Kage Baker‘s first public redoubt – where she forted up when it was necessary to seek shelter in the public eye – was in the cafeteria of Immaculate Heart High School. She had numerous such hiding places in the house and yard at home, the main one being the tiny cupola on the roof she made her room; but the caf at IHHS was where she discovered she could create one out in the open, too.
All you had to do was seize a chair and few feet of table, and either look busy as hell or glower. Or both.
This would have been harder to achieve had the cafeteria actually been a cafeteria, but it wasn’t. Not anymore. It was a big echoing chamber full of scratched tables and folding chairs, used to warehouse girls who weren’t assigned to a class or a Study Hall (we had a separate Study Hall) and didn’t want to sit outside. In Study Hall proper, silence reigned; in the cafeteria, you could talk – how much depended on whether or not a displaced class was being held at the far end, or in the assembly hall next door; but usually, it was Freedom Hall in there.
The cafeteria was where you went when you had something more important to do than study. Study Hall was not conducive to creative thought.
The room that must have once held the kitchens and some species of lunch lady was padlocked, a mystery inaccessible. But there was an entire wall of vending machines, where you could get a whole day’s worth of meals if you had enough quarters. I don’t think any of it was actually food, but you could eat it and not die. For teenaged girls, that’s enough.
Kage lived on cherry Coke and Doritos for 4 years, anyway. Me, I favoured the appalling coffee and those teeny little cans of Hormel enchiladas. I have no idea what they really were – their shape and texture suggested masa and some sort of shredded meat, but they might have been wichetty grubs in red sauce, for all I could tell. I ate ’em anyway. Kage ate her abstemious Doritos and made gagging noises at me.
The coffee was dispensed from the same machine that made tea, hot chicken broth and cocoa. Consequently, everything was slightly salty and had parsley in it. Why the chicken broth ruled supreme, we never figured out. But Kimberly said the tea was not unlike the Tibetan variety, with rancid yak butter in it; not that she’d ever tasted that, but the idea helped one choke it down.
Kage’s special place (and mine, when I turned up a year later) was the end of the table closest to the door in the northern wall. No one really wanted to sit there, because it was a high traffic area and the doors were far from weather-tight. A frigid draft blew through them at all times, and in strong storms they had to be braced shut with garbage cans. But it meant the end of that table was always free for us to hunker down at. Also, the bit of wall beside the doors, where Kage ran a penny pitching games for most of her high school years.
At that end of the table, she drew vast panoramas and intimate profiles of what would turn out to be the various worlds of her novels. She wrote reams and reams of first versions, too; in the neat metallic-cover legal pads our bookstore carried, with a Rapidograph also purchased from there. When asked, she would also tell fortunes with her Tarot deck, at a quarter a pop. “You have to pay the Fates or it’s just nonsense,” she would explain to the anxious maidens who sought her counsel. That’s also the first place I heard her intone, “The cards never lie. The old gypsy woman, she full of shit; but the cards never lie.”
I was especially useful as a place holder at that table, because I spent every spare moment of high school lying flat on my back on hard surfaces. I was ultimately found to have a kink in my right ureter; at intervals, it would shut down the highway between my kidney and my bladder. Mind you, the kidney worked – but there was no where for the fluids so produced to go. The pain was extraordinary. And until an attack relented, my only recourse was insane amounts of pain killers, and lying flat. Hence my part-time career as a book holder; three girls a side could use me as a prop for textbooks, and still have room to turn pages. I would lay there, ears gently ringing, and discuss the probably physiology of the Children of the Sun with Kage.
I wish I was there now. With Kage, on that horrid table, with the icy wind blowing up our skirts from the door; discussing how the lungs might work on a being that could breathe fire … listening to Kage tell some fretful 15-year old that you had to pick a significator from the Tarot deck based on what your real hair colour was … munching the occasional parsley sprig in my coffee.
I feel just as much like crap as I ever did in those days – all the sturm und drang in my pelvis has woken up my damned kidney, which is taking a little romp like Memory Lane today. Makes me recall how I longed to have it taken out and fed to Kimberly’s cats.
But, you know? All this reminiscing has a good point. It conjures Kage’s young face for me – glittering black eyes, the freckles on her cheekbones standing out like cinnamon dusted over the pale skin. Telling me about the indigenous wildlife of the Western Isles where the Children of the Sun went sailing, looking for wine grapes and treasure and nymphs …
I think I’ll go lie down and dream a little.