Jamie Garrison knew he’d made a mistake when Connor Condon began to thrash around inside the plastic Kmart bag. The kid looked like a fish, his big mouth puffing out and pulling in the plastic, his lips fat and purple. Jamie saw Connor’s eyes staring back at him in the window. He could see the boy’s skin slowly changing color, the muscles in his neck straining to yank the plastic off his face.
Jamie didn’t stop though. He just ground his teeth together and pulled tighter while the ninth-graders near the front took up a chant of condom, condom, condom, condom…their voices bounced between the syllables. The bus driver wasn’t even looking, her eyes burning into the back of a stalled driver’s head, her horn blaring at the green Chevy that refused to move from the turning lane. Brock was in the seat beside Jamie and leading the chant with his hands in the air, his mouth dangling open as it always did, his leather jacket reeking of cat piss. Brock flicked his wrists like a maestro and the chant rose.
Jamie kept his eyes on the scummy window and watched Connor’s head slowly nod itself into a blank stare. It was then the fear struck, that this little piece of shit might not wake up, that this little pimply ass in track pants and a Ghostbusters T-shirt might never open his eyes again. Jamie took Connor’s head and bashed it hard against the window again and again until the handle on the bag snapped. Brock and a bunch of the other kids laughed and said it sounded hollow, like a fucking coconut, man. The condom chant receded and then died out altogether.
Every few weeks they would grow tired of tormenting Connor, forgo all the condoms filled with condiments and the permanent markers they used to draw on his face. Jamie’s favourite was the Fu Manchu they gave him for Thanksgiving. Brock used a brown marker he stole from his remedial art class. But then the kid would have to go and do something stupid, start singing the Cheez Whiz song or bring his GI Joes on the bus like it was show and tell. Without fail, Connor Condom would always find a way to draw a larger target on his back, an ever-expanding circle. The longer the gap between his humiliations, the bigger the target would grow, until every eye in the hall seethed at his presence. Teachers looked the other way or smiled behind their attendance sheets. Bets were made on when exactly he would kill himself.
Melissa Hurley knocked on the tenth-grade heads to test if they sounded as hollow as the Condom kid’s did. She laughed and poked at Connor’s body and then ran up and down the bus aisle, rapping skulls with her thick costume jewelry. Brock played the bongos on his own head. No one, they agreed, sounded as hollow as that fucking Condom kid. Jamie sat back in the seat and kicked at Connor’s back. The boy slumped forward and whacked his head on the seat in front of him. Nobody ever sat beside the Condom kid, even when the bus was crowded.
After the bus got to school, even Jamie and Brock ran when they heard the high-pitched wail of Marlene the bus driver, her tongue piercing somehow enhancing the cry that burst from the yellow tunnel of the bus. She stumbled out carrying the boy’s limp form. The Kmart bag was still plastered to Connor’s face.
There was no suspension, but only after hours of interrogation in the vice principal’s office with the blinds drawn. Mr. Georgopolous, with his hairy arms and shining comb-over, slammed his fists on the desk again and again, a fat finger pricking Jamie in the chest every time he asked a question. What had that kid ever done to him, this Connor Condon? What did he do to deserve this? Who else was involved? Why did no one report this until now? Why, in fact, was it the bus driver who had to find the body almost buried under one of the backseats?
Jamie sat still and closed his eyes against the spittle gathering on his cheeks. Mr. Wilkinson, the actual principal, stood against the door with his hands behind his back. Graves Memorial Collegiate and Vocational did not need another visit from local law enforcement. They agreed this would be handled internally.
The questions continued. Jamie had answers for them all but kept his mouth shut. He knew they had no interest in the way the Condom kid always spread out his homemade lunch across an entire table in the cafeteria; the way he raised his hand, always twisting his palm in the air like he was the Queen in a parade.
They didn’t notice the smell of his armpits when he pulled himself up the steps onto the bus, the small black hairs that dotted his nose when you got nice and close to his face before you spat on him. All one hundred and fifty ways that hatred festered through Garrison’s thoughts and found its expression through drive-by eggings and violent free-for-alls behind the Zellers on Friday nights. Don’t forget the cadence of that kid’s voice, as if the vocal cords in his throat couldn’t commit to one sound before the other, causing them to trip and fall out of his mouth in a bloody, phlegmy mess. Make that one hundred and fifty-one ways Jamie Garrison had learned to hate the Condom kid.
The blinds stayed closed and eventually Georgopolous left in a flurry of damp paper and dandruff. His mistress was waiting for him down at the Pillaros Hotel. That was the word in the halls. Mr. Wilkinson took over. He sat across from Jamie in the vice principal’s chair and placed his feet on the table. The room was hot and sweaty. Mr. Wilkinson didn’t say anything for a long time.
“I know what happened with you.”
Jamie didn’t look up from the floor.
“Saw it in the paper a couple weeks ago, you know. Very surprising,” Mr. Wilkinson said. “Something about a fire, right? That you? Tell me if I am getting close here.”
Jamie began to rock back and forth in the chair. He tried to stop himself, but his legs wouldn’t listen. This room was too hot. Sweat gathered in the hollow of his throat.
“Now, when we brought up your file, I noticed you lived on—what was it? Olive Avenue, down by a lot of the factory lots, am I right? Not the community housing, but pretty close? Around that neighborhood. Unless you disagree, I’m going to assume we have the facts right.”
Jamie nodded but kept his eyes closed. He began to regulate his breathing, pulling air in his nose and pushing it out his mouth. The parking lot outside the window sounded quiet. There weren’t any clocks in the room. The low, level tick of Mr. Wilkinson’s watch helped keep track of the seconds. It took eighty ticks for Mr. Wilkinson to speak again.
“I’m sorry. I had to arrange my thoughts. Always better to speak when one has something to say, rather than saying…well, you’ve probably heard that old rotten chestnut before, haven’t you, Garrison?” Wilkinson said. “What I wanted to talk to you about was the fire. It was your house, right? I know a number of the townhomes went up together, but the origin apparently was yours, on Thanksgiving, right?”
That was the night when the whole place had gone up while everyone was asleep. Smoke filled the hallway, his mother pushing the boys down the stairs, his brother coughing and crying, the windows bursting from the inside due to the heat. Their father stood outside amongst the dead leaves smoking a cigarette and watching the house burn. The bullet hole in his palm was still wrapped in a bandage from a few months before at the abattoir. He didn’t say anything as his wife made the boys stop, drop, and roll on the dead grass. The frost melted underneath their backs, freezing again as they waited for the first ambulance to arrive. A burn bubbled around Jamie’s mother’s neck, fusing the nightgown to her pale flesh.
“Now I know you’ve had a rough time lately, and your brother, what’s he in now, ninth grade?” Wilkinson said. “I know he hasn’t been to school in a couple days, so you obviously have some problems at home. Or wherever you’re staying at the moment. And of course, that is your own private business. I don’t mean to probe.”
Silence for five minutes. No tears. Jamie grunted. Mr. Wilkinson just sat with his feet up on the table and watched. A dull, low moan eventually began to spurt from his chest like a dehumidifier. It didn’t sound like him. It didn’t sound like anything human.
Eventually, in that hot room, a two-week suspension was handed down from one sweaty palm to another. Nothing proven, nothing gained. Jamie walked home to the rambling motel in the cold and told his mother he stayed late after school for homework—a group project on native rights in the aftermath of World War II. She laughed in his face and asked him to change the dressing on her burn. Big yellow bubbles popped every time pressure was applied.
Jamie didn’t say anything to his father, sitting on the balcony of their motel room, smoking and dropping the ashes down onto the patio furniture below. The insurance company was still waiting for the arson judgment. Initial reports suggested an electrical fire. It was too cold for anyone to use the motel pool. The remains of a crow circled its clogged filter, the chlorine slowly dissolving its feathers down to the quick. One of the hotel staff kept trying to fish it out with a pole, cursing at the dead bird in Polish. The motel smelled like cheap champagne and old cigars. They called it the Dynasty. They were only there for two weeks before a city councilor’s girlfriend popped the waterbed in the room above theirs with her stiletto and the water shorted out the television.
Jamie spent those two weeks walking around town, carving his initials into fence posts and doorframes. He walked past the pawnshops on the downtown strip lined up like children’s blocks. Sharkee’s Pawn Palace. Jameson Pawn and Loan. The Loan Arranger. Each one packed with festering potential. Someone who thought they’d get married. Someone who thought they’d play guitar. Each dream propped up in the window. Jamie started spending each morning watching crumpled people trickle into the pawnshops, handing over the old dreams they’d decided to surrender, the ones gathering dust like diplomas dangling from bathroom walls. Sometimes he thought to buy them a cup of coffee, but he had no money—only the change he found in the candy machines at the arenas.
The pawnshops were often empty in the afternoons, the owners watching soap operas or cutting dope in the back rooms with men in leather jackets and ponytails. All of those discounted lives gathering dust until someone else came to pick them up for triple the initial price.
Jamie never bought anything.
Sometimes he spent the afternoons at Melissa Hurley’s, until her father walked in on them with Melissa bent over her old Easy-Bake Oven and Jamie pumping away from behind. It didn’t help that the oven was plugged in and would not stop dinging throughout the entire shouting match. Her father threw Jamie naked down a flight of stairs and tried to whip him with his belt.
It only took four days back at school for Jamie to fuck up again, a knee to the crotch of Harry Knowles that some kids said popped one of his balls. Melissa Hurley had moved on quickly, a whirling dervish of red hair, pancake makeup, and angry yellow pimples in search of the right boy, any boy. Mr. Hurley’s heart attack during a sermon on premarital sex only increased her speed.
Knowles was apparently the newest in a long line of conquests, something that didn’t faze Jamie until Knowles told him about Melissa mocking the size of his dick. Tiny, man, like a pinky. Like a pencil. Like one of those pins they put under a microscope to show you how small a cell is in biology class, you know?
No testicle was actually popped in the ensuing melee.
Jamie did not bother showing up for his official expulsion. He did not want to sit while Mr. Georgopolous rained dandruff down on his face. He didn’t tell his parents either. He didn’t even bother going home that night. Instead he hung out under the eaves of the Coffee Time downtown and watched people in wet trench coats and broken umbrellas hand over pieces of themselves to the bearded men behind greasy bulletproof glass for loose crumpled bills and slivers of change. He wanted to reach out and touch them. Women in torn leggings and jagged leather boots paced through the puddles outside, some ducking into cars that smelled like cheap cigarettes and formaldehyde before they reappeared again like doppelgangers with busted eye sockets and mussed hair. Jamie kept his own eyes on the pawnshop windows, watching them swallowing everything up whole, every little piece they were given. He had nothing to give.
Even now, eight years later, as he pulled into the strip mall parking lot, Jamie Garrison’s fists clutched the steering wheel, imagining his fingers tautly bound up in the handles of that plastic Kmart bag, watching that fucking kid’s face go pink, then red, then purple, until everything turned white and limp in his hands. This was all his fault, that little fucker. The kid couldn’t think right after that—couldn’t count, couldn’t write his name in a straight line, couldn’t even piss in a straight line. As Jamie climbed up out of the car with his knees popping and crackling, he could not shake that feeling. The little sniveling face. The small lung capacity. The penchant for minor but permanent brain damage. It was all that kid’s fault.
The wide parking lot was spotted with aging pickup trucks filled with older men who lived with their robes open and their families excommunicated. In the summer months, they lingered after hours at the drive-in theater just outside of Larkhill, where no one ever knocked on your window with a flashlight and a badge. The drive-in had been closed for a few months now, so they roamed from one abandoned strip mall to another, writing phone numbers on bathroom walls and pay phones in perfect, tidy script.
A few leered at Jamie through fogged windows. A lone woman scuttled out from the adult video store, white cardboard covering its plate-glass windows. She climbed into her Riviera and began to unwrap a package in her lap. She could not wait to get home. Jamie Garrison tried not to stare at the need exposed so openly around him, wounds dripping with washer fluid and sad, old want. Even now, he still had nothing to give.
ANDREW F. SULLIVAN is from Oshawa, Ontario. His debut short story collection, All We Want Is Everything (ARP Books, 2013), was one of The Globe and Mail’s Best Books of 2013. Sullivan no longer spends his days handling raw meat, boxes of liquor, or used video games.Waste is his first novel.
Adapted from Waste, by Andrew F. Sullivan, Copyright © 2016 by Andrew F. Sullivan. With the permission of the publisher, Dzanc Books.