"Etta what are you doing?"
Giggling ran through the school kitchen like tinny bells.
"I'm going into the frig."
"You mean the walk-in?" More cheap bells.
Etta looked around the other cooks, face to face, searching for a hint.
"Well, for the recipe." Etta smiled; hoping her little grin would turn the tide in her favor. It failed.
"Look, I set out everything you need with the recipe card."
"W-well yes I know," Etta stuttered, "but -."
"I-I don't have the cream."
"W-what cream?" Another scale run of tinny rings. "You're making the roll dough."
“W-well see, r-right here. It says cream eggs, butter and sugar".
The screaming laughter of nearly 20 women echoed around the dreary school kitchen. Wave after wave.
Etta's face kept its lost downtown expression, but she backed smoothly inside the walk-in. The ladies dialed up the volume. And the words began to come, breathless and half stifled: Idiot. Stu-stupid. W-wish I could cook like that. That's what she said to me too. You didn't see? She has booze in her purse. Yes, these little vodkas. Oh, I wish they'd just give these people the money and not send them over here to 'work' for it. For us to look after, you mean. Don't they know we have enough to do?
I had clicked the 2-minute switch on the Hobart mixer and pretended to be busy scraping the bowl sides. I turned away any thought except the one that prayed they wouldn't notice me with glasses that warped my face and my wheezing. I can feel the rubber scraper in my hand even now as I write this.
I had just turned the bowl out onto the table when another scraper appeared under my arm, pulling the dough forward.
“I know how to do this part,” Etta said, "See?"
I smiled at her in answer, but she stayed focused on the batter. I told her, "I'll dust; you roll."
Etta bore down on her rolling pin; one white curl escaped the net and quivered against her forehead with the effort. She glanced up at me like the bird that knows you're watching it and doesn't care. "Is that right?"
I took the pin. “Sure is. Except for the outsides; let's even these out a little and we're set.” Etta watched me closely.
"So, all even like?"
"I should know, but we always had a cook."
"You had servants?"
"Eemhmm. Quite a lot of them for a long time. Until Mike got sick. He was my partner you know, but they wouldn't hold his job. He had them buy him out. It all went to the doctors.”
"That's a beautiful ring."
"Funny about that. We married early so I only had a little band. This one here he gave me at our nearly second anniversary; all that time he was saving. Then it took him until the sixth to pay it off. And when the money came then, I was already rich.
“You know, it's a funny thing the way he treated it. He worked long, but when he came home, he would snatch me up and spin me round and grab my hand and give that ring a kiss. An' every day a different one. Real soft, or short or a big smack. But he always did it. Always made me feel love and like everything was all settled when he did it."
"How long has he been gone?"
"Long enough for him to be with me all the time and for it not to hurt."
"You're alone now."
"W-well now yes. I wasn't for years because I had a share with my brother. He got sick too and died. In February. You know how it is with men. They may be strong, but they just keep butting up against everything for an idea they've got and wear themselves out.
I grinned at her. “Well, I will try not to."
She looked over my face for a moment. "Well you try. But men just can't help it."
Etta and I met again that day at quitting time; I held the metal door open for her. "Thanks for helping me today," I said.
She looked back and up; her eyes couldn't quite place me. I could see her decide that it didn't matter, and she smiled a little.
It's been 37 years since I watched her walk away. Since I watched a sudden March wind catch her blouse at the back and blew it up a little, showing the beautiful taut creamy skin of a little girl.
I hurt for her some for the cold wind on her back. I was relieved the ladies didn't see.
In the moment it took for that fabric to fall, a huge chasm of understanding opened at my feet.
Even now, I won't say all I learned from her in that one day because it's just too dear to me.
But I will remind you of what we all nearly always forget - that we never know what just watching us live our day can do for all the others who bother to look.
No one ever promised we live our lives for ourselves.
Their watching honors us.
There is meaning enough in that to bless any existence.