We Do Not Understand

A bus ride is like purgatory: It’s not quite hell, but it is a place that determines who’ll go to hell.

And I wasn’t quite sure if Colby Mathews would be going to hell or not. The boy was evil, no doubt. But did he really have the malicious soul-stuff to burn in eternal hellfire? Maybe yes. Maybe no.

His younger sister was cute. Hot maybe even.

Okay definitely hot, but in a sweet, big-eyed, soft-speaking sort of fashion. It was the kind of hot other people’s sisters ought to be.

My sister, Claire, was (Thank Almighty) not this or any kind of hot. She was instead the whiny, snot-nosed Mathelete hot, which is to mean in my book ‘not hot at all’. And she steals.

But Colby. Back to Colby. While Martha controls only the wheel and the gas pedal up front, the true King of the bus – at least on Bus 147 – reigns from the back of the bus. But what a splendid throne it was: the gray-green plastic slouching and squeaking under his weight and even cracking where his shoulder blades distressed it. He was a mean boy, but I do not know if he knew it. By his junior year it seemed more he thought it was just the rightful way of the world for him to lord over the other kids, controlling the noise, leading subversive assaults on the bus driver, empowering those princely minions that would establish their own rule at the bus stops and cafeterias outside of Colby’s domain. It was a power earned by sneering, cutting jokes, which were on occasion coupled with a viper-like punch. Ours was not a district of civilized old-school yard brawls, boy-to-boy, fist-to-fist; we were a children that kept our quiet rot under the topsoil.

My first memory of them was surreal; for as we pulled up to the bus stop on Mulyard Street, simultaneously the sun sparked in the east and a drizzle fell. Two sixlets got on to the bus as usual. Then a whisper swept the bus. I looked up to see the crown of black hair, not wet, for the rain just sat upon his tight curls, refusing to mingle. His face was angular, strong, and dark brown. Coffee without sugar or cream. And he took his time up each step, until his full height was realized. He almost seemed a building, tall and solid. As he surveyed the bus and its passengers, another boy, of the same structure and skin, of the same stoic countenance rose up the stair. Twins, who took the seat directly behind Martha, setting the striped knapsacks down and speaking to each other is whispers I could not determine from the mid-section. I did a slow turn to the back of the bus, and there upon the throne was a hint of a scowl.

I didn’t have any classes with them, as the only class I have with seniors is for those who are taking remedial math. I did hear the story of their introduction though: They introduced themselves as Jacque and Mathius. The teacher welcomed Jack and Mathew to the class and to America.

Everything else I heard that day was speculation. Colby’s younger sister sat beside me in the back row of Science class. She looked me up and down while I stared at the textbook. “These rumors that Colby’s gonna fight the black kids is a total waste of time.” I nodded and stared at the textbook. I always tried to appear a good listener, even if my mind was half frozen with lust and half screaming with lust. “He’s the boss. He just is. Who cares if they’re seniors?”

I could just manage a whisper. “Ya. Who cares?”

Everyone cared though. The question reverberated through the building all morning: Would the black boys usurp Colby’s throne? I expected the showdown would happen at lunch and placed myself on the cement block to the south of the cafeteria, so I could see everything unfold.

Nothing happened though. Jacque and Mathius ate lunch with their French teacher. Colby just ate Doritos with his underlings. So I knew this would explode on the bus.

Decisions had already been made by the time I got on the bus. Soul-stuff decision. The twins sat, postured like sentinel in the back seat. Across the aisle to their right sat two cheerleaders. In front of the twins there was an empty seat, as if to imply that Colby could sit there. The world felt wrong or at least confused: the central pillar of our world in doubt, a hierarchy at risk of crumbling.

There were minutes of every kid taking quiet breaths and staring at and reexamining the situation: a bomb suspended in air. We all waited to see what or who would be destroyed.

And when it  happened we were not a subtle audience. Our necks rotated in unison as we followed Colby and his sister up the sidewalk, on the stairs of the bus. His sister sat two rows ahead of me. Colby walked on. He had to have known; between the rumors and the shell-shocked look on all of our faces, he had to have known. He played it casually though. Relished it even. When he was near the back his eyebrows furrowed and he shifted his focus between the two, who did not quite smile but kept a stoney pleasantness.

Colby stopped right in front of the twins, arms length away from the nearest. Everything froze. Everything stayed frozen. Then Martha’s voice cracked through the speakers: “Sit down or we’ll be behind schedule.”

Colby looked at the furthest twin and said, “Get out of my seat, now.”

The twins looked at each other, their eyebrows identically twined up.

“You heard me. Get out of my seat now you d—-d n—–s.”

Both twins stood up; the closest looked back at Colby with absolute clarity and said, “Nous ne comprenons pas.” They were stone; they did not move or budge.

Colby looked frantically around. All eyes avoided his. I imagine them as outraged, but confused; focused, but desperate; relinquishing. He silently sat down in the second to last seat.

Nic HeadshotNicholas Darlinton is an 8th grade reading and writing teacher. He also heads up the Scholastic Arts & Sciences writing contest in our area, making him the biggest Flying M-Inkling advocate for literacy.

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