“This is what happens to those who have impure thoughts!” lectured Prudence, grabbing her weeping son by his thin wrist, selecting the softest, uncallused finger, and pressing it against the hot stove burner. Henry’s flesh kissed the cherry red heating element with a hiss.
In spite of the piercing bolt of pain that came immediately, and the lingering throb of the punishment’s aftermath, Henry felt a small measure of relief; his mother had chosen his right pinky, the last of the line. Just like the others, this fingertip would soon cover itself with a thick, hard callus, thereby offering a slight measure of protection against future punishments.
Henry felt even further relief after his mother trundled over to the icebox for a stick of butter. She softly and lovingly applied the cool, creamy butter to her son’s seared finger with a tear welling up in the corner of her eye. Henry could see it, forming like a drop of sap in the wound of a pine tree, concealed behind wayward wisps of his mother’s gray-flecked hair.
Prudence said that it pained her awfully to punish Henry, but it was her duty, and her duty alone, ever since the day the Philipsburg Express snuffed out the life of Mr. Murray. Henry’s father may have left his heart in Lancaster, but the train’s cowcatcher deposited the rest of him in Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton.
“Now, I want you to think about something, Henry,” said Prudence. “Imagine your whole body burning in a lake of fire for all eternity. If you think your tiny little fingertip hurts now after a mere three seconds on the stove, think of what it will feel like to burn from head to toe, forever and ever.”
His mother had no need to issue this warning because it was all that Henry could ever think about. He would lie in bed each night, but instead of counting sheep, he would attempt to envision eternity in all of its awesome enormity, in all of its breathless, frightful endlessness. He dreamed of eternal hellfire, and not a single stick of butter in sight.
Henry was learning about the chief exports of Singapore in Mr. Shepherd’s geography class when they came to take Prudence away, and though his weekly visits to the County Home were impatiently observed by a man in a cheap, brown suit with breath that could wilt a silk flower, he tried his best to pretend that his uncle wasn’t in the room. In his mind, Henry and his mother were back home, playing rummy on a hot summer night at the kitchen table, drinking frosty glasses of ginger ale.
For what Henry lacked in other qualities, he made up for in the sheer, powerful force of imagination. Twenty-three hours a day Uncle Jerry may have been his legal guardian, but inside the Lancaster County Home for the Feeble-Minded and Criminally Insane, the psoriatic lummox in the ill-fitting brown suit was nothing more than a coffee table or an ottoman– just an inanimate object tucked into the corner of the room. In Henry’s imagination Prudence wasn’t the withering, frail lunatic strapped to the bed, but the loving, doting mother he had always wanted her to be. Even the nurses and orderlies with their incessant interruptions were nothing more to Henry than the flickerings of fireflies on an August night.
“Promise me you’ll be a good boy, Henry,” said his mother whenever the head nurse entered the room and announced that visiting hours were over. “Be a good boy and make your mommy and daddy proud,” she would add. To the nurses, doctors, orderlies and Uncle Jerry, however, it sounded like incoherent jibberish. Once, Prudence shouted a stream of profanities at the boy and threatened to poison the Duke of Windsor, whom she insisted was Elvis Presley’s twin brother separated at birth, but to Henry’s ears it sounded like poetry. “Don’t forget to brush your teeth before you go to bed,” was what Henry had heard. “And don’t forget what I told you about impure thoughts!”
Reality only returned the following morning in geography class, when Henry discovered that the gruff, bearded teacher who normally paced in front of the blackboard with the dignified air of a retired general had been replaced by a substitute. Miss Winters, flaxen-haired like an imprisoned princess crying from the crenelated tower of a fairy tale castle, had aroused in Henry’s stomach a fluttering that confused yet delighted him, and her radiant smile– more intoxicating than bathtub gin– brought to Henry’s cheek a powerful, tingling warmth. Henry, who never had occasion to blush before, was overcome by the new feeling; it was like sucking on a giant piece of sour candy, the sensory overload causing the jaw to twinge in pleasant discomfort. Fortunately, the bell sounded and class was dismissed just when Henry was certain the devil himself was about to pop out of Mr. Shepherd’s desk and drag him off to the underworld.
Things only got worse for Henry the next day. The school nurse yanked the thermometer out of the boy’s mouth and, after squinting to read the numbers, made him lie down on a cot and proceeded to place a wet cloth on his forehead. “Just as I thought,” said the nurse. “You must have gotten the bug that’s going around. I’m calling your father to come and pick you up.” Henry winced and whimpered at the words. “I’m sorry, I forgot,” muttered the nurse.
While Henry waited for his uncle to arrive he wrestled with his thoughts, but he could not force his desire for Miss Winters into submission. Earlier that morning the substitute geography teacher had been writing the names of South American capitals on the blackboard and Henry’s attention was distracted by the smooth, silky texture of her nylon stockings. He was immediately possessed with an overwhelming desire to leap out of his seat and run his hands over the fabric. He desperately wanted to grope her legs, to feel the material with his own fingers. He couldn’t understand why he had this sudden urge, but it struck him as sharply as a pang of hunger.
Henry lifted the damp rag from his face and looked at the clock. What was taking Uncle Jerry so long? The minutes dripped slowly like chilled molasses, leaving him to swelter alone in the nurse’s tiny office with his thoughts of Miss Winters and the memory of her nylon stockings.
Uncle Jerry’s mood was as sour as his breath, Henry noticed, and as the Buick careened around the curve by the cemetery Uncle Jerry growled about having to postpone his round of golf. Henry slouched into the passenger seat, trying to make himself tiny and invisible. He thought that maybe, if he concentrated hard enough, he could shrink down to the size of an ant. A fire ant, Henry thought. A fire ant that would crawl up his uncle’s trouser leg and bite him in his skinny, milky calves until they were covered in angry red welts. It would serve him right, that wheezing, psoriatic lummox!
The boy went up to his room without saying a word to Aunt Ingrid, whom Henry found to be only slightly more tolerable than his uncle. Ingrid merely grunted from her newspaper crossword puzzle as Henry lumbered past, giving no indication of curiosity concerning his early arrival home from school. “The boy’s got that bug what’s been going round,” grumbled Uncle Jerry. “The school nurse said Henry can’t come back until his fever breaks.”
“How inconvenient!” cried Ingrid. “Now we’ll be forced to cancel our reservations at the Crystal Lounge. You know how long I’ve been looking forward to a night out.”
“How do you think I feel, Ingrid? I had to skip my weekly round of golf,” said Jerry with a chuckle, though it was a chuckle devoid of humor and saltier than the Dead Sea. “Why, that damn boy’s growing like a weed. Between the cost of clothing and feeding him, we’ll both be in the poorhouse soon. If only your sister hadn’t gone off her rocker.”
“I suppose I should take some cutlets out of the icebox,” sighed Ingrid. Jerry told her to do no such thing– he was not about to let his dinner reservations go to waste on account of his nephew. Two hours later, Jerry and Ingrid were perusing the wine list while they awaited the arrival of their appetizers. Two hours after that, Jerry and Ingrid were seated in the backseat of a police cruiser in handcuffs after the medical examiner concluded that Henry’s legal guardians had doused him with gasoline, or some other accelerant, before setting him on fire.
“But it doesn’t make any sense!” Uncle Jerry protested, as uniformed officers pinned his arms behind his back. “How is possible that the boy could’ve been burned up so thoroughly, yet nothing else in the bedroom was touched by the fire?”
Detective Carter had wondered the same thing, though he kept his suspicions to himself. All he knew was that Henry was a pile of cinders on the carpet, which, for some strange reason, showed no burn marks beneath the heap of greasy, oily ash. All that remained were white canvas sneakers where the boy’s feet should have been, a copy of a dirty magazine where his hands should have been, and, atop the walnut dresser in a tarnished pewter frame, a photograph of a stern-faced woman with crazy eyes that seemed to follow the detective around the room.