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.
Finally exhausted by the anxiety of feeling so brittle, I forced myself to be satisfied with the apparent stability of the ratio comparing those of us who have suddenly burst into flames with those who have not and I decided to move on to a possible religious explanation of Bentley’s demise, having been raised to believe that God, like a divine sniper with a logic that was just fuzzy enough to guarantee a profoundly itchy trigger finger, had every man, woman and child in his cross hairs and was no macaroni when it came to killing people in the goriest and cruelest ways possible, usually without any apparent provocation, other than, of course, a fascistic intolerance of free will. The question then became what had Dr. John Irving Bentley said or done to God to make him pissed off enough to commit murder? After 92 years of monotonous living, had the doctor grown so existentially impatient with the essential sameness of his days that boredom or ill health or ricocheting dementia had tipped his piety into rage. Perhaps he had finally summoned the courage to complain to his creator with an appropriate disdain, saying that any God capable of sitting back and doing nothing while one of his more empathetic children—a medical doctor, for Christsake!—grew old and confused and just as likely to wash himself with a peeled potato as he was to mash a bar of soap had to be a real asshole.
Could it be as simple as that? Could a person think something so ugly, so utterly inappropriate, that God himself would need to turn him into an angry black spot on the bathroom floor? Having behaved inappropriately in front of my mother and any number of schoolteachers before and been punished for it, this deduction was the only one that made total sense to me. Blow your nose in a pancake and your mother will send you to your room; record yourself urinating on a film strip cassette used to accompany a lesson on Eskimos and your teacher will send you to the principal’s office (along with a note suggesting that Mr. Booth be relocated to a zoo where he can spend his adolescence standing on a hay-covered drain); commit a thought crime that might annoy a mind-reading, omnipotent super being with a long history of eradicating entire populations when they disagreed with his version of yuck, yippie and yahooey and you will surely go missing, no question about it, the lesson of religion not being that you are in any way unique or precious, but rather that you are expendable.
Figuring that any God capable of expressing such contempt for anybody tending toward a critical, even God-damning mind—or anybody, really, desiring to declare autonomy from the highly prejudicial and grossly intolerant precepts of fire-and-brimstone Christianity—was a God that I had no chance of ever impressing, particularly with my tendency to view anything even remotely authoritarian as laughably unnecessary. Thusly, instead of waiting for what I imagined would be the equivalent of Santa Claus sneaking up behind me at some point during the next 70 or 80 years with a length of piano wire and lassoing it around my windpipe and driving his velvety red knee into my back because I was being more naughty than nice, I decided to declare possession over my own destiny and to self-detonate by offending God with the most outrageously sacrilegious thoughts I could think of. What would be the point, I figured, in living a life and trying to cultivate my own relationship with the universe, something where I got to pick my own favorite color and define my own passions and pinpoint my own moral outrage over whatever people and circumstances I wanted to perceive as being unjust and immoral and rage-inspiring, if the self-titled moral authority of the universe was going to snuff me out as if I were the disease of illiteracy threatening his perfect alphabet?
I started small, still taking the precaution of putting my metaphoric fingers in my metaphoric ears and pinching my metaphoric eyes shut, by imagining what the Virgin Mary might’ve looked like naked. Too terrified to give her the body and pained expression of an oversexed Miss January, I gave her the same Shatner-esque body as my best friend’s mother, a woman nicknamed Boo, whom I accidentally stumbled upon, unseen, while she was peeing into a dry creek bed during a day hike through the Pine Barrens that I’d been invited on. Flip-flops spread far apart, her yellow shorts and vat-sized underpants hammocked in the grip of her knees, her shoulders rounded, her head tucked, she set the tune of “I’m a Little Teapot” loose inside my brain, for there she was, short and stout, and there was her handle and there was her … wait a minute. What the hell is that? Unaware that so much urine was capable of coming out of a human body, I remembered tiptoeing away backward and wondering if the stench from her fast-moving puddle might confuse a foraging bear downwind and make it believe that one of the Budweiser Clydesdale horses had gotten separated from the team somewhere in Missouri and was now lost in the middle of the New Jersey woods.
Remarkably, my imagination did not make me explode. This was significant.
Uncertain as to whether or not the Creator had received my telepathy, I tried again, like redialing a phone, just to make sure, this time merging the most recognizable Jesus Christ, the one from the Warner Sallman painting, together with the proclivity of our German shepherd, Bullet, to occasionally raid the kitty litter box and to bound through the house, his huge tail wagging triumphantly, with a smoldering dung cigar gingerly protruding from his black lips. Again, nothing happened. It was as if I was throwing rocks at the moon. It was as if there was something about the physics of the universe—or was it the metaphysics of the supernatural?—that made my goading so completely ineffective that one had to question either the presence of my voice or the absence of ethereal ears. The way I saw it there was either no superior intelligence up in heaven to offend or there was a superior intelligence up in heaven that was not particularly evangelical, or it spoke only Latin and therefore heard my words as just so much inarticulate barking. Regardless, the epiphany that I reached within the absolute silence was that all measure of blasphemy was derogatory by interpretation rather than by design; that is, the image of the Virgin Mary relieving herself in the woods or Jesus eating cat feces could derive its offensiveness only from somebody willing to bring just such a reaction to the reading of the image and not from an innate ugliness that God or the universe was compelled to react to negatively and to retaliate against.
Still, just to be safe, it has been my habit with nearly every pair of Chuck Taylor sneakers that I’ve worn since 1972 to write the words “by Dwayne Booth” on the bottom of the right sole just in case I ever did get blown to smithereens in my bathroom and some future 7-year-old reading about the incident might recognize in the inscription written across the bottom of my remaining foot that I was the author of my own fantastic and inexplicable and biblical virtue, rather than crediting a grossly esoteric God who is always way too eager to take credit for a reality into which he refuses to assimilate gracefully.