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Character Evidence

Character sketches, cut from The Motherhood Affidavits, but not from memory:


A paranoid schizophrenic man named Gary was the mascot for my parents’ business Mental Health Consultants. He lived above their offices, and like an uncle, called our house daily. Sometimes he worried John, another mentally ill man in Oshkosh, was plotting to kill him, or on his less paranoid days, that public librarians were plotting to suspend his library privileges. A bona-fide genius, Gary sent home gifts to my brother and me, such as a hard-cover copy of Astronomy: A Beginner’s Guide to the Universe and our other favorite item, a three-dimensional masterpiece of sacred geometry called a dodecahedron.

Gary was a heavy breather. When I picked up our phone in the days before caller ID, I knew Gary was on the line because I’d memorized his wheezing. “There’s Gary,” my mom once declared, pumping the breaks on Main Street. This distinguished fellow donned Gary’s signature navy beret and blazer. I would have pegged him for a physics professor, if he were not teetering forward, holding open his eyelids, eyes literally peeled, on the lookout for any of his arch nemeses. If he blinked, he might be killed.


A soft-spoken Hmong man was raising babies and chickens – side-by-side – in a two-bedroom apartment on Ceape Avenue. He insisted on paying my parents, his landlords, the rent, in person and in cash. I begged to join on these collections outings. Choua’s apartment was the most far-away place I’d been: bright tapestries nailed over the windows, kitchen humid and pungent. Little brown boys chased hens through the living room.


My mom rented a studio apartment to a woman with a cognitive disability. Sure, she’d set off the fire alarm and fashioned her own plumbing solutions, causing sewage crises worthy of Hazmat intervention, she endeared herself to us. Her rent envelopes arrived by mail in the cock-eyed print of a first grader. In person, Kathleen’s wide-as-pie eyes were the unjaded wonder of my world. “Oh, little girl,” she’d coo, imitating adults, “How is school going?”

Should I respond as if speaking to a classmate or an elder, I wondered. She’d just arrived on scene from the so-called “sheltered workshop.” This was the 1980s – before the proliferation of integrated workplaces and wider disability awareness. For everything I knew, Kathleen was just a quirky kid mysteriously trapped in a bearded lady’s rotund body.


With her blanched skin and explosion of freckles, Amber was a cross between a Bisque doll and Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Match Girl, frost-bitten in winter, chapped in summer, hair the shade and scent of cigarette ash. In the bottom drawer of our kitchen, we stored cookies and other snacks. She asked nicely for them at first but later would raid the drawer, heaping dozens into the apron of her shirt for brothers and sisters at home, one of whom, according to Amber, began smoking cigarettes at age four.

One unexpected day, unbeknownst to me, Amber loaded my jewelry into her pockets, pilfering a Mother-of-Pearl ring I’d inherited from my grandmother. Was I the victim of theft? That seemed unlikely, and in fact, Amber later returned the jewelry at her mom’s insistence. They didn’t need more money for groceries, she insisted, and they would not pawn this ring, but just in case Amber got hungrier than usual, we continued leaving the side door unlocked.


In a fit of rage at Fast Eddie’s, a local drinking hole, Lenny Swart chased his rival around the bar like Tom chasing Jerry in an animated series of blunders, except Lenny was wielding an axe. His victim’s body parts would not be restored in the next cartoon frame. Lenny heaved the axe over his shoulder, blade glinting. Luckily his target was agile, and Lenny splintered the bar instead of the man. When Lenny finally chased his victim out the door, swinging the axe one last time, he lodged the shank into Fast Eddie’s door instead of his enemy’s skull. Lenny Swart was, after all, just buffoon in a happy-ending tale.


Jack Cain, similarly in need of anger management, got into a drunken knife fight with an associate during a house party. Cain stabbed his victim in the abdomen and then Cain took a knife to his eyeball. Thereafter, Ryan referred to Cain as “One-Eyed Jack.”

At sentencing, Ryan pleaded with the judge, “Although this is not an eye-for-eye legal system, your Honor, I’d ask that you take into consideration the natural consequences my client, Jack Cain, has suffered. Literally, in this case, the loss of his eye is a consequence he will live with forever.” Indeed, the judge agreed and sentenced Cain to only two years in prison instead of the four-year term recommended by the state. Wearing an eye patch, Cain was a real-life Jack Sparrow.

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