In eighth grade, I got busted for selling Bubble-Yum out of my backpack. I sold the five pieces for a quarter each, but they’d outlawed gum, and that’s what they busted me for. I said chewing was a verb, that the law banned chewing gum, not the thing being chewed; they said chewing gum was a noun. I knew then I was growing up in a broken system. They confiscated the packs, but when I saw them coming I hid the bag of quarters in a drum of marshmallow fluff in the cafeteria.
Retrieving them later than night, I fell in, almost suffocated in the fluff, ran back to my grandfather and made him scream; he’d thought my spirit had detached from my body, came home to haunt him. Ever after, he said he had “broken heart syndrome” from the shock, and spent days and weeks lying in bed watching Ironsides, Colombo, game shows, reruns of Gilligan’s Island, Bewitched, Green Acres, Petticoat Junction.
I stopped going to school; it was from Pop I’d gotten my supply; he owned a pool hall and had connections. He only took a 10% cut and that left $900 for me. I took over the pool hall operations. Unwilling to spend my $900 frivolously and see the money disappear, I instead bought a pinball machine, The Dominator, for the pool hall and took in the profits. I brought rolled-up quarters to the bank, swept the floor a lot, ran the small snack shop with Hires Root Beer and Wise chips, directed the drop-outs to The Dominator, counted quarters, lit the fire in the old stone fireplace when it got really cold. It was a small town and no one seemed to care that I didn’t get educated, thought instead I was kind of a hero for taking over for my broken-hearted Pop.
By Christmas, no one had yet stopped by to check on me. I, even then, looked back on those days with wonderment, surrounded; during any break in the day, kids sought me. I’d mastered the impossible Dominator, had little to do with the dropouts who came to shoot pool, smoke cigarettes, sneak chugs from their tiny bottles or flasks. I brought Pop Swiss cheese sandwiches and noodles. Everything had grown stale.
They came a few days before winter break would end, led by Alice, a pale freckled girl who loved gum. They walked right up to the counter, five of them, and Alice did the talking.
“I don’t have it,” I told her before she had a chance to ask.
It turned out Bubble-Yum’s supply rose to meet the demand; she showed me her purse full of it.
“Pop Rocks,” she said. I shook my head and she explained. They bubbled on tongues. While drinking soda and eating them, a kid had died. Dangerous, popping rocks.
“I’ll get them,” I said. “Go back to school.”
She stuck out her tiny pink tongue, like a kitten’s.
Pop at first was upset he’d have to re-hire someone for the pool hall. He said I’d chosen my friends over him. Friends? A funny word.
“I’m their dealer,” I told him, even then. “That’s about it.”
All those detectives on his television. You’d think they’d arise within my grandfather to give some advice.
“I guess you know what you’re doing,” he said. “They’re always going to want something.”
And that, it turns out, was true.