My wife spent several years working in various grant-sponsored case management programs for the chronically mentally ill. Case management in this context meant helping insane individuals survive society. Said individuals were otherwise incapable of living outside the hospital. So she mostly spent her time paying bills, running errands, and making sure they had (and more importantly were taking) their medication, etc.

De-institutionalization had run its course, and most of her clients had been judged not guilty by reason of insanity, or were simply batshit crazy. Both types provided a wealth of strange and wonderful anecdotes and catch phrases. E.g., in certain contexts, 'chocolate pudding' is not something to eat.

One of her cases, a gentle schizophrenic named Joe, reminded me in appearance of a rather introverted Michael Richards (as Kramer). His version of communication (with those of us fortunate to live outside his skull) consisted almost entirely of non sequiturs. Most were interrogative, without answer or ill-defined, and were prepended with the subject's given name.

His most provocative, and fairly common, question was to ask someone in his audience, "Terry, are you a nuclear physicist?" Eventually, no matter how unlikely the affirmative, he asked everyone in his acquaintance. His psyciatrist, a nurse, the bus driver - he left no stone unturned. As I frequently volunteered, it was just a matter of time before he finally asked me.

As a grad student, I had not yet practiced my trade professionally. I still felt the honest and succinct answer to Joe's Question would be yes. Everytime I was on an errand with Joe, when he addressed me, I would quiver with anticipation. Everytime I returned to he office, my wife's co-workers would be sure to ask if the inevitable had finally occurred. With much joking and giggling, everyone would speculate as to the nature of his followup or response to my answer.

One weekend, my wife and I were to take Joe out to the shopping mall. She went to go check something with an official at his assisted living community, and Joe and I were left alone. He swivelled his eyes to me, and I was penetrated in his searing stare.

"Chris, are you a nuclear physicist?"

I felt dizzy and suddenly queasy, but previous rehearsal served me in good stead.

"Why yes, Joe. As a matter of fact, I am."

The next couple of seconds seemed an eternity, as I awaited The Big Payoff and withered as he continued to size me up. What is it, Joe? What do you want to know? Do you have a question to ask or an observation to share? What ultimate clue to your condition will you impart? Damnit, Joe! What?!?

He averted his gaze, and plunged into another non sequitur or standard monologue. It didn't matter. It wasn't my place to satisfy my curiousity by probing any further.

He never asked me again. He never asked anyone again.

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