There’s Nothing to Be Ashamed Of by April Salzano

Classic line in a lower middle class family,
used in reference to food stamps and government
cheese, blocks of hard butter and plenty of free
eggs. The school across the street from the apartment
where my grandmother lived, drunk on pain
killers, with her husband, Joe, who bruised her
in obvious places because he didn’t care who saw,
and she’d had Stockholm Syndrome for so long
there was no saving her, gave out free lunches
in the summer, even on weekends. While Joe
and my grandma babysat us so my mother could work
day shift in the nursing home, we got our boxed sandwiches
and fruit, maybe a cookie, plastic container of orange juice,
still frozen. There was nothing to be ashamed of, Joe said.
He worked at the school as a janitor and helped himself
to all the paper and toilet tissue he could carry. Chalk,
crayons, markers. There was nothing to be ashamed of
in taking from the kids who had nothing at home
in the town intersected with long-rusted railroad tracks,
graffitied trestles, closed factories and ghosted buildings.
Most of the kids at free lunch Saturday were black,
so we stayed away like we were told, took our food to go
while they sat in the parking lot, on curbs and steps,
poking the tinfoil tops of the drink cups open, stabbing
at the ice with skinny, pointed straws. No one asked
who qualified for the food, did a credit check or took inventory.
We could have more than one lunch if we came back,
and sometimes we did to bring one home for Grandma and Joe
to wash down the midday booze. If you lined up, you got fed,
it was that simple, which gave Joe time to knock my grandma
around a bit before we got back. She put eye shadow and lipstick
on our faces while the ash from her cigarette grew like lace
before falling off. We smelled like French whores,
my dad would say before he sent us out to play,
giving him time to bust a few walls with my mother’s shoulders
before we came back for dinner with nothing to be ashamed of.