- *These are the next few subchapters to Lunchmeat. The beginning of the novel can be found here.**
- Paperback and ebook formats available on: Amazon and the Publisher’s Page.
After school, Karl and I would wait for his mom to pick us up in her white ’96 Jeep Cherokee. We weren’t permitted to stand on the grass while we waited. Fifth-graders who wore bright orange sashes enforced this puritanical rule; they were called “Safeties.” Denying us six- and seven-year-olds access to that lush green lawn only fed our fervor. When we saw the Jeep approaching the school, Karl and I would dart out across the grass like it was a battlefield, screaming our heads off like berserking orcs. Max Barabander and Eldrige Barriston (the eldest Barriston brother) would chase us until they, too, reached the grass, but they wouldn’t cross and instead would yell, “Just wait until tomorrow, Vic and Karl!” from the blacktop that wrapped around the school. But they could never catch me. Even at seven I was fast enough to evade many of the fifth-graders, especially when I had a head start. Karl was another story. He was short and pudgy, and when he ran his backpack would pop up and down. It was never fully closed, so his notebooks were always on the verge of falling out.
We usually stopped for an after-school snack: Burger King, Taco Bell, or Wendy’s were the typical choices. Man, how I could devour that garbage, I mean really throw it back — and I wouldn’t gain a pound, either. I was a twig. I hated when family would tell me that too: “Vito, you’re skin and bones. Ya gotta eat!”
I ordered the classic chicken sandwich at Burger King — that succulent breaded monster — and met Karl and Mrs. G at the booth after filling my cup with Pepsi. Mrs. G knew about my father’s no-soda rule, but she didn’t tell him. I liked that about Mrs. G.
Before I could tear into the beast, a couple of guys from my class raced over to our booth, practically knocking each other over to get the first word in. It was Paxton Shaffer and Lenny Hooker.
“Hey guys,” I said, tucking my sandwich to the side as if they had come to steal it.
“We’re playing kickball this weekend behind the school. You guys want to play?”
Karl had barely taken a breather from his sack of golden fries. He chomped on them with robotic precision — three chomps per fry.
“I think I can, but I have to ask my dad,” I said.
“Karl?” asked Lenny.
“Karl, answer your friend,” said Mrs. G.
“Yeah. Sure. Okay,” Karl said while picking the pickles off his Whopper.
Our dinner table was forest-green and had indents and etches all over it. Sometimes when I put off eating my broccoli or spinach, I would dig my nail into these etches and run my fingertips along the grooves. I sat at the table while my mother was on the phone; the creaking plastic spiral cord followed her around the kitchen like a sand-colored vine, getting caught in those knots that reminded me of the loops on a roller coaster. The cord was not quite as bright as my mother’s blond hair. I don’t know what her real hair color is; I’ve never seen it.
I was too hungry for my mom to finish getting dinner ready, so I snuck over to the cabinet and pulled down a jar of fruit cocktail from the shelf. From my knees, I fished out the maraschino cherries with my index finger and popped them into my mouth. I heard the garage door clink open and then close with a thud!
“Where’s my family!” my father sang as he walked up the stairs.
“Hold on, hold on, Mom. Tony! Can you get Britney?!”
“Something smells good,” Dad continued his melody.
“Brit!” Mom called. “Victor, go get your sister… are you eating? What are you eating?”
I twisted the jar shut and darted out of the kitchen and into the dining room we only used for special occasions. The china and rows of fancy glassware vibrated with every step.
“Hellooo, my friend,” my father sang as he put out his hand for a low five.
“Not now, Dad. I need to get Britney for dinner,” I said as I sprinted by him.
“Where’s ya mother? On the phone, I see, being a yacyadonne.” (Translation: chitchatter, blabbermouth, rambler, one who prates.)
“No running in the house!” my mother yelled with the phone tucked behind her ear.
Britney was in the basement watching Pocahontas and holding Marlene.
“Come on, Brit, it’s time for dinner.”
“Come on, Brit, let’s go.”
“No. I won’t. I just won’t do it.”
I hit the pause button on the VCR. She launched from the couch and pointed at me with her eyes closed. “I’ll have him hanged for this!”
“No movie talk!” I yelled back. “Mom says you have to use your own words, no movie talk.”
“It would’ve been better if we never met. None of this would’ve happened.”
“Britney! Get upstairs for dinner… fine.” I pretended to start going toward the stairs but made a quick snatch for Marlene and sprinted away.
“Hey! That’s… that’s mine!”
We were having stuffed peppers for dinner, and the smell of cheese melting into rice stuck in every corner of the house. I liked when the pepper itself was a little burnt; I ate that part. If it wasn’t a little burnt, I wouldn’t eat it.
“Vito, put away the cranberry juice and make yourself a glass of chocolate milk. Don’t you want to grow up big and strong?” asked my father.
Like an inmate with toilet-bowl hooch, I had concocted the best alternative to my soda-less occupancy of the West Road split-level: saturated chocolate milk. The key was to swirl the milk as you drank it. This picked up the settled sediment, making each sip better than the last.
I shoveled the powder into the milk with cartoonish fury.
“Okay, high-lows. Okay, okay, Vito, that’s enough Ovaltine. Come sit down so we can do high-lows.”
“Oh, come on, Tone, not tonight.”
“Yes. We do it every night. Brit, would you like to go first? What was your ‘high’ and what was your ‘low’?”
“Britney… come on. What was your ‘high’ and what…”
“I’m going to play kickball this weekend,” I said.
“Oh? With who?” asked my father.
“Paxton and Lenny and Karl… and this kid Andrius. He’s from Lith-U-A-NIA.”
“Oh, sounds exotic,” said my father.
“Mom, have you been to Lith-U-AN-IA?”
“No, honey, but I’ve been to Sweden and Norway… and Denmark. They aren’t that far… I don’t think.”
“Is it nice there?” I asked, struggling to get as little pepper with my rice as possible.
“Where? Denmark? It’s nice. A bunch of socialists, but it’s nice.”
“How about Gianluca?” asked my father.
“He’s not my friend.”
“He should be, Vito. He’s a good kid. I spoke with his mother. She’s from Sicily.”
“Is that in Italy?”
“Ehh… kind of.”
“Yes. Yes, Sicily is in Italy,” my mother corrected.
“Have you been to Italy, Mom?”
“Yes, I have. I spent my twenty-fourth birthday sipping espresso in Piazza San Marco.” She looked off into a time far-removed from the banalities of suburban New Jersey.
“Dad, have you been to Italy?”
“Not yet. I got too much work to do. I’ll make it over there someday. A nice trip when I retire, just me and your mother.” He hoisted his jelly glass half-filled with Valpolicella. “How’s that sound, hun?”
“Oh, just lovely, dear.”
The multi-purpose room at Glenwood, where we ate our lunches and had indoor gym during poor weather, was tan-tiled with beige walls. At the front was a low stage, which had been converted to storage for a sundry assortment of crafts and instruments. At lunch, our tables were long and brown, and the benches folded up and clanked onto the tables themselves. I hated to fold up the benches, because one time Pierce Stone was showing off to Avery Burnham and flung the bench up and it smacked me in the elbow. I didn’t cry, I swear, but my whole arm went numb and I just kept saying “Ow ow ow ow” between fake laughs.
I had to sit at his table too. All of Ms. O’Donnell’s class had to sit at the same table. I wanted to sit with Karl, but we didn’t have lunch at the same time because he was a grade younger. He still got nap time, that sock.
I opened my bulky yellow lunchbox that had the ice compartment in the bottom, adding an extra few inches to the base. I hated that lunchbox. I wanted to bring my lunch in a brown paper bag like the other kids, but my father said it was a gift from my Great Aunt Josephine — she had heard that I liked yellow. I don’t know where she had heard such things, because I hated yellow. I liked red, like Karl, like the Romans, because it was the color of blood. My dad liked that and promised me my next lunchbox could be red. I had read that in a book, that the Romans liked red. I could read! I mean, I was learning to read, at least.
I took out my leftover ruby-red pepper stuffed to the brim with rice and specks of meat. The savory odor wafted down the faux-wood table, and like a domino effect, each kid turned and looked at me, their turkey-on-white-bread sandwich in hand.
“Hey! What do you have there, Ferraro?” Pierce Stone called down the row of boys.
“A… a stuffed pepper,” I said, trying to hide the vegetable behind my yellow giant.
“I’m surprised it didn’t get lost in your lunchbox. That thing is like a school bus!”
I looked to see if Andrius was eating something weird, something from Lithuania, but he was biting into a plain bagel with cream cheese — the excess spread dotted the tip of his nose. He had learned the hard way after Pierce Stone told him his cepelinai dumpling with sour cream sauce “looks like it has cum all over it.” I didn’t even know what “cum” was, but Pierce Stone told us it’s what his brother did to girls in middle school. “He cums them.” He would say, “Trevor is so cool. He always has girls in the basement and he cums them.”
Tony never had girls in our basement. He was only twelve, but I wondered if he’d ever cummed with a girl. When do you start to cum with girls? I wanted to ask Pierce Stone, but I stopped myself. I didn’t want to look stupid.
“I like your lunchbox, Victor,” Michaela said, catching me off guard.
“Yeah. Okay. Thanks.” My face turned as red as the bell pepper as I slouched behind my school bus lunchbox.
At recess we played football. I was the best one, though I was never picked first. The Barriston twins, Chase and Miles, were usually the captains. If Chase picked first, he chose Paxton Shaffer. If Miles picked first, he chose Pierce Stone. If I was on Pierce Stone’s team I never played quarterback.
When I played in the backyard with Tony and George and Karl, Tony would always play quarterback. Tony loved Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins. Everything Tony had was teal or orange or a combination of the two. My dad didn’t like the Miami Dolphins. He had season tickets to the Jets, but he bought Tony Dan Marino jerseys and posters and anything else he wanted because Marino was Italian. But I liked the players who were so fast that no one could touch them, so fast that the white lines on the field blurred beneath their feet as they cut and evaded their opponents. I liked Deion Sanders and wanted to play just like him. One time I even snuck a do-rag in my backpack and wore it at recess. Pierce Stone told Mrs. Lydell, who told me to take it off. “We don’t wear that here,” she said. I didn’t understand the problem. I was outside, hats were allowed outside, but she made me take it off anyway. Pierce Stone didn’t care about the do-rag; he was upset that I scored a touchdown on Paxton’s opening kickoff and cut right in front of him, which made him fall and dirty his corduroys. And right before I reached the end zone, I put my hand behind my head and “high-stepped” the last few feet, just like Deion.
Saturday came and I was supposed to play kickball with Karl, Paxton, Lenny, and Andrius, but Tony was with us that weekend, so I wanted to stay with him and play video games instead. He had no desire to play kickball with us, so my dad brought him to my cousins’ house in Livingston, a town with even more Jews than ours. My dad insisted that I go play kickball and that I would see Tony when we went for pizza later that night. The thing was, we weren’t going to play kickball at all. When Karl and I got to the field behind the school, Paxton and the other guys were waiting behind the chain-link fence with flashlights. They didn’t even have a ball!
I shouldn’t’ve believed Paxton anyway. He was always lying. He called them “white lies,” as if that made them any better. “You can’t get in trouble for white lying,” he would say. For show-and-tell, he brought in a shark-tooth necklace and said his dad caught the shark himself, pulled it onto their boat, and shot it with a gun. He said his dad pulled the tooth out of the shark’s mouth and gave it to him right there on the boat, all bloody and gray. I asked my mother and she said the Shaffers went to the Cayman Islands last December and that they probably bought the necklace in a souvenir shop. She also said the Shaffers don’t have a boat. Paxton was always lying and scheming like that; he was like Tom Sawyer in a cardigan.
“Hey, where’s the ball? How the crap are we going to play without a ball?” asked Karl, who took off his shirt the second my father pulled away in the station wagon. Karl didn’t like to wear shirts or shoes. My mom would watch from the kitchen window as shoeless and shirtless Karl ran laps around the Geigers’ house, their babysitter Anita chasing a few steps behind.
“We’re not playing kickball!” shouted a voice from a distance. A shock shot down my spine and into my pants. It couldn’t be, no way, it just… it couldn’t be. And when I turned around I saw Pierce Stone advancing on us, the sunlight dancing off his bright white smile. “You bozos didn’t know? We’re going to Hell.”
I turned to Paxton with all the rage of Zeus.
“What the crap do you mean, ‘going to Hell’?” asked Karl as he sat in the gold sand and undid his shoes. Karl wasn’t intimidated by Pierce Stone; he wasn’t intimidated by anybody.
“Psshh, jeez, you don’t know? H-E-L-L? It’s back there,” he said, pointing to the woods. “Everyone knows that. I bet even Ferraro knows that and he can’t even read!”
“I can read,” I said, but Pierce Stone didn’t hear me.
“I don’t even know why you invited these guys, Paxton. They’re just going to hold us back.”
I wanted to punch Paxton right in the face. My father told me to never start a fight, to only defend yourself, and to only punch someone in the face if you really wanted to hurt him. I really wanted to hurt Paxton for his deceit.
“Hey, Karl… we…” I lagged behind the other guys and whispered, “We don’t have any weapons. We can’t go into Hell without any weapons.”
“Don’t be a sock, Vic. Hell isn’t in the woods behind Glenwood.”
“Oh yeah? Where is it then?”
“My dad says Hell is in Penn Station.”
“In the City.”
“Yeah, if we ever go there, we’ll bring weapons.”
I felt more confident going into the woods with Karl there. He was barefoot and shirtless and grunted when he had to leap over a log or thicket of branches — sort of like an orc. I didn’t tell the other guys about my newly acquired knowledge regarding Hell. I wanted them to find out for themselves that this entire trek was stupid — pathetic, even. It made me feel good to know something Pierce Stone didn’t.
Karl and I remained a few steps behind Paxton, Andrius, Lenny, and Pierce Stone. There was a constant buzzing that serenaded us as we trekked along, and the sunlight that crept through the treetops speckled the forest in golden yellow. Lenny picked up rocks and threw them at trees. He called out each one like he was shooting skeet. The rocks would tear off the old bark, exposing the soft, light brown stuff underneath.
He launched another rock that whirled past the target and escaped into the growing darkness. Lenny was a troublemaker — not malicious or anything, more like the kind of kid who would touch wet paint. He lived in the apartment complex behind the woods with his mom and brother. She was from New Zealand and had an accent (I liked how exotic it sounded). But Lenny didn’t have an accent; he sounded like us. Unfortunately for him, Lenny’s last name was Hooker. He tried to explain that in rugby the “hooker” was an important position, but it didn’t matter — Pierce Stone told the entire class what “hooker” meant, and the rest of the guys ran with it.
“Hey Lenny, has your mom been busy at work?”
“Lenny, does your mom work late at night?”
Even Arjun, an Indian kid who was still getting a grasp on English, whispered to Lenny in class if his mom “charges good rate?” I watched Pierce Stone and Bradley Knight snickering in their seats.
Lenny never got mad about it, though. At least, he never said anything back. This one time I did see him stick his pinky in his ear and dip it into Chase Barriston’s Snack Pack pudding — then he swizzled the gloppy brown around with a plastic spoon. That’s why I never made fun of Lenny’s last name. I didn’t have a taste for earwax or boogers, never had. I also didn’t know what a “hooker” was, so I asked Karl.
Pierce Stone trudged through the woods as if he were in a rush to reach Hell. Paxton had remained attached to his heels, while Lenny and Andrius had become preoccupied with throwing rocks at trees. Even from the back of the pack, I could overhear the conversation between Pierce Stone and Paxton.
“Yeah, my father is already a millionaire,” Pierce Stone said, looking over his shoulder. “I bet none of your fathers are millionaires.”
“I think mine is,” said Paxton, “but I don’t know if I ever want to be a millionaire. If you spend one dollar, you aren’t a millionaire anymore!”
“You idiot. That isn’t how it works.”
The buzz and banter from the shops and train station just down the street dissipated the further we ventured into the woods. Karl had fashioned himself a walking stick from a broken branch and punched it down into the soil every few steps. My sneakers suctioned into the soft, damp earth. The mud would pop! when I yanked my knees up to free my feet.
“Hey! If Lenny lives in those apartments behind the woods, then how come he has never seen Hell?” Karl shouted while hopping from stone to stone like a hobbit.
“Yes, that is good question,” added Andrius.
“Because… only a few people know about Hell,” said Pierce Stone.
“Then how do you know about it?” I asked.
“Dammit, Ferraro! Because my older brother told me all about it. He said that when he was in Glenwood he would come back here and smoke cigarettes.”
“Your brother smoked cigarettes in fifth grade?” Karl questioned.
“Yeah! And… and fourth, too.”
“That is such bullshit.”
“It is not! Dammit, Paxton! Why did you invite this kid?”
“Okay, okay, Pierce. Where the heck are we going now, anyway?”
“Just shut up already and follow me.”
I hid my smirk at the back of the group. I liked that we had entrusted our adventure to Pierce Stone and he was failing us. Perhaps, if the timing is right, I’ll stage a mutiny. We’ll go on our way, leaving him behind. Maybe he’ll never find his way out.
“Pssst, Karl. Should we mutiny?”
“There are too many damn bugs,” said Karl, swinging his staff at the mosquitoes like Donatello.
“Put your shirt back on,” I said. He laughed at the idea and kept swinging. “Hey Karl, you think we’ll find a body back here?”
“Eh, I doubt it, but that’d be cool.”
We came upon a wide, meandering brook that separated us from a rock wall. Pierce Stone pointed at an opening in the wall and said, “There. That’s where Hell is, in there.”
“Hell is there?” Andrius questioned, as if he had been expecting demons to be flying around on chimeras shooting fire.
“Yes, it’s in there. Ya know, my brother says that during the Revolution, George Washington and his men hid in there from the British, and then… and then they did a sneak attack at night and WON THE WAR.”
“Wow,” said Paxton, staring wide-eyed into the cave.
“You’re telling me that George Washington hid behind Glenwood during the Revolution?” Karl questioned, again.
“No! That’s not what I’m saying, because Glenwood wasn’t even here yet. Duh! This kid is too young to even know history.”
“Okay, so how do we get over there?” Paxton asked eagerly, sizing up whether he could jump the length of the brook.
“Well, I know I can jump it,” said Pierce Stone, “and probably Andrius too, because he has those long Lithuanian legs. But I don’t know about you bozos. You’re on your own.”
Paxton was not okay with this answer and grabbed Pierce Stone by the shirt collar, which brought a smile to my face. “You brought us all the way out here and you’re just going to leave? Nuh-uh. No way. You’re going to carry me across this brook if you have to. I’m going to see Hell.”
“Jeez, alright. Let go of me… dumbass. I think I know a way across. Follow me.”
Pierce Stone led us along the side of the brook and up through the woods until the cave was out of sight. I was tired and sweaty and really just wanted to play kickball (I still hadn’t forgiven Paxton for his deception). I didn’t care about Hell anymore. I knew Karl and I could always come back to the woods, maybe with Tony and George, and the four of us could go to Hell together. But right before I was going to call it quits and walk back home with Karl, Pierce Stone shouted from up ahead and pointed to a convenient little wooden bridge that traversed the brook where the stream became narrow.
“Ya see there? I told you I knew where I was going!”
Paxton sprinted up to the bridge and crossed it without checking first; Pierce Stone, Lenny, and Andrius followed. I asked Karl if he definitely wanted to do this, putting him in the position to opt out of the voyage and allow me to save face. But he didn’t catch the hint, so we marched across the bridge, too.
We reached the cave, which seemed narrower than it had from across the brook, and stood outside of it, waiting for someone to take the lead. I would’ve assumed it would be Pierce Stone, but I caught him inching back as Paxton tossed a few pebbles into the black unknown.
“Ya think the Devil is actually in there?” asked Lenny.
“It seem quite small,” said Andrius.
“Oh, of course!” shouted Pierce Stone. “We need a key. I remember my brother telling me you need a key for the gates of Hell.”
“Where the heck are we going to find that?” asked Paxton, growing more impatient.
“It’s probably under one of these rocks,” said Lenny.
“I bet it’s black with a skull on it or something,” added Paxton.
“Okay, you flip ’em then,” said Pierce Stone.
The six of us began flipping stones at will, tossing some of them into the brook. I chose a big gray one with moss growing on the side. I knew I could flip it myself, but when I bent down to grab it, Pierce Stone knocked me away. “You can’t handle that, Ferraro. I got it.” He bent down and lifted the rock, but before he could toss it into the brook, he stumbled back and started muttering and mumbling something unintelligible.
In the crater of dirt, a swirling snake uncoiled itself and popped out its black tongue. Pierce Stone dropped the rock and froze. When Paxton and Lenny saw the snake’s head, they sprinted back toward the bridge. Andrius cleared the brook with his long, Lithuanian legs — he didn’t even get wet. I backpedaled but tripped on a root sticking out of the soil like a knuckle. My head slammed into the dirt. My vision blurred, like I was looking through a kaleidoscope — I felt drowsy. I tucked my chin into my chest and saw the serpent slithering over the dead leaves of autumn. I remember thinking that perhaps this was the Devil. We’d talked about the snake and fruit and Adam and Eve in CCD class, but this snake wasn’t speaking.
I shuffled backward, crouched in a crab position, sweating and panting and crying — I will admit it, I was crying. “Stop it. Stop it. Stop it!” I managed to get out, but the snake didn’t listen. I could see Pierce Stone still frozen in my periphery. I blindly searched for a weapon. I knew we should’ve brought weapons. And right when I was getting my feet ready to do battle with the serpent, Karl’s staff came crashing down onto the beast’s head, splattering brain matter onto the dirt.
“Fatality,” he said in a deep, dramatic voice as he looked down at his kill.
I caught my breath and got up from the ground. Pierce Stone’s eyes had glossed over and he still hadn’t moved. He had a giant dark spot in his crotch that was expanding down his khakis.
Karl lifted up his staff and asked if I was okay. I brushed the dirt from my pants and wiped the tears from my cheek. “Yeah. Thanks, Karl.” Karl, unfazed, spun the stick around in his hands, making battle sounds with his mouth. “Let’s go home.”
I passed Pierce Stone, who still hadn’t blinked, and walked back to West Road with Karl, my champion.
Ben D’Alessio is the author of the novels Binge Until Tragedy and Lunchmeat. Both are available on Amazon and the publisher’s page. 25% of royalties are donated to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN). Follow him on facebook, twitter, and instagram.