ON THE AFTERNOON OF HIS EIGHTEENTH BIRTHDAY, Tom Wentworth is summoned to the principal’s office where there awaits an assembly of priests, eleven in all, faded men in high backed chairs whose arthritic fingers fumble with the books of matches piled high in ashtrays stationed at every corner of the room like bowls of holy water at the entranceway to the school chapel. The office is a precise space--careful, tidy, scrupulously scrubbed and polished--and the priests sit hunched and pensive like icons in the tapering shafts of metallic light, their eyes fixed not on the door but on the branches of the maples and elms that scratch at the windowpanes like shunned souls trying to claw their way into Paradise.
Whether from advanced age or the bitter cold, or maybe because they simply haven’t bothered to wear their dentures to this meeting, the men look gaunt, hollow, their faces taking on an appearance of concavity not unlike the pumpkins left to rot on the front porch stoops of the crumbling clapboard shanties that crowd the narrow brick lanes of this blighted neighborhood. In subdued tones they make oblique references to their colleague, the twelfth member of their group, a man who seemed invulnerable, touched by grace, but who for the past month has been confined to his sickbed, stricken with the final stages of disease, his withered limbs cruelly mimicking the degeneration of a mind once considered legendary in the annals of the school’s history.
“We don’t expect him to see the first rains of spring.”
“And yet he continues to defy the odds.”
“A most unusual case.”
“If God would only take him home.”
“Under certain circumstances the tomb can be a most inviting place.”
“Perhaps, gentlemen, new measures must be taken.”
Their thoughts teeter dangerously close to perdition, their proposals and conjectures taking on frightful forms, and a few of the men breathe a sigh of relief when Tom Wentworth appears at the threshold and raps gently on the door.
“Please,” says the principal, “come in.”
The boy stands at attention in the center of the room, his head bowed, his hands clasped together behind his back like some captive New World heathen brought before a tribunal of inquisitors.
The principal indicates the empty chair. “Take a seat.”
Tom obeys, but reluctantly, as though the chair is covered in a carpet of red-hot nails.
“I assume you know why we have called you here today?”
Tom crosses his legs, uncrosses them, squirms, stares at the tips of his shoes. A nervous boy. This is as it should be. Part of the natural order.
The priests take long contemplative puffs on their cigarettes, cautious sips of their artificially sweetened coffee.
“Then let me remind you,” says the principal, leaning forward. “You didn’t pass your science exam last term, and in order to graduate with the rest of your class you will need to do some kind of…additional work.”
Though entirely capable of making stern pronouncements, the principal can also address his charges in an oddly solicitous manner, and this is how he speaks to Tom now, his elocution flawless as ever, the greatest of orators, golden-mouthed, honey-tongued as is frequently noted by the multitudes of young mothers who each Sunday morning listen to his sermons and become so enraptured by the powerful thrust of his arguments, the vatic amplitude of his voice, the exhilarating descriptions of how they will burn in the lake of fire for all eternity, that they shudder and sigh and then rush to his confessional after mass, eager to reveal every scandalous detail of their private lives.
“This matter requires a quick resolution,” the principal continues. Blue cigarette smoke spills from his lips, looping and coiling into helixes of meaning. “We know you’re clever, very bright indeed, and we want you to succeed, want you to distinguish yourself in some way. So this is our proposal to you.” He shifts his eyes toward his colleagues. “We’d like you to visit a…tutor who, after a sufficient amount of time, will…” again, a slight shift of his eyes “…test your ability.”
Tom winces. “Ability to do what?”
“To, ah, analyze and interpret the hypotheses of Aquinas. And the other doctors of the Church, of course.”
The priests offer Tom their jack-o-lantern grins and murmur their consent--“A most excellent idea, very sensible, quite expedient”--even though a number of them have serious misgivings, believe Tom too incompetent to serve his dark purpose, and they wonder why the principal doesn’t simply ask the boy to clean out his locker and leave the school once and for all. “Send him away,” they suggest before the meeting begins, “to do missionary work. Banish him to a remote corner of the state. He can feed the poor, preach to children in the mountains.”
The principal, who is more sympathetic to the boy’s plight, shifts in his chair, dabs his forehead with a handkerchief, takes one last vigorous drag on a cigarette that over the course of the meeting has become a flimsy stick of ash that dangles ridiculously from the corner of his mouth.
“We have given this a great deal of thought, Mr. Wentworth, and we are all confident--aren’t we gentlemen?--that you will fulfill your obligations.”
The silence is immense, ponderous, it seems to change the shape of things, makes everything buckle under its incredible weight. The priests cough, clear their throats. They seem impatient for the boy to leave. Noxious gasses seep silently into the room. The principal extinguishes the cigarette and then dismisses his charge with a subtle flick of his wrist.
“Thank you,” Tom says, “for giving me this opportunity.”
He stands up and backs toward the door but does so with great caution as though fearing the men might jump with miraculous agility from their chairs and pelt him with stones. At the last possible moment, he shoots a hand toward an ashtray and with the agility of a magician performing a card trick slips a pack of matches into his pocket.
“You hover on the edge of a precipice, young man,” the principal warns.
And for the first time since entering the office Tom makes direct eye contact with the man, gives him the slightest hint of a smile, a puzzling sort of grin, greased at the corners, his lips sliding from humility to mockery.
* * *
Eighteen, everyone will surely agree, is a difficult age, and some of the boys, the more reckless and daring among them, gather behind the gym in the morning to gulp vodka and orange juice, wincing like small children forced to swallow bitter and gelatinous medicine, but Tom doesn’t join them, he isn’t a troublemaker, not in the normal sense of the word. He never comes to class drunk or high like so many of his classmates, though he once tried marijuana at the homecoming dance only to find that it gave him an inexplicable urge to eat an entire bowl of stale pretzels with machine-like precision while the other kids looked on and laughed. He never smirks at his teachers in a way that suggests he is somehow superior to them, though in truth many suffer from low morale and feel trapped in the intellectual purgatory of a high school classroom, doomed to repeat the same insipid lesson plans over and over again.
By most accounts Tom is docile, timid, pathetic even. He sits alone in a far corner of the cafeteria where he sips hot chocolate (the Jesuits forbid the sale of coffee) and plays a game of solitaire with a deck of worn and spindled cards. He practices sleight of hand, too, palming and levitating and crimping cards, hobbies that seem innocent enough so long as he doesn’t encourage the other boys to gamble. Too many of them have a fondness for poker and blackjack. Of course had the priests bothered to look a little more closely at the deck, they would have been shocked by the lewd images on the backs of the cards, men and women contorting their bodies into unnatural positions. But no one looks, no one asks him to perform a trick, no one wants to get too close to him.
He always looks a mess, his shirts stained with the remnants of his lunch--a smattering of pizza sauce, a dollop of chili, a dash of mustard--and when he slinks through the hallways between classes, the other students, some of them at least, the callous ones, the trust fund kids, jeer at his clothes, incredible bellbottom pants from resale shops and paisley ties unearthed from cardboard boxes at garage sales.
An understanding and patient woman may have been of some assistance here, someone to straighten his tie, comb his wild mop of hair, demand that he brush his teeth, but his mother is no longer in the picture, slipped away in the middle of the night three years ago. Bipolar, they say. An abuser of drugs and alcohol if the rumors are true. There have been sightings--a ragged figure wandering the streets during the day and sleeping in the park at night--but Tom’s father seems almost relieved that she is gone and can cause the family no further embarrassment. He is a longtime faculty member, a science teacher who earns a modest salary, barely a living wage if the Jesuits care to be honest about it.
Because of their desperate financial situation, Tom is compelled to take a job as a janitorial assistant at the nursing home down the street. This puts a little money in his pocket, but rather than spend the cash on clothes and school supplies, he resorts to rummaging through the garbage bins after class, looking for pencils worn down to chewed stubs and tearing out blank pages from notebooks used by his classmates to draw cruel caricatures of their teachers.
The Jesuits understand the many hardships he faces--how can they not?, they’ve taken vows of poverty--so if they pity him it isn’t because of the missing buttons on his winter coat or the dangling threads on the cuffs of his shirts; rather, it’s because of a shocking incident that occurred several months ago that left them wondering if their rigorous curriculum and strict code of conduct played more than marginal roles in what they call his “spiritual crisis.”
Initially, his father wanted to remove him from school altogether, admit him to a psychiatric ward, let a team of doctors that specialize in emotional disorders poke and prod at their young patient, draw blood, take samples of his urine and stool, scribble nonsense on his chart, pump him full of mood altering drugs--modern science has so many curious treatments these days--but the Jesuits frowned upon this idea. Physicians tend to be materialists. They’re like mechanics tinkering with the engine of a rusty truck. The priests, on the other hand, consider themselves experts in the cure of a benightmared soul and believe in the power of prayer to heal the sick.
The incident in question took place during biology class on a blustery day last March. The instructor should have responded more quickly, but he was an elderly fellow whose eyesight and hearing, not to mention lucidity, had been in steep decline for some time. Later, when the other priests questioned him about the incident, Father Loomis tugged at the wheel of flesh around his throat and cried, “Idlers! Those boys are idlers, every last one of them!” That the poor fellow looked ridiculous probably didn’t help matters. A portly man, famed for his ability to guzzle tremendous amounts of ale from the local brewery, Father Loomis resembled an ancient ziggurat, something that didn’t need to be bathed and powdered and dressed each morning so much as scaled at the appropriate solstice or equinox and upon which propitiations must be made to a pantheon of angry and jealous gods.
Students never tired of ridiculing him. They made vulgar and obnoxious sounds, pretended to fart and wheeze and vomit when he waddled his hamburger and beer bloated body into the biology lab. They called him “Loomis the Balloonis,” claimed that a man didn’t reside within that body but an overactive gene about to burn out like an old fuse, a giant star exhausting the last of its hydrogen, a great boulder rolling down a winding slope that led to the third circle of hell, a realm of cold and heavy rain reserved for unrepentant gluttons. Unfortunately, heaven was too steep an ascent and Father Loomis little more than a corpulent Sisyphus burdened by his great ball of flesh.
“Now then!” he said, rapping a yardstick against his chair. “Today we will be doing dissection.” He hummed, whistled, quoted with a chuckle, “Faith is a fine invention when gentlemen can see, but microscopes are prudent in an emergency.” He unlocked a cabinet and then placed the glass jars in a tidy row at the edge of his desk. “Before making your first incision, you must…First you must. Gentleman. Your animal. Anesthetize it. Remember. Always remember. They are created creatures…”
He seemed suddenly confused, and maybe in his confusion he thought he was standing before the church altar, struggling to recall the priestly arts of transubstantiation. After reciting the necessary formula--“Hoc est enim corpus meum”--he raised each frog by his forefinger and thumb and distributed them to his pupils like wafers newly consecrated on a day of holy obligation.
At the front of the line stood Tom Wentworth. He accepted his frog in an almost reverential manner, perhaps expecting and even hoping for a sense of peace and tranquility to invade his soul, to cleanse his troubled mind, and indeed a great and disturbing calm fell over him, almost as though some ultimate Truth, awful in its lack of humanity and complete absence of purpose, had stalked into the room. He sat perfectly upright on his stool, muttering strange words without sense or meaning. The other boys watched his lips move, his eyelids flutter. They prodded him with their rulers, slapped the back of his head.
“Hey, man. What the hell. You flippin’ out, or what? You on something? You gobble some pills? Whatever it is, let us have some.”
Tom seemed oblivious to their taunts. He turned his attention to the work at hand, but rather than smother his frog with a chloroform-soaked cotton ball he reached into his backpack and grabbed his protractor, the one he used in geometry class to draw concentric circles and to make arcs along a plane like a carpenter’s apprentice. With the sharp point glimmering under the fluorescent lights, he stabbed the back and legs and the soft, pliant skull of his thrashing frog, never flinching at the sharp pop of the spleen and the long, sad wheeze of the evacuating rectum. From the sounds alone he could identify each organ.
“Liver! Lung! Ovary!”
After decapitating the frog, Tom raised the dripping point of his protractor high above his head and running around the lab stabbed the other frogs, methodically gouging out eyeballs and genitals, severing legs, snapping fragile bones. His classmates recoiled from the viscous, milky fluid that meandered across the surface of the counter and trickled to the floor. Nobody tried to stop him. They were afraid he might turn the weapon on them or even on himself, self-mutilation wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility. Best to wait for Father Loomis to take charge, to do something, but the old man was in a daze, his finger buried deep in the back of his jaw, trying to dislodge a chunk of sausage, a burnt triangle of bacon. He always ate a big breakfast and almost never flossed.
If Coach Kaliher hadn’t come along and wrestled Tom to the ground things may have gotten completely out of control. Miraculously, no one was hurt, not seriously, though in the turbulent confusion Coach Kaliher was forced to take some extraordinary measures, put the boy into a strangle hold, pounded his head into the cement floor, and he may or may not have said some regrettable things, called the boy a “fucking psycho”, but given the circumstances this was certainly understandable.
Tom writhed and squirmed. He kicked over a chair, managed to shatter a glass jar. He gasped and spat and sputtered horrific threats, graphic in their detail. His face turned purple with rage, his smashed nose spurted blood so thick and black it scarcely looked human at all, like something bubbling up from deep within the earth.
Meanwhile, his classmates, sensing another opportunity to make mischief, formed a circle around him and gave him a spirited ovation, their mirthless laughter ringing through the hallways.
* * *
Now with thirty minutes to kill before his appointment with the tutor, Tom ambles through the neighborhood and tries to empty his mind. He enjoys wandering these streets without the burden of having to measure the value of things. The Jesuits try to place a value on the whole of creation. They use words like assessment and evaluation and analysis. The universe, they believe, must be carefully quantified--physically, psychologically, spiritually, morally. They are convinced that a personal god can only be perceived by using the correct methods and instruments, proof that they have not escaped the spell of modernity altogether.
He passes a row of abandoned warehouses, ungainly edifices of a dead industrial age transformed by the shifting shadows and lacerating winds into sculptures of strange shape and contour--giant locusts and ancient armored lizards hunkered down in the drifting leaves and swirling coal fire soot. A long-tailed rat scurries through a dark opening. A feral cat gives chase. Tom moves on, pauses outside the creaking iron gates of the public park to observe the drunken women who stake out their benches for the night. Their filthy trench coats exaggerate the slump of their shoulders, the curve of their backs. They move slowly as though weighed down with rusty ingots. In the muddy autumn light they look like some nightmare version of those parish ladies who visit the school chapel wrapped in red velvet coats with white ermine trim. A few of them have already fallen asleep beneath piles of newspapers. They mumble and drool and slash wildly at invisible specters that flit in and out of the shadowlands of their minds. Watching them, Tom’s mind begins to whirl with ideas. His heart beats with excitement and anticipation.
At four o’clock he walks to the rectory at 1545 Dickinson, the Ancient Homestead as it’s called. He knocks three times and waits for Ms. Higginson, the housekeeper, to open the great paneled door. The peephole darkens and an eyeball regards him with suspicion. He takes a step back, hears the locks turn, a chain rattle and unfasten. In recent days the people of this neighborhood have gotten into the habit of locking their doors at all times, day and night. Precaution has turned to paranoia.
“Wentworth?” Ms. Higginson thrusts her nose at him and scowls.
“You’re five minutes late.”
Her voice lashes him like a rusty bicycle chain. Small particles of rust and grit burst from her lips and float through the air. She’s a tall woman, broad-shouldered, stiff, solid, severe, with a complexion as gray as the afternoon sky, an indoor face, unaccustomed to sunshine and fresh air. She looks like one of those sepia tone photographs from his history textbook of nineteenth century washerwomen, their sleeves rolled up past their elbows to show off their well-defined triceps.
She waves him inside. “This way, this way!”
Tom stumbles over the sill, almost falls to his knees. Ms. Higginson clicks her teeth. How many oafish boys has she led into this house without the courtesy of saying, “Please watch your step,” just for the small pleasure of seeing them trip and turn red with embarrassment?
The interior of the rectory reminds him of the nursing home where on the weekends he mops the piss-splattered floors, wipes off trays dripping with pureed vegetables, disposes of medical waste and, since there seems to be no one else who can be bothered with such a menial task, listens to the elderly residents as they struggle to put the ruined battlefield of their memories in some kind of sensible order. He never comes empty handed. He brings them gifts, little odds and ends scavenged from one place or another--charms and bracelets and buttons from old coats--things meant to distract them while he removes the plastic bottle from his backpack. When they see the skull and crossbones on the label they gasp and sometimes whimper like little children. As a joke, he twists the cap off and says, “Open wide…” The chemical stings their eyes, irritates their skin, smells sharp and oily like the formaldehyde that will be used to disinfect and embalm their bodies.
“Now then,” says Ms. Higginson, “what is it that you’re supposed to study?”
She sighs. “Really, Wentworth, must I repeat the question?”
Tom stammers. “Saint Aquinas?”
She snorts. “Oh, the Jesuits do get strange ideas…”
Shaking her head, she leads him through a series of narrow corridors that stretch on and on like the subterranean passageways of a catacomb. They pass through pockets of clammy air, and Tom half expects the walls to suddenly give way to skull-lined niches and burial cambers. Finally, she points to a small library. Except for the firelight coming from the hearth the room is dark. Long shadows shift wildly across the shelves and oak paneling.
“Wait here,” she says. “I’ll be back in a moment.”
Ms. Higginson disappears into the vast curling gloom of the house, and for a few glorious moments Tom is left alone to savor the silence and to feel the pleasant warmth of the fire. He goes to the nearest shelf and marvels at the number of books and wonders if someone has ever read them all or if they are just here for show. One volume catches his eye, and from its fragile cover he parts a sea of dust. In the cracked leather binding he sees the faces of saints and sinners, the anguished cries of apostates, the acrimonious scowls of heresiarchs. Even the title strikes him as slightly monstrous: Black Mass and Black Death: Gentile da Foligno in the Time of the Bubonic Plague. The pages are stiff and brittle like bloodless autumn leaves, and as he leafs through them they quietly crackle like kindling. Easily ignitable.
He scans the lines from right to left, a little game he enjoys playing. From what he can tell, there once lived an eccentric priest in medieval Italy who married off some village schoolboys to a group of prostitutes. It was the best way, the priest thought, of protecting the women from exposure to the disease. Tom is shocked by the tale. Surely anyone who would do such a thing should be condemned. But condemned to what? He closes his eyes, dreams of the appropriate punishment, a thousand eternal torments, but in the midst of this sublime meditation he hears a thin voice, fragile as the pages of the book he’s holding.
“Oh god help me please oh please god help me help.”
He spins around and peers into the shadows. At first he can’t see anything too clearly, but then, gradually, as his eyes adjust to the gloom and the flickering firelight, a strange vision begins to emerge. The priests have assured him that the things he sometimes sees are not always real, but this vision persists, it will not go away. Somehow it is made even more monstrous by the sounds of the settling house, the creaks and groans of the joints and floorboards. Using the book as a kind of shield he approaches the wretched thing concealed in the shadows like a circus freak behind the curtain of an arched proscenium, a gibbering, drooling cadaverous creature, its skin pale and blue, almost translucent, vaguely aquatic. It squirms in a hospital bed, stares blindly at the ceiling, claws at the air with nails so jagged and yellow that they seem capable of inflicting serious injury.
“For heaven’s sake! Still dawdling?”
Ms. Higginson stomps back into the library, this time carrying a bowl of steaming chicken broth. She kicks each wheel of the hospital bed with the toe of her shoe, checks the guardrails to make sure they are secure, then places the bowl of soup on the dining tray. Without ceremony she shoves a spoon into the creature’s mouth. Its purple tongue labors to lap up the thin broth. It slurps, gags, coughs up a fine spray that darkens Ms. Higginson’s navy blue blouse. She doesn’t flinch and dips the spoon back into the bowl.
“Do you need a reading lamp, Wentworth? As you can see, Father likes it dark in here. You do know Father Loomis, don’t you?”
Tom can barely nod his head.
“I see you’ve found one of his books. We’ll take that as a sign. He wrote it many years ago as a young seminarian. It’s out of print now. A pity. He was a great scholar, you know. He could have taught graduate classes at a Jesuit university if he wished. But he preferred to stay here and cultivate young minds instead.”
She wipes the man’s chin.
“At first it was inconvenient to move him up and down the stairs. You recall how he used to be such a heavyset man? Of course now that he’s lost so much weight we can lift him off the bed. But he seems to enjoy the library. He likes to be in the presence of books. He’s like one of those antique volumes.” She leans over the bed and speaks loudly into the old man’s ear. “Isn’t that right, Father? You like it here, don’t you?”
The old man lifts his head from the pillow and grabs her by the wrist. He gurgles and wheezes and marks the bottom of the hour with his ghastly refrain.
“Please oh god help me god please oh god help me help me please.”
“This arrangement should work out quite well, Wentworth.”
She rattles the spoon against the dish. “The Jesuits didn’t explain things to you, did they? Typical.”
“They told me--”
“Never mind that. We’re aware that you’ve had a great deal of experience at the nursing home, and we hope you can be of some use to us here. You are to spend some time with Father Loomis, perhaps reading to him a little each day. Aquinas if you’d like. That is the arrangement. A simple enough task, even for you.”
She waits for Tom to give some sign that he understands, and when he finally nods she puts the bowl down on the tray, rises from her chair and straightens her long twill skirt.
“Well, then, you may as well get started.”
“You’re not staying?”
“I have things to do. This house is falling apart. The boiler is on the fritz again. A man is on his way to fix it. This fire won’t burn forever, you know.” On her way out she pauses to throw another log on the fire. “Father Loomis has his good days and his bad. On good days he’s been known to rise from his bed. Like Lazarus. The important thing is to make sure he doesn’t wander off. I’ll check on you in an hour.”
Tom watches her leave. He cocks his head, listens. She is probably standing out there in the hallway, waiting for him to scream her name, but Tom refuses to give her the pleasure of seeing his fear. She has no interest in mothering the schoolboys who visit the rectory. Each morning from the safety of the classroom Tom and his classmates watch her march to the rectory along some invisible yet exact line, her heels going clippity-clop against the slick cobblestones like the shoes on an old packhorse. Snickering with delight, they invent ever more lurid tales about her: she has insatiable urges, has seduced the maintenance man who is often seen coming and going at odd hours, his clothes disheveled, his face distraught; she serves as a kind of madam and on the weekends procures women of every stripe for the priests--short, fat, lean, shaved, bristly, bushy. It’s well known that the Jesuits have their fetishes, and this gives Tom an idea.
“Here, Father, I’d like to show you something.”
From his bag he finds the deck of pornographic playing cards and holds them up for the old man to see. In order to describe the alien things pictured there he uses the words “snatch” and “twat” and “box,” speaks them loud and clear, chanting them over and over like an incantation.
“It’s sinful, isn’t it, Father?” says Tom sticking each card under the old man’s pillow and fanning them out with an expert flick of his wrist.
The old man rasps and groans, a strange infantile gurgling. He quivers beneath the sheets. The toothless jaw snaps open and closed as if pleading clemency from a tyrannical and pitiless judge. Gone is the fat cantankerous science teacher. What remains is a jumble of calcified bones that through some kind of ancient and forbidden sorcery have been reanimated, and there is no medicine known to man that will quell their macabre clattering.
Tom reaches into his pocket, fingers the book of matches he stole from the principal’s office earlier that afternoon. He feels the stiff paper sticks, the phosphorus tips. He takes a seat beside the hospital bed, opens up the book, and listens to the old man’s miserable and unending refrain.
“Oh god please oh help please god help oh god please oh help.”
* * *
Though he gives some thought to going straight home, Tom decides to stop at the corner store. Behind the counter, watching Tom with a weary frown, stands the Tanzanian shop owner who is ready to reach beneath the cash register with the dexterity of a gunslinger. Heavy drops of sweat cascade over his perpetual five o-clock shadow and into a deep crevasse of flesh at the base of his neck. His shop has been robbed many times before, but during the last incident the owner managed to shoot and mortally wound the thief, a teenager from the housing projects along the river. The boy, drenched in blood and surrounded by shards of glass that sparkled under the yellow streetlights, shielded his face with his arms and begged for his life. The residents of the neighborhood now regard the owner as a hero. “The police are of no use to me,” he tells his customers. “I am not a man of the book. I am a man of the gun.”
Not wishing to test his patience, Tom finds the latest edition of his favorite comic book buried behind the glossy magazines on a stand near the front counter. He studies the images carefully. In some ruined city, not unlike the one in which Tom lives, dozens of men and women run screaming through the devastated streets, their clothes set ablaze by a pack of chortling green mutants, slimy-skinned humanoids, half-man, half-frog, with giant webbed feet and sharply defined buttocks. The monsters leap effortlessly across the cratered landscape and burn the remaining survivors with massive torches dipped in black pitch. As always, the artwork is vivid and gruesome, each of its panels enfolding the doomed characters in a world of unremitting darkness.
The owner coughs, scratches his stomach.
Tom puts the comic under his arm and takes a bottle of lighter fluid from the bottom shelf. He brings these items to the register, takes several bills from his wallet.
“This will be all, young man?”
“You will be needing a bag?”
“If it’s no trouble.”
The owner smirks, lets his eyes linger for a moment on the bottle of lighter fluid. “Trouble? No, it’s no trouble.” He puts the purchases into the bag, gives Tom his change. “Come again.”
After leaving the store Tom walks to the park. The gate creaks open and closed. He slips past the twisted ironwork and creeps stealthy as a sewer rat toward the circle of wooden benches. He slides beside one of the shivering women whose oily hair is buried beneath a bundle of stinking rags. The arctic wind scrubs the air clean but cannot disguise the malodorous tentacles of piss and madness that caress his cheeks and sting his nostrils. He leans in close, hoping to sniff something more elemental, things barely remembered. Sour milk, perfume, painkillers crushed to a fine powder.
A police cruiser rolls by. He can’t stay here for long without arousing suspicion. Quickly he tucks the newspapers under the woman’s shoulders, her back, her thighs. He then removes the bottle of lighter fluid from the paper bag, tears off the cellophane wrapper along the perforated edge, and opens the red cap with a flick of his thumb. He squeezes the sides of the bottle, sending a perfect parabola of lighter fluid arcing through the artificial light. Finally, he searches his pockets for the book of matches but he finds only lint and dirty tissues.
The woman struggles to come awake. She touches her damp hair. She has small hands, chewed cuticles.
“What time is it?” she asks.
“It’s late,” he tells her.
She tries to lift her head. “Hell, I have to get back.”
“Get back where?”
Tom laughs. “Work?”
“A party. Important job.”
“There’s time,” he assures her. “Go back to sleep.”
“Gotta get to Zanizbar.”
“I’m dry. You got anything to drink? What’s that there?”
He hands her the lighter fluid. She holds the bottle to her lips.
“Maybe you’re looking for a good time, a nice gentleman like you.”
“Such a nice young man.”
At last Tom finds the matches. He lifts the cover, waits for the wind to die down. Five seconds, ten seconds. He is patient. Somewhere quite near there are dogs barking, coming closer, hunting their quarry. The wind melts away and everything is still. There is a break in the clouds. A tight pool of pale moonlight fills the park. Tom strikes a match, holds it to the newspapers and to the loose threads dangling from the woman’s ratty overcoat. He listens to the sudden roar of the advancing blue flames. Sparks soar heavenward. Fire licks the sky. A burnt offering. The woman flails her arms and rolls into a pile of dry leaves but she does not scream.
This time Tom decides not to watch. He really needs to be heading home. It’s his eighteenth birthday, and by now his father will be wondering about him. Guests will be waiting in the dark, whispering and giggling, eagerly anticipating that magical moment when they can flick on the lights and shout, “Surprise!” Everyone is sure to be there, everyone except, of course, his mother.
He puts the comic book in his coat pocket, and as he leaves the park he sees the gothic tower of the Jesuit school rising above the rooftops. The priests have told him that a young man with one set of ideas might with age and wisdom grow into an altogether different kind of man with an entirely new set of ideas. Maybe so, but Tom suspects that the universe, and the people who inhabit it, are essentially static and hostile to change; that all things are headed toward one ineluctable destiny. Eternal stasis can only be achieved if there is good and evil. The powers and potentialities of darkness are not to be denied or suppressed. They, too, are essential parts of this cosmic equation. Some people are Creators, others great Defaulters and Destroyers, not unlike the Ancient of Days, who from the skies above a fated empire once railed, “I will smite your whole territory with frogs, which will come up and go into your house and into your bedroom and into your bed and into the houses of your servants and into your ovens and into your kneading bowls.”
These things Tom knows to be true, he has read about them in holy books, and as he hurries through the streets and alleys he looks forward to the hour when he can retreat to the sanctuary of his bedroom and there, amid the sounds of drinking and music and laughter, carefully craft a plan for tomorrow’s terrible ordeal.