It was unlike Agent Samson to speak so casually, and awkward to sit in the hot little room, pretending to have a normal conversation.
"So," she said, "what are your plans for the holidays?"
"Well, I usually remain here and, you know, open a gift from my family."
"Only one?" she asked.
"Maybe eight or ten."
"Never six or seven?"
"Rarely," I said.
"And what do you do on December thirty-first, New Year's Eve?"
"On the final day of the year we take down the pine tree in our living room and eat marine life."
"You're pretty good at avoiding those s's," she said. "I have to hand it to you, you're tougher than most."
I thought she would continue trying to trip me up, but instead she talked about her own holiday plans. "It's pretty hard with my fiancé in Vietnam," she said. "Last year we went up to see his folks in Roanoke, but this year I'll spend Christmas with my grandmother outside of Asheville. My parents will come, and we'll all try our best to have a good time. I'll eat some turkey and go to church, and then, the next day, a friend and I will drive down to Jacksonville to watch Florida play Tennessee in the Gator Bowl."
I couldn't imagine anything worse than driving down to Florida to watch a football game, but I pretended to be impressed. "Wow, that ought to be eventful."
"I was in Memphis last year when NC State whooped Georgia fourteen to seven in the Liberty Bowl," she said. "And next year, I don't care who's playing, but I want to be sitting front-row center at the Tangerine Bowl. Have you ever been to Orlando? It's a super fun place. If my future husband can find a job in his field, we're hoping to move down there within a year or two. Me living in Florida. I bet that would make you happy, wouldn't it?"
I didn't quite know how to respond. Who was this college bowl fanatic with no mixer and a fiancé in Vietnam, and why had she taken so long to reveal herself? Here I'd thought of her as a cold-blooded agent when she was really nothing but a slightly dopey, inexperienced speech teacher. She wasn't a bad person, Miss Samson, but her timing was off. She should have acted friendly at the beginning of the year instead of waiting until now, when all I could do was feel sorry for her.
"I tried my best to work with you and the others, but sometimes a person's best just isn't good enough." She took another cookie and turned it over in her hands. "I really wanted to prove myself and make a difference in people's lives, but it's hard to do your job when you're met with so much resistance. My students don't like me, and I guess that's just the way it is. What can I say? As a speech teacher, I'm a complete failure."
She moved her hands toward her face, and I worried that she might start to cry. "Hey, look," I said. "I'm thorry."
"Ha-ha," she said. "I got you." She laughed much more than she needed to and was still at it when she signed the form recommending me for the following year's speech therapy program. "Thorry, indeed. You've got some work ahead of you, mister."
I related the story to my mother, who got a huge kick out of it. "You've got to admit that you really are a sucker," she said.
I agreed but, because none of my speech classes ever made a difference, I still prefer to use the word chump.
Copyright © 2000 by David Sedaris
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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