When I was in elementary school, at least for a few years, we had a lunch break, and kids went home for lunch. I remember it being for maybe an hour. But more significant for me was that there was no home to go to—my mom was working, and my dad had already moved out. I was a latchkey kid, but I probably wasn’t enough of a latchkey kid to go home, make a lunch, and return to school. Maybe my mother worried for my safety, or maybe she worried I would forget to go back, and she would find me, hours later, watching TV or bouncing a ball off the front steps.
So instead of going home, I would take my lunch and go to a drugstore near my school, and sit at the soda fountain. I would order a coke—the price, apparently, for being able to kill an hour at the counter—and eat my sandwiches. My mom was relentlessly practical. Lunch each day was two ham and cheese sandwiches on the white bread di tutti white bread of greater Boston—Wonder bread. Each sandwich had exactly one piece of boiled ham, one piece of American cheese, and a smear of mustard. This was my lunch each day, every day, for my 12 years of elementary and high school. Nothing else. No apple or cookies or chopped carrots. I could probably be part of a study sometime on what happens to human a body when it faithfully eats the wrong food for so many years in a row.
I probably have his name wrong, but I had a classmate, Danny Mars, who used to join me on some of those days. Something had him in the same category as me. Maybe he had a single mom, or both parents worked. Memory tells me I didn’t have lunch with him every day, but I did often enough. If I could talk to him today, I would probably compare lunches with him. I doubt we ever traded anything. What kid would ever want a ham and cheese sandwich in trade?
After we ate, we would head back to the school playground.
I remember two stories from after lunch those days.
On nicer days, kids would gather on the huge (well huge as I remember it), asphalt playground behind the school. It had the outline of a baseball diamond, a very short left field, a deep center field, and a right field that opened up into an even bigger stretch of asphalt playground. If you stood in deep center field, which I often did, and put your back to the tall chain-link fence, you were just under a canopy of trees from the property beyond the fence.
I loved center field. I wasn’t a good athlete, but I was fast, and I could cover ground. When a ball came through or over the infield, I could usually get to it, and throw it back in, hold the kicker to one base or two. I played deep. I liked having the whole field in front of me, partly because I simply could not reliably go back on a ball. I would twist the wrong way, then the right way, then the wrong way again. I bet that I simply never caught a ball over my head.
But I could come in on a ball. I could use my speed to close the gap, and even occasionally catch it on the fly. It was a freaking blast.
One day I was in my spot, and this boy came to the plate. He was my nemesis. The best athlete in class by a long, long measure. And he loved to harass me about what a complete loser I was as an athlete. I could comfort myself in the knowledge that I was smarter than him by the same measure he was a better athlete than me, but that did not count in elementary school.
But the kickball gods were looking down on me that day, because when he got his chance to kick the ball, he—of course—blasted it. It was a beautiful, high, arcing kick, but straight to me. The only question was whether it would go over my head and clearethe fence. I stepped backward until my back hit the fence. The ball was coming down and I could finally see that it would be in my grasp, but then I realized it would crash through the canopy of trees before it reached me.
I steeled myself. I wasn’t athletic enough to do anything more than hold my ground, and hold out my arms like I was about to catch a baby. The ball arrived, crashed through some branches, and hit my arms. I grabbed at, kept it from bouncing out, squeezed it to my chest. He was out.
My teammates cheered. I would only figure out years later that he had tortured them all, so this wasn’t only my triumph in our little universe; it was everyone’s triumph. I tried to act like it was nothing. I stepped away from the fence, and kicked the ball back toward home plate, waited for someone to gather the ball, get it back to the pitcher. But I heard the calls from my teammates. “Way to go, Billy!” and “Nice catch!” My heart was bursting.
I had two modes when I was a kid—I was either brainless or I was frozen in terror. I did many of the stupid things boys did in those days. I jumped off rooves, climbed high trees and telephone poles, poked around through who knows what in the town dump, rode my bike through traffic. We had an abandoned Army fort down the street from where I lived, with buildings that had to be broken into, windows that had to be smashed, tunnels that had to be explored.
But other times I was full of doubt and frozen. Sometimes when my friends broke into a new building, I would stand back. When the windows started to break, I would walk home. When they blasted through an intersection, riding wheelies through traffic, I would sometimes stop at the curb, wait for the traffic to pass. Evolutionary biology now tells me this reaction was probably the better one, but it was hard to do this when you were a kid. Hard to be the careful one, the cautious one. “Trip’s a fucking pussy” was the inverse of “Way to go, Billy!”
One day Danny Mars and I left the drugstore, and headed back to school. I was in my prudent mode, and decided not to cross the busy street right outside the drugstore, but instead to walk up to the crosswalk, where the street was wider, not crowded by parked cars, and the sight lines were better. Not Danny. He was impatient that day, or maybe he was impatient every day and normally I was too, but I headed up the sidewalk, Danny to my back, as he stepped through the parked cars and right in the path of a moving one. I can still hear the breaks squealing, the thud. I can’t recall whether he cried out or not, but he was crying when I got back, laying in the street. Some adults were already there—maybe the driver, maybe people from the drugstore and the other businesses—men as I remember, and smart enough to keep me at my arm’s length, helping me not see some things I would not want to remember.
My memory is that he broke his leg, and I also remember that somehow I got in trouble, too, if not from school, maybe from my mother. Maybe she wasn’t angry as much as she was scared. Scared that I could have been the one that had done the stupid thing, and that something worse could have happened because I had to eat lunch at a soda fountain instead of at home with her.
Of course I could have the whole memory wrong. Maybe I crossed too, but ahead of him, and I heard the accident behind me not because I had walked up the sidewalk but because I had bolted across the street ahead of him. Maybe I had done exactly that, but lied to cover up what I had done wrong. Maybe Danny and I were guilty of the same thing, and I had been the lucky one. Maybe he wasn’t hurt as badly, or maybe was hurt worse. Or maybe he wasn’t hurt at all. Maybe the squealing breaks I remember were followed by a bellowing man. “You stupid fucking kids!” Maybe Danny and I bolted up the street, laughing, turned into the school playground, and joined the kickball game. Maybe that was also the magical day I caught that kicked ball, and Danny was right next to me when I drop-kicked the ball back into the infield, cheering me on. “Way to go, Billy! Way to go!”