"What's that?" Travis asked loud, wrinkling his nose.
"It's a cheese stick." I mumbled quietly, my mouth half full.
"No, that!" He pointed.
There was a dark spot on the side of the cheese stick. It didn't look bad or anything. It was just kind of a stain.
"It looks like somebody wiped their butt on it!"
Everybody at my class's lunchroom table laughed. Most of them didn't bring a lunch. Not like the school I used to go to at my church. There everybody brought lunch and ate in the classroom. There were only four classrooms and they didn't even have school lunch.
At this school, almost everybody ate school lunch. The few that brought their lunches brought them in paper sacks, not like the stupid white plastic pouch my mom made me bring. It looked like a purse. I had to even carry it around all recess just so I could bring it home. Even the poor kids–the ones who rode the bus–had free tickets for school lunch.
"I bet your mom used it to wipe your butt for you," Travis kept laughing, "and then she put it in your lunch."
I'd made the mistake before of saying my mom made my lunch. They'd seen the tapioca pudding my mom made and laughed. I wished it was just a regular pudding cup from the store, but I couldn't eat stuff like that because I had allergies. My mom said that was why I couldn't have school lunch, even though I got to go to public school that year.
"Did not," I replied, wanting to cry. I fought it. They really laughed last time they saw that. They weren't like the kids at my last school. No matter what I said or did back, I just got razzed worse.
"Oh, Peter," Travis whined in a stupid voice. "You didn't wipe your bottom. Let me help you with that. Then let me make your lunch. Yum." He smacked his lips.
The whole table laughed. Even the third-grader that weighed like two hundred pounds laughed. His head was huge, like a grizzly bear with a rat-tail.
I hated this school.
My best friend Steven always said public school was better than church school so I begged my parents to let me go. Finally, they went to Steven's school and signed me up, but the school said they bussed my grade over to the bad part of town and I had to go there. My parents drove me every day instead because they said the neighborhood was too bad to ride the bus.
Worse, Steven got held back so he stayed at his school and I was alone at the bad one. The next year he'd be at the bad school and I'd be at the other one. I'd go there with all the stupid kids I hated in my class, except the black kids. This was their school. They didn't get bussed anywhere else.
"Shut up," I said, but he acted like he didn't hear me. I almost took another bite, but I tossed the cheese stick back into that stupid white pouch instead.
"Oh! Now baby doesn't want his lunch?" Travis said in the stupid voice, making a face and putting his hands on the sides of his head. "Don't throw it away, give it to Patrice. She'll eat your butt cheese!"
Everybody just laughed more. Patrice didn't, though. She was sitting there, quiet, all the way at the end of the table, by the wall. She was looking away, like she wasn't listening, but she kept peeking over.
I thought maybe he was going to pick on Patrice for a while. I didn't have anything against Patrice, but at least he'd leave me alone. Then I'd eat the rest of my lunch in peace.
I smiled a little.
"What? You want to give your butt cheese to her?" Travis must have seen the smile. "You like her? You think maybe she'll fall in love with you because her mom's too poor to buy any food and she'll marry you?"
My smile fell. "No. I don't like her."
It was true. She was nice and all–not loud and nasty like most of the other black girls at the school–but she was ugly. Her hair was always ratty and I was pretty sure she never combed it. She always had on this gray yarn old-lady jacket with holes in it. Her teeth were all twisted up too, like they spun around like a tilt-a-whirl, and she smelled.
She wasn't like Stacie or Daisy. They rode the bus and had soft, pretty hair. Stacie's was brown and Daisy's was blond. They wore cute clothes, nice clean blouses and pink skirts with blue bunnies on them, and smelled like fruit.
"You'll ask her to marry you and live together in a dumpster. You'll have tons of welfare kids and feed them all butt cheese!" Travis flung his arms open wide.
Everybody was really laughing. Everybody but me and Patrice. They saw me and Patrice not laughing and that only made them laugh more.
I wished he'd said anybody else. Not Patrice. She lived in the nasty area near the school. The place with all the ugly brick apartments stuck together in rows. The kids who rode the bus called it the projects. The whole place was fenced off because it was so rough. My dad even said it was bad. My friend Marvin lived there and I couldn't go to his apartment to play because it was too dangerous.
I wished he'd picked Stacie or Daisy. They weren't gross. They didn't have free lunch cards. Neither of them had to stay home for a week because of lice. It was extra bad because it was Patrice and Travis knew it. I tried to fight it, but my eyes started getting blurry. It stung.
"Why don't you go kiss her?" He went on.
"Shut up," I choked. "I said I don't like her."
"We all know you do," he smirked, "or you wouldn't say you didn't. The more you say you don't the more we know you do."
"No I don't," I stammered. "I don't even like black people!"
The whole table went quiet right then. Patrice too. Even the people at the other tables. They all just stared. Quiet and staring.
"Oooh!" The whole table went at once. "Ooooh!"
"No, hang on! That's not what I meant," I shouted.
I wasn't prejudiced. The black girls at the school were all just kind of gross. I didn't think they really weren't just like everybody else, I just didn't like them like that. That wasn't prejudiced. People can't choose who they like-like.
"Oooh!" They all were still going, looking around and pointing at me.
All of a sudden one of the lunch ladies came storming out of the back up to our table. She snatched the hair net off the top of her head.
"What's going on here?" She snarled.
The lunch ladies were all big old ugly black women from the neighborhood. Probably even went to the school when they were little and then grew up to be lunch ladies there. Most of them didn't seem to care about much or move too fast.
This one was different. She was old, but not as old as the others. She was skinny and twisted and was always yelling loud. Always seemed mad about something.
"What'd he say?"
"He said he doesn't like black people!" Travis tattled. He said it like he'd never said anything bad.
"No I didn't!" I yelled. "He's lying. I–"
She snatched my arm and pulled me up out of the table. Then she turned and started dragging me out of the lunchroom.
"You don't like black people?" She spat. "The principal's going to have something to say to you, you little racist!"
I was crying a lot. I didn't even say anything back I was crying so much.
"Sit," she snapped, tossing me into one of the chairs outside the lunchroom. "You wait here while I get the principal. And don't even think of going nowhere."
She stormed off. It wasn't fair. I couldn't like like somebody just because I wanted too. I wasn't bad just because Patrice wasn't pretty. That wasn't my fault. I hadn't meant I was prejudiced or anything.
"This is the racist little white boy," the lunch lady snarled, running back with the principal. He was tall and black with a fancy dark suit and a shiny maroon tie. He was bald and had wire glasses.
He fiddled with the glasses looking at me. "I will speak to him," he said, laying a hand on her shoulder. "Go on and see to the other children."
It took him a minute to sit down after the lunch lady ran back off into the lunchroom, kind of like he had to work into sitting down. I just sat there and waited and didn't say anything.
"Well," he said. "What is your name?"
"Peter," I sniffled.
"So, Peter," he went on, "I hear you do not like black people."
"That's not what I meant! It just came out wrong," I sputtered. "They said I liked Patrice and that I was going to marry her and I just don't like black girls like that. I just meant–"
"Peter," the principal said calmly, "did you know that not so long ago black children were not even allowed to go to school with white children? Not very long ago at all, some people thought black children were inferior to white children, and white parents did not want their children raised around black children."
"The world has progressed, Peter." He didn't look at me while he was talking. It seemed like he was looking above me. Like he was looking at something far away, but the only thing there was the wall. Maybe he thought he was looking through the wall. "We are fortunate that we do not live in those dark times. The old way of thinking was bred of ignorance, and today we are more enlightened."
He paused like he was waiting for me to say something. I didn't, though. I was still crying, but not so much anymore. I was almost more mad than scared. This was dumb.
"This is what my school is all about. We are the future. Children of all races must attend school together because we are all a part of the same world. Sometimes the ignorance from the past still comes forward, but it is our duty to educate that ignorance. So many have sacrificed themselves so that we may live in harmony. It is our duty to never forget the lessons they have taught us."
He paused again. He actually looked down at me. I just sat there.
"Do you understand what I am talking about, Peter?"
He didn't need to say those things. Anybody knew that stuff. It wasn't what I meant at all. He didn't care, though. None of them did. He wouldn't even listen to me.
"Good, Peter. I am glad we have had this opportunity to talk." He put his hand on my shoulder for a second and then got up. "How about we get you back to your class now?"
David S. Atkinson is the author of "Bones Buried in the Dirt" and the forthcoming "The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes" (EAB Publishing, spring 2014). His writing appears in "Bartleby Snopes," "Grey Sparrow Journal," "Interrobang?! Magazine," "Atticus Review," and others. He spends his non-literary time working as a patent attorney in Denver.
Street Art by Free Outlast.
Photo by Adam Lawrence.
Zoo Brother is alias of Chicago musician William Karmis."Please Don't" is the b-side of his latest digital single.