The following are the first two subchapters to my new novel: Lunchmeat.
1997–98: First Grade
We moved to Short Hills on June 29, 1997, my seventh birthday. Our house stood out from the other homes on West Road because it was smaller or less ornate, or both. But my mother liked that. “At least we won’t get robbed,” she would say, defending the brick split-level as if she had built it herself. But it was a good house, and I was happy there, at least for a while, because next door lived two brothers who quickly became my close friends.
George and Karl didn’t live in a house like mine. Theirs was big and imposing and sat on top of rolling hills that cascaded down to the cobblestone gutter separating the lawn from the street. Karl told me that the old woman who used to live in our house would give him cookies and let him play the piano that stood by the windows overlooking the backyard. We didn’t have a piano, or cookies, and my father only let us drink soda if it was a “party.” But at Karl’s house his mother had drawers of cookies and candies and a stocked refrigerator of Dr. Brown’s and Stewart’s root beer; our refrigerator had 2% milk and a plastic container with Italian Water written across it in red Sharpie. Karl’s house was my refuge. I would always make sure to rinse my mouth out before going home, because the sugar film on my teeth would leave me with a guilty conscience when my father would ask, “So what did you do at the Geigers’?”
Karl Geiger was a year younger than me, and George was four years older, closer to my brother’s age. My brother — or half-brother — Tony lived with his mother in Florham Park and would visit every other weekend. When we lived in our old town, I would cry every other Sunday afternoon when my father would drive Tony forty-five minutes back to his mother’s. Forty-five minutes away for a six-year-old might as well have been Budapest. But Short Hills was much closer to Florham Park, and Tony spent more and longer weekends with us, staying up late playing SEGA Genesis and Super NES in the basement.
When school started in September, Karl and I attended Glenwood Elementary, consistently ranked one of the top elementary schools in the country — or that’s what I’d overhear when my mother would complain about leaving our old town for Short Hills: “It better be the best, considering the taxes we’re paying to live here.” Glenwood was far more diverse than my old school. I met Chinese kids and Ukrainian kids and Indian kids and Pakistani kids, and we even had a student from Lithuania — a land I pictured as mystical and full of wonder and magic. There was a kid from Africa named Silas, but he was white, which confused me. He said there were a lot of white people in NAM-I-BIA, at least where he lived. Glenwood also had Jews. In my old town, Jeremy was the only Jewish boy in the school and he was my best friend. But at Glenwood I met three boys named Jeremy, and they were all Jewish! After my first day of school, I called my mom at work and told her the good news and asked if Jeremy’s family knew these Jeremys. “They don’t all know each other, honey,” she said.
There were also the WASPs, as my brother called them. They were the families of “Old Short Hills.” I suppose Karl and George were technically WASPs too, but they didn’t look like it. There were the Barriston brothers, the McAllister girls, Avery Burnham, Bradford Knight (who went by Brad, despite his mother’s protestations), Maine Ogden, Paxton Shaffer, and Pierce Stone. I hated Pierce Stone.
At school I had five different colored marble notebooks, one for each subject: red was social studies, blue was math, green was language arts, yellow was science, and purple was for Spanish. Plus I had one more notebook, a plain black one for personal use. I was excited to write stories about knights and dragons and orcs, and then make drawings to match those stories. And Karl would help. But I couldn’t write yet. So when Ms. O’Donnell took too long asking about healthy choices for breakfast, I raised my hand and asked when she would teach us how to write. Before she could answer, Pierce Stone yelled from the other side of the group circle, “You can’t write, Ferraro. You can’t even read!”
I wriggled and slumped into my knees, which were pretzeled in the tortuous sitting position we called “Indian style.” The sweat from the creases of my palms dampened the edges of the blue-lined paper.
“Victor, why don’t you give me an example of a healthy breakfast food?” said Ms. O’Donnell.
“How about… pancakes and eggs and…” I started.
Before I could finish, Ms. O’Donnell cut me off. “No, no, no. Those aren’t healthy foods. Someone help him out.”
I was mortified. I couldn’t read and I couldn’t name a healthy breakfast food. I didn’t raise my hand for a month.
On Sundays after church we would pile into my father’s wood-paneled station wagon and drive through the sidewalkless streets of Old Short Hills — I felt like a tourist in my own town. My mother would point from the passenger seat and say “Oh, Tony, look at that one. Look at that one,” and “You won’t see people like Mr. Sci-Fi here.” Mr. Sci-Fi was one of our neighbors in our old town who didn’t maintain his property so the government wouldn’t raise his taxes.
Tony was my father’s name and my grandfather’s name, along with my brother’s, of course. But my great-grandfather was Gerry, or Gerrardo, and he came from the old country and settled in West Orange, New Jersey as a barber. He had thirteen children; my grandfather was the youngest. All throughout Essex County there were Ferraros, or Ferraros who married DiLeas or DeMarcos or Cavallos, many of whom I had never met.
“We come from Avellino,” my father would say. “Very poor, from Southern Italy. They look down on us, the Northern Italians do. My grandfather, Gerry the Barber, was at a wedding, and they called it off because the families discovered one side was from the North and the other was from the South. Can you believe that? Don’t forget where you come from, boys,” he would say, looking at us through the rearview mirror for an uncomfortable amount of time. “Brit, how are you doing back there? Do you hear me? Tell us where our family comes from.”
Britney, my younger sister, had autism and barely spoke. She clutched her stuffed horse and didn’t respond. She never left the house without Marlene.
“Brit,” my father said, again adjusting the rearview mirror so he could see us in the infamous third row of the station wagon, where the two benches faced each other and always made me carsick. “Britney, I asked you a question. Where does our family come from?” She clutched Marlene tighter.
“Britney, baby, where does Daddy’s side of the family come from?” attempted my mother.
“Britney, Nana talked to you about this last weekend.”
“Alright, enough, Tony. Oh! Look at that one,” she said, pointing to a new-age Asian-fusion mammoth like it was the Eiffel Tower.
“Do we still have my mother’s sauce from last weekend?” he asked.
“Yes, and your sister Marie dropped off some more yesterday.”
“When was that?”
“You were at soccer or field hockey. I don’t know. I never know where you are.”
My father was the athletic director at Millburn High School. It was why we moved in the first place, so he wouldn’t fall asleep at the wheel on the ride home.
Millburn Township is divided by Short Hills and Millburn itself, and both funnel into the same high school.
“Oh, that’s great. Hear that, Vito?!” — my father frequently Italianized my name — “You can take some of Nana’s sauce with you to school tomorrow. And some sausage or braciole. Do we have any braciole left, hun?”
“I don’t want to take any braciole,” I said.
“What was that?!”
“Tony, turn the radio down.”
“I don’t want to take any braciole to school!”
“What?! Why? You love Nana’s sauce and braciole!”
“I swear I could eat that sauce with a spoon,” she said.
“I just don’t wanna.”
“Victor, what happened at school?” said my mom as she maneuvered her head to get a look at a stucco monstrosity with a terra-cotta roof.
“Italians live there,” said my father.
“How do you know that?”
“The fountain in the front yard is always a giveaway.”
“Huh? Well then, what do you want for lunch? And stop playing with your hair.”
I had developed the habit of curling and swirling any hair that grew behind my ear or sprouted out from my cowlick — surely it would’ve been my tell had I been an escaped and unrecognizable fugitive from the Château d’If. At times it seemed that breaking me of the habit was my parents’ reason for existing, as if they had signed a blood vow to a deity.
“I don’t know… just not braciole.”
“Sheesh, alright, more for me,” my father said as he turned the radio back up to listen to the Giants pregame analysis.
The truth was I loved braciole, but the last Monday I brought in leftovers from Sunday dinner, Pierce Stone said I looked like I was eating a “brown penis” as I bit into the meat. He even got up from the lunch table and counted the red dots of Nana’s sauce lining my Big Dog t-shirt like a Neapolitan constellation. “Five! Wait… six, seven… nine! Nine spots!”
In class, Michaela Silves walked over to me and pulled a tissue out of her backpack. She licked the part that covered her finger and wiped at the sauce stains.
“Thanks,” I said
“It’s hard to be new,” she said as she dabbed more vigorously at the stains.
“It’s okay. My mom will get them out,” I said, slowly sliding back in my chair.
She licked and blotted again, and while looking down at the shirt, said, “Victor, I think that we should have a playdate.”
“A playdate. You can come over to my house.”
I had never heard of such a thing.
“We will be alone… It will be fun!”
“No way!” I kicked back the chair, and it slid across the floor on its tennis-ball coverings. “I don’t think so, Michaela. I’m sorry, but I can’t,” I said, letting her down easy.
“But Victor…” She spotted Ms. O’Donnell across the room and lowered her voice. “I want to kiss you.”
“Eghh!” I jumped up from the seat.
“Victor, are you okay?” asked Ms. O’Donnell, looking up from a masterpiece finger painting on which Andrius Varnas was putting the finishing touches. “Do you need Mrs. Lydell to walk you to the bathroom?”
“He doesn’t have to poop, Ms. O’Donnell,” started Pierce Stone, leaning back in his chair. “Michaela just wants to suck his face!”
“I’m a girl. I like him,” Michaela pleaded.
I thought I was going to puke.
“I know, Michaela, and that’s fine. But you can’t kiss Victor here.”
“That’s why I asked him for a playdate! Ahhhhhhhhhhhh!” I thought her screech would shatter the windows.
“Calm down. Sit and paint. Victor, your mother always puts a second shirt in your backpack. Go change in the bathroom.”
I went to the bathroom under the auspices of the classroom aide, Mrs. Lydell — any excuse to escape Michaela’s developed licentiousness. Mrs. Lydell was a round woman with hair dyed dark red, which stuck out like she had been electrocuted. Her lipstick was always smudged in the corner of her mouth, and it was that same dark red, like she had selected them both from a swatch.
The first bathroom stall was occupied. The second and only remaining stall had urine covering the seat — there is a spot reserved in Hell for those who don’t clean up after they tinkle on the seat. I pulled off my t-shirt and put on the one my mom had put in my bag for these frequent mishaps. It was too short; it barely covered my waist.
“Are you pooping or peeing?” asked the occupier of the stall next to me.
“I’m not poopin’ or peein’,” I said. “I’m changing my shirt.”
“’Cause I got sauce on it.”
“Oh, okay.” He let out a fart.
“Gross… Wait… Karl?”
“Karl, whatcha doin’ in here?”
I lowered my head until I could see Karl’s light-up Ninja Turtles shoes barely touching the floor.
“Then why are ya sittin’ down? That’s how girls tinkle.”
“I thought I had to poop, but instead I’ve just been farting. Do you even know how girls pee?”
“Yeah, from their butts!”
“Hey, Karl,” I started, attempting to swallow my laughter, “what shirt are you wearing?”
“My Warcraft shirt.”
“That’s a good one.”
“I like it.”
“Is it big?”
“What do you mean?”
“Is it big on you?”
“Karl, we need to trade shirts.”
“Because I got sauce all over mine and this one is too small.”
“But I don’t want a shirt with sauce all over it.”
“No, not that one. My mom packed me another, but it’s too small for me.”
“Well… what’s on it?”
“A T. rex.”
“Hmm… what color is it?”
“The shirt or the T. rex?”
“I like red.”
“Come on, Karl, please? We can trade back before your mom picks us up.”
“Yeah?! Okay, great. Thanks so much.”
“Just don’t get any sauce on it.”
“You know girls don’t pee out of their butts… right?”
Ben D’Alessio is a writer and law student in New Orleans, LA. Lunchmeat is his second novel (now available in e-book format on the publisher’s page). His debut novel, Binge Until Tragedy, is available on Amazon and the publisher’s page. 25% of profits are donated to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN).