The Legendary Lunch Gang Rides Again.

by Serge Bielanko

At the base of a massive mountain side, below all the high snow and tired elk and wildcats scrunched down inside sticker bushes beside trails where quail flirt and shit and dream and die, I stand in the apple-themed kitchen of my Mother-In-Law listening to the Sponge Bob Square Pants song and picking apart turkey lunch-meat with my fingers. To my side, my daughter sits in her highchair and switches back and forth,(rather insanely I might add), between wailing like a speared rabbit for no apparent reason and speaking cute baby jabber to me and the cartoon. Outside the day is shit. 600 mile-per-hour winds have arrived from Arizona or Nevada or Idaho, and they seem to be blowing in some kind of smoke. Maybe the valley below is burning to the ground. Whatever.

We have a lunch ritual.

Periodically, throughout my life, I have had lunch rituals. When I worked at the King of Prussia Plaza running a giant ultra-powered vac around the parking lots, sucking up Sbarro's slice containers/ ripped up porno mags/ broken cassettes/ human craps (classy): lunch would find me locked into a utility closet in some distant forsaken loading dock behind the mall. I'd pack my deer antler bowl with crappy shake and get baked in the sweltering darkness. I'd just sit there for like twenty minutes and then when I opened the door back into the world, even the hot summer afternoon felt like an alpine breeze, the sweat on my arms turning to Slurpee when it hit the air. Then, I'd sit down on a parking curb and eat some Doritos and some candy and a Coke. Life was a long fly ball that never landed. Lunch was a tiny summer vacation in the middle of every sticky day.

Years later came what I called FRENCH LUNCH. When I was like 7 or 8 I'd watch my visiting French relatives take over our kitchen and sit down to a table covered with cold cuts and cheese and pickled things and wine bottles. Sometimes my burly silent coal-miner grandfather, Victor, would fry smelts on the stove. I'd stand on my tippy-toes to see their tiny fish eyes get sucked back into their faces courtesy of scalding hot oil. Then, like nine hours later, someone would finally start to haul a dish or two over towards the sink. Grudgingly. Lunch had to end, but no one had to like it. Besides, everyone needed a nap before supper, which was to begin in an hour and last well into next year.

Anyways, I learned from the best and made it my own. French Lunch, we called it, although it was not all that French, I guess. It was me and my brother and the other four guys who spent all of our time together, gathered around a table in my Mom's kitchen when my Mom was away for the weekend. We would microwave frozen clamshells stuffed with fake crab. We would eat mozzarella sticks dipped in Ragu. We would cook burgers on the gas grill. We would have made a fucking goose on a spit if we could have figured out how to get a hold of one. And, of course, we would smoke bongs of crushed ice and mouthwash and Christmas Tree bud, and talk and laugh and eat and smoke cigarettes for hour upon hour; as afternoons faded into dream-like evenings in which the entire point of the very creation of all life up until that moment seemed to us right then to have pinnacled with 5 or 6 long-haired dudes listening to the new Led Zepplin box set as sexy delicious girls our own age drove cars down close streets outside our fortress; them not knowing about us and us not knowing about them. They were good lunches, they were. But that was long ago.

I've lunched in truck stop parking lots and legendary bbq joints and in smokey trains plowing across Ireland where coffee and cigs was your meal and you loved it as much as anything you ever ate. I've lunched on ferry boats crossing the English channel and up in jets high above the sea. For months on end, I'd eat three dollar chicken and mushrooms from a metal cart at Temple University in rough North Philly. They were some of the best meals I ever tasted; holding my plastic fork on a wall, alone, my young excitable brain hopped up on the Shakespeare class I'd just come out of as a cold-ass wind came flying down the street out of the ghetto two blocks away. The heat from the aluminum container warmed my lap and then just spread up through me. The steaming hunks of street food were little coals I shoveled into my furnace. But those days are over too.

These days there's this new ritual.

I put down tiny flecks of turkey meat so small that Violet looks at me like, WTF? But, I am a careful daddy who refuses to go through that whole choking thing too easily. I know it'll happen. It always does. Kids eat shit fast and all wrong and before you know it they're gacking away and you have to pick them up and try and save them. What can you do.

I serve thinly sliced meats at my deli. You can see through them. And they are never bigger than a Cheerio because that's what the books about raising kids say to do. I break toddler Cheeto snacks into dust piles. Here, I tell my daughter, have some cheese dust. Try choking on that. If I could slice the milk into slivers, I would do that too. I admit it. So what.

While I feed the kid long meals of small foods, I find some peanuts in a jar. I shovel some of those in my own mouth, and then some raisins from a bag. I wad up a bit of turkey and put it in my gob like old ballplayers used to do with Red Man and Beech Nut. I imagine this, here in the apple-themed kitchen, on this early spring afternoon when the wind blows smoke from God knows where. I imagine I am in the dugout at Yankee Stadium, moments before they call my name on the P.A., and I stick a bushel basket of chewing tobacco way back into my mouth, puffing my cheek out with Jawbreaker puff, the juices seeping into my gums/my bloodstream almost instantly just as they call my name and it booms throughout the midday park, the crowd rising to their feet in a massive show of love for the greatest third baseman who has ever played the goddamn game, I trot out onto that cool green summer grass...

Violet shrieks and smiles at her shrieks and I taste turkey in my mouth. Not Red Man. Not bong hits. Not smelts with hot eyes. Turkey. Sliced so thin, you can barely even pick it up.

And with that, I have my best lunches yet. Me and a kid and a minimum-wage sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea.