He bent over the book on his desk, hunching his shoulder blades together so that the partially healed cuts on his back would not be stretched apart, carefully keeping his shirt away from the raw wounds underneath, where even the slightest friction caused a burning pain.
He was seven and a half years old and although he had been in first grade for almost two years, he had not yet learned to read. The open book on his desk, however, was the one thing in school that he loved. On two occasions he had tried to steal it.
“I lost it,” he had answered the school librarian when she questioned him. He had learned to lie without blinking.
“No, Georgie, you took it home with you because you like it so much,” Ellen Ames said calmly. “Bring it back to the library and I’ll let you check it out as often as you wish. One of our rules is that a book can only be checked out for two weeks, but since this book means so much to you—” She did not finish her sentence. Georgie knew that Miss Ames was one of the few people in school who liked him.
The book was made up of page after page of brightly colored flowers, many of which Georgie recognized because sometimes Miss Ames sat beside him in the library and helped him pronounce the names of the different flowers. There were bushes full of red hibiscus blooms, and golden allamanda which reminded Georgie of little faces peeping from the glossy leaves around them; there was bright ixora—hedge after hedge full of orange clusters seeming not to mind the heat of Florida sunlight in the least; and there were masses of tangled carissa holding up tiny white blooms which looked, Miss Ames told him, a good deal like the snowflakes she had once seen flying down from the sky when she lived in a strange place called up north.
Finally there came the pages Georgie loved most, those glowing with roses, thousands of them, bushels and tons of roses so beautiful that he ached to be among them, maybe to whisper to them if there was no one around to make fun of a boy who loved flowers. As he looked at these pages, Georgie’s fears left him for a few safe minutes; he was able as he stared at the roses to draw a long breath and to feel something quiet and good stealing all through his body. His mother and Steve seemed to get lost in his thoughts, so did all the kids in the classroom. So did Miss Cressman.
Miss Cressman didn’t like Georgie much. She got mad at kids who didn’t know the words she pointed to when she wrote a long list on the blackboard; she got especially mad at Georgie because he played hooky and lied and set fires.
Once he set a fire under Miss Cressman’s new car and there was a big row in the principal’s office with the principal and Miss Cressman and later the police, all yelling at Georgie and trying to make him say yes, that he had done it and getting madder every minute because he wouldn’t say it and they couldn’t prove that he was lying.
After that day, Georgie got so mean that Miss Cressman moved his desk away to the back of the room where he couldn’t bother the other kids, and sometimes the whole day would go by when she wouldn’t say a word to him or even try to make him learn to read. On those days he could look at his book hour after hour and love the pictures of flowers and feel safe.
One day, though, when the class had kind of a game instead of work, Georgie closed his book and listened to what the others were saying. Miss Cressman asked all the children to think of something they liked best and then to talk about it to the others. She asked one kid after another and sometimes she even laughed a little at the things they said. She might have skipped Georgie altogether as she pointed around the room, but one girl said, “Miss Cressman, you forgot to ask Georgie what he likes,” and so Miss Cressman asked him, as she did the others.
There had been all kinds of answers about the things the kids liked best. One of them thought the smell of gasoline was nice, and one girl thought the feel of a kitten’s fur was the best thing that she knew. Someone liked the sound of an air-conditioner whirring away on a hot night, and one boy said his favorite thing was the taste of beer left in glasses after his parents and their friends had finished a card game.
Georgie was afraid to answer when Miss Cressman pointed to him, but he did, after a few seconds and in a very low voice while he stared down at his desk.
“I like flowers,” he said, blushing because he guessed that mean people were not supposed to like things that were nice. Then when the kids saw him blush, they giggled the way they always did when he couldn’t read the primer stories or say the words Miss Cressman wrote on the board.
Georgie put his head down on his desk and tried to drown out the sound of giggles by holding his hands against his ears. He wished that Miss Cressman would say, “You mustn’t laugh at Georgie,” the way she told them they mustn’t laugh at Alfie when he stuttered, but she didn’t. She didn’t care if they laughed at him because he was dumb and mean and set a fire under her car. He didn’t care whether Miss Cressman liked him or not, but strangely a small sigh forced itself up from his chest and Georgie raised his head and looked at her.
He was scarred by a deep burn on the left side of his head which left him partly bald, with a crumpled ear and a streak that looked like fire running down the back of his neck. He didn’t remember getting that burn; it had happened when he was still a baby.
His mother told him about the scar and crumpled ear once when she had finished drinking all the whiskey from her last bottle on the shelf and was angry because there wasn’t any more. It was when her whiskey was gone that Rennie Burgess hated her child most.
“You was yellin’ that day, Georgie, ’til you drove me and Steve nearly crazy. So Steve said he’d give you somethin’ to yell about—and he did. He give you plenty to yell about.” She looked at Georgie and made her eyes narrow as she spoke. “Steve didn’t like it that I was saddled with you when he took me for his girlfriend so he ain’t ever been over-fond of you from the start. You and Steve ain’t ever goin’ to be close friends, Georgie—” She began laughing loudly at that and Georgie ran from her, rushing down the back stairs and hunting a hiding place among the garbage cans in the alley where he could sleep that night.
Steve came to the apartment every few weeks, sometimes staying only for the night; on other visits (and these were the terrible times) he brought a suitcase with him and stayed for several days. It was then that Georgie was apt to be half-starved after being tied in a closet without food, sometimes for a day, sometimes for two or even three days. His eyes were always blackened when he returned to school, provided Steve allowed him to return, and his forehead was usually crisscrossed with raw stripes made by Steve’s belt.
There were deeper cuts and welts hidden underneath his shirt. When the school nurse first discovered them, she made Georgie take her home with him to see his mother. There was a lot of yelling that day; Georgie’s mother almost collapsed as she talked to the nurse, screaming that she was a hard-working widow trying to raise a boy who had made nothing but trouble for her since the day he was born. But, she added, she had never lifted a hand against him; the welts and bruises on his back had been made by a gang of big kids in the neighborhood who made it a practice to beat up on smaller children.
Georgie himself was silent when he was questioned, only shaking his head and staring past his questioners. The school librarian had taken him aside sometimes when his battered appearance was worst.
“Who hurt you, Georgie?” Miss Ames had asked, but he wouldn’t answer. “Were you in a fight as your mother says you were?” she asked finally and he nodded, glad that she had given him a chance to slide out of further questioning.
That became his only answer to any inquiries about his hurts: “Got in a fight with some big kids,” he would reply, and although there were people in the apartment building where he lived who knew better, nothing was ever done about it.
He had been taught from his earliest years to feel a deadly fear of what would happen if he ever told on Steve. “He’ll kill you, Georgie,” Rennie Burgess told her son when he was hardly more than a baby, and she repeated her warnings over and over from that time on. “Steve’s not goin’ to stand for a kid whinin’ on him. He’ll kill you if you ever say anything against him so you be smart, Georgie. You keep your mouth shut about Steve.”
Fear of Steve was never completely out of Georgie’s mind; awake or asleep, it was always there, but it was furthest removed when he sat quietly in his seat, far in the back of the room away from other children, and looked at the book Ellen Ames allowed him to keep week after week in spite of any rule. There were no people in the pictures and Georgie liked that; a few people were sometimes kind, but most of them were dangerous. But a world of flowers and trees, fields and woods and quiet rivers brought a comfort to him which allowed him to smile to himself, helped him to become deaf to Miss Cressman’s voice. One of the pictures he loved best was in soft green and it reminded him of when the gray fog rolled in across the Florida scrub, and color met with moist air, the two of them swirling together until color and wetness became one and the same. He wondered if he might not be able to hide in the misty green of such a place, and the prospect brought a lonely wave of wishfulness to him. Georgie stared at the picture and tried to imagine the comfort of being safely hidden from his mother and Steve in the fog and greenness.
Pictures from the book were ones to keep in his mind when he burrowed far down into his bed at night, covering his head with the sheet. His bed was the safest place in the apartment since Steve seldom bothered to look for Georgie when the boy was out of sight. It was hearing Georgie’s shrill cry of fear that caused Steve to take off his belt and bring it down fiercely upon Georgie’s back. And so Georgie tried desperately to keep out of Steve’s sight, sometimes in the alley back of the apartment building, sometimes curled like a snail, as small as he was able to make himself, under the sheet on his bed. To have pictures from the flower book in his mind during the hours of darkness, to have something good to think about while his mother and Steve laughed together or fought and screamed at one another—this was something that was important.
His joy in looking at a page of full-blown roses in his book was brought to a sudden end when Miss Cressman stopped at his desk to scold him for not attempting to do the assigned pages in his workbook. He stared at her for a second as if he did not recognize her, then giving up his dream of peaceful gardens full of roses, he opened the reading workbook on his desk.
“You haven’t tried, Georgie, you never try,” Miss Cressman said. She pointed to a line of four pictures: a tree, a turtle, a train and a thimble. “Say the names of these pictures, Georgie; repeat them after me,” she ordered. When he obeyed, she said, “Now place an X under the pictures that begin with the same sound.”
Georgie looked at her and then turned toward the window. Outside, the sky was blue. If there were any flowers out there they would be turning their faces up to look at that blue sky. And it didn’t make any difference, so far as he could see, whether the names of any pictures began with the same sound.
Miss Cressman was watching him. “Think, Georgie.” Her voice began to grow shrill. “Which pictures should have an X placed under them? Now do a little thinking and get to work.”
She walked down the aisle a short distance from him and Georgie seized the crayon on his desk. “Here are all your damn X’s, Miss Cressman,” he said to himself, and he made a heavy, angry X under every picture on the page.
When Miss Cressman came back to his desk a few minutes later, she picked up his book and, after a glance, tore his worksheet into shreds and crumpled them into a tight ball. Then she and Georgie glared at one another until, somehow, Georgie was the winner, because Miss Cressman finally looked away from him and seemed to study her hands before going back to her desk. Her hands were white with long, rosy nails that looked, Georgie thought, as if they would like to scratch a boy who couldn’t read a single word the long nails pointed out to him. Georgie often thought of ways in which a long, rosy nail might suddenly be broken.
When the bell rang for noon intermission, he hurriedly got off the school ground and into the alley back of the building where he lived. There he kicked over a half-dozen garbage cans and yelled back to a woman who came out on one of the balconies and threatened to have the police come and haul Georgie off to jail. He shrugged at the woman’s threats, but he kicked no more cans and slowly made his way down to the apartment where he lived.
At the entrance he was no longer the impudent boy who had glared at Miss Cressman or yelled back at the woman in the alley; he was suddenly wary and frightened like a little animal that senses a return of danger. The beating he had taken from Steve the week before had been very close to a killing; another one might be more than he could endure. But the beating had resulted in one good since it caused Steve to run away from the apartment. Georgie’s screams had aroused some of the neighbors enough to make them yell at Steve—threatening, as the woman on the balcony had threatened Georgie, to call the police. Steve, however, did not shrug at the threat and it was now six days since he had shown up at the apartment.
There was always the dread, however, that Steve might have returned while Georgie was in school, and so it was necessary to climb the steps stealthily and to listen at the door for a while before he turned the knob. The door was usually left open since Steve lost his key and had forbidden Georgie’s mother to lock the door in case he arrived some night without notice.
Standing at the half-opened door, Georgie could hear no sound except his mother’s heavy breathing as she lay asleep on the living-room sofa. It seemed that she was alone; still Georgie could not be certain and he tiptoed inside fearfully, peeping around corners into all the rooms and finally the screened porch at the back where his bed was kept. There was no sign of Steve, and Georgie had a feeling of weakness that came with his relief.
Coming into the living room again he looked at his mother where she lay with her mouth open, one hand on a half-emptied glass which she had set on the floor beside her. She wore a tattered bathrobe which was stained with coffee and burned in places where she had dropped a lighted cigarette. Her hair was uncombed and the sickness which came of too much drinking made the small, hot apartment a vile-smelling place that Georgie hated. He thought suddenly and wistfully of the pictures in his flower book, the quiet places and the cool, sweet smells he was sure would be there.
He hesitated to wake his mother. Sometimes when she was not worried about her supply of whiskey, she went into one of her crying spells and put on an act of loving him. At such times she insisted upon kissing Georgie, hurting his raw back with a grip that grew tighter as he tried to free himself.
It was necessary, though, to wake her and to ask for food. He hadn’t had breakfast and she had been too far along with her drinking the night before to cook supper for him. He had found some cold cuts and dry bread on the kitchen counter last night; that had comforted his empty stomach for a while, but now there was nothing else to eat in the kitchen.
Her waking was much as he had feared it would be. She rolled over on her side, pulling him to her, weeping noisily as she ran her hand across the cuts on his back while she declared that Steve would never be allowed inside the apartment again, that he would never have another chance to hurt her boy. She seemed to forget the times that she had joined Steve in torturing him or had sat with a drink in her hand, not caring whether Georgie lived through the beating Steve was giving him or not. Georgie never hated her so much as he did on these occasions when she kissed and cried over him.
“You are a old liar,” he thought bitterly, but he did not speak. He needed food and she was his only hope.
Rennie Burgess continued her blubbering promises to Georgie even after he pulled himself away from her. “If that brute ever comes back, if he ever dares to show his ugly face here again, Georgie, we’ll call the police and have him pulled off to jail. There’ll be just Mamma and her little boy here, just the two of us together. How we’ll be able to live, I don’t know, but we’ll manage somehow. Mamma will have a new lock put on the front door and her boy won’t ever need to be afraid again. We’ll find some way to live without ever taking another cent from Steve—” She stopped at those words and looked thoughtfully at the bottle beside the sofa.
A shamed feeling built up inside Georgie as he looked at her. No other kid in Tampa, he supposed, had a mother like this one—he wished that he were big enough to run away and never see her again.
“Are we goin’ to have something to eat?” he asked finally when his mother gave him a chance to speak.
She groaned and swayed slightly when she got to her feet. “Poor Mamma’s not well, Georgie,” she told him. “Mamma’s not up to cookin’ much.” She pulled aside her pillow and took out a purse from which she shook a few bills and coins upon the sofa. Picking up a dollar bill, she put it into Georgie’s hand.
“Here, my little love, here’s the last of Mamma’s money to buy something for her boy at the grocery. A can of pork and beans, maybe? Wouldn’t that be good? Hurry, now, and if Mamma has the strength, she’ll go out to the kitchen and make coffee. Watch the change, Georgie; there’ll be little enough, but watch it and bring every cent home to Mamma—”
Georgie ran out of the apartment, rubbing his mouth to rid it of the moisture left by her kisses.
The grocery store was only two blocks away, a rundown place that for months had smelled unpleasantly of rotting vegetables and general filth. Lately, however, the store had undergone a thorough scrubbing and painting which gave it the look of an entirely different place. There was a new air of friendliness, too, under a changed management, and the lines of customers at the checking counter were longer than they had been in many months.
Georgie noticed that instead of the smell of vegetables rotting in the bins along the wall, there was a whiff of fresh paint when he stepped inside, and that the neat piles of lettuce and cauliflower and oranges looked clean and ready to eat. The new manager was all smiles, telling ladies, “Goodbye, ma’am, y’all have a nice day now”; he even had a friendly “Hello, there, little boy,” for Georgie, who hardly ever bought anything more than a loaf of bread or a can of beans.
Georgie, however, made no reply to the manager’s friendly greeting. Instead, he glowered and scuttled down another aisle out of the man’s sight. Actually the manager had a rather mild-looking face, but he was tall and dark, and his height, his age, his dark complexion were, for Georgie, too much like Steve for comfort. The man’s smiling words were lies, he was sure; lies like his mother’s kisses and her calling Georgie “little love.” He hated this man who made him think of Steve and he ran fearfully down the aisles, looking back to see that the manager was not following him.
At the canned goods section he found the beans he was looking for without difficulty and took them across the store to the lane where Mrs. Sims stood at her checker’s station.
Mrs. Sims lived somewhere in Georgie’s block and she was always kind; she asked too many questions—all of which Georgie refused to answer—but he admitted to himself that Mrs. Sims was nice. Once she had taken him to a movie for children at Christmastime and Georgie never forgot the wonder of it.
She smiled at him that morning when he came up to her station. “How are you, Georgie?” she asked, and he ducked his head slightly to indicate that he was all right. She looked at him thoughtfully for a time, and Georgie knew that she was wondering about the latest cuts and bruises on his face; she didn’t ask about them though and he was glad of that.
She rang up the cost of his pork and beans and handed him his change. Then she tore a small piece of cardboard from a big roll beside the cash register and gave it to him.
“Look, Georgie, can you read numbers?” she asked.
He could. In fact he could add and subtract a little; it was just being dumb in reading that made Miss Cressman angry with him. That, and setting a fire under her car, and smelling bad because his mother never washed his clothes or said anything about taking a bath. But numbers, yes. If he could have been as good in everything else as he was in numbers, Miss Cressman might have smiled at him the way she did at the smart kids.
He was immediately interested in the row of numbers on the card Mrs. Sims had given to him. “I can say ’em easy, all of ’em,” he said, and there was just a suggestion of a smile on his lips when he looked up at her.
“Well, then, let me tell you about these numbers.” She took Georgie’s hand and held it in both her own. “You see, the new manager is holding what we call a lottery next Saturday morning. If you’re here at ten o’clock, you’ll see him draw cards from that big kettle by the door. If one of the cards should happen to have the same numbers as the ones on this card I’ve given you, you would win a prize. How about that, Georgie?”
His face lighted up with sudden eagerness and Mrs. Sims’s face took on a worried look almost immediately. “Now don’t expect too much, Georgie. There are hundreds, maybe a thousand of these cards. Only a few people can be lucky. You may not win anything this time, but take the card anyway and be here Saturday morning.”
Privately she made up her mind that there would at least be a candy bar in her pocket for him.