How about another short story this week? We’ve all been humiliated at some time in our lives, and it looks like Toby Gannon is in for his dose – self-inflicted, I might add. Let’s see how he handles it.
After two chicken-outs, Tobias Gannon successfully navigated the threshold of the campus cafeteria with his heart going crazy in his chest. “Keep on walking, man,” he mumbled beneath his breath.
It was a set-up, pure and simple. Damn Lem Holt and his screwy bets, anyway! Toby had no idea what prompted him to get involved in Lem’s shenanigans. Well, yeah, he did. Lem was one of the few he considered a friend. Besides, Toby was salivating over the prize, a rib eye steak from the Roundup he’d never be able to afford on his skinny budget.
After a quick glance at the northeast corner table where Lem grinned like a Cheshire cat anticipating Toby’s coming mortification, he shifted his attention to a particular table in another corner. They were all there: Betsy Moss, Monica Hardy, Rick Wolsey, Hardy Marks, and Linda Helpstrum. The Snob Mob.
“Hi, guys.” His voice came out in a strangled squawk. Not a very auspicious beginning.
“Gannon. What drug you in here?”
“It’s dragged, Wolsey. Unless you’re talking about chemicals, which might be the case with you.”
“Watch your mouth, kid!”
“I just wanta talk to Linda.” His upper lip started itching like crazy, but he wasn't about to swipe it.
“Me? Why?” Disdain, disbelief, and a tiny bit of curiosity edged her voice.
Understandable. He was not, and never would be, a member of this hoity-toity clique. He didn’t even want to be. Most of the guys at Tres Lomas College would have jumped at the chance, but he wasn’t so sure. What was Lem’s position on the matter? Screwed up thinking, Gannon. Concentrate! He hoped the sweat collecting in his armpits didn’t stain his shirt.
“I … uh, could we talk a minute? You know, in private?” He motioned to one of the big windows looking out onto a gloriously verdant quadrangle, empirical evidence of the waste of precious irrigation water in this high desert New Mexico locale.
“These are my friends. Whatever you have to say, you can say it in front of them. But you’d better hurry; I have to go to class in a few minutes.”
“Well, I was wondering…” He paused as his knees threatened to give way. He tried again. “Do you have a date for the prom yet?”
“A date? What’s it to you?” Her voice was sharp, cutting.
“Uh, I thought you might like to go with me,” He almost heaved a sigh of relief. He’d completed his part of the wager.
“Toby Gannon, what makes you think I’d go out with you?”
He felt his ears go pink. The odor from the dregs of a hamburger on Wolsey’s plate reached his nose, making him want to gag. Nonetheless, he plunged ahead. “Why not? This is a classless democracy, isn’t it?”
Linda’s voice turned imperious. “This isn’t a voting matter.”
“Sure it is,” Hardy Marks put in. “We’ll vote on whether you go out with this putz.” Marks was the local tennis star. He also had a name on the soccer field.
“I vote no,” Betsy Moss, the prom queen, rejoined. Monica and Rick quickly raised their hands. They were class president and basketball standout, respectively.
“That makes it unanimous,” Linda announced with a nasty smile. “That’s democracy at work for you.”
Toby knew he oughta leave it at that; he’d won his steak. But resentment overcame good sense. He spoke through a dry throat. “What’s the matter with me? I’m as good as you are.”
Linda’s nose twitched as if she had caught a whiff of something rancid. “I’d prefer not to get into that, if you don’t mind.”
“I do mind!” That came out louder than he intended.
“Let’s just say you’re not my kind of people, and leave it at that.”
“What, I’m not snobbish enough? My folks don’t have enough money? I look like an oddball? What?”
The girl with long, blond tresses stood abruptly. “I have to go to class.”
“Not until you answer me! What’s wrong with me? I have two noses or three eyes or something?”
“Very well, if you insist. You’re a nobody. A nothing.”
“I’m a living, breathing human being.”
“You sure about that?” Wolsey put in. “I like that oddball part you mentioned. You seem kinda odd to me. You know … odd!” The basketball star gave a limp-wristed wave.
Linda had apparently reached her limit. “I don’t know what it is, but there’s something wrong with you. You’re not like the other guys. You’re different.”
“You mean like having brains instead of muscles? And different is wrong?” he kept at it despite the quivers running down his spine.
“Like now,” Linda added. “You’re not being a gentleman. I tried to be nice, but—”
His voice got away from him and rose alarmingly “Nice? I’m not your kind of people. That’s nice?” He grabbed a breath. “Well, for you it probably is. As nice as a snob can be.”
The cafeteria had gone deathly quiet. The heavy odor of food and the cloying aroma of perfume and toilet water rose in the silence, making him nauseous.
Linda’s face turned an unhealthy and unattractive crimson. “If you want to do the name-calling thing, then let’s have at it. You stalk around the campus like a disease.”
“Way to go!” Wolsey cheered.
“You don’t play sports, join the clubs. You don’t do anything except take up space.”
“I study, pass my classes, and mind my own business.” A chip in the Formica tabletop seemed terribly interesting all of a sudden.
“And contribute absolutely zero, Toby. You’re nothing but a ... a virus, a fungus on Tres Lomas’ hide. You’re like that TV commercial. You’re a nail fungus. What do they call it? A dermatophyte. That’s it, a dermatophyte! Something under your nails that you can’t get rid of without a heavy dose of medication. That’s what you remind me of. Now get out of my face.”
“I simply asked you for a date, Linda.”
“A date with you?” she asked in a steely voice. “I’d rather date an actual dermatophyte.”
“That’s a good name for you, Gannon. Dermatophyte Gannon. We’ll call you Dermy for short. Has a good ring.”
“Dermy!” This from Betsy.
“Oh, come on, guys. Just because he’s funny, doesn’t make him a fungus.” Monica tossed in her two cents.
“Naw, more like odd! Course that’s kinda like a fungus, isn’t it?”
The rest of the group rose as one and prepared to parade out the door, probably in lock-step. From the depths of his mortification, Toby grasped for something to preserve at lease some shred of dignity.
“Thanks, guys, you played your parts perfectly,” His voice rang throughout the cafeteria.
“Huh? What?” Wolsey asked. He forgot to close his mouth when he finished speaking.
“Yeah, I bet Lem Holt that I could prove to the whole school what hopeless snobs you are.”
“Hey, wait just a minute—”
“That’s all right, Marks. You’ve said everything you needed to say. Go on to class now like a good little jock.”
For a moment, Toby thought he’d gone too far. Marks’ face turned red and he clenched his fists. He shifted into an aggressive stance. Sweat popped out on Toby’s forehead.
Then Len stood and started clapping. In moments everyone in the cafeteria, including the servers were applauding and cheering loudly. The Snob Mob’s bravado collapsed as if it were a balloon punctured by sharp wit. They turned and slunk out the door as a single organism.
That rib eye was gonna taste real good!
In the end, he gave as good as he got, thanks to his quick wit. Wish I could think fast enough to turn the tables in the moment. I always walk away and only later think, “I shoulda said …”
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