Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

The Lunch Box
by Melanie Barton Zoltán

My son wants a lunch box. He is two years and eight months old, and in two months he will begin Montessori school. In one of Ben's bedtime books, Clifford the Big Red Dog has a lunch box, and Ben has seized on this. "I need to get a lunch box with Mommy," he has announced for the past few days. Why I must be with him is a mystery, for I've never read this particular Clifford story to him. His father reads that book to Ben each night. Perhaps my absence is filled, in Ben's mind, by the prospect of a future lunch box hunt.

We will go tomorrow and buy a lunch box of some sort. First we will hit the Salvation Army, where old lunch boxes go to be adopted. Maybe we will find a Scooby-Doo box, with the Mystery Machine rusting away on the side panel, but I've heard that these boxes from my elementary school days now sell for sixty dollars or more on eBay. The old, pink, plastic-covered cardboard Barbie lunch boxes won't be there. One thermos leak and mine fell apart. I tried to use it several times after the orange juice fiasco, limp-skinned and warped but it never recovered, and is not strong enough to find its way to a post-millennial Salvation Army. I do hope we find a plastic Animalympics box, merchandise from that shameless cartoon caricature of the 1980 Winter Olympics, with various animals performing a wide range of winter sports without any instincts, grace, or dignity. When I mention Animalympics to my husband, he shrugs. He was fifteen in 1980; for him, lunch boxes were passé or a hiding place for nickel bags.

My Animalympics lunch box got me through fourth and fifth grade. It was molded plastic, bright yellow and shaped like an old black metal lunch box. It sat upright and the lid popped back, the thermos cradled in the top. A full thermos would tip the entire box backwards, sending the embarrassing contents out into public for inspection and ridicule. No matter what, though, I had a normal lunch box.

It didn't compensate for my abnormal mother.

I didn't know the word for my mother's strange behaviors then, but in fifth grade, I knew that every weekday at lunch I had two choices: stand in the special line for a hot lunch, or pack my own. Students with family incomes below a certain level qualified for a free lunch, and at Fort Island Elementary School in upper-middle class Fairlawn, Ohio, there weren't many of us. When we wanted our pre-qualified free lunch, the few of us had to stand in a special line. When we reached the cashier, she would check a printed list, ask our name in a voice that seemed to carry as far as the playground, and cross it off for that day.

That price was too high for a free lunch, so I packed.

The year before, we lived with my grandmother, who handled the Barbie lunch box breakdown better than my mother's. The Barbie lunch box fell apart according to an ordered set of events linked by cause and effect. Orange juice leaked from an improperly sealed thermos. Said juice soaked into the cardboard via tears in the plastic covering. Cardboard weakened, destroying the structural integrity of the lunch box. Salvage attempts were impossible, so a new lunch box was warranted.

Mom's breakdown wasn't so simple. Schizophrenia doesn't announce itself in an ordered manner, with a linear deployment of symptoms that add up to a clear conclusion. Grandma took me shopping for my new lunch box and replaced the old with Animalympics, a sturdy plastic container for transporting nourishment. That was easy. She couldn't size up my mother's drinking, the filthy house, the lack of food in cupboards and refrigerator, our unclean clothes and bodies and then act according to rational principles. She couldn't do what made sense and was best for everyone any more than I could just stand in that special line at school and eat that nice, free, hot lunch.

We didn't have much food in the house. I always managed to find stray change in the couch among the fleas, and for twenty cents I could buy a tiny bag of Fritos or Cheetos. We didn't have plastic sandwich bags, but normally there was tin foil. Bread bags sufficed in a pinch, but often ants were in the bottom, feeding off the crumbs. I shook them out, turned the bread bag inside out, and made do.

If I could convince Mom to go to the store, sometimes she'd buy Twinkies or Ho-Hos, but they never lasted long enough to make it into the lunch box the next day. My brother, sister, and I devoured any food other than granola, wheat bread, peanut butter, pork chops, green beans, brown rice, red wine, milk, bacon, or eggs. These were her staples; one month she served French string beans, clumpy brown rice, and pan-fried pork chops for dinner every night, twenty-some nights in a row. Her food was always slightly burned and the beans tasted like cigarette ashes. When we ran out of milk, we drank water, and when we grew tired of that, we drank wine in small amounts, just to drink something else.

So my packed lunches looked something like this: wheat-bread-and-peanut-butter sandwich, Cheetos, and loose granola. Not bad. But it was the same food, over and over, and as time passed, there was less variety. Bacon became too expensive. Green beans disappeared after we mutinied and refused to eat her repeats. Peanut butter faded too; she bought the natural, oil-on-top stuff, and once it solidified in the fridge (where she insisted on storing it) it wasn't worth fighting with or for. I accepted the half-mile walk to the grocery store as a price to pay for seeming normal at school.

Stacey Mengel had the best lunches in fifth grade. Her mother wrote knock-knock jokes all over her brown bag (which made it way cooler, with the stroke of a pen, than any lunch box) and scribbled little affectionate notes on her napkin. "You're the best!" Mrs. Mengel wrote, and I was so jealous, jealous of that love, jealous that Stacey lived in a house where Mrs. Mengel could freely reach for a white paper napkin and slip it in the decorated bag without thinking twice. And Stacey had exotic foods like carrot sticks, celery, fresh sandwiches with vegetables on them, a piece of fruit, plus one packaged piece of junk food. All of her food was wrapped carefully in little baggies or even Ziploc bags.

At the end of lunch one day, as everyone filed outside for recess, I grabbed one of Stacey's lunch bags out of the garbage and read all of the little notes, one by one. I opened her bag and found an unused napkin on which Mrs. Mengel had written "I love you!" For that empty, lonely moment as I stood by the garbage can, right next to the free lunch cash register, hearing recess begin with screams and shouts of fun and freedom, I imagined that I was reading my mother's handwriting. I imagined that we had a clean spot on the kitchen counter for a napkin holder, full of white, textured napkins that would handle the force of a pen held with love.

I shoved the bag back into the garbage and threw the rest of my loose lunch on top of it.

Other kids brought neat things like graham cracker and frosting sandwiches, Jello wigglers, BLT sandwiches separated in little baggies, to be assembled at lunch ("It's so my bread doesn't get soggy," Lisa explained.) I never threw open my lunch box for all to view. I would reach in and pull each item out, unwrapped, as though I'd pulled it out of a baggie, a Ziploc, tin foil, some conventional protection that everyone assumed food traveled in. We ate and talked about the movie Xanadu, and whether Olivia Newton John really did all the rollerskating stunts. Some girls traded sandwiches and snacks, but I never did. Just sitting at the table with my lunch box was enough. I didn't want to push my luck.

One February day I went to school wearing the same pair of jeans for the fourth day in a row. My mother said the gas heat had been disconnected by the head of the condominium association, and that Mr. Landis was out to get us all. In fact, she postulated, Mr. Landis was working with the Summit County Bureau of Child Support and my father to cheat her out of the $289 that Dad had owed her for more than two years. It turned out the furnace was broken and needed a twenty-dollar part, but that just fed into her conspiracy theory. We stayed warm by sharing the pull-out couch and taking turns putting one of three sleeping bags in the electric dryer for ten minutes, grabbing the hot cover, and rushing to the bed. I tried to do some wash, but the dryer was going non-stop, so finishing the job would be hopeless. We couldn't bathe for lack of hot water.

My teacher, Mrs. Davies, motioned me to her desk during reading period. "Melanie, you should go to the girls’ room. Your face is dirty," she whispered. She handed me the hall pass, a thick piece of wood with our room number written in bleeding red marker, and smiled. It was the first time I'd ever seen such a smile. Her eyes looked sad and she showed no teeth. I would almost call it compassionate, but there was a barrier there, a nonverbal cue that meant she acknowledged that I was having problems, but that she would do nothing more than point out my inadequacies and help me to resolve the surface tension. That was not the last time I saw that smile.

I left the room and made my way, alone, to the girls’ room. When I looked in the mirror, I expected to find a smudge. Instead I saw filth. I had not been able to look in a mirror at home because we were playing musical light bulbs. The living room and bedrooms took priority, so we'd been peeing in the dark. Without gas heat, hot water was impossible, so other than furtive, cold trips to the toilet, I hadn't spent any time in the two rooms in the house that had mirrors.

When I wet some paper towels and wiped, there was visible dirt on the brown paper. I scrubbed with the cheap powdered soap and the coarse paper towels until my face was raw red. And then I cried. No one heard me, no one saw me, but I clutched a dry towel in my hand and kept imagining that it was a napkin with the words "I love you!" written for me.

I wet my face with cool water, waited until the puffiness went away, and marched back to class. Lunch period was next, and I had managed to buy some granola bars and a salami sandwich. With a clean face, I returned the hall pass and worked on my spelling words. I was the class spelling champ and needed to defend my turf. No one noticed my shiny, clean face. At lunch that day, no one noticed the granola bars or the sandwich. Maybe I was the only one who saw what wasn't there.

Ben and I went to the Salvation Army to look for a lunch box, but there weren't any. So we went to a department store and found one, blue molded plastic with a thermos. We had a picnic in the living room with his lunch box, and he's as happy with his symbol as I was with mine. My husband and I make a good living and have a comfortable home. Ben will never have to stand in the free lunch line. I'll probably write love notes in his lunch that he will discard, embarrassed, like Stacey Mengel sometimes did. But he will learn to shop at thrift stores for a wide range of reasons: it is environmentally friendly to buy used items; it is cheaper; there is a wider variety. And, sometimes, if you pay enough attention, you realize that what you thought was dirty and neglected only needs a little attention to become a treasure.

I will also take him there again because maybe, hidden on a back shelf, sits a bright yellow Animalympics lunch box waiting for some very special napkins.
Melanie Barton Zoltán telecommutes from Leominster, Massachusetts, writing historical novels for a private school system. She also teaches World History at Nichols College. Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in Foliage, Artisan, Moxie, Miscellany, Today’s Parent, and other publications. One short story, "Sweat", was nominated for a XXV Pushcart Prize, while this essay, first printed in Brain, Child, has been nominated for a XXVII Pushcart Prize. Her current focus is on creative nonfiction.

"I spent most of my life operating under a counter-dependent philosophy: whatever my mother did, I did the opposite, and that made me not crazy. But when my son was born three years ago, I was forced to acknowledge some of the good memories about my mother. I continue to see every aspect of my relationship with Ben (and the baby due in March) through the prism of my mother’s schizophrenia, but fortunately I can view the colors now without letting them eat me. And when the furnace breaks, I do not blame it on President Bush."
 - Melanie Zoltán