Jason was a second-grade sliver, a white silhouette—had legs like wrists, wrists like fingers, had white and wild hair, smooth as silk. Each morning as the bus approached, you could see him jump, jab, punch and pummel the air, spin in circles, skewer his villains, his imaginary monsters made for TV.
He boarded the bus as a Mighty Morphin’ Power Ranger. Sat small in his seat, squirmed, poked, spoke cartoon, a kind of stringbean squeal. His fantasy was a secret I wished he hid, a delicate unreality ill fit for the school bus hierarchy. He wiped boogers on his book bag and spoke to his Power Ranger friends: Rita Repulsa, Zordon, and the mega zords; Turbo Tronz and Tyrannosaur. He was a boy unaware of the danger he was in. And I wanted to help him.
Back-of-the-bus bullies—sixth graders with hats worn sideways and mouths like monsters, their pants sagging beneath their bums—they never bothered me, but one swab of booger from Jason and who knew? They could smash him. They knew how to call you a [bad word!]—knew how to cut to the heart of how small we all really are.
Jason, he just sat there, squirming, squeaking, completely unaware of the danger behind him. Rapt by the voices in his head—only he could hear; only I could see. I wanted to help him. He frightened me, impressed me. Made me worry. For him. For me.
I was just a chubby little fifth-grader, who knew how to be quiet, just a boy who liked to stare out the school bus window and in my boldest moment would spit at the passing street signs to impress the backseat boys. On the bus I alternately shrank in my seat and puffed my chest to be seen. I felt safer and stronger when I was at home, eating the snacks Ma made for me, listening to the Adventures in Odyssey on the radio, or running in the woods, catching frogs and snakes, or building forts in the pines.
On the bus, I was endangered. On the bus, I wondered why the older boys called each other the n-word even though their skin was pale, why they called each other the f-word even though they talked about the girls they’d like to [bad word!]; just wondered what gave them their power. I wanted only to be seen and to not be seen … by my older sister diligently doing her homework in the front seat … by the bus driver … by the backseat boys … by Jason … by …
One day, on the way home from school, I sat next to Jason—and seized the chance. I can help him, I thought. I can show him how wrong he is, I thought.
And as the bus started rolling, Jason started creep-creep creeping, talking again with all his Power Ranger nonsense. He said, “You know the White Ranger, right? Have you seen the episode when …. ?”
“No, Jason … Come on. I don’t— ”
“Zorgon zord?” He limply punched the seat. “Rita Repulsa?”
“No. Jason, listen … Please, you’ve gotta know that show is no good,” I said. “You have to stop believing that show.” To be uncool was a death sentence, and sitting next to him, I felt a call to squash the voices in our heads.
“You can be the Blue Ranger,” he poked at me. “Boop-boop, beep … I’m the White Ranger …”
“Jason, no. You’ve got to stop playing. That show, it’s not real. It’s fake!”
“Meh.” He poked at the seat.
“Jason, really …. The Power Rangers are bad. They’re stupid. The show’s dumb!”
And then … in a split-split-split … I hope the fellas cannot see … Ma kissed me as I ran to catch the bus … my carnal itch; my coincidence … how the neighbor boys stab bullfrogs in their throats … how my eyes tear up when others’ don’t … how my desk-mate at school smells like moth balls and won’t shut up … my fist … a phlegm-curdled yawp, “You don’t understand. You don’t understand. You don’t understand.” … how face rush ground … how, one day, I do all the drugs … how toads wash up on Shoemaker Road, their bodies flat as pancakes … how of the nine children she bore, I’m the one who tore my mother’s [bad word!] … how all jaws close eventually … and my eyes see the frog’s eyes see my eyes see the frog’s eyes see … pop … a phlegm-curdled yawp … after a rainy day, a thick film of dirt and blood and skin sticks to asphalt where the bus …
And smash. One thing I’ll forever remember is Jason’s head of hair, how his skull cradled perfectly in the palm of my hand, how his oversized glasses fought the momentum and strove to stay in place as my forearm sped towards the window—how on impact, his head slammed against glass, bounced back at me, bounced back tome—returned, a white, frizzy blur of mad-scientist coif, a bony tuft of albino lab-rat fuzz … an object … mine to throw.
Jason was stunned. Quiet. Shaking.
Nobody saw. Nobody moved. No one reacted. Not my sister. Not the bus driver. Not even the kids on the back of the bus. In 1993, as a fifth-grade boy, I assaulted a second-grade boy in plain view for all to see—and nobody cared.
I grabbed Jason’s head and shoulders and rocked his soft-skinned bones like a baby. I said over and over again, “Jason, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry …”