Tag Archives: Matt Sharar

THE TALE OF HAL BURTON by Matt Sharar

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.

MATT SHARAR, a writer from San Pedro, California, is currently at work on the umpteenth edit of his children’s fantasy novel.  This summer, he plans on finishing the last stretch of a book of twenty-five short stories, two of which you can find on this website.

KILLING THE SUSPENSE by Matt Sharar

Robert Black didn’t work for the movies.

The closest he’d ventured to the silver screen: a score strung together for a just-about-straight-to-DVD horror flick: “Friday Night Frights.”

Black’s official vocation was now reality-TV score composer, but if you dropped the reality-TV part, you’d be left with how he truly saw himself: Goth composer.  The closest Corinthian had come to the big time: a record release party in France, at a smoky subterranean bistro: Nick Cave solo, their supporting act.

After Mute Records sent Corinthian packing, and the other band members disappeared into drugs, Black had to retune.  At a studio session, laying down steel guitar for a respected alt-country singer (an 80’s one hit wonder maintaining a steady fan base), he was asked to hit the road again.  This time, it didn’t hit him back: Deep stage left, he played piano, organ and guitar on a cushioned stool, his mug shaded by a black cowboy hat.  On the tour bus, lit by the glow of his Mac, he was finally able to hone his macabre instrumentals, other markets firmly in mind.

For two years the band latched onto an 80’s revue tour, filled with light shows and wrinkled rockers, happy to be remembered and paid.  The gig locked him into an annual album-tour salary, roughly thirty thousand a year.  He paid twelve months’ rent—in full—at the start of each tour, but at tour’s end, he had to crawl back into Borders Books & Music, to pay for the drinks that weren’t free anymore.

The alt-country singer became pregnant and Black was back to where he was when he answered that “STUDIO GUITARIST NEEDED” ad three years ago.

Square one.  Freelance.

Making freelance Hollywood dollars was not for the faint of heart.  But years of touring in the van with Corinthian, talking all things morbid with all brand of nocturnal creature in all manner of fleabag motel, provided fuel for his dark concoctions.  State by state, mile by mile, gig by gig, he carved a dark thick skin of a soul: one he deemed fit to absorb the Hollywood hits.

If clients second-guessed his darkness, they only had to repeat his name: Robert Black.  He had wiki-ed a few famous Blacks, all women who had married into the name: Holly, Karen, and even one from Ireland, Mary.  Like Robert, they all made art that embraced the dark side, with matching black hair.  Picky, stubborn, and never willing to admit his intimacy issues (even when he was drunk), Black wasn’t keen on making anyone a Black-neé-something.  He was too busy living up to his own birthright, down to every black strand of his hair (which, when he was too overworked to dye it, revealed traces of his natural Irish red).

On his second go at freelance, the suspense started. There was always the hunt, the chase, his heart beating for the next buck: that fat royalty check flapping behind the smog of the Hollywood skyline.  At first, he felt like the hunter, making, and trying to hit his own targets.  But it was he who was always slain: a connection broken here, an interview, cancelled there.  “That’s Hollywood,” they’d say.  Black started camping out in bars, trying to conjure his now-monthly rent (even as he drank it away) from the swirl of his cigarette smoke.

There’s no pension plan in rock n’ roll he’d heard himself say, a thousand times, backstage, at after-parties, as the musicians chatted biz: “the recession,” touring twice as hard to recoup record sales lost to downloads and file sharing.

When Black found his dark corner, his niche—how could he have missed it, flipping channels?—he was more than prepared to exploit it.  Trying to fit other, “respectable” projects into his calendar proved only problematic.  Hashed out with a few other gifted souls (mostly through e-mailed mpegs), these collaborations left nothing but a few more notches on his myspace/youtube resume: a few bar buddies, if he ever bumped into them, but never friendships.

To the “fascist corporate fucks ruling his life,” as the DJ from Release the Bats coined them one night, Robert Black’s music fit the bill.

Now, they were footing it.

He finally had the “cush” job: reality-TV score composer, a steady stream of payments rolling in, like the ticker tape on those money market shows he watched, trying to avoid clicking on NTV, NTV2 and V2: music channels comprising the conglomerate that signed ninety percent of his paychecks.  He could see no end in sight for NTV and V2—or their new, teat-bursting cash cow.  Reality TV would forge on forever, padding Black’s account until retirement reared around.

He was one of the rock n’ roll survivors, who’d bucked the casualty list, and didn’t have to hear his songs in Guitar Hero perpetuity.  No, he’d stick to the shadows, sharpening his musical scalpel, scraping the backs of peoples’ brains for bucks.  The suspense was never-ending for them, but for Robert Black, it was over…

#

Stepping into the glare of a blinding footlight, Black covered his squinting eyes.  He thought of the grip he’d bumped into moments before, an old drinking buddy from Long Beach.  Like yesterday, he kept the chit-chat short, as he preferred to talk to acquaintances in the dimness of dives: caves, he called them.  He was barely on time, a gofer handing him a pair of headphones like an afterthought.

The two contestants stood side-by-side: Dakota, wearing jewel-encrusted jeans and holding a cowboy hat: and Raven, wearing a silk black dress and holding her expression, a tense stare.  This was the big show, the season finale, the canvas to paint their celebrity on: T-RON’S REAL LOVE.

The producer had wanted Black “there” and here he was, ready to finalize the timing of his suspenseful instrumental.  But Black was also here for the raven-haired, smooth-skinned beauty staring into the camera, fretting only elimination, and nothing close to losing T-RON’S REAL LOVE.

Candace Reese had sent in an audition tape (Black had discovered, asking the Long Beach grip) because her unemployment ran out.  But maybe she’d wanted a little more, he surmised.  Maybe she’d missed out on the dorm drama in college, the warring factions: freak vs. sorority sister, sorority sister vs. sorority sister, sorority vs. sorority.  On weekends, she was probably out drinking with a coven of Goths, chasing down bands like Corinthian.  Maybe those days were the same as T-RON’S REAL LOVE, only dressed in black.

One thing was obvious to Black about Candace Reese: She had lightened her look for the show.  On air, her only remaining Gothic badge was her tattoo, a one-inch ankh, no doubt based on “Sandman’s” Death, riding the slope of her ankle.  Off air, she wore shiny patent leather corsets and dresses: hardcore, and expensive, Goth gear sold in specialty shops.  Candace Reese had gone undercover—for the money, a little notoriety, or maybe that “soul-searching trip” after college: not to the playgrounds of Europe but Hollywood, all expenses paid.  When the camera rolled, she was Raven, and her true self was put on hold for T-RON: a has-been white rapper, sporting taut cornrows, staring across at the Final Two, ready to banish the runner-up.

Ready to eliminate.

“Count ‘em in,” said Rich Waterman Jr., director.

On cue, Black’s cocktail slipped into his headphones: bone-chilling, back-tingling, brain-numbing: a schlock of suspense that epitomized the elevator music of reality show elimination segments: creaking metals, swooning organs, pounding drums: a meat freezer, a funeral hall, an African jungle, all in their cheesiest manifestations.

Black stared at pale-faced Raven, but with his sonic swamp swishing in his skull, his mind drifted to the past.  All those shows he’d worked on for the NTV/V2 conglomerate: ROMAN’S BESTEST B.F.F., CASH MONEY X 3, and the one that

got him started in the racket: TUFF ENUFF: SEASON 6.

All that suspense music.  All those hours in his apartment with his Pro-Tools, or in the mix room.  All those nights alone on the sixth floor of the Capitol Records tower, looming over Hollywood & Vine, toiling over masters.  All those months synchronizing with footage reels, watching contestants being lined up like cattle to be shot to his soundtrack.  All that sound pounding in his head, refusing to let him sleep at night, driving him to the ear-splitting edge.

The wrestling show, though the gaudiest, had haunted him, rattled his nerves the most: Being his first freelance TV gig, he equated the bone-crunching wrestling maneuvers, and the convulsing ring, as metaphors for the industry’s hard knocks.  The show’s catchphrase—ARE U TUFF ENUFF?—brainwashed him, reminding him that he could not, would not be a loser at this game.  Doing bills at the end of the month, staring at his trashed apartment, or staring down all those TV execs, staring right back at him, he’d ask himself: ARE U TUFF ENUFF, ROBERT BLACK?

Black wasn’t hearing the cemetery bells anymore, the SAW’s-1-through-5 iron scrapings, or the funereal cellos, inspired by the foghorns he used to listen to, rising from the San Pedro docks: the droning wail of some lumbering Lovecraftian leviathan, which in the worst of his unemployed moods, always signaled THE END.  Now in his earmuffs was weepy, wistful music: a lone, John Tesh harpsichord, plucked to Raven packing her bags, pulling a sliding glass door and walking, ankh and all, out of the rented Hollywood Hills mansion.  (Robert Black refused to compose sappy post-elim music, as it was dubbed in the biz: It would bleach his reputation.)

“Cut!” Waterman Jr., director, said and Raven’s ankh swung back through the glass door and up to Black.  She was smiling, Black thought, because she had procured her twenty-thousand dollar second place fee—smiling because she hadn’t run screaming out of the mansion in a fit of Prozac-fueled-sadness and eliminated herself before the winner was announced.  Or was she smiling because of Robert Black—that old face he’d caught her sizing up yesterday?  A face he hoped she had recognized in a CD bin, or on a late night Internet search.

“Robert Black?” she said.  “Were you on set yesterday?”

“I score the show, if you haven’t guessed.”  She looked him up and down, stopping in the middle to appraise his slight beer gut.  “Do you want to go drink this one

off?”  Black said, T-RON stepping away with Dakota for a private moment: O.C. they called it, Off-Camera.

“Sure.  But not tonight.  Tomorrow…at the wrap party.”

She was calling Black to her current turf: this cast of fair weather fuck-heads she had lived with—had to live with—for the past two months of her life.

Rich Waterman Jr., director, son of Rich Waterman Sr., CEO, stepped up to Raven.  Waterman Jr., a silver-spooner who wanted to be the next enfant terrible, was shooting reality shows incognito to “learn his craft”—instead of going the longer, harder route: UCLA film school, with all those critical eyes dissecting him, eyes that had driven away the First Father of Dark Romantic, that one-film wonder: Jim Morrison.

“Actors can’t date crew,” Waterman Jr., director, said, with a smirk.

“But crew can go to the wrap party,” Black said, nodding at Raven.

The smirk said what it said yesterday: Waterman Jr., director, wanted to bag Candace Reese, a.k.a. Raven, if only for the cheap frisson of having something he’d captured behind his lens.

Black walked away, for he didn’t want to forfeit his hand: He also wanted Raven and had watched her, in bikinis, pajamas, evening gowns: every outfit that a boyfriend (even a Goth boyfriend) would watch his girlfriend wear through the months.  He had grown so accustomed to admiring her ankh tattoo, as if he’d picked it out himself.  The tattoo tattoo transfixed him, because it reminded him of who she really was.

After timing the final episode’s schlock of suspense, deep into the nocturnal hours he could only work in, Black slept alone, his ominous organs, tinkling glass and whining bows swelling in his head.

#

Robert stepped into the club, scanning for Raven.

It didn’t take him long to see that sworn enemies from the show were keeping their distance, and that “unbreakable alliances” were clustered, their colorful drinks aglow—like warning signs, or mixed signals.

Under a thumping techno beat, Black sensed another tone, another note: Everyone was relieved the show was over.  The only worry on their faces was that wrinkle of tension Robert knew so well: when, where’s my next gig? Some of the actresses on T-RON’S REAL LOVE would be, or already were, repeat offenders: reality stars that garnered increasing pay, per second season, per spin-off.  They concealed their fear, their D-listedness, with intense chatter, centered around the biz, all roads Black had ridden before.

He caught Raven—Candace, he reminded himself to call her—in the corner of the bar.  Waterman Jr., director, leaned into her ear, yelling over the DJ.

Later, Black thought.

Dakota, wearing her ubiquitous suede cowboy hat, knocked back a tequila shot, T-RON nowhere in sight.

Black sidled up to the other end of the bar.  His usual: Guinness, the only beer dark enough for him.  Before he could fling out his twenty, the bar-back told him tonight was all on the house, on NTV/V2, Rich Waterman.  Black almost asked which one, but held back.

One look over at Candace, and she caught him.  Her lithe body slinked around the hulking son-of-a-CEO: Like a fox, Black thought, escaping a predator.

Candace, her drink held above the crowd, came striding over in her real attire: a corset stitched so tight it simply could not have been tied by one of her thin-wristed girlfriends (none of who appeared to be in sight).  Since Candace was wearing big, knee-high boots, Black had to imagine her ankh tattoo, bounding up to him, along with her crystalline drink: vodka, he guessed, a Goth standby popularized by Siouxsie, the one name wonder.

“Let’s go to Bar Sinister,” was the first thing she said to Black: a command?  He hadn’t been there in years, had outgrown the 80’s hit parade battery, the pretentious upstairs V.I.P. parlor.

“Anywhere’s better than here,” he said, grabbing Candy’s hand and turning for the exit.

Waterman Jr., director, stalked from behind, nudging nobodies aside, hangers-on, inconsequential cast members: Big Money, Six Pack, Dakota.  Black tracked Waterman as he shoved his way through.

“Old Hollywood rule,” Waterman smirked, “crew don’t date cast.”

Black returned the smirk, and said:

“Old punk proverb.  Piss off…”

Later, Black, shirtless, shoeless, sockless, would lie in bed next to Raven, after a long four-hour talk.  She would take off her boots, but stayed fully corseted—those strings tied too damn tight to undo in the shadows.

His ankle against hers, astride her ankh tattoo, he realized she was facing the same thing all of the other women in his life had ever faced.

Elimination.

#

Robert Black awoke to the ring of his phone, Candace Reese out of his bed, her number, scrawled on a napkin, imprinted with the purse of her black lips.

It was the producer, telling Black the review meeting

for his final take had been cancelled; NTV was happy with

the tape he’d dropped off yesterday—the deep floor toms  and gongs must’ve accented the pre-elimination jitters just perfectly—and he didn’t need to do another drop of work.

This was a first—no review meeting, no screening—so he gambled a call to NTV/V2.

The secretary, in a stream of sympathetic whispers, said that Waterman Sr., CEO, had actually “made the call.” They had “hired someone else” to time Black’s piece with the final cut of the last episode; Black’s mix was “grossly out of sync” with the footage reel and “Rich was pissed.”

Robert flopped back in bed, thinking of Rich Waterman Jr., director, son of Richard Waterman Sr., CEO: wondering why he’d mixed business with pleasure: wondering why he’d wanted a girl the boss’s son had already targeted: wondering if he’d walked into the whole mess on purpose.

He thought of the line he crossed, and a pun of such career-changing finality that it had to make him laugh, had to make him forget the last five years of his life, had to make him call Candace Reese back.

Robert Black had been blacklisted.

Eliminated.

The suspense was over.

MATT SHARAR, a writer from San Pedro, heard somewhere that you had to write a thousand pages to be a writer and he thinks, between the comic book scripts, short stories and children’s fantasy novel, he’s at nine-fifty so that appositive phrase at the start of this bio might be a lie.