I first began watching Mrs. Ferry because she scared me, scared me half to death. She was the biggest woman I’d ever seen, not just tall or fat, but big. And the white uniform made her look bigger. I stood there in the lunch line in front of her on the first day of school with my mouth hanging open. “Keep moving, keep moving,” the lunch-ticket lady called from the end of the line, and Mrs. Ferry reached right over the big steam table—the edge made a deep crease in her white-aproned stomach—and dumped a whole spoonful of peas and carrots on top of my mashed potatoes. I don’t like mashed potatoes much, and I hate green peas, can’t stand the sight of them. But I didn’t say a word. "Move on,” someone said and I did, though my knees were shaking.
The smell of those big canned peas made me feel sick. Our teacher, Miss Helen, wouldn’t let us waste food. “You eat what you take,” she said. It was wartime, WWII, and there was a lot of talk about “waste not” and “starving children in Europe.” So after eating the fish sticks, I tried to hide the peas in the mashed potatoes and pecked at the carrots. They tasted like peas. In third grade we studied food families, and Miss Helen had told us to use these names in the cafeteria for practice. So I pushed it all under a slice of bread and told her I was too full to eat any more starch. As I scraped it all into the metal garbage can, I saw Mrs. Ferry looking at me, her fat arms across her chest. My face turned hot.
And school was just starting! I had to walk through the lunch line everyday and go past Mrs. Ferry. I didn’t want to see her. I especially didn’t want her to look at me. I was small and skinny for my age, almost lost in dresses that always felt too big. My face stayed half hidden behind the bangs of my long, straight hair. I was shy. My only security was my purse, a clutch bag of soft blue velvet that held my lunch ticket, a nickel or two, a flowered handkerchief, and the rabbit’s foot I’d won at the county fair. I could touch it whenever I reached inside. My purse was always with me.
I tried to slip through the lunch line unnoticed, tried to imagine myself invisible. But no matter where I stood in line or how I walked or ducked my head, my eyes always came in contact with Mrs. Ferry’s. She was like a magnet, a huge white moon, so fixed and enormous that I was compelled to look at her even though I cringed away. Mrs. Ferry never spoke, but whatever she served I was bound to receive. Her big ham-like hand reached out for my plate. I would hesitate a moment, then passed it up to her. I can still feel her sure grip on the opposite side of that heavy, white plate as she plopped down a big spoonful of succotash or a salmon croquet. Then she looked right at me, hard. That look spoke to me. It said: “Eat!”
Mrs. Ferry was never absent. She piled my plate with huge portions and strange mixtures. I looked at the menu board each day with dread. I could always tell what Mrs. Ferry would be serving: applesauce, beets, creamed tuna—whatever I hated most. There wasn’t much food I liked anyway, but there were things I detested. Mushy things. Mushy things combined with crisp or crumbly things. Anything seeping fat.
But there was no escaping Mrs. Ferry. Perhaps with my skinny wrists and furtive glances, I reminded her of war orphans, undernourished and insecure. Other students could pass her unnoticed, but when I came by, she heaped it on.
Between her helpings and Miss Helen’s clean plate policy, I was trapped. The bread trick was soon discovered. Once I wrapped some awful Brussels sprouts in my handkerchief and slipped them in my blue purse to dump out later. I had to sprinkle it with bath powder to get rid of the smell. My plate was loaded each day and each day I ate. I ate tiny bites so I could swallow quickly without tasting. I tried large bites to get it all down sooner. I hid despised morsels in larger, less-despised ones so they wouldn’t touch my tongue.
The cafeteria was in the basement, small for a school dining room, with low ceilings and a few high basement windows. The light above the dining area was dim for wartime conservation, but the light in the kitchen, which was sectioned off by the serving tables, was brighter. Our class sat right in front of this area, and throughout the lunch period, I could see Mrs. Ferry. Her broad, tank-like face and her white-uniformed bosom mushroomed above the counter of the steamy kitchen.
I began to have a weird dream, the same dream again and again. I was at the corner of a big sheet, a huge white canopy that billowed upward and outward through an endless nighttime sky. I looked up across its white surface, awed and fascinated, but feeling very small. It waved and rippled, beckoning me forward, and I leaned toward it feeling its pull sweep through me like a gale. Then a silent buzzing started way back in my head, a dizzying fear of being drawn into the whiteness. I’d wake with a gasp and find myself sitting up in bed.
In the cafeteria, I was eating. To counter the effects of Mrs. Ferry’s food, I was allowing more items on my plate. Fruit salad took the edge off sickening sauces. Anything lost its identity in macaroni and cheese. Cornbread concealed even the taste and feel of okra. I glanced up to see if she noticed, but her expression was unchanged. All this food had its effect. My face was filling out. The mirror image that looked back at me between those straight strands of dark hair seemed bolder, less inclined to hide. My wrists were still toothpicks that classmates could handcuff with a thumb and forefinger, but my arms were stronger. Often I could pull away.
In an effort to avoid Mrs. Ferry’s gaze, as well as the sight of my plate, I began to pay more attention to the kids around me at the lunch table. Billy Watts, a large loud boy who talked with his mouth full and slurped his milk, intimidated me. He was full of wisecracks and would call out to me across the table, things like “Hey, Shrimp, quit hogging the salt.” But one day he imitated the principal, bugging out his eyes, sucking in his cheeks, rolling his head to one side. I began to giggle behind my hand, and when he added a nasal “Good morning students,” I laughed out loud. And Kathy Morrow who sat beside me, who seemed so sure of herself, so perfect with long blonde hair like a princess, began to tell me secrets. She whispered about her family, how her father had left home, how her mother was always crying, how she didn’t know what to do, just stayed in her room reading and drawing. She wrote me long notes that began to fill up my purse.
Even Mrs. Ferry began to get some of my willing attention. Screened off a bit by
classmates, I glanced up at her from my place at the table, more from interest now than fear. She stood behind the stream of bobbing heads that inched by, her expression never changing, her mouth never smiling, her eyes never narrowing or widening, never showing anything. She could have been frozen. I still recoiled when I was opposite her in line, like the time at the ocean when a giant wave hung just above my head for a moment before crashing down. I was still helpless before the strong arm that reached toward my tray, the long metal spoon that dropped its food with a clang on my plate, sending a tiny vibration through my hand, connecting me like invisible fishing line with the leviathan.
But at the table, distanced a bit, she was less fearsome. Once Billy referred to her as “old ferry boat,” and I laughed at the way that fit her size and her steady, unhurried servings. But when another boy called her “ferret-face,” I was annoyed. That was mean and didn’t fit at all. I quickly looked up, hoping she hadn’t heard.
I had thought she didn’t look at the other students so hard the way she looked at me, thought she simply stared over the tops of their heads. Or did she? Was it just that the other students were jostling and talking, not looking back at her? Maybe she gave them the same look that I myself encountered, the only difference being that I encountered it.
I began to notice things about Mrs. Ferry. She seldom talked to the other cafeteria ladies. Just a nod or word about the food, but never chatter or a laugh. Mrs. Price who ran the lunchroom hustled around the kitchen directing the workers, checking the food, moving us along. Mrs. Cobb, stern and set on keeping order, was forever lecturing us on how we should behave.
Mrs. Ferry was not a part of this. She neither fussed nor joked. I wondered if she was always this way. I had never seen her outside the dining room, never seen her in a coat or on the street, had no idea of the house she lived in or the family she had. I could no more imagine her somewhere else than I could imagine the big lunchroom refrigerator in a seat at the movie theater or in line at the grocery store.
This thought struck me so hard that I imagined something else. I imagined that the real-life Mrs. Ferry was a different person altogether, smaller, brown-haired, a shy and gentle woman who hid inside the stone-like body of Mrs. Ferry-of-the-lunchroom. Arriving early before the other workers, she opened up the Ferry-suit, stepped inside the huge mannequin, and snapped it shut. Then she stationed herself at the serving table and dispensed her food. Each night, the last to leave, she stepped out and left her costume parked behind the counter till the next morning. During the day she never spoke because she was timid and afraid of being found out, of losing her job. She spoke silently only to me because I was small and uneasy like herself.
Of course I knew this was just a made-up idea, and I could probably get some admiring giggles if I told it at the table. But I didn’t want to tell. It was our secret, mine and Mrs. Ferry’s. I wouldn’t give it away.
One day when we went into the lunchroom there was a message in the center of the menu board. Beneath the yellow-chalked offerings of the day—creamed chipped beef, lima beans, bread pudding—were big words in blue chalk: THANKS AND GOODBYE TO MRS. FERRY. I was stunned. Mrs. Ferry stood at her usual place behind the counter wielding her spoon and wearing her usual blank expression. The words on the board seemed as unrelated to her as she did to her surroundings, and I looked again to make sure I had really seen the message.
“Hey, Ferry’s leaving,” Billy called out. “They must need a white elephant at the zoo.”
“Maybe she’s joining the circus,” another boy said. “Live and in Person, the Abominable Snowwoman!”
“Shh!” warned Kathy. “She’ll hear you.”
We were getting close to her serving place and the boys quieted down to giggles. I wanted to ask where she was going, and why, but I couldn’t speak. Mrs. Ferry filled her spoon and held out her hand for my plate. The boys nudged me and I moved on in the line.
There was a lot of joking and talking at the table that day, and I pretty much dropped Mrs. Ferry from my mind.
“Hey, Goldilocks,” Billy yelled over to Kathy, “where’d you leave the three bears? Stuffed in Shrimpy’s pouch?” He winked at me and I felt a blush covering my face. Kathy nudged me with her elbow. “See,” she said, “he likes you.” But then he grabbed the blue purse from my lap and tossed it like a basketball to a boy across the table who juggled it a few minutes until it fell to the table right in front of Kathy. She quickly took it and put it in my lap.
When Miss Helen warned us to quiet down, I looked up and tried to imagine Mrs. Ferry not being there. I couldn’t. It was like imagining my house not being in the middle of our block.
Soon the lunch bell rang. We jumped up and we streamed up the steps laughing and talking, leaving thoughts of the dimmed cafeteria behind. But when school was over and I was gathering my belongings, I couldn’t find my purse.
“Maybe you left it in the lunchroom,” said Billy, grinning in a mischievous way.
“Don’t worry,” said Miss Helen, “anything they find will be put out on the table by the menu board. You can get it on the way out.”
The cafeteria steps were at the end of the hall just inside the back door of the school. A short flight of steps went down to the landing, then turned and descended to the lunchroom. I ran down the first flight, hurrying so I could catch up with my friends, but at the landing, my pace got slower. The cafeteria lights were off. It looked shadowy down there, and my footsteps sounded hollow in the empty stairwell. When I reached the bottom step, I saw it was not completely dark. The small oblong windows near the ceiling let in some light, and a fluorescent bar glowed in the kitchen above the stove. I could hear the refrigerator humming.
Trailing my hand along the tile wall, I made my way toward the menu board. My heart was thumping, and I thought how odd it was that my friends, who must be laughing and teasing just above these windows, seemed miles away.
“You lookin’ fur this?”
I froze like a startled rabbit. The flat voice had come from the dim seating area, and as I looked, I could see a figure seated at the end of our table. She was wearing a dark buttoned coat and knitted hat, but I knew, before my eyes could make out her face, that it was Mrs. Ferry. She was hunched over, her weight resting on her arms and her hands folded together. In front of them was my blue purse.
“Y-y-yes,” I said. “Yes ma’am. I left it here. At lunch time.”
I stood where I was, didn’t even think of moving. She looked at me like she was looking through me, through the wall, and through the whole rest of my life. A few moments passed that seemed like a long time. Mrs. Ferry slowly scraped back her chair. Then she pressed her large hands on the edge of the table and pushed herself up.
“Better take it then,” she said.
She picked it up along with her own big bag, and I slowly walked forward and held out my hand. She placed the purse in it, and my fingers closed around the soft, familiar fabric. For a few moments we both held on, her hand covering the top, my palm hidden by the pouch.
“Thank you,” I said in a voice I hardly heard. “Thank you. Goodbye, Mrs. Ferry.” Our eyes met as she slowly nodded her head.
“Best hold on to what’s your’n,” she said, releasing the purse. Then stood there, still and silent.
“Yes ma’am,” I answered faintly. “I will.”
I turned and walked across to the stairwell, then fairly flew up the steps. My heart was beating fast, and I wanted to get outside and see the sky. My friends had thrown down their books and were playing around the jungle gym. I ran over to join them, grabbed the bars and climbed right up to the top.
A few minutes later I glanced toward the road and saw the retreating back of Mrs. Ferry, broad and erect, moving slowly down the sidewalk. I watched her go and grow smaller in the distance. Then I lifted my arms up to the breeze above my head, feeling light and airy as a bird. Only my knees, locked tight around the metal bars, kept me from flying away.