He stares down the brown throat and into the paper stomach of his lunch bag. There is a stale marshmallow with powdery old-lady skin. Half a green pepper cut on the equator and showering everything with tiny confetti seeds. A solitary pickle, dry and green and warty as a troll’s thumb.
He eats them all, barely noticing the spitballs flicking past. He has glimpsed what else is in the bag; it will be one of the good days.
The hot lunch kids sit on the right side of the cafeteria, the bag lunch kids on the left. The bag lunch kids are the poor kids, though the boy is not poor. He and his mother live in the biggest house in town, his Grandfather’s house.
A teacher patrols the aisle between the two long rows of lunch tables. The boy likes her. She keeps a small flock of turtle figurines on her desk: glass, onyx, jade, wood. Even one with tiny ruby eyes. As the teacher passes his table, the artillery fire of spitballs and straw missiles abruptly dries up. She smiles at him, her head cocked to one side.
“Something interesting for lunch today?”
It is the same teacher who happened past the day he’d found the perfume bottle, its ornate stopper carved like a rose.
“Why, that’s Lalique,” she had exclaimed. She had not asked him where he got it, only held it, admiring, to the light.
“My mother likes to put things in my lunch,” he told her.
“How charming,” she said, turning the small heavy bottle this way and that.
“See the bee? That’s very French,” She pointed with the tip of her little finger, the nail as translucent pink as the glass.
He thought she might ask him questions then – about his mother, or his frequent absences. But she only smiled and handed the bottle back.
Today her smile is thin-lipped. Someone has taken figurines from her desk. But her eyes as she watches him are kind.
He removes the slipper that is folded in on itself like a dying swan, and slowly passes it to her. He feels sure she will have something to say that will show him why it is interesting, and not weird or crazy.
“Oh!” she says. She unfolds it slowly, and he sees that it is stained and scuffed. He worries she is disgusted, that there will be nothing pretty to say about something so old and obviously used.
But she lifts the lank ribbons with a delicate hand, and when she speaks her voice is respectful. “Was your mother a dancer?’
“Yes, but now we live with Grandfather,” he says. The teacher nods as if this explains everything.
“She must be very beautiful,” says the teacher. “Ballerinas are always beautiful.” Her voice is softer, as is her face, as if she has become the younger sister of herself.
After lunch the boy edges around the brick cafeteria to sit on the steps leading to the kitchen. No one bothers him here because of the smell from the dumpsters. They squat nearby like big brown toads, their mouths open wide for the kitchen ladies who feed them chicken nuggets, limp French fries, pellet-like peas, a typhoon of sour-smelling milk from paper cartons.
Grandfather has a big house but he does not know about hot lunches and cold lunches. His mother knows he dosen’t know and this not knowing is her and the boy’s secret. When she is not away, his mother makes his bag lunch for him each morning, while he is getting ready for school and Grandfather is not yet in his chair, while the watchful eye of the housekeeper is still sleep-fogged and slow.
The items his mother puts in his lunch bag are like a scrap of map to a foreign country he has heard of but never visited. There is no rhythm to the things he finds: one day a diaphanous square of yellow chiffon; another day a pair of rounded silver chopsticks with tiny silver ships sailing their spindly tops.
On one day a thick pocketknife with more than a dozen foldout tools and a little white cross on its satiny red back; on another day, a strand of pearls.
Once a small wooden mask with real hair and a bone through its nose stared up through a forest of carrot and celery sticks.
Once he found a little jeweled pillbox box with a hinged lid. The box was filled with tiny pills the green of a mermaid’s hair.
Today in addition to the slipper, there is a marble. It is fat and swirled orange and brown and blue – a cat’s eye, he thinks, not knowing where he has heard that term.
He imagines his mother in the kitchen innocently asking for a butter knife to spread jam, the housekeeper sighing and fetching it, his mother reaching quickly into her pocket, the quiet rattle of the lunch bag, her sly delighted grin. The boy grins at the thought, as if at her.
He rummages; there is also a seashell from last summer at the beach. The outside of the shell is rough, spiny, the inside the faint creamy pink of angel skin.
He liked that time at the beach. They sat on a towel surrounded by an ocean of sand and pretended not to see Grandfather waving from the Boardwalk, where the sand could not suck his chair down into its dry hungry mouth.
He rummages again, not minding that there is no more food. There is a tiny pair of scissors, doll-like but very sharp. The boy catches his breath a little. She is not allowed to have sharp things. At dinner, her food is served with the meat already cut; her fork must be surrendered to Grandfather before they can leave the table.
Still these are very small. He smiles a little, but his heart is beating faster.
At the bottom of the bag is an emerald and diamond earring. It is heavy. He imagines it dangling from her small ear, the way it would swing when she turns her head. He imagines her with her hair up, the way he likes it – piled high and messy behind her, a weight she always carries with a girlish self-consciousness, frequently checking with butterfly hands.
He does not remember the last time she wore it thus; since his father left, she wears it in a long, tangly curtain, a style his Grandfather calls horse hair (but running it together in a single word, hoorshair), a comment that makes his mother laugh strangely, or be silent for days.
Later, at home, he will replace the little scissors and the earring. The marble he puts in his pocket, liking the small round reality of it.
It has always been like this with her little surprises. She never tells him which are the go-back things and which are keep things; he just knows. It is like a secret language between them, the way he knows that the slipper is a go back thing, the mask is a keep thing. (It is his secret sorrow that the pocketknife was a put back thing. He thinks it must belong to his father but does not ask.)
The little jeweled pillbox was a put back thing. The boy remembered her far-off look that morning, her eye as impossible to catch as the sweeping glance of a lighthouse. That look, he knew, came from the small green pills; he has come to think of it as her green look.
The day of the pillbox, he fed the green pills to the dumptoads and for many days his mother did not go Away. Her eyes no longer moved in long sightless sweeps, but skittered like dark mice scrambling across the floor looking for a crack to slip into. For an entire week the housekeeper made his lunch, which did not contain anything more interesting than a baloney and cheese sandwich and a mealy apple.
One day he found a girl in his lunch. She was wearing a blue dress, the skirt stuffed and tied into a round soft ball pierced with dozens of straight pins, as if she’d been shot by dozens of Indians small as herself. Her drawn-on face had blue eyes and red lips curled in a brave smile, like the virgin saints they learned about in Bible study, so pure that even a hundred silver arrows would not make her bleed.
After school he slips into her bathroom, inhaling the scent of her bath products. The sweet tang of tuberose, her favorite, stings his nose. He likes it in here, likes searching for the right places for the go-back thing, discovering the country of her map.
He finds a black case with a red velvet lining. Inside are a silver clipper, tweezers and comb. He feels a sense of triumph at the empty little loop, the way the tiny scissors fit right into it.
His hand is on the lid of her domed and tiered jewelry box when a sound in the doorway makes him look up. It is not his mother but his Grandfather, in his chair with the tall metal back cushioned in black like a throne. It is electric and moves quickly and silently over the thick rugs of the house.
“What’s in your hand?” Grandfather demands.
On the short journey from pocket to palm the emerald earring shoots cool green rays of light into the room.
The boy thinks he will simply tell Grandfather about the lunch bag, about put back things and keep things. But the words pile up behind his teeth; the few that escape past his trembling lips do not make any sense.
“Mother gave it, it’s for lunch, but only to put back.”
Click, whirr. Grandfather rolls closer to the boy.
“I’m going to ask you once,” the Granfather said. “Did you steal this?”
The boy is confused, knowing that No is both the right answer and the wrong answer. He does not know the best answer. He shakes his head, not in negation so much as resignation. His hands begin to shake, as do his knees, though this is not from resignation.
Click, whirr. Granfather rolls closer. His veiny hands grip the armrests of his chair so tightly the purple scar on the back of his hand becomes stretched and shiny. The scar is why she can no longer have sharp things. Grandfather sees the boy’s glance and smiles, though he does not look happy.
“You’re no better than she is.”
Since his stroke, the shiny purpled lid of Grandfather’s left eye droops like a broken shade. The eye is always scarlet-threaded, peering at the boy with a secretive, knowing look. The boy is careful not to look at it. He hates it, how it seems like an eye that can look straight into his head and read his thoughts and get control of him.
For a second the boy pictures himself running right up Grandfather’s legs and chest and shoulders and straight up the tall back of the chair, and poising for a moment on curved polished handles, leap off to flap around the house, his mother joining him as they sail out the window and into the cold fall air.
But escape happens only in his head. Outside of his head he stands mute before the electric throne, then takes down his pants. He stares at the section of floor that contains tip of his left shoe, the dark knee and shoe of Grandfather, and one silver wheel of the chair, its gleaming spokes.
The ghostly scent of tuberose in the air is suddenly stronger. He turns his head and she is there, her face a small pale disk with too-large eyes, peering around the tall black back of the chair.
“The boy must learn,” Grandfather said. His hand descends on the boy’s behind. The bunched and bony fingers pinch and prod, make the boy think of the crabs that scuttle into the dark underside of the Boardwalk.
The boy tries to smile at his mother. Lying across Grandfather’s lap has made the blood rush to his head, has made his lips feel huge and hot and rubbery, but he manages. Her stricken expression does not change. She will not be comforted.
At dinner his mother stares at her plate. It is the stare of mermaids with seaweed hair dreaming awake. Grandfather’s eye sparkles with blue anger; he shouts of horse’s hair (HORZhair) and the wages of sin. He is glaring at the boy’s mother but even so his droopy eye tracks the boy, seeming to whisper, There you are.
There is hushed talk between grandmother and the butler, and his mother is taken away to her room with a tray. Her hand trails across the boy’s head as she drifts from the dining room, and she gives him a smile like the pin-stabbed girl. Under the watchful eye of Grandfather, the boy returns the smile without moving his lips.
Later, in bed, he stares into the pink whorl of the shell until sleep takes him like a wave, depositing him with the shell on an endless beach at the edge of a silent green sea. The entire dream consists of him waiting for his mother to come with her towel and a bag lunch that will contain a pin-stabbed mermaid while the black silhouette of the empty chair stands guard behind him.
The next day, and for many days after that, the housekeeper makes his lunch. The bag she hands him contains plenty of food but is far too light At school he feeds the contents to the dumptoad.
Now when the teacher patrols, the students look at her sideways. Another turtle has gone missing; the herd on her desk is now a worried-looking crowd. Her eyes sweep the students distractedly, but the smile she gives the boy is still warm, even though he no longer shows her anything from his bag.
In his room at home, he stares down into his bag, at the gleam of tiny ruby eyes. When he puts the turtle under his pillow, the other two – one mother of pearl, one onyx – click softly together as if in welcome.
He doesn’t know if the turtles will be keep things, like the marble, or the scar on Grandfather’s hand, or if they will go back to their kind, like the tiny scissors shining bright and sharp in their quiet loop.
© Copyright Sandra Stephens (nee Sandra Miller)