On the Way to Lunch
   by Joan Elaine Muller Joan Elaine Muller

Joan Elaine Muller is a short story writer who uses stories to bring to light everyday issues that often hide in the corners of our communities. She taught for ten years in Texas public schools and was a consultant on the literature anthology Elements of Literature. Her short story entitled "Lies" won publication in Austin Chronicle's annual short story contest. Her short story "Humming" was published in Narrative Magazine. She grew up in Dallas and received a master's degree at West Texas A&M University.

The September sun has left the playground scorched, and what little grass is left crackles underfoot. The woman has come out of nowhere and stands crookedly on a patch of playground just outside my portable classroom that's settled away from the main building like a mobile home someone left behind. "Hey teacher!" She holds a brown leather belt coiled up in one hand and shades her eyes with the other. The line of third graders stops halfway across the blacktop. We're on our way to the cafeteria in the main building.

The kids stay in line, their lunch boxes dangling, but turn to look where the yelling is coming from. They're anxious to get into the building, but this is going to be good.

"Jesse's my boy," she yells, pointing at him, with the coil of leather. "If he messes up, you just call me. This is all it takes. You hear me? I'll make him behave." The belt must be four inches wide. She raises her arm and pops the belt on the dry dirt.

The kids jump at the sound and look from the woman to me to Jesse.

Martin is at the front of the line. I lean to whisper in his ear. "I want you to lead the class towards the gym and go in that far door. Go to the cafeteria from there. Walk fast, but don't run."

Martin takes off, and one by one the kids catch up. I watch them disappear into the building. Jesse stays and crams his hands in his pockets, squinting into the sun.

"They didn't have to run off like that," the woman says.

"They have to go inside for lunch. Is there something I can help you with?" I say.

She points at her son. "I just wanted to tell you Jesse got in trouble last year. But don't you worry. If he messes up, you just call me. I'll take care of it," she says, dangling the belt from her hand.

Jesse's eyes follow the end of the belt as it sweeps across the ground, and he steps a few feet back. His neck is rigid and he squares his shoulders, which are already massive for a kid in the third grade.

I move closer to the woman. Her eyes glitter, reminding me of a guy I knew in college, who we all knew was hooked on meth. Her feet are planted far apart and she sways slightly as she rolls the belt back up. Now it's looped over her four fingers like a brass knuckle. "Jesse didn't tell me your name," she says. "He's been in your class for a week and never said a thing about it. So I figured he's already in trouble."

"My name's Liz Starnes. And he's not in trouble." Jesse glances back and forth at us.

The woman pulls down the visor of her cap. "Well, if he hasn't done anything wrong yet, you just wait." She shakes her head and turns to walk back across the playground towards the colony of slouching grey apartments across the street. Her pink cotton pants hang crookedly, causing one pant leg to look higher than the other and exposing the flesh of the lower part of her legs. The sleeves of her shirt puff out like a baby's, and grab tightly to the part of her arm just below her shoulders. She moves her arms widely as if she's walking in water and having a hard time staying upright. Grasshoppers spring from the dust as she moves.

"She's just playing," he says, staring after her. He tilts his head and looks at me. "She did that to my brother too. My family says it's kind of a ishiashun. It's what we do in our family."

"An initiation? She comes to school and starts snapping a belt in the dirt?"

"Yeah. Like if a teacher can be cool about it, it's kinda' funny. The problem is when the teacher goes all crazy and calls the cops like Mr. Bluestein did with my brother."

"So I'm just supposed to act like this never happened?"

"That's right," he says, looking straight into my eyes with a calculating stare, like a lawyer who holds a witness by an imaginary leash and leads him to the exact place he wants him to go. His white T-shirt is stained with the paints we used yesterday; his pants wave like a skirt at his knees.

"So this is all an act and your mother won't hurt you? Jesse, I'm worried about you."

"This is my mom and I's business. You're not family. You're just the teacher." He looks away and raises his hand to his eyes. His hand is shaking.

He turns and bounces an imaginary basketball towards the net that hangs by a string on a rusty pole several feet away.

"Six seconds. Ball tipped away  . . five, four, three  . ." he says to himself, his feet swiveling on the hot asphalt.

"Two seconds, and Jesse is straight down the middle," he says as he races towards the hoop.

Jesse raises his arms and shoots. "And dunks it at the buzzer. He made it at the buzzer! The crowd is going wild!"

He stops suddenly and looks at me. "I'm hungry. Can I have my lunch ticket?"

I reach into my pocket and hand him a blue ticket that looks like it's intended for a carnival ride. But it's for his free lunch. He sticks it between his teeth.

He walks away from me then, and stops when he reaches the door. His mother is now a pink splotch, moving into the shadows of the apartments. He watches until he's sure she's made it home and then pulls open the door to join the others.

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