PUNISH THE WICKED (a short story)


-Bees are in this world to punish the wicked.

Ma-Ma nodded as she spoke. Henry was sorry he had asked the question. Henry felt exposed as the wicked as Ma-Ma  pointed at God,  who was hidden in the sky,  before Ma-Ma knelt on a cushion in the flowerbed and resumed her muddy work with the trowel, stabbing the earth. They were going to make new flowers.

The old house was nice but it needed more paint and it needed a new roof. Henry stood in the back yard with his hand on the mud-speckled clapboard and he could see his breath when he whispered to the bees not to hurt him. Henry didn’t mean to be wicked. Henry’s arm was warm when he stuck it out from within the soft shadow behind the house in the morning. He wanted waffles. In the sun Henry’s hand was like gold.

Standing straight as he could, Henry was just a little taller than Ma-Ma was on her muddy knees. Ma-Ma removed her glasses and polished them on the lap of her overalls and stood and told Henry it was time to commence to work on Pop’s breakfast. More and more cars and trucks were zipping by on the street out in front of the house,  hidden by the privet hedge, and a neighbor, Mr. Klib (on the shaded side of the yard, where the grass was patchy and the earth was uneven, the side also with the apple tree and the cherry tree and the kite-shaped trailer for moving a boat, although as far as Henry knew nobody owned a boat) opened a window to let some television out. A man who was not colored was talking. Henry would get waffles when Pop had eaten his breakfast. The screen door on the sunny side of the house sneezed shut.

Henry smelled cologne and felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up and the Angel said, That’s the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. Bees don’t punish and you’re not wicked. You’re not even in kindergarten yet, for God’s sake. Only adults are wicked, evil with self-righteousness and aural squalor. Pay the old bag no mind, child.  Have you been doing the exercises I gave you to do?

Henry nodded, eyes closed, afraid, as ever, to turn and look. He could feel the radiance pulse hot on his back and his bottom and the backs of his legs and Henry could smell the corduroy heating up. He could see the orange reflecting off the house through his eyelids.

No time to hang around at the moment but I’ll be catching up with you later. And remember: you are the opposite of wicked. You are unformed. Unformed is the opposite of wicked. She is fully-formed and you are good. Do you understand that, now? You are good.

Henry nodded again. The cologne blew over in a busy wave and Henry’s back cooled and he was again alone and breathing normally. Relaxed, even.

Henry lifted his nose and sniffed the way Mr. Klib’s dog Banter had taught him. He smelled the Angel’s cologne and the cherries that dropped from the tree like sweet teeth for weeks to form a rank bed becoming a halved atom of flies on the sawdust. Henry smelled the blue soul of Pop’s ham in Ma-Ma’s skillet as it turned black and curled up and also (and Henry peeked around the sunny corner of the house to confirm this) he could smell the plopped dollops of hot suds Ma-Ma had swing-bucketed across the sidewalk outside the basement window to murder a sudden world of swarming ants. Henry wasn’t afraid of ants; he was afraid of bees.

For dinner that night they had pork chops and white beans in syrup and iced tea. Pop sat at the head of the table above his pots and kettles like The Wizard of Oz wearing red suspenders over the blotty tee-shirt because he’d been working on the Buick. Pop’s half-pale face had smudges on it. Pop prayed for everyone at the table with knuckles to his forehead and then everybody could eat. Pop said stop kicking the table leg. Henry ate.

Henry ate half his dinner and took his plate to the sink without help but dropped a fork on the way but nothing happened. Henry sprawled on the couch in the living room in the twilight. The front windows were open and a breeze eased like a glass rod with bird songs in it as it rubbed through Henry’s hair and down his neck and very good until it felt like a cricket was actually in Henry’s leg so he flipped over on his belly and looked straight off the edge of the couch through the open front porch door to the closed screen door of the porch and Henry saw a clear cut silhouette peering at him through the screen of the front porch door. A scarecrow back-lit by the street light  over the high hedge of the property. Henry was sitting up very slowly when the doorbell made him jump.

Pop came through the living room with his napkin around his neck.

The hobo said something Henry couldn’t understand. Pop put his hands on his hips. The hobo peered through the crook of Pop’s elbow at Henry and Henry shrank into the couch and wiggled out of the grip of the hobo’s gaze and ran into the kitchen where the lights had come on. Ma-Ma was folding Henry’s leftover  dinner into a neat little package of aluminum foil and also (Henry’s eyes went wide at this and Ma-Ma put a finger over her lips when she saw that Henry saw it) put a brand new Kennedy half-dollar in an outer fold of the foil package. Ma-Ma hurried up front,  as Pop was closing the door,  to hand the hobo the foil package and say God bless you. Henry ran to his room and to his window. Where the hedge ended  only Henry then saw the hobo toss the bright package into the vacant lot. A whole Kennedy-Half!

That night it was impossible for Henry to sleep, so he sat up in bed. He found that he  actually had been asleep and had wet the bed, spreadeagle in the middle of a melted snow angel. Henry sat up in the middle of the melted snow angel,  staring across his room through his delicately rusted screen to the tired distance. Henry got out of bed in his uncomfortably wet pajamas in the still of the far-away-train-whistle night. Ma-Ma was snoring through the bedroom wall. Henry pressed his face to the rusted screen window with its odor of iron and old hat and Henry closed his eyes and trembled as the Angel bleached the modest room with a burning, brassy light.

I know what you’re thinking, teased the Angel.  The Angel’s cologne crowded into the room. You couldn’t escape it.

Afterwards, Henry got back to the freshly-dry warm spot in the middle of his bed in his half-dry pajamas and fell asleep.

It was the Angel who woke Henry early the next morning.  The Angel said,

The old bag is busy in the attic with her moth balls again. Gramps is making the rounds, collecting rent from unsuspecting poor folk in their holey underwear. It’s time for the treasure hunt, child. You’ll need a long-sleeved shirt and the corduroy pants and your galoshes because there are nettles and rusty nails and broken bottles in the vacant lot. You’ll need a stick for protection, too. Rats and so forth.

Henry’s heart raced as he dressed with his eyes closed. He patted and poked at and finger-walked across various surfaces to fetch what he needed from the dresser, the closet and the spot under his bed (near the golf balls he’d found on the railroad tracks that time he’d sneaked up the alley with the Angel)  where he kept his church shoes.

The Angel took Henry’s hand and led shut-eyed Henry tip-toeing through the living room into the kitchen and its savory memories of bacon and down the back stairs to the landing facing the back door, which was locked. To the left was the short flight of stairs to the basement,  a place so terrifying that even the Angel made anxious, uncomfortable noises until Henry had finally managed to turn the key in the deadbolt.  They pulled the heavy back door open and pushed through a rickety screen as flimsy as springtime and stepped down onto the sidewalk where the drying dead ants swarmed like sprinkles from a drop-kicked birthday.

Out and down stepped Henry and the Angel into the fresh gold air of the morning, plain as day, and the Angel snapped a short,  low-hanging branch from the apple tree on the other side of the house and came back around toward the vacant lot with a guilty-looking Henry in tow.

Henry had the snapped branch to swish the itchy tall grass with. Henry squinted and beat the grass with his bent branch as things flew up around him while he dreamed the great weight and gleam of the Kennedy-Half, which was a brand new kind of money. Henry beat the tall grass and searched the vacant lot as his grandmother began calling for him.

Henry was alone when he found the foil package, which had tumbled upon a crumbled-cookie-shaped chunk of concrete sprouting three mole-hairs of bent brown rebar.

Bees were dancing all over the foil and hummed at Henry’s eyes while Henry’s grandmother was calling him. If Henry was brave enough to stand there and not run and reach out and take the package and peel the foil back and claim the Kennedy-Half for his own, then the Angel, Henry suddenly knew, would never come back. If Henry overcame his fear and touched the Kennedy-Half, the Angel was history. This was a game that you only learned the true rules of if you won it. 

Was the Angel trying to free itself? Henry was too young to get that.







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