Accidia: Exordium

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Sometimes, it seemed to Peorl, the sea of preteen faces was vast and empty, a wash of shrill cries, thrown fruit, and excrement jokes sprayed across tables. Posted by the wheeled trash can, she rocked back and forth on her stained tennis shoes and allowed again her thinking to drift. There would be little to do for at least another fifteen minutes.

Later today she could look forward to reruns on cable (maybe Suddenly Susan or Dharma and Greg, both favorites), a quiet pasta at her table, resting her head against the denim pillow she had crafted herself. It was a decadent aloneness which she had learned to value, a retreat from the cacophonous work world of the Roosevelt Middle School cafeteria. The quiet was a time to do nothing at all. Just nothing.

She felt the ceramic tile slow-bruising her feet through the soles of her shoes, felt her calves tighten and numb. Beyond a black scuff mark just in front of her, the room widened out to other smaller shoes and younger legs. She could almost imagine an invisible wall at that mark, though, a sandbag insulation against sound and sweat. She focused on the tile pattern, counting the abstract lines as if they were age wrinkles. Then she re-imagined them as crevices, each a minor gap to imperil an unwary traveler. Perhaps the scuff mark signaled the narrow failure of a child who too late sensed the danger. 

The trash can next to her still reeked of spoiled fruit, Cheetoh paste and Lysol, but this was its natural condition. No one had yet approached to drop their leftovers. No one had crossed the crevices in her floor tile or–which was always worse–dared to throw a bag from their table. Peorl began to count another tile to see if the deadly gaps matched those in the first.

Perhaps the scuff mark signaled the narrow failure of a child who too late sensed the danger.
“Hey, Lunch Lady!” a boy in a too-large Pacers coat called at her. Peorl looked up and wiped a trace of spittle which had escaped her mouth. Her jaw had fallen open again; the boy laughed and mimicked the wiping. Those around him laughed, too, she knew, though she heard a girl try to shush them, that they were “being mean.” Peorl stood up straighter, stopped her rocking, grew attentive to the room.

She felt her feet carry her forward towards the table with a self-righteous intent. “Yes?” Peorl asked, looking down at his round face, his chubby-nosed imbecilic grin. “What do you want?” She heard the words from her own lips, a bray of sound which seemed to cut through the nearby space and shove itself against his skin. Even through the grin, she felt him tense.

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The paralysis was too short. He exhaled and shook his head at the others. “Jeez, Purl, what’s your problem? Get away from me.” He tried to laugh, but his community of fans was less enthused. The boy dramatically rolled his shoulder as he turned away from her, and Peorl imagined she could hear the slithering rub of the plastic coat. 

What was to be done? She could demand he listen to her, but what would she say? That he had mispronounced her name? That he wasn’t supposed to call her by her first name in the first place? She imagined demanding to be called “Ms. Brown” but that demand for dignity seemed preposterous in light of the drool. She could ask for an apology, but for what, exactly? For mocking what she’d rather no one saw at all? In horror she wondered, would she apologize for his revulsion of her? Silently she cursed the shoes which had believed she might shame him to regret. 

His sniggering voice behind the broken bowl haircut asked a friend, “Is she still there?”  The friend nodded.

The stand-off seemed pointless. The scuff mark was at least seven feet behind her. More and more of the children at the long table had paused in their lunches to watch her next move. Peorl saw two different pieces of banana had been squashed on the table; crumb-spotted sandwich bags and Skittles wrappers were scattered about. An overturned fruit pie beckoned from the floor.

A brown-eyed girl with a pony tail was the only one who now faced her directly, her eyes melted with anxiousness, even pity. The boy, still barricaded behind his coat, had begun muttering over and over for the amusement of the group, “Go away, Lunch Lady, Go away, Lunch Lady,” like some kind of revocation. A blue panther on the back of the jacket watched for Peorl’s response. Rising up from her head was a condemnation of her own: Put your compassion away, you pony-tailed bitch.

But she hardly dared utter it, could not look at the girl at all. And yet her shoes still kept her there, at the table. Would this stupid scene drag itself through the entire lunch period? There was nothing about any of this, she knew, that was important. All of it was so . . . common. Even so, Peorl did not know, until it happened, how she would finally respond to it all. 

She grew conscious of her jaw, her lips, drew them tight. Her mouth whispered, loud enough for all the ones nearby to hear: “I see you.” She could not tell if it emerged as threatening or absurd. Her shoes turned back toward the trash can, tripped against each other briefly, and Peorl retreated. 

In the short time she had been gone, the can had grown half-full of lunches, but no one approached it now. Peorl Brown watched over it. But all of these children, years and years of these children, must eventually meet her. They would offer their waste before her; and she would judge them.

Additional Chapters will begin February 2022.

Audio Drama and Explorations
Essai on Culture and Language
Connections and Events

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