Lunch, 1968

By on Mar 31, 2019 in Fiction

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Germantown H.S., circa 1968

The same could be said about school when I returned Monday. There wasn’t anything physically threatening or worrisome in the immediate sense, though there were lots of changes, tensions spoken and not. In English class, we were assigned some of King’s speeches, to read and discuss, dissect and analyze. And in the cafeteria, Walter and I had our own analyses.

“You can’t possibly comprehend how horrible things are,” Walter asserted, finishing off an apple. “Don’t insult my intelligence and tell me otherwise.”

“I saw what happened here Friday, and I saw Washington, too. But no,” I acknowledged, “I can’t make myself black.”

“Nor,” said Walter while making a perfect shot of the apple into a trash can…not even the closest one, “would you want to.”

“You’re right. I wouldn’t. I can’t imagine being you. It looks like one more barrier, one more challenge—here I am, among the minority here, but out in the world, that’s your life, forever. I get it, can’t do anything about it, and, no, I don’t want it.”

“King gone, that snuffs the non-violence for me, man.” Walter’s eyes narrowed. “James Baldwin, he turns to some heavy shit to make his point on race.”

Walter stood up, his long lean frame towering over mine, and he spoke softly but with menace.

“God gave Noah the rainbow sign,
No more water, the fire next time!”

“From what I saw in D.C., the fire might be this time.”

“Got that right.”

Walter and I settled into our regular selves, sort of, over the next few weeks. We talked politics—did Kennedy have a chance? Was the war ever going to end, and if not, what of us?

In the short run, we’d each been accepted to colleges, him at Penn State, me at Temple, so we were safe so long as we didn’t flunk out, and maybe the war would end before our deferments did.

I had my own little war early that May, though, when Walter was late coming out of a conference with his guidance counselor. I was eating alone, reading the Inquirer sports section, when four muscled black teens encircled in the cafeteria.

“Can we see a quarter?”

Arm on my shoulder.

“Trouble hearing, man? Let us see a quarter.”

For the first, but sadly not the last time that day, my mouth let me down. “You know what a quarter looks like.” The guy squeezed my shoulder, not in a nice way. “We need a quarter.”

I tried to escape his grip. Kind of a joke, really. “Then earn one. My money is mine, yours is not my problem.”  One of his buddies clarified matters. “WE are your problem.”

I felt a hard smash across my face, another in my stomach, then my arm. Four huge guys, battering a lone skinny kid over a quarter, which they never even took.

After the first flurry of blows, I found myself face-down on the table, where I lay, unmoving, hoping they’d had their fill and would go away. I waited a bit, felt no more punches, played possum, caught my breath, but stayed down just in case; maybe they’d think they did more damage than they actually had and hoof it out of there. As what seemed like several minutes passed, I felt less scared, and amid the pain in my belly and jaw, I felt incredibly angry. I thought about all the warnings I heard about this school, and now, look at me. Clobbered, and for what? Not any real reason, this wasn’t something political, this wasn’t about King. I was just there, alone, unable to defend myself. 

“Stuart, what happened to you?”

It was Mr. Nelson, the basketball coach. I knew his voice from doing post-game interviews. I rolled over, and, before finding the glasses those assholes had knocked off my face, seeing only Nelson’s white face in front of me, four toxic words exploded from my aching mouth, as if from someone else’s, someone I wouldn’t like.

“Niggers beat me up.”

That said, I put on my glasses, which revealed, just to the right of Nelson’s silent mug, Walter’s.

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Stuart Michaelson is a semi-retired journalist and Philadelphia native. He spent 22 years working on newspapers in the Philly area, Connecticut, and New Jersey as a reporter, editor, columnist, and supervisor, as well as more than a decade at TV Guide magazine, where he contributed to three books on television history. He started writing fiction in 2017, and had a short story published in 2018 in the Schuylkill Valley Journal. Apart from writing fiction, as well as part-time freelance non-fiction, he spends his time reading political and rock-music bios, listening to CDs, and watching old TV shows, ranging from Lost to such escapist fare as "Melrose Place."