The Lunch Lady
by Roy Dorman
“Hamburger and chips or fish sticks and fries?” droned the lunch lady.
Danny Wilson’s first day at Salina Central High was going pretty well. He had navigated his morning classes without a hitch and was now in the cafeteria line for lunch.
Danny’s dad was in hotel management and pretty much went wherever the home office sent him. The hotel chain was not only national, but multinational, and Danny had been in ten states and four European countries in the last twelve years. Even with that many school changes, Danny had managed to keep up with getting the credits he would need to graduate.
Danny’s mom had died when he was four, and Danny’s dad had done his best being a single parent. He wasn’t around a lot because of his work responsibilities, but Danny felt his dad put him right up there with his job as being one of the important things in his life. The fact his dad hadn’t been home to their rented-by-the-month apartment for four nights was just one of the hard things Danny suppressed. That his dad had left plenty of cash for fast food and spending money was what he focused on.
Like most lunch ladies Danny had met over the years, this one looked to be about a hundred years old. However, she was a lot less presentable than most of them Danny had seen. Her pink uniform was filthy, she didn’t have her bottom front teeth, and her hands could have been a lot cleaner. The name tag that was pinned crookedly over her left breast read: “LORETTA.”
“Hamburger and chips, please,” said Danny.
“You’re new here, ain’t ya?” said Loretta. “Just so ya know, that please and thank you stuff won’t get you anything extra from me.”
“Aw, Loretta, cut the kid some slack,” said Loretta’s lunch lady sidekick. This one looked to be more like twenty than a hundred, and she had all of her teeth. Actually, she had a very nice smile that she gave freely to Danny after she had cut Loretta off.
This second lunch lady, identified as “KRISTEN” on her name tag, kept the line moving, handing out drinks, desserts, and other add-ons. Now that Danny looked more closely at her, he saw that maybe he had been wrong about her being nearer to twenty; her eyes looked like she had experienced a lot of life. Danny had seen this was the case in a lot of the service-sector workers he had interacted with in the cities he’d visited.
Looking around, he noticed there seemed to be some older kids in the cafeteria he hadn’t seen in the halls that morning. Danny was a senior this year; there shouldn’t be that many kids older than he was.
The kids ahead of him and behind him weren’t talking to each other much or to either of the lunch ladies. Loretta just slapped a burger and a handful of chips on the plate of the guy following him without even asking him what he wanted. Danny noticed this particular kid had five-o’clock shadow, though the clock on the wall said it was just a bit past noon. Maybe a lot of kids had been held back in their early years.
“Move it, doofus,” said a voice from two or three kids behind him.
Danny took a piece of cake from Kristen and gave her a tentative smile. Kristen gave him a quick wink and then went back to hustling desserts.
Somehow, Danny was ten minutes late for his after-lunch class. That puzzled him, because he hadn’t really spent a lot of time in the lunchroom except to get his food and eat it. The rest of the day, Danny made a point of looking for some of the older kids he’d seen in the lunch room. He didn’t see any.
* * *
Standing in line for lunch the next day, he scanned the cafeteria for kids who were in his classes. Though there were at least twenty or thirty kids in line and at tables, Danny didn’t recognize any of them. That there were so few kids in the lunchroom also puzzled him. The high school wasn’t that big, but there still should have been more than a hundred students in here for lunch.
Mulling this over, he absently took the burger and chips from Loretta, skipped the “thanks,” and stood in front of Kristen. He was about to ask her what the deal was with the lunchroom, when she gave her head a slight shake and mouthed the word “No” to him. She handed him a piece of cherry pie, and Danny could feel a piece of paper between his hand and the plate. Kristen gave him a nervous smile and said, “Bye” very quietly before getting something for the next person in line.
Danny stuffed the piece of paper into his jeans pocket as slyly as he could, but not before a guy sitting two tables from him spotted the maneuver. He whispered something to the other two guys at the table and they all three stared at Danny. Then, as if they all thought of it at the same time, all three gave Danny a little smile and a nod. Danny nodded back to them and went to work on his burger and chips. When he was finished, trying to look as casual as he could, he picked up his tray and walked over to their table.
“Hey, guys, wassup?” he asked.
“Just hangin’, man,” said the one who appeared to be the leader of the group. He was dressed in blue gas station coveralls that had “LESTER” stitched above the left top pocket. “We’re just hangin’,” he said again with a smirk. The response caused the other two to break out laughing. Danny decided it was time to get to class; he didn’t want to be late again. But he was.
Once settled into his seat in Math, Danny took the note out of his pocket and opened it onto his math book. Printed in block letters were the words, “PLEASE PACK A SACK LUNCH FROM NOW ON. PLEASE!” The second “PLEASE” had been underlined four times, the last time breaking the lead of the pencil.
Danny didn’t feel like packing a lunch. He felt more like getting some answers.
* * *
The next morning in his English class right before lunch period, he asked the girl next to him where everybody went for lunch.
“Well, most kids go to the cafeteria unless it’s really nice out; then we sit out on the lawn. I’m Cassie, by the way. You’re Danny. New guy, right?”
“Yeah, Danny Wilson, professional new guy,” said Danny with a smile. “I’ve been in more schools than most of the freshmen have had birthdays. Would you mind if I walked to the cafeteria with you? Don’t worry; it’s not a date. I just got kinda weirded out in there yesterday.”
“Sure, I’m meeting some friends, some girls, but you and I can chat a bit while we’re in line,” said Cassie.
When the bell rang, Danny and Cassie left the room and started down the hall. When Danny turned right where the hallway came to a T, Cassie stopped and said, “Hey, still going to the cafeteria?”
“Yeah, it’s this way, right?” said Danny.
“Uh-uh, it’s this way,” said Cassie.
“But I can see it down at the end of this hall,” said Danny. “Those two doors down there with “CAFETERIA” above the—” There was nothing written above the doors.
Danny stared at the two doors that were about thirty feet from where he and Cassie stood. He knew it had said “CAFETERIA” above the doors yesterday and the day before; that’s how he had found it. He slowly walked down the hall toward the doors.
“That’s just an old storeroom that’s hardly used anymore. The cafeteria is this way,” Cassie said, pointing to the left.
Danny just kept walking and stared at the space above the doors. It was very light, but it was there. The word “CAFETERIA” had once been up there but, at some point, it had been painted over.
He opened the door to almost total darkness. The room didn’t appear to be as big as the room he had been in the previous two days. Also, while there were a half-dozen tables and a few chairs scattered around, there were not the fifteen to twenty tables with chairs that should be in there.
Cassie had come up behind Danny and was looking over his shoulder. “See,” she said. “Just a nasty old storeroom.”
As she finished her sentence, Danny saw two shadows move stealthily against the far wall. They appeared to be women in light-colored dresses, and he was pretty sure they were Loretta and Kristen.
“Did you see those two women moving in the shadows back there?” asked Danny.
“Oh, stop it, Danny; very funny,” said Cassie. “You’re just trying to scare me. I’m going to lunch.”
Cassie took off, walking in the direction they had come from. Danny took one more look and then closed the door.
“Just hangin’, man,” came softly from the other side of the closed door. “Just hangin’.” And then there was some stifled giggling.
* * *
Copyright © 2017 by Roy Dorman