That Doublemint Smile

I didn’t see him for a month, and then, holy feces, there he was in third-period English. “Why did Pickle come back to school?”

“Truant officer,” Sammie Davis Jr. said. 

“How do you know?” 

Sammie watched my face. “My moms was the school secretary when they closed Fredrick Douglass. Two weeks ago, she caught a gig with Mr. Boone. She said Pick’s one strike away from spending the rest of the semester at Lost Boys Ranch.” 

Reform school. And now there’s a Negro in the school office? Bob Dylan, the times they are a changing.

Mrs. Lane commanded our attention again by moving between Sammie Davis and me. “Cutie, MBe has just told us that Fitzgerald doesn’t take women seriously. Do you agree?”

I shook my head, an admission that I hadn’t been listening.

“Please, read this line.” She pointed to a page in my Gatsby novel.

“Dishonesty in a woman is a thing you never blame deeply,” I read. “I was casually sorry, and then I forgot.”

“Did Nick blow off Jordan Baker’s dishonesty?”

I shrugged at MBe. “I guess so. Nick saw Jordan cheat at golf. But she was a foxy chick, and mysterious, and a heck of a jock. So yeah, the dude probably slid her a pass.”

“Because she was desirable.” Mrs. Lane drilled deeper. “And is that ironic?”

“Sure, because Nick says he’s the only honest man he knows.” And then, for a reason I couldn’t explain, I felt compelled to cover for Nick Carraway. “But beautiful people always get passes.” 

Probably five people in the entire classroom were really, actually interested in Gatsby and Daisy. The rest were window gazing, waiting for the lunch bell. We shared an un-air conditioned room with thirty-one warm bodies on a late-spring morning, and Sophomore Lit was apparently just too uninspiring for Pickle Andersen. His eyelids flew at half-mast for two minutes before he lost all interest in remaining conscious.

“Don’t you dare lay your head on that desk,” Mrs. Lane aimed a low voice at his ear.

And that’s when six trivial events flowed into a nexus that changed my life. One: Pickle’s head propelled upwards like the bobblehead Precious Jesus on the dash of Nan’s Chevy. Two: he blearily eyeballed Mrs. Lane. The third: cheerleaders and pep squad girls were permitted to show up late on football Fridays, and at that moment O’Murphy Scott sauntered in wearing a virgin-white letter sweater, scarlet D centered on her chest. In a moment of translucence, sunlight struck those morning-glory blue eyes. And so that sizzle was number four: every school has a babe that sizzles, and for Hell Creek High that was O’Murphy Scott.

It all just struck me as hilarious. I suppressed a giggle–actually, it was more of an involuntary snort. That was trivial event number five. And then my numbering gets a little fuzzy, because then O’Murphy snickered at my snort, and then she flashed that Doublemint smile to everyone, and then thirty of us cracked up. So maybe it was seven or eight.

O’Murphy turned and grinned as if she really admired me. 

Gee, I wish you wouldn’t look at me like that. Don’t you know I’m stuck on you?

And that’s when Pickle shot me that look, and that’s when I realized my giggle had been l’erreur fatale

Mrs. Lane–probably the smallest teacher any of us had ever seen–stepped into Pickle’s line of sight and intercepted his warning shot. 

“Is Teach an actual midget?” Sammie Davis Jr. murmured from one side of her mouth.

“Hey! I love Mrs. Lane. She’s my fave.” I wanted a girlfriend just like her. Anyway, she was more like a teammate than a teacher. She was energetic, she valued us, and she assumed we could do whatever she challenged. “Anyway, there’s no height requirement for teaching.”

Sammie grinned.

“Seriously.” I always say seriously when I’m not serious. “Legally, she’s not midget anyway. She’d have to be four-foot six or under. Look it up. It’s in the dictionary.”

“What’s Gatsby really about?” Mrs. Lane demanded of Pickle.

Pick turned so red I could’ve lit a Lucky Strike off his nose.

“Best guess?” Sammie whispered. “Pickle hasn’t touched a book since The Little Engine that Could.”

But instead of answering in that preposterously strangled schoolgirl voice, Pickle turned to me. And in that moment, I felt a little sorry for him.

Mrs. Lane intercepted again. “Anyone want to let Dillon off the hook? What’s one theme of The Great Gatsby?”

That put me between a rock and a rigid spot. Three years ago, our seventh-grade teacher had passed out his own list of the hundred greatest books in the English language. I’d spent that summer on 1984, Animal Farm, Catcher in the RyeEast of EdenGatsby, Grapes of Wrath, Lord of the Flies and The Maltese Falcon. Everyone knows I’m hyperliterate, so Pick glared red when I didn’t answer the question for him. I should’ve, but my two worst qualities picked that very moment to stir up a doodie pile. I admit, I go a little Rosa Parks when someone tries to intimidate me. Gloating is my second-worst quality; that’s what I did when a teacher the size of Shirley Temple handed Dill Pickle his head. Which is sorta the point of gloating: some testicles-for-brains thinks he won–but whoa, sorry, Dillon Andersen just lost.

“One theme?”

“It’s a love story?” O’Murphy answered without really knowing.

Sammie leaned into me. “This is the chick who put the choo in your coo-coo-ca-choo?” 

I blushed like a virgin bride. Sammie and I also shared a spring semester French class. “Respects’il vous plaît. One day, I intend to make O’Murphy Scott an honest woman.” 

“Anybody? Anybody? What’s one overarching theme of The Great Gatsby?” Mrs. Lane stared at Pickle but addressed me: “I’ll give you a hint: Cortez, is Daisy Buchanan for sale?” 

“For sale? That’s such an unmusical way to put it . . . ” 

She and Sammie Davis chuckled, and the rest of the class laughed on my cue. 

Mrs. Lane smirked affectionately. “Avoid being the class clown for the next four minutes.”

“Yeah, I guess ‘Money is the root of all evil’ is the big theme. The whole book is about how people act differently because they have money.”

“So how does wealth affect all the rich people?”

“Well, Daisy ditched Gatsby because he was as poor as a red-dirt Okie. And she married Tom because he . . . ”

“Marriage slavery?” Mrs. Lane interrupted.

“Her parents have cash registers for hearts, so yes ma’am, I think they sold her into marriage. And her cousin, Nick, is a moneychanger. And freeloaders come to Gatsby’s parties just to mooch his food and liquor; most of them don’t even know what he looks like. Gatsby’s bud fixed the World Series so they could bet on it. Myrtle Wilson is a cheaper version of Daisy; she prostituted herself to Tom because he’s rich. So, didn’t everybody sell themselves?”

“Including Gatsby?”

“Yeah. Sure. Tom Buchanan was right. Gatsby became a criminal.” 

“So he could . . .” Mrs. Lane prompted.

“ . . . so he could get rich and take his best shot at Daisy.”

“And so . . . ”

“I think Gatsby sold his soul to the devil,” I concluded. “That’s what some people do–how they get what they want.”

“Yeah,” O’Murphy and Sammie chorused. O’Murphy cut her eyes at me, something she did more and more these days. 

Pickle watched O’Murphy and turned to me. I saw his suspicion.

So did O’Murphy. “And . . . ”

“Murph?” Mrs. Lane asked.

“ . . . well, devil sounds like evil? When you deal with the devil, you’re choosing evil?”

“Curtis, do you agree with O’Murphy?”

I thought for a second. “Is what O’Murphy said a moral truth?”

“A profound moral truth,” Mrs. Lane said. “Yes. I think that is a mot juste–just the right word. Is Gatsby a moral monster?”

My classmates looked surprised by Mrs. Lane’s question. Like me, they’d probably just assumed Gatsby couldn’t be the villain if the story was about him.

“Yeah, hmm, themes,” Mrs. Lane asked. “Let’s recall, what is a theme?”

O’Murphy answered Mrs. Lane with a question: “It’s the central idea?”

“Yes, thanks, that is the textbook definition. MBe, can you tell me in your own words what Murph means?” Mrs. Lane paused. “How can you tell–just by reading–what is a theme?”

“It’s something that keeps coming up,” I said. “The slick cars, the food, the parties, the rich peo . . . ”

“You see, Curtis and O’Murphy recognize the themes of The Great Gatsby. And how do they do that, Dillon?”

Pickle glared at me again. 

“Look at me,” Mrs. Lane stepped into Pickle’s line of sight a third time.

The bell rang. 

Saved. Wow, eleven-twenty-five A.M. already.

“Before you leave, take one of these books,” Mrs. Lane handed a skinny hardback to Pickle. “I think you may like this. A Tulsa girl your age set The Outsiders right here in Oklahoma, and the publisher sent us a box of advance copies.”

As much as Pickle detested school, I loved learning. I was always disappointed when my school day was done. Mother worked split shifts, so she watched afternoon soap operas–The Edge of Night was her fave. School was my daytime soap: gossip, sports, pep rallies, library, Romeo-and-Juliet romances . . . When classes were over, I had to deliver papers and go home. I stuffed The Outsiders and Gatsby into my canvas newspaper bag. 

“Cortez!” Mrs. Lane began. “You’re one of my best students. But you underestimate yourself, don’t you? You ought to get to know yourself better. You’re creative with words. You’ve got a sardonic literary wit. When you talk, other people grin, but I don’t think you’d smile if you had a coat hanger in your mouth. How can people know you’re a loveable person if you never smile? Devote five minutes a day to smiling, and smiling will come naturally.”

“Is that the sound of B.S.?”

“Maybe. But, of course, you’ve never tried it, have you?

Good point. Maybe that’s why I’m such a loner.

“Do you think other students see you as a nerd?”

“Maybe. Or maybe it’s because I am a nerd.” 

“Okay, well, maybe I’m too intellectual too. That’s what my husband says, anyway. You know where that word came from? Dr. Seuss had a creature in . . . ”

“ . . . If I Ran the Zoo,” I finished her sentence

“A nerkle, a nerd, and a seersucker too. You’re fortunate to have a brilliant mind,” Mrs. Lane said. “One-thirty-five IQ. That’s a great enabler.”

So they say. Lucky to have a genius IQ. But being smart separates me from the herd. It’s why the other kids don’t like me. It’s why I can’t communicate with girls. I think it must be why I have nothing in common with anti-intellectual dunderheads like the Andersens, why they bully me out of their sight. Maybe it’s just human to be hostile to outsiders. I need to find a tribe of smart, educated people. But where do such people live?

“See you Monday,” Mrs. Lane called out.