Chapter 3:

The Birth of the Great Pun Detective! (Part 3)

Pun Detectives!

Anyway, what was up with that maid costume?

“Anyway,” I said, “what’s up with that maid costume?”

“Would you stop doing that?” said Greg.

Huh? Stop doing what? What was he talking about?

“Huh?” I said. “Stop doing what? What are you talking about?”

That. Oh, never mind. Forget it. As for the maid outfit, I don’t know why she’s wearing it. Nobody knows why she’s wearing it.” He shrugged.

“You know her?” I asked, my interest piqued to near its peak.

“Hardly. Nobody does. Well, nobody knows her knows her. But everyone knows her. If you know what I’m saying.”

I didn’t know what he was saying. Nor did I know this mysterious girl in the maid outfit like everyone else apparently did, so I pressed Greg for the deets.

“You mean you seriously haven’t heard of her?” was what he said. He looked genuinely surprised about it too. “She’s been the talk of the school for like” — he checked his bare wrist — “like three weeks or so now.”

“Since the school year started,” I remarked.

Greg nodded.

“All I know,” he said, continuing his explanation, “is that she’s been working here as a lunch helper since the beginning of the year.”

“And she shows up behind the lunch counter in that maid outfit to dish out whatever dish it is we’re having on that particular day?” I wanted to make sure I was getting this right.

“Exactly. And wash dishes too, afterward. Well, trays. And take out the trash and stuff. Clean up, wipe down the counters. You know what I mean. Anyway, that’s all anyone seems to know about her. If anyone knows her name, I haven’t heard it on the grapevine. And it’s anyone’s guess what classes she’s in, let alone what grade.”

“Seriously? Doesn’t anyone have any classes with her?” I asked.

Greg shook his head no.

That didn’t sound right. Was she really a student helper? Maybe she was older — 19 or 20 or so? — and was working here, not a student. Maybe that was why nobody knew which grade she was in or had any classes with her.

“So who is she then?” I chanced another glance. She was ladling chili into a paper bowl. Well, more like around a paper bowl. Most of it she spilled onto the counter or onto that ever-reddening apron of hers, much to the annoyance of the kid at the front of the line who received only a few spoonfuls of the stuff.

But she looked about my age, that was for sure. I had a hard time believing she was much older. But then how come nobody had ever seen her outside of lunch?

Evan chimed in. “Everyone’s been talking about her. I’m surprised you haven’t heard of her.”

Well excuse me for living under a rock. In case the backlash to the simple thought of me asking someone out didn’t clue you in, I wasn’t exactly the most popular guy in the world, buddy. Frankly, I was surprised Evan had heard of her, what with his nose in that game all the time.

“You just want me to ask her out so you can figure out who she is,” I said to Greg.

“You got me. It might be difficult, especially for you, but at least try to get her name, ok?”

“Her name? I dunno, I mean—”

“You got this, dude.” Greg flashed me the least reassuring smile I had ever seen. “What could possibly go wrong?”

With another slap on the back, for what I again assumed Greg assumed would be motivation, I begrudgingly stepped into the lunch line, making sure to time my entry into the queue just right so that I would get my food from the maid girl and not from Mrs. Bagge.

As soon as I got in line, the entire cafeteria erupted into applause. Above the usual cafeteria clatter, my name filled the air, and whistles pierced the growing din, louder and sharper and somehow more impressed with every passing second. It was like I was walking to the guillotine. I could’ve sworn I even heard someone crying. I hoped out of admiration and not disgust, but who was I kidding?

The only two people in the entire room oblivious to what was going on were Mrs. Bagge and, as luck would have it, the maid girl.

By the time I got to the front of the line, I was practically a puddle. My hands were so clammy I was considering handing them over to Mrs. Bagge and the maid in case they ever switched to chowder.

Up close, I got a better look at mystery maid. She was even more beautiful than I thought. And she was sure a mystery alright.

Her eyes glowed, bright and deep, acute.

In a word: gorgeous.

Pursed together without expression, her lips held fast to one another, top to bottom, neither a smile nor a frown.

In a word: graceful.

Chunks of meat and tomatoes crawled down her apron, held back only by the cling of thick rust-red goop, more sludge than splatter now.

In a word: gross.

She stirred what little chili remained in the vat. Still devoid of expression, she cocked her head to the side like she was confused and said, “Are you just going to stand there all day?”

That was when I realized I was already at the front of the line. Shoot. That went by faster than I thought it would.

“What would you like?” the maid asked. There wasn’t a hint of expression on her face, or in her words.

I took a deep breath. Do or die time.

“Th-thanks, y-y-you too…”

Wow. I was already screwing this up.

She seemed to ignore my awkwardness though. What she was thinking behind those clear eyes, that nearly motionless visage, was beyond me. “What we have on the menu today is chili. There’s also chili, and chili. Finally, chili. So, what will it be?”

Didn’t really have much of a choice, did I?

“I-I’ll take the… chili?”

With a skillful flick of the wrist, she dredged beans, meat, chunks of vegetables up from the bottom of the vat, into the ladle, and… right onto the counter. With a plop no less. An actual plop. An edible modern art splat.

She shoved the bowl where the chili should have been in my direction. It was completely empty, spick and span, not a half lick of food on it. “That will be $2.75.”

Like hell it’ll be.

I had bigger problems to worry about than getting ripped off though. Namely, how I was going to go through with this. My thoughts were chugging at 275 miles an hour, but I couldn’t get anything straight in my head. The rails were a distant memory. So was my secondary mission to at least get the girl’s name. My mind was on one thing and one thing alone: figuring out how to ask her out. I was entering uncharted territory. I needed reference material, and fast. I thought back to the last time I had asked a girl out. Then I remembered there was no last time.

“$2.75,” the maid girl repeated, and she pushed the empty bowl with nothing but air in it past the warming lamps and the counter and into my chest. Insistent much? No thanks. If I had enough hot air to get into a mess like this one, I sure didn’t need any more. And boy was I in a mess — though maybe not as much of a mess as she was in, I thought, as I watched the chili dribble down the billows in her apron.

There was no other way around it. I was just going to have to do it. Cross my fingers, toes, eyes, and whatever else I had to cross and take the leap.

I inhaled sharply. The sudden savory smell that invaded my nostrils was, I was sure, all I was going to get of that chili today.

“W-w-w-w-w-w-w-will y-y-ou-you g-g-g-g-g-g-g-o… W-w-will you g-g-go…”

My heart was trying to pound a whole hole through my chest. My teeth were chattering. My everything was shaking. Sweat beads the size of sea slugs lolled down my forehead, dripped drop by drop off of my brow. I couldn’t get the words out.

“Sorry, I’m just, uh… You see, what I’m trying to say is… Will you… Will you go out… Ah geez, I can’t do this!”

I broke into a run. And not just any run. A sprint. Before I even knew what I was doing, I was hightailing it out of there. I would say I even surprised myself, but to be honest, I’d always had more flight than fight in me.

The confused lunch line; the tables of jeering kids; fluorescent lights catching on Eliza’s too-big braces and glinting off of Sheldon’s too-thick glasses as they and their friends cackled up a lispy storm, a sea spray of nerd saliva; Greg burying his head in one disappointed hand, his other one jammed into his pocket out of secondhand embarrassment probably; Evan burying his own face in his game — all of this passed me by in a blur as I fled the scene of my own social suicide to the suffocating sound of my personal laugh track, the entire cafeteria my live audience.

And they sure weren’t laughing with me.

The end of The Birth of the Great Pun Detective! (Part 3)!
To be continued in Part 4!