I don't yet have the emotional distance to beat back the butterflies. That first whiff of aging catsup -- that first school lunch. Summer dies, and my stomach is a cauldron of anticipatory rebellion. It bubbles up in remembered outrage:
American cheese congealed on Wonder Bread.
Hot dogs as cool as corpses.
Jell-O as solid as Kryptonite.
And wax beans.
All this was forced upon us San Fernando Valley third-graders with the best intentions, by mirthful women with large spoons. Women in starched aprons, splattered down the front. Women with heavy arms and hard smiles.
I still bear the scar. If you catch me staring at the ceiling (which people are apt to do this time of year), you'll see it just under my chin. A small but jagged cicatrix. The Mark of the School Cafeteria.
It was lunch period, early September 1963, Chandler Elementary. Macaroni in reconstituted cheese powder, canned peach bits, bright red Kool-Aid -- and wax beans. The cafeteria line snaked sullenly out of the serving area, where the women waited with their spoons.
The clatter of trays and dishware recalled a scene from a prison movie, right before James Cagney goes berserk. The windows were battened down -- there was a smog alert that day. The place smelled of boiled milk. I got in line.
It is difficult to reconstruct what happened next. All I know is that it involved slick linoleum, spilled macaroni and peach juice, well-worn PF Flyers and a shove from Allen Singer. I led with my chin as I fell.
They called my mother to the nurse's office, where I was bandaged and installed, whimpering, on a narrow cot. "He'll need stitches," the nurse said. My mother looked pale. And I knew that summer was over.