The Late Aquarian
A Seven Part Minute Series
Set in 1983, this coming of age story is about a group of cafeteria workers who make a lasting impression on a sixth grade student named, Topher.
The lunch line at N. Belle Vernon Elementary School was a slow, long, but moving assembly of 5th and 6th grade students. Not all of the kids were in line, in fact, one young man named Topher was late for lunch… and the line.
Over a three-day period, Topher’s procrastination to arrive for lunch was pronounced by three lunch ladies and two cooks. What had begun as a simple observation by one cafeteria worker, was actually held by many. Each of these workers provided their own method to correct his tardiness.
Mona the Lunch Lady—Part 1
At the desk receiving lunch tickets and cash for Wednesday stood, sometimes, or jogged in place, Mona. She wore a pinafore with blue and red horizontal lines and always running shoes. She exuded a positive outlook on life as the kids passed by her in the line. Mona was always upbeat and encouraged everyone to eat healthy, even telling some of the kids to skip dessert and bring carrots.
Topher arrives just as Mona is closing her cash box: “You’re late,” she said to his big, brown rejected eyes. “The good thing is you’re here. The bad thing is that you always arrive late.”
“Well I was talking to a few other kids leaving their lunch period. And then I stopped to talk with a teacher before she reminded me that lunch was going to be over in 20 minutes.”
“Sounds like you’re making excuses buddy… Besides the fact that you could get in trouble for not being with your class, you’re very late Topher. No more excuses, next time show up on time. Don’t let life, or this lunch period, pass you by. Go see if Abe the cook will bring back the container of spaghetti.”
Topher picked up a divided tray and walked along the lunch counter, conspicuously alone, as all the kids were almost finished with their meals. He reached for a cup of salad in a small paper container, and then a roll…no spaghetti in site. At the far end of the lunch counter he saw a group of ladies cleaning up, but no one acknowledged Topher. Once again, he would take a moment before his meal to mull over the fact that he was late…
Abe the Cook—Part 2
Just as he raised his hand to get their attention, Abe, a young prep cook dressed in a white uniform with a blue bandana around the collar of his chef’s jacket, plopped spaghetti on the lone open space of his tray.
“You’re welcome…you nearly neglected yourself a meal, but be assured you will get a meal, just not the warm wonderful spaghetti that I made earlier.”
Abe played the guitar in a band on the weekends in the small town of Belle Vernon. There was a time when Ms. Ruby, the librarian, had Abe entertain the kids in the library by singing and playing his guitar. Although she was fond of him performing folk songs, she pulled his act. This was probably because of his comments that books were not the foundation to the real world. Topher was a recipient of this recital when Ms. Ruby stood in front of his class: “Okay, I think we’ve enjoyed this (she raised her eye-brows) moment. Thanks again Abe and have a good day.”
Each time Topher would see Abe in the back prepping food after his last performance in the library, he would grab Topher’s attention by pointing his finger to his head and say, “You have to be ready, be prepared, and be ready for reality.”
As Topher thanked him for the meal, Abe reminded him that he needed to be at lunch on time: “People are late for various reasons, but nobody is late for dinner, or lunch for that matter. I will not be here after February because I’m going to Los Angeles to be a Rock Star (he winked). The next person may not be so patient, and so cool (another wink).”
Topher sat down at a table with his class for a quick bite before the bell rang.
Reba the Lunch Lady—Part 3
The following day, Topher repeated his late rush to the cafeteria, and everyone knew it, because Mr. Walker, the music teacher, shouted with a perfect pitch for him to slow down. And so he kept a pleasing pace within the narrow halls leading to the cafeteria.
“Late again,” Reba said. “Let’s hope your English grades are better than your on-time performance.” Reba, who kept mental notes of all the student’s English grades, seemed to have more time for Topher because, at times, he was the only student standing in front of her. In a pocket on her pinafore of orange and yellow circles, she pulled out a pen and notebook.
“Do you know why I keep this, (she opens the notebook to pages of cursive notes) because I’m a writer. Whenever something interesting occurs, I document it. Do you know what I have been noticing lately?”
Topher shakes his head…and then presses his index finger to his chest.
“Yes. I’m writing about a smart kid who doesn’t apply himself in English—”
“Doesn’t apply—?” Topher questioned.
“Yes, ‘doesn’t apply,’ but we both know you could do better, don’t we? I’ve read a few stories that you gave me, and your teacher includes the same comments: ‘Project not turned in on time,’ ‘Not finished in a timely manner.’ However, you write good stories, I really enjoy them, I do. You have to apply yourself Topher. It’s a shame that you have a creative skill, but no will.”
“It appears that Abe is not in the kitchen…looks like you’ll have to deal with Bert. I can see that no one has removed the containers of roast beef and bread, not sure if the gravy is still there. You may be eating an open-faced dry roast beef sandwich. See you sooner than later, I hope.” Topher laughed as Reba grinned.
He walked to the lunch counter, grabbed a divided tray, and waited across from the food to ask Bert about the gravy.
Bert the Cook—Part 4
Not too many people interacted with Bert while he was working. He was an older quiet man, who was very nice, always extended a wave and simple smile. During those days when Topher stood at the cafeteria lunch counter alone, he would always approach him. Sometimes this approach included bothering Topher, as Topher saw it, about what else—his procrastination. He would remind Topher about why he should use him as an example. “I arrive on time and I work hard.” And that statement was constantly concluded with Bert saying, “Remember, we share the same birthday—17th of February.”
Bert, wearing an identical uniform as Abe but with his sleeves rolled up, had an American Flag patch on the upper left side of his chef’s jacket. Abe was Bert’s son, but the two were different. A Korean War vet, who cooked in the army for hundreds of servicemen on a daily basis, Bert was meticulous when it came to the food being prepared and served. Abe, one year out of high school with dreams bigger than a cafeteria cook and Belle Vernon, was more concerned with the time to leave, and, he would be leaving soon. Bert was hoping that Abe would follow in his footsteps by joining the army, and reconsider his trip for a few years.
Topher stood with his hands behind his back and an empty divided tray in front of him. He waited as if Bert was going to say, ‘Atten-shun.’ “Topher, you’re late again? I hope you’re not looking for gravy, because I placed it inside the walk-in refrigerator 15 minutes ago.”
“No sir. I’ll take what you have.”
“You know, if you show up on time with your class, you might just get the gravy. Say it—Say it—‘I know—I know.’ You always say ‘I know,’ but you never arrive here on time. In the military, you have to be prompt, (he leaned forward as he served the roast beef over the white bread) that is what I tell Abe, but he’s going to California…where everyone is laid-back.”
“Enjoy your meal. Remember, tomorrow is pizza, and I hope you won’t be late for pizza.”
Dot the Lunch Lady—Part 5
Dot was the consummate figure in N. Belle Vernon Elementary school, everyone knew her, and everyone loved her. She was the oldest of the three lunch ladies, but at 72, you wouldn’t know it, because her outlook about life and living was equal to her energy and radiant spirit. She made every day a good day for all those who knew her at the school and Belle Vernon. On her pinafore of small purple daisies with yellow centers, she always wore a holiday or seasonal pin below her name tag. She greeted the kids like they were her own, and each time finished with, “Have a Bee-yoooo-tiful Day.”
Bert was right about Topher, he was early, in the middle of the line with his class, but not because it was pizza. This early arrival also surprised Dot: “Look whose here, and early. You’ve always been the last one in line, but you do show up. Have a beautiful day.”
Topher walked along the lunch counter line, said hello to Abe by tapping his head, waved to Bert, and received compliments from Reba and Mona who were serving.
After he finished his thick slice of pizza while socializing with his friends, he walked back to Dot who was counting her tickets and money.
“Hello Topher, how are you?”
“I’m great because I feel like I was first.”
“Well you know sweetie…you’re a late bloomer, at least that is what I told the other lunch ladies and cooks a few days ago. Now you know how it feels to show up on time and relax with your friends. Don’t worry about your past mishaps, move forward and you’ll no longer mull the moment alone.”
For Topher, he knew Dot would blindly offer beautiful confidence to any kid who would ask…and he was asking. But he also knew that her kind words on this day were truly for one person, and so he gave her a big hug before walking away.
Pizza or no pizza, his punctuality improved, as well as his grades, especially in his English class.
The following month Abe did leave, but for the Air Force. Bert approached Topher at the lunch counter after he stepped away from training the new cook. Bert said he was proud of Abe and encouraged him to continue playing guitar. Topher passed with excellent grades on his report card and began middle school in September. In October, he went to visit some of his teachers at N. Belle Vernon Elementary School. As he was leaving the school, he saw Reba and Mona walking to their cars in the parking lot. They talked about the death of Dot over the summer and how they missed her presence. Reba wrote the obituary while Mona helped her family with the funeral arrangements. Topher asked them about Bert. He retired they said, but he’s keeping busy doing charity work for kids who are sick. As for the two of them, they were heading to Miami before the winter to attend college.
The length of many seasons would pass, and Topher would have his moments of being a ‘late bloomer.’ And when this happened, he would reflect back on the week of his 6th grade year with much fortitude. For Topher’s adolescence would bloom in the Age of Aquarius to become a writer and an artist, who, most importantly, always arrived on time.
A Preview of this story is available at: Orange Postman Channel on YouTube