By David Kaplan
The sound a match made when it was struck is what got him. Shhhhhhhhhhwhhhhooshhaaaah! Then it was the smell. The sulfur shot up his nose. It stung his nostrils, but he mostly felt it in the corners of his eyes. His mother told him that sulfur is what hell smelled like.
Maybe it was because the sensation of the colors that came so quickly.
First bright red. Then orange. Then blue. Such quick bursts. His eye could barely record the tiny flame. Then the heat. He didn’t like that at all. He wanted to touch that red, crumpled dot at the head of the match. He did touch it. And he burned himself every time. The feeling wasn’t entirely painful. He anticipated the sharp scratch of tiny needles piercing the tips of his fingers.
The urge for the sound, the smell, the colors needed to be satisfied. So when his mother’s friend Frida walked through the door on that bright spring morning, he grabbed as many matchbooks as he could and stuffed them in his pocket.
“Go play outside,” his mother said wanly. She was sitting down at the kitchen table, her back to the window. The faded white and yellow curtains faintly blowing, almost reaching her bare shoulders.
She lit two cigarettes. Frida walked over, grabbed one of the Lucky Strikes and turned and tousled Gerry’s hair. He caught a sight of her black bra strap when she bent down to greet him. “The big people need to talk. Okay?”
Frida always showed up at 11am. He couldn’t tell time yet. But he knew “around 11, Frida will be here” and he had to be dressed. Years later, he speculated about what his mother and her friend talked about. He speculated why he always had to leave the house when she arrived. He would blame his mother for so many things. He blamed her for his father leaving on his third birthday.
That would be almost a month ago to this incident. He would mix up the dates when he was older. Maybe he was four-years-old when this happened? He was sure he was three.
Whenever it was, he blamed Frida and his mother.
He sat down on the curb. Gerry’s feet barely touched the ground. He hated living up here in “the country,” as his mother called it. There didn’t seem to be any people around besides his mother, Frida, and his baby brother. There certainly weren’t any other kids.
But at least he had fire.
Gerry had stuffed eight books of matches in his right pants pocket. He could count and he checked twice like he was a robber counting the loot from a successful haul.
One matchbook advertised Eddie’s Restaurant. The name was written in bright orange bubble letters against a black background. It made him think of juice.
Another matchbook advertised the Glockenspiel Tavern. It was written in green script on white. Gerry couldn’t read yet. But he traced the raised letters that spelled out the Glockenspiel Tavern slowly with his finger. Gerry pulled another bunch out of his pocket. He gazed at the collection of shiny silver and bright red matchbooks and chose the cobalt blue one with yellow letters that said Moonday Drive-In.
He lit a match. It went out too quickly. He stared forlornly at the fading ember and the thin lines of black smoke. He lit match after match and tossed them up, his eyes wide as he watched them fall like failed missiles. Then, his struck two matches. Then he struck three at once. He held the three together like it was a single candle. He then lit the whole book on fire. A stray ember floated gently on his right pocket. He fixed his gaze on it as the glowing dot burned through his pants.
Then he felt the heat and the burst. Excitement! Then a flash of pain. His reedy thigh felt like was melting. He must have cried out, because he saw his mother and Frida through blobs of tears.
As he was loaded into the ambulance, the pain increased. Maybe it would feel like this forever. Mainly, he was sad because he wanted to light more matches. The lingering scent of sulfur and his burning flesh soothed him for a second.