I Stand Here Serving Lunches (At St. Joseph’s Elementary)
by Eileen Murphy
Half an hour into my shift
as an eighth grade student lunch worker
swans downstairs to the
a new girl by the wrist.
The new girl wears a navy pinafore
too tight in the tummy, and her short-sleeved
uniform shirt is
dirty and sweaty.
her eyes dart
the mint-green cafeteria walls
for an exit sign.
But Mother’s grip on the girl’s wrist
is unbreakable. The girl tries
hiding in Mother’s
black wool robes
but Mother yanks her back
so we all get a good stare.
The room settles
in greedy silence.
I was doling out spaghetti, careful
not to give too much, when the girl
starts crying, silent tears dribbling her cheeks.
She’s on display, legs trembling,
while Mother intones the day’s announcements.
Finally, Mother puts the new girl in the food line
and I’m allowed to serve her.
I recklessly slide an extra meatball on her plate, try
to catch her eye,
give her a wink—
but she won’t return my gaze.
She sits at a table far from the others, farthest
from the head table where Mother sits.
We call that
table “Outer Mongolia.”
She twirls her fork in the pasta, won’t
bring it to her mouth.
Wasting food is a sin, child. Eat!
Mother waits, bat-like, arms folded.
The girl whispers I’m sorry to her plate of spaghetti.
I’m sorry what?
I’m sorry, ma’am.
No, you must call me Mother.
Spit bubbles at the girl’s lips,
her nose leaks.
I’m sorry, Mother.
PHOTO: The author in her second grade school picture.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: I wrote this poem earlier this year during a NatPoMo 30/30 project. The poem is part of a narrative sequence that’s resulted in a book-length manuscript that I have in progress entitled The Knife Tree. The poem is autobiographical, based on the move my family made from Chicago to a town outside of Tampa during second grade, when I changed from attending public school to attending Catholic school. The poem is written from the POV of an outside observer, not the viewpoint of the person making the move (me), the protagonist. I feel the POV I chose tells this particular story best, and my piece from an outsider’s POV is autobiographical. When my bio says I’m a “former Chicagolander,” I’m referring to the fact that I lived in Chicago for over 20 years as an adult, not my childhood move.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: A former Chicagolander, Eileen Murphy lives near Tampa, surrounded by the wild animals of Central Florida, most of them mosquitoes. She received her masters degree from Columbia College, Chicago. She teaches literature/English at Polk State College and has recently published poetry in Tinderbox (forthcoming), Pittsburgh Poetry Houses, Thank You for Swallowing , Thirteen Myna Birds, Uppagus, quarterday, Right Hand Pointing Issue 94, The Thought Erotic, Rogue Agent, and other journals.