Catching Crazy, by Fabienne Josaphat
It’s twelve o’clock when I get the phone call from the hospital.
My mother has died.
I’m still holding the phone when Julien walks in. “Are you okay, Michou?” he asks me, drenched in sweat with a screw driver between his teeth. In his hand, he’s clasping a pair of pliers pried from our daughters’ hands. They were playing in his toolbox again and have now been relegated to the family room; they’re watching cartoons.
“Yes, I’m fine.”
He doesn’t understand that my mother has been dead to me for a long time now. He says he does but it’s only his way of putting an end to conversations about my parents.
“Is there anyone we can call for you?” the lady asks over the phone.
It’s Madame Desmarais, the hospital administrator. I remember meeting her about twenty years ago, an attractive woman with stunning green eyes and a warm smile. How does she keep her cool all the time, working in a mental hospital? If it were me I would have lost my mind already, but then again, I’ve lived with crazy all my life and I’m not out there “throwing rocks,” like we say in Haiti. I’m very proud of myself for it. When I was little, schizophrenics were just “crazy” and you had to avoid them in the streets. Sometimes they touched you, sometimes they threw things at you, and children were always afraid “les fous” might be contagious. But living with crazy is different. I never caught the disease, but I couldn’t run away from it. It was in every corner of my house.
“Micheline, are you there?” Madame Desmarais asks.
My mother was committed to the University of Laval’s Psychology and Mental Institute when I was sixteen, right after we left Haiti for Canada. I wonder if Madame Desmarais still looks the same. She was wearing a beige suit when I met her. Funny, the things you remember. As a teenager, I was only tall enough to reach her waistline, and she leaned in to speak to me. “Bonjour, Micheline,” she said in that thick French Canadian accent I barely understood. “I have some magazines here, in the waiting room. Would you like to read while I talk to your father?”
I wonder if in her mind she pictures me as the girl with the shirt dress, the thick, nappy hair braided in pigtails, and the sad eyes, who walked into the hospital with her father in tow. Papa seemed like he was following me, not the other way around. He had this constant melancholy about him, his pants and sweater and tie all ill-fitting.
Even before our migration, before Maman got worse, Papa had started shrinking in stature, and the man who had once been a strapping, tall-standing attorney with a strange resemblance to Harry Belafonte had become feeble and effaced from the rest of the world, his hair graying at the sides and his skin wrinkled with strife. Even the dimple in his chin went unnoticed. He had become a hermit. We all had. At the age of twelve, I was already an old soul, and today, at thirty-five, I feel ancient.
“Micheline?” Madame Desmarais insists.
“I’m here,” I say, clutching the phone.
“Is there anyone I can call for you?” she asks.
She’s probably thinking about Papa, but I haven’t spoken to him in over twenty years. He had left my brother Papouche in Haiti, moved me to Quebec, and we never heard from him again. That was his way of fleeing the past, fleeing people he knew, fleeing the shame. I wonder what he looks like now, Papa. I wonder where he is and what he’s doing, but I only wonder this in brief moments, because most of the time I don’t think about him. I want to forget him.
“I don’t know how to contact your father,” Madame Desmarais says.
Julien is pouring me a drink and now he’s eying me reproachfully. “How can you say that?” he whispers.
I try to ignore him and he’s red in the face. Red like his hair, and the shirt he’s wearing unbuttoned over an undershirt that sticks to his skin. He’s been pretending to repair the heater for a week now. I tried to remind him that he isn’t a professional electrician, that he’s just an intellectual newspaper editor, a nerd, and that he’s not handy enough to fix this problem. But he insists on proving his manhood to me and to our children, even though we don’t care, especially them, sprawled on the rug, absorbed in television.
“I know what the problem is and I’m not paying someone to come rip me off,” he had mumbled back, sifting through his toolbox. I told him to hurry and fix it. Winters in Montreal are too harsh to be underestimated, and he knows it. He’s Canadian. He grew up here.
“Oh… I’m sorry, I didn’t know,” Madame Desmarais says.
She sounds convinced. I don’t know where my father is; it’s much easier to say he’s dead because he might as well be and the truth brings too much shame. Papa had dumped me here, in Canada, to be raised by his friend Dédé, some lady I didn’t even know at the time. Said he was going to New York for a while. Said he’d come back. Never did. He sent money for school, though, and Dédé, who never had children of her own, became a mother to me. Too bad I could never really love her back. I was always angry, always taciturn around her. I don’t think however that she ever held it against me. Bless her heart.
“Last I heard, he was in New York,” Madame Desmarais continued. “I tried calling the number he had listed in the files but it seems to be disconnected.”
“I’m sorry about that,” I said.
Who knows? Maybe Papa really is dead. Maybe he’s lying in the gutter somewhere or in a mass grave for indigents? He’s never called us, not once, not even to talk to his granddaughters. I sent him letters and pictures at the same address listed on Maman’s files—some place in Brooklyn where he was staying with a friend—and no answer. If he’s still alive, perhaps he’s out there driving a cab in New York. Someone once met me at the Metro and said they’d seen him driving a yellow taxi around, and then one time, someone else said he was a bus boy or dishwasher at a restaurant, that they’d seen him in a back alley smoking a cigarette. That made sense because Papa always smoked, but all I said was, “Okay, thanks.”
What do you do with information like that? Acknowledge that it is him? Be okay with the fact that your father has fallen from grace and was spotted in all his shame smoking in a back alley with a dirty rag over his shoulder? I don’t know what to say so I just dismiss it. Then, people want to know if I’ve talked to him. That is why I don’t have many friends. I don’t reconnect with anyone who reminds me of him, of my past. I’d rather be away from them. It’s much easier that way.
“We need you to come and sign release forms so we can turn over the body to you.”
I shake my head. “I don’t want it,” I whisper.
I don’t take the drink that Julien has poured me. I don’t drink Whiskey and I can’t stand the smell of it. My head hurts. It’s not a real migraine, just a stuffy feeling as if someone is packing my brain with cotton.
“Micheline, it’s your mother, and she’s passed away… You have to come. Please be here by tomorrow evening.”
When I hang up, I realize my throat is dry. Perhaps I will have a swig of Whiskey. The ice is swirling in it and hitting the sides of the glass.
“I’m so sorry,” Julien says.
I drink, a little too fast perhaps, and I cough and grimace. The girls haven’t moved. They are oblivious to the world around them, just as I was at their age, when the Pink Panther was on and I was lost in the images, drinking ice cream next to my brother, while, in the background, my mother was busy trying to murder my father.
When I was five, I told my pregnant mother that I wished for it to be a girl. Maman rubbed her belly and said, “Dieu en décidera, my little one.” I’m sure God would have responded to my prayer if she herself had prayed for a girl, but I think she was too busy worrying about being pretty for Papa, who was very good at reminding her of all the weight she had gained.
“Look at you,” he said when she asked to go out with him. “In your condition, you can’t go out. You’re like a freight truck.”
She tried to hide her hips with large dresses. Twirling in front of the mirror, she asked me which one made her look smaller. I hated being that person to help her pick clothes because the ones I liked, the prints, the flowers, the pretty colors, never made the list. She wore the dark ones that draped around her and never hugged her hips. In reality, my mother didn’t need to worry. The Maman I know and remember was movie star material, with thick eyebrows that almost met in the middle, and full hair framing her beautiful face.
There’s a picture of her somewhere in the house wearing a light yellow dress, a beautiful contrast against her dark skin. She isn’t smiling in the picture. Not with her lips anyways, much like the Mona Lisa. But her eyes are shining like lumps of coal on fire. Come to think of it, more than anything, she was a Diana Ross in her Supremes era, and her pregnancy didn’t alter her beauty one bit.
Maman was very sick when she was pregnant—she threw up and complained of vertigo—and the doctors prescribed all sorts of medicine to ease the nausea. She spent most of her time in bed reading and spitting in a bucket of water.
When my brother came out of the womb on a month of July, Papa looked at him closely with a grimace. The baby was big, a squirming, pudgy black thing with slanted eyes and a contorted mouth, his head shaped kind of funny. Papa shoved him back in her arms.
“Apa se yon mongòl! Can’t you do anything right?”
He walked away for a smoke and she cried. I looked at Papouche and poked him a bit; I’d never seen a baby like that. I understood something wasn’t right. Later, he was very slow at doing things, at walking and learning. Mouth open, he laughed at silly things that didn’t warrant laughter.
“Close your mouth, you’re drooling all over your food,” Papa shouted at him across the dinner table.
Papa said we shouldn’t treat Papouche any different than any other child. He smacked him upside the head or gave him a good shove, and sometimes, he twisted his earlobe till the tears came out.
“It’s good for his character,” he said one time, after my mother pleaded in tears for him to stop.
“He’ll never feel sorry for himself.”
Five-years-old Papouche couldn’t tie his own shoelaces and, one day, I decided Papa was right. I let him torture himself with the laces after showing him how I did mine.
“Why won’t you help me?” he moaned.
“Don’t be a baby! Learn it yourself.”
In school, I never talked about my brother and when my classmates brought it up, it was always to tease me. They’d wait for my father to pull in with Papouche in the back seat, and they’d point fingers at him.
“Your brother’s a retard!” they sang while I scrambled to get my things. “Your babies are going to be retards, too.”
I hated my brother for that reason, for the fact that I was perceived as small and unworthy, and if I were cruel to him, it wasn’t just to forge his character. I wanted him out of my life. And now he is, in some sorts, out of my sight and out of my life, living in Haiti in an institute for the mentally challenged run by Catholic nuns, and I don’t know how he’s doing because I’m afraid to call.
I don’t want to remember the horrible person I was in the past. Last time I got a phone call that he had escaped and gone missing for days, that he had made friends with people of bad influence, that he had been caught stealing electronic appliances in a home and that the neighborhood had chased him while throwing rocks. The nun who called said he’d been seen hiding on the rooftop of a house to avoid stoning, and when they caught him they tore his clothes off and nearly lynched him. He was taken to jail, covered in blood, and now they keep him in a room apart, locked away so he doesn’t escape.
“I’m very sorry he caused all this trouble,” I said. “How is he now?”
“He asks about you,” she said curtly. “He wants to know when you will come see him, bring him berries…”
I was quiet. I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t believe Papouche remembered that, the days when I was nice to him, when we strolled in the backyard plucking blackberries—plump, soft, and juicy. Those were the only times we were brother and sister amid the bushes, where no one could harm us, and we laughed together. Most of the time he laughed at his own jokes, and no one laughed with him, but when Papa wasn’t around, when no one was around, sometimes Papouche stood up and busted moves. “Look, Michou, I’m dancing!”
He would invent the strangest contortions, and I would laugh at him for his silliness. But if others were around, I’d smack him upside the head. “Stop behaving like a fat monkey!”
He always looked at me, confused and in tears, and those were the moments when I hated my life the most.
“I will pray for you, my child,” the nun said before hanging up.
I hoped she did, without anger but much more with compassion, because I was well aware of all my sins.
I don’t recognize my mother, lying there on a cold slab at the hospital’s morgue under white sheets. The room is cold and white. Everything is white. There’s a tag dangling from her wrinkled foot. She has shrunken, like an old prune, and I hate the way she looks. Lifeless, literally. I refuse, in the beginning, to accept that that is her, because I have never known her like this, pale, small, her eyes shut and her body stiffened. Her hair is disheveled, and her long nails are broken and dirty at the edges.
“I have to go outside,” I say to Julien.
He was standing behind me the whole time. He grabs me by the arms and we walk outside the institute, in the backyard. The air is heavy with heat, but I don’t care. I just need to be away from the cold of that room. Summer is slowly ending here. We sit on a stone bench under a large tree with pink flowers in full blossom. My shoes are almost buried in flower petals. Even the water fountain is brimming with pink. Doctors and visitors walk past us, but around here there are lots of patients walking in slow motion, playing with tree branches, touching flowers and talking to themselves. They remind me of Maman. That was her thing. She used to talk to bushes while perched on the balcony, and that’s when I started to suspect, as a child, that something was wrong. Sometimes, her conversations were so animated that she didn’t hear me sneak up behind her.
“Oh! Michou… Tu m’as fait peur.”
I barely remember the sound of her voice, and seeing her dead like this, her lip sunken, her eyes closed as if her lids were sealed with glue, sent a chill down my spine.
“It’s alright,” Julien says, holding me close. “I’m here.”
I tell Julien that instead of burying her we should incinerate her. She wouldn’t want to be ugly and devoured by worms and critters. She would want to be beautiful like she was in her youth, like a daisy, which she was named after. Marguerite was her name, a daisy in a field of weeds. When I was a child and she hadn’t completely lost her mind yet, she was a school teacher at the very school I attended, a Catholic all-girls institution where the focus was on discipline. And that’s why she got in trouble. She left work right after “roughly disciplining” students. Complaints were drawn against her for over-using her ruler to spank children in the palm of the hand or on the shoulder, and then the rumors grew about her being crazy.
“Your mother is a little sick,” Papa said to us to explain why she slept in her room all day. “She will be home from now on. Try not to make too much noise to disturb her.”
When she felt well enough, she watched us play outside. Papouche broke into his silly dance moves and my mother laughed. The three of us walked around the yard and picked ripe berries off the tree. Those were the good days. On bad days, she locked herself in the room with headaches and migraines, and came out disheveled, leaning on the balcony and talking to trees.
Maman’s father, Papi Da, reassured me that she was like this when she was younger. “She’s always been the oddball, your mother, screaming in class but screaming at no one in particular… Don’t be afraid. She loves you very much.”
When she became pregnant again, it was as if everyone around us breathed a sigh of relief. She seemed to have regained her senses, seemed to focus more, rubbing her belly and eating new foods so she could “do what’s right for the baby.”
“It’s going to be a girl,” my grandmother said. “I had a dream last night that she came out of your womb, and she started walking immediately.”
Once again, Maman had her morning sickness but I was here to help her. After all, someone had to be functioning as the woman in the house. I was only thirteen but I knew enough to direct the maid, to know that clothes had to be washed weekly, that there weren’t enough groceries, that my father’s sweaters and ties had to be organized in a certain way. I took care of my brother, my father, my mother who spent more time in her room than usual, and I made sure she took her nausea medication regularly.
Maman had begun to pray arduously for the health of this baby. “We wouldn’t want her to turn out like your brother now, would we?” she whispered to me before falling asleep.
Camille was born on a beautiful April morning, and she came out of my mother’s womb bathed in divine light. That’s how I imagined it anyways because I wasn’t in the room then, but I am sure all the doctors and nurses gasped at her beauty. Before she even turned one, Camille developed as a beautiful child, so pretty that other mothers would turn their heads at her sight. It was the eyebrows, like my mother’s, thick and black like coal, and her hair which grew like tufts of soft steel wool. She inherited all my baby dresses, embroidered by hand, printed with daisies and roses, and her laughter resonated throughout the house.
“Isn’t she beautiful?” my father said, picking her up to kiss her cheeks. “She’s just as pretty as my Micheline.”
I blushed. It wasn’t common for Papa to pay compliments.
My sister was flawless, and for the first time in a long time, Papa was talking to Maman again, and all was well until Camille got sick.
She was coughing and wheezing, and then, suddenly, she had difficulty breathing. She would hold the sofa to stand up on her little legs, take a deep breath and then another one, struggling for air. Maman panicked, spending days on end at the doctor’s office until they rushed Camille to the hospital. She called my father, losing her voice over the phone.
“La petite est malade,” she said. “They’re saying it’s advanced pneumonia. It’s bad.”
It was too late to cure the damage that had been done to my sister’s lungs. She died before her second birthday, on a hospital bed, with her mouth open as she drew her last breath. Papa never said a word. The whole time, he sat in the hospital’s waiting room, his head down, staring at the floor. Somehow, I knew what he was thinking. I could hear thoughts whirring around in his head, thoughts of guilt, sadness, but especially, anger. He didn’t talk to Maman once, and after we went home, he took down the crib, folded up the clothes and boxed everything up; he loaded them into his car. Maman was hysterical.
“Wait, wait! Don’t do this, leave them here, I want them…”
He drove away and returned empty handed, and later told me that he had given them away to a friend who needed them for his baby. I said nothing. Maman deserved an explanation, not me, and yet once again, I was being made into the adult. Besides, there was nothing she could do now, my poor mother, but stay in bed and never get up except to talk to the trees from the balcony. One afternoon, she woke up agitated, screaming and tearing at her nightgown.
“The blackberry tree is on fire, it’s burning! It’s burning. Get some water!”
Tears ran down my cheeks as my father rushed her back to bed. He gave her a pill and minutes later she fell asleep, moaning and groaning for us to save the blackberry tree.
“Maman is crazy!” Papouche said, rolling his cars on the tile floor and crashing them against the wall.
I was sitting on the sofa when he said it, and in a moment of anger, I got up and kicked the car to the other side of the room.
The first time my mother tried to kill my father, he was on the balcony, smoking a pipe as he gazed at the endless undulation of mountains and pine trees that separated us from Port-au-Prince. He wore a red sweater over his shirt because in Kenscoff where we lived, in the peaks of Haiti, it was foggy and cold all the time. He still had his tie on. Papa never took it off immediately after work. He came home, changed out of his jacket, ate and stuffed his pipe on the balcony. That was his meditation, his moment of zen, overlooking the fruit trees and cotton plants we grew in the wilderness of our sloped yard, while my brother threw rocks at stray cats and I wrote poems about blossoming pomegranates.
Maman came up behind him that day, disheveled and wide-eyed, her arms at her sides. I stood by the door and saw her hand, saw what she was clenching firmly, something shining in the afternoon light. I had a sense of what was happening, but somehow my body and mind froze as she approached my father. With one hand, she reached for his tie, brought it around in one swift move, and with the other she plunged the blade of the knife in his side. My father’s head jerked back, mouth wide agape, and he dropped his pipe before choking on the smoke and collapsing on his knees.
Maman was strong in her moments of insanity, her muscles flexing and tensing as she pulled on the brown silk of the tie. She sliced through my father’s arms and back, and before me, the blood, the beautiful crimson color, stained his white shirt like crushed hibiscus flowers.
Papa’s eyes bulged out of his head and he began to scream.
No one else was there, just us and the dogs out in the yard. The maids had gone home for the day, the sun was melting into the blue ocean in the horizon, and we were all lost in our own worlds when it happened. Papa was now pale, if a Black man could get actually white in the face. His skin was ashy, his eyes rolling back in his head.
I grabbed the edges of my dress and my blood turned to ice in my veins. I let out a scream. “You’re killing Papa! You’re killing Papa. Stop!”
That’s when my brother heard the commotion and ran out to the balcony. He stood by me and his mouth, always open, nearly dropped. “Oh! She’s killing Papa!”
He started to shout frantically. I pushed him away from me as hard as I could. He hit the wall and stayed there, staring at me and drooling.
I looked at my parents and Maman was staring at me, and she let go. Papa fell on the ground, coughing and gasping for air, and she stared at me as if she was seeing me for the first time. Her eyes were as wide as saucers, her thick eyebrows arched in surprise. She turned around and walked back to bed, moaning about her headache.
Papa was on the floor, still struggling to breathe. Papouche snapped out of his dazed stupor and ran to my father. The blood was everywhere, sprawling across the terrazzo floor. Everything was red. Everything was wrong.
“Papa, Papa, are you okay?” Papouche mumbled. “Maman is trying to kill you, Papa.”
Papa didn’t speak to us until he woke up from his sleep at the hospital. He held my hand in his and they were cold, and he searched for me in the dimness of the room. “Micheline, are you okay?”
“Is Papouche okay?”
I nodded again. My face was caked with tears and salt, and I was terrified that through the door my mother would come in striding, brandishing a knife. I stayed at the hospital until my grandparents came for me.
“Your Papa needs to rest,” Manmi Da said as she took me by the hand. “Papouche is already waiting outside. He’s such a good boy!”
I turned to look at my father, lying in bed, ashen and dark. He attempted to smile. “Take care of your brother,” he whispered as I exited the room.
In the car, Papouche was asking questions, seemingly excited to go away from home. Behind his thick glasses, his eyes were animated. He smiled at me and I saw the odd shape of his teeth, and the space between them.
“Where are we going? Are we going home?” he asked.
“You’re going to stay with us,” Papi Da said. “Think of it as a little vacation.”
My grandmother’s eyes were wet with tears and she tried not to look at us. My grandfather said nothing, trying his best to avoid losing his temper with Papouche as he bounced in the back seat and repeatedly wondered if we were “there yet.” I looked out the window and saw trees, people, cars, and more trees, unfurling past us as we headed East, and I wondered, as I fell asleep with my forehead pressed against the glass, if there were any blackberry trees where we were going.
The nun asks me to hold and I hear her place the phone down on the table. I tap my fingers on the table and I wait. I imagine it takes a while for her to actually reach my brother. She said he was in the arts and craft room and in the background I hear music, something classical with a piano and then violins. I imagine Papouche sitting at a table with his tongue hanging out, his mouth open, dabbing a piece of construction paper with paint. I wonder if he’s changed much, or if he looks the same. The nuns had been nice enough in the beginning to mail me photos of him and letters he wrote me, but with time, the letters became rare, the photos scarce.
“It’s really good for him to talk to you,” the administrative nun said one time I called. “He needs to hear familiar voices.”
“I’ve been terribly busy,” I said, and it wasn’t exactly a lie. I had just given birth to twin girls, and life had been incredibly different.
Later on, I tried putting the girls on the phone with him, but they didn’t say anything except a brief hello. They don’t know him at all, and to them, their uncle is more of a myth, a person who exists only in stories, a goofball who breaks into silly dances that they try to imitate.
When he says hello, I hardly recognize his voice. It’s deep, very manly, and there’s a slight hesitation on his part.
“Michou? Oh! Comment vas-tu?”
He sounds excited, and now, he’s a little boy again. He sounds like he’s ten, like he used to when Papa would come in the room and tell us he was taking us to the movies. I feel my stomach tighten.
“Papouche, I’m calling with very bad news. It’s about Maman.”
There’s a silence on the other hand and I know he’s waiting for me. Somehow, I can’t speak. The words are stuck there, lodged in my throat. I try to picture him and close my eyes against the memory of him, dancing frantically around the room, his hips swinging right and left, his pudgy midsection drawing irregular circles. That’s his dance, that’s my brother’s glory, and I remember laughing, seated on the rug. Our parents are not there. They were never there. It’s only us, together in a room where no one can see and we are children again. In the background, I hear laughter, coughs, people in this dimly lit room where they draw pictures and paint and cut paper with plastic scissors.
“What’s wrong?” he asks.
My mouth is open but I’m speechless. I’m still tapping my fingernails against the wooden table where my girls have left their dolls and crayons.
“Michou, are you there?”
I cover my mouth so he won’t know I’ve combusted into flames, that I’m crying and tears are rolling down my face. I don’t remember the last time I’ve cried. I didn’t even know I was capable of crying. But I am, uncontrollably.
“I’m here,” I manage to say, clutching the phone. “I’m here… What were you doing?”
“I was coloring…”
I take a deep breath and try to wipe the tears but they’re still flowing. “Coloring what?” I ask.
“A rabbit. I made him gray, but they didn’t have gray crayons so I made him white first and then black, and it came out gray.”
I bite my lip. “That’s really nice, Papouche… Listen… I have some news…”
“What is it?”
I finally smile and close my eyes. “I’m coming to see you,” I say into the phone.
“Yes… I’m coming.” I wait for him to ask me questions, to ask me when, to ask me what’s wrong, but instead, I hear a strange rustle, a breath into the phone. “Allo?” I say.
“Are you still there?” I hear a woman’s voice.
It’s the nun, and I frown.
“Yes, what’s going on?” I ask.
“Nothing,” she says, laughing into the phone. “He’s dancing.”
Fabienne Josaphat received her M.F.A. in creative writing from Florida International University. Dancing in the Baron's Shadow is her first novel. She lives in Miami.
“Catching Crazy” was previously published in Mandala Journal.
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This episode of Badass Black Girl is featuring two badass guests, Ashley M. Jones and Fabienne Josaphat, in conversation with MJ Fievre. Join us for a far-ranging discussion about the current situation in the United States between pandemics and protests, and for a talk on the emotional labor of being a Black woman in a society built on systemic racism, on self-care, nurturing Black joy, mental health, the global divide between Black people, and much more, including a look to the near future and remembrances of the past.