“Ugh!” exclaimed Peggy, making a face at her plate of cafeteria food.
“What do they call this?” I asked, staring at the bits of pimento on my plate along with chunks of an unknown substance drowning in a beige-colored sauce. Peggy arched her back so she could see the whiteboard on the wall with the name of the day’s offering.
“Chicken à la King,” she answered, straightening back up.
Peggy and I stood for a moment, holding our trays. There were no food aromas, just heat emanating from the kitchen and the smell of disinfectant. A motor hummed in the background as a woman behind the counter wearing a white uniform and a hairnet stood with a blank stare. In front of us was a metal tray slide.
“I can’t eat this!” Peggy exclaimed.
Peggy was wearing a light-blue dress with puff-sleeves and matching blue ribbons in her blond pigtails. Peggy’s jump rope, with its wooden handles painted red, was on the side of her tray next to her fork. We walked over and set our trays down on a long table. “I’m not eating this, either!” I declared but didn’t mean it; I just wanted to impress Peggy.
“Ahhh.” I looked up. The sound came from a kid who was already seated at our table. My eyes went to the space in front of him where his lunch tray should’ve been. “If you’re not going to eat your lunch,” he wavered, “Can I have it?”
I heard myself reply; “Sure,” I said and pushed my tray over to him.
He looked at the carton of Canterbury Farms’whole milk, “Do you want my milk, too?” The kid was holding a forkful of food up to his mouth in one hand and reached for my milk with the other. The kid popped the carton open one-handed and guzzled it down.
Peggy’s mouth opened, and then her shoulders slumped; “Would you like my lunch, too?” she conceded.
The kid pulled her tray until it was next to the tray I’d given him. The trays were like two boats tied to the same mooring. “Thanks,” the kid whispered.
“Isn’t your name Benny?” Peggy asked, even though we were near the end of the school year.
“Hmmm,” he replied.
Then the loudspeaker announced that lunch was over and it was time for recess. Peggy and I pulled our legs from under the bench seat and ran toward the playground. Isabella, who had been sitting at a different table, joined us. Suddenly, Peggy stopped. “My jump rope,” she squealed; “I left it on my lunch tray with that kid.”
“Benny,” I said.
“Oh, no.” Isabella groaned; “I’d better get it before he eats it.”
I watched Peggy run back to the cafeteria as Isabella laughed at her joke. Soon, Peggy
came back with her jump rope in hand. “Are there any bite marks on it?” Isabella asked facetiously.
“Ha, ha,” Peggy retorted.
I winced, then asked, “Was Benny still eating?”
“Do you think the Chicken à la King was enough for him?”
“What?” Peggy answered. “Why?”
“I think his father needs to give him a sandwich.”
“Right,” Peggy replied as she handed one end of her jump rope to Isabella and the other one to me. Isabella and I spread apart and started swinging the rope in a wide arc. Peggy stood on tiptoes.
“Come on!” demanded Isabella.
Then, Peggy found her way in as the cord made a slap slap slap sound against the pavement. The three of us sang in unison:
“Lincoln, Lincoln, I’ve been thinkin’
What the heck have you been drinkin?”
Later, when recess ended, my friend, Sam yelled hello as he ran past me. I wished Sam had slowed down; I wanted to tell him about Benny. Sam’s and my parents were friends. One day that past winter, Sam’s family had come to my house. I could smell snow when they opened our door. My mother shushed them right away and pointed wordlessly to our large picture window. It had been a harsh winter, and there was a herd of hungry deer in our backyard. Fogging up the window. Sam and I counted a herd of sixteen. The animals stood still but for the occasional flick of an ear. White plumes like clouds exhaled from their nostrils. I’d heard that you weren’t supposed to feed wild animals. It was the kind of thing where you felt terrible, no matter what choice you made. We kept our eyes on them from the other side of the window’s thick glass.
Then Sam and I went to play dominoes on the kitchen table. When we returned, the deer had disappeared and our parents laughed about something. The herd never stood in my yard again like they did that day, and then my family moved to a house closer to town when I entered high school.
One day, when I was in the 10th grade, I was having lunch with Peggy and a girl named, Clarise when the outside doors to the cafeteria burst open. We heard a thud and a soft groan. Students screamed, and a teacher ran to call 911.
“It’s Benny,” someone yelled. “He’s not breathing!”
Everyone in the cafeteria was silent. Peggy leaned over towards me. “He was just a drug addict,” she whispered.
Later, the ambulance drove away, spewing exhaust. The next day, everyone walked over the part of the cafeteria floor where Benny had taken his last breath. It had been disinfected and still had a slight chemical smell. Students and teachers, holding notebooks and folders, picked up trays and slid them along the tray slide. It was lunchtime. There were the usual stops: First, you picked up your silverware and put it on the side of your tray. You had to keep moving because there were people behind you. Then you picked up a carton of Canterbury Farms’ whole milk, feeling the waxy carton with your fingers. After that, a dull-eyed worker pushed a plate from the inside for you to take. That day’s offering was pizza, but you couldn’t smell the tomato sauce or cheese.
Someone rushed the lunch line the week before and dropped their tray on the floor with a clang-a-clang bang. No one in the cafeteria even looked up. Peggy was talking about a dress she wanted her mother to buy her for the prom. When we heard the banging of the tray, Peggy blinked, then continued describing how the satin material felt between her fingers.
Years later, when I was all grown up, I looked through some old papers from when I was young. I found a story I wrote called, ‘If Sneakers Could Talk’ and a photo of my old cat, Pumpkin. Then I discovered my fourth-grade class picture. The teacher’s and the kids’ heads were in perfect rows. And there was Benny, smiling in a blue shirt and sweater.
Looking at the saved items from my childhood reminded me of one time when my mother and I were shopping downtown. It was after school. We had to buy a gift for Sam’s mother, who’d just had a baby. Suddenly, we saw Benny’s father stumbling toward us on the sidewalk. My mother’s body stiffened, “Why is he…?” I started as my mother jerked my arm and pulled me to the other side of the street. We stepped over the curb.
“Shhh,” she admonished while shifting her large white pocketbook.
“Shh,” she repeated; “Don’t look.”
But I looked anyway as Benny’s father grabbed ahold of a lamp post and swayed. Then he slowly landed on the sidewalk in an arc. Benny’s father did this over and over. He didn’t seem to get hurt, though, but his brown cap fell off and rolled into the street.
My mother jerked my pink sweatshirt again. “So, what did Hannerly Elementary School give you for lunch today?” she asked me, still pulling on my top.
I could hear Benny’s father’s slurry singing —-“Ooon tha roooad to tha…ooon the roooad to yooo now…”
“I said,” my mother repeated, “What did you have for lunch today?”
Still watching Benny’s father, I answered my mother without even thinking; “Chicken à la King,” I replied.
Cyndi Cresswell Cook is a short story writer and a photographer.