The moment a man begins to question the meaning and value of life, he is sick.
- Sigmund Freud, 1937
Friday, July 14, 1995
Jeffrey Clifford sat in the passenger seat of his sister's Mazda, hesitating to open the door. He stared across the wide expanse of heat-seared lawn at Hawthorne House, the huge 19th century mansion looming fifty yards away. Walls of blood-red brick rose from a stone substructure, with three stories of narrow arched windows like squeezed eyes. There were gable eyebrows over the third-story windows. On top of each gable was a sharp wrought-iron point. A steep roof of black slate rose from the third floor. Along its peak ran a wrought-iron railing crest topped with alternating spear-points and balls. At the tip of the roof ends there were four because the building was cross-shaped like a cathedral iron lightning rods rose up, each ten feet tall. The five brick chimneys that also shared the roof were funnel-shaped, with the widest portion flaring out at the top. There were eighteen bedroom gables on the third floor.
Jeffrey liked to count. He always felt better when he knew just how much there was of everything.
As Jeffrey knew from experience, there were also four little servants' cells huddled up under the roof on the attic floor. Twelve bedrooms occupied the second floor, along with a gigantic ballroom in the center. Jeffrey had not seen the mansion in years, but he knew it by heart.
What sort of family would ever have believed themselves so important that they needed a pile like this for a home?
"I can not. Go in there," he said, in his stiff, oddly patterned voice. His sister Catherine said, "Then don't. You don't have to."
"I do. Though."
The mansion faced west. On this hot day in mid-July, the sun was still quite high at six p.m., but the light was taking on an orange tinge of late afternoon. The red brick burned in the light.
Maybe this would be the end of his life. It was going to destroy him in some way, he knew. It had damaged him before. Twenty-two years ago, he thought, this was a toxic place. Twenty-two years ago, when he was seven years old and terrified, his parents had left him here, and he was just as terrified now as he had been then.
"You've never been back since you were a child, have you, Jeffy?" Catherine asked.
"You've never even been driven by?"
With a rising note of hope in her voice, she said, "So you must see it now as a grown-up. It must look smaller. And less scary."
She paused. He said, "No."
He couldn't explain. He was never good at explaining himself, anyway. This hideous, dangerous, poisonous house of the sharp points and narrow windows a façade like a headache had only grown uglier over the years. The massive walls of meat-color bricks would crush him. The air inside would be foul. The rooms would be dark and the carpets dredged in dust. And inside, relishing the foulness, would be the toxic warlock who wanted to eat young children, bite by eager bite.
In his oddly patterned way, he said, "It was not. An enobling idea to come here."
"Jeffy, I told you. You don't have to do this. We can go home."
"No. That is the difficulty. I do have. To do this."
He put the dufflebag on the curb and got out of the car. He slammed the door, which made a tinny, cheap-car thwack. The air conditioner hadn't worked in years, so Catherine kept all the windows rolled down. The temperature had reached a hundred and one degrees in Chicago today, the radio had told them, the third day in a row over a hundred.
Trembling, Jeffrey hung the dufflebag strap over the crook of his arm. His other arm was bent too, the elbow held next to his body. He said carefully, "Thank you for. Driving me."
From Death of a Thousand Cuts by Barbara D'Amato. Copyright Barbara D'Amato 2004. All rights reserved.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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