(Continued from ‘Boarding School: Part 1’- best to read that first.)
“I could go back upstairs empty-handed”, I thought to myself, “and tell Sev I couldn’t find the corn (thus proving how stupid I am). Or, I could go upstairs empty-handed, and tell her there wasn’t any corn (thus accusing Sev of not even knowing what was in her own pantry). Or, I could sneak out the cellar door, and run away! Of course, there’s snow on the ground, and I only have on my dummy smock and clunky shoes and stupid hair net. Besides, even if I don’t freeze to death, they will just follow my tracks in the snow, and drag me back here anyway…”
All of the options looked painful, so I went with my last resort—I prayed. I was sure that if there was a God, he would show me those two cans of corn, and let me get back upstairs. Suddenly this intensely spiritual moment was interrupted by a bellow from above.
“BOBBIE! BOBBIE! You git up here right now! What in the name of God are you doin’ down there!”
I wondered if God could hear her any better than he’d heard me. I cringed, ran to the stairs, and started my climb.
“Sev, I couldn’t find any corn,” I stammered as I reached the chopping block at the head of the stairs.
“Well what were you doing down there then, answer me!”
“I was looking for the corn, I knew it had to be there, but I couldn’t see it… I’m sorry…”
“So young lady, how long did you plan to stay down there ‘looking’, may I ask?”
“uh……………. forever, I guess…”
“Well, missy, you just come with me right now. We will go down there and get the corn. What do I always tell you girls, always! Come on now, tell me!”
“You always say ‘you must observe’…”
“That’s right! You must observe. And you obviously didn’t. Come on now, down you go.”
I led the way down the stairs and Sev followed, holding on to the two handrails which creaked and moaned under her gnarled hands. Her arthritic legs, encircled at the ankle with rolled-down elastic stockings, landed stiffly on each stair tread, a staccato of pain which she and I both felt.
I stood aside when we reached the pantry, and watched as Sev shuffled in to what had been my prison cell moments earlier. She walked straight over to the third shelf on the left, and pointed at the empty spot.
“That is where the corn should be. Is there any corn there?”
“Is the shelf empty?”
“…yes..” I responded. Death was looking better all the time.
“Then there is no CORN! Why didn’t you simply walk back up those stairs and say, ‘Sev, there is no corn’? Answer me that!”
“…’cause…I was too scared…” I said, staring at the chipped concrete beneath my feet.
“That’s ridiculous,” she said, but her tone of voice seemed different, softer somehow than her usual growl.
Sev grabbed two #10 cans of green beans, and shuffled out of the storeroom. I followed, and when she reached the foot of the stairs, she turned and shoved the cans at me, saying, “Here, now move along.”
I ran up the stairs with my precious cans of beans clutched to my chest. I listened as Sev hauled herself back up the stairway from Hell.
Dinner prep proceeded as usual. I opened the two cans, and plopped their army-green contents into the big kettle on the eight burner stove. I was stirring the beans when I heard my best friend Leslie say to Sev, “I need to cut the meat loaf, but I can’t find the spatula you told us to use…”
The Dragon’s fire was rekindled. “Leslie! You must observe!”
I flinched, like I’d been hit, and cautiously glanced over at Sev, who was sitting on her throne by the kitchen table. Sev frowned back at me, held my stare a moment, and then smiled faintly. That made me nervous so I went back to stirring the beans.
After the serving dishes were all sent out to the dining room, the prep crew gathered round the big stainless steel table in the kitchen to eat our dinners in silence. As usual, Leslie and I sat together. When Sev left the room, Leslie turned to me and said with a smile, “What the hell happened down cellar? We thought you had died or run away or something…”
“I couldn’t find any goddamned corn,” I answered, “and I just froze. I couldn’t stand to get yelled at again for something that wasn’t my fault.”
“Let me tell you something,” Leslie said. “Have you ever noticed that a lot of the seniors get along just fine with Sev? And even Sammy, who’s only a sophomore like us, has no problem with Sev at all? Have you ever wondered why?”
“Well, yeah, of course I have. But I just figured they were all nuts.”
“Maybe they are, but they also figured out the secret. You see, all you have to do is stand up to Sev, just once. I don’t mean challenge her outright, just show that her bad temper doesn’t get to you. If you act tough, she backs off. Sure, she’ll still yell at you, like she yelled at me, but it’s not the same. It’s almost like she can’t control herself. Besides,” Leslie continued with a smile, “We’ll only be here three years; she’ll be here forever— no wonder she’s bitchy!” We laughed, but I still didn’t know how I could ever pretend to be tough.
We finished our dinners, took our dishes over to the huge metal sink, and headed upstairs as the clean-up crew came on duty. The next half-hour, after dinner and before study hall, was free time when we could call our parents or just “hang out”, indulging in our version of normal teenage life. Just before study hall began, I was walking down the hall near the dining room when Sev suddenly appeared from around the corner.
“Bobbie,” she said, “I want to talk to you. Come into the kitchen.”
I followed her into the sterile, silent kitchen, fearful of what was to come next, and desperately trying to remember Leslie’s advice.
“Sit down,” Sev pulled up a chair so I could sit across from her at the rickety wooden table.
“Listen, I have something to tell you,” she began, “and I don’t want it to go any further than this room. I know about your father dying and all, and that’s a real shame. I’ve tried to go easy on you because of that, but I didn’t want you or the other girls to start thinking you were so weak that you couldn’t work just like all the rest of them. Tonight when I realized you were still downstairs, I didn’t know what to think. Maybe you were terrified of the dark, because of your father bein’ gone and all. Maybe you got hurt or something. When you explained what happened, I just wanted to shake you and tell you that being scared was no excuse for anything. I’ve been feelin’ poorly lately myself, this damned arthritis, and having to worry about you was just too much for me tonight.”
She paused, looking down at her gnarled fingers. “What I’m trying to say is that I’m sorry I lost my temper with you tonight…”
“I didn’t notice,” I said softly, barely able to meet her eyes.
“You mean I’m always hollering??” she demanded.
“Well, yeah, of course.” I said without thinking.
You scamp!” she exclaimed. “Well, I’ll grant you that much is true. You’re gonna make it, I can see that now. Now go on,” she smiled, ” Git out of here, go study or whatever you girls do when you’re not in my kitchen. ”
“Thank you, Sev,” I said with a dignified smile, as I stood up and walked out through the swinging doors of the kitchen and on through the dining room. When I reached the hallway, I shoved my fist into the air in a victory salute.
“Yes, yes, YES!,” I silently screamed as I danced up the stairs. “I’m only a sophomore but my God, I think I just graduated!”