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A Free Lunch

by Lauren Freeman

part 1 of 2

Everyone loved free lunch at Madison School, everyone that is, except Secretary Bunny.

Madison School would take anything free that it could get, despite Secretary Bunny’s pleadings that, “Free always comes with a price.” See, Bunny had bought into several pyramid-marketing scams in her lifetime and those are sure-fire ways to learn skepticism at the term free. But the people in Madison, they didn’t buy into much of anything.

Bunny was skeptical about a lot of things these days. She would tap her overly long, bright pink, acrylic fingernails and cluck her tongue against her impeccably whitened teeth at just about everything and everyone that crossed her path. And because of a disdain for this persistent skepticism, no one in Madison cared for her.

She was new in town and the townsfolk thought she had some nerve waltzing in and tsk-tsking about everything. She was a big-city girl, with no business in their town. Everyone assumed she must have been running from some sort of horrible secret. But Principal Stockton had been an empathetic man and desperately needed administrative assistance. She was willing to work for less than minimum wage, and so it was.

Before the new principal, Principal Washington, arrived, Madison School was extremely impoverished. The tiny budget barely kept the school afloat. It was a tiny school that covered all grades: kindergarten through twelfth, though the kids and faculty only amounted to about three hundred people.

Madison was a small town, big on loyalty and old-fashioned in all the worst ways, ways that other small towns outgrew overtime. But Madison never outgrew anything. Complacency was key to survival in this town, for a time anyway.

An old mill town with very little industry, most of the families that lived there had arrived at the town’s inception and hadn’t done a thing to build it up, once they’d settled in. Therefore, Madison remained a filthy poor town.

The people were simple, the water tasted like rust, and there was no access to modern luxuries: no cable TV, no cell phone reception, no internet. Ask anyone in Madison and they’d tell you that newfangled technology just complicated things; Madison was good enough as is.

Secretary Bunny made a huge stink about her inability to shop online, but nobody could relate, and her whining just further alienated her. No one in Madison liked a whiner. In fact, emotions were preferred balanced and subdued. The phrase, “she wears her emotions on her sleeve,” was considered a huge insult.

The town consisted of nearly identical ranch-style homes, randomly shuffled together and tossed down in rows, on streets labeled alphabetically or numerically. The town’s clerk wasn’t particularly creative and figured street names weren’t good for much other than “tomfoolery,” a term he used to describe everything outside his comfort zone. And his comfort zone was very, very small.

On the side of the highway, on the outskirts of the town, was a rest stop for travelers. It consisted of: a gas station, a burger joint, an ice-cream parlor and a miniature golf course. These places, combined with the school, the waste-water plant and the garbage dump, served as the only means of employment in the town.

The people made do. Some had their own livestock. Some relied on inexpensive non-perishables and frozen food to “get the job done,” the job being to fill the void of hunger that was constant in the town. They were content to put up with the gnawing hunger, because to fight it would be to acknowledge there was a problem.

Before Principle Washington arrived, it was not uncommon for the school’s electricity to go out mid-day, due to an unpaid bill, whereupon Principal Stockton, who was an extremely complacent man, would call a last-minute field day. The children loved the occasional field day, despite the fact that there was zero sporting equipment and no field to speak of. But the children were innovative and scratched hopscotch into the pavement with rocks or played kiss tag.

When the children were out on the field, there was always a revitalizing sense of possibility in the air. Secretary Bunny loved to participate in field day. She would roll up her sleeves and braid the younger girls’ hair, while the older girls whispered their boyfriends’ names in Bunny’s ears and giggled to one another.

The kids liked Secretary Bunny very much. Perhaps this was another reason the adults in town didn’t trust her. Kids and adults weren’t supposed to relate to one another.

Food was scarcer than electricity at Madison Elementary in the days before Principal Washington took over. It was oatmeal for lunch everyday or, if they were lucky, oatmeal with a tiny dollop of brown sugar. Ninety-nine percent of the school was underweight and undernourished.

All this changed when Principal Stockton was abducted.

Secretary Bunny’s account of the abduction was reported in the pages of The Madison Examiner, a paper that was distributed about every thirteen years, when something of interest actually happened in the town.

The report read as follows:

It was disgusting. I was sitting in my car; I guess I was reapplying my lipstick. Principal Stockton’s car was across the lot from mine. I watched him walk toward his car, whistling a little tune. He always had such a kind disposition. Then, I’m not sure where it came from, but suddenly a van came from seemingly nowhere and pulled up beside him. It was a large, beat-up, white minivan of sorts. The door to the van slid open and now my eyes ain’t perfect, too many years of getting mascara in ’em, but I swear on my waterproof stick that I saw this arm — not like a human arm, but a real skinny, long horrible thing all bendy and windy — come swirling out of the van, dripping with some sort of disgusting mucous. I hate that word! Disgusting! And this arm sorta attached itself to the back of his neck and whisked him into the van. He never so much had a chance to scream. I hid in my car until I was sure they were long gone.

One would think that this sort of news would trigger the small town to go nuts and panic. But Bunny wasn’t considered a reliable source. The newspaper was chastised for printing the story in the first place and Principal Stockton’s disappearance was considered an unsolved mystery.

But Bunny knew what she had seen. At first, she was horrified and could barely sleep at night. She slept with a gun, mace and a knife under her pillow. But gradually time lessens the emotional memories we harbor and, soon enough, Secretary Bunny had filed the memory of Principal Stockton’s abduction away in the file cabinets of her mind.

And so, the school was principal-less for a short time. A very short time, which was odd. Folks figured they’d have to make do without a principal for a long time. No one in the town qualified for the job. And it was near impossible to attract an out-of-towner to fill the position, when the pay was less than any other district in the state.

Without Principal Stockton monitoring the school’s purchases, the limited budget was mistakenly eaten up within a week’s time. The well of oatmeal had dried up and the electricity had been out for days.

Monday of the third week without a principal, Secretary Bunny was fast asleep at her desk. Who could blame her? She couldn’t see her paperwork clearly by candlelight. There was a tiny window in the office but the sun wasn’t shining on her side of the building and her phone hadn’t been working for weeks.

She woke up suddenly to a strange whisper, a deep male voice. The voice was average enough, but something about it frightened her silly upon waking. She opened her eyes to almost complete darkness. She could not figure out where the voice came from.

But suddenly a massive hand, the size of a basketball, reached toward her.

“Who’s there?” Secretary Bunny’s voice was barely audible.

“I said, what good is a secretary who sits in the dark?” the voice guffawed.

“Who are you and what do you want me to do about it? The lights have been out for weeks.”

The large hand flicked a switch on the wall and ... the lights came on. In fact, the whole building began to whir as electricity was established once more within the walls.

“How’d you do that?”

“I paid the bill.”

Secretary Bunny stared incredulously at the small man with excessively large appendages who stood in front of her.

“George Washington. Pleased to meet you.” The man was short, four feet at most. But he was not small, he was rather bulky; an unlikely mix of muscle and fat, and wider than your average easy chair.

The strangest thing about the man was how oddly disproportionate the length of his limbs was in comparison to the shortness of his frame. His legs seemed to end somewhere just below his chest giving him almost zero torso. And his arms were nearly four feet long. He was, in fact, a grotesque specimen of a man. He had a monstrous bulbous, pock-marked nose and a chin that jutted out nearly six inches in front of him.

“Who are you?” Secretary Bunny finally managed to spit out after staring at the man for longer than is considered polite.

He reached out his long arm. She shook his hand creating a sort of wave effect in his long, apparently double-jointed arms. “I’m your new principal,” he stated.

Secretary Bunny perked up real fast.

“Oh! Why didn’t you say so?” she gushed, batting her over-processed eyelids. “I just... Nobody told me about you. I didn’t know we had found a new principal! So, wow! You chose this school over all the nice little schools in the state? Why Madison? Nobody cares about Madison!”

“You just answered the question yourself. Nobody cares enough about Madison to keep an eye on it. My methods are unusual. I don’t want any nosy government folk trying to pry into my business. I prefer, in other words, to work alone.”

“Oh.” Secretary Bunny piped. “You’re one of those disciplinarian types?”

“No, that is not quite what I have in mind for these children. Tell me, Bunny... Do these children like to eat?”

“Well sure, when there’s food to be had! Most of these children have one or two meager meals a day if they’re lucky. Food won’t really work as a positive reinforcement if that’s what you’re going for”

“I think you’re wrong.” And with that the principal disappeared into his office.

That day Principal Washington announced that from now on, lunch would be free every day at Madison School.

Nobody asked where he got the extra money for the food, or where he got the food, or who prepared the food... Nobody wanted to risk ruining a good thing by asking questions. Free lunch was a huge success. Principal Washington turned out to be a bit of a magician.

He served lunch himself everyday. He insisted on it. He lined up over three hundred serving trays, each with a silver lid hiding the contents beneath from hungry eyes. One by one the students would file in. He would wait until the instant the student was standing in front of the platter and then after a brief moment of eye contact... waluh! He would lift the lid and reveal exactly what the person wanted most to eat, at that very moment.

Jimmy Abramson was a chubby child. He was part of the one-percent of Madison School’s population that wasn’t undernourished. His parents overfed him on fast food due to rigid work schedules, managing the 24-hour gas station at the highway rest area. So the drive-thru it was... every night.

But Jimmy couldn’t care less because he was sure that he had found all that the world had to offer between the buns at Chip’s Gigantic Burgers. The triple beef extra bacon cheese burger with extra mayo and double battered fried onion was the only thing Jimmy ever wanted to eat for the rest of his life.

You can imagine Jimmy’s face when Principal Washington lifted the lid off of Jimmy’s platter, the first day free lunch was underway... when he lifted that lid to reveal... not one, not two... but four triple beef extra bacon cheese burgers with extra mayo and double battered fried onion!

Jimmy snorted with glee, “No way!” He picked up a burger and took a bite out of it right then and there. “Chip’s Gigantic Burgers! How’d you know, Principal Washington?”

“Move along and enjoy, Jimmy,” Washington replied with a satisfied intensity in his deep-set eyes.

And that is how it went.

Mary Beth Rankin had a thing for her Grammy Nora’s peach apple cobbler. When her grandma passed away, Mary declared with deep sorrow that she would never again have a cobbler as delicious as Grammy’s. But when Principal Washington lifted the lid to her lunch tray... Mary knew it couldn’t be Nana’s, but even Nana couldn’t have told the difference.

The faculty wasn’t left out of the lunch phenomenon either. Mr. Powers, the geography teacher, had a dish of chicken masala so exquisite, when he won a trip to India as a young man, that he ordered $1,000 worth and packed it on dry ice to ship back home with him. He had long ago finished the last bite and often dreamed of returning to India to get more. When Principal Washington lifted the lid on Mr. Powers’ lunch tray, a strange grin spread from cheek to cheek and Mr. Powers hoarded the lunch tray across the room with no questions asked.

People are weird about food. When compared with other mammals, humans are unique in their ability to experience very particular food cravings and to feel the absolute need to satiate them. They can suffer great disappointment when they crave a particular food item but are unable to obtain it. Even if offered delicious substitution, humans are apt to complain if they can’t get precisely what food item they are craving, prepared in precisely the right manner.

So, it wasn’t entirely unusual that, when everyone at Madison School’s food cravings were being satiated, nobody bothered to call into question the means by which Principal Washington procured the food. He simply became the most popular principal that Madison School had ever known.

Some parents claimed their children were gaining weight at an unhealthy rate. Children weren’t eating their dinners, in those rare instances that dinner was to be got. Some children were experiencing ghastly stomach pains from overeating. But most of the parents in town were content to ignore such things and happy that the onus to provide food for their children was suddenly lifted.

Harry Two’s parents, however, were known far and wide to be the strictest parents in the county. Rumor had it that they made Harry sign a post-partum agreement when he was just four years old stating if he ever did anything entirely disagreeable, he would be sent off for adoption immediately. The agreement hung in a frame above the family fireplace. By the time he was ten years old he was so well-mannered that he forgot what it meant to be disagreeable, despite the fact that at times he secretly wished he knew.

Harry Two’s parents, Kelly and Patrick Two, were sick of Harry’s complaining of indigestion and having to take a nap after school, instead of doing his chores. Therefore, they stormed into Principal Washington’s office one gloomy afternoon and demanded to speak with George Washington himself. Secretary Bunny glanced up from her 24-color compact and waved the parents toward some chairs.

“Take a seat. He’s serving free lunch.”

”Well, go get him or I will,” Patrick declared as his wife sat by with an air of impudence.

“Whatever.” Bunny slammed her make-up case closed and headed toward the lunchroom with the sole intention of humoring herself.

On her way through the double doors that led to the cafeteria, Bunny realized with some surprise that she had actually never witnessed what went on at free lunch time. She was always watching her weight and, despite Principal Washington’s initial attempts to involve her, Bunny had stayed away from the lunchroom and drank her diet shake in peace and quiet at her desk.

As she entered the lunchroom, the first thing she noticed was how quiet it was. The only sounds were those of forks scratching lunch trays and satisfied burps and sighs of content. What surprised her further is what she saw on the trays... a gray glob of goo.

“Hardly appetizing, and probably chock full of calories,” she thought.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2008 by Lauren Freeman

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