The Curse of the Potato
I don’t know what I did to deserve it, but the fact is clear: I, Ben Hardy, am cursed by potatoes. That demon veggie has been out to get me for years.
Evidence #1: When I was five, I tripped over a bag of potatoes and broke my arm. I had to wear an itchy green cast for six weeks.
Evidence #2: My mom makes the world’s gluey-est mashed potatoes. They’re great for craft projects. Not for eating.
Evidence #3: There’s a faded scar above my left eyebrow. What happened? Let’s just say I got on the bad side of a cat named Tater Tot.
Then, two weeks ago, right in the middle of seventh grade, my family moved from Los Angeles to South Fork, Idaho--aka “the Potato Capital of the World.” The people here worship the veggie like my dad worships the Lakers.
Case in point: my new school’s game-day shirt. Today about half the school showed up wearing one. When I reach the cafeteria for lunch, I realize my friend Ellie is part of that half.
“You have to get one, Ben. Where’s your school spirit?” Ellie plunks her lunch tray down and tosses her long black braid over her shoulder. On her shirt, a cartoon potato flexes its bulky biceps and flashes the kind of smile that should be reserved for clowns in horror movies.
Out of all the mascot options--the Cougars, the Eagles, the Saber-Toothed Tigers--my new school just had to be the Spuds. This crosses a line. At my last school, we were the Wildcats, ferocious and intimidating. All a potato can scare is . . . well, me, I guess.
I shake my head. “No way am I spending twenty bucks on that shirt. I could buy ten extra-large Slurpees for that price.”
“What about Slurpees?” Our friend Hunter pulls off his hoodie as he sits at our table. He’s wearing the shirt too. Somehow these two are totally oblivious to the uncoolness of waltzing around with a potato on your chest.
Ellie looks at Hunter. “No Slurpees. I’m just trying to get Ben to buy the game-day shirt. You’re going with us tonight, right?”
“Can’t,” he says. “I’m still on foal watch.” Hunter’s horse Misty is super pregnant, so he and his dad have to sleep outside her stable in case she goes into labor. This is the kind of stuff people do in South Fork, Idaho.
Moving to a small town has been, to use Mom’s words, “a bit of a culture shock.” On the bright side, South Fork has less traffic and less smog. But then, there’s no beach. No In-N-Out Burger. No skate park. On my first day, I showed up to school with a new haircut that would’ve been totally normal back in LA--short on the sides and swoopy on top. Too bad no one here has that haircut. I might as well have dyed my hair purple, I stick out so much.
Ellie shrugs at me. “Guess it’s just us tonight. At least wear red.”
I chug the rest of my chocolate milk. “Deal.” Here’s the best part about Idaho: Hunter and Ellie. Back in California, I didn’t have anyone I could just go to basketball games with. My best friend moved to Canada at the beginning of the school year, so I ended up with a handful of sorta friends, but not a lot of hang-out friends. Sorta friends are the people you talk with about homework or mean teachers. Hang-out friends are the people you share food with or walk home with after school.
Hunter and I became friends when he offered me some Cheetos in science class on my first day. I helped him with his worksheet in return. The next day, he invited me to sit with him and Ellie in the cafeteria, which I appreciated, since, let’s face it, the worst part of being the new kid is wondering who you’ll eat with at lunch.
Sitting with Hunter and Ellie felt comfortable, like switching into sweatpants after school. They’re the kind of people you can crack up with over dumb stuff, like Hunter’s horrible Chewbacca impression or pictures of Ellie’s poodle wearing socks. Last week, Ellie and I realized we live on the same street, so we’ve started walking home together. It makes trudging through the January weather a lot more bearable.
“Agh!” Hunter peers into his lunch sack, and his eyes bug out of his head. “Look what my mom packed me. A Go-Gurt and a can of tuna! With a can opener and everything! I can’t eat this in public!”
“Then learn to make your own lunch,” Ellie says.
“Learn to make your own face,” says Hunter.
“That doesn’t even make sense,” says Ellie. She holds out half a sandwich. “Here, take this. I don’t really like avocado anyway.”
“What?” Hunter’s face falls. “How can you not like avocado?”
She wrinkles her nose. “I think it’s the texture.”
“But . . . guacamole!”
“Just accept the sandwich!”
I try to stay out of these Ellie-and-Hunter arguments. They bicker like two people who’ve been stuck in the back seat of a car for nine hours. At first I thought it was because they were flirting, but--plot twist--they’re just cousins. It’s not obvious they’re related. Hunter takes after the blue-eyed, pale-skinned white side of the family. Ellie has her Latina mom’s brown eyes and complexion. If you look close enough, though, you’ll notice the matching freckles across their noses.
I’m about to offer Hunter my string cheese when he jumps out of his seat and points under the table next to us. “Hot dog!”
Ellie buries her face in her hands. “Not again.”
Hunter’s obsessed with Chuck the Hot Dog, a game that’s been popular at South Fork Middle School since the beginning of time, apparently. The cafeteria hot dogs are so rubbery that no one wants to eat them. They’re more like pink erasers than meat. You can usually find them lying under tables or kicked into corners. Naturally, a game has sprung up where people throw them to see who can get the most bounces. (When no teachers are watching, of course.) Legend has it someone got twelve bounces once. Hunter says he’s never gotten more than three or four.
Hunter ducks under the bench and crawls through a mob of knees. There’s no time for dignity when a hot dog is involved. A minute later he reemerges, hot dog in hand. His proud face reminds me of the one Buster--my corgi--makes when we play fetch. They even have the same shaggy blond hair.
“Your turn.” Hunter places the hot dog in my hand, and it’s perfect. No squishes. No tears. Everything needed for optimum bounce-age.
But I don’t want detention. Last week, Hunter got his “final warning” from the cafeteria monitor. Since we’re friends, this “final warning” probably extends to me. I scan the room, fully expecting to see the monitor marching toward us with her stern expression. Luckily, it looks like she stepped out of the room.
“Hey, Ben’s gonna chuck the hot dog!” A basketball player from two tables over points at me, and his teammates cheer me on. I had no idea that guy knew my name.
“You do it.” I shove the hot dog back at Hunter, but he dodges.
“No, dude, you. It’s his turn, right, Ellie?”
She lifts her palms up. “Leave me out of it. I’d rather you chuck it in the trash.”
The basketball table stares at us, expecting a show, and all I can do is sit dumbly with the hot dog glued to my palm. They probably think I’m such a Goody Two-shoes. I want to throw it, but it’s just not . . . me. I get in trouble for reading ahead during English. Not for throwing food.
A chant starts up at the basketball table. Chuck it! Chuck it! My cheeks burn up under the imaginary spotlight. There’s no way I can do this. I’ve never gotten detention in my life.
But these guys don’t know that. They don’t know anything about me.
They do know my name, though. And something about that feels strangely good.
I squeeze the hot dog and slowly stand, my heart thumping to the beat of the chant.
Chuck it! Chuck it!
California Ben wouldn’t dare.
Chuck it! Chuck it!
But nobody ever noticed him.
Chuck it! Chuck it!
Sometimes, change is good.
In the far corner of the cafeteria, the lunchroom monitor, Ms. Jones, reenters the cafeteria. She leans against the wall and swipes through her phone. I’ll have to be quick.
I draw back my arm, aim for the clock, and throw as hard as I can. The hot dog zips through the air, smooth as a jet, and boings off the 12, leaving a splotch of grease. Then it nose-dives for the vending machine, ricochets off the side, and tumbles halfway across the cafeteria like a rabid bunny.
Hunter and I cheer, along with the basketball crew. The athletes pump their fists in my honor, and I can’t wipe the cheesy grin off my face.
Note to self: Chucking hot dogs is a great way to impress people.
I check to make sure Ms. Jones didn’t see what just went down. Somehow she’s still glued to her phone, totally oblivious to the lunchroom chaos. Thank goodness for technology.
Hunter smacks my back as I sit down. “Dude, you got six bounces! That’s the most I’ve ever seen!”
Ellie tries to look annoyed, but her dimples betray her. “I know what I’m getting you guys next Christmas. A pack of jumbo hot dogs.”
My body jolts as an air horn blasts through the cafeteria. The cheer squad jogs through the double doors at the far end of the room.
The tallest cheerleader holds a megaphone to her lips. “Heeeeey, South Fork Middle School!” Behind her, the girls shake their shiny red pom-poms.
Hunter points to Jayla, a blond cheerleader in the back row. He leans in. “There’s your girl.”
Fact check: Jayla’s not my girl. She’s way out of my league. Last week in English, I tossed a crumpled-up paper into the wastebasket and she said, “Nice shot.” That’s the extent of our relationship. I have no clue why Hunter has started teasing me about her.
Jayla does a high kick and lines up with her team. Her sleek ponytail flows halfway down her back like a golden waterfall. It looks so soft. And shiny. And--
Jayla catches my eye and I snap my head toward Hunter. He snorts and gives me a knowing grin. How embarrassing.
“All right!” the cheer captain yells into the megaphone. “I know you’re all pumped for the BIG GAME TONIGHT!” The room erupts with applause.
“And what better way to spend your Friday night,” she shouts, “than cheering on our South Fork Spuds against the Hamilton Jackrabbits.” She sneers the word “Jackrabbits,” and the students roar back with boos. Hamilton is our school’s rival. From what I’ve heard, their reputation is definitely deserved. Once, they scattered rabbit poop across our team’s locker room. These guys are bad news.
The head cheerleader sweeps her arm toward the doorway. “And now let’s give a warm welcome to our very own Steeeve the Spuuud!”
I do a facepalm. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
A kid in a plushy potato costume bursts through the double doors. Weak cheers and snickers fill the cafeteria. The Spud mascot hops around and pumps his twiggy arms in the air like a giant beanbag come to life. He looks like Mr. Potato Head’s nephew: the same cartoonish smile and googly eyes, but no mustache. Too bad. A mustache would significantly increase his coolness factor.
“Why do I go to a school that worships my least favorite vegetable?” I say.
Ellie nudges me. “Our school founders were potato farmers. Show some respect.”
Music blares from the speakers, and Steve the Spud skips down the aisles, passing out high fives like he’s some kind of celebrity. A few kids slap his hand, but most shrink away like he’s got a contagious disease. This whole scene is so cringeworthy. Why would anyone in their right mind agree to wear that costume?
Suddenly the mascot’s foot lands on the hot dog I flung across the cafeteria. His arms flail as the hot dog rolls under his foot. He shrieks and wobbles, trying to catch his balance, and--splat!--flops to the floor like a pancake.
This is one of those moments where you’re not supposed to laugh, but it’s too funny to hold in. I mean, a potato flailing its arms, and the high-pitched scream . . . it’s just too much. Hunter and I double over in laughter, along with most of the cafeteria. My hot dog--my hot dog--brought down the demon veggie. Today is definitely my day.
Ellie frowns. “Poor Wyatt. I hope he’s not hurt.”
I force myself to stop laughing. I guess I forgot there was an actual person inside that suit. “You know him?”
“Yeah, he sits by me in math.”
That explains why I haven’t heard of him. Ellie’s a year ahead in math, so this Wyatt guy must be an eighth grader.
“I’m gonna go see how he’s doing,” Ellie says. She tucks her book under her arm and rushes over to Wyatt. On the other side of the cafeteria, a couple of teachers help him to his feet. It looks like he’s okay. I hope so, anyway.
When the bell rings, I stand to go to English. My classroom is at the other end of the building, so I need to leave right now. I almost got a tardy yesterday. I toss my lunch into the trash bin at the end of the table. “See ya, Hunter.”
“Not so fast, Mr. Hardy.”
The voice comes from behind me. I whirl around and stare into the eyes of the lunchroom monitor, Ms. Jones, who is pinching a napkin-wrapped hot dog between her fingers.