Sheppard sat on a stool at the bar that divided the kitchen in half, eating his cereal out of the individual pasteboard box it came in. He ate mechanically, his eyes on the child, who was wandering from cabinet to cabinet in the panelled kitchen, collecting the ingredients for his breakfast. He was a stocky blond boy of ten. Sheppard kept his intense blue eyes fixed on him. The boy’s future was written in his face.
He would be a banker. No, worse. He would operate a small loan company. All he wanted for the child was that he be good and unselfish and neither seemed likely. Sheppard was a young man whose hair was already white. It stood up like a narrow brush halo over his pink sensitive face.
The boy approached the bar with the jar of peanut butter under his arm, a plate with a quarter of a small chocolate cake on it in one hand and the ketchup bottle in the other. He did not appear to notice his father. He climbed up on the stool and began to spread peanut butter on the cake. He had very large round ears that leaned away from his head and seemed to pull his eyes slightly too far apart. His shirt was green but so faded that the cowboy charging across the front of it was only a shadow.
“Norton,” Sheppard said, “I saw Rufus Johnson yesterday.
Do you know what he was doing?”
The child looked at him with a kind of half attention, his eyes forward but not yet engaged. They were a paler blue than his father’s as if they might have faded like the shirt, one of them listed, almost imperceptibly, toward the outer rim.
“He was in an alley,” Sheppard said, “and he had his hand in a garbage can. He was trying to get something to eat out of it.” He paused to let this soak in. “He was hungry,” he finished, and tried to pierce the child’s conscience with his gaze.
The boy picked up the piece of chocolate cake and began to gnaw it from one comer.
“Norton,” Sheppard said, “do you have any idea what it means to share?”
A flicker of attention. “Some of it’s yours,” Norton said.
“Some of it’s his,” Sheppard said heavily. It was hopeless.
Almost any fault would have been preferable to selfishness— a violent temper, even a tendency to lie.
The child turned the bottle of ketchup upsidedown and began thumping ketchup onto the cake.
Sheppard’s look of pain increased. “You are ten and Rufus Johnson is fourteen,” he said. “Yet I’m sure your shirts would fit Rufus.” Rufus Johnson was a boy he had been trying to help at the reformatory for the past year. He had been released two months ago. “When he was in the reformatory, he looked pretty good, but when I saw him yesterday, he was skin and bones. He hasn’t been eating cake with peanut butter on it for breakfast.”
The child paused. “It’s stale,” he said. “That’s why I have to put stuff on it.”
Sheppard turned his face to the window at the end of the bar. The side lawn, green and even, sloped fifty feet or so down to a small suburban wood. When his wife was living, they had often eaten outside, even breakfast, on the grass. He had never noticed then that the child was selfish.
“Listen to me,” he said, turning back to him, “look at me and listen.”
The boy looked at him. At least his eyes were forward.
“I gave Rufus a key to this house when he left the reformatory—to show my confidence in him and so he would have a place he could come to and feel welcome any time.
He didn’t use it, but I think he’ll use it now because he’s seen me and he’s hungry. And if he doesn’t use it, I’m going out and find him and bring him here. I can’t see a child eating out of garbage cans.”
The boy frowned. It was dawning upon him that something of his was threatened.
Sheppard’s mouth stretched in disgust. “Rufus’s father died before he was born,” he said. “His mother is in the state penitentiary. He was raised by his grandfather in a shack without water or electricity and the old man beat him every day. How would you like to belong to a family like that?”
“I don’t know,” the child said lamely.
“Well, you might think about it sometime,” Sheppard said.
Sheppard was City Recreational Director. On Saturdays he worked at the reformatory as a counselor, receiving nothing for it but the satisfaction of knowing he was helping boys no one else cared about. Johnson was the most intelligent boy he had worked with and the most deprived.
Norton turned what was left of the cake over as if he no longer wanted it.
“Maybe he won’t come,” the child said and his eyes brightened slightly.
“Think of everything you have that he doesn’t!” Sheppard said. “Suppose you had to root in garbage cans for food? Suppose you had a huge swollen foot and one side of you dropped lower than the other when you walked?”
The boy looked blank, obviously unable to imagine such a thing.
“You have a healthy body,” Sheppard said, “a good home. You’ve never been taught anything but the truth.
Your daddy gives you everything you need and want. You don’t have a grandfather who beats you. And your mother is not in the state penitentiary.”
The child pushed his plate away. Sheppard groaned aloud.
A knot of flesh appeared below the boy’s suddenly distorted mouth. His face became a mass of lumps with slits for eyes. “If she was in the penitentiary,” he began in a kind of racking bellow, “I could go to seeeeee her.” Tears rolled down his face and the ketchup dribbled on his chin. He looked as if he had been hit in the mouth. He abandoned himself and howled.
Sheppard sat helpless and miserable, like a man lashed by some elemental force of nature. This was not a normal grief. It was all part of his selfishness. She had been dead for over a year and a child’s grief should not last so long.
“You’re going on eleven years old,” he said reproachfully The child began an agonizing high-pitched heaving noise.
“If you stop thinking about yourself and think what you can do for somebody else,” Sheppard said, “then you’ll stop missing your mother.”
The boy was silent but his shoulders continued to shake.
Then his face collapsed and he began to howl again.
“Don’t you think I’m lonely without her too?” Sheppard said. “Don’t you think I miss her at all? I do, but I’m not sitting around moping. I’m busy helping other people. When do you see me just sitting around thinking about my troubles?”
The boy slumped as if he were exhausted but fresh tears streaked his face.
“What are you going to do today?” Sheppard asked, to get his mind on something else.
The child ran his arm across his eyes. “Sell seeds,” he mumbled.
Always selling something. He had four quart jars full of nickels and dimes he had saved and he took them out of his closet every few days and counted them. “What are you selling seeds for?”
“To win a prize.”
“What’s the prize?”
“A thousand dollars.”
“And what would you do if you had a thousand dollars?”
“Keep it,” the child said and wiped his nose on his shoulder.
“I feel sure you would,” Sheppard said. “Listen,” he said and lowered his voice to an almost pleading tone, “suppose by some chance you did win a thousand dollars. Wouldn’t you like to spend it on children less fortunate than yourself?
Wouldn’t you like to give some swings and trapezes to the orphanage? Wouldn’t you like to buy poor Rufus Johnson a new shoe?”
The boy began to back away from the bar. Then suddenly he leaned forward and hung with his mouth open over his plate. Sheppard groaned again. Everything came up, the cake, the peanut butter, the ketchup-a limp sweet batter.
He hung over it gagging, more came, and he waited with his mouth open over the plate as if he expected his heart to come up next.
“It’s all right,” Sheppard said, “it’s all right. You couldn’t help it. Wipe your mouth and go lie down.”
The child hung there a moment longer. Then he raised his face and looked blindly at his father.
“Go on,” Sheppard said. “Go on and lie down.”
The boy pulled up the end of his t-shirt and smeared his mouth with it. Then he climbed down off the stool and wandered out of the kitchen.
Sheppard sat there staring at the puddle of half-digested food. The sour odor reached him and he drew back. His gorge rose. He got up and carried the plate to the sink and turned the water on it and watched grimly as the mess ran down the drain. Johnson’s sad thin hand rooted in garbage cans for food while his own child, selfish, unresponsive, greedy, had so much that he threw it up. He cut off the faucet with a thrust of his fist. Johnson had a capacity for real response and had been deprived of everything from birth; Norton was average or below and had had every advantage.
He went back to the bar to finish his breakfast. The cereal was soggy in the cardboard box but he paid no attention to what he was eating. Johnson was worth any amount of effort because he had the potential. He had seen it from the time the boy had limped in for his first interview.
Sheppard’s office at the reformatory was a narrow closet with one window and a small table and two chairs in it. He had never been inside a confessional but he thought it must be the same kind of operation he had here, except that he explained, he did not absolve. His credentials were less dubious than a priest’s; he had been trained for what he was doing.
When Johnson came in for his first interview, he had been reading over the boy’s record-senseless destruction, windows smashed, city trash boxes set afire, tires slashed —the kind of thing he found where boys had been transplanted abruptly from the country to the city as this one had. He came to Johnson’s I. Q. score. It was 140. He raised his eyes eagerly.
The boy sat slumped on the edge of his chair, his arms hanging between his thighs. The light from the window fell on his face. His eyes, steel-colored and very still, were trained narrowly forward. His thin dark hair hung in a Hat forelock across the side of his forehead, not carelessly like a boy’s, but fiercely like an old man’s. A kind of fanatic intelligence was palpable in his face.
Sheppard smiled to diminish the distance between them.
The boy’s expression did not soften. He leaned back in his chair and lifted a monstrous club foot to his knee. The foot was in a heavy black battered shoe with a sale four or five inches thick. The leather parted from it in one place and the end of an empty sock protruded like a grey tongue from a severed head. The case was clear to Sheppard instantly.
His mischief was compensation for the foot.
“Well Rufus,” he said, “I see by the record here that you don’t have but a year to serve. What do you plan to do when you get out?”
“I don’t make no plans,” the boy said. His eyes shifted indifferently to something outside the window behind Sheppard in the far distance.
“Maybe you ought to,” Sheppard said and smiled.
Johnson continued to gaze beyond him.
” I want to see you make the most of your intelligence,”
Sheppard said. “What’s important to you? Let’s talk about what’s important to you.” His eyes dropped involuntarily to the foot.
“Study it and git your fill,” the boy drawled.
Sheppard reddened. The black deformed mass swelled before his eyes. He ignored the remark and the leer the boy was giving him. “Rufus,” he said, “you’ve got into a lot of senseless trouble but I think when you understand why you do these things, you’ll be less inclined to do them.” He smiled. They had so few friends, saw so few pleasant faces, that half his effectiveness came from nothing more than smiling at them. “There are a lot of things about yourself that I think I can explain to you,” he said.
Johnson looked at him stonily. “I ain’t asked for no explanation,” he said. “I already know why I do what I do.”
“Well good!” Sheppard said. “Suppose you tell me what’s made you do the things you’ve done?”
A black sheen appeared in the boy’s eyes. “Satan,” he said. “He has me in his power.”
Sheppard looked at him steadily. There was no indication on the boy’s face that he had said this to be funny.
The line of his thin mouth was set with pride. Sheppard’s eyes hardened. He felt a momentary dull despair as if he were faced with some elemental warping of nature that had happened too long ago to be corrected now. This boy’s questions about life had been answered by signs nailed on pine trees: DOES SATAN HAVE YOU IN HIS POWER? REPENT OR BURN IN HELL. JESUS SAVES He would know the Bible with or without reading it. His despair gave way to outrage.
“Rubbish!” he snorted. ‘We’re living in the space age! You’re too smart to give me an answer like that.”
Johnson’s mouth twisted slightly. His look was contemptuous but amused. There was a glint of challenge in his eyes.
Sheppard scrutinized his face. Where there was intelligence anything was possible. He smiled again, a smile that was like an invitation to the boy to come into a school room with all its windows thrown open to the light. “Rufus,” he said, “I’m going to arrange for you to have a conference with me once a week. Maybe there’s an explanation for your explanation. Maybe I can explain your devil to you.”
After that he had talked to Johnson every Saturday for the rest of the year. He talked at random, the kind of talk the boy would never have heard before. He talked a little above him to give him something to reach for. He roamed from simple psychology and the dodges of the human mind to astronomy and the space capsules that were whirling around the earth faster than the speed of sound and would soon encircle the stars. Instinctively he concentrated on the stars. He wanted to give the boy something to reach for besides his neighbor’s goods. He wanted to stretch his horizons.
He wanted him to see the universe, to see that the darkest parts of it could be penetrated. He would have given anything to be able to put a telescope in Johnson’s hands.
Johnson said little and what he did say, for the sake of his pride, was in dissent or senseless contradiction, with the clubfoot raised always to his knee like a weapon ready for use, but Sheppard was not deceived. He watched his eyes and every week he saw something in them crumble. From the boy’s face, hard but shocked, braced against the light that was ravaging him, he could see that he was hitting dead center.
Johnson was free now to live out of garbage cans and rediscover his old ignorance. The injustice of it was infuriating.
He had been sent back to the grandfather; the old man’s imbecility could only be imagined. Perhaps the boy had by now run away from him. The idea of getting custody of Johnson had occurred to Sheppard before, but the fact of the grandfather had stood in the way. Nothing excited him so much as thinking what he could do for such a boy. First he would have him fitted for a new orthopedic shoe. His back was thrown out of line every time he took a step. Then he would encourage him in some particular intellectual interest. He thought of the telescope. He could buy a second-hand one and they could set it up in the attic window. He sat for almost ten minutes thinking what he could do if he had Johnson here with him. What was wasted on Norton would cause Johnson to flourish. Yesterday when he had seen him with his hand in the garbage can, he had waved and started forward. Johnson had seen him, paused a split-second, then vanished with the swiftness of a rat but not before Sheppard had seen his expression change: Something had kindled in the boy’s eyes, he was sure of it, some memory of the lost light.
He got up and threw the cereal box in the garbage.
Before he left the house, he looked into Norton’s room to be sure he was not stilI sick. The child was sitting crosslegged on his bed. He had emptied the quart jars of change into one large pile in front of him, and was sorting it out by nickels and dimes and quarters.
That afternoon Norton was alone in the house, squatting on the floor of his room arranging packages of flower seeds in rows around himself. Rain slashed against the window panes and rattled in the gutters. The room had grown dark but every few minutes it was lit by silent lightning and the seed packages showed up gaily on the floor. He squatted motionless like a large pale frog in the midst of this potential garden. All at once his eyes became alert. Without warning the rain had stopped. The silence was heavy as if the downpour had been hushed by violence. He remained motionless, only his eyes turning.
Into the silence came the distinct click of a key turning in the front door lock. The sound was a very deliberate one.
It drew attention to itself and held it as if it were controlled more by a mind than by a hand. The child leapt up and got into the closet.
The footsteps began to move in the hall. They were deliberate and irregular, a light and then a heavy one, then a silence as if the visitor had paused to listen himself or to examine something. In a minute the kitchen door screeked.
The footsteps crossed the kitchen to the refrigerator. The closet wall and the kitchen wall were the same. Norton stood with his ear pressed against it. The refrigerator door opened. There was a prolonged silence.
He took off his shoes and then tiptoed out of the closet and stepped over the seed packages. In the middle of the room, he stopped and remained where he was, rigid. A thin bony-faced boy in a wet black suit stood in his door, blocking his escape. His hair was flattened to his skull by the rain.
He stood there like an irate drenched crow. His look went through the child like a pin and paralyzed him. Then his eyes began to move over everything in the room—the unmade bed, the dirty curtains on the one large window, a photograph of a wide-faced young woman that stood up in the clutter on top of the dresser.
The child’s tongue suddenly went wild. “He’s been expecting you, he’s going to give you a new shoe because you have to eat out of garbage cans!” he said in a kind of mouselike shriek.
“I eat out of garbage cans,” the boy said slowly with a beady stare, ‘because I like to eat out of garbage cans. See?”
The child nodded.
“And I got ways of getting my own shoe. See?”
The child nodded, mesmerized.
The boy limped in and sat down on the bed. He arranged a pillow behind him and stretched his short leg out so that the big black shoe rested conspicuously on a fold of the sheet.
Norton’s gaze settled on it and remained immobile. The sole was as thick as a brick.
Johnson wiggled it slightly and smiled. “If I kick somebody once with this,” he said, “it learns them not to mess with me.”
The child nodded.
“Go in the kitchen,” Johnson said, “and make me a sandwich with some of that rye bread and ham and bring me a glass of milk.”
Norton went off like a mechanical toy, pushed in the right direction. He made a large greasy sandwich with ham hanging out the sides of it and poured out a glass of milk.
Then he returned to the room with the glass of milk in one hand and the sandwich in the other.
Johnson was leaning back regally against the pillow.
“Thanks, waiter,” he said and took the sandwich.
Norton stood by the side of the bed, holding the glass.
The boy tore into the sandwich and ate steadily until he finished it. Then he took the glass of milk. He held it with both hands like a child and when he lowered it for breath, there was a rim of milk around his mouth. He handed Norton the empty glass. “Go get me one of them oranges in there, waiter,” he said hoarsely.
Norton went to the kitchen and returned with the orange.
Johnson peeled it with his fingers and let the peeling drop in the bed. He ate it slowly, spitting the seeds out in front of him. When he finished, he wiped his hands on the sheet and gave Norton a long appraising stare. He appeared to have been softened by the service. “You’re his kid all right,” he said. “You got the same stupid face.”
The child stood there stolidly as if he had not heard.
“He don’t know his left hand from his right,” Johnson said with a hoarse pleasure in his voice.
The child cast his eyes a little to the side of the boy’s face and looked fixedly at the wall.
“Yaketty yaketty yak,” Johnson said, “and never says a thing.”
The child’s upper lip lifted slightly but he didn’t say anything.
“Gas,” Johnson said. “Gas.”
The child’s face began to have a wary look of belligerence.
He backed away slightly as if he were prepared to retreat instantly. “He’s good,” he mumbled. “He helps people.”
“Good!” Johnson said savagely. He thrust his head forward.
“Listen here,” he hissed, “I don’t care if he’s good or not. He ain’t right!”
Norton looked stunned.
The screen door in the kitchen banged and some one entered. Johnson sat forward instantly. “Is that him?” he said.
“It’s the cook,” Norton said. “She comes in the afternoon.”
Johnson got up and limped into the hall and stood in the kitchen door and Norton followed him.
The colored girl was at the closet taking off a bright red raincoat. She was a tall light-yellow girl with a mouth like a large rose that had darkened and wilted. Her hair was dressed in tiers on top of her head and leaned to the side like the Tower of Pisa.
Johnson made a noise through his teeth. “Well look at Aunt Jemima,” he said.
The girl paused and trained an insolent gaze on them.
They might have been dust on the floor.
“Come on,” Johnson said, “let’s see what all you got besides a nigger.” He opened the first door to his right in the hall and looked into a pink-tiled bathroom. “A pink can!” he murmured.
He turned a comical face to the child. “Does he sit on that?”
“It’s for company,” Norton said, “but he sits on it sometimes.”
“He ought to empty his head in it,” Johnson said.
The door was open to the next room. It was the room Sheppard had slept in since his wife died. An ascetic-looking iron bed stood on the bare floor. A heap of Little League baseball uniforms was piled in one corner. Papers were scattered over a large roll-top desk and held down in various places by his pipes. Johnson stood looking into the room silently. He wrinkled his nose. “Guess who?” he said.
The door to the next room was closed but Johnson opened it and thrust his head into the semi-darkness within.
The shades were down and the air was close with a faint scent of perfume in it. There was a wide antique bed and a mammoth dresser whose mirror glinted in the half light.
Johnson snapped the light switch by the door and crossed the room to the mirror and peered into it. A silver comb and brush lay on the linen runner. He picked up the comb and began to run it through his hair. He combed it straight down on his forehead. Then he swept it to the side, Hitler fashion.
“Leave her comb alone!” the child said. He stood in the door, pale and breathing heavily as if he were watching sacrilege in a holy place.
Johnson put the comb down and picked up the brush and gave his hair a swipe with it.
“She’s dead,” the child said.
” I ain’t afraid of dead people’s things,” Johnson said.
He opened the top drawer and slid his hand in.
“Take your big fat dirty hands off my mother’s clothes!” the child said in a high suffocated voice.
“Keep your shirt on, sweetheart,” Johnson murmured.
He pulled up a wrinkled red polka dot blouse and dropped it back. Then he pulled out a green silk kerchief and whirled it over his head and let it float to the floor. His hand continued to plow deep into the drawer. After a moment it came up gripping a faded corset with four dangling metal supporters. “Thisyer must be her saddle,” he observed.
He lifted it gingerly and shook it. Then he fastened it around his waist and jumped up and down, making the metal supporters dance. He began to snap his fingers and turn his hips from side to side. “Gonter rock, rattle and roll,” he sang. “Gonter rock, rattle and roll. Can’t please that woman, to save my doggone soul.” He began to move around, stamping the good foot down and slinging the heavy one to the side. He danced out the door, past the stricken child and down the hall toward the kitchen.
A half hour later Sheppard came home. He dropped his raincoat on a chair in the hall and came as far as the parlor door and stopped. His face was suddenly transformed. It shone with pleasure. Johnson sat, a dark figure, in a highbacked pink upholstered chair. The wall behind him was lined with books from floor to ceiling. He was reading one.
Sheppard’s eyes narrowed. It was a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica. He was so engrossed in it that he did not look up. Sheppard held his breath. This was the perfect setting for the boy. He had to keep him here. He had to manage it somehow.
“Rufus!” he said, “it’s good to see you boy!” and he bounded forward with his arm outstretched.
Johnson looked up, his face blank. “Oh hello,” he said.
He ignored the hand as long as he was able but when Sheppard did not withdraw it, he grudgingly shook it.
Sheppard was prepared for this kind of reaction. It was part of Johnson’s make-up never to show enthusiasm.
“How are things?” he said. “How’s your grandfather treating you?” He sat down on the edge of the sofa.
“He dropped dead,” the boy said indifferently.
“You don’t mean it!” Sheppard cried. He got up and sat down on the coffee table nearer the boy.
“Naw,” Johnson said, “he ain’t dropped dead. I wisht he had.”
” Well where is he?” Sheppard muttered.
“He’s gone with a remnant to the hills,” Johnson said.
“Him and some others. They’re going to bury some Bibles in a cave and take two of different kinds of animals and all like that. Like Noah. Only this time it’s going to be fire, not flood.”
Sheppard’s mouth stretched wryly. “I see,” he said. Then he said, “In other words the old fool has abandoned you?”
“He ain’t no fool,” the boy said in an indignant tone.
“Has he abandoned you or not?” Sheppard asked impatiently.
The boy shrugged.
“Where’s your probation officer?”
“I ain’t supposed to keep up with him,” Johnson said.
He’s supposed to keep up with me.”
Sheppard laughed. “Wait a minute,” he said. He got up and went into the hall and got his raincoat off the chair and took it to the hall closet to hang it up. He had to give himself time to think, to decide how he could ask the boy so that he would stay. He couldn’t force him to stay. It would have to be voluntary. Johnson pretended not to like him.
That was only to uphold his pride, but he would have to ask him in such a way that his pride could still be upheld.
He opened the closet door and took out a hanger. An old grey winter coat of his wife’s still hung there. He pushed it aside but it didn’t move. He pulled it open roughly and winced as if he had seen the larva inside a cocoon. Norton stood in it, his face swollen and pale, with a drugged look of misery on it. Sheppard stared at him. Suddenly he was confronted with a possibility. “Get out of there,” he said. He caught him by the shoulder and propelled him firmly into the parlor and over to the pink chair where Johnson was sitting with the encyclopedia in his lap. He was going to risk everything in one blow.
“Rufus,” he said, “I’ve got a problem. I need your help.”
Johnson looked up suspiciously.
“Listen,” Sheppard said, “we need another boy in the house.” There was a genuine desperation in his voice. “Norton here has never had to divide anything in his life. He doesn’t know what it means to share. And I need somebody to teach him. How about helping me out? Stay here for a while with us, Rufus. I need your help.” The excitement in his voice made it thin.
The child suddenly came to life. His face swelled with fury. “He went in her room and used her comb!” he screamed, yanking Sheppard’s arm. “He put on her corset and danced with Leola, he…“
“Stop’ this!” Sheppard said sharply. “Is tattling all you’re capable of? I’m not asking you for a report on Rufus’s conduct.
I’m asking you to make him welcome here. Do you understand?
“You see how it is?” he asked, turning to Johnson.
Norton kicked the leg of the pink chair viciously, just missing Johnson’s swollen foot. Sheppard yanked him back.
“He said you weren’t nothing but gas!” the child shrieked.
A sly look of pleasure crossed Johnson’s face.
Sheppard was not put back. These insults were part of the boy’s defensive mechanism. “What about it, Rufus?” he said. “Will you stay with us for a while?”
Johnson looked straight in front of him and said nothing.
He smiled slightly and appeared to gaze upon some vision of the future that pleased him.
“I don’t care,” he said and turned a page of the encyclopedia.
“I can stand anywhere.”
“Wonderful.” Sheppard said. “Wonderful.”
“He said,” the child said in a throaty whisper, “you didn’t know your left hand from your right.”
There was a silence.
Johnson wet his finger and turned another page of the encyclopedia.
“I have something to say to both of you,” Sheppard said in a voice without inflection. His eyes moved from one to the other of them and he spoke slowly as if what he was saying he would say only once and it behooved them to listen. “If it made any difference to me what Rufus thinks of me,” he said, “then I wouldn’t be asking him here. Rufus is going to help me out and I’m going to help him out and we’re both going to help you out. I’d simply be selfish if I let what Rufus thinks of me interfere with what I can do for Rufus. If I can help a person, all I want is to do it. I’m above and beyond simple pettiness.”
Neither of them made a sound. Norton stared at the chair cushion. Johnson peered closer at some fine print in the encyclopedia. Sheppard was looking at the tops of their heads. He smiled. After all, he had won. The boy was staying.
He reached out and ruffled Norton’s hair and slapped Johnson on the shoulder. “Now you fellows sit here and get acquainted,” he said gaily and started toward the door. “I’m going to see what Leola left us for supper.”
When he was gone, Johnson raised his head and looked at Norton. The child looked back at him bleakly. “God, kid,”
Johnson said in a cracked voice, “how do you stand it?”
His face was still with outrage. “He thinks he’s Jesus Christ!”
Sheppard’s attic was a large unfinished room with exposed beams and no electric light. They had set the telescope up on a tripod in one of the dormer windows. It pointed now toward the dark sky where a sliver of moon, as fragile as an egg shell, had just emerged from behind a cloud with a brilliant silver edge. Inside, a kerosene lantern set on a trunk cast their shadows upward and tangled them, wavering slightly, in the joists overhead. Sheppard was sitting on a packing box, looking through the telescope, and Johnson was at his elbow, waiting to get at it. Sheppard had bought it for fifteen dollars two days before at a pawn shop.
“Quit hoggin it,” Johnson said.
Sheppard got up and Johnson slid onto the box and put his eye to the instrument.
Sheppard sat down on a straight chair a few feet away.
His face was flushed with pleasure. This much of his dream was a reality. Within a week he had made it possible for this boy’s vision to pass through a slender channel to the stars. He looked at Johnson’s bent back with complete satisfaction.
The boy had on one of Norton’s plaid shirts and Some new khaki trousers he had bought him. The shoe would be ready next week. He had taken him to the brace shop the day after he came and had him fitted for a new shoe. Johnson was as touchy about the foot as if it were a sacred object. His face had been glum while the clerk, a young man with a bright pink bald head, measured the foot with his profane hands. The shoe was going to make the greatest difference in the boy’s attitude. Even a child with normal feet was in love with the world after he had got a new pair of shoes. When Norton got a new pair, he walked around for days with his eyes on his feet.
Sheppard glanced across the room at the child. He was sitting on the floor against a trunk, trussed up in a rope he had found and wound around his legs from his ankles to his knees. He appeared so far away that Sheppard might have been looking at him through the wrong end of the telescope.
He had had to whip him only once since Johnson had been with them—the first night when Norton had realized that Johnson was going to sleep in his mother’s bed. He did not believe in whipping children, particularly in anger. In this case, he had done both and with good results. He had had no more trouble with Norton.
The child hadn’t shown any positive generosity toward Johnson but what he couldn’t help, he appeared to be resigned to. In the mornings Sheppard sent the two of them to the Y swimming pool, gave them money to get their lunch at the cafeteria and instructed them to meet him in the park in the afternoon to watch his Little League baseball practice.
Every afternoon they had arrived at the park, shambling, silent, their faces closed each on his own thoughts as if neither were aware of the other’s existence. At least he eould be thankful there were no fights.
Norton showed no interest in the telescope. “Don’t you want to get up and look through the telescope, Norton?” he said. It irritated him that the child showed no intellectual curiosity whatsoever. “Rufus is going to be way ahead of you.”
Norton leaned forward absently and looked at Johnson’s back.
Johnson turned around from the instrument. His face had begun to fill out again. The look of outrage had retreated from his hollow cheeks and was shored up now in the caves of his eyes, like a fugitive from Sheppard’s kindness.
“Don’t waste your valuable time, kid,” he said. “You seen the moon once, you seen it.”
Sheppard was amused by these sudden turns of perversity.
The boy resisted whatever he suspected was meant for his improvement and contrived when he was vitally interested in something to leave the impression he was bored.
Sheppard was not deceived. Secretly Johnson was learning what he wanted him to learn—that his benefactor was impervious to insult and that there were no cracks in his armor of kindness and patience where a successful shaft could be driven. “Some day you may go to the moon,” he said. “In ten years men will probably be making round trips there on schedule. Why you boys may be spacemen. Astronauts!”
“Nuts or nauts,” Sheppard said, “it’s perfectly possible that you, Rufus Johnson, will go to the moon.”
Something in the depths of Johnson’s eyes stirred. All day his humor had been glum. “I ain’t going to the moon and get there alive,” he said, “and when I die I’m going to hell.”
“It’s at least possible to get to the moon,” Sheppard said dryly. The best way to handle this kind of thing was with gentle ridicule. “We can see it. We know it’s there. Nobody has given any reliable evidence there’s a hell.”
“The Bible has give the evidence,” Johnson said darkly, “and if you die and go there you burn forever.”
The child leaned forward.
“Whoever says it ain’t a hell,” Johnson said, “is contradicting Jesus. The dead are judged and the wicked are damned. They weep and gnash their teeth while they burn,” he continued, “and it’s everlasting darkness.”
The child’s mouth opened. His eyes appeared to grow hollow.
“Satan runs it,” Johnson said.
Norton lurched up and took a hobbled step toward Sheppard. “Is she there?” he said in a loud voice. “Is she there burning up?” He kicked the rope off his feet. “Is she on fire?”
“Oh my God,” Sheppard muttered. “No no,” he said, “of course she isn’t. Rufus is mistaken. Your mother isn’t anywhere.
She’s not unhappy. She just isn’t.” His lot would have been easier if when his wife died he had told Norton she had gone to heaven and that some day he would see her again, but he could not allow himself to bring him up on a lie.
Norton’s face began to twist. A knot formed in his chin.
“Listen,” Sheppard said quickly and pulled the child to him, “your mother’s spirit lives on in other people and It’ll live on in you if you’re good and generous like she was.”
The child’s pale eyes hardened in disbelief.
Sheppard’s pity turned to revulsion. The boy would rather she be in hell than nowhere. “Do you understand?” he said. “She doesn’t exist.” He put his hand on the child’s shoulder. “That’s all I have to give you,” he said in a softer, exasperated tone, “the truth.”
Instead of howling, the boy wrenched himself away and caught Johnson by the sleeve. “Is she there, Rufus?” he said.
“Is she there, burning up?”
Johnson’s eyes glittered. ‘Well,” he said, “she is if she was evil. Was she a whore?”
“Your mother was not a whore,” Sheppard said sharply.
He had the sensation of driving a car without brakes. “Now let’s have no more of this foolishness. We were talking about the moon.”
“Did she believe in Jesus?” Johnson asked.
Norton looked blank. After a second he said, “Yes,” as if he saw that this was necessary. “She did,” he said. “All the time.”
“She did not,” Sheppard muttered.
“She did all the time,” Norton said. “I heard her say she did all the time.”
“She’s saved,” Johnson said.
The child still looked puzzled. “Where?” he said. “Where is she at?”
“On high,” Johnson said.
“Where’s that?” Norton gasped.
“It’s in the sky somewhere,” Johnson said, “but you got to be dead to get there. You can’t go in no space ship.” There was a narrow gleam in his eyes now like a beam holding steady on its target.
“Man’s going to the moon,” Sheppard said grimly, “is very much like the first fish crawling out of the water onto land billions and billions of years ago. He didn’t have an earth suit. He had to grow his adjustments inside. He developed lungs.”
“When I’m dead will I go to hell or where she is?” Norton asked.
“Right now you’d go where she is,” Johnson said, “but if you live long enough, you’ll go to hell.”
Sheppard rose abruptly and picked up the lantern.
“Close the window, Rufus,” he said. “It’s time we went to bed.”
On the way down the attic stairs he heard Johnson say in a loud whisper behind him, “I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow, kid, when Himself has cleared out:’
The next day when the boys came to the ball park, he watched them as they came from behind the bleachers and around the edge of the field. Johnson’s hand was on Norton’s shoulder, his head bent toward the younger boy’s ear, and on the child’s face there was a look of complete confidence, of dawning light. Sheppard’s grimace hardened. This would be Johnson’s way of trying to annoy him. But he would not be annoyed. Norton was not bright enough to be damaged much. He gazed at the child’s dull absorbed little face. Why try to make him superior? Heaven and hell were for the mediocre, and he was that if he was anything.
The two boys came into the bleachers and sat down about ten feet away, facing him, but neither gave him any sign of recognition. He cast a glance behind him where the Little Leaguers were spread out in the field. Then he started for the bleachers. The hiss of Johnson’s voice stopped as he approached.
‘What have you fellows been doing today?” he asked genially.
“He’s been telling me…” Norton started.
Johnson pushed the child in the ribs with his elbow.
‘We ain’t been doing nothing,” he said. His face appeared to be covered with a blank glaze but through it a look of complicity was blazoned forth insolently.
Sheppard felt his face grow warm, but he said nothing.
A child in a Little League uniform had followed him and was nudging him in the back of the leg with a bat. He turned and put his arm around the boy’s neck and went with him back to the game.
That night when he went to the attic to join the boys at the telescope, he found Norton there alone. He was sitting on the packing box, hunched over, looking intently through the instrument. Johnson was not there.
“Where’s Rufus?” Sheppard asked.
“I said where’s Rufus?” he said louder.
“Gone somewhere,” the child said without turning around.
“Gone where?” Sheppard asked.
“He just said he was going somewhere. He said he was fed up looking at stars.”
“I see,” Sheppard said glumly. He turned and went back down the stairs. He searched the house without finding Johnson.
Then he went to the living room and sat down. Yesterday he had been convinced of his success with the boy.
Today he faced the possibility that he was failing with him.
He had been over-lenient, too concerned to have Johnson like him. He felt a twinge of guilt. What difference did it make if Johnson liked him or not? What was that to him?
When the boy came in, they would have a few things understood.
As long as you stay here there’ll be no going out at night by yourself, do you understand?
I don’t have to stay here. It ain’t nothing to me staying here.
Oh my God, he thought. He could not bring it to that.
He would have to be firm but not make an issue of it. He picked up the evening paper. Kindness and patience were always called for but he had not been firm enough. He sat holding the paper but not reading it. The boy would not respect him unless he showed firmness. The doorbell rang and he went to answer it. He opened it and stepped back, with a pained disappointed face.
A large dour policeman stood on the stoop, holding Johnson by the elbow. At the curb a patrolcar waited. Johnson looked very white. His jaw was thrust forward as if to keep from trembling.
“We brought him here first because he raised such a fit,” the policeman said, “but now that you’ve seen him, we’re going to take him to the station and ask him a few questions.”
“What happened?” Sheppard muttered.
“A house around the comer from here,” the policeman said. “A real smash job, dishes broken all over the floor, furniture turned upsidedown…“
“I didn’t have a thing to do with it!” Johnson said. “I was walking along minding my own bidnis when this cop came up and grabbed me.”
Sheppard looked at the boy grimly. He made no effort to soften his expression.
Johnson Hushed. “I was just walking along,” he muttered, but with no conviction in his voice.
“Come on, bud,” the policeman said.
“You ain’t going to let him take me, are you?” Johnson said. “You believe me, don’t you?” There was an appeal in his voice that Sheppard had not heard there before.
This was crucial. The boy would have to learn that he could not be protected when he was guilty. “You’ll have to go with him, Rufus,” he said.
“You’re going to let him take me and I tell you I ain’t done a thing?” Johnson said shrilly.
Sheppard’s face became harder as his sense of injury grew. The boy had failed him even before he had had a chance to give him the shoe. They were to have got it tomorrow.
All his regret turned suddenly on the shoe; his irritation at the sight of Johnson doubled.
“You made out like you had all this confidence in me,” the boy mumbled.
“I did have,” Sheppard said. His face was wooden.
Johnson turned away with the policeman but before he moved, a gleam of pure hatred Hashed toward Sheppard from the pits of his eyes.
Sheppard stood in the door and watched them get into the patrolcar and drive away. He summoned his compassion.
He would go to the station tomorrow and see what he could do about getting him out of trouble. The night in jail would not hurt him and the experience would teach him that he could not treat with impunity someone who had shown him nothing but kindness. Then they would go get the shoe and perhaps after a night in jail it would mean even more to the boy.
The next morning at eight o’clock the police sergeant called and told him he could come pick Johnson up. “We booked a nigger on that charge,” he said. “Your boy didn’t have nothing to do with it.”
Sheppard was at the station in ten minutes, his face hot with shame. Johnson sat slouched on a bench in a drab outer office, reading a police magazine. There was no else in the room. Sheppard sat down beside him and put his hand tentatively on his shoulder.
The boy glanced up—his lip curled—and back to the magazine.
Sheppard felt physically sick. The ugliness of what he had done bore in upon him with a sudden dull intensity. He had failed him at just the point where he might have turned him once and for all in the right direction. “Rufus,” he said, “I apologize. I was wrong and you were right. I misjudged you.”
The boy continued to read.
The boy wet his finger and turned a page.
Sheppard braced himself. “I was a fool, Rufus,” he said.
J ohnson’s mouth slid slightly to the side. He shrugged without raising his head from the magazine.
“Will you forget it, this time?” Sheppard said. “It won’t happen again.”
The boy looked up. His eyes were bright and unfriendly.
“I’ll forget it,” he said, “but you better remember it.” He got up and stalked toward the door. In the middle of the room, he turned and jerked his arm at Sheppard and Sheppard jumped up and followed him as if the boy had yanked an invisible leash.
“Your shoe,” he said eagerly, “today’ is the day to get your shoe!” Thank God for the shoe!
But when they went to the brace shop, they found that the shoe had been made two sizes too small and a new one would not be ready for another ten days. Johnson’s temper improved at once. The clerk had obviously made a mistake in the measurements but the boy insisted the foot had grown.
He left the shop with a pleased expression, as if, in expanding, the foot had acted on some inspiration of its own. Sheppard’s face was haggard.
After this he redoubled his efforts. Since Johnson had lost interest in the telescope, he bought a microscope and a box of prepared slides. If he couldn’t impress the boy with immensity, he would try the infinitesimal. For two nights Johnson appeared absorbed in the new instrument, then he abruptly lost interest in it, but he seemed content to sit in the living room in the evening and read the encyclopedia.
He devoured the encyclopedia as he devoured his dinner, steadily and without dint to his appetite. Each subject appeared to enter his head, be ravaged, and thrown out. Nothing pleased Sheppard more than to see the boy slouched on the sofa, his mouth shut, reading. After they had spent two or three evenings like this, he began to recover his vision.
His confidence returned. He knew that some day he would be proud of Johnson.
On Thursday night Sheppard attended a city council meeting. He dropped the boys off at a movie on his way and picked them up on his way back. When they reached home, an automobile with a single red eye above its windshield was waiting in front of the house. Sheppard’s lights as he turned into the driveway illuminated two dour faces in the car.
“The cops!” Johnson said. “Some nigger has broke in somewhere and they’ve come for me again.”
“We’ll see about that,” Sheppard muttered. He stopped the car in the driveway and switched off the lights. “You boys go in the house and go to bed:’ he said. “I’ll handle this.”
He got out and strode toward the squad car. He thrust his head in the window. The two policemen were looking at him with silent knowledgeable faces. “A house on the corner of Shelton and Mills,”the one in the driver’s seat said.
“It looks like a train run through it.”
“He was in the picture show down town,” Sheppard said. “My boy was with him. He had nothing to do with the other one and he had nothing to do with this one. I’ll be responsible.”
“If I was you,” the one nearest him said, “I wouldn’t be responsible for any little bastard like him.”
“I said I’d be responsible,” Sheppard repeated coldly.
“You people made a mistake the last time. Don’t make another.”
The policemen looked at each other. “It ain’t our funeral,” the one in the driver’s seat said, and turned the key in the ignition.
Sheppard went in the house and sat down in the living room in the dark. He did not suspect Johnson and he did not want the boy to think he did. If Johnson thought he suspected him again, he would lose everything. But he wanted to know if his alibi was airtight. He thought of going to Norton’s room and asking him if Johnson had left the movie. But that would be worse. Johnson would know what he was doing and would be incensed. He decided to ask Johnson himself. He would be direct. He went over in his mind what he was going to say and then he got up and went to the boy’s door.
It was open as if he had been expected but Johnson was in bed. Just enough light came in from the hall for Sheppard to see his shape under the sheet. He came in and stood at the foot of the bed. “They’ve gone,” he said. “I told them you had nothing to do with it and that I’d be responsible.”
There was a muttered “Yeah,” from the pillow.
Sheppard hesitated. “Rufus,” he said, “you didn’t leave the movie for anything at all, did your”
“You make out like you got all this confidence in me!” a sudden outraged voice cried, “and you ain’t got any! You don’t trust me no more now than you did then!” The voice, disembodied, seemed to come more surely from the depths of Johnson than when his face was visible. It was a cry of reproach, edged slightly with contempt.
“I do have confidence in you,” Sheppard said intensely.
“I have every confidence in you. I believe in you and I trust you completely.”
“You got your eye on me all the time,” the voice said sullenly. ‘When you get through asking me a bunch of questions, you’re going across the hall and ask Norton a bunch of them.”
“I have no intention of asking Norton anything and never did,” Sheppard said gently. “And I don’t suspect you at all. You could hardly have got from the picture show down town and out here to break in a house and back to the picture show in the time you had.”
“That’s why you believe me!” the boy cried, “—because you think I couldn’t have done it.”
“No, no!” Sheppard said. “I believe you because I believe you’ve got the brains and the guts not to get in trouble again. I believe you know yourself well enough now to know that you don’t have to do such things. I believe that you can make anything of yourself that you set your mind to.”
Johnson sat up. A faint light shone on his forehead but the rest of his face was invisible. “And I could have broke in there if I’d wanted to in the time I had,” he said.
“But I know you didn’t,” Sheppard said. “There’s not the least trace of doubt in my mind.”
There was a silence. Johnson lay back down. Then the voice, low and hoarse, as if it were being forced out with difficulty, said, “You don’t want to steal and smash up things when you’ve got everything you want already.”
Sheppard caught his breath. The boy was thanking him!
He was thanking him! There was gratitude in his voice.
There was appreciation. He stood there, smiling foolishly in the dark, trying to hold the moment in suspension. Involuntarily he took a step toward the pillow and stretched out his hand and touched Johnson’s forehead. It was cold and dry like rusty iron.
“I understand. Good night, son,” he said and turned quickly and left the room. He closed the door behind him and stood there, overcome with emotion.
Across the hall Norton’s door was open. The child lay on the bed on his side, looking into the light from the hall.
After this, the road with Johnson would be smooth.
Norton sat up and beckoned to him.
He saw the child but after the first instant, he did not let his eyes focus directly on him. He could not go in and talk to Norton without breaking Johnson’s trust. He hesitated, but remained where he was a moment as if he saw nothing. Tomorrow was the day they were to go back for the shoe. It would be a climax to the good feeling between them. He turned quickly and went back into his own room.
The child sat for some time looking at the spot where his father had stood. Finally his gaze became aimless and he lay back down.
The next day Johnson was glum and silent as if he were ashamed that he had revealed himself. His eyes had a hooded look. He seemed to have retired within himself and there to be going through some crisis of determination.
Sheppard could not get to the brace shop quickly enough.
He left Norton at home because he did not want his attention divided. He wanted to be free to observe Johnson’s reaction minutely. The boy did not seem pleased or even interested in the prospect of the shoe, but when it became an actuality, certainly then he would be moved.
The brace shop was a small concrete warehouse lined and stacked with the equipment of affliction. Wheel chairs and walkers covered most of the floor. The walls were hung with every kind of crutch and brace. Artificial limbs were stacked on the shelves, legs and arms and hands, claws and hooks, straps and human harnesses and unidentifiable instruments for unnamed deformities. In a small clearing in the middle of the room there was a row of yellow plastic cushioned chairs and a shoe fitting stool. Johnson slouched down in one of the chairs and set his foot up on the stool and sat with his eyes on it moodily. What was roughly the toe had broken open again and he had patched it with a piece of canvas; another place he had patched with what appeared to be the tongue of the original shoe. The two sides were laced with twine.
There was a excited Hush on Sheppard’s face; his heart was beating unnaturally fast.
The clerk appeared from the back of the shop with the new shoe under his arm. “Got her right this time!” he said.
He straddled the shoe-fitting stool and held the shoe up, smiling as if he had produced it by magic.
It was a black slick shapeless object, shining hideously.
It looked like a blunt weapon, highly polished.
Johnson gazed at it darkly.
“With this shoe,” the clerk said, “you won’t know you’re walking. You’ll think you’re riding!” He bent his bright pink bald head and began gingerly to unlace the twine. He removed the old shoe as if he were skinning an animal still half alive. His expression was strained. The unsheathed mass of foot in the dirty sock made Sheppard feel queasy. He turned his eyes away until the new shoe was on. The clerk laced it up rapidly. “Now stand up and walk around,” he said, “and see if that ain’t power glide.” He winked at Sheppard. “In that shoe,” he said, “he won’t know he don’t have a normal foot.”
Sheppard’s face was bright with pleasure.
Johnson stood up and walked a few yards away. He walked stiHlywith almost no dip in his short side. He stood for a moment, rigid, with his back to them.
“Wonderful!” Sheppard said. “Wonderful.” It was as if he had given the boy a new spine.
Johnson turned around. His mouth was set in a thin icy line. He came back to the seat and removed the shoe.
He put his foot in the old one and began lacing it up.
“You want to take it home and see if it suits you first?” the clerk murmured.
“No,” Johnson said. “I ain’t going to wear it at all.”
“What’s wrong with it?” Sheppard said, his voice rising.
“I don’t need no new shoe,” Johnson said. “And when I do, I got ways of getting my own.” His face was stony but there was a glint of triumph in his eyes.
“Boy,” the clerk said, “is your trouble in your foot or in your head?”
“Go soak your skull,” Johnson said. “Your brains are on fire.”
The clerk rose glumly but with dignity and asked Sheppard what he wanted done with the shoe, which he dangled dispiritedly by the lace.
Sheppard’s face was a dark angry red. He was staring straight in front of him at a leather corset with an artificial arm attached.
The clerk asked him again.
‘Wrap it up,” Sheppard muttered. He turned his eyes to Johnson. “He’s not mature enough for it yet,” he said. “I had thought he was less of a child.”
The boy leered. “You been wrong before,” he said.
That night they sat in the living room and read as usual.
Sheppard kept himself glumly entrenched behind the Sunday New York Times. He wanted to recover his good humor, but every time he thought of the rejected shoe, he felt a new charge of irritation. He did not trust himself even to look at Johnson. He realized that the boy had refused the shoe because he was insecure. Johnson had been frightened by his own gratitude. He didn’t know what to make of the new self he was becoming conscious of. He understood that something he had been was threatened and he was facing himself and his possibilities for the first time. He was questioning his identity. Grudgingly, Sheppard felt a slight return of sympathy for the boy. In a few minutes, he lowered his paper and looked at him.
Johnson was sitting on the sofa, gazing over the top of the encyclopedia. His expression was trancelike. He might have been listening to something far away. Sheppard watched him intently but the boy continued to listen, and did not turn his head. The poor kid is lost, Sheppard thought. Here he had sat all evening, sullenly reading the paper, and had not said a word to break the tension. “Rufus,” he said.
Johnson continued to sit, stock-still, listening.
“Rufus,” Sheppard said in a slow hypnotic voice, “you can be anything in the world you want to be. You can be a scientist or an architect or an engineer or whatever you set your mind to, and whatever you set your mind to be, you can be the best of its kind.” He imagined his voice penetrating to the boy in the black caverns of his psyche. Johnson leaned forward but his eyes did not turn. On the street a car door closed. There was a silence. Then a sudden blast from the door bell.
Sheppard jumped up and went to the door and opened it. The same policeman who had come before stood there.
The patrol car waited at the curb.
“Lemme see that boy,” he said.
Sheppard scowled and stood aside. “He’s been here all evening,” he said. “I can vouch for it.”
The policeman walked into the living room. Johnson appeared engrossed in his book. After a second he looked up with an annoyed expression, like a great man interrupted at his work.
“What was that you were looking at in that kitchen window over on Winter Avenue about a half hour ago, bud?” the policeman asked.
“Stop persecuting this boy!” Sheppard said. “I’ll vouch for the fact he was here. I was here with him.”
“You heard him,” Johnson said. “I been here all the time.”
“It ain’t everybody makes tracks like you,” the policeman said and eyed the clubfoot.
“They couldn’t be his tracks,” Sheppard growled, infuriated.
“He’s been here all the time. You’re wasting your own time and you’re wasting ours.” He felt the ours seal his solidarity with the boy. “I’m sick of this,” he said. “You people are too damn lazy to go out and find whoever is doing these things. You come here automatically.”
The policeman ignored this and continued looking through Johnson. His eyes were small and alert in his fleshy face. Finally he turned toward the door. ‘Well get him sooner or later,” he said, “with his head in a window and his tail out.”
Sheppard followed him to the door and slammed it behind him. His spirits were soaring. This was exactly what he had needed. He returned with an expectant face.
Johnson had put the book down and was sitting there, looking at him slyly. “Thanks,” he said.
Sheppard stopped. The boy’s expression was predatory.
He was openly leering.
“You ain’t such a bad liar yourself,” he said.
“Liar?” Sheppard murmured. Could the boy have left and come back? He felt himself sicken. Then a rush of anger sent him forward. “Did you leave?” he said furiously. “I didn’t see you leave.”
The boy only smiled.
“You went up in the attic to see Norton,” Sheppard said.
“Naw,” Johnson said, “that kid is crazy. He don’t want to do nothing but look through that stinking telescope.”
“I don’t want to hear about Norton,” Sheppard said harshly. “Where were you?”
“I was sitting on that pink can by my own self,” Johnson said. “There wasn’t no witnesses.”
Sheppard took out his handkerchief and wiped his forehead.
He managed to smile.
Johnson rolled his eyes. “You don’t believe in me,” he said. His voice was cracked the way it had been in the dark room two nights before. “You make out like you got all this confidence in me but you ain’t got any. When things get hot, you’ll fade like the rest of them.” The crack became exaggerated, comic. The mockery in it was blatant. “You don’t believe in me. You ain’t got no confidence,” he wailed. “And you ain’t any smarter than that cop. All that about tracks that was a trap. There wasn’t any tracks. That whole place is concreted in the back and my feet were dry.”
Sheppard slowly put the handkerchief back in his pocket. He dropped down on the sofa and gazed at the rug beneath his feet. The boy’s clubfoot was set within the circle of his vision. The pieced-together shoe appeared to grin at him with Johnson’s own face. He caught hold of the edge of the sofa cushion and his knuckles turned white. A chill of hatred shook him. He hated the shoe, hated the foot, hated the boy. His face paled. Hatred choked him. He was aghast at himself.
He caught the boy’s shoulder and gripped it fiercely as if to keep himself from falling. “Listen,” he said, “you looked in that window to embarrass me. That was all you wanted —to shake my resolve to help you, but my resolve isn’t shaken. I’m stronger than you are. I’m stronger than you are and I’m going to save you. The good will triumph.”
“Not when it ain’t true,” the boy said. “Not when it ain’t right.”
“My resolve isn’t shaken,” Sheppard repeated. “I’m going to save you.”
Johnson’s look became sly again. “You ain’t going to save me,” he said. “You’re going to tell me to leave this house. I did those other two jobs too—the first one as well as the one I done when I was supposed to be in the picture show.”
“I’m not going to tell you to leave,” Sheppard said. His voice was toneless, mechanical, “I’m going to save you.”
Johnson thrust his head forward. “Save yourself,” he hissed. “Nobody can save me but Jesus.”
Sheppard laughed curtly. “You don’t deceive me” he said. “I hushed that out of your head in the reformatory. I saved you from that, at least.”
The muscles in Johnson’s face stiffened. A look of such repulsion hardened on his face that Sheppard drew back.
The boy’s eyes were like distorting mirrors in which he saw himself made hideous and grotesque. “I’ll show you,” John son whispered. He rose abruptly and started headlong for the door as if he could not get out of Sheppard’s sight quick enough, but it was the door to the back hall he went through, not the front door. Sheppard turned on the sofa and looked behind him where the boy had disappeared. He heard the door to his room slam. He was not leaving. The intensity had gone out of Sheppard’s eyes. They looked flat and lifeless as if the shock of the boy’s revelation were only now reaching the center of his consciousness. “If he would only leave,” he murmured. “If he would only leave now of his own accord.”
The next morning Johnson appeared at the breakfast table in the grandfather’s suit he had come in. Sheppard pretended not to notice but one look told him what he already knew, that he was trapped, that there could be nothing now but a battle of nerves and that Johnson would win it.
He wished he had never laid eyes on the boy. The failure of his compassion numbed him. He got out of the house as soon as he could and all day he dreaded to go home in the evening. He had a faint hope that the boy might be gone when he returned. The grandfather’s suit might have meant he was leaving. The hope grew in the afternoon. When he came home and opened the front door, his heart was pounding.
He stopped in the hall and looked silently into the living room. His expectant expression faded. His face seemed suddenly as old as his white hair. The two boys were sitting close together on the sofa, reading the same book. Norton’s cheek rested against the sleeve of Johnson’s black suit. Johnson’s finger moved under the lines they were reading. The elder brother and the younger. Sheppard looked woodenly at this scene for almost a minute. Then he walked into the room and took off his coat and dropped it on a chair. Neither boy noticed him. He went on to the kitchen.
Leola left the supper on the stove every afternoon before she left and he put it on the table. His head ached and his nerves were taut. He sat down on the kitchen stool and remained there, sunk in his depression. He wondered if he could infuriate Johnson enough to make him leave of his own accord. Last night what had enraged him was the Jesus business. It might enrage Johnson, but it depressed him. Why not simply tell the boy to go? Admit defeat. The thought of facing Johnson again sickened him. The boy looked at him as if he were the guilty one, as if he were a moral leper. He knew without conceit that he was a good man, that he had nothing to reproach himself with. His feelings about Johnson now were involuntary. He would like to feel compassion for him. He would like to be able to help him. He longed for the time when there would be no one but himself and Norton in the house, when the child’s simple selfishness would be all he had to contend with, and his own loneliness.
He got up and took three serving dishes off the shelf and took them to the stove. Absently he began pouring the butterbeans and the hash into the dishes. When the food was on the table, he called them in.
They brought the book with them. Norton pushed his place setting around to the same side of the table as Johnson’s and moved his chair next to Johnson’s chair. They sat down and put the book between them. It was a black book with red edges.
“What’s that you’re reading?” Sheppard asked, sitting down.
“The Holy Bible,” Johnson said.
God give me strength, Sheppard said under his breath “We lifted it from a ten cent store,” Johnson said.
‘We?” Sheppard muttered. He turned and glared at Norton. The child’s face was bright and there was an excited sheen to his eyes. The change that had come over the boy struck him for the first time. He looked alert. He had on a blue plaid shirt and his eyes were a brighter blue than he had ever seen them before. There was a strange new life in him, the sign of new and more rugged vices. “So now you steal?” he said, glowering. “You haven’t learned to be generous but you have learned to steal.”
“No he ain’t,” Johnson said. “I was the one lifted it. He only watched. He can’t sully himself. It don’t make any difference about me. I’m going to hell anyway.”
Sheppard held his tongue.
“Unless,” Johnson said, “I repent.”
“Repent, Rufus,” Norton said in a pleading voice. “Repent, hear? You don’t want to go to hell.”
“Stop talking this nonsense,” Sheppard said, looking sharply at the child.
“If I do repent, I’ll be a preacher,” Johnson said. “If you’re going to do it, it’s no sense in doing it half way.”
“What are you going to be, Norton,” Sheppard asked in a brittle voice, “a preacher too?”
There was a glitter of wild pleasure in the child’s eyes.
“A space man!” he shouted.
“Wonderful,” Sheppard said bitterly.
“Those space ships ain’t going to do you any good unless you believe in Jesus,” Johnson said. He wet his finger and began to leaf through the pages of the Bible. “I’ll read you where it says so,” he said.
Sheppard leaned forward and said in a low furious voice, “Put that Bible up, Rufus, and eat your dinner.”
Johnson continued searching for the passage.
Put that Bible up! ” Sheppard shouted.
The boy stopped and looked up. His expression was startled but pleased.
“That book is something for you to hide behind,” Sheppard said. “It’s for cowards, people who are afraid to stand on their own feet and figure things out for themselves.”
Johnson’s eyes snapped. He backed his chair a little way from the table. “Satan has you in his power,” he said.
“Not only me. You too.”
Sheppard reached across the table to grab the book but Johnson snatched it and put it in his lap.
Sheppard laughed. “You don’t believe in that book and you know you don’t believe in itl”
“I believe it!” Johnson said. “You don’t know what I believe and what I don’t.”
Sheppard shook his head. “You don’t believe it. You’re too intelligent.”
“I ain’t too intelligent,” the boy muttered. “You don’t know nothing about me. Even if I didn’t believe it, it would still be true.”
“You don’t believe it!” Sheppard said. His face was a taunt.
“I believe it!” Johnson said breathlessly. “I’ll show you I believe it! ” He opened the book in his lap and tore out a page of it and thrust it into his mouth. He fixed his eyes on Sheppard. His jaws worked furiously and the paper crackled as he chewed it.
“Stop this,” Sheppard said in a dry, burnt-out voice.
The boy raised the Bible and tore out a page with his teeth and began grinding it in his mouth, his eyes burning.
Sheppard reached across the table and knocked the book out of his hand. “Leave the table,” he said coldly.
Johnson swallowed what was in his mouth. His eyes widened as if a vision of splendor were opening up before him. “I’ve eaten it!” he breathed. “I’ve eaten it like Ezekiel and it was honey to my mouth!”
“Leave this table,” Sheppard said. His hands were clenched beside his plate.
“I’ve eaten it!” the boy cried. Wonder transformed his face. “I’ve eaten it like Ezekiel and I don’t want none of your food after it nor no more ever.”
“Go then,” Sheppard said softly. “Go. Go.”
The boy rose and picked up the Bible and started toward the hall with it. At the door he paused, a small black figure on the threshold of some dark apocalypse: “The devil has you in his power,” he said in a jubilant voice and disappeared.
After supper Sheppard sat in the living room alone.
Johnson had left the house but he could not believe that the boy had simply gone. The first feeling of release had passed.
He felt dull and cold as at the onset of an illness and dread had settled in him like a fog. Just to leave would be too anticlimactic an end for Johnson’s taste; he would return and try to prove something. He might come back a week later and set fire to the place. Nothing seemed too outrageous now.
He picked up the paper and tried to read. In a moment he threw it down and got up and went into the hall and listened. He might be hiding in the attic. He went to the attic door and opened it.
The lantern was lit, casting a dim light on the stairs.
He didn’t hear anything. “Norton,” he called, “are you up there?” There was no answer. He mounted the narrow stairs to see.
Amid the strange vine-like shadows cast by the lantern, Norton sat with his eye to the telescope. “Norton,” Sheppard said, “do you know where Rufus went?”
The child’s back was to him. He was sitting hunched, intent, his large ears directly above his shoulders. Suddenly he waved his hand and crouched closer to the telescope as if he could not get near enough to what he saw.
“Norton!” Sheppard said in a loud voice.
The child didn’t move.
“Norton!” Sheppard shouted.
Norton started. He turned around. There was an unnatural brightness about his eyes. After a moment he seemed to see that it was Sheppard. “I’ve found her!” he said breathlessly.
“Found who?” Sheppard said.
Sheppard steadied himself in the door way. The jungle ol shadows around the child thickened.
“Come and look!” he cried. He wiped his sweaty face on the tail of his plaid shirt and then put his eye back to the telescope. His back became fixed in a rigid intensity. All at once he waved again.
“Norton,” Sheppard said, “you don’t see anything in the telescope but star clusters. Now you’ve had enough of that for one night. You’d better go to bed. Do you know where Rufus is?”
“She’s there!” he cried, not turning around from the telescope. “She waved at me!”
” I want you in bed in fifteen minutes,” Sheppard said.
After a moment he said, “Do you hear me, Norton?”
The child began to wave frantically.
” I mean what I say,” Sheppard said. “I’m going to call in fifteen minutes and see if you’re in bed.”
He went down the steps again and returned to the parlor. He went to the front door and cast a cursory glance out. The sky was crowded with the stars he had been fool enough to think Johnson could reach. Somewhere in the small wood behind the house, a bull frog sounded a low hollow note. He went back to his chair and sat a few minutes.
He decided to go to bed. He put his hands on the arms of the chair and leaned forward and heard, like the first shrill note of a disaster warning, the siren of a police car, moving slowly into the neighborhood and nearer until it subsided with a moan outside the house.
He felt a cold weight on his shoulders as if an icy cloak had been thrown about him. He went to the door and opened it.
Two policemen were coming up the walk with a dark snarling Johnson between them, handcuffed to each. A reporter jogged alongside and another policeman waited in the patrol car.
“Here’s your boy,” the dourest of the policemen said.
“Didn’t I tell you we’d get him?”
Johnson jerked his arm down savagely. ” I was waitin for you!” he said. “You wouldn’t have got me if I hadn’t of wanted to get caught. It was my idea.” He was addressing the policemen but leering at Sheppard.
Sheppard looked at him coldly.
“Why did you want to get caught?” the reporter asked, running around to get beside Johnson. “Why did you deliberately want to get caught?”
The question and the sight of Sheppard seemed to throw the boy into a fury. “To show up that big tin Jesus!” he hissed and kicked his leg out at Sheppard. “He thinks he’s God. I’d rather be in the reformatory than in his house, I’d rather be in the pen! The Devil has him in his power. He don’t know his left hand from his right, he don’t have as much sense as his crazy kid!” He paused and then swept on to his fantastic conclusion. “He made suggestions to me!”
Sheppard’s face blanched. He caught hold of the door facing.
“Suggestions?”the reporter said eagerly, “what kind of suggestions?”
“Immoral suggestions!” Johnson said. “What kind of suggestions do you think? But I ain’t having none of it, I’m a Christian, I’m…“
Sheppard’s face was tight with pain. “He knows that’s not true,” he said in a shaken voice. “He knows he’s lying.
I did everything I knew how for him. I did more for him than I did for my own child. I hoped to save him and I failed, but it was an honorable failure. I have nothing to reproach myself with. I made no suggestions to him.”
“Do you remember the suggestions?”the reporter asked.
“Can you tell us exactly what he said?”
“He’s a dirty atheist,” Johnson said. “He said there wasn’t no hell.”
“Well, they seen each other now,” one of the policemen said with a knowing sigh. “Let’s us go.”
“Wait,” Sheppard said. He came down one step and fixed his eyes on Johnson’s eyes in a last desperate effort to save himself. “Tell the truth, Rufus,” he said. “You don’t want to perpetrate this lie. You’re not evil, you’re mortally confused. You don’t have to make up for that foot, you don’t have to…”
Johnson hurled himself forward. “Listen at him!” he screamed. “I lie and steal because I’m good at it! My foot don’t have a thing to do with it! The lame shall enter first!
The halt’ll be gathered together. When I get ready to be saved, Jesus’ll save me, not that lying stinking atheist, not that…“
“That’ll be enough out of you,” the policeman said and yanked him back. ‘We just wanted you to see we got him,” he said to Sheppard, and the two of them turned around and dragged Johnson away, half turned and screaming back at Sheppard.
“The lame’ll carry off the prey!” he screeched, but his voice was muffed inside the car. The reporter scrambled into the front seat with the driver and slammed the door and the siren wailed into the darkness.
Sheppard remained there, bent slightly like a man who has been shot but continues to stand. After a minute he turned and went back in the house and sat down in the chair he had left. He closed his eyes on a picture of Johnson in a circle of reporters at the police station, elaborating his lies.
“I have nothing to reproach myself with,” he murmured.
His every action had been selfless, his one aim had been to save Johnson for some decent kind of service, he had not spared himself, he had sacrificed his reputation, he had done more for Johnson than he had done for his own child. Foulness hung about him like an odor in the air, so close that it seemed to come from his own breath. “I have nothing to reproach myself with,” he repeated. His voice sounded dry and harsh. “I did more for him than I did for my own child.” He was swept with a sudden panic. He heard the boy’s jubilant voice. Satan has you in his power.
“I have nothing to reproach myself with,” he began again. “I did more for him than I did for my own child.”
He heard his voice as if it were the voice of his accuser. He repeated the sentence silently.
Slowly his face drained of color. It became almost grey beneath the white halo of his hair. The sentence echoed in his mind, each syllable like a dull blow. His mouth twisted and he closed his eyes against the revelation. Norton’s face rose before him, empty, forlorn, his left eye listing almost imperceptibly toward the outer rim as if it could not bear a full view of grief. His heart constricted with a repulsion for himself so clear and intense that he gasped for breath. He had stuffed his own emptiness with good works like a glutton. He had ignored his own child to feed his vision of himself. He saw the clear-eyed Devil, the sounder of hearts, leering at him from the eyes of Johnson. His image of himself shriveled until everything was black before him. He sat there paralyzed, aghast.
He saw Norton at the telescope, all back and ears, saw his arm shoot up and wave frantically. A rush of agonizing love for the child rushed over him like a transfusion of life.
The little boy’s face appeared to him transformed; the image of his salvation; all light. He groaned with joy. He would make everything up to him. He would never let him suffer again. He would be mother and father. He jumped up and ran to his room, to kiss him, to tell him that he loved him that he would never fail him again. ‘
The light was on in Norton’s room but the bed was empty. He turned and dashed up the attic stairs and at the top reeled back like a man on the edge of a pit. The tripod had fallen and the telescope lay on the floor. A few feet over it, the child hung in the jungle of shadows, just below the beam from which he had launched his flight into space.
Author: Flannery O’Connor
Title: The Lame Shall Enter First
Published in: The Sewanee Review (1962)
Appears in: Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965)