SHORT STORY
Lunchbox
by Gessy Alvarez
Writer of the Month

The man in the blue ski jacket leaves his house as the last of the yellow school buses pulls out. He lives alone in a small Cape Cod across the street from our schoolyard. He wears the same blue ski jacket year-round and always carries a metal lunchbox. Wendy and Sharon like to make fun of the way he walks. Say he waddles like a duck.

“Let's fuck with the duck,” they always say after school.

Three years ago, when we were eleven, we threw pebbles at Blue and yelled “kook” whenever we spotted him. Sometimes Blue would stop and look at us and we’d whoop and holler and squeal like he was the boogeyman. But Blue never chased us or stopped his routine.

    Every afternoon, for the last three years, we’ve followed Blue to the gas station across town. He likes to slide inside a dented, rusty phone-booth there. The phone company ripped the phone out years ago, but left the booth behind. Blue looks small inside the metal box. He turns his back, but we know his routine. How he opens his lunchbox and pulls out a stack of one dollar bills. How he places the lunchbox under his arm, counts his money, then stashes the inch high stack back in the box.

    Today was our last day at middle school. Next year, Sharon and Wendy will go to the Catholic high school near the center of town. I'll go to the overcrowded public high school three towns away. I want to tell Blue’s story. I want Wendy and Sharon to wrap his story around other stories. I feel like we owe him that. I tell this to Sharon because she’s the one with the good grades, and she smirks back and says, “He’s just another nut in a small town. Don’t worry you’ll meet more crazies in high school.”

    “But Blue’s our first crazy person,” I say. And Wendy jumps in and says, “He’s not my first.”

    “Mine either,” says Sharon and they both point and laugh at me because they’ve known me since the first grade and I’m the first crazy person they ever met. I’m the one who can never sit still in class, who enjoys pissing the teachers off, who fights, who almost didn’t graduate, but who reads at a college-level.

    We follow Blue back to his house from the gas station. He sits on the uneven steps by his mud-stained front door, body slumped heavy, eyes on booted feet, one hand wiping the sweat from his upper lip, and the metal lunchbox between his knees. We sit on the curb a few feet away, giggle and tease Sharon for not combing her frizzy hair, pull on Wendy’s over-the-shoulder-boulder-holder bra. We swear to never stop calling each other and stab our fingers with a safety pin. “Blood sisters,” we yell, but Blue's eyes remain on his feet, his lunchbox cradled in his arms.

“I wonder why he never talks to us,” I say to the girls.

“Maybe he’s a zombie,” says Wendy, “and wants to eat our brains.” She hugs me from behind and pulls me to the ground.

Sharon falls to her knees and tickles me while Wendy holds me down. “Maybe he’s a figment of your imagination, you crazy girl.”

I manage to squirm away from them and put a hand out in surrender. “I give up,” I say, struggling to catch a breath. My eyes jump back to Blue and my thoughts stutter in my head.

I can see Blue alone in his house, day in and day out, never talking to anyone. I can see my mother brushing my hair, my father shouting about his boss and the bad plumbing, and me wanting to tell them how bad I feel, but I keep quiet. And Wendy and Sharon will never know what’s been happening, and then I hear Leroy say, “Hey, what's my girl doing over here in the dark?” He runs his fingers through my hair, and his loud mouth friend, Sal, pulls me by the waist and I can feel his belt buckle dig into my butt. Leroy's stubby fingers tangle with my curls. I try to elbow Sal, but he’s too quick. He holds my arms to my sides. And I know all they want is to rub their bony bodies against mine, but I don’t know why they chose me. I want to ask Sharon and Wendy, but I can never tell them and Leroy dribbles a basketball and asks Sal, “Did you shove your dick up her ass?” I can’t tell anyone because I never told the boys to stop. And maybe Blue is the only person I can tell, because he won’t talk back.

* * *  

When Blue rises from his stoop, we fall in line. Follow him as he walks west for a mile towards the shack turned convenience store where the old, retired Sheriff sells newspapers, dirty magazines, coffee, and ghetto cola. The silver-bearded Sheriff sees Blue coming and opens the screen door to his shop. “Hola, muchachas,” he says with an exaggerated gringo accent. He gives us a pervy once-over, and I flip my middle finger. He pushes Blue through, spits close to our feet, and slams the screen door shut. We crowd around the screen door and watch as Sheriff leads Blue to the round table in the middle of the store. There Sheriff and three geezers sit around. They call out lottery numbers and read obituaries from different newspapers scattered around the table.

    Blue places his lunchbox on the table, counts his 233 dollars, doesn't pay any mind to the geezers who sit and stare hungrily at the dollar bills in his hands.

    “This place stinks.” Sharon twists a frizzy black curl around her finger.

    We hate the smell of stale smoke, coffee, and rotting teeth that wafts out the screen door.

    “No one ever comes here,” says Wendy. Her bra strap hangs down her slender shoulder; her face is pushed up against the screen.

    I laugh when she turns my way. Dirt clings to her golden nose and forehead. I kick a couple of empty beer cans away from Wendy and Sharon.

“It's our last day with Blue.” I remind them. I think what Blue will do without us. Nobody can make him stop counting his dollars. We could force him to talk to us, to tell us why he keeps the money in his lunchbox.

    “Look at them groupies.” The Sheriff points at us. Blue keeps counting. “Which one is your favorite?” The Sheriff lights a stumpy cigar and coughs phlegm into a coffee cup. When Blue finishes counting his money, he looks at us, then looks down at his pile. He counts his money again and the Sheriff leans in. “I betcha it’s the spic one,” he snorts in Blue’s direction.

    Blue stops counting and looks at me. He shrugs and stares at his dollars.

    That shrug makes me queasy and mad. I feel hot and push away from the screen door so fast I almost knock Sharon on her ass.

“Let’s go,” I say. Sharon and Wendy whisper behind me but I don’t stop walking.

    “Fuck that duck,” Sharon says.

    “Forget that old kook,” says Wendy.

    When we get to the park that divides the town in half, they hug and kiss me goodbye. They do it so easily and I know by this time next year, I would be forgotten and I want to say stop. Don’t forget me and Blue. But Sharon and Wendy are both halfway across the baseball field, already walking away from me and each other. I stare after them as they head on opposite directions towards their little houses on the pretty side of town. I head east, walk along the train tracks to the run-down garden apartments in the outskirts of town.

* * *

My dad's pushing the lawnmower; he's got two hours to go before he can call it quits. His green uniform is covered with mud, grease, and sweat. He sees me heading over to the groundskeeper’s apartment, whistles and waves, but I only give him a small nod before hiding behind the screen door. My mom's still at work and my little sister's inside the bedroom we share. Cartoon voices and her laughter bounce at me as I open the door. Her eyes remain on the TV. I pat her little head and crash on my bed. I stare at the ceiling and think about Blue with his lunchbox cradled in his arms, his ski-jacket, and sweat on his upper lip. I think how there must be nuts like him in every small town.

 

    I wash up and put on a new pair of shorts and tee-shirt, ignore my sister when she asks me where I'm going. I lie to my dad and tell him I forgot something at Sharon's house. He's drinking water from the hose. “Watch out for the crazies,” he says between gulps.

    I head towards our schoolyard and look across at Blue's house. His lights are off. Then I see him, sitting against the side of his house on his overgrown lawn, crying. I walk slowly across the street and stand over him. The lunchbox is in his hands, open, but the inch high stack of dollar bills is gone.

    “Watcha want from me? Go away.” He says to the ground. His voice is soft, his gray eyes looking everywhere but at me.

    I want to ask him what happened, but I keep quiet. I crouch down and grab his lunchbox. He gives it up easily, crosses his arms, hugs his body, and rocks back and forth. I stare down at the lunchbox in my hands for a few moments, close it, and place it under my arm.

“This is mine now,” I say to Blue.

 

* * *

Back home, I stand outside our screen door; inside my family is sitting at the table. Our living room is also our dining room. I think of Blue crying by the side of his house and his torn blue ski-jacket. I think about calling the cops, but what would be the point. I look at the empty lunchbox in my hand and set it down beside the trashcans outside our screen door.

Today was my last day at middle school and tomorrow this will all be part of my history. 


Gessy Alvarez is founder and managing editor of the literary website, Digging through the Fat. Her prose has appeared in EntropyDrunk Monkeys, Extract(s), Literary Orphans, Bartleby Snopes, Thrice Fiction, Pank, and other publications. An excerpt of her first novel, The Last Kingdom in Astoria, was recently featured in Vol. 1 Brooklyn.