At the kitchen table, in the winter of 1947. It’s crowded in that small space. Someone tells me I must eat my bread. I hate bread. So I secretly slip my slice into the framework under the table. I repeat the process as necessary. Then someone discovers all the stale bread jammed up there. Oh, my God! Look at this! They are hysterical, in an escalating frenzy. They are absolutely shocked that a skinny little kid like me would do such a crazy thing. It’s so….so WRONG. And yet staying out all night long getting drunk and coming home and puking into the bathtub is not. Nope. That’s different. You know?
Another uproar among these faceless giants. Loud footsteps, the scraping of chairs, a babble of shouts. In the tumult I sense fear, indecision. It’s scary when adults run around like that, VERY scary. More shouting, mostly from my grandmother. Alec—or is it Stanley?—springs to action. He gets the shovel from the basement’s coal bin. He runs from one room to the next.
Bang, bang, bang. BANG! He got it! He got it!
A fat dark brown rat with a disgusting long hairless gray tail. Can you imagine?
Look at the rat, Johnny! Rats eat the eyelashes of little boys, did you know that? They come up into your bed and chew the tips of your toes and fingers. And then they bite off your little wee-wee. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.
The coal truck arrives. My grandmother pulls open the basement window. A huge rattling roar as the coal tumbles from a chute into the wood-sided bin. In a shaft of sunlight appear a million glistening specks, and she coughs. I watch tall, gangly grandma shovel coal into the furnace, coughing. Where is her son Chester? Or Alec? Or Stanley?
On the floor’s heating ducts upstairs she has placed muslin rectangles that billow like sails when the coal fire’s heat rises. After a while those flimsy cloths turn gray, then black.
While I am at the hospital, or unconscious, or in the care of Aunt Jane, they remove the coal furnace and put in one fired by gas. No more coal comes rattling down the chute. Grandma no longer wields the big heavy shovel.
I open the door of the new furnace. A wave of heat strikes my face, and I move backward. There’s a cast iron disc that looks like the caved-in top of a big mushroom, and yellow flames curl up around its perimeter. It looks like the woodcut in a book I saw at the parish house of St. Xavier’s. Standing on one of the rings of hell, Virgil and Dante look down at the souls of the wrathful, and they contemplate these condemned who are writhing and screaming in agony. Yes. Burning fire awaits us all.
I crush a piece of paper into a ball. This man, a drunk and a fornicator, is condemned because he refuses to repent. With cool insouciance I toss him on the top of the flame-encircled mushroom. The wretch immediately turns brown, and a darker brown, then suddenly ignites and is quickly consumed.
I toss in another sinner. But this time, with God-like compassion, I squirt a narrow stream of water onto the poor wretch from a plastic bottle I’d found in the trash. It’s exactly like standing at the toilet and pissing. It’s easy to direct that stream of fluid. It goes exactly where you want it to go. As long as the water lasts I can keep the sinner white and safe. But then, finally, the water runs out. In three seconds the condemned is transformed into a delicate fragile black ash.
After a while a lot of black ash covers the mushroom. There is no end of sinners who need to be punished. But then I’m afraid that grandma will come down to the basement and open the furnace door. She’ll discover this unmistakable evidence of my craziness.
I can imagine the look on her face and on the others’ faces. Jesus, you just won’t believe what the kid has done now!
But she no longer has any reason to open that door. After all, there is no more coal in the bin for her to shovel. I refill the plastic bottle with water. I zap the scattering of ash.
The water pools, boils, and disappears. So does the evidence. They will never know what I have done to them.