The King of Lunch
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The King of Lunch

 James Stafford
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 James Stafford
The King of Lunch
by James Stafford  FollowFollow
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James Stafford has never seen an entire episode of any Star Trek series, nor has he seen Top Gun or any of those Real Housewives shows. He...read more is the recent owner of a Lancelot Link lunchbox and is terrified of snakes.
The King of Lunch
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We moved to Texas just as the fourth grade was beginning. Next door lived Brian, the adopted only child who always wanted to show or discuss his single testicle. Behind us lived the Carreys, David and sixth grade sister, Annette. Directly across the street was my buddy, Joey, and next to him lived the two younger boys, Brandon and Chris, whose house sported both a pinball machine and a jukebox.  
The real friend catch of the neighborhood was a kid named Steven who lived about a block away, just up the street from Mr. Munch, the neighborhood PhD who drove my father crazy. His house was the only one in the neighborhood with a pool, so he was automatically the most popular kid around. The problem was that none of us knew him. Steven never came outside to ride bikes or screw around in the brush piles and thorny vacant lots awaiting tract homes. There was no chance of picking up an impromptu invitation to the pool.
My new elementary school was okay – nothing to complain about, really. My previous school published a yearbook in which I appeared in a candid cafeteria photo. The photographer captured me mid-bite, revealing that I didn’t so much open my mouth to make way for a sandwich as I unhinged my lower jaw like a reticulated python working on an antelope. I looked like the fiberglass clown who doubled as the entrance of a funhouse.
I wasn’t going to step into that mud puddle twice, so I didn’t eat lunch at my new school. I sat on the little cafeteria bench with my classmates, making jokes and marveling at the exotic lunches packed by their mothers: little packs of chips, individual pudding cups, cookies, brand name products in colorful packages.
Mostly I passed the time staring at Julie Potter, the prettiest girl in class. She wore her brown hair shoulder length, but more importantly she was the first girl in school to sport a training bra  Whether she needed an entry level foundation garment wasn’t really relevant, what mattered was that she wore one. Julie was all woman.
We attended her family’s church, which wasn’t really much of a coincidence. Burleson was a very small town, so pretty much everyone with exception to my father and Mr. Munch counted themselves among Brother Steve’s congregation. The important thing here is that I had something in common with Julie outside of school, and once per week I was sure to see her in a dress.
There must have been other girls in that classroom, but they’ve vanished. I have no problem picturing a towheaded boy named Tracy eating Funyuns or David challenging me to a drawing contest, but the only two women I remember from that classroom are Julie and my cat-eyed teacher, who took an interest in my lunch activities or lack thereof, casually stopping by each day with an “aren’t you hungry, hon?” or a “can I get you a milk, hon?” Her curiosity finally overcame her, and she called me to her desk one afternoon when the lunch bell rang.

“Why don’t you eat lunch, hon?”
“I just don’t want to.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to?”
“Yes.”
“Is there something else?  You can tell me, hon.”
“No, I just don’t want to.”
She stared at me, the place where her eyebrows were supposed to be wrinkling behind her cat eye glasses. “Here,” she said, and she handed me an envelope. “Give this to your mama for me, okay hon?”
That night my mother’s face fell when she read my teacher’s note.
“What? What the hell did he do?” my father asked.
“It’s an application for the free lunch program. They think we’re poor.”
“Why the hell do they think that? I bet Munchie told them about the utility shed.”
“He doesn’t have any kids. Why would he be at the elementary school?”
“I wouldn’t put it past him,” my father said.  “He already threw a fit with the homeowners’ association, as if it’s any of his goddamned business what I have in my backyard.”
My mother turned to me: “Did you tell your teacher that we’re poor?”
“No, Mama, I didn’t say anything like that.” I laid out for her the whole conversation, confessed that for weeks I’d been throwing away my sack lunch.
“Goddamnit, you don’t throw away food. You eat your lunch or I’ll beat your ass,” my father said.
“Why are you throwing your lunch away?” my mother asked.
I didn’t know what to tell them. I’m afraid somebody will take my picture would set off my father, and honestly I didn’t really understand what was happening. At that age feelings and impulses aren’t easily verbalized, they just are. I went with what I knew how to say: “Our bread is always stale and we have that weird lunch meat and my sandwich is in a wax paper bag and the other kids have plastic bags with that zipper thing like on TV so they make fun of me and they always have lots of cool stuff and all I have is a sandwich and they have lunchboxes and all I have is a bag.”
“If we fix those things will you eat your lunch?” my mother asked.
“I can have different sandwiches?”
“We’ll go to the store and you can pick out some things you’d like.”
“Can I have a lunchbox?”
“We have a cabinet full of lunchboxes. We’re not wasting money on a lunchbox,” my father said.
“Those were the girls’ lunchboxes, he can’t carry those,” my mother said, “Yes, we’ll get you a lunchbox.”
Overnight I went from not being on the roster to the King of Lunch, my “Go to Lunch with Snoopy” lunchbox packed with Zingers, Snack Pack, and individual packs of Fritos. My sandwiches sported three slices of wheat bread, towering Dagwoods packed with lettuce, tomato, Swiss cheese, boiled ham.  
Julie Potter knew a good thing when she saw it: the Queen of Training Bras and the King of Lunch became a couple. Dating at nine years old means ignoring each other at all costs. We never spoke, never played together at recess; we never even looked at each other. I stole glances whenever I could, and I imagined her doing the same. Just in case she was looking, I switched from looking up words in the classroom copy of Webster’s to the more sophisticated Webster’s New Collegiate.
Not only did I have a sweet lunchbox and a hot babe in a training bra, but things around the neighborhood were looking up, too. Joey cracked the impenetrable Steven code and scored the two of us a pool invitation. Steven’s yard was like a park: soft, manicured grass like cool shag carpet and stone pathways tucked between rows of colored shrubs and flowers. Their pool was nicer than a motel’s, and it was in the ground. I didn’t even know regular people were allowed to have an in-ground pool. Circling the pool was a redwood deck with five matching steps leading to a second level. The railing of the upper deck was covered with blankets.
“What’s up there?” I asked Steven.
“My big sister. She’s in high school, so my Mom makes her watch me when she isn’t home, but she just lays out.”
Joey laughed and Steven cannonballed into the pool.  “What’s so funny?” I asked.
“She lays out naked so she doesn’t get tan lines,” Joey said, and he cannonballed next to Steven.
We played Marco Polo and Jaws, timed each other doing the dead man’s float and raced the length of the pool.  We dove for pennies and splashed each other.  Occasionally the blankets rustled in the breeze, and I tried to peek between them.  We jumped from the diving board, jackknifed, spanked the baby, covered our faces and did the preacher dive.  I never wanted to leave that pool.
My friends grew bored, though, and went inside to play with Steven’s new SSP Smash Up Derby set. I paddled around the shallow end of the pool. The blankets rustled again, and I turned to see the big sister standing with her back to me, tying her bikini top. She turned toward the pool and adjusted the two triangles of black fabric covering her breasts. With her angel wing bangs and her big sunglasses she looked like a teenaged, brunette Farrah.  No good could come of this. If the naked lady was getting dressed that could only mean that she was going inside, which meant swim time was over and I had to either go home or play stupid race cars with Joey and Steven.
She didn’t, though. Instead of disappearing through the sliding glass door, she unlatched the gate at the top of the five stairs. Without a word she walked to the pool and lowered herself into the water. 
“You’re new,” she said.  “What’s your name?”
“Jimmy.”
“You’re a cutie.  What grade are you in?”
“Fourth.”
“That’s far out. You look so much older.”  She waded toward me.  “I thought you were thirteen at least.” I didn’t know what to say or do, so I stood frozen as she neared. We were face to chest now. “Are you shy? Cute and shy. Are you big, too? Let’s see what you have for me.”
She pulled the string on my trunks. The bow came loose and the fabric billowed in the water. My thing felt weird, like on the hill of a rollercoaster or when it got big. She reached into my trunks and said “ooh” and I felt like I had committed a crime. Everybody – God, my dead grandmother, my parents, the police, my cat-eyed teacher – they all could see how bad I was. My face tingled.  
She laughed, “Do you want me to take my top off?”
“I have to go home.”
“Come back soon, cutie,” she laughed, and she pushed off and floated across her now empty pool.
I wrapped a towel around my waist and ran down the walkway, not even stopping for my shirt and shoes. I stopped at the street to tie my trunks, and the pavement burned my feet. I threw down the towel and jumped on it, tied my bathing suit and made my home running as far as I could tolerate and then jumping on the towel to give my blistered feet a break. That was my only visit to Steven’s house.
I needed a woman more my speed, an age-appropriate girlfriend who understood that romance was all about ignoring each other publicly but stealing careful glances on the way to the Webster’s New Collegiate. I needed a girlfriend who wore a dress to church on Sunday but otherwise kept her feminine secrets to herself. Privately lusting after the sight of an errant training bra strap was just about the right level of sophistication for me.
Damned if Julie didn’t break our contract, though. On my next trip to the dictionary, she placed a wad of paper on the corner of her desk. “Throw that away,” she said, not only violating the “don’t acknowledge each other” clause but bossing me around.  This wasn’t expressly forbidden by the fourth grade rules of dating, but it was bad form.
“No,” I said.
“Throw it away.”
“No.”
“Throw it away or we’re through.”
“Then I guess we’re through.”
“Fine.”
“Fine.”
That was that. I never didn’t speak to Julie Potter again. In the course of two days the King of Lunch lost both his girlfriend and his pool privileges. I hated Texas.
.

1 comments

Discussion

  3 years ago
I enjoyed this a lot. Touching, cute and self-aware.
 

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