One September morning as my mom and I sat on our back porch steps, a group of children walked by, happily swinging colorful metal boxes. They laughed and giggled with huge smiles on their faces. I thought they were the luckiest kids on earth.
“Where are they going?” I asked.
“To school,” my mom said as she lit a cigarette.
“You’ll find out in a few years.” She inhaled and then blew out the smoke. It drifted across my face, making me cough.
Two more happy kids walked by, also carrying those strange boxes.
“What’s in those boxes?” I asked.
“Their lunches.” She inhaled again, this time turning her head away from me before blowing out the smoke.
“Can I have one?”
“It’s too early for lunch,” my mother said.
“I mean, a box like that.”
“Not until you are old enough to go to school.” She ground the cigarette into the weeds next to the porch and sat with her arms wrapped around her knees.
“How old do I have to be?” I asked.
I thought about that for a bit as I counted on my fingers. “So in two more years.”
“Yes. Bill will go to school first, next year. Then you the year after that.” My mother put a new cigarette in her mouth and lit it. She inhaled and then blew a cloud of smoke that drifted my way.
“What do you do at school?”
“Learn things.” She inhaled again, this time blowing the smoke high over my head. She stood up, brushed off her skirt and opened the door. “It’s time to go inside.”
I followed her into the kitchen. “Why can’t I have a lunchbox now?”
“There’s no money, for one thing. Another is that you don’t need one.” My mother got down some pans and pulled things out of the cabinets and refrigerator.
“I don’t care,” I said. “I want a lunchbox anyway.”
“Go away,” my mother said. “You’re bothering me.”
I went into the bedroom that I shared with my brother. I climbed up on my bed and looked out the window. A few more kids went by, each of them swinging a lunchbox and smiling. I placed my hand on the glass, reaching out to those kids, wishing I could be walking with them. I watched for a while, but saw no more kids, so I sat on my bed and cried.
When my dad came home from work, I asked him for a lunchbox. I thought he’d understand since he carried an old black one. It wasn’t shaped like the ones the kids had and wasn’t new and shiny. But at least he had a box. “Can I have a lunchbox?” I asked my dad.
He did not answer. He looked at my mom. “What’s she want now?”
“She saw school kids carrying boxes this morning and that’s all she can think about.” My mother carried dishes to the table. “Dinner’s ready,” she said.
My brother was already in his chair. I slid into mine. “I want a lunchbox like the ones those kids had.”
“Let it go,” my mom said. She glowered at me. That was the signal to shut up and be still, but I was a stubborn child.
“Daddy,” I said, “Mother says I have to wait until I go to school. That’s too long. Can’t I have a box now?”
“Shut up and eat,” he said.
I did the best that I could with tears in my eyes. After dinner we went into the front room and watched TV. I sat on the floor with my legs crossed, looking at the set, but my mind was elsewhere. All I saw was me following those kids, carrying a pretty lunchbox.
When it was time for bed, I asked again. “Please, can I have a lunchbox?”
“Go to bed,” my dad said.
I did, but I didn’t fall asleep for a long time.
The next morning I sat on the kitchen steps again, watching the kids go by. “Mother, why can’t I have a lunchbox? I’ll take really good care of it.”
“Shut up about it,” she said. Her face looked angry, so I sat quietly until my mother finished her cigarette and went inside.
I drew pictures of lunchboxes and kids and me, all walking together, smiles on our faces.
When my dad came home I asked him again for a lunchbox. He did not tell me no, but he didn’t say yes, either. He walked into the kitchen. I heard my mom and dad talking, but I couldn’t hear their words. We ate dinner, watched TV, and then went to bed.
In the morning when I went into the kitchen there was a blue metal box sitting on the table. My eyes grew huge. “What’s that?”
“It’s a lunchbox that your father brought home,” my mother said. There was a funny look on her face that I didn’t understand. She didn’t seem to be angry, but she wasn’t smiling, either.
“Why didn’t he take it to work?” I asked. My fingers carefully touched the sides of the box. It was bumpy in places and smooth in others.
“Open it up.”
I did. Inside I found a sandwich wrapped in paper and an apple. “Is this Bill’s?”
“No. It’s for you.”
“For me?” My eyes grew huge with surprise.
“Yes, for you.”
I closed the lid and picked it up by the handle. I swung it by my side, just like those kids had done. “Do I get to go to school?”
“No, you’re too young.”
“Did Bill get a lunchbox too?” I asked as I held it tightly to my chest.
“No. He didn’t want one.”
“Oh.” I rocked back and forth, thinking. My brother didn’t get a box and he had to go to school before I could. “I get to keep this?”
“Yes. Your father got it from someone at work who didn’t want it anymore. It’s for you.”
I carried my lunchbox into the front room and sat on the couch. I opened the lid. The sandwich and apple were still there. I picked each one up, turned them from side to side and them put them back inside. I closed the lid and flipped the latch. “When will it be lunchtime?”
“Not for a long time,” my mother called from the kitchen. “Find something to do to keep busy.”
I went into my room and got out a coloring book and crayons. I put everything on my bed, with my lunchbox tucked neatly by my side. I colored several pictures, taking my time to stay in the lines like my mother wanted.
“Lunch time,” my mother called.
I put my things away and carried my lunchbox into the kitchen. I carefully placed it on the table and sat in my chair. I opened the lid and took out my sandwich. “Is this what kids do at school?”
“Yes. They sit at tables, just like you.” My mother lit a cigarette, inhaled and blew smoke out into the room.
I took a bite of the sandwich. “Why did you give this to me if I can’t go to school?”
“Your father wanted you to have it.” She inhaled again. “Just be grateful that someone gave it to him.”
I was grateful. That blue metal box was my most precious possession for many years.