I remember lunch time in fourth grade at Oak Street, when I used to get alternate lunches because the rotini smelled too much like the new kid Alastair, or because I was sick of peanut butter and jelly.
The servers would hand me a tray with a ham sandwich. I walked out into the cafeteria, which smelled like basketballs and shoe-dirt because it was also the gym, like sour milk because it was an elementary school, and like peanut butter and sometimes tuna fish because it was lunch time.
But the ham sandwiches didn’t have much of a smell.
When I got to my table, my friends and I would dissect the alternate lunch like you might crack open an expired egg before you throw it away, just to see what had happened in there. I mean, I don’t think any of us planned to eat it.
We’d marvel at how gross the ham looked to us, how much it didn’t look like ham, how many fifty-cent cookies it would take as incentive for us to eat one.
We wondered, What is this?
And I’ll tell you what it was.
The surface of the foreign meat bore craters that pockmarked it worse than the face of the moon. Under the top slice of wheat bread lay the extraterrestrial brownish-pink-gray surface of a planet unknown. Even under the weak lights of the gym, the ham would sometimes reflect a sheen of brilliance: a rainbow, an aurora boarealis, a metallic shimmer from a star system far away from ours. It seemed to operate on an otherworldy gravity, because when we tossed it up and let it hit the table, it bounced. Maybe the dry gray gristle stretched into the meat gave it the elasticity. All meat has gristle, especially ham, but when the slice rebounded off a Styrofoam tray, you could be sure it wasn’t from any pig. If it was, that pig would have flown. Or more accurately, he would have floated. Floated past the pull of the planets in my galaxy—Danny, Will, Rei—and out into the cold vacuum of outer space, where it would join the detritus of the garbage can. We could always give our ham sandwiches to Tommy, though. He was a kid the size of two boys his age who wore glasses over his slightly crossed eyes, had a speech impediment and a constant body odor. He’d line up the unwanted alternate lunches over at his table and eat four or five in a day. Tommy Blouin could have been an astronaut with all the space bologna he ate. He was the one soul who would venture out to discover the textures, temperatures and tastes of a planet no one else was brave enough to go to.
And really, sitting alone at a table for six, Tommy was an astronaut. He may have had a couple of friends later on at Oak Street, but he lived in a place distant and isolated from other boys. In the vacuum of space, his fat was the suit that kept him warm. It didn’t work quite like a space suit, though. His fat seemed more to garner cruelty and shield him from acceptance than protect him. It was as if his obesity grew out of every alternate, rejected, gross-looking ham sandwich.
His voice sounded almost like he held his nose when he spoke, but more strained. It was like his size squeezed the words in his lungs before he let them go. You could hear some kind of pain when he spoke, which was usually to insult someone. We made jokes and slighted him, but not when he was around, and not enough to warrant the anger he had. In his reading group in Mr. Fortin’s class, Tommy would routinely argue with Austin instead of doing work.
When he threw a dodge ball or basketball he used all of his force, and no matter what game it was, the ball went straight up in the stuffy gym air.
Tommy bullied other kids more than anyone bullied him. Around the first week of fourth grade, he walked over to the table where my friends Brent and Brian sat. Grabbing Brian’s juice box, Tommy yelled “hydropump,” likely imitating the popular Pokemon Blastoise; he then clapped his hands together over the juicebox, which exploded all over Brian. Brent laughed, but Brian was too shocked to say anything.
Someone said that Tommy’s parents took him to Hershey Park around his birthday, and he ate enough chocolate in a week to gain fifty pounds. I’d known Tommy since third grade when we went to Peru, and he was also big then, so I don’t know how true the rumor was. Still, Tommy was overweight.
I think Tommy was poor, too. The fact that he’d changed schools could have come from his parents’ unstable jobs. As for his parents, I didn’t see them. If his parents had been more involved, maybe he wouldn’t have gotten in trouble so often. I know that when I was depressed as a kid, my parents poured money into counseling and therapy. I also think that if Tommy had more money, he would have gotten cookies or ice cream like everyone else did when they wanted more food. I almost imagine that Tommy didn’t like the alternate lunch.
I can’t say I want to contact Tommy to apologize for the jokes behind his back or for never sitting with him at lunch, but I’d like to see how he’s doing now. I don’t care how much he weighs; I want to see if he’s happy. I never heard about him after I left PHS, so I can assume he’s still alive and relatively well. It’s just, when I reminisce on the lunches at Oak Street, he’s the saddest memory I have. Tommy Blouin, alone at his table, eating everyone’s space bologna.