The bell rang, and I gathered my belongings from my locker. I can’t remember how we all met up, but as I left the middle school, I was accompanied by my cousin and a couple of other close friends. We walked through the parking lot until we were off school grounds, then we’d turn right onto the sidewalk which lined Lewis Avenue. Eventually, we turned left on Van Aikens Street.
It was the route we’d been walking together after school for years. Often we’d walk together on Wednesdays, when we had catechism class; we’d stop in the local drug store for candy cigarettes and soda until Sister’s Bakery opened and we could stop instead for an afternoon doughnut and a glass bottle of Snapple. But today was Friday, so we didn’t stop because there would be plenty of food waiting for us when we arrived at our destination.
Upon entering the church hall, I greeted my grandfather, who already sat at his table by the door, counting money carefully to balance his drawer. We set our book bags down on the stage behind the curtain amongst boxes of Styrofoam cups and plastic stirrers waiting patiently in storage. We’d walk up to the big windows that lined the wall and place our orders with parishioners dressed in white aprons, clouds of steam swirling around their heads. I ordered a grilled cheese with green beans and scalloped potatoes. I used to order the fried lake perch, but since my cousin dared me to drink a concoction of nastiness he had whipped up the previous year and I spent the evening puking up said lake perch, I lost my taste for it.
We took our trays into the side classroom, and we had about a half hour to eat and goof off until the crowds started pouring in. A line of people would snake around half of the room, disappearing outside of the door. People would wait in the dark and the cold for over an hour for their fish dinner. Aisles of long banquet tables covered in plastic tablecloth resembled a German beer hall.
We’d squeeze along the tight rows of metal folding chairs, picking up empty plates and Styrofoam cups. We’d scrape abandoned fish and potatoes into the trash and plop the plastic cafeteria trays next to the sink with a loud crash. We’d fetch coffee for the older folks, and we’d sneak pieces of pie and soft serve ice cream into the stage hallway for a quick break until one of the adults told us to get back to work.
And there we worked for three hours straight. My grandfather happily taking customer’s bills, my mother in her red apron holding a spool of raffle tickets over her head, and me and my friends cleaning up the messes and making a few of our own along the way.