SEDALIA, Mo. It’s the final round of the third-grade spelling bee at Sacred Heart Elementary School in this small Midwestern town, and you could cut the tension in the school’s gymnasium with a wooden ice cream spoon.
The two finalists are Dixie Lee Ray, a tall girl with dark brown hair, and Teddy Grotka, a shorter boy wearing the tie and white shirt his mother bought him for his First Holy Communion.
The metal folding chairs are packed with parents, teachers and students, all perched on the edge of their seats. Only one person looks out of place; a middle-aged man with a sport shirt open at the collar to reveal a gaudy gold chain on his hairy chest. He skulks along the back wall of the gym holding a Dora the Explorer back-pack in each hand, one blue, one pink.
Lloyd “C-Note” Daniels, the apparent intruder, is a new element in the increasingly high-stakes world of competitive spelling; a sports agent who stands to make millions if he can sign a young phenom and serve as escort to the world of professional orthography and big-ticket product endorsements.
“The smart money’s on Dixie Lee,” says Daniels as his eyes scan the room for the school’s principal, a Precious Blood nun named Sister Mary Joseph Arimathea whom the agent describes as a “holy pain in the ass.” “Teddy’s a comer, no doubt about it, but Dixie Lee’s parents are professors at State Fair Community College, so she’s got the bloodlines,” says Daniels, handicapping the action.
Spelling bees, like beach volleyball, had been around for years before a “perfect storm” came together in the entertainment industry to bring them to national prominence; the documentary film “Spellbound,” the Broadway musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” and the movie “Akeelah and the Bee.” “Before all the hoopla, I had this gig pretty much to myself,” says Daniels. “Now, guys who used to schlep sneakers around to CYO basketball tournaments are trying to horn in on my game.”
Teddy Grotka steps to the microphone to spell the first word of the final round. The moderator, Sister Mary Clarus, the school’s no-nonsense music instructor, calls out “accelerator.”
Teddy is obviously nervous, and Daniels watches closely to see how the boy handles himself in this clutch situation.
“Use in a sentence, please,” the boy says, and after a moment’s thought, the nun says “When the green light turns to yellow, Mommy steps down hard on the accelerator,” to scattered laughter.
“Did you see that?” says Daniels, folding his arms across his chest as if he is evaluating the brush strokes in a Caravaggio. “He knows what the word means. He just asked for a context check the way a good point guard calls a 20-second timeout–to settle things down. Smart,” the agent explains. He nods his head at the same time as he starts to tap his temple, and ends up poking himself in the eye.
Up on stage, Grotka clears his throat and begins. “Accelerator. A-C-C-E-L”
“Lot of kids will say ‘O’ now if they’re spelling phonetically,” Daniels says. “Street smarts are okay, but you want kids with good fundamentals, too.”
Grotka pauses, and a mind-reader would see his brain running through the possible vowels to use–A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y–for the next letter. The gym is as quiet as it was the day before when the seventh-grade basketball team needed two last-minute free throws from power forward Earl Glehrke to stave off a late rally by archrival Knob Noster.
“E”, Grotka says, and the rest of the letters spill out like SpaghettiO’s from a can. “R-A-T-O-R”, the boy declaims, and Daniels is duly impressed.
“The kid nailed it,” he says. “He’s got Kool-Aid in his veins.”
Dixie Lee is next, and she strides forward with a confident air that borders on cockiness. “She’s like a Derek Jeter, you know?” says Daniels, “’cause she’s got that playoff experience under her belt.” Indeed, the slim girl with harlequin glasses scored a perfect “100″ in last year’s second-grade competition, advancing to the regionals in Green Ridge, Mo. before transposing the first “a” and the “u” in “restaurant.”
Sister Mary Clarus calls the word “malfeasance,” and a murmur rises from the crowd. “Geez,” Daniels says with a bewildered look on his face. “That’s not part of a third-grade curriculum. She can handle it, but it’s not gonna be easy.”
The girl clears her throat but doesn’t hesitate. “Malfeasance,” she begins. “M-A-L-F-E-I–”
A groan goes up from Dixie Lee’s mother, and just like that it’s over. At first, Teddy Grotka doesn’t realize what has happened since he’s never heard the word that brought him victory. When he sees the girl break into tears, however, he leaps out of his chair and pumps his fist before heeding hand signals from his mother not to incur a personal foul for excessive celebration.
It’s time for Daniels to make his move. “I’m going after both of them,” he says as he picks up the backpacks and moves to the door through which the students will return to their classrooms.
“Hey Teddy–great job! Dixie Lee–tough, tough word, okay? I got something for both of youse.”
Sister Mary Joseph Arimathea sees Daniels and moves to cut him off. “Get out of my school, you scumbag!” she screams.
“Hey Sister Joe, I don’t want no trouble, okay? You’re doing your job, and I’m just doing mine.”
“Dora!” Dixie Lee squeals with excitement when she sees the pink backpack.
“There you go sweetie,” Daniels says as he hands it to her. “It’s got an Artgum eraser in it and some Eberhard-Faber pencils and . . .”
Arimathea grabs the backpack and throws it in the school’s lost and found bin. “That’s what I think of you and your . . . your . . . bullfeathers!” she says, spitting the words out with fury.
“I want Dora!” Dixie Lee cries, and the flow of tears she had stanched before begins again.
“Here sweetie–I got some Sour Patch Kids for you,” Daniels says as he slips the girl a pack of the soft and chewy treats before she runs off in tears to the girls’ room.
“You’re going to ruin her amateur standing,” the nun screams, her red face brilliant against her white habit.
“What about me?” Teddy says as he tugs at Daniels’ sport shirt.
Cool Blessed Virgin Scapular
“You?” Daniels asks expansively. “You’re the champ! You get one too!” he says as he hands the boy his backpack. “Scram, okay?” the agent whispers. “I’ll meet you over by the teeter-totters,” and the boy eludes the grasp of the angry principal.
“It’s people like you who are ruining spelling!” Arimathea says, her face so close to the agent’s you couldn’t slip a scapular between them.
“Sis–don’t look at me. I could never spell for nuthin’, but at least I’m honest, unlike some of the maggots you got in the game today.”
“Like who?” she asks.
Daniels’ glance turns towards the girls’ room where a shadowy figure hands over a Barbie Dream House to Dixie Lee. “I’m not gonna mention any names,” Daniels whispers, “but his initials are Jimmy ‘The Squid’ Alfonso.”
The nun recoils in horror at the scene before her. “Point shaving? In my school?”
“Let she who is without sin,” Daniels says smugly before stalling as he forgets the rest of the homily. “Ding-a-ling-ling-ling, or whatever.”
Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Fun With Nuns.”