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.