- Lunch Money, and: Dear Scabiosa
As I looked in our living room I knew the girl sitting on the floor watching television was not my sister, and the perfect tomato & lettuce sandwich lying next to her on a paper plate was about to get smaller no matter what I said. Weekdays I’d walk home from school and have lunch at our kitchen table, but the unfamiliar voices in the next room were the sounds only a TV show I never watched could make, and the stranger who eyed me as though I was seconds away from changing channels was Amy, an older girl my mother found sitting on the curb in front of our house.
My mother, who had a weakness for any tale involving lost lunch money, a dead father, a cruel stepmother, or all three, saw only a starving, soiled blond waif who shyly whispered her name. In our family’s telling of the story, there were sniffles and faint whimpering, and in between the poor girl ate her sandwich, drank her milk, and afterward helped out in the kitchen. But all I remember is a sullen sixth grader who hid a tomato slice under the ottoman and days later, laughing with friends in the school yard while I tried to walk by unnoticed, said loudly, “Why don’t you show Amy your books?” in her version of my mother’s voice. [End Page 93]
“Handwritten” sounds strangely old-fashioned now. The last time was a postcard with a bird’s-eye view of Paris, and a funny message from a friend who was dying,
though only one of us knew it. In Jersey City my sixth-grade teacher Mrs. Waters brought in her great-grandfather’s journal so we could admire the beauty of his script,
hold the heavy book just long enough to read from his travels in 1850s Florida, sniff the still-dark ink, and run one finger down the hubbed leather spine.
Then I handed it off to the girl sitting behind me, who minutes later pronounced a perfect and pleased “Oh,” when she uncovered a single pressed flower;
Mrs. Waters, I noticed, seemed just as surprised. At Halloween she recited “The Raven” in her best storybook voice, then three weeks later stood and told us the president had been shot.
In college I once mailed poems to Partisan Review and months later received a kind rejection letter from John Ashbery written the day after Christmas, [End Page 94]
while on the back, in the same hand, he’d begun something else dated July: “Dear Scabiosa” was all by itself at the upper left— neatly written, waiting for more.
Ashbery was living in Paris when that girl in class found the flower, and I was years away from reading his letter and having to be told that Scabiosa
was a genus in a family of flowering plants, and not a man’s name. “Dear Scabiosa” I felt sure, had been a greeting which broke off before it could truly begin,
and was intended for a friend—the name evoking flamboyance, mixed heritage, and a whiff of misadventure, especially on those rare occasions when a letter in Scabiosa’s own hand arrived. [End Page 95]
david petruzelli is the author of Everyone Coming Toward You, which won the Tupelo Press First Book Judge’s Prize, selected by Campbell McGrath. He lives in New York City.