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Collection II
Volume III, Unit 2
by Caron Levis

Lunch Break

Lunch Break  audio! (Volume III. Unit 2)
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Lunch Break

Melis gingerly"Melis gingerly dipped her ladle into the vat of blended meat- and tomato-flavored juices, cautious not to splatter and stain the starched white smock she'd be wearing every day for the foreseeable future." dipped her ladle into the vat of blended meat- and tomato-flavored juices, cautious not to splatter and stain the starched white smock she’d be wearing every day for the foreseeable future. Carefully lifting a scoop of the steaming stew she placed it neatly in the center of the open bun, creating the most impeccable"... she placed [the stew] neatly in the center of the open bun, creating the most impeccable Sloppy Joe ever made in the history of cafeteria lunches; it was truly flawless, perfectly centered, with not a drip to be found on bun or plate." Sloppy Joe ever made in the history of cafeteria lunches; it was truly flawless, perfectly centered, with not a drip to be found on bun or plate. However, Melis’ efforts were immediately censured"... Melis' efforts were immediately censured by her supervisor. 'Whaddya think you're doing! You're not laying down breakfast at the White House!' Lourdes seemed to enjoy sternly reprimanding [Melis], and she castigated [her] as loudly as she could." by her supervisor.

“Whaddya think you’re doing! You’re not laying down breakfast at the White House!”

Lourdes seemed to enjoy sternly reprimanding the newest addition to the Ladies of Lunchtime, and she castigated"... Melis' efforts were immediately censured by her supervisor. 'Whaddya think you're doing! You're not laying down breakfast at the White House!' Lourdes seemed to enjoy sternly reprimanding [Melis], and she castigated [her] as loudly as she could." Melis as loudly as she could. There was nothing LOL about this job or this woman with her thick hands, and heavier attitude, but the students referred to all the cafeteria workers this way anyhow.

“Seventh grade’s coming in, speed it up, and fix your net.”

Melis sighed and reached up to fix her hairnet which was the bane"Melis sighed and reached up to fix her hairnet which was the bane of her post-graduate existence, as it had destroyed the very last bit of pride she had left." of her post-graduate existence, as it had destroyed the very last bit of pride she had left. Four months after graduating college, having been unable to figure out what her dream job was, let alone land it, she was living with her parents without any real friends nearby, no particular skill set, and a glaring lack of love life. Melis had consoled herself with the fact that she was still young and armed with a head of bright, healthy hair and equally bright, healthy attitude. But, as Lourdes lifted the lids from the steaming vats holding today’s dishes, you could see that nothing bright and healthy was meant to survive this cafeteria.


He was the inveterate loser, confirmed in his position by his braces, glasses...
Illustration by Rosa Lykiardopoulos

Melis was concerned about this. She wondered if Lourdes had always been as misanthropic"[Melis] wonder if Lourdes had always been as misanthropic as she now seemed—she appeared not only to loathe all of mankind, but to especially despise children and pregnant women (the makers of children)..." as she now seemed—she appeared not only to loathe all of mankind, but to especially despise children and pregnant women (the makers of children)—or if it was working under the fluorescent lighting, breathing in the greasy fumes, and witnessing the horrifying social politics of middle school that had turned her this way. Melis, after a mere week, feared that her own natural ebullience"Melis, after a mere week, feared that her own natural ebullience was already faltering; her signature cheer being choked by mashed potatoes made from a mix..." was already faltering; her signature cheer being choked by mashed potatoes made from a mix, smothered by the smell of pubescent body odor, suffocated by the plastic trap ensnaring her head.

A profusion"A profusion of yelling, shuffling seventh graders burst through the metal doors, forming a line so long that Melis felt her ladle brace itself against the oncoming onslaught." of yelling, shuffling seventh graders burst through the metal doors, forming a line so long that Melis felt her ladle brace itself against the oncoming onslaught. She was grateful to be standing behind one of the plexiglass shields that hovered over the line of sterile metal carts. The shields not only protected the food from any potential drips, coughs, or hairs, but also kept her a step away from the vituperative"The [plexiglass] shields... kept [Melis] a step away from the vituperative banter of the students—their conversations were so full of verbal abuses that it was almost impossible to distinguish friends from enemies." banter of the students—their conversations were so full of verbal abuses that it was almost impossible to distinguish friends from enemies. She was glad for this physical barrier, since she was not sure if she was enough years apart to keep from becoming an emotionally wounded bystander in the war of words and cold shoulders. She had seen adults far older than her still bear in their eyes the scars from childhood cuts.

After a week she understood why several of her co-workers risked the wrath of Lourdes as they snuck the ear buds of their iPods under their hairnets; others simply shrank into their aprons, looked down, and hummed to themselves any tune at all in order to try to shut out the noise and chatter of the students as much as possible. Still, just as drivers are helplessly drawn to stare at accidents, Melis found herself becoming a voracious"... Melis found herself becoming a voracious eavesdropper, absorbing any and all conversations, exclamations, obscenities, belching and other perturbing body noises that reached her ears." eavesdropper, absorbing any and all conversations, exclamations, obscenities, belching and other perturbing body noises that reached her ears. Not that you could really call it eavesdropping when they spoke to each other at the top of their lungs, or whispered secrets directly in front of her. The latter being what bothered Melis the most. They didn’t want to share or hide their secrets from her because they didn’t see her either as a peer or as an adult enemy. She was something in between, therefore she was nothing, and they had no use for her. Life in general seemed to have no use for her.

All Melis wanted, really, was to find a way to be useful. She wished she knew what she was meant to do in this life, but she had no idea. She knew she wanted to do some good, somewhere, for somebody, but that was as far as she’d gotten. She had idle thoughts about becoming a social worker, or an EMT, or rich socialite wife who was the head of many charities. In the meantime she was becoming a virtuoso"... [Melis] was becoming a virtuoso at making neat Sloppy Joes: not exactly the thing one dreams of excelling at." at making neat Sloppy Joes: not exactly the thing one dreams of excelling at. Melis hated that she was such a cliché"Melis hated that she was such a cliché, just another lost post-grad; so typical it made her want to throw up...", just another lost post-grad; so typical it made her want to throw up—but that would just add to the stench of the place she had to work in, so she worked hard not to think about the big picture, and just focus on the job at hand.

As the kids moved down the line, her wrist grew sore from ladling and her heart grew heavy under the incessant carping"... her heart grew heavy under the incessant carping coming from the students' mouths.... [They] picked on each other for anything and everything, for the color of shoelaces, the length of hair..." coming from the students’ mouths, proving that age-old axiom"... her heart grew heavy under the incessant carping coming from the students' mouths, proving that age-old axiom of adolescence to be too true: kids can be so cruel. They picked on each other for anything and everything..." of adolescence to be too true: kids can be so cruel. They picked on each other for anything and everything, for the color of shoelaces, the length of hair, the visibility of a bra strap, the invisibility of a bra strap, the level of video game, the accidental trip, anything at all. The vicious calumnies"The vicious calumnies they would spread about each other were horrible to listen to; they seemed bent on destroying one another's reputations through false accusations..." they would spread about each other were horrible to listen to; they seemed bent on destroying one another’s reputations through false accusations such as so-n-so, showed you-know-who, her you-know-what, you-know-where.

By the end of her first week one boy in particular had caught Melis’ attention. He seemed not to belong to anybody. He was the inveterate"He seemed not to belong to anybody. He was the inveterate loser, confirmed in his position by his braces, glasses, and the birthmark that bubbled over his left brow." loser, confirmed in his position by his braces, glasses, and the birthmark that bubbled over his left brow. He bore the brunt of his peers’ restless teasing, and though he feigned aloofness"He bore the brunt of his peers' restless teasing, and though he feigned aloofness by rolling his eyes and further pretended he was distancing himself on purpose, by walking steadily to the table by the back window, he didn't fool Melis." by rolling his eyes and further pretended he was distancing himself on purpose, by walking steadily to the table by the back window, he didn’t fool Melis. She could see his eyes falling like full scoops of ice cream off of a child’s cone with every chastising"He bore the brunt of his peers' restless teasing, and ... every chastising comment ... rang out to punish him for his lankiness, his stammer, his general inability to fit in..." comment that rang out to punish him for his lankiness, his stammer, his general inability to fit in with the masses. When she asked him what he wanted, and he answered, Sloppy Joe, please, she saw past his hunger and heard the pangs of his heart. She knew he wasn’t looking for a sandwich of ground meat in canned tomato sauce; he was looking for warmth, for satisfaction, for her to fortify him with something that would enable him to endure, belong, survive, and grow.

“And milk,” he would ask, “A milk please?”

She was overcome by a sisterly desire to allay"She was overcome by a sisterly desire to allay his torment, and she set about trying to find ways to alleviate his suffering, starting by giving him an extra perfect Sloppy Joe..." his torment, and she set about trying to find ways to alleviate his suffering, starting by giving him an extra perfect Sloppy Joe, every day, as if by improving his culinary"... she set about ... giving him an extra perfect Sloppy Joe, every day, as if by improving his culinary experience she could ... elevate his social status. This ... did nothing to help the kid, since the lunchtime experience was hardly about food." experience she could in some way elevate his social status. This, of course, did nothing to help the kid, since the lunchtime experience was hardly about food. For the next week, Melis tried handing him not only nourishing food, but alimentary"For the next week, Melis tried handing him not only nourishing food, but alimentary words too." words too. However, all she seemed able to come up with was a plethora"... all she seemed able to come up with was a plethora of hackneyed phrases—she wouldn't have guessed she had such an abundance of trite sayings, but they spewed forth every time she handed him the milk for his tray." of hackneyed"... all she seemed able to come up with was a plethora of hackneyed phrases—she wouldn't have guessed she had such an abundance of trite sayings, but they spewed forth every time she handed him the milk for his tray." phrases—she wouldn’t have guessed she had such an abundance of trite sayings, but they spewed forth every time she handed him the milk for his tray.

“They’re just jealous,” she told him in a knowing tone, or “Don’t let them bother you… Twenty years from now, we’ll see who’s laughing at who… It’ll get better I promise… It’s always darkest before the dawn.”

She sounded just like her mother. And as it turned out, she wasn’t the only one to notice this maternal verbiage. One afternoon, as the boy passed in front of her, looking tired, she saw that somebody had stuck a sign on his back which she couldn’t read and he hadn’t noticed yet.

“You know, when the going gets tough,” she raised her ladle in the air to make the point but she was interrupted.

“You talking to YOUR MOM about the birds and bees again, Freakazoid?”

The entire line burst into laughter and other mother jokes began punctuating the air, coming faster and faster, filling the room so that it was hard to tell if the jokes were being repeated or if the walls themselves were echoing them in order to heighten the socially malnourished boy’s humiliation.

Melis was not so old not to realize the implications of what she’d done. There was no greater insult than being ‘related’ to menial school staff. She opened her mouth to apologize, but promptly shut it, hoping not to make things worse. Of course it got worse on its own. Every time the boy approached her in line the rest of the week someone would blast out with a “look, there’s your mom” or sing an inappropriate lullaby, and one day someone tried to affix a hairnet to his head when he wasn’t looking. Melis felt her blood boil hotter than the vat of oil they dipped the fries into. She’d only been trying to help and instead she’d made it worse.

The boy tried to get out of it by moving faster past her in line. When she asked what he wanted—he didn’t even let her finish the sentence, just muttered whatever, and jabbed his tray out as fast as a tongue trying to get in a jeering waggle while the teacher’s back is turned. She hated the kids who taunted him and herself for having failed him. She began wishing terrible things upon the other students—acne, and premature balding, bad college roommates, failed careers, and moments of involuntary public nudity. She heard her thoughts, felt how her heart was congealing like one of yesterdays meat balls on her chest, saw how her knuckles were whitening around the edge of the ladle, and one day, in horror, she listened to Lourdes’ voice rise up above the chatter chanting, “You kids today!” only to realize it was her own voice saying these ridiculous words. She was hardening into a stale version of herself. Something had to be done.

So the next afternoon, instead of pouring out her usual neat Sloppy Joe, when the maligned boy reached her in line she handed him a bun buried under gobs and gobs of extra saucy, wormy meat, and muttered in a low voice without moving her lips, “aim for the head at ‘hurt.’ ” The boy barely blinked and she could only hope he had heard her. She waited until the line was almost gone, and then she chose one of the students who had been the nastiest in his taunts and she leaned in close and in her loudest, most motherly voice she said, “You know, you kids are just terrible. Just awful. But remember, sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never—”

She stood up then on her tip-toes floating her head above the plexi-glass shield and prayed that the boy had understood his cue. Sure enough, a gasp was heard across the cafeteria as a giant gob of Sloppy Joe sailed through the air and smashed Melis right on the side of her head. There was a moment of awe in which only the sound of swiveling heads could be heard as they turned to discover that the deliverer of this audacious"... a giant gob of Sloppy Joe sailed through the air and smashed Melis right on the side of the head. There was a moment of awe in which only the sound of swiveling heads could be heard as they turned to discover that the deliverer of this audacious act was none other than the previous punch line of their jokes." act was none other than the previous punch line of their jokes. Someone guffawed and yelled, “Nice shot!”

And the room burst into a round of applause that stopped only when the next Joe was thrown. Soon every student in the cafeteria was tossing back and forth milk cartons, buns, napkins, pasta, wilted lettuce, anything they could grab—united against a common target. As Melis took hit after hit she breathed in the growing stench of souring milk as though it was a bouquet of roses and she nodded towards the jeers as though they were her standing ovation. Melis knew she’d be fired, but as juicy bits of things dripped down her forehead, she snatched off her hairnet with pride, satisfied that she’d finally found a way to help by bringing catharsis"... [Melis] snatched off her hairnet with pride, satisfied that she'd finally found a way to help by bringing catharsis to a community who hadn't even known they'd needed the sweet relief." to a community who hadn’t even known they’d needed the sweet relief.