopsis of recent events to her over email a few days ago she responded with nothing but a video of the Rolling Stones performing “Bitch” from the Sticky Fingers days. We email a lot. Once, after a few glasses of wine, she wrote to me and said she’d spent the day pretending she was only Jessica’s babysitter, that her real mom was going to pick her up at 5:30, and that this delusion was one she found particularly stress-relieving, albeit briefly, and I thought, This is the most refreshing and honest thing I’ve heard anyone say in a decade.
“Oh no, she is an asshole,” I say, taking her coat.
“What happened to teamwork makes the dream work?” she says, quoting a favorite adage of Sherry’s, and she gets a laugh out of me.
Lera comes running out of her bedroom, wet hair and mismatched socks, and the girls wrap themselves around one another like long-lost sisters reunited on television. They run off to play in the den and Beth and I smoke menthols on the patio. An hour later, they’re both yelling, Snake Cake! Snake Cake! Lera’s smile when she sees her edible Montpellier is wide, an outstretched accordion with a few missing keys. For ten seconds I feel like the best father in Wyoming and the ten seconds are enough. Beth mouths Good work, hits the lights in the dining room, and we sing. Lera’s beaming face lit by the glow of ten small flames—it is the image I want to keep with me even after I am dead. She recruits Jessica to blow out the candles with her—you’re even allowed to wish, she says, generously—and one by one they go out until the room is dark and the cursive smoke hovers and though I want to I don’t let myself wonder what it is they wish for.
The girls have tired themselves out by the end of the night. They are both sleepy and groggy as Beth and I supply them their identical doses and tuck them into Lera’s bed, their bodies a set of parentheses underneath the bright pink comforter. They are maybe asleep before we even shut the door.
“Sherry’s an idiot to be missing this and she’ll hate herself for it eventually,” Beth says, once we’re back on the patio. It is frigid and we shiver and we can’t tell what’s breath and what’s smoke. “That’s all I’ll say about it for the rest of the night, I swear,” she says.
She asks if I want to smoke something stronger and pulls out a rolled joint stuffed in the cellophane of her pack of cigarettes.
“I haven’t gotten stoned since Clinton was president,” I tell her. “Maybe even Bush Senior. What about the girls?”
“What about them?” she says. “They’re out for the night. Just split the joint with me, Jack. If anyone deserves it, it’s you. You did good today.”
She lights it, takes a long hit, coughs like a kick drum. “Coughing gets you higher,” she said. “I read that somewhere.” She passes the joint to me and I take a hit, and then another.
“I got a joke for you,” Beth says. “You wanna hear it?”
“Sure,” I say, my mouth already feeling gummy and dry.
“What did the woman whose ex-husband was spreading rumors that she had multiple personalities say?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “What.”
“Eight can play at that game.” I laugh out a cloud of smoke.
“I have one for you, too,” I say, hoping I am not too high to remember the setup.
“OK. So, what was the beauty queen’s advice to the young schizophrenic?”
Beth takes the final hit of the joint, pauses to think, then says, “Oh god, that’s one too easy to be funny.”
For a while, the patio is silent, though not uncomfortably. It is nice. It feels like this is someone else’s life I’m living for a bit, or that it is my life but it’s just very different and kinder and does not include an estranged wife who’s fucking an environmental scientist or a very sick daughter or massive debt, and every now and then in this version of my life I just get stoned on the patio with my friend Beth who is in real estate.
“You okay over there?” Beth asks. “This stuff is pretty strong.”
I tell her I’m feeling great because I am.
“The question is,” she says. “Are you feeling adventurous? The question is are you feeling like right about now you could go for a swim.”
“I’m too high to understand what it is you’re suggesting,” I say. “Elaborate.”
She tells me she oversees the rental of a property a few miles away, a two-story with a heated outdoor pool, and it’s sitting empty this weekend. “I have the keys in my car,” she says, and then looks at me as if to say, Are you brave enough.
“We couldn’t leave the girls,” I say. “Could we?”
“They’ll be fine,” she says. “They won’t wake up until the morning and you know it.” Because she can tell by my face that she hasn’t convinced me, not yet, she continues. “We won’t be long. An hour at the most. A quick swim to warm these bones. Come on Jack.”
I want to pretend it is the marijuana that is impairing my judgement when I agree and follow Beth to her car, but I wouldn’t expect you to believe what is so obviously a lie. I am going because this loneliness is vast, because it is freezing. I am going because I want to know what it feels like to be the one who does.
Once we’re outside at the vacant house, Beth takes off all of her clothes without hesitation and cannonballs gracelessly into the deep end of the water. Get in here this is heaven, she says, and then I’m naked and then I’m in the pool. The water is warm and clear as glass.
“Glad you came or what,” Beth says, treading water in front of me. Her breasts are fraternal buoys and her mascara runs black tears down her face. I don’t kiss her or anything, though I want to and know that I could. I just tell her yes, yes I’m glad I came, and then she swims further toward the edge of the pool and I look up at the sky, which is black and pocked with stars and I’m thinking how unbelievable it is that underneath of it all manner of ugly things are happening, awful lives getting awfuler, unspeakables in every home from here to Istanbul; and I’m looking at the moon—giant sky-pill, scored in the middle and hung so effortlessly—and thinking of an article I read once which explained that the moon is attempting to get away from us, in perpetual escape, that its size and speed try to carry it off into a straight line away, away, but Earth’s gravity pulls it back in, a mother whose child is misbehaving in a grocery; and I’m looking at the neighborless stars which are bright and unsullied, as if someone took them down for a polish and then tossed them back like frisbees; and I’m thinking that there are two schizophrenics at home who need us and Beth and I, in this moment, are at the precipice of an egregious mistake, or else we’ve already made it, but it doesn’t feel that way, not yet.
Vincent Scarpa is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers whose work has appeared in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, StoryQuarterly, Indiana Review, and other journals. He lives in New Jersey.
“Be Yourselves” by Vincent Scarpa appeared in The Austin Review in 2014.