Volume 28, Number 3

Lunch Lady of the Year

Steve Borst

Dani had the bus nearly to herself. It was twilight. On the bench beside her sat the carrier holding her Oh, Baby! Infant Simulator by Life Sciences Industries. She had chosen a boy, a Pacific Islander. He sat there like a little Mona Lisa, innocently, with just the barest hint of a smile on his face. He was in fact, a ticking time bomb that could go off at any moment and in so many different and annoying ways. He could be seized by hunger pangs and cry until you find the bottle and get the nipple into his mouth. Then you’d better hold it there constantly for no telling how long, between five and fifteen minutes, according to the instruction manual. And if you take it out so much as one second too soon, why then you start all over again. Your baby could also start crying for no reason at all, and in that case you’ll need to insert the key and turn it and then rock him be until he falls asleep. Again, who knows how long that could take? And then again, he could need his diaper changed. Then you get out a fresh one, with the green square on the absorbent part and dispose of the soiled one in a zip lock bag.

The bus barreled down Route 26. Suddenly, there was a truck in lane ahead, bearing directly at them. As it got closer, its headlights swept through the empty bus. Dani thought what if the driver had made a miscalculation or worse yet what if there was a maniac behind the wheel? She noted that the road had no shoulder where the bus could escape. Then, in a moment, the passing maneuver was completed as the truck slipped harmlessly back into its proper lane.

For half an hour, the other passenger sat tilting his head slightly and squinting with one eye. The doll was that life-like. Then, suddenly, he got it, and as his misgivings began to dissolve, a smile spread across his features.

“That’s a lovely baby you’ve got.” he called out.

“Thank you. I have him for the weekend. I’m taking a class.”

“Livonia High?”


“Of course, that’s where you got on.”

The bus arrived at the depot in full darkness. Cousin Mattie was waiting with her parents. At dinner, they planned the slumber party for the next night with the two babies, hers and Mattie’s, next to each other on the sideboard.

“What’s your baby’s name?”

“Oh, I didn’t think of that.”

“We can talk about names later.”

“My mom said she’ll help us with the food. She’s a great cook. She knows how to make a cake from scratch.”

“From scratch? Seriously?”

For the remainder of the evening and the next morning, child care was normal. Every once in a while, Dani’s or Mattie’s baby would cry as expected, and one would tend to it while the other would read aloud from the instruction book.

“It could take over ten minutes, it says here. You could probably duct tape the bottle to his head if you wanted to and still get the points.”

“I don’t want to. I enjoy this. And you know this could be us for real and only a few years from now.”

After breakfast, they put the two babies with their carriers in Mattie’s old Radio Flyer wagon and took the shady walk down to the high school. Cottondale High was a handsome building of tan-colored brick. Its lawn was deep green and lay half in shade. Down the street was a boarded-up Hardee’s Restaurant surrounded by tall weeds and in the driveway Mattie showed Dani the sign that, along with the website, was the main launching point for Mattie’s campaign to see Mrs. LaPena crowned Lunch Lady of the Year. Mattie couldn’t wait to tell her all about it. The sign was built mostly by her contractor Dad, with the message and the artistic flourishes supplied by Mattie. The background was glossy, white enamel on a half sheet of thin plywood, nailed to two two-by-fours, which served as posts, each set in a small bucket of concrete. Together they had lifted it out of the back of her Dad’s truck. No one had bothered the sign in in the month it had been up. Block letters, navy blue, urged the reader to “Vote Inez La Pena Lunch Lady of the Year” and below that “Visit”

Her father had had a few questions at the time and Mattie recited them for Dani.

“For one thing, why is she shaped like a tooth?”

“Dad, she’s always promoting healthy foods. She’s so cool. Healthy foods without sugar can prevent tooth decay. She put up signs like that all around the cafeteria.”

Between the letters and the drawing of the tooth lady, a tall slim cigarette stood on its filter with a little wisp of smoke at the top. “OK, what about the cigarette? What’s that doing there?”

“She smokes, OK. But it doesn’t matter, she’s really nice.”

“Mattie, how do you know her first name is Inez? You don’t call her that, do you? You should call her Mrs. LaPena, just as you would with a teacher.”

“Dude, I mean Dad, it’s in the yearbook. We call her Mrs. La Pena, but it’s not like she’s an old lady or something. She’s not even thirty. She’s beautiful. She’s from Ecuador. She tells me they have penguins in Ecuador.”

“Sure about that, Caterpillar? Ecuador sits smack on the equator.”

“The penguins live on islands. That’s what she says. Way out to sea, in the middle of a cold current.”

“One more question. Why does she have lashes only on one eye? Maybelline maximum one million times thicker than life on the right eye, but on her left eye, nothing at all. No lashes on the left eye. Why is that?”

This last question had produced only a shrug. “I really had no answer for him.”

Dani smiled “Your dad is right. You really are a weird girl. I love it, though.”

Mattie and Dani were setting places when the other girls began arriving. Mattie belonged to a posse of six. They had been together since the beginning of middle school, been through everything together. They were now ninth graders at Cottondale High. They were sitting at dinner when Grace’s baby was the first to go off. She had him in a bucket beside her chair. Carefully, she stood up from her ham and gravy and took him into the den for an uneventful feeding. When she returned, the others waited for her to finish, then Mrs. Chumack brought out baked Alaska. On fire! But before they could blow it out, Abbie’s baby was crying and then Kate’s. Each girl wolfed a few bites of dessert before running with her baby into the next room. Only the crying didn’t stop. Then they all heard, “Hey, get your key out of my baby!” after which the crying stopped, but it started again in a minute.

After dinner, the girls set out their sleeping bags in the den. There was a lot to consider in taking a position. The two prime sleeping spots were on the sectional, and it was understood that one of them belonged to Mattie. There was also the obvious consideration of the TV angle. The love seat was not as good as it looked; too short. However, the cot was a pretty good sleeping spot, but that left three to sleep on the floor, which is of course not what any one wanted.

Soon there were one or more babies crying at any given time. Instead of tending to them, increasingly the girls spent their time answering other girls who were berating them for not shutting their babies up, often while their own babies cried unattended. The TV was blaring an old episode of Wagon Train.

Kate announced “Listen up, girls. This is getting crazy. We really need to pick a lead mother.” Conveniently, she nominated herself. “If elected, I promise to restore order. I have all the qualities needed, maturity, leadership.” She stood up and shouted to make herself heard above the din.

“Please, Kate, do go on about yourself. Tell us about your home planet!”

“Yeah, Kate, and how about taking care of that baby before you try and teach us how.” Kate’s baby was crying after all. She had it under a pillow and was sitting on it.

“I think you’re a bigger baby than she is. Hey everybody, Kate needs her diaper changed. Let’s all change Kate and put her to bed.”

“Hey somebody get that crap off the TV. What is that?”

“That’s Wagon Train.” protested Ellie. “You who know so little. This one of my favorite episodes. It’s on my parents’ DVD.”

“At least turn it down.”

Don’t turn it down. The part is coming up where they get attacked and circle the wagons. Ward Bond takes an arrow in the shoulder and doesn’t even complain. He’s such a tough guy. I’m naming my baby Ward. He’s gonna grow up to be a frontiersman.” The den had kind of an old West feel, half-paneled in pine with diamond window panes.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. That probably happens in every episode. Why don’t you name your boy Pathetico? Pathetico the clown. All he knows how to do is wet his pants.”

Several girls were Googling “World’s Worst Mothers.”

“Who thinks Abbie looks like Andrea Yates? She drowned her five children in the tub. Same hair, for sure.” Her iPad showed the stricken face of the killer.

“She does look like Andrea Yates, but not as hot.”

“Oh yeah? You look like Susan Smith only with more cellulite. She sent her two boys into a lake in the family car. Her chin is your chin in ten years, make that five. She did so she could be free to be with her stud. Wow! Check him out. He looks like every man in your family.”

Mattie was hunched over the computer. “Look who just posted—Mr. Cool, Jimmy Boyd. He says “two thumbs up for Mrs. LaPena, Lunch Lady of the year. She can stir my grits anytime.” What should I tell him?”

“Tell him you have a baby. Tell him you don’t think it’s his.”

“Actually, I hope she doesn’t see what Jimmy posted.”


“I mean I hope her husband doesn’t see.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Jimmy Boyd may be cool, but he is a boy. He’s sixteen years old. Her husband played for the national soccer team.”

“I think Mrs. LaPena can fly.”

“Shut up stupid Ana, it’s true. He did play for the national team.”

“The two of them are so glamorous, they must be spies. Why else would they be here in the US?”

“In my movie, they would be on the side of Good. That’s why I think they’re here for political asylum.”

“That makes better sense. That has to be it.”

“I like to ask her when the cafeteria opens so I can hear her say EE-lebbin THAIR-tee.”

“How about getting the price of something in DOUGH-lars?”

“I know, it sounds just like Penelope Cruz on that TV ad where she talks about hair GOAL-er.”

“OK, so how many votes does she have now?”

“One hundred and thirty.”

“Don’t you mean one HONE-dred and THAIRTY?

“How many do the other ladies have, Mrs. Chimblo and Stacey Beck and the others?”

“Nothing. There’s no voting except for Inez.”

“I don’t get it. Why would it be that way?”

“Well, officially, there isn’t a contest. Mr. Byrd just picks the winner. But we’re going to influence him. We’re going to make his mind up for him.”

“How do you know he is even paying attention?”

“Because.… he posted. What a bunch of unbelievers. I sent him a couple of emails, and he posted. He didn’t vote, but he posted. I can find it. Here I’m scrolling back to … March 14. Way back on March 14, he says ‘Hello, Mattie. I’m glad that you and your friends appreciate Mrs. LaPena,’ signed George Byrd, Principal, Cottondale High School. So there! And we hardly had any votes back then. Just imagine what he’ll think when we reach 200 votes.”

“Oo … oo … oo! Look at this” Ana marveled. Somehow, in the middle of all the noise and confusion, Ellie had managed to fall asleep in the exact center of the room, half out of her sleeping bag, with her nightgown bunched up around one hip and one leg bare, face down, her lips touching the carpet. The room got quiet as they did up her hair in paper clips and bread ties. Ever so slowly they got the bottle into her mouth. But when someone tried to draw on her leg with a Magic Marker, she came up swinging. Then came a free-for-all that ended due to exhaustion, with everyone agreeing it was time to get some sleep.

Kate, who had been feeling left out, now twinkled with insincerity. “It’s über cool having us all together. Before we go to sleep, let’s get a picture. Line up, girls.” As they did so a bit reluctantly, Kate began rearranging them, taking Mattie by the shoulders “I need you here.” and Grace by the elbow “I need you here next to Abbie.”

“What is this blonde-brunette-blonde?”

“You’ll see. Oh … perfect.” She snapped a picture, plugged her phone into the computer and printed it, then held it up for all to see.

“Well lookie here. Let’s see what we have. The dynamic six. From left to right let’s name them. Gimme a D—Dani. Dani, I know I just met you, so sorry to involve you in this. Gimme me an A—Ana.”

“So now you’re a cheerleader?”

“Gimme an M—Mattie.” A couple joined in without thinking. “Gimme an A—Abbie; gimme a G—Grace; gimme an E—Ellie. What’s that spell?”


“Shut up!”

“That’s right. It spells DAMAGE. Dani-Ana-Mattie-Abbie-Grace-Ellie. DAMAGE. That’s what it spells. Ha ha.”

“Kate, no one is listening to you.”

“Because that’s what you are: DAMAGED GOODS! Not one of you is fit to be a mother.”

“Now you’re really showing what a leader you are, Kate.”

Kate shot back “Seriously, if something happens to me, I want Casey Anthony to take care of my baby. She's a better mother than any of you.”

“Seriously, Kate. Something could happen to you. Don’t rule that out.”

Soon Kate was getting clobbered by five shrieking pillow-wielding girls while Grace slept in the laundry room. Kate had her head inside the sleeping bag, laughing to herself. She was unreachable for comment.

By now Mrs. Chumack had had enough. She came charging out of the bedroom into the den and threw on the light. “You girls have to stop all this fighting. Right now! You need to be plugged into those babies, not the Internet. You’re sophomores in high school. You are too old to receive a talking-to, but you’re getting one because you need one.” She looked down on to a scene of disarray. Strewn about were open sleeping bags, spilled candy dishes, potato chips, stuffed animals, hair brushes, strands of pink Silly String. Almost all the babies were crying. One muffled squall came from under the couch pillows. The TV was going full blast to be heard above the crying, but no one was watching. The sight of Mrs. Chumack brought a round of half-hearted apologies. It got quiet for a while. But as soon as she went back into the bedroom, the commotion started again and within a few minutes was as loud as ever.

Suddenly, there could be heard the click of the breakers, and the whole house went black for half a minute. Then with another click, the lights came back on. The clock face flashed in red square numbers 3:17, 3:17. The TV was filled with gray fuzz while the computer rebooted. A few stunned and exhausted girls looked around. Over the house intercom, came a male voice that was as cheerful as it was resonant.

“Thank you for your attention. This is the Captain speaking. We seem to have hit a patch of choppy weather! I’ve illuminated the fasten-seat-belts sign. At this time, please return to your sleeping bags. All electronic devices must be stowed and in the off position until such time as I notify you otherwise, and I haven’t done that. In a few moments the crew, that is Mrs. Chumack and myself, will be coming around to your seats to make sure you are complying with these regulations. And now, most importantly, if you have a small child beside you on the aircraft, you must be prepared to take care of that child. Otherwise your parents will be notified and asked to take you home immediately.”