Authors: Jack Gantos
Whatever. I really had to get a move on. My father wouldn't be gone that long. The new pharmacy was in a strip mall about a half mile away next to the army-navy surplus store I liked to visit. So many kids had stolen stuff from the store that if you weren't with a parent you had to get permission from the reluctant owner before you could come in and shop. He'd pat you down with his hard hands on the way out. Who could blame him? The kids in this sketchy neighborhood were known as thieves.
Anyway, I'd go there to shop for rare stuff like bravery-under-fire medals that I hadn't earned. But mostly I liked to slowly patrol the aisles and smell all the useless stuff like rubberized gas masks, moth-eaten flight jackets, and boxes of broken chocolate bars covered in powdery white sugar bloom. All the military hardware had been lightly sprayed with machine oil to keep it from rotting. When I breathed through my mouth I could faintly taste the merchandise-flavored oil on the shelf in front of me. The distinctive flavor gave each object a realistic purpose and I could easily pretend I was in the war.
One time when shopping in the enemy-army surplus section, I had closed my eyes and when I breathed deeply I inhaled the horsey odor of Wehrmacht leather and imagined that was my final smell while kneeling before the polished boots of a German officer. He aimed a Luger at my head. He clicked off the safety and pulled the trigger. I tried to make myself pass out in the store from the imaginary pain. Instead, I lost my balance and tilted face-first into the metal edge of a display shelf. I cut a notch out of my forehead that produced a trickle of blood. It was like the bullet had bounced off my thick skull.
I loved playing in that warehouse museum of war supplies, and was just thinking about it when a squealing car turned onto my street. I thought it was my dad, but it wasn't. Broken water pumps were common in Ramblers.
My banged-up ankle felt a little better. I limped over to the grill and dragged it, and a bag of charcoal, from our side of the galvanized chain-link fence that separated us from the Pagoda family next door.
I set everything along the narrow streak of shade between two coconut palms. I filled the metal bowl of the grill until I had a rough pyramid of briquettes. Then I went back to the planter and picked up the can of lighter fluid. It had slipped out of my grip when I fell because the palms of my hands were sweating. I picked it up again. It slipped out a second time. So I used two hands this time. That's called thinking.
I doubled back to the grill and squirted the entire can of lighter fluid onto the coals. That can had annoyed me, and with my two hands I squeezed out every wheezing last drop until I had flattened the sides together as if I had crushed its flimsy neck. The coals were so saturated with lighter fluid they began to look like huge, winking black jewels dripping with oily rainbows along their waxy edges. I wondered if they might spontaneously combust because of the heat. That was sort of a brain-dead question, but stepping out from the shadow of that dumb question was the untested notion that if I did something theatrical I might just jolt myself from the stupor of my lousy mood and get back into the birthday-party spirit.
So I took the theatrical test I had in mind. I leaned back from the grill, and with one hand tossed the empty can end over end into the canal. With my other hand I tugged a pack of wooden matches from the back pocket of my uniform. In one motion I struck a match and flicked it lazily toward the grill. The match arced through the air like a tiny toy torch thrown by a tiny toy soldier at a tiny toy castle, and then before it reached the grill it vaporized as the
of an Old Testament fireball hit me full on.
I had to have yelled out an unmanly scream as I quickly covered my face and dropped down to one knee. The red blossom of heat puckered the skin along my forearm, and as the flame sucked back into itself I lowered my arm to look at the damage. In an instant a colony of small milky blisters appeared from my wrist to my elbow. I smelled burning hair and fuel as if I were a soldier trapped in a shell-punctured tank.
My heart pounded.
that perked me up!
I was grinning and laughing hysterically with my crazy Popeye “guh-guh” laugh, which I hadn't felt inside me for a good, long while. The last two months I had fallen into a gloomy rut. But that was suddenly over. I was laughing again. I danced around and thrust out my legs, jabbing them left and right as if I had just karate-kicked open the golden door to eternal happiness. I was snorting out my nose.
“Oh my God!” I shouted up into the sky. “I
I slapped at myself. Smoke drifted off my clothing and hair and I felt alive. Nothing, it seemed to me, had ever wanted me more than those flames whose healing hot hands seized me by the shoulders and ordered me to “Wake up!” and I wanted nothing more than to be fully awake, and unexpectedly it occurred to me that I had never closed my eyes and slowly kissed a girl on the lips.
Why did I think that?
If inhaling a storm cloud of flame was what a kiss would feel like, then I was ready to try finding a girl to kiss, but girls always looked at me and turned away as if I were the immature boyfriend they had outgrown and discarded. The closest I got to feeling their hands on me was when they held a pencil and scratched my name off a list of possibilities.
So I turned to where I was always wanted and stared wide-eyed into the unwavering column of beautiful dancing flames that thrust upward from the grill as if a rocket had crashed in front of me like a dart into the dirt and the engine was still roaring full blast. The thrusting flames stood out like bloodred bayonets of molten steel. The power of those flames was purifying. Staring into them set the canyons of my mind on fire and charred the weedy debris of dead thoughts. Flames were a natural language more powerful than the chaos of wind or water. Flames wanted to renew a world that had become tiresome and I wanted my tiresome world to be renewed. Even the wounded chambers of my heart, cleansed of all my father's awful insults, relaxed into a much-needed sleep. At that moment my dreams felt stronger than my weaknesses.
After a minute those glowing pickets of flame began to lower, and above them I could see a devil's ruddy, heat-wavering face and it was leaning forward and staring directly into mine. He had red-hot hair that glistened with oily sweat. It was cut short except in the front where it curled onto his forehead like a burnished copper wave breaking down over his eyes and nose and mouth. As the flames further declined I saw his red neck and shirtless chest and his open black leather motorcycle jacket with glinting silver snaps and diagonal zippers all as liquid bright as mercury, and below the dangling leather belt buckle was the elastic waistband of a pair of boys' undershorts with S
stretched across the top, and below the undershorts were two skinny red-haired rooster legs with just one white pointy leather shoe cocked over the top edge of a short garden pitchfork.
He pushed his hair back to where I could see his face and he was having a good laugh at my expense. He wasn't tall but he was muscular enough, and when he lifted and stabbed the pitchfork into the earth he grunted and then levered up a damp clod of sandy clay, swiveled around, and tossed it aimlessly over his shoulder. The chunk of dirt did a cannonball right into their swimming pool. He didn't care to notice. He kept staring at me as if I were his trophy and he was digging a tunnel to hell and at any moment he was going to take me with him.
Then, as the flames crouched down onto the coals like little dancing ghosts, his face remained and I realized he was a real person and not some overheated hallucination. It had to be Gary Pagoda, the mysterious next-door neighbor my mother had warned me about. She had seen him escorted to his front door by a man in a blue suit. They had driven up in a patrol car with a door logo that read B
I hadn't met Gary yet, but the other day when I was mixing a batch of homemade navy napalm by slowly stirring gasoline into a jar of Vaseline I had heard what I figured was his mother's husky voice holler out the window, “Gary, you get back here and finish filling out these forms!”
I remembered the moment clearly because it happened just as I was sucking the napalm up into a turkey baster and squirting a thick stream into the conical opening of a crusty termitary tower.
“If you don't straighten up,” she continued, “and take your paperwork to your juvie group session, your probation officer is gonna jerk your butt back in jail!”
Gary was standing on his front lawn and his eyes were fixed on a white Ford pickup that had pulled a crisp U-turn in front of his house. A blond girl was driving. She waved to him and smiled. No girl had ever smiled at
with such sunny and almighty intentions. It left an impression on me.
“Did you hear me!” his mother continued as I lit the termite cone on fire.
Of course he heard his mother. We all had. But Gary's black leather profile was like an eclipse that slowly changed day into night as he passed between his house and the clean white truck. He never answered his mother and without hesitation he raised his middle finger straight up and corked it tight into the eye of the sun. He stood there grinning in triumph and then he lowered his arm until the shadow of that finger stretched across the lawn like the needle of a compass and pointed directly into the cab of the truck. At that moment the girl kicked open the passenger door and reached out with both of her slender tan arms toward his glowing face.
was a golden-armed trophy moment for him.
But not for me. Or for the termites who died for no other reason than I liked to hear their chitinous exoskeletons go
Now I continued to stand in front of my blistering grill as Gary stopped shoveling and pointed a finger at me and laughed his ass off. I could smell something burning. In a panic I looked down at my uniform and whirled around and wildly slapped at myself while fearing I was on fire. I turned back toward him.
“What?” I hollered with the palms of my hands spread open in alarm. “What?”
He just kept pointing.
“Just tell me!” I called out with more desperation. “What?”
He raised his finger and pointed above my head.
“Oh, crap!” I shouted as I snapped my head up and saw what I knew I would. Before Dad and I left the house that morning I had arranged for my older sister to tie a banner I had made of fancy gold-edged naval alphabet flags copied from the nineteenth-century USS
that spelled out HAPPY BIRTHDAY COMMODORE between the palm trees. Now the banner was furiously on fire from the oil paint I had used on the flags and it was nosing downward on one end like the flaming
“Noooo!” I cried out, painfully realizing that my trophy moment was going up in smoke on its way down to the ground, and there was no chance I was going to re-create it and impress my father, who puffed out his chest when we all saluted him and addressed him as “Commodore.” The ladder was still against a tree trunk, and quick as a monkey I scrambled up the rungs and reached out and yanked down the laundry rope of burning flags. I jumped from the ladder and hit the ground and did a somersault and yelped again because of the dang sharp grass needles, but I didn't have time to cry about it because I had to fold up the smoldering banner of painted cardboard before one little spark set the whole dry grass yard into a blazing inferno. So I moved quick as a cat and with my stinging hands rolled the banner up into a large wad of cardboard and rope and in one swift moment picked it up and ran toward the canal, where I threw it overhead as far as possible. It didn't go far. The smoldering ball slowly fluttered down into a loose heap of fallen puppetry on the starter fluid can. There must have been enough fluid left to leak out and form an oily slick on the muck, and the next thing I knew a circle of flames flared up around the can and the banner. I stood there wondering what I might do next to put out the fire and get rid of the evidence.
I wished we had a garden hose and the next thing I knew Gary was at the edge of the canal, just on his side of the fence. I looked over at him and thought that this was a bad time to start a conversation and introduce myself. Not only was my uniform scorched and bloody and my arms singed and blistered, but there he stood with his undershorts pulled down, and he was leisurely taking a leak into the water.
“Do you have a hose?” I blurted out in a half-mad way while thinking I should just return to the grill. I didn't belong there while he was doing what he did.
He shrugged and pointed to the burning banner with his chin. “It's out of my range,” he replied. “Besides, I really like fire. Like,
.” His red eyebrows peaked upward like fox ears eavesdropping on prey. “I wouldn't put it out,” he said, “not even if I was hung like a horse.”
That was the kind of seaman's talk my dad's navy friends used at their officers' club and hearing it so casually from Gary was unexpected and I snorted through my nose.
I was naturally shy and I avoided his eyes and coughed and looked down at his skinny chicken legs covered with wiry red hairs above his pointy white shoes. I didn't yet know the shoes were fake alligator or that they were called X-15s after the hypersonic jet. I didn't know his motorcycle jacket was a real Harley-Davidson jacket. In fact I didn't know anything about cool shoes or jackets or motorcycles or tow trucks or fireworks or cigarettes or girlfriends who drive trucks or whiskey or gangs or stealing cars or secret clubhouses or love or prison or soul music or real cruelty or anything like that. But in an instant everything I did know seemed childish and I was suddenly in a rush to catch up to everything he knew and felt.