It was unfortunate for Walter Waddles that he struggled mightily with his weight, a not all too uncommon affliction these days, but a surname like his was fodder for an unceasing commentary on his unbalanced gait brought on by an accompanying and rather prodigious girth. Further cause for ridicule from his puerile classmates at Robert E. Seaman elementary was the fact that his feet were splayed and compressed under the burden they bore, and while one shoe was worn down on its outer edge from supination, the other was slanted opposite from pronation and the result was that Walter Waddles … well, he waddled.
He thought that he had heard them all, and with characteristic aplomb executed peremptory strikes upon himself whenever he anticipated an upcoming wave of tired epithets. He was fortunate to have one friend he could count on to act as his straight-man in setting up his jokes. Scotty Szabo was another favorite target of the boys in sixth grade. His constant state of dishevelment didn’t help much, but the thing that made Scotty a fellow outcast was his sinuses. Snotty Scotty Szabo did not handle the attention half as well as his gravity-challenged friend and was often in tears, his face turned toward the wall in shame over his display of weakness. So, helping Walter make fun of himself was a pleasant distraction from being called Booger, and the rest, by those he referred to as the Neanderthals.
As he shuffled along next to his friend, weaving side to side to maintain a safe berth around Walter’s waddles, he was constantly tucking in his shirt tail and tugging at his too-loose belt in an effort to keep from falling apart entirely and providing the cafeteria with his PG version of the Full Monty, though the Partial Monty would be humiliating enough he was sure. His face swiveled between the crowd and Walter, waiting for his cue to begin, but Walter waddled silently, his face looking as if he was lost in thought.
As they rounded the Geek table, seating only a trifle above their station, but above it nonetheless, Scotty’s anxiety ratcheted up a notch. The Smart table was next and luckily most of the Honor Roll had their noses as deeply embedded in books as Scotty’s typically was in Kleenex. Still, he felt a bead of perspiration roll down his back as Klaxons began to sound when they came abreast of the Cool table and in hailing distance of the dreaded Jock table. The alarms in his head got louder with each step as he kept looking to Walter for his usual good humored ribbing of himself. When nothing came, and Walter still looked otherwhere, Scotty tugged at Walter’s sleeve stopping him dead in his tracks. Walter, his reverie now interrupted, nearly overturned his tray, but his deceptively quick reflexes were employed to rescue his chocolate milk and peanut butter cookies from taking a swim in his Chicken á lá King.
“Dude! What’s your problem? You almost made me spill my lunch—” Walter’s mouth hung open and his eyes swept the breadth of their field as he came to grips with their predicament. His friend’s raised eyebrows, palms-up shrug, and more-pale-than-usual face gave him his answer. In his next breath he reflexively launched into their comedy routine.
“Do you have any idea what would happen if I had spilled this and had to miss a meal,” he said loudly enough to be heard above the din. Time slowed as he took in all the social cues of the lunch room setting, and measured all the non-verbal indices to judge the efficacy of the ploy. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it sunk like a lead balloon and made things even worse. In an instant he assessed who was paying attention and their knee-jerk reaction to his opening line. He noticed where the authority figures were in case things took a turn for the worse, he mentally mapped out and prioritized, according to time, the paths of least resistance for their potential egress.
As he came back to the center of his and Scotty’s too small circle, Walter’s gaze met Sarah Wrezin’s and he inwardly winced at what he read in her expression. It was somewhere between sadness in recognition of why he was about to do what he was about to do, and disappointment for the same. Sarah tilted her head idiosyncratically, and swept her chestnut hair from in front of her face and behind an ear in that very alluring way that only she could. She was pushing her food around the sectioned Styrofoam plate and Walter felt as if her now uncovered, and oh so delectable, ear was tuning in so she could hear more clearly what he was about to say.
“Yeah, your little snot faced friend is gonna have just a bit less shade during recess,” Butchy Knox barked as he stood up and leaned toward him with both fists planted on the Jock table. He towered over Sarah’s back even with the table and bench between them. Having been left back twice, Butchy sported the beginnings of a mustache that Walter believed he thickened with mascara. His antics got the usual guffaws and the jocks fell all over themselves in a self-congratulatory orgy of high fives, fist bumps and pats on the back. Butchy had his head canted and his lips twisted in a “so-what-d’ya-got-to-say-about-that,” look that invited a response only from the uninitiated.
Walter Waddles had an advanced degree in bullying and knew better than to take the bait. He tugged his arm to get away from Scotty’s grip of his sleeve and waddled off toward the folding table the two sat at daily. Scotty followed in his wake, his ever present sniffles now more pronounced. Walter knew that Scotty was traumatized. Although merely collateral damage, his bully-induced PTSD kicked in without fail.
As Walter lowered himself slowly onto the folding chair he looked up at Scotty who was lost in a fuzzy haze of tears and smudged Clark Kent glasses. His constant wiping of his nose meant constant cleaning of his glasses and when he cried he was nearly blind. Walter reached up and took his friend’s tray, then grabbing him gently by the elbow, guided him into his seat. The table had been provided by Mrs. Marchant, the lunch room monitor, after several failed attempts to force assimilation of the two misfits into one of the hybrid tables.
“Blow your nose, man. And take it easy when you do, please. You’re not in band practice, ya know? Besides, when you get down with it, it sort of ruins my appetite a bit. Nothing personal.”
Messing with each other was their palliative for the wounds of alienation. They always laughed at one another and themselves in spite of how they felt on the inside. Scotty constantly quoted his grandfather as having said, “A balm for an irritated spirit, laughter is,” but Walter believed Scotty had made the aphorism up himself.
Scotty had his handkerchief to hand, but changed his mind about using it when he squeezed his eyes shut to clear them of the tears and then, seeing just how soiled it had gotten that morning, opted for a wad of lunchroom napkins instead, the latter taken from Walter’s tray. Walter reached his hand out to protest, but was too slow.
“Mountain Cedar must be bad today,” Scotty droned, his sinuses now inflamed and adding to his nasal tone. Walter always pictured him wearing a mitten over his rather large schnoz when he got like this, but of course he never told his best friend that.
“A double hanky day, is it?” he asked sarcastically and winked when Scotty looked up to meet his mirthful grin.
“Ha ha, very funny. How’d you like it if I break out the Neti pot? It’s right here,” he threatened thumbing over his shoulder at his overstuffed backpack. He then slipped a strap off one shoulder, letting the backpack slide to the floor with a resounding thump.
“Okay, okay. Not the Neti pot, sheesh. Like that’s gonna do us anything but bad right about now. Butchy is still eyeballing us and … Oh crap, here comes Mr. Kornfield.”
The Wrestling coach swaggered down the aisle flashing his best sleazy lounge lizard smile at each table and waving like some pageant winner atop a float at a parade. As usual, he had on his polyester Sansabelt Coach’s shorts that were so tight they left little to the imagination, and cracking his knuckles while he surreptitiously (or so he thought) flexed his muscles, and chewed on a pod of carob.
“Look at this fool preening like a Cock-a-freakin’ Doodle-Doo. What a moron,” Walter said into his sandwich as he looked down at his tray in an attempt to avoid eye contact with the man Scotty called, Commander Caveman. Coach stopped at the Jock table right on schedule. He was as predictable as a train in the anal retentive Third Reich and as regular as Walter’s Grandmother with her regimen of prunes and prune juice. He held his fist out lazily to the table of athletes, allowing them the privilege of coming to him to ceremonially kiss his ring with a fist bump. No, really, Coach Kornfield never went anywhere without his NCAA championship wrestling ring and it made him a minor deity in the eyes of the congregation of knuckle draggers.
“What’s poppin’ men,” Coach asked the table at large, in what Walter had once described to Scotty as his Bassetto voice.
“You know, like falsetto, but at the other end of the register. With his fake-behind Barry White imitation. I think he turns himself on that way or something, clearly a Narcosissist.”
“I think you mean, Narcissist.”
“Not with him I don’t,” Walter had replied dryly.
Both boys froze and slowly returned their attention to their lunch trays as the Coach turned to look in their direction in response to the spirited mutterings and snickering of the Jock table. They both knew what this precipitated. The Coach was about to give them another of his Man up lessons which were always part boring lecture and torturous practical application followed by the humiliating, Gimme Ten. While not one iota of it was fun, the last was downright crippling because neither of them could crank out a single push up and everybody knew it. Consequently, it turned into a lunchroom of ridicule that had even some of the lunch line servers and dishwashers watching and laughing as they leaned out the window of the tray return.
“I gotta go to the Nurse’s office, Walter. It’s time for my allergy medication,” Scotty said as he curtailed his chewing rather abruptly with a pronounced and exaggerated swallow, and an audible, “ulp,” that made him look like a some kind of constrictor snake digesting a goat. Scotty stood up with his tray in one hand and pushed his thick glasses back up the bridge of his nose with the other. After that he was out of sight so fast that Walter imagined he had seen a little puff of a cloud like that left when the Road Runner said, “Meep Meep,” and was gone in Looney Tunes cartoons. He was going to have to pull his own Road Runner if he was going to get away from Wile E. Coyote.
When the Coach wasn’t swaggering, he was sauntering, the latter executed with twists of his neck and interlaced fingers turned and pushed out before him, both of which made audible cracking sounds as his joints popped. He would then twist his NCAA championship wrestling ring like he was winding himself up or something. All this Walter saw in his mind’s eye because he couldn’t allow even his peripheral vision to go in the Coach’s direction. It was like in the movie Jurassic Park, where the Anthropologist told the kids not to move because the T-Rex responded to movement. Unfortunately, the T-Rex that was the coach responded to the scent of fear and Walter was giving that off in copious waves.
“Now where in the world did I put my ACME credit card,” Walter thought to himself, which caused him to chuckle.
“Something funny, Waddles?”
The Coach always managed to say his last name as if it was some sort of cuss word when he spat it at him, and with a look on his face that told Walter that saying it left a bad taste in the Rooster’s beak.
“No, Coach,” he mumbled into his upturned carton of chocolate milk.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you, son,” he said with a raised voice.
The background noise decreased ever so slightly as more and more tables became aware that it was show time. Elbowed ribs and whispered, Check it outs, rippled away from the epicenter of Walter Waddles impending humiliation.
Walter slowly returned his now empty carton of chocolate milk to a corner of his tray. He placed both his hands on the card table, fingers tented down, making his hands look like two chubby spiders. And with dramatic slowness, he turned his eyes to look up into the Coach’s red face. He tried his best to keep his own expression neutral, devoid of anything that could be construed as confrontational, and with feigned innocence drawled, “yes, Coach.”
As he looked into the bulging eyes, and soon-to-be-splattered-in-his-face spittle that flecked the coach’s lips, Walter realized that the man had worked himself into apoplexy for absolutely no apparent reason. “Does the man have one of those carob pods stuck sideways on his exit ramp, or what,” he wondered to himself. “I think he must be neurotic. Or, no. What is it? Neurotics build castles in the air, and psychotics live in them? Yeah, psychotic.”
He waited for the coach to say something, but all the man did was huff and puff like the Wolf trying to blow down the third pig’s brick house. Finally, the coach took a long, slow breath that Walter thought calmed him down. Wrong.
“If you think I’m going to stand here and listen to your smart Alec attitude, you got another thing coming, fat boy,” he nearly screamed.
Shifting his focus past the coach, Walter noticed that even the Jocks shrunk back a bit. Butchy Knox sat down with a look of incredulity on his face, but it was one pleased with the magnitude of the trouble Walter appeared to have gotten himself into now.
“I’m sorry, Coach,” was all he said as he continued to hold the coach’s angry gaze, unable to look away.
“Sorry isn’t good enough, son. That’s your problem right there, you don’t know how to be anything but sorry. Look at you, sloppy, lazy, and stupid.”
Walter could take a lot of crap, and had, from a lot of people over the years. After all, he had been overweight in kindergarten and it’s no secret that kids can be cruel to one another. Walter had gotten used to being made fun of and had to laugh at the irony of his last name when he had a walk to match it. But there was one thing Walter could not abide being accused of, and that was stupidity.
It rarely happened anymore. Too many had witnessed the comebacks from the kid who did nothing for entertainment but read. Walter read everything he could get his hands on from Comic books to ingredient labels. He was a god of Google, and everybody knew better than to mess with him on social media or anywhere else when it came to his intelligence. Everyone, that is, but Coach Kornfield. He hadn’t gotten the memo, much to his soon to be dismay.
“Stupid? Did you just call me stupid,” Walter asked as his demeanor shifted. His heretofore wide eyes narrowed, his brow furrowed, and his slack-jawed mouth became thin and hard. He collapsed his hands, placing both palms flat on the table. Walter leaned toward the Coach, and though half a foot shorter, he seemed to be standing eye to eye with him. “’Cause I’ll tell you what’s stupid, Coach Kornfield, a grown man picking an argument with a twelve year old, that’s what’s stupid.”
The class bell sounded, but in the completely silent lunchroom not a butt left its seat nor stirred. The hum of the oscillating fans, and the rippling of the mural one of the art classes had painted that hung on the wall, was the only sound besides the distant clatter of trays being washed in the kitchen and the fading echo of the bell. Walter momentarily looked over to see Sarah smiling as the Coach looked up at the clock and then back at Walter. Coach Kornfield had clearly been rendered speechless. So Walter continued.
“So, no, Coach, he continued, I’m not stupid. As I said, I’m sorry. I’m sorry that your life hit a high point ten years ago and all you seem capable of doing is walking around as if your glory days of the NCAA wrestling championship were yesterday. I’m sorry you feel so bad about yourself on the inside that the only way to feel better is to belittle anyone and everyone who you perceive as weaker. But mostly, Coach Kornfield, I’m sorry because I don’t have time for this nonsense that feeds your ego. That was the bell and I have English class this period.”
Walter grabbed one of his peanut butter cookies and popped it in his mouth as he looked the stunned coach right in the eye. He bent down to pick up his backpack and then slipped it on. Walter picked up his tray, turned on his heel, and without another word to anyone, Walter Waddles waddled away.
M. Zane McClellan
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