When the cops caught me I was huffing, hot, standing outside the white half-bus Ma told me never to ride in. Made me mad when she first said it, because the bus had no wheels. Me and my friends go looking for cigarettes under that bus once our moms fall asleep by the TV or the ones that work nights get on the working bus and the bus gets far enough down the street they can’t see. The guys don’t know, but I sneak out there early sometimes and scoop up all the butts I can find alone and stuff them in my big cig jar. Nobody knows about the jar, either. I keep it in the highest shelf in the shed under an old towel that’s streaked rust-red from touching car parts. I kept it in my room at first but the smell got stronger and worse and pretty soon Ma was tossing my dirty shirts, inside-outing the pockets like she might find a whole, lit pack. She never found it. Before Will James left us he told me You gotta sneak what-all you can and keep it, don’t matter if it’s a secret or not, just keep it and also A man’s just that! Got to get a bottle or a house or a box to hold in tight what-all you snuck. I didn’t think much about W.J. at the time, but I didn’t know after that talk he was gonna be gone. I liked him enough to not sneak stuff from the duffel bag he always dumped in the doorway when he came by, so how could I have known what would happen?
The white half-bus is where I put the snakes after I snuck them from the science lab. I knew the guys were never gonna believe me unless I showed them, so I had to find a safe place to keep the snakes until somebody saw. Aunt Mags always says witness instead of saw - but witness also means when someone sees God. I know God gets kept in your heart, however that works, and you can’t keep snakes there, but still. I wanted witnesses.
When I was running across the football field holding them it felt like my chest was full of all kinds of snakes and it felt that same way when those cops showed up and saw me standing there by the no-wheel half-bus just waiting. They knew I was keeping something I guess, I don’t know how, maybe they smelled them squirming on each other in the dark of the half-bus. I bet those snakes made a worse stink all swirled up together under the back seat than they would have made if I’d left them laying smooth and straight, one-by-one like the teachers kept them in glass tanks at school. That’s why I took the snakes in the first place – there must have been ten or fifty snakes, and I could tell they weren’t supposed to be stuck there, like stacks of TVs on display. Teachers are always separating me and the guys when we talk too much and then they go and separate every one of these snakes in different square glass tanks with these black lamps popped up on top, ugly, like the ones leaning over the office desks in cops shows. I know what kind of lamps those are – the men under them miserable. I got to wondering one day whether or not the snakes could see each other at all, even when the glass was clear, what with the glare from those lamps and all the other crap between them. And I wondered if they were mad about the stuff our class put in the cages with them, taking up more and more of what little wiggle space was left with neon plastic castles and a jagged tree trunk made out of stuff that really wasn’t tree when you touched it.
What I did was I didn’t sleep, I just stayed up real late until it wasn’t late and it was early, but not full-on morning yet, and I went down to the science room to save them. It was late enough the 5th-level doors were unlocked for school the next day, but still early because the janitors hadn’t started cleaning. I wasn’t even scared because I knew what I was doing. I was on purpose. I stuck my hand in from the top, knocked over a few turned-off lamps, and grabbed a snake out from every glass box. They were so skinny I could carry them all in two hands. Then I ran home fast with both hands up in the air like a champion at the end of a race where they go arms-up and break through a ribbon. I’ve never seen a runner like me, with two fistfuls of snakes streaming behind like bunches of broken ribbons.
The sun wasn’t even all the way up yet, the neighborhood behind school still white-skin-pink, and Ma must have still been in her room asleep. I saw the half-bus and knew it was the right place. The snake bunch looked like wet black brains. They went crazy when I dropped them under the back seat. Me and the guys hung around there most days, so I knew I could keep my secret safe. I’d see if any of the snakes tried to escape through one of the no-wheel holes. I thought I could keep them hidden and see them every day if I wanted to, but that’s not what happened.
I was just standing there, but the cop car parked weird against the curb right beside me, didn’t even bother to line up the tires real close like W.J. was gonna teach me. The car just slanted and stopped, and two white men strapped tight in dark blue uniforms came up to me kind of smiling. Both seemed hot under their big hats, all tied up with belts and hooks across their middles. One cop laid his arm over my shoulders, started saying in my ear don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid kid. I knew better than to try to slip away, so I stayed still. The other cop crouched down and started patting my legs like he was looking for something he’d already seen or smelled and knew was there. I wasn’t afraid because I hadn’t found any cigarette butts yet that day. There was nothing in my pockets at all. I never would have stuffed those snakes anywhere so close to me as a pocket. That’s not how to keep things, I thought of that other thing W.J. said before he left. He said give your secrets a little room, walking through our kitchen on his way out. So while the fatter cop’s patting up my legs and then at my crotch and around my pockets, I got to thinking about this one guy who used to hang out with our group. Kid Celtic was what people called him, but I never knew why. He was older than us, had a wonky eye, but was from our same street, and some of the guys say the old half-bus is his but I don’t care about that because it doesn’t move, doesn’t matter. Kid Celtic though, he went to the hospital and then left school. The science teachers always call him an example because of what he did, and I never understood why he took the moon-rock-banana-rock or where he was planning on taking it. He didn’t hide the rock away, or take it somewhere safe, or show it to his friends so they could witness. He didn’t hold it up in the air and run fast through a dreamed-up-ribbon.
Kid Celtic was at the high school one day when he was still a student, and it was hot out. He was in science class, chemistry I think, and I guess he got mad like I did about the snake-cases but he was mad about this white rock chunk they were messing with in glass beakers. So he snuck out this rock from one of the experiments, a marble-sized piece of potassium. Kids in my grade said it looked like a moon-chunk, but they were idiots, and they didn’t see it either. And then I guess Celtic just forgot about it. He stuck it in his pocket and just forgot. Then gym class made it happen. Celtic was jogging laps around the track as punishment for being late, and the rock just fired up out of nowhere. I remember the older guys who had been there laughing about the injury later. The potassium burned craters in his ball sack and lit up his thighs through the pocket of his gym shorts. They said the whole locker room smelled like burnt flesh for days after Kid Celtic left in the ambulance.
I was still thinking about Kid Celtic when the fat, grabby cop stood back up and made for the front door of the half-bus, quick, like he wanted to surprise us. I wasn’t worried he might find my snakes because the floor of the bus was the same color as the snakes and neither of the cops were looking down at the ground like I was. The fat cop leaned in and busted open the glove box with a metal bat he pulled from his belt-hook, and a new, whole pack of cigarettes fell to the dirt. That box had been locked as long as the bus has been there. None of the guys in our group have metal bats to bust things open, and even if we did we’d have never thought to beat out hidden stuff from parts of the bus that weren’t already open to us. We had enough half-buried treasures under the body. I knew not to grab for the pack, but I had a little vision-flash of those fresh, whole cigs filling my cig jar to the top, so many the jar would be full and the project finished. Then I’d need to move on. That thought made me feel both excited and ashamed but then the feeling faded. It was hard to watch the whole pack drop under the bus and just stand there, doing nothing. I was still staring at the pack on the ground thinking I could maybe start a new jar only for unsmoked cigarettes, and that way the old cig butt jar could keep going and the new cigs wouldn’t be wasted, when the fat cop pulled out a small silver gun and waved it back and forth in front of his face. He held it pinched in two fingers like when girls in science class went to touch the snakes – they always got scared and did it wrong like that.
That’s when Ma came out in her nightshirt, not even with another shirt over it like she does when she answers the door. She didn’t look mad, but she was something. She was moving slow-fast like a cat, like I could feel how fast she wanted to go but wasn’t going. The arm-around officer put his other palm on my chest and started to push-pull me backward toward his car. When Ma reached us the car door was already open and it felt like too late. The cop hand-tucked my head into the backseat like they do on TV, not saying anything. But they hadn’t found my snakes so I still thought I was okay.
What I didn’t see til I watched Ma through the backseat window, almost on the way to somewhere else, was that Ma was beating her arms on her chest but also wrapping them up around her shoulders at the same time. Like she was feeling for a way to hold herself with herself, and she was crying. She kept saying the same thing but rearranging the words a little to make it sound different each time:
Don’t do me like that
How you gonna do that
You know that’s not how you gonna do this
It’s not right to do us like that
Why you gotta do me like that
My baby don’t do this
Don’t do this to me
No You don’t gotta do me like that Why
Why are you doing this