Cool Ben Grundy


Until I met Joe, I thought cool was something you were born with. Now I’m thinking maybe even I can achieve it.

Cool Ben Grundy

So what if Joe McCabe is coming to my house? No big deal. Just two guys getting together on a little social studies project. What does it matter that practically everyone at school, including the teachers, calls him Joe Cool?

Zero, that’s what it means. Zippo. Joe’s just another guy.

In fact, Joe Cool and I have many things in common, such as we both live on the planet Earth. We share many mutual interests, such as eating, breathing, and sleeping. Not that much difference between Joe Cool and Ben Grundy, I’d say.

Right.

Joe couldn’t do anything uncool if his life depended on it. The guy is destined for great things. He could be a heart surgeon. He could be a pro football player. He could be president of the United States. He could do all three at the same time.

And he’s coming to my house. Tomorrow night.

I blame this all on Mr. Barnes, our social studies teacher. He’s the one who paired Joe and me up to work on—now get this—a team project on Finland. Can you believe it? What I know about Finland can be written on the back of a postage stamp.

Why Joe McCabe? Up until this point, I probably had as much meaning in his life, as say, cauliflower. Now it’s me and Joe Cool, no escape. After class, Joe comes up to me and says, “Hey, Ben.”

And I, not knowing how to speak cool, mumble something like, “Glrrrrk.”

“We’ll ace this report. Let’s get together on it right away. I can stop by your house on Thursday. Don’t you live on Oakway Street?”

Again, I utter a sensitive, insightful comment, “Uh-hur.”

“About eight o’clock okay? My mom has a business dinner at our place that night. Next time we get together it can be at our house.”

I nod my head meekly, wisely having given up trying to speak.

“See ya’ then, bud,” says Joe before he saunters away.

* * *

Now it’s dinner time on Thursday, less than two hours from Joe time. Everything is more or less normal at the Grundys. We are at the kitchen table, finishing off the main course—Mom’s almost-famous cheesy noodles.

“Anyone doing something special tonight?” Dad says, shoving a bite of cheesy noodles around his plate. “You up to anything, Ben?”

“Not much. Someone is coming over for a little social studies project.”

“A girl?” asks Mom, with great hope in her voice. Mom is aware of the fact that I’m socially awkward, and she drops these subtle hints about how she wishes I’d date more often. “Is it that cute little Margaret Gromo? I think she’s darling.”

“No, Mom. It’s not Margaret. It’s a guy. His name is Joe McCabe.”

Suddenly, life in the Grundy household comes to a grinding halt. My sister April almost chokes on a bite of noodles. My twin brothers, Philip and Andy, stop chewing in mid-bite. Mom ponders, “Where do I know that name from?”

“Joe McCabe?” Dad asks. “Isn’t he the football player I keep reading about?”

“Yeah.”

“Joe McCabe is coming here? Tonight?” mumbles April, suddenly taking off her thick glasses and running her fingers through her hair. “He is so conceited.”

“Do you think he’ll throw the football to us?” asks Andy, with hope.

“No. It’s dark out. Now look, Joe and I are, like, assigned to do a social studies project together and he’s coming over and we’re going to talk about some ideas. That’s all. Joe is very popular, so please …”

What I want to say is “don’t embarrass me,” but instead I say, “just leave us alone so we can get some work done.”

“Well sure, son. We can do that. You won’t even know we’re here.”

Exactly on time, the doorbell rings. Andy and Philip almost kill each other trying to get to the door first. Joe is dressed in jeans, a white T-shirt, running shoes, and a leather jacket. Andy and Philip are fighting over who can hang up Joe’s jacket.

Dad, who can usually be counted on to act fairly normal, stands up and says to Joe, “So you’re the famous Joe McCabe. BYU could sure use someone like you on its football team. Are they trying to recruit you?”

Joe smiles sheepishly. “Yeah, I think they are.”

Mom walks into the room. “I just have to ask, Are you the one dating Margaret Gromo? She’s this nice girl on the track team who lives down the street.”

“No, I’m sorry, Mrs. Grundy. It must be someone else,” Joe says, as I look for something to crawl under.

This is not the way I hoped the evening would start.

I usher Joe into the living room, hoping to get working before any other social blunders are committed. We start talking about what we know of Finland, which basically is nothing. At least April is keeping her word and not doing anything to embarrass the Grundy name.

Just then I hear a thump from near the doorway. It’s April, now in a dress, without her glasses, which is unusual because her range of clear vision without them is about three inches. April, the one who was so determined not to impress Joe, has just accidentally walked into one of our living room chairs.

“Oh, Benjamin! I didn’t know you had company!” she says, straightening up and speaking in what I think is a slight English accent. “How gauche of me! And what might be your guest’s name?”

“This is Joe McCabe. Joe, this is my sister, April.”

“Hi, April. I’ve seen you at school. Are you a tenth-grade cheerleader?”

She almost falls over at his question. “Uh, no, but I’ve thought about trying out,” she stammers, suddenly forgetting the phony accent.

“Well, you should give it a try. I bet you’d be good.”

“Oh.” April leans against the wall for support. “Well, I … I must be going. I have to … to, like do … my hair. Yeah, my hair.”

With that, she walks out of the room, although on somewhat wobbly legs.

We finally get down to the task at hand, although I notice Andy and Philip peeking in at Joe every once in a while. Just after nine we finish. We still don’t know much about Finland, although we dug up a few facts from the encyclopedia. “It’s a start, Grundy. We’ll hit it again next week.”

“Okay, Joe.”

I close the door and then slump into a big chair in our front room. There must be no doubt in Joe’s mind where I got my geekiness from. It runs in the family.

April comes around the corner, her glasses back on, dressed in baggy sweatpants and a sweatshirt. She has a thoughtful expression on her face, as though she is about to say something profound.

She clears her throat. “You know what, Ben? Joe McCabe isn’t as conceited as I thought.”

* * *

It’s a week later. Joe and I have just wrapped up two hours on the industrial economy of Finland. And you know, I feel pretty good.

Why? It went great, that’s why. Joe greeted me like a lost friend at the doorway of his house. We got right down to business. He never mentioned the encounter at the Grundy household last week.

And our project is coming along well. Joe had a half-dozen books he’d picked up in the library. We found out Finland is heavy into wood products, mining, and chemicals, with saunas as a sideline. I hate to admit it but I’m getting sort of pumped about the production of copper in Finland.

“But we’ll need more,” Joe says. “Everyone else will do just what we’ve done—read the encyclopedia, check out some books from the library. We’ve got to do something extra. We need to hit a home run if we want an ‘A’ from Mr. Barnes.”

“Yeah, right,” I say. “A home run.”

“Got any ideas?”

“Well, I’ve been giving it some serious thought, and well, uh—” I take a deep breath as Joe looks hopeful. “And I haven’t come up with much.”

I see a flicker of disappointment. Maybe Joe is beginning to realize he’s teamed up with the strikeout king.

* * *

Trouble on the horizon. After school today, Mom corners me while I’m doing some quality veg-out time on the couch.

“Ben, I talked with Margaret Gromo’s mother today. She told me the girls’ choice dance is in three weeks. I wouldn’t be surprised if Margaret asked you to the dance. Isn’t that exciting?”

Margaret and me? I want to say something, like, “No way, Mom,” but wisely I give just a wimpy smile and mumble, “Oh.”

* * *

Joe and I get together again at our house. Before he arrives, I have “The Talk” with my family. No unsolicited advice about where he should go to college. No fighting over who hangs up his coat. No questions about his love life. And no phony English accents.

The evening goes pretty well. Everyone is civilized, in a Grundy sort of way. April’s only appearance is with a plate of cookies, a nice touch. “Still thinking about trying out for cheerleader?” Joe asks.

“Maybe.” April blushes.

“Cool, April.”

April smiles and walks out of the room. I don’t think her feet touch the ground.

* * *

Inspiration finally hits.

Greg Bendfast is talking with a friend at church in the foyer. My brain locks onto something … Greg … school … Mr. Barnes … mission.

YES! My brain finally kicks in. Greg went to Finland on his mission! Whoa, Mr. Barnes, get out your black pen and be prepared to mark down the big “A” for Cool Joe McCabe and Ben Grundy! This is sweet beyond belief.

In less than five minutes, I work it out with Greg. He will loan us some of his slides of Finland. He will teach us how to make a Finnish treat, kisseli. He will teach us a few handy phrases commonly used in Finland.

I have been to home plate and hit a home run.

I can hardly wait to tell Joe.

* * *

Joe is elated about Greg, in sort of an understated way.

“Nice work, Ben. We’re going to knock the socks off Mr. Barnes.”

“Yo,” I say, thinking it sounds, well, cool.

That isn’t the only good news. Joe did some quality thinking and came up with the idea of writing a letter to the Finnish Embassy in Washington, D.C., asking for some literature. “But we only have a couple of weeks and I didn’t know if that would be enough time to get the stuff sent out here. So I got their phone number and called. It’s already in the mail.”

“Yo,” I say again.

Joe raises an eyebrow. “What does yo mean?”

* * *

Joe shows up and things are, I’m happy to say, fairly routine around our house. Maybe part of the reason is that the twins are in bed and both my parents are at the grocery store. At last, Joe can glimpse the Grundy household in a nearly normal mode.

We get right down to it, going over the last details of our presentation and Greg’s recipe for kisseli, which we’ll prepare tomorrow at Joe’s, with some help from his mom. After a half-hour, I get up to grab Greg’s slides. The hallway is dark, but April whisks by me, without her glasses. There’s a trace of perfume in the air.

Perfume? Something is not right. April never wears perfume.

It can’t be! I stop dead in my tracks and do a hasty retreat to the den. But I am too late. April is already asking Joe out for the girls’ choice dance.

“… so if you’d like to, it would be fun if we could go together.”

What will Joe say? After he gets up off the floor laughing, that is. April, my sister, who is not even in Joe’s social league, asking him to the dance? Some things are just not done.

I peek in. April is looking nervously at Joe, as if her life hinges on his answer. Joe looks uncomfortable.

But not for the reason I expect. “Gosh, April. I’d like to. I think you’re cool. But I’ve already been asked, and it wouldn’t be fair to back out on a date. Maybe we can get together sometime other than the dance.”

What? Joe sounds as though he’d really like to go out with April. No sign of annoyance, not the slightest hint of put-down in his voice. The only thing I can detect is concern that April’s feelings—and fragile self-image—remain intact. I back away from the door, struggling to comprehend what I’ve just seen. What is it?

Cool, that’s what it is.

* * *

Now it’s the day after our report on Finland. Yeah, I know about humility, and I know you shouldn’t take pride in worldly kinds of things, so I’ll just say this once: Joe and I were stupendous. By the end of our presentation, everyone was spooning our fruity kisseli, reading literature from the Finnish Embassy, and enjoying Greg’s slides. Even crusty old Mr. Barnes stood up at the end and said we did a good job. I can see the A on my report card now.

Things are quiet tonight in the Grundy household. I am still basking in the glow of our social studies triumph. Life is sweet right now.

The phone rings. Philip answers it. “It’s for you, Ben. It’s a girl.”

All activity in our household—except for breathing—comes to a stop as every Grundy focuses on me. A girl calling Ben Grundy. This is history.

I slowly rise and stiffly walk to the phone. Destiny beckons. I fumble for the receiver and croak, “Hello?”

“Ben … hi, this is Margaret Gromo. I know it’s late to be asking, but if you aren’t going to the dance, I was wondering if you would want to go with me?”

My mind goes blank. I mean, the blackboard of my brain is wiped clean. Several long, difficult seconds pass. Then one thought comes blasting through the gray matter.

What’s the cool thing to do?

I draw a deep breath. Time for the new version of Ben Grundy to take over. “I haven’t been asked. And I think we’ll have a good time …”

* * *

And Margaret and I do have a good time. I keep thinking about what is cool. Cool really doesn’t have a lot to do with how you talk or how you dress, whether you drive a sports car or a station wagon, or who you’re seen with and where. Cool is how you treat people. Whether you help make them feel good or bad about themselves, if you’re a friend or not. If you remember every one of them is a child of God and treat them the way they should be treated, that’s totally cool. Take it from someone who has been around a lot of cool lately. Cool Ben Grundy.

Has a nice ring to it. And I think it’s entirely within my reach.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Greg Newbold