By Jason M. Thornberry
(First published in Soundings East, Volume 43, Spring 2021)
He was the loudest kid on the bus—and his stop was one ahead of mine, so when I got on at seven in the morning, full of Cheerios, whole milk and half awake, Steve was the first thing I heard or saw. Steve’s favorite subject was music. This band’s great; this band’s better. But these guys were burnt beyond recognition. It was such a shame they were still making records, so many years after their currency lost its value. On those rare occasions when Steve wasn’t lecturing the other high school kids on the bus about music, he examined the megalomania of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher or the blinkered idiocy of our instructors. But when Steve was particularly bored, he simply talked about the other students, in front of them.
“Say,” he’d begin. “Don’t you think it’s about time you talked your parents into using some form of birth control?”
Or: “Don’t you wish your parents had better taste when it came to what they made you wear to school?”
Or: “Don’t you wish you could go back in time and stop your parents from bringing you home from the hospital with them?”
Most ignored Steve. While everyone on our long yellow caravan was crammed three to a seat, sprawled-out-Steve appraised the heap of teenagers from his moving sofa. He smiled. And then he resumed his latest electrified diatribe, holding court before a captive audience of ninth and tenth graders biding their time until Drivers Ed.
A spectator might have called Steve the poor runt with the quick mouth. Even though he sounded like the arbiter of good taste, Steve’s clothes were actually pretty far out of season and occasionally a little dirty too, as though he’d worn them a few times before his mother did the wash. And while he was quick to make fun of the newest kids for clumsily bounding aboard the bus in the morning, drawing attention to their greasy hair and their new pimples, Steve wore a cracked front tooth. It was something a dentist could have fixed but never did. Steve’s restless kinetic energy suggested that his breakfast had more sugar in it than cereal. Sitting by himself, he seemed to vibrate like a hummingbird. He stood out in graphic relief next to the other middle-class kids in our neighborhood. It seemed like something he grew up with. Steve’s mouth was a defense mechanism. But occasionally he attacked without provocation.
I knew who Steve was, but I never really engaged him with him in any way. I never went out of my way to avoid him either. But by never sitting in his vicinity or acknowledging him, the message I sent was probably clear.
Late leaving sixth period one Friday afternoon, I jumped aboard, out of breath and just in time. The only available seat was just across from Steve. As we pulled away from campus, the students, happy to be momentarily liberated, told jokes, and made weekend plans. I sat with a note pad on my knee, in my own world. I was able to tune out almost everything while I was writing. I could be in a noisy classroom moments before the teacher arrived, or across the hall from my father berating my stepmother. The bus wasn’t usually any different.
However, that day, I became the topic of a one-man symposium when Steve took notice of the short-sleeved button up shirt I had forgotten I was wearing. It featured some sort of tie-dyed Hawaiian apocalypse happening across the front—it looked as though Jimmy Buffett had just thrown up on me. And I would disimprison it from the closet specifically in winter so I could throw something warm over it. But I had forgotten my jacket that day.
I kept writing, adhering to the old camping proverb: ignore pests and they’ll go away. But that didn’t work on someone already acclimated to indifference. A few students laughed in my direction and I finally put my pencil down, knowing that my clear head was gone.
As we left the outskirts of town, drawing closer to my neighborhood, Steve wanted to know whether I was getting enough Vitamin C in my diet. He proposed that one of the earliest indications of encroaching sightlessness was being able to leave the house dressed as I was. By then we’d made a few stops and now the bus was less than a third full, but it felt like the others were all laughing along with him. Steve predicted my reaction, announcing to everyone in his thickest hayseed accent that I thought my clothes were just fine.
When I caught Steve’s eye, he was beaming, enjoying the mild amusement of the others. For once he wasn’t being ignored.
I blushed loudly. But then I said that Steve wasn’t one to talk, what with that stretched-out pillowcase he called a shirt. The bus driver cranked his enormous hula hoop steering wheel, pulling up alongside a row of dented and rusty and cobweb encrusted mailboxes around the corner from my house. Steve watched, curling his lip, hoping for me to engage him in a little verbal cut and thrust. I could sense the boy working on his farewell address to me.
So, I stood with the others leaving and I took a few steps toward the door. And then I threw my backpack onto an empty bench, sitting down with an elongated theatrical sigh:
“I think I’ll be getting off at your stop today.”
Steve rolled his eyes and then he nodded.
“Yeah, and I’ll let you borrow a shovel so you can give that shirt a decent burial.”
The driver chuckled and the door slid shut.
As we sputtered along through the dips and divits in the road, I watched my rival, who sat with his feet on the seat of our empty bus as acres of vacant fields with brown, long dead weeds passed our windows. Another brushfire biding its time.
Every few years, greedy, ravenous flames swept the area, leaving nothing but flat, smoking earth. A wasteland. The people who lived there kept on living there. I wondered how long it might be until the next blaze forced us from our homes.
The North End, as our neighborhood was called, was little more than an outpost of weeds, ravines, rocks, dirt bike trails, and the occasional length of rusted barbed wire. I remember when I first came to live here it was like a world uprooted, banished from the one I visited for school. No traffic. Not a single store. It had the prevailing character, atmosphere, and spirit of the country. But a strange feeling quickly took hold. Like a depersonalization disorder, it was as though the inhabitants were in a fugue state—amnesic, unable to account for why they’d chosen to put themselves and their families on the outskirts of nothingness—doing it almost in reaction to something they couldn’t quite place, like the person who drifts aimlessly from the scene of his own mugging,
wiping blood from his forehead and commenting on the rain.
Coming back to the North End from school, our neighborhood felt so perfectly bleak, its residents under willful, self-imposed quarantine. Nowadays, there was only the bachelor professor Steve-Next-Door; the quiet couple Phil and Patty on the corner; Cooper, the introverted truck driver down the other street; my friend James, his sister Janet, and their mother Judy; and Mrs. Reeves on the other corner.
And despite my fondness for most of them, I realized that detaching yourself from society and moving to the boondocks had its clear shortcomings. Living in the middle of nowhere without a library or television access didn’t make you a hero. This prescribed separation, this willful partitioning was meaningless when you considered the fact that the people who extricated themselves from the rotting city nearby still spent most of their waking hours working in it.
As we neared the last isolated bus stop situated between the freeway overpass and a set of empty train tracks, I realized how far I would have to walk to get home. But then I pictured Rambo and how he would react if someone dared to pick on his shirt. He would tear it off in shreds, exposing his battle-scarred torso, greased with the perspiration of imminent destruction. Ripping off my own shirt would have only exposed my bird chest, wan and bony. So I tried a piercing stare instead. But my hostility meant nothing to Steve. I wasn’t muscle-bound and full of bad dreams and torture scars—I was a scrawny, pimply, sexually frustrated adolescent armed with a pencil and a notebook full of uneven sentences.
The bus was quiet for a change, just Steve, me, and a few others. One of the other kids contributed the March of Doom melody.
“Dum, dum, de-dum, dum-de, du-du-du-du-dummm!”
The humming stopped.
“Y’all don’t be fightin’ on my bus now!”
The enormous bus driver locked eyes with me in his rearview mirror. His uniformed shoulders were a light royal blue, moistened by Jheri-curl activator gel. And though he might have had trouble freeing himself from behind that steering wheel, we took his words as a succinct epigram on how not to get a foot lodged in our behinds. He’d already warned us.
“Boys think you wanna fight? You can take that business away from my stop,” he said. “I ain’t playin’!” The vehicle slowed. “That or I’ll just dump y’all off separately—make you walk way the hell home.”
Steve fiddled with the front of his sneaker, ignoring the driver and me. A few of his toes were coming out of the front and a padding of black electrician’s tape encircled the tip of his other shoe.
As we pulled up to Steve’s bus stop, I jumped down and marched across the street, slinging my backpack against the curb, waiting. Hands in my pockets, balancing on the edge. I didn’t know what else to do. I was conflicted, acting out a role in which I had been miscast.
The driver stopped Steve before he got off. Steve shook his head.
The big man barked at me: “Don’t start no mess now.” Then he yanked the handle and
the door slid shut, tires rubbing the curb as he accelerated and drove away. I saw the driver’s big brown eyes staring back at mine in his rearview mirror.
Steve came over after a moment, his head still down.
“Your mouth’s gonna get you in serious trouble, kid.” I said, hoping to sound dangerous, like Matt Dillon in My Bodyguard.
After I saw the movie, in elementary school, I combed my wet hair straight backward, the way his character Moody did. Then I stood in the bathroom and took note of my
But I couldn’t channel Matt Dillon that day.
“I was just playing around with you,” Steve said.
He looked at me.
“Then why didn’t you just drop it? Go on another rampage about music or your math teacher again. Why me?” I asked. “Of all the people that ride that bus every day, you chose the one who wouldn’t pick on you in a million years.”
It was the first time I had ever seen Steve smile.
“Listen, I really don’t care about your shirt. I was just bored.” He smiled. “We’ve been on the bus for months. I don’t even know your name.”
Of course, he didn’t know my name. I was invisible. And Steve was harmless.
I shook his hand and surveyed the walk home. It wasn’t far—but a half-mile in the middle of nowhere is a journey. What a waste, I thought. I made a complete ass out of
myself. Over this. Over a Christmas shirt. I’m burning this thing when I get home.
“Wanna come over and listen to some records?” Steve asked.
I was supposed to be angry—but the emotions wouldn’t solidify. All of the things I heard about finding myself inside the moment—when that moment meant you were on the verge of battle. And all of the movies I’d seen about guys who were only able to silence their demons by returning to Vietnam twenty years after the war, to crush and destroy others, bathing in entrails, gargling red fluid. That primal testosterone roar, that syrup of stupidity uniting males everywhere. It felt different when you were a child, watching it on video at your house in the sticks. But what about in the real world?
I had been in a couple of karate tournaments, and the brisk flood of adrenalin to my system when I was about to spar always threw me off balance. My arms and legs went rigid, as though my joints were filled with glue. I was supposed to dance across the room like Bruce Lee and triumph over my opponent. I would rather have had a conversation. Find out what sort of books they read or what kinds of music they listened to. Had they decided on their own to study Tae Kwon Do or was it to make their fathers proud of them?
It didn’t take long to realize that I was a lot like Steve, and after that moment we were inseparable: he was over at my house when school let out or I was over at his, listening
to music in his bedroom.
Steve introduced me to The Cure, Bauhaus, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. I introduced him to Repo Man, a movie whose soundtrack opened us both up to another universe: Black Flag, The Circle Jerks. Punk rock. We watched the Decline of Western Civilization documentary constantly. Steve found a cassette copy of the soundtrack as well, but in the movie, these bands were right there living their lives in front of the camera: paying bills, ignoring bills, underbathing, overdosing.
This was a point of view many miles removed from the fashion-victims we went to Cajon High School with. The elitist attitudinizers with their brand-new spiked bracelets, combat boots, salon Mohawks and Dead Kennedys t-shirts freshly ironed by the same parents whose corrupted ideals they pretended to rebel against.
We moved on to hip-hop. Steve introduced me to Kool Moe Dee and Kurtis Blow. We discovered Grandmaster Flash, and I told him about hearing The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” when I was eight. I still remembered the lyrics.
Steve never belonged to a scene. He wasn’t a punk rocker; he wasn’t a new waver with crunchy gel in his hair or a longhaired stoner in a Judas Priest t-shirt; nor was he a mindless, mechanical jock cretin.
When Steve played me records, like MC Shan’s “The Bridge,” or Malcolm McLaren’s “D’ya Like Scratchin?” he was just a kid who loved music. He was an underprivileged teenager who lived in the tiny duplex his mother rented on the outskirts of the North End of San Bernardino, California. He picked on other kids’ clothing and their musical tastes, as well as the rigorous dogma to which they subscribed. But Steve was wearing timeworn hand-me-downs and living in a world where, sooner or later, everything would be held together by tape.
Teasing the others—the ones so much better off than him—was therapeutic. The spoiled brats in their Bad Boy Club sneakers and acid washed Levis, Ocean Pacific polo shirts, trench coats, and mullets. My new best friend countermarched instead, seeking shelter in scratched twelve-inch singles and dusty 45s.
As my obsession with music developed, it felt as though I had always known him. And my dream of becoming a novelist evolved. I wanted to be a musician too.
We were freshmen. It was 1985.