John Oliver Hodges ~ Cabbage

I received The World’s Biggest Piece of Shit Award in 1990. My name was writ­ten on the award in fan­cy cal­lig­ra­phy. In front of the whole class, Mrs. Kerris, our English teacher, hand­ed me the award. She wasn’t wor­ried about get­ting fired, as she was retir­ing any­way. Her thing was she was pissed that I got stoned before her class­es. I mean, she was teach­ing us impor­tant stuff about the hap­py poet who loved his body. That would be Walt Whitman. She showed us a movie where the actor play­ing the old beard­ed poet walked singing­ly through the vil­lage. We saw Walt bathe in a creek, singing his poet­ry as he soaped him­self up and spit streams of water through his lips, the passer­by think­ing My my, what an eccen­tric fel­low. Mrs. Kerris sim­ply hat­ed that I didn’t seem to care about my own body.

Back then, I had a friend or two. Back then I even had ideas on what I could do as I went along in life. I fan­cied that I was a lover of music, not just punk rock, but clas­si­cal, folk, and dis­co, and the world was full of won­der, I was told, and great mas­ter­pieces like Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Men had built bridges. They’d flown to the moon. Mrs. Kerris told us of a book about a whale that was sup­posed to be a mag­nif­i­cent expres­sion of what it means to be alive. As I was extreme­ly impres­sion­able, I imag­ined that stuff could be impor­tant such as the adults around me did, and when I read the book, years lat­er, about the whale, I thought I was moved. But I wasn’t. I just thought I was. I under­stood the tricks of the writer. I may have been impressed, but in the end what can one say of it? One can­not make a friend of a book. I felt stu­pid try­ing.

Of the oth­er awards giv­en out that last day of high school by Mrs. Kerris, one was The Best Equipped Mind Award. That gem went to Patricia Alligood, a skin­ny orange-haired girl who, unlike me, always had some­thing to say about the sto­ries we were giv­en to read for home­work. Whereas I sat in the back of the class, in the seat far­thest away from the teacher, Patricia sat in the front row. On sev­er­al occa­sions Mrs. Kerris asked the class, “Doesn’t that sound like a writer’s name? Patricia Alligood? I’m sure that we will all be buy­ing her books before the cen­tu­ry is over.” Patricia died before the cen­tu­ry end­ed. Her head was cut off by some crazy guy in Gainesville, where she attend­ed U.F. on schol­ar­ship. Some of the oth­er awards were Most Experimental Thinker and Wittiest Sense of Humor. There was the In The Spirit of Dylan Thomas Award and the Cute Like Jane Smiley Award. Me, I got the World’s Biggest Piece of Shit Award.

To this day I see it clear, me the lon­er guy in the back seat stoned, the walls of the room plas­tered up with posters of her heroes, James Joyce with the fun­ny glass­es, Virginia Wolff, Emily Dickinson. A quote by William Faulkner on the wall read “READ READ READ” and her absolute favorite, Flannery O’Connor, whom she’d said she’d been close per­son­al friends with before she died of lupus at the unfor­tu­nate age of thir­ty-nine. Mrs. Kerris had a kind of wall-shrine ded­i­cat­ed to Flannery, with pho­tos that she her­self had tak­en, pea­cock feath­ers and sil­ver saints. It was in this atmos­phere that Mrs. Kerris, pre­tend­ing like it was a joke but hop­ing to humil­i­ate me nonethe­less, said, “And the World’s Biggest Piece of Shit Award goes to,” and you can fill in my name after that, go ahead, I don’t care.

Listen, my name is detestable to me. I don’t like to say it, nev­er have.

Mrs. Kerris was get­ting me back for repeat­ed­ly going stoned to her class. She may have expect­ed the class to rise up with a uni­fied laugh­ter that would con­demn me for the rest of my days, but not every­body laughed. Though I was a lon­er for the most part, some stu­dents may have seen the cru­el­ty in her jab, and sym­pa­thized. They all off them any­way turned their heads my direc­tion to see what I would do. Would I run out of the class­room as I had done once before when she tried to bust me for my pot smok­ing? I’m sure I may have looked hor­ri­fied, but I stood up and walked across the room and col­lect­ed my award and returned to my desk. Mrs. Kerris fin­ished call­ing out the awards and before I knew it, high school was over for­ev­er.

Now, twen­ty-five years lat­er, I stare at these books and feel the waste and stu­pid­i­ty. Some are left over from my mar­riage to a woman who had col­lect­ed all the great books. Somehow I still have her great books. Others I bought dur­ing grad­u­ate school, and still oth­ers I bought for myself. Without nam­ing names, I’ll just say that these are the best writ­ers the world has pro­duced so far, that though Mrs. Kerris was lim­it­ed in scope, I do teach the work of her most cher­ished writer to stu­dents at a uni­ver­si­ty in Boston where you’d think they could offer you more than a class­room full of flunkies—no, not flunkies, I could nev­er feel that way about any­body. Call them dun­der­heads, numb­skulls, plonkers, stinky cheesers.

I’m star­ing at my books right now, hat­ing them from the couch, it’s a dingy couch, a love seat not long enough to stretch out in. I’m in my under­wear. My bare shins and feet jut over the arm­rest like can­non aimed at my books. I got­ta get rid of them. It’s obvi­ous, but could my hatred for these greats be relat­ed to my class­room full of nump­ties? As it’s the fall semes­ter, the stu­dents that flunked College Writing Two dur­ing the spring semes­ter, are in my class, along with some trans­fers from oth­er schools, and a few adults who’ve come back to make amends on their lost chances of the past.

Earlier this evening, dur­ing my class marked for apply­ing fem­i­nist read­ing tenets to Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” one of the three “adults” in the room, a woman near­ing fifty, said, “If I had writ­ten this sto­ry, I can’t imag­ine that any­body else would ever want to read it.” The woman, to describe her, was Kim-Davis-like in demeanor, only minus the reli­gious fer­vor. I’m talk­ing of the Kim Davis who met the pope after going to jail for refus­ing to grant mar­riage licens­es to gays in Kentucky. She was all over on Facebook, so I’m sure you know what she looks like, enough said. Whenever I’m teach­ing, Kim sits back there with a twist­ed scruti­ny on her face, her eyes riv­et­ed upon my per­son. I gave her com­ment a pro­fes­sor­ly response and end­ed by say­ing that Flannery O’Connor is wide­ly accept­ed as a genius, which I believe, or believed until tonight. Not tonight. It’s been with me all along.

Then, when I was show­ing them tech­niques in analy­sis, which is always a chal­lenge where dun­der­heads are con­cerned, an African-American girl called me out on my com­ment about the broad, inno­cent cab­bage Bailey’s wife’s face is com­pared to. I had said, “In order to inter­pret an image and direct it to an argu­ment, you got­ta break it down into its parts. What are the qual­i­ties of a cab­bage?”

A stu­dent raised her hand. “It’s pur­ple,” she said.

And what could pur­ple sym­bol­ize in a fem­i­nist argu­ment?”

Nobody had any­thing to say.

What about green? Cabbages are green too. Does green bring any­thing to mind?” I said.

Jealousy,” a stu­dent said.

And maybe some of you have heard about being green, how like if you walk into the Alaskan wilder­ness in win­ter with only a sack of rice, you might be con­sid­ered green? Or if you nev­er skinned a pig before and were try­ing to skin a pig with­out hav­ing been taught how to skin it, you might be con­sid­ered green? You might try and skin that pig with a steak knife, and cut your fin­ger, and get blood all over the meat, or acci­den­tal­ly nick the intestines so the stuff inside spills out all over the meat. You wouldn’t want that to hap­pen, would you? When you’re green it means you don’t know what you’re doing in a thing. When you’re green it means you don’t know jack.”

Nobody, not even the Kim Davis adult, had heard of green stand­ing for inex­pe­ri­ence.

What are some oth­er cab­bage qual­i­ties?” I asked.

They are cheap,” one stu­dent said.

They have lay­ers,” anoth­er stu­dent said.

Excellent, sure,” I said. “And what hap­pens when you start peel­ing off the lay­ers?”

They keep on peel­ing off,” the stu­dent said.

Is there a prize inside?” I asked.

No, they’re all the same. There’s noth­ing inside but what you see on the out­side.”

Would you com­pare your mother’s head to a cab­bage?” I said, and said, “Not just a cab­bage, but a cab­bage with a green hand­ker­chief tied around it with two points stick­ing up like a rabbit’s ears?”

No, every­body agreed, it wasn’t a flat­ter­ing way to think of a woman, so I put in that this might be a site of lack, lack being a thing I’d already told them about, say­ing it orig­i­nat­ed with Sigmund Freud’s notion that lit­tle girls, upon see­ing their broth­ers with hot­dogs between their legs, grew up feel­ing that they were miss­ing some­thing. Using the “reap­pro­pri­a­tion of lack” tenet, they could equal­ly dis­trib­ute the hot­dogs of life, put a lit­tle ketchup and mus­tard on them, and cre­ate a fem­i­nist argu­ment.

I still was think­ing of the cab­bage, though. Seemed like we’d bare to got start­ed on the cab­bage, so I said, “Do some folks eat cab­bage more than oth­ers?”

At that an African-American stu­dent said, “You’re old,” kin­da soft, but loud enough for the class to hear. She may have been pissed that ear­li­er, upon see­ing that she’d only turned in three pages of the four page essay that was due, I’d remind­ed the class that if you only turned in 75% of your essay, grad­ing start­ed at C.  In prac­tice this wasn’t true, but I want­ed every­body to do well, I don’t know why. In truth her writ­ing suf­fered on all five lev­els of “the rubric” that I was, as a teacher, behold­en to. The high­er-ups checked our grades, and when our class­es aver­aged out above a C at the end of the semes­ter, we got a let­ter from the direc­tor say­ing we need­ed to cut back on our gen­eros­i­ty.

In any event, I wasn’t fin­ished with the cab­bage. I said, “Where do you get cab­bage? How about Kentucky Fried Chicken? Where else can you get cab­bage?”

You’re so old,” Shakweena said, a lit­tle loud­er.

Hey, I do remem­ber when the first man land­ed on the moon,” I lied, and said, “I think of cab­bage as a rus­tic kind of food.”

Oh yeah, sure,” Shakweena said, and point­ed at an imag­i­nary per­son and said, “You over there, I can tell you eat cab­bage, yeah, I can just look at you. I can see that you eat cab­bage.”

If you don’t know any­thing about cab­bage,” I con­tin­ued, “you can look it up. Just type cab­bage into Google, and there you go. I’m sure there’s a whole his­to­ry regard­ing—”

That damn woman is a racist honky,” Shakweena said to the air, as if she was not in a class­room filled with peo­ple. “How dare she call me a nig­ger.”

Apply the tenet,” I said. “If you think she’s call­ing you per­son­al­ly what you just said, you can argue that. That’s what you call a strong claim, because a lot of peo­ple would dis­agree. I think you could make that argu­ment, but you got­ta address the coun­ter­ar­gu­ments. I encour­age you to do so. The first thing you got­ta do, as I’ve said since the start of this course, is what?”

Ask ques­tions,” sev­er­al stu­dents said togeth­er.

Why would she call you that? What would be her rea­son, and inten­tion, for call­ing you that? Was that the patri­archy at work on her? What might a fem­i­nist say about—”

I ain’t no god­damn fem­i­nist!” Shakweena said, again to that imag­i­nary per­son stand­ing in the mid­dle of the room.

Another stu­dent chimed in that she was “high­ly offend­ed by Flanstory’s use of the n-word.”

It wasn’t just the n-word,” the only black male in the class put in. “It had the er at the end. That’s a whole bunch of bull­shit I don’t need.”

And you a honky-ass white moth­er­fuck­er just like her,” Shakweena said, look­ing right at me now.

Nobody said a word after that. We were shocked and still. The stu­dents were all look­ing at me, wait­ing to see what I would do, and already grow­ing impa­tient. I fan­cy that I am well tuned to the ges­tures and expres­sions of peo­ple in gen­er­al, even as seen from the periph­ery. The sense I got was that pret­ty much every stu­dent was mad at me for mak­ing them read that sto­ry that “made no sense.” The sto­ry was racist, they said, and did not show sex­ism at work, and my stu­dents kept say­ing stuff like, “I didn’t under­stand what was going on,” and “That grand­moth­er was so damn annoy­ing,” and “Why did that guy act so weird?”

I was no kind of dis­ci­pli­nar­i­an. I couldn’t invite Shakweena into the hall for a talk. It wasn’t me, and what would I do any­way? Spank her? I said, “You might be right, Shakweena. I’m prob­a­bly exact­ly what you said, and don’t even know it,” and then sud­den­ly I was telling them the sto­ry of receiv­ing The World’s Biggest Piece of Shit Award in 1990. I wasn’t talk­ing shit on Mrs. Kerris, my high school English teacher. I was just telling what hap­pened. I didn’t care if they were inter­est­ed or not, but they were very inter­est­ed now, riv­et­ed, I would even say. I men­tioned the shrine Mrs. Kerris had made to Flannery O’Connor, and how she had known the author who said the thing about the cab­bage. Mrs. Kerris’s face, as a mat­ter of fact, did look kin­da like a cab­bage, I said, some­thing about the hair, the way it fell in lay­ers over her head and looked like the edge of a cab­bage leaf where it wig­gled across her fore­head. I said about how Mrs. Kerris’s class was right after lunch, so I always was stoned. I told them all sorts of things they didn’t need to know. My sto­ry brought the class togeth­er, helped us bond, and every­body seemed to be try­ing hard­er. The dis­cus­sion that fol­lowed my sto­ry turned out rich, and by the end of class most stu­dents, Shakweena and Kim Davis includ­ed, under­stood a good bit more about turn­ing the tables on the man.

The next week, though, I get an email from the direc­tor, say­ing that Lisa Horne, my pris­sy white blond girl stu­dent who did not like get­ting her inflat­ed C+ grade on her pre­vi­ous essay, filed a com­plaint about me, not with her (the direc­tor), or the department’s Chair, which would have been the way to go, and not even, either, with the dean. She went straight to the provost, writ­ing that Professor (my name), made racist and sex­ist com­ments in class, that he had a hole in his pants, that he was a drug­gy, and that he was “very unpro­fes­sion­al in gen­er­al” and that—yes, the direc­tor was quot­ing from the student’s letter—“you should seri­ous­ly look into his sta­tus as an employ­ee at such a pres­ti­gious uni­ver­si­ty as this.” The direc­tor said that the let­ter was most­ly ad hominem, but the impres­sion I got was she was damn pissed over the whole thing. Honest to good­ness, I kin­da want­ed to tell her I was the world’s biggest piece of shit, so what could she rea­son­ably expect? Would she under­stand? Would she care if I said attacks direct­ed at The Flan feel as if they are direct­ed at me?

I’m star­ing, though, at my books, like I said, as I stared at them yes­ter­day, and stared at them the day before that, and am star­ing at them now. I’m star­ing at them, think­ing that they are a big prob­lem in my life, think­ing that my job is a prob­lem in my life, think­ing that the coun­try I live in is a prob­lem in my life. As it is Friday, I am think­ing, the recy­cle dump­ster will be open tomor­row between eleven and one. I imag­ine myself dump­ing the books in, box by box, bag by bag, purg­ing myself. There’s no law against it. I used to think that the anni­hi­la­tion of life on the plan­et would be a shame in that Moby Dick would be lost, and lost would be Flannery’s cab­bages and corn, and the love­some voic­es of Faulkner’s tril­o­gy, gone as though they nev­er were to begin with. In the end the words of King Solomon are the prize you find after peel­ing the cab­bage down to its noth­ing core: Life is van­i­ty and a striv­ing after wind. I need to light­en up, so pic­ture Blood Meridian down there in the dump­ster, as it will be tomor­row, and Everything That Rises Must Converge, and my bibles and the works of Harold Brodkey, Mary Robison, Joy Williams, and all the oth­er great writ­ers. Thousands of books. All of it will go. The deed is as good as done.

~

John Oliver Hodges is the author of The Love Box and War of the Crazies. His short sto­ry, “Grout,” is in the cur­rent issue of Texas Review, and his short sto­ries are forth­com­ing from Bull, Near to the Knuckle, Crag, and Fixional, Inc. He lives in New Jersey, where he teach­es writ­ing at Montclair State University. His first nov­el, Quizzleboon, is set for release this year from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing.