As the story begins, Sheppard and his son, Norton, are having breakfast. Sheppard tells Norton that he saw Rufus Johnson the day before, trying to eat out of a garbage can. He hopes to stir some kind of compassion in his son, whom he finds lacking in this area, but does not succeed. Sheppard is the City Recreational Director, and he has tried to help Rufus at the reformatory where he works as a counselor once a week. He has given Rufus the key to their house with an open invitation. Over breakfast, he tries to impress on Norton how lucky he is, but only upsets his son when it comes up that Norton's mother has been dead for over a year. Norton vomits up his breakfast and Sheppard tells him to go lie down, extremely disappointed with him.
Sheppard remembers how when he first met Rufus, he knew there was something special about the boy. Rufus is incredibly smart and has a club which he keeps in a battered old shoe. He met with him every week until he was released from the reformatory. Rufus's father had died before he was born and his mother was in jail; when he was released from the reformatory, his grandfather got custody of him. But Sheppard hopes he will run away from home and come to stay at his house, so that he can take credit for helping the boy.
That afternoon, while Norton is at home alone, Rufus uses the key Sheppard gave him to enter the house. He orders Norton to make him a sandwich. Then he storms around the house, touching Norton's mother's things. This is offensive to Norton, but Rufus won't stop disturbing all her things. When Sheppard arrives home a half hour later, he is absolutely delighted to find Rufus in the parlor reading an encyclopedia. Rufus tells him that his grandfather has died. While Sheppard considers how to ask Rufus to stay at their house for good, he finds his son, Norton, hiding in one of his mother’s coats in the hall closet. Sheppard tells Rufus that Norton needs the company of another boy in the house, and asks him to stay because he needs his help. Despite Norton’s protestations, Rufus agrees. After Sheppard leaves, he asks Norton how he can stand his father, since “He thinks he’s Jesus Christ!”
A few days later, Sheppard and Rufus look through the telescope that Sheppard has bought for him and set up in the attic. Sheppard has taken him to the brace shop to be fitted for a special shoe for his club foot. Meanwhile, Norton sulks in a corner and shows no interest in the telescope. Rufus says he is bored with the telescope because all you can see is the moon, and he’ll never even go there: instead, he’s going to hell when he dies. When Sheppard gently tells him that there is no way to know if there is a hell, Rufus points out that it says so in the Bible. Norton becomes afraid that his mother is burning there, though Sheppard tries to comfort him with the idea that she just doesn’t exist anywhere anymore. It doesn’t work, and Norton instead listens to Rufus, who tells him that if he dies right now he’ll go to heaven where his mother is, but if he lives long enough, he’ll end up in hell.
The next day, Sheppard sees Rufus talking secretly to Norton behind the bleachers at the ballpark. That night, Norton is focused intently on the telescope in the attic, but he doesn’t know where Rufus is. Soon, their question is answered when Rufus is brought home by a police officer, who accuses him of breaking into a house and destroying property. Though Rufus denies having committed the crime, Sheppard is extremely disappointed and lets the police officer take Rufus to the station. However, the next morning, the police sergeant calls to tell Sheppard that Rufus has been cleared, and Sheppard goes to the station to pick him up. Sheppard feels horrible, and Rufus seems to have no problem making sure he suffers in his guilt.
It is time to pick up the special shoe for Rufus’s club foot, but when they get to the brace store they discover that the shoe is too small and a new, bigger one must be made; this is extremely disappointing for Sheppard, though it pleases Rufus. That night, Sheppard drops Norton and Rufus off at the movies while he goes to a meeting. When they get home, the police are there again, accusing Rufus of breaking into another house. But Sheppard sticks up for him, saying that he was at a movie, and that he will defend Rufus. When the boys are in bed, Sheppard goes into Rufus’s room and asks him if he left the movie theater at any time; Rufus responds with outrage that Sheppard doesn’t trust him, and accuses him of planning to go across the hall to ask Norton what happened. So when Norton beckons to his father from bed, Sheppard ignores him.
The next day, Sheppard and Rufus return to the brace store; the shoe is ready and it fits perfectly, but Rufus declares that he will never wear it. That night, the police come to their home again, this time with proof that Rufus has broken into another home: his club foot has left distinct tracks. However, Sheppard declares that Rufus has been at home with him all night, and they leave. But Rufus immediately says, “You ain’t such a bad liar yourself,” and points out that at one point, Sheppard went upstairs to see Norton and left him alone. Sheppard can tell that Rufus is trying to get him to kick him out of the house, but he refuses to; he wants to save him. But he does wish that the boy would leave on his own accord.
The next morning, Norton and Rufus bring the Bible to the breakfast table and read it together. Rufus says they have stolen it from a store, and Norton begs him to repent so that he won’t go to hell; Sheppard thinks that repenting is nonsense. He tells Rufus that he is too intelligent to believe in the Bible, but Rufus eats a page of it and tells him that he will never eat earthly food again, then disappears. After dinner, Sheppard goes up to the attic to ask Norton where Rufus has gone. Instead of answering, Norton declares that he has found his mother through the telescope. Sheppard dismisses this news and tells Norton to be in bed in fifteen minutes.
Policemen arrive at the house again, with Rufus in their custody, and Rufus claims that he wanted to be caught. There is a reporter there, and Rufus tells the reporter that he’d rather go to jail than live in Sheppard’s house, since Sheppard thinks he is God but “the Devil has him in his power.” Sheppard watches the police car drive away with Rufus inside it and tries to console himself that “I did more for him than I did for my own child.” But then he realizes that he has neglected Norton, and runs upstairs to hold his son, deciding to love him and treat him better. However, when he reaches Norton’s room, he finds that Norton has hung himself.
Sheppard believes himself to be Christ-like, but because he has no actual faith his is misguided. He compares himself in his office at the reformatory to a priest in a confessional, but thinks that "his credentials were less dubious than a priests; he had been trained for what he was doing." Rufus also believes that Sheppard sees himself this way, declaring to Norton, “He thinks he’s Jesus Christ!” When he is finally caught breaking into a house, Rufus tells the reporter that Sheppard “thinks he’s God… The Devil has him in his power.”
In contrast, Rufus declares himself to be controlled by Satan on the very first day he meets Sheppard. However, unlike Sheppard, he actually believes in God and begins to teach Norton about heaven and hell. But instead of identifying himself in terms of faith, he identifies himself by his handicap: his club foot: “Johnson was as touchy about the foot as if it were a sacred object.” Although Sheppard pays for him to have a special shoe that fixes his gait, he refuses to wear it. He needs to have his physical handicap to maintain his identity and perhaps to believes that he will get into heaven since, as he quotes the Bible, “the lame shall enter first.”
Though he is a juvenile delinquent, Rufus achieves Grace because he believes in Jesus and tries to share the truths of the Bible with Norton. He resents Sheppard for trying to act like Jesus Christ while lacking all faith, and tells him, “Satan has you in his power, not only me. You too.” Sheppard tells him he is too intelligent to believe in the Bible, but Rufus eats a page of it and tells him that he will never eat earthly food again.
Eyes are important in many of O'Connor's stories, and here they are often described as violent. As Sheppard talks to his son, he tries "to pierce the child's conscience with his gaze." Likewise, when Rufus encounters Norton for the first time, “his look went through the child like a pin and paralyzed him.” When he tells Norton about heaven, there is “a narrow gleam in his eyes now like a beam holding steady on its target.” However, eyes can also reveal the characters’ moods: when Rufus first tells Sheppard that Satan has him in his power, a "black sheen appeared in the boy's eyes," and as Sheppard believes himself to be making progress with the boy, "he watched his eyes and every week he saw something in them crumble." When Norton says he is going to be a space man when he grows up, clearly having decided to commit suicide, “there was a glitter of wild pleasure in the child’s eyes;” and when he tells Sheppard that he has found his mother through the telescope, “there was an unnatural brightness about his eyes.”
Both Rufus and Norton are often compared to animals, especially in their actions. When Rufus notices Sheppard watching him as he picks through trash, he "vanished with the swiftness of a rat," and when he first appears to Norton, he "stood there like an irate drenched crow." Norton, on the other hand, "squatted motionless like a large pale frog" in his room before Rufus comes to the house, and when he sees the other boy for the first time, he speaks "in a kind of mouse-like shriek."