by Elizabeth Danek
From her assigned area near the gym, Caroline could see that the little boy, perhaps a second-grader, struggled with the outside vending machine. He reached the selection button easily, but he could not extract the ice-cream bar, which was set at least two heads higher than his own.
She hurried over. Lunch monitor was a dumb job but it was good for her high school resume. That and Christian Service at the convalescent home and after-school traffic control, but she hated the orange scrimmage pinnies tied at the hips and the reflector tape across her breasts in a large X.
“Next time push a bench over,” she suggested. The bell warning rang.
“I tried, but I can’t do that alone,” he declared as if it were Caroline’s fault. Sea gulls from the harbor swooped down to peck at chips and fight over sandwich crusts.
She recognized the boy’s long dark face as one of the Camillos; he was probably the youngest of the brood, his older brother Ralph was in her class—Ralph who said to her just yesterday, “You have peach fuzz under your nose,” in front of Lucy and Roxie Caracciolo, the twins everyone wanted to be with their olive skin and honey hair and hazel eyes.
“Let’s see what we have here,” she said. She peered into the dispensary tray and saw a butt of a chocolate ice-cream sandwich. The boy’s head bobbled below her elbow.
“Sorry, kid. Machine’s broke,” she said. “You better go to class.”
Across the asphalt playground, Sister Agatha stood outside her classroom door and waved. His classmates had lined up and they, too, stared in her direction, some of their small hands flitting like sparrow wings. The final bell rang.
“Go on. You can get your money back tomorrow.” The boy looked at her, at the nun, at the vending machine.
“Bitch,” he muttered then ran, his navy blue trousers hanging from his belted waist like bunched curtains.
Caroline waited until the boy’s class disappeared onto the patio then into their room. She removed the ice-cream bar and unwrapped it, careful not to peel away the damp chocolate cookie crust. She liked to lick the sides first, waiting for the ice-cream to melt a little, then feel the chocolate skin thick against her teeth.
The 8th grade science teacher, Ms. McCarty, knew that Caroline was a lunch monitor and that she would be five minutes late to take the Poor Box of unwanted red apples and dry pretzels to the convent side door. The sweetness of garden roses surrounded the girl. The oldest nun in her blue apron opened the door. She blinked into the light, took the box with chafed hands, thanked the girl perfunctorily, and quickly closed the door. Sometimes Sister Benigna invited lunch monitors in for cacao, but it was too hot out. Maybe nuns never drank cokes.
“Bitch,” Caroline uttered in her throat, her breath cold. She had never said the word before.
She faced the hazy October light and wondered if she opened her eyes whether the sun could really burn her retinas. Why do seagulls have infrared vision and not her? And why, she wondered too, when you really love something, you close your eyes as if you’re going to kiss it, melt with it.
Ms. McCarty stood at the stairwell, her parapet before class, dusting her own chin of crumbs, pouring coffee from a thermos into a cup. She motioned for Caroline to hurry. There would be a quiz on atoms and states of matter, material Caroline thought she knew blindfolded.
The girl savored the last melted bit of chocolate cream and licked her lips, warm against a cold tongue, which she wiped over her cuspids and incisors. She brushed away the sticky remains from the corners of her mouth and touched her upper lip for peach fuzz and found a sticky spot.
Tomorrow she would give the little brat a quarter, and today she would trip Ralph when he stepped over her books on his way to the restroom, and she would mutter “butt breath” each time he passed, hoping, eyes closed, he might notice her again.