Spelling Bee Redemption
by Bill Jeffries
Leonard was still licking the wounds from his Mister Universe defeat as his wife Vicky waited to take the microphone in the Karaoke contest. He had come on the cruise hoping for some marital companionship. Vicky had come to win.
The night before, the ship had held a Mister Universe contest. This was not a measurement of physical strength or good looks, but a series of silly acts that the contestants had to perform. It was the last thing Leonard would've signed up for, but Vicky literally pushed him into it. They both quickly regretted it.
In the first act, the contestants had to perform a modified striptease. Many of the men participating had jackets and ties they could use as props in their dance. Leonard was only wearing a faded Izod shirt and jeans. So, when it was his turn, all he thought to do was rip off the shirt and start something that very loosely resembled a belly dance. Vicky sank in her seat the second Leonard's shirt came off. He flashed his middle-aged paunch, bird cage chest, and blinding white skin to his fellow passengers.
As he struggled to synchronize his body into some form of shimmy, his comb-over began spiraling like a dust twister above his head. Laughter erupted from the audience. Vicky's face flushed. Then, inexplicably, Leonard decided to transition into a Michael Jackson moonwalk. This is when he rolled his ankle and went crashing into the nearest table, sending drinks flying and leaving him with a cut on his face. When he limped back to his table, Vicky had left.
Now they were in another of the ship's many lounges waiting for the Karaoke contest to start.
"Where's our server? I can't take the stage without a drink!"
"Well, honey, I'm sure—" Leonard began.
"Leonard, go find a server. Before I freak."
Leonard didn't need to be warned twice. He'd stood by helplessly many times in the past during a Vicky Freakout. He went to the closest server, who was at a nearby table taking orders. Moments like this were torture for him. His passive side didn't want to intrude. But the fearful side of him wanted to interrupt and get some attention before Vicky melted down.
Fear always won. Leonard tapped the server on the shoulder. The server ignored him. Leonard tapped again. This time, the server slowly turned towards Leonard before saying, "I'll be with you in a second, Mister Universe." The server followed the sarcastic remark with a slight bow. Giggles and then laughter spilled out of the people at the table.
Leonard looked back at Vicky. She was glaring at him. He panicked and went straight to the bar, wedging himself between two other patrons, and ordered a vodka tonic with such a sense of urgency that one would have thought the ship was sinking. He brought the drink back to Vicky, who immediately criticized his effort.
"How many times do I have to say, 'No lime'?" She took the lime from the glass and tossed it on the table. By this time, the server had finally made his way to their table.
"Ah, I see you're all set."
"Not really," Vicky replied. She chugged her drink. "I'll take another." Before the server could fill her order, Vicky's name was announced as the next contestant. She stood up, adjusted her pants, and said to Leonard, "Get ready for some glory."
But it was not glory that Leonard felt as Vicky started singing. She was belting out "Living on a Prayer" in what can only be described as a sound resembling a cat trapped inside a running clothes dryer. And, while Leonard's dance moves had been frightening, Vicky's were not much better. She repeatedly twisted her own middle-aged body down to a half squat and back up again. Repeatedly. With each downward move, there was a greater and greater chance that a button from either her blouse or pants would fire like a missile into the innocent crowd.
And, like Leonard the night before, she was quickly eliminated from competition. However, unlike Leonard, she was undeterred, and started scanning the ship schedule for the next opportunity.
"Do you want to just take a walk? The stars are probably amazing," Leonard offered.
"Leonard, did you see the effort I just gave up there? I'm exhausted."
"Then how about we find a quieter lounge and just listen to some music or something."
"Ooh, look at this," Vicky said, ignoring his comment. She held out the following day's schedule of events. "There's an eighties music trivia contest tomorrow."
Leonard sighed and glanced at the sheet held in front of his face. But what caught his eye was not the trivia contest but a spelling bee.
"Hey!" he said, perking up. "A spelling bee. That's something I could win."
"A spelling bee?" Vicky spun the sheet back so she could read it. "No. I'm not watching you humiliate yourself again. That's for kids, anyway."
"I never told you about my spelling bee?"
"My spelling bee. In seventh grade. I won my school spelling bee and got to compete in the county championships."
"Wait a minute, Leonard. I'm married to the county spelling bee champion? Look at me!"
"I didn't win."
"I didn't win. I choked."
"I practiced for weeks. The winner was going to advance to states. And the winner of that was going to move on to nationals. All day long in school I'd daydream about being on TV in the National Spelling Bee. People would be cheering me on back home; asking me if I was nervous and how I was handling the pressure. It was my chance to be a local legend."
Leonard looked over to see if Vicky was paying attention. To his surprise, she was. Or appeared to be.
"I breezed through the first three rounds. No hesitation. I knew I had it. Then they gave me the word 'systematic.' This was actually a word I had PRACTICED. I saw the entire word in my head. Just had to connect it to my mouth. Right as I started I noticed a pretty girl sitting in the first row. Why hadn't I noticed her before? I don't know. Did she want me to win? Or to lose? I got so distracted. I couldn't even start. I just stood there. Then they asked me to step down. I walked backstage and broke down. It's haunted me ever since."
"And so you want to risk reliving that as an adult?"
"I don't know. I think I want to redeem myself."
The next day, Leonard was alone in their cabin preparing himself mentally for his moment of glory. He looked into the mirror and took a deep breath. As he studied himself, the image in the mirror transformed into a twelve-year-old boy.
The boy was standing behind a microphone on the stage in a big auditorium. He wore a jacket that hung off his skinny frame like a drape. Off to the side, a man read off a word. The boy adjusted his glasses and stared into the audience. Then he began spelling the word. He spelled it clearly and correctly. The audience erupted into applause and the boy was mobbed as he was presented with a trophy as tall as him. Girls lined up to get their picture with him. Leonard squeezed his eyes shut, a smile creasing his face. When he opened, the image had returned to Leonard in his cabin.
"That was cruel," Leonard whispered to the mirror.
Vicky walked into the cabin and stared at him. "What did you say?" Vicky asked.
"Nothing. Talking to myself. Well, I'm off. Wish me luck?"
"Good luck. Don't lose to a kid picking his nose."
"Are you going to come at all?"
"I don't think I could take it, Leonard. No way."
She looked up at him. "No way. N-O-W-A-Y. No. Way."
He left and made his way to the lounge where they were holding the spelling bee. When he got there, most of the tables were already filled with families there to watch and cheer. Leonard found the cruise director in charge.
"Do I need to sign up for the spelling bee?"
"Yes, sir. Just write down the name of your child on this clipboard."
"Oh. Actually it's not for a child. I would like to enter."
The cruise director stared at him, waiting for the punchline.
"Ah. Sure. Why not?" She handed the clipboard to Leonard.
He wrote his name and then stood around awkwardly, not sure what to do or say. He watched a few kids come up and put their name down before walking back to their family. He did not see a single adult enter their name.
After a time, the cruise director announced that the spelling bee would start soon and that all contestants should line up side-by-side at the front of the room. Leonard quickly stepped forward and placed himself in the middle of the line.
Standing on his left was a girl that looked to be around twelve years old or so. On his right was a boy about ten. The girl was engaged in a conversation with another girl next to her. The boy was staring out through thick glasses, looking serious. Leonard turned to the boy and bent down. "Good luck, young man." He held out his hand to shake. The boy turned and stared at him. He looked down at Leonard's outstretched hand and then back to Leonard.
"I'm going to kick your ass," the boy said.
Leonard shot straight back up, face flushed. Did that just happen? He scanned the room to see if Vicky had made it. But he didn't see her.
A woman approached the boy and started making Mom-type adjustments, straightening his clothes and patting down his hair. Leonard took this opportunity to let her know about her son's behavior. He was feeling strangely bold.
"Your son might want to work on his manners."
The woman ignored him and kept fussing over her son. Then she stood back up and leaned in close to Leonard.
"He is going to kick your ass," she whispered before walking away.
Leonard became flush again and realized he was losing his concentration for the contest. Thinking this might be the last shot to put his demon to rest, he closed his eyes and started practicing some breathing techniques. He couldn't blow it worrying about some snotty kid or whether or not Vicky was coming to watch him.
After a few minutes, he was starting to feel better. He was visualizing himself giving crisp, correct answers. His racing thoughts were slowing down and focus was setting in. He was ready. The cruise director introduced the game and described the rules. Leonard scanned the room again but still no sign of any cheering section.
The first round is usually pretty easy. It served to weed out anyone who really had no business being there. The first kid got the word "climate." He handled it clearly and correctly. Leonard leaned forward and looked down the line at him after he finished. Wanted to eyeball potential finalists. He gave the kid a small nod, a little "well done." The kid ignored him and smiled to his parents.
The next two contestants got the words "rumor" and "pressure." With a little stumbling, hesitation, and nerves, they got through both words. Now it was the girl next to Leonard's turn. She got "rehearse." At first there was just silence as she seemed stumped. Leonard was a little relieved. Finally someone was going to be knocked out. Then she belted out "Rehearse. R-E-H-E-A-R-S-E. Rehearse." A wave of applause broke out from one of the tables.
As Leonard was watching the girl give her answer, Vicky slipped in unnoticed and sat at a table in the back.
"Alright folks, we're doing great!" the cruise director said. "OK, Leonard, your word is 'exotic.'"
A feeling of relief came to him, knowing he would not be the first to fall. He got the layup he was expecting for the first round and saw the word clearly in his head. Just as he was about to begin his answer, he saw Vicky seated at a table. Had he missed her? What was she doing here? She was looking at him with a smile on her face. What did that mean?
"Leonard?" the cruise director prompted. "Exotic?"
With a firm voice and looking straight at Vicky he said, "Erotic. E-R-O-T-I-C. Erotic."
A sudden silence filled the room. There was a gasp from one of the parents. Leonard felt like he was blacking out, once he realized his mistake. His knees gave out a little. Just as the silence began to feel its heaviest, a flume of water burst from Vicky's mouth straight into the air, forming a wall of mist and soaking the people in front of her.
"Um. Incorrect, Leonard. Sorry." the cruise director said after regaining some composure. Not knowing what to do, Leonard made the walk of shame back to Vicky and quietly sat down next to her.
The contest continued as Leonard sat in a dejected daze. But Vicky tenderly took his hand and just held it romantically as they sat. After a while, she said, "Leonard, don't you see what happened? I became that pretty girl that distracted you. That's why you made that Freudian slip. I haven't felt like a pretty girl in a long time."
Leonard had no idea how to respond. So he stood, still holding Vicky's hand, and they walked slowly out together.
Bill Jeffries is a data scientist in Northern Virginia and a member of the Virginia Writers Club. A data storyteller by trade, he also writes suspense and humor short fiction. He discovers most of his stories while traveling with his wife and three kids.