Usually, Joan McCoy can hardly make it through a sentence without cracking up. Her shoulders get to shaking, her legs buckle or her back all but gives out so that she rears back against whatever chair or wall is nearby, laughing uncontrollably at a joke she hasn’t even told yet.
Gasping for breath, she finishes telling the joke in some wheezing, high vocal register that only time and patience can translate.
In these moments her mouth moves with such excitement that each syllable she utters scarcely has time to tumble hastily from her lips before she moves on to another. But then there are shorter lapses of time when she will turn away in stony silence, unable to keep up with the pace of her thoughts. For just a few moments, she stares blankly ahead like she had never bothered to strike up a conversation at all.
Now she sat alone, buried in an armchair, watching an “In the Heat of the Night” re-run in black and white. She sat so close to the old television set that she could reach out and press to turn up the volume if she pleased, but she chose instead to just watch the silent images.
Suddenly, she couldn’t stand it any longer. She jumped up and darted off to a room in the front of the house, passing two older men who were similarly slouched in chairs, watching but not listening to a prime time crime drama on another TV. A few moments later she was in the kitchen, reaching for a paper plate loaded with seasoned hamburger steak and mashed potatoes.
Glancing up from her stove, Leigh Green spotted McCoy and interrupted her before she could finish lifting the plate.
“Excuse me,” Green’s voice was sprinkled with an unmistakable sass. “I haven’t called for lunch yet.”
“Somebody out there said it was lunch time,” McCoy said.
“No ma’am,” Green said, shaking her head. “I haven’t finished setting out all of the plates yet.”
Defeated, McCoy drifted back to her place in front of the TV and Green finished arranging plates on the counter.
“It took a little time for me and Joan to get used to each other,” Green said, reflecting on her first few weeks working at Friendship House, a sort of daycare center for adults diagnosed with a mental illness.
When the previous cook retired three years ago, Green took her place as cook and, eventually, as director of the house. McCoy was used to helping the previous cook keep order in the kitchen, and she expected Green to adhere to her meticulous organization.
Green’s eyes shifted momentarily to the floor-to-ceiling pantry shelves stocked with cooking supplies and snack foods from the West Alabama Food Bank. The shelves were not messy in the traditional sense, but there was no noticeable order to the way the items were arranged. McCoy, a woman who spends at least an hour before bed straightening the photos on her walls, Green to see things her way.
“I’m fine with that as long as it’s not in my kitchen,” Green said.
Some way or another, McCoy learned to live with not getting her way and the two became friends. Despite McCoy’s fondness for the previous cook, who once banned McCoy from returning to the Friendship House, it was Green who allowed her back in.
McCoy was diagnosed with a mental illness around 1991 and she had spent 20 years living in a halfway house. Now 65 years old, she lives on her own again and she returns to the Friendship House each day.
“Friendship House was started because a few people got together and decided that there needed to be some place where people could go [for activities] and not feel like they were being watched,” said Susan Lake, whose father founded the house. “We try to get them away from the clinical setting.”
Usually, McCoy likes to hang out in the kitchen with Green until she gets too bossy and Green chases her away. She says her food is so good that if she ever wants to trap a third husband she could convince Green to secretly do all of her cooking. Like anyone who spends enough time with McCoy, Green has become a confidante.
Green knows that McCoy has two favorite topics, her son Andrew and Jesus.
“Now if you really want to know me, the one thing you need to know is that I’m a big Christian and I love Jesus,” McCoy said. “And I love my son more than anything except God. Next to God is my son.”
Inside of her apartment, her bedroom might pass as a nun’s living quarters. In the far left of the room, a low bed is pressed against the wall. It is covered only with a solid black sheet. An adjacent dresser holds her pots, bowls and utensils. On top of the dresser, six square, crimson eating plates are meticulously aligned in order from smallest to largest.
“Let me give you some sociology on a messy room,” McCoy said. “If I’m in a simple room without too much clutter then it’s like your mind is relaxed. Now, Leigh is just different. She has all of her stuff mixed up.”
The only real decorations in McCoy’s room are the photos lining each wall. Above her dresser, a degree from the University of South Alabama is sandwiched between two family photos. The degree is decreed to Joan McCoy Cater Leung, an unintentional homage to her two ex-husbands. On another wall, above a small desk, was a large photo of her son.
“Honey my son stops traffic,” she said, grinning at the All-American boy in the faded photo.
He gets his looks from his daddy, she explained. She met Joe Bernell Carter in 1975 and was immediately smitten with his blue eyes and “movie star” smile. Before she knew it she was pregnant so, like any polite couple, they got married.
“Andrew was born on Christmas,” McCoy said. “You see, Jesus knew I was trying to be a good girl and I didn’t mean it.”
At the time, she wasn’t so concerned with Jesus. The years of reading her Bible for hours before bed would come later, after her diagnosis. Back then, Joe was all she thought about.
“I remember the first time I found one of those naked women magazines it was in the bathroom,” she said. “Back then I didn’t even know what it was. [Joe] just said he found it somewhere and I didn’t know any better so I believed him.”
She stopped speaking and stared at her reflection in the mirror covering the door to her bedroom closet. When she spoke again she chose her words carefully.
“It made it so that he couldn’t relate to me physically,” she said. “It’s like if your mother has a photo of an ideal son that she keeps on her dresser and you’re looking at this photo saying ‘but I’m your real son’ but she don’t look at you because she likes that photo of her ideal son better.”
She left Joe, and for a while things were just fine. She worked as a waitress and later as a Kindergarten aid. Still, they were poor, so poor they often ate just rice for dinner, but she found little ways to make life more bearable. If they had rice for dinner, she’d sometimes scrape together enough change to take Andrew out for Yogurt. She called it a “psychological treat.”
McCoy remarried and gave birth to a daughter, Ashley. She tried to instill morality and work ethic in her new family. Andrew was an excellent student. Usually charged with babysitting, he was a stricter disciplinarian than his mother. She’d come home from work to find that Andrew had ordered his sister to clean her room and finish her homework before dinner. Still, she never really got away from Joe Carter. One day, his family took Andrew and said they weren’t going to bring him back. Not long after, God started whispering to her that she should hurt herself.
“The devil tried to kill me one time, he tried to take me out, he hates me,” she whispered. “That’s when the devil zeroed in on my children. He’s jealous of a home where the wife is holy and takes care of her kids. He split my family up.”
She sat on the bed trembling, desperate to be believed. A leather Bible lay beside her. Then, as if to cheer herself up, she went to her closet and pulled out a stack of photos from all of the years she missed with her children. She stopped on a photo of Andrew shaking hands with Arnold Swarzenegger, taken after Andrew convinced him to endorse the San Diego Food Bank he now works for.
She stared for a long time at the photo, rhapsodizing on how kind, how handsome, how devoted her son was to his mother and to his sister. Years ago, he went out of his way just to make it home for Ashley’s wedding.
When McCoy was diagnosed he was her protector. He called the hospitals and the group homes obsessively to be sure his mother had everything she needed. She passed over photos from when he’d flown her out with him in California.
Now he is an abstraction. He’s a boy in a stream of tearing, thinning photographs. He can be five years old, he can be 20 or he can be nearing 40, depending on what memory his mother needs to remember most.
McCoy has not spoken to Andrew in four years.
“My son is doing something now, he’s sinning and he knows I don’t like it,” McCoy said. “He says there’s nothing wrong with it and they love each other, he says their relationship is normal and beautiful. He makes excuses, but he’s sinning. Well sometimes people are looking for an apple and the devil gives them a snake.”
She paused another moment to look remorsefully back at the photo.
“He’s mad at me now, but he’ll be back,” she said.
In just a few seconds, she was back to telling funny stories and cutting herself off mid-sentence with impossible fits of laughter.
“I don’t let nothing stick to me that’s negative,” she said. “Everything has got to be positive. Negativity is like poison.”

About The Author

Judah Martin is a senior studying journalism at the University of Alabama.

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