Matilda pulled a tube of ointment from her apron pocket and squeezed some into her palm. She eyed her raw, cracked knuckles. Drier than Egypt after the seven-year famine. Wincing at the sting, she rubbed the greasy substance in, then pulled on a fresh pair of plastic gloves. The lunch bell rang and the sound of teenagers—wild and hungry after a morning of classroom-captivity—thundered down the halls.
She jogged on orthopedic shoes, arriving at her post just as the first kids, a herd of ox-like football players, stampeded in. They rushed for the trays all at once, nearly sending the whole stack crashing. Bobby Wheeler won the race and slammed his tray down in front of her.
She paused a moment to watch him stare at the massive pan of macaroni and cheese. His expression reminded her so much of her Great Dane at dinner time, she almost expected him to drool. She dug her long-handled serving spoon in, scooping out a portion and plopping it onto his tray. “Salad?”
“Can’t I have more mac and cheese?” His thick brows arched, and his eyes pleaded with her, making him appear all the more dog-like.
“One scoop a person.”
Tom Pierson gave Bobby a shove. “C’mon, man! We’re starving back her. Move it!”
Already the line stretched the entire length of the cafeteria. The kids filed past Matilda, most taking mac and cheese (second only to pizza in favorites), half wanting salad as well, and a few—mostly the anorexic-looking girls—taking only salad. Further down, Gwen offered bread and butter, and lastly, Rachel offered cups of “chocolate surprise,” a layered mixture of cake, pudding, and cool whip.
The kids waiting in line wrestled, joked, and inevitably made fun of her. When the gymnastics girls approached, Matilda could hear their whispers. You think she like wears that hairnet to bed? Sexy shoes, lunch lady. Matilda inhaled deeply, silently asking for grace. She didn’t want to hate these foolish, young girls. They didn’t know how, years ago, she’d been an Olympic hopeful, probably better than any of them on the balance beam. They didn’t know that she had a man at home who did indeed consider her sexy, hair net and all. One day I’ll trade this hair net in for a crown, won’t I Lord?
She smiled inwardly as she dropped salad-only on the skinny girls’ trays. They waited, chins raised haughtily, glitter accenting their eyelids and cheeks. Time would catch up with them one day, marring their perfect complexions, dimpling their toned thighs. Hopefully wisdom would catch up with them too as they hurtled trials instead of pommel horses, balanced on the tightrope of family and work rather than a balance beam, and learned that not all falls result in soft landings on cushy mats.
Matilda’s heart warmed at the sight of her next customer. Delia Dunbar (an unfortunate name the children twisted to Delia Dumbell.) Gangly and quiet, cursed with the worst acne, and dubbed a nerd, Delia kept her eyes downcast continually, from the time she entered the cafeteria until the moment she slunk into her lonely seat in the corner.
The cafeteria wasn’t the only place Matilda saw her rejected friend. She also saw her at church—still quiet and mostly alone, but singing. And smiling. Matilda could tell Delia loved the Lord. She longed to give the girl a reassuring smile, let her know she had a friend in this brutal place. Unfortunately, Delia never lifted her eyes long enough to see Matilda’s face. Even if she did, Matilda wasn’t certain she’d recognize the hairnet-wearing lunch lady as the woman from the back row at church. Matilda certainly didn’t want to make a show of introducing herself and embarrass the girl. Delia had enough problems without being known as the lunch lady’s friend.
As she dug her spoon into the bread crumb topping, Matilda had an idea. She scooped deeper, extracting a scoop nearly double-serving size. When the mound plopped on Delia’s plate, she started with surprise. Matilda cleared her throat, achieving the desired affect: Delia looked up. Matilda winked. The confusion clouding Delia’s eyes dispersed as the sunrise of recognition brightened her face and the slightest smile dawned on her thin lips.
Sensing their silent communication would soon be noticed, Matilda gave a nearly imperceptible nod, and Delia hurried on to Gwen and her bread, her head a little higher. Matilda heart swelled. Right on, little sister. You’re a princess.
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