Lunch, 1968

By on Mar 31, 2019 in Featured, Fiction

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Germantown H.S., circa 1968

He’d stalked off by the time I gathered myself from the table, spent some annoying moments in the nurse’s office—other than a sore, discolored jaw, no notable physical damage—and a counselor’s digs—the feeling was that my attackers did not matriculate at our institution.

I was sickened. My momma didn’t raise me to say that word, I was revulsed and above-it-all whenever I heard it used, but I’d said it, and in front of Walter.

Where to go from there? It struck me that hiding was likely the best way to deal with this; I’m a guy, after all. I remembered an inviting book, Veeck As In Wreck, autobiography of baseball executive Bill Veeck, in the school library, where food was forbidden; I figured if I got caught I could explain I was eating there because I’d been mugged at lunch.

This never happened—I was a lot more discreet chewing than I’d been with my mouth in the cafeteria—so I passed the next couple of weeks munching peacefully and avoiding Armageddon. Which was less about being jumped and more, much more, about facing Walter.

We passed dozens of times in the hall, studiously looking whichever way was wisest, and in the two classes we shared, more of the same. I rehearsed, incessantly, at school and home, even in my dreams I think, what I’d say if we managed to speak again before our 44th birthdays. But what? That I don’t really think that way, how could I, considering our friendship, that we’d hung out together for three years, in school, at one another’s homes, at baseball games, in pizzerias, bookstores, record stores, that if I was bigoted, why would I?

Which explained nothing. Thugs from outside the school beat me up, because I didn’t give them money, fear, respect. Not because I’m white, but because I was a 70-something-pound weakling, for once, that day, not seated with a formidable dude. And you don’t judge an entire race by the actions of a few, white bigots or black bullies.

Yeah, you curse the rain when you get caught in it, traffic congestion, a busy signal when you want to talk, an unexpected math quiz. But here I was, in 1968, racial tension here, there, everywhere, a reasonably intelligent, supposedly enlightened guy, so where the hell did that come from?

Was I truly the liberal I claimed to be? Or did I pride myself on having a nature that wasn’t truly mine?

When I got home from school on mugging day, I’d explained the smashed mouth to my parents, but not what came out of it. I was way too ashamed, so when they questioned me, as days without visits or plans involving Walter became weeks, I dodged them.

I had imaginary conversations with Walter, daily, shit, 10 times a day. Maybe I was in shock, brain jumbled from all those punches. I’d been possessed momentarily by George Wallace.

Amid self-admonishments, penance, in the library, I allowed myself five minutes’ lunch time daily to assess whichever young females happened to be around. Early one afternoon, as my eyes walked all over Marci Chatzman’s legs, I felt a firm hand on my shoulder, accompanied by a deep, authoritative voice.

“Objectifying, are we, young man?”

I looked up and, for the first time since that sad sock-in-the-jaw day, there was Walter, voluntarily sharing my space.

“Guilty as charged, officer.”

“Brain police, on duty. You must have some better way to spend your time.”

“I don’t, actually. What better way is there?”

“There isn’t,” Walter said, and as the librarian shushed us, he sat down next to me.

“Stuart, let’s take it to the hall.” I left Veeck on the table, scrunched up the remains of my sandwich and walked out with Walter. He reached into his pocket, yanked out a handful of cheese crackers, dropped them into my waiting hand, walked up ahead, stopped, and turned to face me.

“What the fuck happened that day, man? Did those four turds vaporize the Stuart I know?”

I wasn’t sure what to say, so I settled on the truth. “I hated those guys, hated them, so I said the first thing that came to mind, right or wrong. Do soldiers sent to Vietnam, open- or closed-minded, go already hating the killers in their Viet Kong duds? Whether they do or they don’t, you know it, sooner or later, the work ‘gook’ is gonna come out of their scared little mouths, Walter. I can’t…I can’t explain it any better than that. Those guys trashed me, and I had no other way to trash them back. It’s wrong, it’s shitty, and, OK, there must be some bigotry in me, somewhere, somehow, sorry. That’s all I can say.”

He looked at me for a while, threw up his hands like he was releasing something, some living thing that flew off. Maybe a dove, maybe not. “Eat your crackers, man. Bell’s about to toll.”

“Still not sure I want to go back to the cafeteria. Why take a chance, only a few weeks before graduation?”

Walter made a Popeye muscle. “I’ll protect you, man.”

We walked along a bit more.

“Possibly.”

 

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About

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."