Chop Suey Sandwich

A homemade lunch ruins a high school student's day.

Updated: March 8, 2011, 7:11 PM ET
By Stuart Dybek | ESPN The Magazine

This short story was edited by McSweeney's for ESPN The Magazine's Fiction Issue.

FROM MY SEAT at the kitchen table, I watched my father scoop last night's congealed chop suey onto a slice of Wonder Bread he'd centered on a sheet of waxed paper. He made his lunch every morning before leaving for the factory, and he made mine, too, on days when he wanted to clean out the fridge. I knew it was hopeless to resist. Methodical as a mason, he tamped a gob level with the spoon and aligned a top slice of bread to which he applied a gentle pressure before wrapping the sandwich.

My father's care in wrapping allowed him to save the crisply creased waxed paper to use again. He prided himself on his technique and tried to impart it to me. But the art of wrapping, like so many of the skills he regarded as essential to the cardinal virtue -- Practicality -- seemed beyond me. I'd never been able to fold a road map back into its original shape, and I couldn't get past the primary step of tearing the paper evenly from the roll of CutRite.

My father took for granted the natural aptitude that enabled him to build, without a blueprint, a garage from the lumber we'd scavenged at urban-renewal sites, or to rebuild the engine of the Dodge he'd salvaged from a wrecking yard and parked in that same garage, or to repair both the garage-door frame and the Dodge's right-front fender, calling for tools as a surgeon might while I stood by to assist and maybe to pick up a pointer or two watching him pound out the damage I'd done trying to sneak the Dodge out for a late-night joy ride.

When I failed woodshop in freshman year, he went through the stages of grief: shock, anger, disappointment, denial, but not, in the end, acceptance. My father was sure there was some mistake. Mr. Economakus, the shop teacher, explained that I hadn't even completed the first project, a sanding block. He added to my humiliation, and to my father's shame, by recounting how on the second project -- a teapot wall-ornament cut out on the jigsaw -- he'd caught me digging through the dumpster for other students' rejects that I could pass off as my own. "At least he didn't lose any fingers," Mr. Economakus said, "but I couldn't pass him just for that."

That was a year ago. This was the second time my father had made a chop suey sandwich for my lunch. At our house, chop suey did not originate in a take-out carton. When my mother sensed that our diet required an exotic change of pace, she made chop suey from a recipe she'd clipped from Woman's Day. It was a kind of Asian goulash, a runny stew of cubed beef, celery, onion, Worcestershire and soy sauce, served over Uncle Ben's instant rice. The rice was later mixed into the leftovers. I knew from previous experience that by lunchtime, when I unwrapped the tightly folded packet that held my sandwich together, the Wonder Bread would have dissolved.

When my father created the first chop suey sandwich a few months earlier, it caught me by surprise. He was inspired to make it one winter morning during Lent, a season for fasting and renunciation. Keep It Bent for Lent and other appropriate graffiti had appeared in my school's bathroom, which was marked BOYS, even though St. Augustine's was boys-only and so there was no girl's bathroom. Perhaps in the Lenten tradition of suffering and sacrifice, it was also the time of year at St. Augie's for the annual gladiatorial rite known as intramural boxing. A ring spattered with the blood of past generations was erected in the middle of the basketball court, and every day the student body packed the stands and folding chairs set around it and ate lunch while watching classmates in ill-fitting satin trunks duke it out. Varsity teams from St. Augie's dominated the state CYO boxing championships. Several school legends had gone on to fight in the Golden Gloves Tournament. Boxing defined both the school and one's standing in it. At lunch, the basketball stands vibrated beneath stomping feet, and the gym amplified the voices of students shouting between mouthfuls as they watched guys forge or squander reputations they'd live with for life.

The day my father created that first chop suey sandwich was also the day my buddy Les Olwatt fought his one and only intramural bout. Donny Mingo and I staked out prime seats by his corner to cheer him on. By the second round Olwatt was on the ropes. He was losing the trunks that at the start of the bout he'd hiked considerably above the no-hitting-below-the-belt line, but he was beyond hoisting them. His nose dribbled what looked like squirts of ketchup over his upper lip, where he'd been trying to cultivate a Salvador Dali mustache. Olwatt considered himself an artist. It was hard to tell whether the lip was split. He'd also lost the mouthpiece, which from Round 1 had triggered his gag reflex, and each breath gasped through his gaping mouth sounded like oh-oh. His exhalations were timed to the beat Anton Radok was drumming on his ribs.

WITH A ROUND still to go, Olwatt was already reduced to that desperate point of no return when 10-ounce gloves seem the weight of cinderblocks. I knew from experience exactly what it felt like. He could barely hold his fists up to protect himself, let alone throw a punch. Radok was tiring too, from hitting Olwatt so many times. After every few punches, he'd glance at Father Cross, who was reffing.

The priest was known as Right Cross. His broken nose gave him a faint resemblance to the Marlon Brando of On the Waterfront. Father Cross held the titles of assistant principle and disciplinarian; the latter was inscribed in gold on his office door. The story passed down from class to class was that Cross had been a contending heavyweight in Canada, but after beating a guy to death in the ring, he'd quit boxing and entered the seminary. It wasn't clear whether his priestly vocation arose from a need to do penance or from his special aptitude for inflicting it.

I never forgot the sermon he gave from the pulpit of the chapel to our incoming freshman class: "If you have a problem, you know where my office is, and if you don't know, you'll learn. But don't come sniveling and wasting my time if it's something you should be settling yourself the way St. A's men always have, man to man."

He was taken at his word. Fistfights were as expected at St. A's as they were at a hockey game. Sometimes it was a sudden eruption in the lunchroom, sometimes it was a rumble that had been brewing for weeks. The combatants would meet in the parking lot or the alley behind the school, friends at the ready like seconds at a duel. It wasn't unusual for a fight to end with the loser down on his knees looking for his teeth in a puddle of blood.

In intramurals, a bloody nose was typically enough to stop a fight. But Cross obviously felt that Olwatt, who was a regular in the after-school detention known as Jug, required a little extra character-building. "We got to damp your bronco down, boy," Cross had warned him. It was one of Cross's signature sayings. Cross was fond of sayings. On his office desk there was a plastic statue of a duck flat on its back, legs sticking straight up, boxing gloves on its webbed feet, and the sign: THE DUCK STOPS HERE. In the training room, beneath the mandatory crucifix, a poster, with no irony intended, read: NO PAIN, NO GAIN. If the jeers of Wuss! Wimp! Candy Ass! were any indication, the student body agreed. Thumbs down, Olwatt.

I'D GONE TO St. Augustine's because I wanted to box. It was an idea I would be disabused of freshman year after I took a beating in the CYO tournament. I had grown up under the illusion that I knew how to box -- my father's kid brother, Victor, had been a welterweight Golden Gloves champ, a local legend who'd gone on to box in the Navy. He'd never been defeated in the ring, but he'd been given an involuntary discharge for drinking, and after that he couldn't hold a job. When I knew him, he was divorced with no kids of his own. At family parties, Uncle Victor would wave for me to follow him out to the back yard, where he'd teach me the punches. For my eighth birthday he bought me a pair of pillowy, oversize gloves. I'd wear a football helmet and we'd spar, me bobbing and weaving, throwing combinations at Uncle Victor's palms. Fast hands, he assured me, ran in our family.

I chose Uncle Victor to be my sponsor for Confirmation. He seemed a perfect choice. Confirmation is the martial sacrament, conferred by the bishop with a light slap on the cheek that signifies a promise to do battle for Christ. An anointing with chrism, a consecrated oil, followed the slap. Sacrilegious though it was, my buddies and I couldn't resist joking it was an anointing with jism. For a Confirmation gift Uncle Victor presented me with a jump rope. When I told him jump ropes were for girls, he gave me, along with the crowd filing out from St. Roman Church, a clinic on the spot. Wearing black wingtips and a gangster-striped suit, bought for the occasion at the Salvation Army, he made that criss-crossing jump rope whine to the cheers of my classmates, their foreheads glistening with oil.

My parents had wanted to send me to St. Ignatius College Preparatory, where the Jesuits taught. It was considered a Catholic answer to the University of Chicago's Lab School, a refuge for assorted eggheads, bookworms and unathletic dorks. St. Ignatius dominated in debate; it didn't have a boxing team. The football team seemed like an excuse to have a marching band, one that paraded to Gilbert and Sullivan at half time. As the game progressed, always with St. Ignatius hopelessly behind, instead of chants of DEFENSE! their students shouted their SAT scores.

St. Augustine's, on the other hand, took sports seriously. The wall of honored alums that greeted you at the entrance to the school consisted solely of athletes. The Broncos, the St. A's football team, was coached by a former linebacker for the Chicago Bears. Father Cross coached the boxing team. What attracted my parents to St. Ignatius was the College Preparatory in its name. My father, a Polish immigrant who hadn't finished high school, was determined I'd be the first in our extended immigrant family to get a college degree. In order to enroll at St. A's, I had to mount a campaign that included enlisting family members to plead my case, as well as shamelessly playing my hole card. I told my parents that if I couldn't go to St. A's, then I'd save them the tuition money and attend Harrison, the public high school five blocks from where we lived in the gang-graffited barrio called Little Village.

"Stashu, let him go where he wants," my Busha said in Polish, coming to my defense as she always did. "Learning to make decisions is part of growing up, Stanley," my favorite aunt, Elise, told my father. "But, Elise, the trouble is, he only learns the hard way," my father said.

It was the shop classes, ironically, that won my father over. Unlike St. Ignatius College Prep, which offered none, St. Augustine's promised wood shop, auto shop, mechanical drawing -- they even had a course called refrigeration. My father figured a guy who could fix a fridge could always earn a buck on the side. "I'd rather be the guy who can fix them than the guy who has to lug them up the stairs," he told me.

I had to forge his name on the permission slip to join the freshman boxing team. The team trained after school: medicine-ball sit-ups, hitting the heavy bag and then, led by Father Cross, we'd jog, shadow boxing, along the empty corridors, up and down stairwells and out around the block. When he had us gasping, he'd break into a full sprint. One afternoon, I sprinted past him and he was unable to catch me. Afterward he warned me, "Next time you do that, we put the gloves on." When I got home late, I'd say I was at band practice.

I don't know when I began to realize I'd made a mistake. Not just a mistake about boxing, but about the school I'd connived my way into. Nor do I know how long I could have denied those feelings to myself if I hadn't been overmatched in the CYO tournament. My fight was stopped after a single round -- three minutes of boxing that cost me the next three years in a high school I felt increasingly alienated from. It wasn't just losing or the beating I took. It was the spectacle of all those cheering mostly white fathers, many of whom had fought CYO themselves, and the sons there to emulate them, to honor a code one is born into without a choice, as one is born into a faith. If there's to be a choice, it has to come later, assuming that by then there's still the freedom to choose. I couldn't articulate that to myself yet, but on the night of the tournament, I felt it on a gut level.

I quit boxing and joined the track team. In spring, we practiced on an old potholed cinder track that circled the football field. One afternoon, I saw Father Cross in his faded red and gold Bronco sweats, jogging along the inside of the track, moving the way Uncle Victor used to, bobbing his head and pumping his elbows as if throwing phantom punches to clear a path. I was in the starting blocks for a heat of high hurdles, which had become my main event. He waited at the finish line to watch my race. When I sprinted by, two lengths ahead of the pack, he said, "Flight, not fight, eh Dybek?"

Olwatt knew I'd boxed freshman year and had asked me to coach him. Though I declined, it wasn't without empathy that I watched the whupping he was taking. But it was lunch hour -- a mere 45 minutes, actually -- so, eyes on the ring, I unwrapped the sandwich on my lap and raised it for a bite. Before I got it to my mouth, it decomposed, slithering through my fingers, down my wrist, ambushing me as if I'd been served something still half-alive that was trying to wriggle away. It wasn't a sandwich; it was a practical joke. I sprang from my seat, but not before the drool had slopped over my new gray cords.

"You just barf up your lunch or what?" Mingo asked.

"My father made me a chop suey sandwich." I used the tie we were required to wear to wipe off the clots of celery, onion, rice, meat, and gravy from my shirt, trousers and shoe tops.

"Disgusting, man!" Bobby Aztec said. "What are you eating, Dybek?"

I didn't answer.

"Gross! Check it out," Aztec announced. "Dybek's eating hurl on white!"

"It's a chop suey sandwich, you never saw a chop suey sandwich before?" Mingo said.

"A chop suey sandwich! Who ever heard of a chop suey sandwich?" Aztec asked. "You Chinese or what? Your eyes are kind of slanty, man."

"Bro, your old man makes your lunch?" Mingo asked.

"Only on special occasions."

"What special occasions?" Mingo wanted to know. "National Projectile Vomit Day?"

"Your father should patent that, man," Aztec said. "Enter it in a cooking contest, you know? It could become famous like a BLT, a PBJ -- the CSS. Or you could call it the Sloppy Mao. You could have like a Chop Suey Sandwich franchise."

So, on the morning in spring when my father made the second chop suey sandwich of my life, I wasn't about to be ambushed again. I met Mingo at the bus stop and we waited in a drizzle for the Western Avenue bus, which was running late. By the time I boarded, my sandwich had dissolved its way through the worn creases in the waxed paper and spotted the bottom of the brown lunch bag.

As always, we sat in the back of the bus where we could smoke. I knelt in my seat and tried to pry up a window. It was raining harder and the window, opaque with crusted road grime, was stuck as if it had yet to thaw from winter. I bashed at it with my Latin book from 31st to 35th before it budged. A wino with a pigeon feather poking from the panty hose he'd tied like a headband around his gray, uncut hair was slumped in the corner rear seat, probably riding the bus to get out of the rain. An empty pint bottle of muscatel rattled back and forth under the seats with the stop and go of traffic. When I finally managed to slide the window up, the wino started awake with an incredulous look on his face.

"Jumping?" Mingo asked me.

"I'm through eating this crap," I said.

"Kid," the wino said, "You ain't never through eating crap in this world. A little breezy for an open window, ain't it? You guys got some loose coins or a smoke?"

Mingo doled out a Camel, rather than letting him take one from the pack.

"Can you spare it?" the wino asked.

Wet air slashed in. I took the sandwich from the bag and unwrapped it. The bag blew off, the waxed paper fluttered about.

"How'd you like a sandwich with that smoke, Chief?" Mingo asked the wino.

"You mean the crap you're tossing? What kind of sandwich?"

"Chop suey on Wonder," I said.

"I'll take a match if you got that."

"My ass and your face," Mingo said.

"I knew you were going to say that before you said it," the wino said.

"I hate to see you waste good food," Mingo said to me. "Let me see that."

"I was testing if you'd be that easy to predict," the wino said.

The bus stopped for the light on 47th. There was an empty squad car beside us parked in the bus lane. Mingo flipped my sandwich splat onto its windshield.

"He'll think a giant carnivorous sparrow took a dump on him," Mingo said.

"No, he'll think it was a calling card from that kangaroo running around terrorizing cops," I said. There'd been news reports of a kangaroo spotted in various Chicago neighborhoods. A squad car had cornered it in a dead-end alley in Wrigleyville, and when the cop got out of the car, the kangaroo had literally kicked his ass before jumping over the squad car and hopping away. The cop, name withheld, was hospitalized with a fractured tailbone.

The light changed green. We looked out the back window and saw the blue dome on the squad car suddenly whirl and the wipers smear the sandwich across the wet windshield.

"Jesus, there was a goddamn cop in there! He's following the bus," I said.

"He must have been napping," Mingo said. "Or hiding from the kangaroo."

"He thinks the kangaroo is on our bus."

The cop put on his siren, swerved around us and kept going.

"Gentlemen, have we inhaled enough fresh air yet?" the wino asked.

"You should have asked if anyone had a light." Mingo told him. "But no, you had to say match. It's the story of your life."

"Did I tell you guys I seen that kangaroo under Wacker last night?" the wino asked.

"I bet you did, Chief," Mingo said. "Was he panhandling? He let you feel inside his pouch?"

"Gimme a smoke for later and I'll tell you what I found in there besides your mama's panties."

THROWING MY SANDWICH away meant I had to buy lunch at the cafeteria. I didn't have the money every day, but once in a while when I had extra from chores around the house I splurged for my favorite lunch: a carton of chocolate milk and a plate of fries. They'd recently installed a new, stainless-steel fry station at St. A's and the aroma of fries wafted up from the cafeteria into the stairwells and along the corridors. The crinkly, golden fries, glistening with oil, were served piled steaming onto a plate of absorbent, gray cardboard. The sheen of oil magnified the crystals of salt and flecks of pepper from the packets I tore open and sprinkled on. Rather than blasting them with splats of ketchup, I carefully squeezed a ribbon around the rim of the plate so that I could dip the fries one by one. They stayed crisp that way. I carried my carton of chocolate milk and plate of fries to a table where Olwatt, Aztec and Mingo had saved me a seat. Olwatt and Aztec had hot dogs; Mingo was dining on his daily Snickers and a coke.

"Gimme a fry, bro." Mingo said.

I handed him one.

"Sure you can spare it?"

"It's all I got for lunch. Maybe you'd like a match, too?" I was deferring my own first bite until I had the straw poked into the carton of chocolate milk, which I vigorously shook for a richer, more chocolate-malt taste.

"You look like you're jerking off, man," Aztec said. "It's embarrassing sitting with you, man, when you flog your chocolate milk in public."

Murkins, a senior, stopped by our table, admired my artistic way with ketchup, helped himself to a fry and flashed us his toothless grin. He'd lost his front teeth in hockey and thought it was hilarious to slide out his false ones. He was one of those guys who found losing teeth funny -- his way of being impervious to pain. He claimed to know kung fu and said his deadliest move was called monkey-steals-grapes. His nickname, which he embraced, was Homo, short for Homicidal Maniac. Homo slid his hand down the front of his pants, raked up a handful of black pubic hair, and sprinkled it on top of my fries. "Enjoy," he said and walked away.

"Oh man, you just got hair-pied," Olwatt said.

There had been a hair-pie epidemic going around St. A's. You'd be quietly reading a book or working on dissecting a frog in biology and some guy would turn and sprinkle pubes on the page or the innards of your frog. Sometimes it would trigger an instantaneous outburst of violence -- the victim rising up in a blind rage -- and sometimes the victim just quietly closed his book and then threw it away.

I looked at my fries in their varnish of hot grease. I could see the glitter of salt, each freckle of pepper, each spatter of ketchup, each of Murkins' kinky black pubic hairs.

"Murkins is really a total jerk," I said.

"Yeah," Mingo said, "but he can beat the crap out of you."

Stuart Dybek is the author of three books of fiction, including The Coast of Chicago, and I Sailed With Magellan. His work has received numerous awards and is frequently anthologized.