No one knew that the last day of summer school would end in a pool of blood.
We were all hoping that the endless string of miserably un-air-conditioned bus rides on the way home from Applegray Middle School would end in an orgiastic sharing of lollipops and jelly beans.
It could have happened that way, but Hal Burton had other ideas.
Here’s how it began…
On the rattling bus, all of Applegray’s upscale–and white–Palos Verdes students were sweating. The black driver, who we had nicknamed Eightball for his bald, sun-reflecting dome, drove slow and steady, mindful of his own sweat level. He only gave us furtive looks at STOP signs, which were few and far between on Palos Verdes Drive East’s sloping thoroughfare. When he signed up for the route, he probably thought it’d be cake. But all of the steep dips into the cloistered communities proved time-consuming, and hard on the brakes.
Eightball never really monitored us. In that first week, when the probability of a fight sunk from slim to none, he simply let us run the show, with our bizarre snack and card deals and switching of seats.
I knew he would intervene if he had to, but Eightball was simply our driver. Hal Burton was the real authority figure, and he ran his business from the back.
First were seats.
When Hal chose his seat in the far back, a seat in the back instantly became more desirable. From the back, Hal started making decisions on who sat where. At first, onlythose in his ten-seat vicinity listened to his decrees.
The others sat in twos at the front of the bus, praying they weren’t wheeled around from their face forward stare, as they hid in Eightball’s shadow.
Hal’s seat was the only seat that ran across the entire width of the bus, and thus assumed couch-like proportions. On his leather green sofa, Hal could stretch out his legs, and even take naps. If the sun hit him at an unfavorable angle, he’d wave his hand to move people forward, so he could retain a seat closest to the back, closest to his throne, which no one occupied, even in his absence.
Soon, he had a fully functioning staff of cronies that followed his orders; not because he was the biggest guy, but because he was the loudest, and able to cut you down with a quip so sharp it left your self esteem reeling:
“Sally’s mom’s an albino; that’s why she’s so pale.”
“Tim’s dad is a fag…”
I usually sat somewhere in the middle of the pack.
Secretly, I wanted to inch my way to the back; if only to say I’d done it; I’d been king of the hill, man of the hour: a desire I think every kid on that bus secretly shared…
After seats, Hal moved on to candy.
He started by waving a watermelon Blow Pop (one of the harder-to-find flavors) in the air. Eightball didn’t hear–couldn’t hear–over the loud buzz of his radio.
“One dollar!” Hal said, twirling the watermelon Pop.
He must have known that everyone’s snack stash, at this languishing leg of the bus ride, was gone: reduced to belly oil. It wasn’t buying the Pop that mattered at first: It was the game of buying it. Knowing us rich kids had money to burn, Hal reveled in his sales.
He sold the first Blow Pop for a whopping two dollars.
Shooting my eyes forward, mad that my one dollar bid didn’t cut it, I did the math; a crazy profit of one dollar and eighty cents, since the Pops were twenty cents at the General Store.
I had to do some detective work.
The next day, when the bus rolled into school, I realized just how early we arrived at Applegray each day. As we sprinted up to the basketball courts for our before-school game, Hal rolled right across the blacktop to the soccer field, alone, waving off his cronies.
I wouldn’t be playing today.
I wanted to monitor Hal.
Hal was standing by the fence, and then, stepping into the fence it seemed, he was gone.
When I was sure he was really gone, I walked up to the fence and found a hole that had been slowly tweezed apart, just big enough for a sixth grade boy to slip through. Looking past the dirt hill leading down to the street, I knew Hal had made the drop and headed to the General Store, where he was probably stocking up on Blow Pops and Lemonheads to bolster his newfound trade. He had twenty minutes: just enough time to make it to the store and back to school, stash his surplus in his locker, and stroll up to his homeroom line in time.
Fingers interlaced in the fence’s silver wire, I waited for a sign that would verifymy theory. I watched Hal make the return trip down the sidewalk, pulling a chocolate from his brownbag and jamming it into his mouth, then stuffing the bag into his oversized sweatshirt.
Back on the bus, he probably had tons of Blow Pops and other goodies stashed in his sack, but he pretended like he had the very last scrap of food; work them down, Hal was probably thinking; catch them at their weakest, and they will pony up and pay.
And someone did pay: four dollars, if you could believe it, thievery for ‘83. The second bidder showed no signs of relief from being outbid. He looked incensed, ready to throw a fit or a fist. We all wanted–needed–what Hal Burton was peddling. And it wasn’t the candy–others probably had their own strips of gum and bits of candy secretly stuffed in their pockets or bookbags–but the victory. The flaunting and waving of the lollipop like the flag of a country who’d won a war…
People started looking forward to Hal’s daily sale. It was something to gossip and jabber about in the slow, boring, sweltering moments; for the sale was the show and the bus was Hal’s arena.
No one picked up on Hal’s deception, nor did they care. They only handed him more assurance, and more money. Hal whipped out a new item every day, different in size and shape–from Charleston Chew’s to thin Pixie Sticks–to throw us off his scent.
We started asking our parents for lunch money, and some of us stole money from our parents–to be the highest bidder, and to watch the others watch us, as we chomped or licked the prized candy.
I didn’t dare mention it, but the others must have figured out that Hal was buying stuff from the General Store before school. They’d all been to the Store, at less rebellious hours, and no doubt had cross-referenced their stock with what Hal had been selling day in and day out. It only made the candy more desirable. We felt like we were buying black market goods, which made our candy-coated pleasures even more pleasurable.
Unseating Hal was out of the question, and no one would try to impinge upon his monopoly, for fear of a beating, verbal or otherwise. Starting a counter trade–even one on campus–would surely end in bruises or bruised popularity…
It was only when Hal started gloating about his rising prices, lying back on his green leather divan, flaunting his George Washingtons, that the seed was planted. Hal had to go down, though I had no idea that it’d be me who would lead the rush.
But that day, I was the yellow coward, not blowing the whistle on the bulge in his sweatshirt pocket.
On the back of a 100,000 Dollar Bar–“sold!”–Hal had forgotten to take off the price sticker: those one-of-a-kind General Store stickers with the American flag that the kids peeled off to reveal the candy in its primal splendor.
To Hal’s visible rage, the buyer furtively passed the bar around.
Though everyone had a hunch that Hal had been getting his goods from the American flag-waving General Store, the proof was now in–or on–the chocolate bar. Hal shrunk into his leather green couch. Everyone looked at each other with knowing eyes.
Summer school was ending in two days.
Was Hal’s reign finally going to end? Or would it keep going until the very last day of summer school, and spill into the next school year?
Where was our dignity?
The plan was simple enough, and I had enough of a crew on my side to expedite it. We’d just have to get behind enemy lines, and past Hal’s cronies. I called them cronies back then–among other words like lackeys and shills, all words taken from Marvel and DC comics.
Here was the plan: First someone would slap the candy right out of Hal’s hand.
Then someone else would try to get their hands on Hal’s brown bag: to reveal its General Store-ness, and steal all the candy and pass it around in an orgiastic sharing of lollipops and jelly beans.
I looked over at redheaded Tim Sullivan and signaled him. Tim’s stop was coming up, and Hal was already brandishing the next sale from his bottomless bag. If we were going to get him, we would have to get him at a STOP sign, when a quick exit from the bus was possible. All of us could run home if we had to; it was the last day of summer school and we’d never see Eightball again (or until next summer).
Hal stood up and Tim deftly slipped past Hal’s cronies and slapped the giant-sized Snickers Bar out of Hal’s hand.
The candy bar went flying to the ground. Hal followed it like it was on a string.
It tumbled past Hal’s cronies, just far enough for me to snatch it from the filthy, gum-encrusted floor.
Hal gripped my wrist but I broke free, squeezing the Snickers bar so tight it deflated.
As Hal and I wrestled in the cramped aisle, Tim slipped past Hal’s cronies and went for Hal’s bag. I can still see Tim, being swallowed by Hal’s cronies.
Everything happened so fast that Eightball couldn’t lug his heavy body over in time.
I pushed Hal onto one of the green seats, and started pounding. Hal was useless, as one of his legs became contorted under the pipe that rigged the seat.
I broke his nose with the fifth or sixth punch. Blood spilled, dripping to the bus floor: first as a pool, then as thin rivers running down the rubber grooves of the floor. It was a deep, human red, which no candy could ever emulate.
Eightball scrambled back to stop me. I started vaulting the seats like Emilio Estevez vaulted the library shelves in The Breakfast Club (a movie I wasn’t going to see for four years–the clean version–late at night when my parents were asleep).
The bus door was still open for Tim Sullivan. I listened for the pneumatic hiss that sounded the closing of the bus’s doors.
This time the doors wouldn’t close on me.
I jumped out and didn’t look back; didn’t look back for the glint off of Eightball’s head; didn’t look back for the bob of Sally McDonald’s pigtails; didn’t look back for Tim Sullivan scrambling off the van or his parents causing a ruckus for the ruckus Hal Burton had started, and I had ended; didn’t look back for Hal Burton’s blood, running crimson down the corrugated floor of the bus.