One of the reasons I was so anxious about getting KFC the other night was that Ryan, my 13 (soon to be 14) year old grandson, hadn’t eaten lunch, so he was hungry. I could hear him in the background while talking to Jamie on the phone…
“Why didn’t you eat lunch?” Jamie asked him.
“Because the school ran out of food.” Yes, this is before I couldn’t get chicken. “I was the last in line and the food was all gone. It’s not my fault.”
I was puzzled, even with the serious budget crunches and shortfalls, schools don’t run out of lunch. You might not like what they’re serving, but there is always food. The “it’s not my fault” sort of implied it was exactly that. So, over our eclectic dinner of KFC mac-and-cheese, popcorn chicken, egg rolls, and Chinese boneless ribs, I asked about it.
“Ryan, schools don’t just run out of food. They’re legally obligated to feed you. So, what happened?”
“I was last in line and there was nothing left.”
“There was nothing left? If that’s the case, your mom is going to have to call the school tomorrow, because that’s a problem; the school will be in trouble.” Jamie nodded. “So, if there’s more to the story, you should tell us; because if your mom calls the school and that’s not the whole story, then it becomes your problem, ya know?” Whilst Ryan is my oldest grandson, he is not my first exposure to childhood/adolescent semantics. I had already been around this block with his mom and three uncles. I hade been 13 myself once—and had played this same game with my own parents. Sadly, I had no grandparents by the time I was 13. I raised an eyebrow as punctuation to my query.
“Well, there was nothing left except chicken quesadillas. But they had sour cream and guacamole on them, so I couldn’t eat one.”
“Ah, not really the same as no food. They had food you didn’t like. Are you usually last in line?” He gave me that I-hate-you-you-should-have-been-the-prosecutor-on-Law & Order-look. I’d seen it before. I smiled patiently.
“Well, no, because the last person in line has to eat whatever’s left.”
“Ah.” I replied in a knowing sort of way. Ian cringed. I waited.
“Well, I was cutting in line and sort of ended up at the end.”
“Oh, so you were put at the end, because you tried to jump ahead of other people?” That’s the only way it made sense, right? “Cutting in line” means bumping yourself ahead of people—right?
We all stopped eating and just stared. “No?” someone asked.
He became very animated, jumping back and forth to emphasize his points. He named names. Grabbed the air to illustrate how it all went down. “My friends kept talking to me—so I would get out of line to talk to them, and then get back in line, only I kept ending up farther back. And then I was at the end and there was nothing to eat.” He stopped and looked expectantly at his audience. He could taste his semantic victory.
“There was nothing that you wanted to eat.” I corrected.
“Yeah, that.” He sank back into his chair and nibbled on Chinese ribs in a sulky sort of silence.
“So, you really can’t blame the school for that, can you?”
“No, it was my friends’ fault.”
Ian shook his head as he pushed his chair from the table and stifled a laugh that said, “Dude, she’s got you, surrender while you can.” He rummaged for a soda. Now 18, Ian has walked a mile in Ryan’s shoes. More than a mile.
“So, your friends dragged you out of line, they accosted you?”
“Well, no. I got out of line to talk to them and the line moved. So I ended up back farther. And then I was at the end.”
“Ah.” I dipped my egg roll in Chinese mustard. It was clear to Ryan at that point that he had painted himself into a corner and had to own that having no lunch was his own fault. He picked up his fork and began eating again. He had a churlish look on his face.
We ate in silence for a few moments.
And then, like a warning shot across the bow of the figurative authority ship, set phaser to stun, Ryan volunteered, “I accidently skipped a class today.”
We all stopped eating. Forks we suspended mid-air and we stared, mouths agape. Jamie, who has been sick (sinus infection + pollen allergies = miserable) for over a week, just groaned.
“What?” Ian asked. The inflection in his tone echoed the unsaid words – “the fuck?” You could hear the italics.
“It wasn’t my fault.”
Forks remained frozen. Mouths open. Kirk would have been proud; we were stunned.
“I missed my favorite class!”
We stared. I was thinking, please Scotty, beam me out of the twilight zone, please. If I didn’t move, maybe he could lock on to my coordinates…
“You skipped your favorite class?” Ian asked. He was incredulous to say the least.
“How?” Perhaps it was his youth that allowed Ian to regain himself faster than the rest of us. He showed amazing fortitude in plowing ahead with his questions.
“I left my jacket outside at gym, so I went back to get it, and someone the locked door; so I couldn’t get back in. I got a pass later.” He said it triumphantly.
I put my fork down. I considered asking, why didn’t you just go to the front door–that’s never locked—but thought that road would be just as circuitous as the lunch line had been. So I took a bite of spare rib and said nothing.
Ian looked around the room from me, to Jamie, to his Dad. He knew it would be several seconds, perhaps minutes, before we recovered. Like Kirk, he had to act now and save the day. His maturity gave us all hope for Ryan’s future. He looked at his nephew and simply said, “Dude, just give it up.”
Word Count: 1016