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The Bus Stop

by Mike Sharlow

I hated the day the moment I woke up, and then it got worse when I went out into the world where Don Vandermeer cut in front of me in the bus line. My “take no shit attitude” was already at a level of complete intolerance. When I was in that surly place, I simmered a couple of degrees below the boiling point, and it didn’t take much to blow.

Every morning even before the bus arrived almost everyone formed a line. I was standing a little more than halfway back with my best friend Billy Cota. Don stepped in front of us and started talking to another kid.

Don and I had played on the same Little League baseball team in sixth grade. He played third base, and I played shortstop. We became friends during the season, but I could tell he liked me more than I liked him. He invited me over to his house all the time. I was comfortable on the field with him, but I felt awkward being alone with him. When we were in his bedroom, he liked to be way too close to me.

“Get in the back of the line,” I told Don, but he barely turned around to look at me. He was laughing and talking to a couple of kids. I thought they could be laughing at me.

Billy could see the mood I was in. “Mick, it’s okay.” Billy was shorter than me, and stocky. He stood between Don and me, therefore I could see Don’s tall lanky stature over him very easily.

“Get to the back of the line!” I couldn’t let it go, and I felt I had no choice. This was the demon my father — the alpha monster — had trained me to become. My senses were heightened, and they were fully directed at everything Don was doing. At this point, anything he did I considered a personal slight. His presence incited me.

Don ignored me until I pressed the issue. I demanded justice, and goddammit I was going to get it. I stepped in front of Billy to clarify my point. Billy saw the look on my face and saw that my hands were balled into fists, so he stepped back.

“Vandermeer!” By using Don’s last name, I meant business. “Get to the back of the line!” By this time, I had caught the attention of a few other kids. The bus pulled up. At this point there was no way I was going to let Don get on the bus in front of me. “Vandermeer!” I knew he had heard me before.

Don turned around and waved his hand in front of my face. In the least, he was being snarky; at the most it was an attempt to hit me. I took it for the latter, and the reflexes of my rage let my left fist go. It landed on his mouth with a Crack! that drew gasps from the kids that saw it.

Don cried and covered his mouth with his cupped hand. Blood dripped through his fingers onto the sidewalk lit by the morning sun. The fresh, deep purple blood on the sidewalk was obscene and traumatic. This was the evidence of my action, and I immediately wished it would disappear. The damage wouldn’t have been so bad, but Don wore braces. It was like my punch smashed his lips against a meat tenderizer. Don ran, probably back home, moments after I hit him.

The driver let me on the bus. I don’t think he saw what I did, but I’m sure he heard the accusations and chatter from the kids who had.

“He hit Don!”

“Did you see that!”

“Why did you hit him?”

And finally, from Lisa Ladd, who exemplified the coolest, prettiest, and nicest of girls in the seventh grade. “You didn’t have to hit him, Mick!”

I had no answer. I could have said, “I thought he swung at me.” That really wasn’t true, because in the split second when Don waved his hand at me, I knew it was his way of telling me to stop bothering him with my petty demand rather than an attempt to hit me. But a voice inside me told me I was justified and that my response was reasonable. Not until the backlash of those around me, who had witnessed the event, did I conclude that I had behaved badly. I wanted to escape the shame and fear. I hoped Don would be okay. How much damage had I really done?

I never looked at anyone the entire ride to school. My eyes were fixed ahead of me, hoping everyone would forget what had happened by the time we arrived at school. I was never so glad to get to my first class. No one from the bus was in math with me.

By the end of the hour my body stopped quivering, and I was beginning to feel normal again. I walked to second period, thinking this whole thing might just go away, but during that hour I was called to the office, and I knew it had blown up rather than blown over. Will I get suspended? Will I get expelled?

I didn’t fear what my dad would do to me. He didn’t lash out for behavior like this. His words never condoned, nor did he condemn it, and in the end his body language and tone were more like a proud father. “Well, sometimes things like that happen.”

I did worry what my mom would think. I never wanted to disappoint her. Although weak, she was the force of good in the family. “You know better,” she would say. I wasn’t sure whether it meant that I was raised to know right from wrong, or I had seen wrong so many times from my father that I should know better. Maybe, it was a combination of both.

I walked into the office, and Mr. Gaines, the Vice Principal, was standing at the door. He was an ominous man with a bald head and a booming voice. Every day he wore a suit and tie. My head came up to his armpit. Being short, I constantly found myself comparing my stature to others and made mental note when I was as tall, if not taller than someone else. I would never be as tall as Mr. Gaines.

“Are you Mick?” He didn’t smile. Every time he said something it sounded like someone was in trouble.

I nodded.

“My office.” He pointed with an extended arm.

When I walked into his office, I saw Don first, then his mom, and then my mom. I felt momentarily relieved, because I didn’t think Mr. Gaines would crush me front of my own mother. There were rumors about his medieval punishment.

My mom must have come from work. She was wearing a brown pantsuit with a yellow blouse, I usually never thought about these things, but it went well with her blonde hair. She was pretty with make-up on, and the way Mr. Gaines was talking, predominantly directing his attention to her, it seemed like he also noticed. My mom looked much better and younger than Don’s mom, a thin, wrinkly, nervous woman.

“So why don’t you tell me what happened, Mick.” Mr. Gaines’ tone wasn’t nice, but I had heard him yell — his voice crashing like it broke the sound barrier — at kids goofing around in the corridors, so I knew it could be much worse.

I told my side of the story. The story of how I thought Don was cutting in line, and he refused to get at the end. Then I saw his hand, and I thought he was swinging at me.

“Don said his friend invited him to the place in line, so he admits to cutting in. He said he was just waving his hand while talking.” Mr. Gaines didn’t look at Don, but I did. His eyes were still glassy from crying, and his lips were split, puffy, and swollen but no longer bleeding.

“It’s not like Mick to do something like this,” my mom pled my case. She was correct. I didn’t get into many fights. Nor I did I punch other kids on a regular basis, but sometimes all the ingredients were there, and the conditions were right. Really though, my mom shouldn’t have acted so surprised by this incident, and it was extraordinary that my life wasn’t more violent given how it was imposed at home.

Then Don’s mom spoke up: “Don really likes Mick. He has invited him over to our house quite a few times. I don’t how or why this this happened.” She still looked visibly upset.

Of course, after this, I was never invited back to Don’s house. I didn’t care. I thought Don’s form of play was boring and uncomfortable. One time he wanted to toss around his stuffed animal monkey while we sat on his bed. He kept throwing it so he could fall on top of me, and he wanted me to do it to him. I didn’t get it, and I didn’t like it.

I waited for the punishment from Mr. Gaines. “It seems to me that it was a reflex. You thought he was swinging at you, and you reacted. It was a reflex. An accident. I think you two should shake hands and put this behind you.”

Mr. Gaines must have talked to some of the other kids on the bus. They did not see my action as some kind of self-defense, but Mr. Gaines did and justified me. He didn’t even tell me to apologize to Don.

As Mr. Gaines stood up from behind his desk, everyone also stood. “Mick, you can go to class.”

“I’ll see you at home after school.” My mom touched my shoulder. She never did that.

It was over, but Don’s mom looked unsatisfied. “I’m taking Don home with me today,” she said.

“I understand.” Mr. Gaines nodded.

“Good-bye, Noreen,” my mom said to Don’s mom as nicely as I had ever heard her talk to anyone.

“Bye.” Don’s mom smiled uncomfortably and led Don away.

Two days later, when Don returned to the bus stop, kids — mostly girls — gathered around him. They gave me the stink-eye. I acted like I didn’t see them. Don looked at me hurtfully and suspiciously, but he never cut in line in front of me again, nor anyone else, for that matter.

Copyright © 2020 by Mike Sharlow

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