When I was a boy, my dying father sent me on an errand. He gave me the keys to his green Oldsmobile and dictated directions that would lead me west out of town on Route 38, then north a few hundred miles. It was early spring and through the cold glass of his dark bedroom window hung a bright screen of icy stars. Bare trees pressed against my eyes like the white burn of a lithographic print.
‘Don’t speed,’ my father said. This was the man who’d taught me everything I knew, the rock of our family, a man who towered over me and shuffled us all into the cellar in bad weather, and who now whispered as low and fast as the thin white streak of a field mouse racing across the highway in the dark. ‘Don’t look for short-cuts. If you find you’ve made a wrong turn, go back to the place where you went astray, and start again from there.’ He asked me to read the directions back to him, and closed his eyes as he listened. ‘Remember when you’re up there,’ he said, ‘that I ran the same errand myself for thirty-five years and was never the worse for it.’
The drive led me through the stubble of the last year’s corn and along a huge black lake chopped with silver. I stopped in the night and stayed at a small, whitewashed motel pinned to the earth by a green neon star atop a steel pole that rocked in the wind. Early as the season was, the crickets were in full choir and the small moon hung perpendicularly over the motel. In the dingy office in the morning the proprietor set out mealy red apples and weak coffee. He had leaking brown eyes and apologized that there was neither sugar nor milk.
North of the motel, the damp, uneven ground was a froth of sand and soil. The lake seemed to heave as I drove, shrinking and expanding like a black and watery lung. It was a surprise to find the house exactly where the directions indicated it would be, for there was absolutely nothing else around. And so it was a greater surprise, still, to find it well-kept, its windows glittering, its stone face clean and handsome.
I moved the parcels from the car to the porch, and on each trip found myself increasingly heavy-hearted as I drew nearer the house, finally so overwhelmed with sadness, in fact, that I had to pause and take a deep breath to shake the tears from my eyes. The image of the little house blurred before me, and the wind blew off the lake. In that moment, I felt certain my father had just taken his last breath. At last I stepped up to the door and, per my instructions, knocked twice.
A rustling, then a voice, came from behind the door – the voice of a man who couldn’t be much older than I. A cousin? A secret half-brother?
‘It’s Tom,’ I answered. ‘My dad’s sick.’
The door opened an inch, then two, four, six inches. The man inside extended a hand – what remained of his hand – and one at a time slid the parcels over the threshold. It was his left hand, and was missing all four fingers at the knuckle. The skin was smooth, white and hairless. I caught my breath. I should have offered to help, I know, but was so startled I could not think what to say.
‘Come in now,’ he said. ‘For tea.’
I stood silent at the door, rather unwilling, but it opened before me. Inside the house light glanced through many large and immaculately polished sheets of glass. I stood still a moment, trusting my father, and stepped inside.
‘Sit down,’ the young man said from behind the door, ‘and I’ll join you.’
I moved closer to but did not sit at a round wooden table, with two high-backed chairs, and from there, I saw my host. His name was Harold, he told me, and he didn’t blame me for staring.
One of his eyes was missing, was just a flesh-covered hollow. The other eye was half-veiled with a tissue of skin. His skull was hairless and scarred with hard gray ridges, and his nose a smooth thick patch of scar tissue and one uneven nostril. He wore a navy blue sweatsuit with dark red piping and cheap white sneakers.
‘I know,’ the young man said. His voice was kind and calm. I didn’t know where to look. All at once, he was sitting with me at the table – I had not even seen him move. Then he remembered the tea, and just as suddenly, he was behind me at the wood stove, setting out a kettle of water.
‘I’m sorry,’ I managed, focusing my eyes on the space between the cups of tea immediately steaming between us. ‘I shouldn’t stay. My dad is – dying. He told me to come right back.’ I glanced up to see Harold sort of smile and shake his head, a bit of light in the one half-decent eye, light that betrayed an intelligence, a recognition.
‘Bloodgood,’ Harold said. ‘It’s been three months since I have seen or been touched by another person. And I need a bath. Conversation.’ Then he was standing behind me, sorting through the parcels my father had sent. ‘Look. Your father sent spaghetti. Canned peaches. We’ll eat. Then you can give me a bath, yes? Yes. There’s soap here.’
My father had told me nothing except that he had run this same errand for thirty-five years, and that he had not been harmed by it.
‘Harold,’ I said uneasily, and he looked back over his shoulder at me. ‘You seem – a young guy.’
‘Seventeen,’ he said, pulling a package of macaroons from one of the parcels.
I stood slowly, summoning all the resolve and concentration I used when faced with a monster or a devil in a bad dream. The room around us seemed to tilt and straighten. I turned to the front door. In reality, it was a few feet away, but in my stress it seemed a hundred yards distant. Harold turned back to the canned peaches, which he set on the counter, hardly noticing me as I stumbled to the door, opened it, and stood not before the threshold, the stone steps and the fir trees wet with lake spray, but before a lacework of black space that elicited in me such a feeling of cold-bellied dread, it nearly knocked me flat. It was precisely the feeling of waking in the middle of the night certain that somewhere in the room lurked forces that, whether of evil or of good, had some toll to exact. I barely kept myself from falling over the doorstep and straight into it, whatever it was, and could only close the door against it by thinking how terrible, how terrible to be Harold and living there.
‘I’m sorry,’ Harold said, and we were both at the table, prepared spaghetti before us, the canned sauce steaming and impossibly red. ‘You can’t go until I want you to go.’ He handed me a fork. ‘And don’t blame it on me. I don’t know why either of us is here. All I know is the Bloodgoods keep coming. And that before that, I was a thief. Go on. Eat.’
Harold waited for me while I was sick in the bathroom – or while I tried to be – but I couldn’t throw up. It was not a sickness that needed to expel itself, but one that had settled in my chest and guts and bones. Or say, rather, that it had always been there, and now my attention had been drawn to it – to a dark dampness like the lake, within me. I had not been raised in a church or according to any religious tradition, but I prayed on my knees in that bathroom. I prayed without words for a steady heart and easy breath. I prayed to make it back home. I prayed – who knows why – for the lake to be still. And I thought of the small kindnesses of the world – men rowing fishing boats out to sea, lemons, tossing salad greens in a bright kitchen. Birds in the morning. There was something like goodness, I knew there was, and I kneeled on the cold tiles picturing it in all the ways I had ever seen it manifest: green apples, wind in the trees, carefully folded newspapers, piano music, clean socks.
When I came out and was able to speak, Harold told me it’d been many Bloodgoods. Not just my father and I, but generations of us. We sat side-by-side in chairs facing the window that opened to the lake, though it had grown dark outside, and I kept still, hands on my knees, listening. My mouth was bitter and dry and I held my back very straight, so I could sense where he was out of the corner of my eye.
He’d stolen everything he could find, he told me, and his dreams were haunted with the inventory of his crimes: pocketknives and watches, tin cups, a wood axe, a spotted horse, dozens of chickens living and dead, money, heads of lettuce, Christmas melons, eggs, a square-skirted coat, boots, a broken pistol, a hundred-pound bicycle with a leather seat, a blue kettle that seemed to show up in every dream and that was perched on stones on a fire, steam pouring from its tiny open mouth.
‘It was one of your grandfathers who figured it out,’ Harold said, his voice soft beside me in the dark. ‘That if it’s something I’d ever stolen, neither of us can have it now.’
I looked down at his feet on the stone floor. ‘So tennis shoes,’ I said.
‘Instead of boots.’ He nodded. ‘No chicken. No knives.’
‘Bad.’ His one good eye peered out from behind the folded skin and pointed at the floor. ‘Yes.’
I asked him who the first Bloodgood had been.
‘Did you – know him?’
‘You mean before this.’ He indicated the house, the lake, the chairs in which we sat. ‘I knew him,’ he said, ‘because I stole from him.’
‘What did you steal?’
He was quiet a moment. ‘I don’t remember.’
I didn’t believe him. ‘Were you always,’ I began. I couldn’t think how to finish my terrible question.
‘Nel, his brothers – they did this.’
‘All of it.’
‘Was there a fire?’
He shrugged and said nothing.
‘Can you go outside?’
‘I cannot leave this house.’
‘Did you – die in the fire?’
He shifted in his seat. ‘I still eat. I still cry. I still get headaches. I still get thirsty. I still need baths and company and all the things I ever needed. I need them and am never free of needing them.’
It was – or seemed like – a full week before I was able to go, before the stairs and my father’s green Oldsmobile and the road were there, intact, for me to use. I’d bathed Harold, rubbed his ruined and lumpy back, drank tea with him, and read a Hardy Boys book out loud, which he seemed to know nearly by heart. We talked of the world, the news, I offered him things for a future visit:
I studied him hard and tried to guess what he might want, for it seemed he was no more able to tell me what to bring than he was able to partake of anything like what he’d stolen years ago.
‘If I ask for something directly.’ He sat very still for what must have been a full minute. ‘Then it’s worst of all.’ He tried to cover his face with what remained of his one hand. He was very quiet after that, a full day quiet, and I did not ask about it again. He had been a thief. And so, it seemed, he could only take what he could get. Beyond that, he would tell me nothing of his crimes, or of what my father’s fathers had done to punish them.
When I returned home, my father was dead. Though my brothers and sisters were curious about where I’d been, my mother asked no questions. I was sullen and had nightmares – tornado dreams and tidal wave dreams and dreams in which I was faced or corned by a massive lion. A maternal aunt in Indiana suggested I spend the summer with her family – they had a cousin my age – as a respite from the difficulties of the spring. I was only too happy to leave northern Illinois and to have an excuse for not making the next month’s visit to the house on the lake.
Indiana was thick and green, steamy and warm, and for weeks there was nothing to the world but a persistent, soft and heavy grief over the loss of my father, and small pleasures in the company of my cousin. We fished carp, and smoked my uncle’s cigars, and ate meals of onion and liverwurst sandwiches by the small lake behind the trees. On a wet night in late June, I woke with a terrible pain in my hand, went to the toilet, and there in the runny bathroom light found a small fold of skin growing over my right eye. I washed and washed my face as if to wake myself or wipe some evil off my head, but to no end. In a strange state of calm, my face humming and fresh with scrubbing, I found myself outside behind the barn, and heading toward the small green lake beyond the first acre of pastureland. Just as if I knew what I was doing. And there it was, discovered by the moonlight and beside an open cistern hewen and hollowed out of stone: Harold’s house. He immediately welcomed me inside.
‘Now you see,’ he said.
I was shaking. ‘Tell me what to do.’
We sat inside the house that was no more in Illinois or Wisconsin than it was in Indiana, and he told me about it.
‘Will my eye go back to normal?’
‘What will happen next?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘The scar on my dad’s neck,’ I said, and Harold nodded. ‘Whoever they were – Nel – my grandfathers. They’d cut your neck, too?’
Harold made a tracing motion with the stub of one finger from his ear to his clavicle. Exactly where my father’s own scar had been.
‘My dad told me it was an accident. That he’d been in an accident.’
‘We all were, Bloodgood.’
So I was careful never to miss a month. The best years of my life were punctuated by Harold’s terrible baths, by the acridness of his folding gray skin, which looked to be in a perpetual state of healing, but which smelled otherwise. If I was less than fully present and engaged with him, it took twice as long for him to be satisified and for the road back to open up for me. Harold tried to make our visits fast and painless, but whatever else he was, he was also human, and could not force his heart to be still and at peace if it wasn’t.
The month of April when I was seventeen I was in love with Anna Rose Lively, an exquisite blue-eyed creature who stroked my hair and kissed my cheek to greet me and with whom I spent a glittering string of spring nights on the river falls outside of town; my happiness – the freshness of it, the newness of it – it was unbearable to Harold, whose misery kept me trapped in his lake house for three consecutive months, for the entire summer that would have been mine and Anna’s. She would not speak to me when I returned.
I finished school and went onto the university and then to business school in Chicago. I missed my college graduation; I was eating boiled greens with Harold in the dark when my mother died alone in a hospital bed; I was dabbing at his oozing back and massaging his remaining hand and his feet when my younger brother, who was protected from Harold only by the fact of my own existence, comforted and courted my jilted fiance. I seemed to the best of my friends to be moody and strange, to come and go without warning. I was nowhere to be found on the bright summer afternoon of my best friend’s wedding, where I was to stand up beside him. I had only one foot in the world – a world that I loved but in which I was forced to live like a shadow. I was called unreliable, heartless, even dehumanizing.
When I saw men and women on the street with scars on their faces, or when I saw amputees, or black eyes, I wondered if it was the beginning of a story like mine and Harold’s – the original offense, as it were – or if the original offense had occurred an untrackable hundred thousand years ago, and all these walking wounded were in the midst of trying to ignore or live around obligations like my own.
I was married to Elise Rye and we had two children of our own, Joseph and Beth. Houses went up between the city and our old family house in DeKalb. There were winters cold enough to crack bone and summers so hot and sere the world shimmered. There was from time to time news of goodness: a missing brother and sister found safe after a week alone in the Ozark-St.Francis National Forest; a dry spell breaking and saving the cardamom crop in a small community in southwest India; the chaotic floral grafitti on the 290 overpass in Cicero. There were polar nights. Lines of birds on wires. Swarm of golden leaves. Nests of rabbits and foxes. There was too a constant wave of other news, normal, bad news – which always filled my chest with that dark heaving lake and made me sick and broken-hearted and made me fear for my own children, my grandchildren. Waves of young disfigured men and women returned from combat overseas, and I despaired.
As I aged I lived as though from behind the window of Harold’s lake house. It got so I couldn’t see a limping dog, or even a filthy goose in the park with an injured wing, without cursing my forebears and Harold, both. All the pain in the world I attributed to them, and for myself, it seemed I was in that lake house much oftener than once a month. It was more the case that there were exquisite moments of bliss when I found myself on a bit of sidewalk outside a deli, or noticing the street lamps click on, or slowly buttering a piece of bread. Moments that pulled me out of the lake house and back into the clean minutes of my daily life.
Photograph © Mary Gaston