Death at the La Brea Tar Pits
by Jessica Anya Blau
L.B. could sense the kids on the bus glancing at him, whispering. He was on the backbench, his arms spread wide like wings, his legs open in a giant V. His posse, Ethan and Jack, were on either side of him. L.B. was the tallest kid in the eighth grade, skinny as a rope, but muscly, dense. “A bullet couldn’t make it through that,” his mom liked to say, and she’d punch at the top of his arm, right near his shoulder. It’d hurt a little, especially when she landed him with her chunky, gold and silver rings. But he wouldn’t even wince. He’d just stand there, The Man, his stomach muscles clenching and his balls instinctively tucking up like a hiding rodent as he took the crooked blows.
At school, the boys who weren’t L.B.’s friends were afraid of him. Not because he bullied them, more because he ignored them, walking by as if they didn’t exist. And the ones who weren’t too afraid to be his friend still believed he was The Man.
L.B. liked watching people watch him, although what the kids were doing now on the bus—their glances as hard to capture as darting birds—didn’t make him feel watched as much as it made him feel observed. Just yesterday, most of the eighth grade had gathered around him as if he were a street performer, screaming and whooping as he stuck a lit firecracker in a lizard’s ass just to watch the animal explode.
The bus was taking the class to the La Brea tar pits. There were 60 middle schoolers and only two teacher chaperones. It was a field trip L.B. had made every year since the fourth grade when he and his mother moved to Los Angeles from Baltimore.
Who knew where his dad, Big Bill, really was. His mother said Big Bill was a no-goodnik who was in prison. But if he were in prison, wouldn’t he email? Or call? They have computers and phones in prison; L.B. had seen them on TV shows and in movies. One day L.B. would track down his dad, and they’d sit on a couch together, drink beer and watch TV. L.B. loved beer and his mother let him drink it as long as his homework was done, which it always was as he was able to rip through it—math, English, everything—in the amount of time it took to ride the bus home.
Sometimes, when his own homework was finished, L.B. would do the math homework for someone else on the bus. “What dumbfuck wants a perfect score on their math?” he’d ask, then L.B. would look down at all those waggling arms, like perfectly arrayed snakes popping up, and try to pick the person who was in the highest math class. The harder, the better—it got boring when things were too easy.
The kids were still whispering and they were looking at L.B. with different eyes: not scared, and not daring. Curious. Or nervous. He couldn’t really tell.
“What the fuck?” L.B. said to Ethan, and Ethan handed him his cell phone to show him a text.
L.B. Collier’s mother OD’d. Chloe’s mom works at the hospital and said they brought her in already dead.
“Don’t tell the teachers,” L.B. said, although he wouldn’t remember saying this until later, when the social worker asked him if he had any idea why no one, including L.B. himself, informed the chaperones.
L.B. turned his face away from Ethan’s and looked out the window. It felt like thick, bulletproof glass was sliding down over each side of his brain. He was walling off the information. Encasing himself.
When they walked off the bus, L.B. stared at the glaring sunlight through the imagined bulletproof wall that was opaque and smudgy from fingerprints and smog. There were people around him, L.B. knew that to be factually true, but he couldn’t hear them and couldn’t make out their forms. As the class lined up at the fence of the biggest tar pit, L.B. felt so alone he had to gasp, just once, to make sure he was really there.
Once upon a time, L.B. had loved the tar pits. He liked envisioning a saber-toothed tiger approaching the sheen of water on the black surface, stepping in for a drink and then being sucked down into the oily, darkness. If the tiger’s head was above the tar line, another meaner saber-tooth would pounce on him. They’d ravage each other in a fight, ripping out chunks of fur with meat attached to the back in the shape of icebergs. Eventually, they’d spiral down together, deeper into the muck. With each breath, they’d pull in a hot, dense stream that would fill them like molten copper being poured into a mold.
L.B. had often tried to imagine death, the emptiness, the nothingness. It was as hard to fathom as the idea of himself before he was conceived; L.B. before he was growing in his mother’s body; L.B. before his father was called Big Bill in contrast to him; L.B. before L.B. How can nothing exist when everywhere you look there’s something? How can a person be completely gone when everywhere you go, you feel them?
Jessica Anya Blau’s newest novel, “The Wonder Bread Summer,” was picked for summer reading lists by CNN, NPR, Vanity Fair and Oprah’s Book Club. She is also the author of “The Summer of Naked Swim Parties” and “Drinking Closer to Home.”