I met the boy, the leper. I met him when we were visiting Oklahoma for Joanna's mother's sixtieth birthday. Joanna said she needed me there. In Chicago, for some time, we had been discussing adopting a baby. It was something Joanna felt strongly about, though I wasn't sure. Joanna had also recently been to the dermatologist for spots of actinic keratosis on her shoulder that would need to be surgically removed before they turned into skin cancer.
I was working fifty hours a week as an entry-level insurance claim representative at an agency in Chicago, and with our debt we were barely making ends meet. Joanna had the better job, working as a nutrition specialist for the department of education. Nights at dinner, the conversation inevitably turned to adoption, and it often ended with us arguing or ignoring each other for the rest of the night. She would take a Xanax and go to bed. I stayed up late reviewing claims for depositions on my laptop.
Our first night at her parents' house in Oklahoma, upstairs in her old bedroom, we sat on the floor and shared a joint beside an open window. I rested my head against the wall and watched the ceiling fan.
"I'm worried about my skin," Joanna said. She took a hit off the joint, held the smoke in her lungs and handed it to me.
I watched her exhale a thin stream of smoke. She looked across the room, deep in thought, as if in a cloud of grief and moral confusion. I knew this look. Had we not smoked a joint, we would've likely started arguing.
She stood and went over to the bed and put on her headphones. She started playing on her phone, listening to music. Back in Chicago I would step out and take walks into the night. I stood and put on my shoes and waited for her to ask where I was going.
"I'm going out for a walk," I told her.
She didn't look up at me, but I knew she heard me.
I went downstairs quietly and slipped out the front door. The whole situation felt slightly illusory and furtive. Joanna's father, a regional sales manager for a pharmaceutical company, was intimidating: a tall man who played linebacker at Michigan State back in the late 1960s. He kept up with new developments in technology and pharmaceutical research, took up organic foods and jogging barefoot when it became fashionable, and he and Joanna's mother hosted neighborhood barbecues at their house every few weeks. They were nothing like my parents, who were both teachers, quiet and bookish.
Outside, I walked down the winding road, past the dark trees and neighborhood houses where yellow porch lights glowed in the night. By now I was very high. The area was a historic neighborhood of Folk Victorians and Colonials. I walked from Kingston over to Pike, a street that twisted into a neighborhood of mostly wood-framed houses. The road ahead curved, and I started to follow it when I saw headlights come around the corner ahead of me. The car was speeding, and a jolt went through me as I heard the squealing tires. I hadn't noticed, but someone was riding a bicycle and, afraid of getting hit by the car, turned the bike and tumbled onto the street. I started toward them, and the car squealed its tires again and sped away.
It was a teenage boy who'd been riding his bike. I hurried over and helped him up. As he leaned over to stand his bike back up, I saw he was bleeding from the mouth.
"Your lip is bleeding," I said. He pulled his T-shirt to his mouth and wiped away the blood. He looked to be about twelve, thirteen. He was a small boy with long arms, dark hair. He was possibly Hispanic or Native American, I couldn't really tell in the dark. He wasn't crying.
"I'm going home," he said.
"You live near here?"
"Over there," he said. "The gray house." He pointed down the street and I saw a dark neighborhood with older houses. The gray house was an old two-story house with a porch light on, and from where we were standing in the middle of the street I could see there were lights on inside. I decided I better walk him home and let his parents know what had happened. His lip was bleeding and there was a scratch along his jaw.
"They drove away," I said.
"Is my face bleeding?" he asked, looking up at me. He was doing a good job holding it together.
"I think so," I said. "What's your name?"
"Horatio," he said. He walked his bike holding onto the handlebars, and I walked beside him. The rest of the neighborhood was dead. Clouds hung low in the dark sky. As we walked across the yard, a warm wind blew, moving the branches of the tree. The house was old. Up close I could see where parts of the paint were chipped, parts of the shutters battered. I followed him to the porch, where he rested the bike on the kickstand. He paused a moment to wipe his mouth again with his T-shirt. The screen door was loose on one hinge. When he opened it I asked whether I should wait outside on the porch.
"Hang on," he said.
He opened the door and I looked inside, where some younger kids were playing with toy cars on the floor. The house was brightly-lit, an older home with hardwood floors and curtains on the windows. Two chairs were beside a large window. The fireplace was old brick with chipped paint. There was firewood in the fireplace, but no cover. I was stoned. The room held a contained, slightly unreal atmosphere.
I watched Horatio walk upstairs. I wondered whether he really would be back. It was possible he was leaving me to fend for myself.
The two kids playing with toy cars had stopped playing and were sitting cross-legged on the floor, staring up at me. They were twin boys, both around five or six. They didn't say anything. They stared at me.
Across the room, I happened to notice a third child, a girl, peeking at me from around an old sofa. When she saw that I noticed her, she crouched down to disappear. Finally I heard the creaking of footsteps upstairs, then voices. A moment later a man appeared, coming down the stairs. It was Horatio's father. He wore wire-rimmed glasses, a yellow collared shirt and flowery shorts, sandals. He had a dark, unkempt beard with patches of gray. I guessed he was in his fifties.
He approached me and shook my hand. "I'm Gerald," he said. "Thanks for your help. I think he'll be fine."
"That's good," I said. He didn't look angry at all, which put me at ease. "I wish I would've gotten a license number or something. It all happened so fast."
"The main thing is that he isn't hurt," he said. He studied me a moment. "What did you say your name was?"
"Sam. I should probably go."
"Stay for a drink," he said. "I can't thank you enough for helping Horatio. Harriet will be down in a minute."
He laughed for some reason, and I noticed he had a crooked front tooth, an upper one, discolored and darker than the others. Gerald looked at the twins, who were still sitting cross-legged on the floor, still staring at me.
"Boys, go upstairs for bed. It's getting late."
The two boys picked up their toy cars and walked past us, holding on to the rail as they walked upstairs. The little girl, who had been hiding behind the couch, now appeared and followed them.
"Let's go into the den," Gerald said.
I followed him out of the living room. We passed through the kitchen with its speckled linoleum floor and light-blue cupboards, and walked into the den, where there was an old TV and couch and antique record player with a crank handle. The floors of the room, like the living room, were wide hardwood boards darkly varnished. The walls were pale yellow, and the room was filled with a soft, gray light.
"Have a seat and I'll get us a drink," he said. He disappeared into another room. While I waited for him I looked around. I looked at my watch. Outside the patio door, I saw a wheelbarrow concealed, covered by a large piece of canvas. Bricks were stacked next to a pile of firewood, and insects swarmed the yellow patio light. Beyond the patio was a vast darkness.
Gerald returned a moment later and handed me a glass of vodka on ice. He sat across from me on the couch and crossed his legs. We spoke for a while about Chicago, and a little about insurance, until his wife entered the room. I stood to greet her and she took both my hands and smiled at me.
"I'm Harriet," she said.
She wore a long, faded tan skirt, a white T-shirt, and sandals. Her hair was dark with streaks of gray, and she wore it in a bun. She had wrinkles around her eyes and chin, but the wrinkles didn't make her look too old. She wore thick glasses that made her eyes appear larger. I imagined without glasses and with her hair down she wouldn't be so grotesque.
"I'm glad to help," I said. "He could've been hurt. That car sped off. I didn't get a license or anything."
"We're happy he's okay," she said. "He's upstairs taking a shower before bed. He's a tough kiddo, that one."
She sat on the couch next to me and sat forward. I leaned back and took a sip of my drink, feeling a little uncomfortable. Something about the whole situation, in fact, struck me as absurd and hilarious, that I'd somehow managed to find myself in a strange house sitting across from a man with a crooked tooth and unkempt beard and flowery shorts, and I found myself wanting to break out in screams of wild laughter, pure outrage under the odd circumstances. I remembered, then, why I was there.
Gerald told Harriet about me, repeating everything I had just told him.
"He's from Chicago," he said. "They're visiting his in-laws."
"We've never been there," Harriet said. "Gerald and I are both born and raised in Arkansas. We have three children of our own and two foster kids."
"So, Horatio's one of the foster kids?" I asked.
"Yes, Horatio and Mikey," she said. "Mikey's upstairs with a headache. Both he and Horatio have severe asthma and allergies. Horatio takes an inhaler and an ephedrine compound to loosen phlegm in his lungs."
"The bronchioles," Gerald said. "He's allergic to ragweed, milk, bananas, feathers, and everything else." He laughed at himself, revealing the crooked tooth.
"We should take him upstairs to meet Mikey," Harriet said.
"We call Mikey our little leper," Gerald said. "He stays upstairs mostly."
"Leper," I said.
He removed his glasses and polished them with his shirt. He put them back on and looked at me. "Look at Exodus in the Bible. It's called leprosy there. Exodus four-six. Look in Leviticus. Look in Luke. It describes the condition. Mikey's on daily meds and lotions. His skin is silver and scaly. We have to vacuum his bed every morning."
"It's a skin disorder," Harriet said. "But it's leprosy. Look at Simon the leper, in Mark. Look in Leviticus."
I needed to leave. I took one last drink and told them I should probably get going. Gerald set his drink down and came over to me so I could hand him my glass.
"Stay," Harriet said, touching my arm. She squeezed. A moment later Horatio appeared in the doorway. He held a rag to his mouth, and I could see the scratch on his face from the pavement. Harriet turned and looked at him.
"My mouth hurts," he said.
Harriet got up and went over to him. She walked him back to the couch, where they sat next to me and she consoled him in the manner of a mother consoling a small child. She put her arms around him and kissed him a few times on his head.
Gerald and I watched Harriet console Horatio, who was clutching the rag.
"Harriet," Gerald said a moment later. "You should take Sam upstairs and introduce him to Mikey. He should meet Mikey."
"Say hi to him before you go," Harriet said. "It would mean a lot. He'll like you."
I agreed. I followed Harriet and Horatio through the kitchen and back to the living room. The stairs creaked as we went up them, and I had to put my hand on the rail to steady myself. The upstairs hall was dark. She flipped on the light, and I followed her down the hall to a closed door, where she knocked and cracked it open, peeking inside.
The light in the bedroom was on. She opened the door a little wider so I could see inside the room. I could see the boy past her, sitting on his bed, his head lowered. I could see the spots on his face and hands, his scaly skin. His hair was cut short, almost shaved, and part of his head looked swollen on one side. The disfigurement was worse than the little girl's. His skin was gray and pieces of his arms were scabbed over and red.
Harriet turned to me and placed a finger to her lips. "He's praying," she whispered.
I saw the pieces of dead skin on the floor at my feet from where the boy had walked. I looked back in the room and saw the boy put his head in his hands and lean forward on his bed.
We heard a child crying from another room and Harriet rushed down the hall into a bedroom. I headed back downstairs and let myself out, closing the door behind me.
Outside, the night had grown darker. As I walked through their yard, the branches of the tree swayed gently in the wind. When I got to the street I turned around and looked back at their gray house, with its chipped paint and battered frame and shutters. I saw the porch light blink off, but a light was still on upstairs.
As I walked I took out my cell and started to call Joanna but then decided against it. I couldn't call her. I walked down the empty, dim-lit street. I kept walking, shedding my skin like an animal.