Gerald Delaney blew what little chance he would have had of being liked, when he first showed up at Miss Bain's class on the fourth day of third grade with his copper-haired, high-heeled mother by his side. This statuesque woman in the salmon-colored dress conferred unquietly with Miss Bain while her son, the new kid, stood to his mother's right, nuzzling her hand with his crewcut.
His big, cow-like brown eyes gazed up into the classroom, fixing first on the red and yellow "New School Year" cardboard leaves which danced above the chalkboard (though out our windows the trees were a lush August green), then on the Miss Bain originals of Mickey and Minnie Mouse which beamed down from the boys' and girls' cloakrooms, then on the portraits of George Washington and President Kennedy, in short on anything but us kids.
"Boys and girls," Miss Bain said, "we have a new member of our class: Gerald Delaney. Gerald moved here from Ohio. Gerald, you may sit in Row Five between Melanie and Tommy. No, wait, you're taller than he is, so you two switch." I sat back down, still stuck behind a girl after all.
"Goodbye, darling. I'll pick you up right here at 2:30," Gerald's mother announced, to our astonishment. Gerald did not answer. I wondered if he could talk.
He could indeed, I found out soon enough, for before our spelling lesson was over I heard him whispering to himself. I could only catch a phrase or two: "This is Private Delaney reporting. Private Delaney, come in."
I stared hard at Miss Bain, trying to draw her attention behind me, but she either didn't notice, or was giving the kid some slack.
At recess that day, I stood back to back with Gerald while my friends judged who was the taller. Carl Truett and Joey Blythe said I was. Others were diplomatic and called it even, but some of the girls who were looking on said, no fair, I was on a slope, and that Gerald was half an inch taller.
"Why don't you go play with the girls?" I said to Gerald. "They're on your side."
By the end of September the height issue was inoperative. Miss Bain had decided that there were subtler dynamics involved in the ideal seating chart. Boy-girl-boy-girl was the new rule of thumb, with "no two good friends side by side" weighing in heavily as well. Gerald Delaney was immune to the latter rule. His best friends were his mother and his lunchbox, and we all knew it.
Not to suggest that Gerald was plump. His face was pale, his jaw rounded and soft, and with the auburn crewcut and cow-eyes, his was a face that would have looked natural perched above a fat body. But the boy was simply short-legged and stocky. I called him "Fatty" anyway, though my friend Joey Blythe was plainly fatter. The real reason that Gerald's lunchbox was considered his best friend was that he talked to it.
|It was a Lone Ranger box, metal of course, and battered around the edges. Everyone else in class bought the school meals but Gerald invariably brought his lunchbox. "What do we got today, Tonto?" he'd say in his high-pitched whisper of a voice, the same one he used when he talked to himself. And everyday his lunch was different: deviled eggs, carrots, pickles, an apple and chocolate milk, or a roast beef sandwich and a banana, or crunchy peanut butter smushed between saltines along with a box of raisins and a thick slice of pound cake. The meals were a source of great curiosity to us.
"What's in your lunchbox, Gerald?" somebody might ask when he entered the classroom.
"I don't know," he'd shrug. It seemed never to occur to him to pose that question of Tonto or "Lonie" till he'd sat down at the lunchroom table. He was susceptible to trades, too, though at first in a show of solidarity we all refused to make offers for his grapes or Baby Ruths or barbecue potato chips, no matter how tempting they looked. One Friday, however, when we were having salmon croquettes, Lenny Russell's pride buckled, and he spirited some M&M's out of a blatantly imbalanced deal.
From then on, Gerald's lunches were fair game. Luckily, he was always more than willing to trade. I never dealt with him directly, though I'd negotiate with one of his trading partners, so as to partake of the fruits of the transaction without sullying my reputation. After Gerald's trades he'd sit silently awhile, then, when it became plain everyone was through talking with him, he'd nibble at his amalgam of school and homemade lunch, whispering now and then to Lonie or Tonto. Sometimes he'd cock his ear toward the box and nod a little, as if it spoke back.
In October, when the World Series started, Miss Bain let us divide into two teams, the Giants and the Yankees, and have a contest to see which would read the most pages of library books that week. She posted our teams' names to the left of the chalkboard, its crown of autumnal leaves supplanted by bright pumpkins, though outside now the maple and oak leaves were as vivid as the cardboard ones had been. Ironically, most of us Southern boys were eager to be counted as Yankees, that being the team with the greatest television exposure. I could recite almost all the squad's uniform numbers from Bobby Richardson on down to Elston Howard or better. During P.E. in the gym someone asked Gerald which was his favorite team. "Cincinnati Reds, I guess," he said.
"The Reds?" I howled. "Boo. The Reds, everybody. Booo!" Several boys joined in, booing the team that had opposed our Yanks in the '61 Series the year before. Our jeers rang out in the gymnasium, so we booed louder, now as much to hear the echo as to denigrate the Reds.
Mr. Lynch, the P.E. teacher, blew his whistle sharply. Startled, we all shushed. I looked at Gerald. He was talking to the collar of his shirt.
That Friday was the final day for the Yankees and Giants to report their library reading. We Yanks had forged a 106-page lead, so I felt confident as I excitedly quizzed my classmates before the first bell. Nellie Ann Clayburn had read 99 more pages (the boy-girl-boy-girl rule had contaminated even the proud Yankee name, but by Friday that fact had paled in light of our greed for victory), and I'd quickly gone through the entire Babe Ruth story, 68 pages long, plus two-and-a-half chapters on the Civil War.
Joey Blythe, bitterly relegated to the Giants, was in the midst of an ethical dilemma. I'd appealed to his Yankee loyalties, and thus on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday he'd reported low totals despite the fact he was an avid reader.
But on Thursday he'd yielded to pressure from his teammates and to Miss Bain's vague hints of sweet prizes for the winners, and registered 82 pages, only three fewer than I.
Gerald Delaney was a Yankee, too, and I'd privately welcomed even his substantial contributions, just so long as they were lesser than mine. I'd been high man in class three days out of four.
After the Pledge, we clamored for a quick conclusion to our game, but Miss Bain made us wait out Math first, and threatened us with Health, too, if we didn't settle down. We settled. Then she gave us a lecture on fairness, noting that it was more important to enjoy our reading and report it honestly than to win the contest, which she wouldn't even have started in the first place if she'd known we were going to take it so seriously. That bit of baffling adult logic behind us, she took out her magic marker and began to tick off our names.
"Let's start with the Giants. Becky Hollifield."
"Fifty-three pages." (I had to stifle a snicker.)
"Very good, Becky. How about you, Tommy McKay?"
I gleefully reported my 95, gallantly unconcerned when fellow Yankee Nellie soon surpassed me. But the Giants had some surprises for us. Mike Fletcher had read 102 pages, Joey Blythe 114, Charlotte Sue Hayes 126. Our Yankees countered with some new personal bests. The room grew noticeably tense with unspoken accusations of a fixed Series when Walker Waters, that sleepy Giant, told of his 194 pages.
Yes ma'am, he was sure. His mom had added up the books for him.
We were down to each team's final two players. According to my private tabulations, which I surreptitiously flashed to my teammates, the Giants had forged a highly suspect 66-page lead.
Sandra Banks topped Rynthia Clags, chipping the Giants' lead down to an even fifty. Little Glen Goodwin, the last Giant, said he'd read "a hundred pages," which, knowing Glen, meant he'd read a little longer than he'd ever bothered to read before, unconcerned with the mysteries of any digits beyond his ten grimy fingers.
"Gerald," Miss Bain's voice always softened when she spoke to him, "and how about you?"
"I read a hundred and forty-four pages, Miss Bain. All these books right here," he said, holding them aloft.
"Very good, Gerald. Did you enjoy them?"
"Yes, ma'am," Gerald grinned. "I like books about horses and dogs."
"That's good, Gerald. So do I. Well, boys and girls, you all did an excellent job of reading, and I'm very proud of both teams. I hope you'll continue to enjoy our library. The final score, as I'm adding it here, looks very close. It's..."
But she didn't have to say. I knew Gerald had to have over 150 pages for the Yankees to win. Surely he must have known that, too. He'd let us down.
"Y'all cheated," a fellow Yankee told Walker Waters at recess.
|"Nobody can read that much in that time," I said.
"Y'all are just jealous," Charlotte Sue said.
I noticed Gerald seated on a swing, apart from the rest of us. He was reading an oversized yellow book called Cathy's Collie.
"Fatty," I said, under my breath. Then, once more, a little louder, before I turned away. The fact that the real Yankees won the real World Series helped restore my sense of justice. And a week or so after that came another healing charm, the middle jewel of autumn's glittering triad which had begun with the Series and would end with Halloween: the Piedmont Interstate Fair came to town.On Monday of Fair Week, after carefully ascertaining that we all planned visits there, Miss Bain let us paint pictures of what we thought the Fair would be like. I wasn't a very good artist, so I concentrated on a big Ferris wheel and smiling square-shouldered people marching about holding snow cones and cotton candy.
As we sat painting, we talked of our impending visits to the Fair. "I'm going today," Glen said.
"Today's too soon. They won't have everything ready," I answered.
"I'm going Friday," said Rynthia Clags.
"Friday and Saturday are too crowded," I said, though, of course, I'd never been on either day.
"I'm going Tuesday," said Joey. There were plenty of "me too's."
"I'm going Thursday," I stated. Others chimed in to indicate likewise.
"I'm going Tuesday and Friday," Charlotte Sue bragged.
"You must be rich," someone told her.
"When are you going, Gerald Delaney?" Nellie Ann asked. The girls, more amused by Gerald than we were, usually called him by both names.
He looked up from his painting. "Wednesday," he said.
"But Wednesday is..." Joey began.
"Shhh!" I insisted. "Wednesday, huh. That'll be a good day." A couple of the girls giggled. I walked over and looked at Gerald's painting. He was not nearly as skillful as Sandra Banks or some of the other artists in the room, but his picture was distinctive. In bold primary colors and liberal swatches of black he'd rendered a giant merry-go-round. However, instead of riding horses and camels and such, the children on the carousel were perched on cotton candy, oversized peanuts, tiny Ferris wheels, ice cream cones, two-headed creatures, fat ladies, and dollar bills. I was kind, and didn't tell him what a stupid merry-go-round he'd painted, Maybe he'd never been to a fair, and just didn't know. On Wednesday morning as we sat in the gymnasium, awaiting the morning bell, Joey regaled us with descriptions of the Fair. This was the first year for both the double-Ferris wheel and Baby Flo, and I, being as yet uninitiated into these mysteries, couldn't decide which was the more intriguing. Glen Goodwin had gotten a good glimpse of the Hootchie-kootchies on Monday, but they were in the realm of the giggly and unfathomable, whereas colossal rides and half-ton ladies were something I could clearly imagine. Joey's mentioning of the more familiar wonders--candy apples, bump cars, pickup ducks, fireworks, and adults who actually relished the livestock exhibits--brought back vivid sensuous recollections that got me all tingly with anticipation.
Gerald Delaney sat alone, listening. "Are you still going today, Gerald?" I asked.
"Umm-hmm. My mum is taking me straight from school."
"You'll have fun today, Gerald Delaney," I said, and grinned at the thought.
"I know," he answered me.
When I went home after school that day, I told my mama about Baby Flo. "She weighs half a ton," I said.
"I'm sure she's fat, but I doubt she weighs a half-ton.
That's one thousand pounds," she said. "But can we go see her?"
"I don't know. We'll see." My spirits sank. I knew "we'll see" too well. "It might help me stick to my diet, though," she added.
"Some kids' mothers are picking them up at school to take them to the Fair."
"Well, you can walk on home, please. It won't kill you to wait ten more minutes. The fair will still be there." It was amazing how, in my mother's world, things always stayed patiently put.
"Gerald Delaney went to the Fair today," I said.
"He did? And he's in your class?"
"Yes ma'am. He went on Nigger Day."
"We don't say that in this house, Tommy."
"But that's what it is. White people don't go to the Fair today."
"I know, but don't use the word 'nigger.' Say 'Negro' or 'colored people.' It's Colored People's Day today."
"Yes ma'am." I slurped thoughtfully at my glass of milk. My mom looked up from her sewing.
"Where's Gerald from, by the way?"
Thursday, Gerald was absent from school. I didn't know quite how to react to this. I'd wanted to poke a little fun at his ignorant mistake, but now I wondered just what had happened. Had he been hurt? He was probably the only white kid at the Fair. Maybe they'd ganged up on him. I'd heard that colored boys were really good fighters, and I knew Gerald Delaney was no match, and a choice target to boot.
My own visit to the Fair was splendid, as always. The double Ferris wheel was impressive but, unlike my schoolmates, I wasn't an afficionado of that sort of thrill. I'd never even ridden a single Ferris wheel, except for the miniature one at Myrtle Beach, so the sight of the Double, lit up orange and green, plummeting from, and simultaneously rolling back up into the autumn night sky was dizzying enough for me. I didn't get to see Baby Flo, but I did stand outside her tent and gaze at her portrait, which was enough to evoke sufficient awe and pity, and burnish into my mind a juicy nickname with which to bedevil my unfortunate neighbor, Dottie. I did ride the bump cars for the first time in my life, and had a riproaring time of it, sideswiping a freckled lad, and pinning a pony-tailed blonde to one wall, till some big kids, sixth graders, I think, climbed into their cars, and my mother signalled that it was time for me to get out. And of course I rode other rides. Most of these were the kiddie stuff that Joey Blythe and Glen Goodwin disdained, for example the motorcycles which simply revolved with a lilting up and down motion while the riders twisted the handlebar grips to rev fake engines. Twice I rode the little roller coaster, which was respectable enough to mention at school, though easily humbled by harrowing tales of the Mousetrap, and one time each I rode the Alpine and the helicopters, both of which made mild sport of my stomach, perhaps less so than did the foot long hot dogs, caramel apples, and sky-blue cotton candy I consumed. In addition to the rides, there were sundry other pleasures, one of my favorites being the pickup ducks. This attraction consisted of a curved wooden trough flowing with murky water. A quarter would purchase the right to pick up three hard plastic ducks which floated there, and to hand them to the man who ran the booth. The man would somehow translate the numbers painted on their underbellies into one of the stuffed toys hanging above him, or more likely into one of the flimsier baubles hidden behind the trough.
I was slowly coming to realize that the numbers on the ducks were not some powerful code which determined the prizes to be won, but that these rewards were subject to the whims of the man in the booth. My budding sense of justice was not, however, affected to the degree that it overruled my nostalgia. As far back as I could recall the Fair, I could remember visiting this stall. Call it habit, call it simply the Fair; I was going to pick up my ducks this year, too.
I did so, choosing more discriminantly than did the five-year-old beside me, and walked away with an equally tawdry prize: some plastic handcuffs. Still, it was fun, a fruitful gambling of my parents' quarter. I got home that night later than my bedtime, thought briefly of Gerald Delaney and his uncertain fate, then a bit longer of my princely day. I slept the sleep of the gods.
Gerald was back at school on Friday morning. "Where were you yesterday, Gerald Delaney?" Charlotte Sue asked as we sat in the gym, awaiting the start of classes.
"I had a bellyache. I ate too much stuff at the Fair."
"How did you like the Fair?" I asked, eager, now that I saw him unharmed, to hear of his discomfort there.
"It was fun," he said. "I rode the merry-go-round three times and the boats and the play motorcycles. I rode the little roller coaster, too. I thought I would be scared but I wasn't. I enjoyed the livestock exhibition: very interesting. And look. Look what I won." He opened his lunchbox, and pulled out a tin badge with the word "Sheriff" emblazoned on it.
"Why aren't you wearing it?"
"My mum says it'll make a tear in my shirt. I pretend like I'm a detective, and have to keep it hidden."
"How did you win it?" Charlotte Sue asked.
"There's a booth where you can pick up little ducks, and win prizes," he answered. "I got numbers 11, 04, and 15, I think. 15 or 19. And this is what I won."
"That's easy," said Charlotte Sue. "I knocked over some milk bottles and won a stuffed monkey named Jabbo. And I didn't ride any baby rides, either. But you went on Wednesday, not yesterday, right Gerald Delaney?"
"Right. Wednesday," Gerald answered. Charlotte Sue's eyes twinkled. I knew what she was about to say.
"Let me see that badge again," I said quickly, and grabbed it, lunchbox and all, and admired it, moving steadily away from Charlotte Sue, hoping he'd follow me, but he didn't.
He just stood there and listened to what Charlotte Sue had to say, stood there without even a badge to whisper to.
©Copyright 2005 David Ray Skinner/SouthernReader. All rights reserved.