Chapter One ONE
“IF YOU DON’T sit your stinkin’, useless butt back down in that shopping cart, I swear I’ll bust your greasy face in!” she screamed at the three-year-old in front of her. He studied her face, decided she was serious, and put his leg back inside the cart. He was standing near the front end of the cart, amidst an assorted pile of cigarette boxes, egg cartons, and pop bottles. He didn’t want to sit down anyway because of the soft, uncomfortable load in his pants, which had been there all afternoon and which felt cold and squishy when he moved too much. He rarely had accidents like that, but when he did, Mama sometimes made him keep it in his pants all day to “teach him a lesson.”
Gerald was only three, but he had already learned many such lessons. He’d never seen Sesame Street, never heard of Riverfront Stadium—he didn’t even know he lived in Cincinnati. But he knew the important things—like never mess with Mama when she was in bed—Mama got really mad when you woke her up, especially if she had somebody in bed with her. And never touch the hot thing that Mama used to light her cigarettes, even if the mysterious orange-and-blue fire that comes out of it liked to tease you and dance for only a moment before running away.
Mama had once caught Gerald playing with the lighter, and she made the fire come out and she held his hand right over the flame. It wasn’t his friendly fire dancer, though, but a cruel red soldier that made his hand scream and made him dizzy with pain and he could smell something like the meat Mama cooked, but it was his hand. When she stopped, she had washed his hand with cool water and soothed him with warm hugs and wrapped with salve and bandages the place where the fire soldier had stabbed him. She told him that she had done it for his own good and to teach him a lesson. He had tried to tell her that he was just trying to find the fire dancer, but she wasn’t listening and he had given up, thankful for the hugs and the silence.
One other lesson that Gerald had learned was never, never stay near Mama when she sniffed the white stuff. She got it from a man named Leroy who smelled too sweet and smiled too much. When he leaves, you hide behind the couch and hope Aunt Queen comes over because sometimes Mama yells and gets her belt or her shoe and hits, and hits, and hits…. And sometimes she just goes to sleep on the floor and it gets dark and you cry and your tummy feels tight and hurty, but at least there’s no shoe to run away from.
Once Aunt Queen had found Gerald curled up behind the couch sucking his thumb. His pajamas were soaked and smelly and he was shivering and hungry. Mama had been gone all day. She had told him not to leave the room, and he had really, really tried to be good, but he was so cold, so very cold. Aunt Queen had taken him to her apartment and given him a warm bath, a bowl of hot soup, and some warm, fuzzy sleepers, even though she had to pin the back of them so they wouldn’t fall off. Then Mama had come and she and Aunt Queen had yelled and screamed so much that Gerald had to hold his ears while he lay curled at the foot of the bed. Finally Mama started crying and Aunt Queen was saying stuff like, “I know, honey,” and Gerald knew he was going back home.
That night, Mama had hugged him and kissed him and held him close until he fell asleep. Gerald had felt so warm and special and golden—he wanted to feel like that forever. He knew his mama loved him. She had bought him a G.I. Joe man last week and it wasn’t even his birthday or Christmas or anything, and most days she combed his hair and dressed him in clean clothes, and told him to say, “Yes, ma’am” to grown folks. And sometimes, on really good days, she would hug him and say, “You know you’re my best baby boy, don’t you, Gerald? You know you’re my baby, don’t you?” And he would smile and that warm, golden feeling would start at his toes and fill him all the way up to his smile.
Even though Mama had yelled at him, today was a good day. Mama always yelled—it was no big deal. (Some days he yelled back at her. Then she would slap him and he’d cry and he’d cuss at her and then she would slap him until his head hurt. So mostly he ignored her.) But today was a good day, a shiny day, he thought. The sun was bright gold outside against a clear blue sky. And inside the grocery store there were so many colors and sounds and lights that Gerald just grinned. It was always crowded when they went. Other children would be in carts also and they would have to pass very close to each other. Gerald liked to pretend he was driving a big, fine silver car down the expressway.
Sometimes the cart would be a tank, as he passed cautiously through rows of armed cling peaches and silent sentinels that looked like boxes of Frosted Flakes. And at the checkout lane, the armies rolled smoothly down the long black road that disappeared under the counter. He started to ask Mama where it went, but it was more fun to imagine that it went to a secret hideout where only sweet potatoes and boxes of oatmeal were allowed.
When they got home from the grocery store, Gerald sat on the floor and watched Mama stack the boxes and cans on the shelf. She was whistling—he had never heard her whistle before and he loved the way she laughed as he tried to imitate her. She changed his clothes (and didn’t even yell at him for not being a big boy) and gave him two cookies and an apple. Then she went into the other room. When she came out, she had changed her clothes and Gerald thought he had never seen anything so lovely. She had on her sparkly fancy dress that Gerald liked to touch.
“Mama will be right back, baby,” she told him. “I just have to go see Mr. Leroy for a minute. You stay right here and wait for me, you hear?” Gerald started to cry, but he didn’t want Mama to lose her good mood, so he just nodded and bit his lip. The door closed and he could hear her high heels clicking on the steps. Then it was very, very quiet.
After he finished both his cookies and the apple had turned brown on the white parts, Gerald looked for something to do. It was getting dark and he wanted G.I. Joe to sit with him because the shadows on the wall were getting long and scary. He found G.I. Joe on the floor next to Mama’s bed, right next to the cigarette lighter that she had been looking for this morning. Gerald picked it up and for a time he used it as a gun for Joe, then it was a log for Joe to jump over, then it was an enemy for Joe to attack.
Finally Gerald started idly flicking the little red handle. At first is just made a scratchy sound and the smell made him cough and remember how he’d got that brown place in the palm of his hand. Then he remembered the tiny fire dancer, and he wondered if it still lived in there with the fire-sword soldier.
After numerous flicks, he got the fire to stay on. He grinned with delight. The dancer was there, smiling at him and bowing for him, changing from splendid orange to icy green to iridescent purple. The lighter flame flickered magically, making golden the purple shadows on the wall.
With sudden inspiration, Gerald shouted, “Hey Joe, we got a torch!” as he and G.I. Joe marched around the kitchen table. Gerald crawled under the table then, flicking the lighter over and over again to light the way for G.I. Joe. They fought shadows and monsters; they blew up cities and kingdoms. Gerald made the sound effects and G.I. Joe dutifully followed his general into combat. As the mighty battle came to its climax, Gerald crawled up on a chair and stood on the kitchen table, waving his arms triumphantly. Mama would kill me, he thought momentarily, if she saw me up here, but the thought passed as G.I. Joe fought the terrible mountain man by the light of only a single torch.
Suddenly the tiny light of G.I. Joe’s torch was huge and bright as the tip of one curtain in the window touched the flame. Gerald heard a loud whoosh and then he turned in terror to see the whole window covered with harsh red flames that crawled and licked and jumped along the windowsill. Gerald scrambled down from the table and ran to his hiding place behind the couch. Mama said stay here and wait for her, he told himself. I know she’ll be here in a minute. He peeked around the corner of the sofa and watched flames consume the boxes of cereal and macaroni that Mama had just bought. When the fire reached the bottle of Big K soda, Gerald watched, fascinated, as the soda bubbled, then fizzed. When it finally burst in a loud, sizzling explosion, Gerald jumped back behind the sofa, coughing and wheezing from the heat and smoke.
He curled up in his usual position then, thumb in his mouth, crying softly. He thought about his mama and how pretty she was. He wondered if G.I. Joe would ever find his way back. And he wondered how he could see so many colors with his eyes closed.