May 24, 2013
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
Posted on Mar 5, 2011
By Mr. Fish
Ever since the winter of 1972 when I first saw the 1966 black-and-white photograph of 92-year-old Dr. John Irving Bentley, the Neil Armstrong of spontaneous human combustion, as a greasy pile of ash, except for a right slippered foot that was still intact from mid-calf down, I wanted to be famous.
There was something so completely unpretentious about his fame, I thought. Maybe it was the fact that he didn’t boast about his ability to spontaneously combust or spend his whole life embellishing such a talent and turning it into something cloying and self-glorifying and graceless. Perhaps it was that, at 7 years old, I thrilled to the notion that even if none of my dreams were ever realized, if I ended up stumbling through life as sexless and awkward and friendless as a boy made entirely out of head cheese, there was still a chance that at the last moment, just prior to my dropping dead in the most unremarkable way, I could suddenly disappear in a spectacular flash of light that might inspire those hired to cover my death to use words like fantastic and inexplicable and biblical.
Riding around in the back of my grandparents’ station wagon during the December when I first saw the picture, crammed in with my brothers and sisters, four in all, all of us rotund in our winter coats and being baked by the car’s magnificent iron heater into great puffy loaves of groggy yuletide frivolity, I would lose myself in thought, completely blind to all the flashing holiday gewgawkery outside my window, wondering what might’ve happened immediately before the explosion. I saw Dr. Bentley stepping into his bathroom and unbuttoning his pajama shirt and saying, “All right, I know a wire hanger is probably not the right tool to use when fiddling with a pacemaker, but I swear to God, if I don’t figure out where that infernal clicking is coming from. …”
In a separate scenario I saw him walk into the bathroom to find an ex-girlfriend, Gladys O’Harris, dressed in a top hat, a cape with a silk lining patterned with playing cards, white gloves, a maroon cummerbund, spats and holding a wand. I imagined him saying “Gladys?” then swallowing hard in remembering how he had broken up with this woman 30 years earlier by openly mocking her life’s ambition to become either a world-class magician or the first woman to enter the Guinness World Records by singing “Shortnin’ Bread” for 72 hours straight while simultaneously detoxifying one of the original “Wizard of Oz” midgets. I imagined how, the following morning, Bentley’s wife might’ve opened the bathroom door and, holding up her hand to block the sunlight streaming in from the window, struggled to make sense of the scorched linoleum, the stench of vaporized flesh and the slippered foot resting just beyond the blast mark in the middle of the floor. “Johnny?” she would say, her eyes magnified to the size of hardboiled eggs behind her bifocals, just as the family terrier, Puddles, would scamper into the room, snatch the leg and scamper out with it, down the stairs and out of sight.
Five hours later, Mrs. Bentley, surrounded by neighbors and the entire fire department, would still be at it, trying to coax the dog out from under her front porch with a plate of cloudy bacon and the lie that if he came out with the leg she would have his neutering reversed and the gag reflex trained out of the cat.
Eventually, after exhausting every conceivable fiction I could think of to help fatten the puny narrative of Bentley’s life and death offered by the magazine containing the photo, I became obsessed with trying to figure out if the good doctor’s destruction was a paranormal happening or a scientific anomaly. According to the paragraph that had accompanied the photograph of the remains, the explosion was likely science-based and not much of a mystery at all, given that everybody contains within himself or herself a number of very volatile chemical compounds. In fact, with all those heavy metals and highly combustible gases, such as helium and methane and oxygen, all sloshing around inside the average human body, the mystery wasn’t so much why Bentley blew up but rather why the rest of us haven’t. For close to a week following my reading of that particular concept and assuming that my biology was a powder keg just waiting for an excuse to detonate, I moved around the house as if I was underwater, as gingerly as an astronaut, once prompting my mother to speculate out loud after watching me take 10 minutes to lower myself into a chair that I was either afraid of crushing my underwear or I had given myself a brain tumor from all those years drinking from the family washrag.
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