Pudding Cups

“So it’s you, Mr. Schafer, who’s been stealing the pudding cups out of my lunches!”

The line was delivered just like that, dramatically, the way a super hero would address a super villain. The pudgy kid in the wheelchair rolled out of the elevator with a triumphant look on his face.

Mr. Schafer, the lower school science teacher, didn’t say anything for what seemed like a very long time—he just stood there frozen, his hand deep in Anthony’s lunch. What was there for him to say?

“Please don’t tell anyone,” he said at last. “I’ll buy you all the desserts you want.”

* * *

For the past week, Anthony had been deeply troubled by the lack of desserts in his lunches. All the fun was gone from his lunch period and by extension, from his whole day. He rolled around campus, depressed, applying chapstick, going through the motions.

For fourth graders, the lunch time dessert was more than just a critical dose of sugar. It was both a status symbol and a form of currency. Louis, the kid with one eyebrow, was even less well liked than Anthony, but for half an hour every day, he was a prince—his lavish six-course meals always contained several mouth-watering sweets, which he disseminated at his whim. Anthony sat through three lunch periods empty-handed before he finally got fed up and decided to confront his mom about the issue.

He had been wary of mentioning it earlier because the lack of desserts meant that in all likelihood he was being punished. Punished for what, he didn’t know, but he was probably supposed to know, and supposed to take care of it himself. That was how Anthony’s mom operated.

As it turned out, the mystery ran much deeper. His mom gave him a look like he was completely insane. The next morning she made a point of calling him into the kitchen and demonstrating, in excruciating detail, the process of dropping a pudding cup into his lunch bag.

But at lunch the next day, and the day after that, there was still no pudding cup. Clearly, someone was stealing them.

Anthony always left his lunch on the shelves outside the fourth grade classroom like everyone else. He realized that he could just keep his lunch with him all the time, but while that would solve the problem, it wouldn’t answer the question that now bothered him, which was, who—what diabolical villain—would be evil enough to steal his pudding cups?

So he watched his lunch from afar throughout the day, keeping an eye out for the thief, but he never saw anything suspicious. And yet, whenever it came time for lunch, he would open his bag to find a turkey sandwich, an apple, and no pudding cup. There was only one part of the day when Anthony physically couldn’t keep an eye on his lunch and that was the forty minutes when he had physical education, which he still had to go to even though he was handicapped. It was clear that if he was dedicated to catching the pudding thief he was going to have to find a way to ditch. After some thinking, he realized that this was a perfect time to take advantage of his elevator access key.

As the only handicapped kid in school, Anthony alone got to ride the elevator. Considering he was overweight and crippled, the elevator access key was one of the few things Anthony could actually lord over the other students. The key was widely envied but Anthony had only given into peer pressure once.

Mike and Troy, two of the popular kids, approached him at lunch. They flattered him, calling him Professor X, the name of his favorite comic character, and claimed they needed help with a top secret mission. As it turned out, the secret mission consisted of repeatedly riding the elevator from the bottom floor to the top floor and back down again, periodically pulling the emergency brake and then jumping, which, depending on which way the elevator was going, meant they would either jump super high or get squashed back against the floor.

It was Frank the janitor, mopping up on the second story, who overheard their laughter and ended up busting them. They were all chastised, but only Anthony was given trash detail. For five days in a row, he had to roll around school, stabbing at candy wrappers and crumpled assignment sheets with a sharp stick. After that, Anthony didn’t even show the elevator key to anyone.

Still, if anything merited another case of elevator abuse, it was the theft of Anthony’s pudding cups. When it came time for P.E., Anthony simply went into the elevator and never came out. The elevator door was conveniently located right next to the shelf where the lunches were kept, so he figured if he waited and listened carefully, he would hear the thief approach and be able to roll out at just the right moment.

Anthony got bored while he was waiting. He applied chapstick. Three minutes later, he applied more. Anthony hadn’t actually had chapped lips in over two years, but he felt that he was constantly in danger of getting them.

When Anthony finally heard footsteps outside the elevator, he began to tremble with excitement. He resisted the urge to burst out then and there—he needed to catch the thief in the act. After a brief moment, Anthony heard the unmistakable crinkling of a brown paper lunch bag being opened. It was time. Anthony reached up and pressed the elevator’s open button. The doors parted to reveal Mr. Schafer, standing in perhaps the most pathetic pose of his entire adult life.

* * *

The fact that Mr. Schafer got caught with his hand in Anthony’s lunch was somewhat of a coincidence. He could have just as easily been stealing from Lisa’s lunch, or George’s. For the last month and a half, Mr. Schafer had been lifting food from all of the fourth grade students.

When Mr. Schafer saw Anthony emerge from the elevator, he was overwhelmed by panic. A whole sequence of events flashed through his head. He imagined the crippled kid telling Mrs. Taylor who would tell Mr. Felding who would get him fired, and then everyone would find out—the students, the teachers—oh god, the other teachers! They could not know this about him. That he stole from the lunches of little kids.

His first stop after school was the market. He bought a whole bunch of desserts—pudding cups, candy bars, powdered donuts, the works. He had to make sure this kid stayed happy and quiet.

But as he went around the market piling treats into his cart he began to feel ill. The food disgusted him. It was the same food that he took from lunches, and yet here in the market where he didn’t have to steal it—where he could actually just buy it for a reasonable amount of money—the food seemed decadent, not interesting in the least. He started to realize that it wasn’t hunger that motivated him. It was something much darker. He pushed the thought into his subconscious, paid for his junk food, and got the hell out of there.

Alone in his apartment, the full shame of the situation hit him. Never again, he told himself. This has to stop.

The next day at school the world was dull. He felt deeply sad. What’s wrong with me? he thought. It wasn’t until almost two hours into the school day that it finally dawned on him. He was sitting at his desk, trying to type up a lab sheet, and he realized the horrible truth.

On a normal day, he spent all of his time looking forward to P.E. period, to the grand buffet of student lunches. Sure, he did other things. He drank coffee in the faculty lounge. He organized the lab equipment. He taught a class on the difference between igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks. But all of this he did only as a necessary prelude, knowing that soon he would walk the hall outside the fourth grade classroom, stealthy and alone, taking the best, the greatest prizes from each rich little kid’s lovingly crafted lunch. And it wasn’t just the sweets, the cupcakes, the cookies. There were great main courses. Pastas. Sushi. Once he had found duck! Lisa’s mom made the finest roast beef sandwiches. They were cut into quarters, each one speared with a little toothpick. Some of the lunches were so personal. A piece of birthday cake. A microwaveable pizza with handwritten cooking instructions. Mr. Schafer sat at his desk thinking about it all, and he just couldn’t take it anymore. He’d still steal, he decided. Why not? He just had to be more careful. He was a fool, he thought, to think that he could take the same kid’s pudding cup day in and day out and not get caught.

* * *

Now that the mystery was solved, Anthony felt a lot better. For sure, it was a big surprise finding his science teacher like that, and a little disturbing as well (mostly because of the desperate way Mr. Schafer had pleaded with him.) But for the most part, Anthony was unfazed. When he rolled into Mr. Schafer’s office, he was there for one reason and one reason only—to collect his payment.

By Anthony’s own count, Mr. Schafer had stolen nine pudding cups. That was nine lunch periods—nine days of cruel, uninterrupted sugar withdrawal. The most basic sense of fairness demanded that Anthony get at least something in return.

Mr. Schafer’s office had a weird smell. Mr. Schafer was trying to act casual, like this was some sort of normal, everyday student-teacher meeting. “So we’re all set, right?” he said. “You’re not gonna tell anyone?”

Anthony just kept stuffing treats into his backpack. He had no interest in telling on Mr. Schafer. In fact, he had a vague suspicion that even if he did, somehow or other it would be he, not Mr. Schafer, who ended up getting into trouble. Too often that was how things worked in his world.

“Don’t forget, there’s more.” Mr. Schafer pushed another grocery bag full of treats towards Anthony. “In the other bag, did you notice the—I forget exactly what they’re called—they look like giant Oreos?”

Anthony nodded and zipped up his backpack. He desperately wanted to leave.

“Do you like those?” Mr. Schafer would not stop talking.

When Anthony finally got home, he went straight to his room. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been so excited. One by one, he pulled various candy bars, cookies, and pastries out of his backpack and laid them out on his desk. There would have to be three piles, he decided. One for the so-so treats, one for the really good ones, and one for his favorites, the absolute best.

But as he continued sorting, he realized that there was a problem. He was going to need more categories, maybe four, maybe five, he wasn’t sure. Three just wasn’t enough. He was in the middle of pondering this issue, when he heard his mom calling him from the next room. Well that’s okay, he thought, I’ll just start over from the beginning after dinner.

* * *

The next day, Mr. Schafer resumed his assault on the student lunches. This time he was more careful. He didn’t go near the brown paper bag labeled “Anthony.” He tried to take food items that wouldn’t be missed. A cookie here. Some grapes there. A handful of trail mix. He couldn’t gorge himself the way he used to, but he still enjoyed himself. He felt alive again. In a way, the increased need for stealth added something. A greater thrill.

As the days went on, Mr. Schafer made sure to diversify his attacks. He paid visits to different grade levels. He resolved never to target the same lunch more than once a week. He made rules and he tried to stick to them. For example, you never wanted to take all of something, except in rare cases where a kid had five or more courses. Those kids, it was safe to assume, got so much food that they wouldn’t be able to tell what was missing. Fruits, vegetables, and side courses were good to take—they were much lower risk than sandwiches or desserts. You could also drain a lot from a thermos and still be safe. One thing you definitely never wanted to do was open something that wasn’t already open. Loose snacks, however, such as pretzels, crackers, or carrot sticks, were like gold. You could take up to a third of what was there and still not attract attention.
But sometimes, Mr. Schafer couldn’t help himself. He’d stumble on a succulent chicken breast or a homemade brownie, and he’d take it all, even though he knew it’d be conspicuous. Later at his desk, he’d become anxious, and he wouldn’t even be able to enjoy the food.

And then one day, Mr. Schafer noticed that Jenny’s lunch box was gone. At first, he wasn’t worried, figuring it was time to give her lunch box a break anyway—he’d taken a whole burrito from it the day before. But later that afternoon, at the faculty meeting, the issue of lunch theft was raised. More than one kid had complained. Several parents were rather upset. Mr. Felding told Mr. Schafer and the other teachers to keep an eye out.

Mr. Schafer stood in the shower and debated the situation. But it wasn’t a real debate, because he knew he had no choice. It was imperative that he stop stealing. At least for a week.

The next day during P.E., Mr. Schafer decided to clean the science room instead. He was putting away some titration paper when he felt it. It was like a black pit in his stomach. It wasn’t hunger—it was just a kind of space, a void. It became so overwhelming that he had to sit down. He looked at the titration paper, how flat and uninteresting it was, and realized that he didn’t care if it was put away or not. After sitting there a while, he heard a voice.  He looked up to see Mrs. Kidd poking her head in, asking if he was alright. “Yeah,” he said. And it was true. He was okay again. The feeling had passed.

The second day was a lot easier. He finished cleaning the science room, and even had some time left over to read the newspaper in the faculty lounge. Things were going well.

On the third day, he decided it was okay to start up again. He stalked toward the fourth grade classroom in anticipation. The experience was new, vivid, like the first time. He took a pear, some string cheese, and half the salami from inside of Michael’s sandwich. The salami he stuffed into his mouth right away. The pear and string cheese he dropped into his pockets. He turned around and ran right into Frank the janitor.
Mr. Schafer froze. Frank’s eyes were expressionless, resting in a bed of brown wrinkles. They weren’t accusatory—they just looked right at Mr. Schafer in a way that said they’d seen everything.

“Hello,” Mr. Schafer mumbled. He pushed his way past Frank, headed straight for the science room. Once inside, he walked around a lot but did very little actual work for the rest of the day.

Mr. Schafer later found a note in his box, asking him to meet with Mr. Felding at two p.m., tomorrow. He nodded, didn’t try to find out what the meeting was about. The next day, he got to the meeting five minutes early and waited around for Mr. Felding to show up, not thinking about anything in particular. He noticed that Mr. Felding had a lot of wolf pictures in his office. He’d never realized before that Mr. Felding was into wolves.

Mr. Felding showed up at two and fired Mr. Schafer quickly and cleanly. The two men did not discuss the strangeness of the crime—Mr. Felding did not ask Mr. Schafer for an explanation. That discussion was left to the remaining faculty members, to the morning carpools, to the gossipy mothers who phoned each other during the day while their kids were at school. The Mr. Schafer incident would be the subject of jokes for years to come, but in Mr. Felding’s office, on that particular day, it was all business.

* * *

The rich bounty Mr. Schafer had bestowed upon Anthony ran out all too soon.

On the first day, Anthony restricted himself to packing only one dessert, but he chose a particularly potent one—a large slice of chocolate fudge cake. All morning, Anthony was filled with anticipation. When the bell rang for the beginning of lunch, he couldn’t wheel towards the patio quickly enough. By the time most of the kids reached the tables, Anthony already had the cake out and sitting in front of him, proudly displayed like some sort of trophy.

The sight of the cake caused a small uproar. Crowds of beggars clustered around Anthony. Kids that normally never spoke to him were offering to be his friend with earnest looks in their eyes. Anthony resisted their pleas as long as he could, but eventually he caved in and gave a small sliver of cake to Troy. But why should only Troy get some? the masses cried. It’s not fair! We want some too!

As the days went by, Anthony began augmenting his lunches more and more. Two or three desserts quickly turned into four or five. Soon Anthony was the most envied kid on the lunch patio. Louis, the kid with one eyebrow, sulked in the corner, his throne ripped away from him.
Anthony was intoxicated—he breathed power. With his deep arsenal of sweets, there was nothing he couldn’t trade for. He gathered a posse around him, a hand-picked circle of elites who were on his sugar payroll. But when the treats ran out, so did the friends. As quickly as it had started, Anthony’s reign was over.

And now Anthony was even more dissatisfied than he’d been before, having tasted greatness. He rolled around campus, depressed, applying chapstick, going through the motions. And all the while, he felt something—a strange void in his stomach. But at that time in his life, the feeling was faint, as insignificant as a single forgotten cookie crumb, patiently waiting for Frank the janitor to come and sweep it away.