Flames, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 18x24

Flames, oil on canvas, 18×24

THE CRAZIES WALKED BY not long ago, about ten minutes apart, in opposite directions. I wonder how aware of each other they are if and when they meet, or if they even know they have public personas.

Every small town has one or two crazies, it seems. They inspire jokes or compassion, quietly confirming our own normalcy, however uneasily. They are mobile, human billboards for what can go wrong — or what may lurk within us.

They have little in common except for their seemingly unselfconscious willingness to put their mental instability on display. Some mutter constantly, others are silent as stone, refusing to return even a hello to people they meet.

Some stride, some shuffle, some sashay. Some push bicycles that they are never seen riding, some walk weird-looking dogs, some carry brown paper bags. They often cover their eyes even on cloudy days and overdress in warm weather, but mostly they are sad, harmless figures.

Little is known about them, but much is conjectured. He took too many drugs, it is rumored. She hears voices, it is said, and sometimes walks down the street naked at night. He suffered brain damage after hitting his head, it is believed. No one is telling, or knows for sure.

In many cases, from the half bits of stories that emerge, these people weren’t always crazy. Something happened along the way that ostracized them from their community, pushing them over the edge into an abyss from which they never can return. It may have been sudden or gradual: abusive treatment, loss of loved ones, a car crash, financial ruin, isolation.

Paradoxically, the reason we know about them at all is that they seek fresh air and exercise, two signs of mental health. Many otherwise sane people spend most of their time sedately inside, retreating from the physical world they live in. Other seemingly stable members of the community hide their illnesses and unhealthy obsessions behind closed doors. Consciously or not, the town crazies, for all that ails them, are unafraid to exhibit their frailty to the world.

How little we truly know about them, combined with their public presence, sheds light on our own behaviors. Yesterday, for example, I violated two community norms by waiting until the day after Thanksgiving to begin raking my leaves, then mowing the cleared area with my push lawn mower (I had come perilously close to violating another norm by letting the grass grow so high in the first place). I often wear old, mismatched clothes to do these outdoor chores.

Like the crazies, I, too, walk in all kinds of weather. My dog reminds me that rain, wind, sleet, or snow are merely different lenses through which to gaze the wonders of the planet. I’m not always sure my neighbors see it that way, though, especially since I am as likely to go out at eight at night as six in the morning.

I have returned carrying wide scrolls of birch bark peeled from a dead tree, and my house is populated with interesting rocks brought back from near and far, many too large to have fit in my pockets. I have been seen carrying a five-gallon pail filled with writhing garter snakes captured in my back yard, eventually released to safety.

I often leave the television on when I leave for my twilight walks, and am conscious of the eerie pulsating glow emanating from an otherwise dark house as I return. I can easily imagine a passerby wondering what kind of person sits watching television at night in an unlit house.

For now, I am not judged harshly for these occasional misdemeanors. I think I am seen as someone who loves his dog, is foolish and misguided for using a push mower, and otherwise maybe a tad eccentric. But for the most part I remain in the good graces of society. I do not talk to myself, and I greet people I meet. So far, except for the crazies, most say hello back.

Might there come a day, though, when newcomers to town begin whispering, “who is that guy?” when they see me lugging around a mud-encrusted stone or pushing a reel mower in shirtsleeves on Black Friday? Might rumors spread about the odd-dressed man who keeps snakes in his basement and wanders around his rock-strewn house in the dark?

Yesterday I found a two-foot piece of twisting driftwood along the riverbank that resembled a bird or swimmer in motion. At least that is how it looked to me, perhaps suggested by the context. I carried it home and placed it on the television set, but it was dusk and I don’t think anyone saw me.

Maybe they did, and raised a knowing eyebrow. Or maybe they couldn’t care less. You never know.

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