Her unofficial job is to ask trivia questions.
The kids can’t get enough of her questions. What is the world’s highest mountain, longest river, largest animal that’s ever lived even bigger than any dinosaur, the fastest moving animal (they all incorrectly answer, “the cheetah”), the fastest thing in the universe, the vice-president’s name (no one ever knows), the only animal who poops cubes.
She prepares three questions every day, except in March. In March, she holds a pi competition. The reigning champ is a fourth grade boy who’d recited from memory 124 digits of pi. She’d bought him a $5 gift certificate for a slice of pie from Baker’s Square.
The kids tell her she’s the best lunch lady ever. She loves the kids.
But she doesn’t love everything about her job.
Ben, Monica’s husband, drove a CTA bus on Chicago’s congested streets, but he couldn’t match her work stories.
“Lunch lady sings the blues,” he joked.
Every evening during their cocktail time, he’d listen, rapt, while she went on and on about the dramas during her shifts. One day it might be about Manny, the janitor, following her around again and trying to “teach” her the “proper” way to wipe tables.
Another day it might be about Mrs. Radak, a teacher who occasionally shared the lunch shift with Monica. “Less talk, more eat!” Mrs. Radak would yell at kids answering Monica’s trivia questions.
Many days it was about Zion.
It started during Monica’s first year on the job, when Zion was in third grade. Monica had been assigned to playground duty. She was watching girls jumping rope when, out of the corner of her eye, she saw a scuffle. An older boy was pushing a little boy. Three other boys stood by laughing. She raced over, shouting, “What’s going on?”
The bigger boy released the smaller boy’s arm and stepped into the safety of his three friends.
The little boy was crying. “It’s my football!”
“Is it his football?” Monica asked the bigger boy.
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I found it on the ground. I’ll give it to the baby if he wants it.”
Monica made the bigger boy apologize and return the ball.
“Do you accept his apology?” she asked the smaller boy.
He clutched the football against his belly, sniffled, and nodded. The matter would have ended there, but by then more kids had surrounded the scene, and they began chanting, “Baby Zion got rescued by the lunch lady!”
“So what happened next?” Ben asked later that day during cocktail time.
“The bell rang, and everyone got in line to go back inside. Zion wasn’t crying anymore, but when I smiled at him, he gave me such a look! Like he hated me!”
“Well,” Ben said. “He got his football back because you had his back. You did good, honey. Don’t worry. You’ll be friends again.”
It was the one time Ben was wrong.
Nathan, a freckle-faced fifth grader who sat at the allergy table during lunch, was one of Monica’s favorite kids. He looked a little like Harry Potter, and he liked coming up with trivia questions she could use. (How do you spell Mississippi with one I?)
One day he was fighting tears during lunch because, he told Monica, “the art teacher disrespected me in front of the whole class!”
Monica led Nathan out of the crowded, noisy lunchroom into the quiet, empty hallway.
“She’s so mean!” Nathan sobbed. “She’s only nice to the girls. She said I purposely made my sculpture look like something inappropriate, like something only a pervert would make, but I didn’t, Mrs. Larch! It’s a rocket ship! And now some of the kids are calling me perv!”
“Who?” Monica asked. “What kids are calling you that?”
Nathan shook his head. “It’s just one kid. Anyway, he’s my friend. He was just kidding.”
Monica sighed. Just kidding. The self-serving justification for so much mean behavior. She could guess who the one kid was: Zion.
“Anyway, I’m not mad about Zion,” Nathan said.
Monica nodded. The issue was the teacher, using words she shouldn’t have used, especially within hearing of the whole class.
“Nathan,” she said. “Wait until you’ve calmed down. Then tell the art teacher how you feel.”
“No!” he protested. “She won’t listen to me!”
“How do you know that? Give her a chance to hear your side.”
He shook his head. His nose was running. Monica handed him a tissue from the stash she always had in a pocket.
“You have two choices, Nathan. You do nothing, just move on, or you do something.”
He wiped tears from his eyes. “What? What can I do?”
“You really don’t feel like you can talk to her face to face?”
He shook his head. She sighed. What could he do? She thought of her own two sons, now grown. What would she have told them to do?
“When you get home today,” Monica said, “write a letter. To your art teacher. Tell her how you feel. Then wait an hour. Read your letter again. If you still think it says what you need it to say, then show it to an adult you trust, like your mom or dad. If they approve, then put your letter in an envelope addressed to your art teacher, and tomorrow morning go to the office and put it in her mail slot.”
“I can do that?” Nathan asked. “I won’t get in trouble?”
“Absolutely you can do that,” Monica said. “But if there is a problem, you can blame me.”
“Wow,” Monica’s husband said later, after hearing the Nathan saga during their cocktail time. “I can’t wait to hear how that plays out.”
But Monica never got the chance to tell him.
How she misses their evening cocktails – she with her glass of chardonnay, Ben with his bottle of beer.
Three months before he was set to retire, and the day after the Nathan-art teacher drama, he pulled his bus to the curb and slumped over the steering wheel. He’d died at the hospital before she could get there. A heart attack. The autopsy showed clogged arteries that, if he’d gone for checkups over the years like she’d urged him to, could have been unclogged with stents and drugs.
Now she’s alone. Their two boys live 2,000 miles away with wives and children and meaningful jobs. Most of her lady friends are still blessed with living husbands. They’ve moved on to warm-weather retirement communities or friendships that don’t include semi-attractive widows.
Monica’s lunch lady job has become her only regular and meaningful interaction with people. She likes her fellow lunch lady civilians, but they never last more than a few weeks, quitting – or being told to quit – after they’ve lost their tempers one too many times over student sass.
Despite their sass, it’s the children she likes best.
All but one.
Zion. He’s now in sixth grade, the school’s top grade. No one calls him a baby anymore. He’s an alpha male, one of the cool kids, part of his coolness courtesy of an older brother who is the star point guard on the high school basketball team. College scouts attend games to watch Zion’s brother play. Indiana and Michigan State are interested. Zion sometimes wears a basketball jersey to school bearing his brother’s name and number.
In the lunchroom, at best, Zion gives Monica the stink-eye. At worst, he defies her. He’ll leave the lunchroom without permission. He’ll throw food; getting him to pick it up is a battle of wills.
Today, almost one year since Ben’s death, Zion lifted a classmate’s jacket off the bench and tossed it on the floor.
“Put it back, Zion,” Monica said.
He got up from his seat, grabbed the coat off the floor, and held it waist high.
She waited, said nothing.
He smirked, and moved closer to her. She did not back away though her legs trembled. Ben, she thought, what a story for you. Zion thrust the coat at her, but stopped just short of pushing it into her stomach.
“Zion.” She kept her voice low. His table fell silent. “Give the coat back to Garrett.”
Zion dropped it at her feet. Garrett picked it up. Zion laughed.
Monica nodded at Garrett. “Thank you, Garrett, for picking it up.” She looked at Zion. Her mouth went dry. Ben, she thought, and her voice stayed steady. “Apologize, Zion.”
“Two things. First, for throwing Garrett’s jacket on the floor. Second, for being disrespectful to me.”
“Sorry, Garrett,” Zion said.
Garrett shrugged. “Okay.”
“Now me,” Monica said.
“Now me, what?”
They faced each other, Zion nearly her height, 5′4″. The last thing Monica wanted to do was involve her boss (the gym teacher) or call over the two teachers sharing lunch duty with her (both looking down at their phones on the other side of the room), but Monica was about to leave the lunchroom to get her boss when Zion muttered, “Sorry.”
Relief, sharp as knives, cut the tension that had been squeezing her body. Saliva flooded her mouth. “Okay, Zion. You may sit down. I accept your apology.” But as she spoke, spit sprayed from her mouth. Right at Zion.
“Jesus!” Zion shouted. “Mrs. Larch spit me! Look!” He left it on his cheek, a bubble shaped like a teardrop. Kids at his table began to laugh. Kids at nearby tables were turning or standing to get a better view.
Monica felt her face burn. “Zion, it was an accident. Sometimes that happens. To everyone.”
“You spit me!” Triumph powered his voice and sparkled his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” Monica said. She kept her chin lifted, but her voice shook.
“Okay, Monica,” he said, putting air quotes with his fingers around her first name, which the children never used. “You can leave. I accept your apology.” He swiped the spit from his cheek, then vigorously rubbed his hand on his jeans.
The room fell silent, or so it seemed to Monica. She felt as though all eyes were on her, except for the two teachers who were looking at their phones on the other side of the lunchroom.
The bell rang. The room exploded into motion. Kids scrambled to put their lunch boxes in the bins along the wall, then churned like a river out the door to return to their classrooms.
Monica’s heart pounds her entire six-block walk home.
When she reaches her front door, fury sweeps through her. Not at Zion. At Ben. He’s gone. She needs him to hear her story, to help her put things in perspective, to agree that she handled things right or to suggest ways she could make it better.
Her hands shake. She drops the keys. Her back spasms in pain when she bends to retrieve them. She struggles to unlock the door.
“Damn you, Ben,” she curses.
A few hours later, she’s pulling into the parking lot where the Goodwill donation box is. Her trunk holds bags stuffed with Ben’s clothes and bowling gear, his tools and books.
It took two glasses of wine to get it done.
The Goodwill box is in a corner of the parking lot that serves a park on the suburb’s rougher east side. It’s the side that buffers the suburb’s nicer neighborhoods, where Monica lives, from Chicago’s truly rough west side.
The park is a half-mile rectangle of weedy baseball and soccer fields, crumbling basketball courts, a playground missing swings, and a concrete skate bowl abused by graffiti.
On this brisk November Wednesday afternoon, the parking lot is empty. The sun is low in the sky. It’s near the time a doctor pronounced Ben dead eleven months ago.
The park looks empty, too. Except for a brown dog lifting its leg by a “No Pets in Park” sign.
As she opens her car door, a sudden commotion spills onto the soccer field. A group of boys emerge from a thick stand of evergreen trees bordering the field. Five teenage-sized boys are harassing a smaller boy. One is swinging a bat.
Monica recognizes the smaller boy. Zion. So big in the lunchroom. Her size. But dwarfed by the tall boys around him now.
She grabs her phone, but before she can call 911, the teen whacks his bat into Zion’s gut. Zion cries out, stumbles. The teen lifts the bat high, ready to swing again. Two others hold Zion.
Monica slams her car door shut, guns the motor, blares the horn, and accelerates onto the soccer field, in her panic clipping a trash can, a goalkeeper net, hurtling toward the boys when the brown dog she’d seen earlier darts in front of her. She swerves, but too late. The dog yelps and goes flying. “God! No!” she cries, but she can’t stop for the innocent animal, she must keep going toward the boys. The dangerous animals.
They’ve seen her, of course. They are looking at her in her charging black Ford Focus. They push Zion to the ground and run off.
Zion lurches to his feet as she exits the car. His mouth bleeds. His left eye is bruised.
He stares at the ground, nods.
“Who are those boys, Zion? We should report them to the police.”
“No!” He backs away, doesn’t look up.
“They were beating on you, Zion. It doesn’t matter what you might have done to get them mad. That’s wrong. I saw it. They should be punished.”
“I didn’t do nothin’.”
“So it was just random? They’re just random thugs? Then it’s even more important that we report them. Because they’ll do it to someone else.”
His fists and lips clench.
“Tell me why they were attacking you!” She holds out her phone. “Tell me or I’m calling 911 right now.”
“No!” He shudders. A fat tear slips down his cheek. “My brother.” His voice shakes.
Monica wants to gather him in her arms. She wants to pull the tissue she always has in her pocket and wipe the blood from his mouth. But they’re not in the lunchroom. They’re in the real world.
“What about your brother,” Monica says.
Zion’s shoulders slump. “He owes them … stuff. But, you know, he gotta stay good for the basketball games. So …” He shrugs.
“So, you’re taking the punishment? You’re paying the debt? On your brother’s behalf?”
Outrage makes her muscles throb. She wants to smack someone. Not just the thugs. Zion’s big brother, too. He’s a coward, she wants to say. But “disrespecting” Zion’s big brother won’t help Zion right now. Yet she can’t stop the words. Maybe it’s the two glasses of wine she drank earlier.
“Your big brother, he’s letting you do this, Zion? He’s letting you take the fall? Zion, that is not right. That is not fair. That is so not brave.”
Zion groans. Tears spill down his face. He swipes at them and when Monica steps closer, he jerks back. “Stop,” he says. “Just stop.”
“Zion, you are the one being brave here. But it’s being brave for the wrong reason.”
In the distance, sirens. Rapidly growing louder.
“I gotta go. I don’t want no police.” Finally, he looks at her. “It’ll just make it worse, Mrs. Larch. Please.”
The sirens wail louder and louder.
She nods. “Go.”
“You can’t tell them about me, Mrs. Larch.”
She’s not sure if she’s lying or telling the truth. But when Zion gasps – “Thank you, Mrs. Larch! Thank you!” – she hopes she’s telling the truth.
By the time two squad cars blaze into the parking lot, Zion has disappeared back into the trees bordering the soccer field.
The squads, sirens howling, bump over the field toward her.
Monica looks at the havoc she’s caused. Soccer net down. Garbage spilled. Grass flattened by her tires. And the worst, the dog, lying fifty feet away, not moving.
She’s had two glasses of wine. Would she pass a Breathalyzer?
She wonders what she’ll say. She imagines that her name will make the local paper’s police blotter: 61-year old woman, grade school lunch lady, charged with reckless driving, damage to park property, death of a dog. It’s the dog, she knows, people will not forgive. Did someone see her hit the dog? Is that who called the cops? But then they would’ve seen the commotion with the boys, too. Or maybe it was the teen thugs who called the cops on her? What does it really matter, she could hear Ben say. The cops are here. Deal with it.
Three cops surround her. The fourth kneels by the dog.
Their demands come hard and fast. Driver’s license. Insurance. One asks her permission to conduct a field sobriety test. Another holds out a tube and asks her to blow. The third fingers handcuffs on his belt.
She shakes her head. A cop says, “You understand that not submitting to the field sobriety test or the Breathalyzer exam is a cause for arrest and suspension of your driver’s license. Then we’ll take you to the hospital and pull your blood anyway.”
The kneeling cop shouts, “Dog’s alive! I’ll radio for medics!”
Monica groans with relief. “I’ll pay,” she pleads. “For whatever it costs to save the dog.”
“Dog’s the least of your problems right now, ma’am,” a cop says. “Now you gotta come with us.”
Handcuffs are being removed from the cop’s belt when Zion bursts from the trees. He runs toward them, shouting. It sounds like he is shouting, “She was chasing me! She was chasing me!”
Monica closes her eyes. She feels tears threaten.
“Put your arms behind your back, ma’am,” she hears a cop say.
But before she can do that, she feels someone’s hands gripping her wrists. She opens her eyes.
It is Zion’s long brown fingers around her wrists. The cops are looking at her differently. Hostility in their eyes has softened to confusion.
“She was saving me,” Zion says.