Robert Cormack

1 year ago · 7 min. reading time · ~10 ·

Robert blog
The Defeatist.

The Defeatist.

A short story about winning, losing and small engine repair.


A man is not finished when he’s defeated. He’s finished when he quits.” Richard M. Nixon

Back in high school, I always did lousy on the standardized academic tests. I’d get called down to the guidance counselor’s office, and told I needed to improve. If I didn’t, they’d send me to one of those tech schools where they taught stuff like small engine repair.

Mr. Grimshaw was the guidance counselor. He was a short man, bald as a tomato. When I’d come through his door, he’d be holding my test results, saying something like, “On this page here, you had the right answers, but you crossed them out, and put wrong ones. Why would you do that?”

I thought everyone had a voice in their head.

I told him I had a voice in my head. Every time I’d put down an answer, the voice would tell me I was wrong. Grimshaw would stare at me like I was pulling his leg, but I wasn’t. I thought everyone had a voice.

My parents got a letter from Mr. Grimshaw, saying, “From what I can tell, your son is a chronic defeatist.” I figured he was going to explain what a “chronic defeatist” was, but that never happened.

He just kept threatening me with tech school, until one day I got called down, but he wasn’t there. Instead, I was met by this tall guy with a beard, a tweed jacket and a notepad. “Come this way,” he said, taking me into a small office. He placed the notepad on the table and sat down. We both sat down. Then we both stared at the notepad.

“You’re my first,” he smiled, explaining that he was working on his Masters of Psychology. His name was McKelvey and I was his first study case. Grimshaw had given him my name and an office to work, supposedly all in the name of learning more about my chronic defeatism. McKelvey didn’t seem too keen on explaining it at first, other than to look at me. I guess he figured it was written on my temple with invisible ink, and would come out when I started sweating. But I was pretty calm.

“Mr. Grimshaw says you hear voices,” he started. “Have you heard voices today?”

“No,” I said.

“So just when you do tests and stuff?”

“Or when I catch a ball.”

“What does the voice tell you?”

“That I’m not going to catch it.”

“And you don’t?”

“I fumble.”

“Have you always heard this voice?”

“No, it started here in high school. Before that, I heard singing.”

“Any song in particular?”

“Not really.”

He stood up and took off his jacket. I could see the edge of his underwear. He tucked his shirt into his underwear. He rolled up his sleeves.

“They weren’t kidding about you,” he said, sitting down again. “Grimshaw thought you might be the real deal.”

“Real deal what?” I asked.

“In some respects, you’re lucky. You don’t have to wait for failure to happen.”

“Defeatist,” he said, linking his hands behind his head, “In some respects, you’re lucky. You don’t have to wait for failure to happen.”

He could see I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.

“Okay, here’s an example,” he said.“Take the kid who throws a wicked fast ball. He figures he’s destined for the major leagues. Million dollar cheques, that sort of thing. Only, his batting average is laughable. Everyone thinks his batting will improve, but it doesn’t. He’s cut in the minors. He ends up being a wino in the street.”

“You think I’m gonna end up a wino?” I asked.

How many small engines are there in the world? You could end up being a millionaire. Don’t you see? Defeatism could save you.”

“No,” he said, “because you’re never going to reach that level of disappointment. What’s the worst that’s going to happen to you? Small engine repair? How many small engines are there in the world? You could end up being a millionaire. Don’t you see? Defeatism could save you.”

A bell rang outside.

“I guess that’s it for today,” he said. “Can we talk again?”

“Why?” I asked.

“I want to use you in my thesis,” he said. “We all experience some form of defeatism. But you, my friend, it’s like your brain is devoted to saving you from disappointment. Let’s talk tomorrow.”

“What else do you need to know?” I asked.

“Oh, everything,” he said. He got up and found a pad of paper on one of the shelves. He handed it to me. “First, I need a list of your other defeats. Social interactions, parties, girls. Girls, in particular. Have you been with a girl? Or does that voice of yours stop you? Don’t be afraid of detail. Will you do that for me?”

I told him I would, but I didn’t. I couldn’t really come up with anything outside of tests and dropping balls. The next day, I steered clear of the main office. I came in the side doors, went to my locker, then upstairs to my classes. Later, grabbing a cigarette in the smoking area, I saw McKelvey getting out of his car. He saw me, and came over.

“There you are,” he said. “Were you able to make that list?”

“I couldn’t come up with anything,” I said.

“I wish you had,” he said, shifting his briefcase so he could get his cigarettes out.“This is important work we’re doing,” he said. “Do you realize what achievement is doing to our mental health? The ulcers, the strokes. You don’t have to worry, though. Your voice will save you.”

He kept getting louder. Then he noticed everyone staring. He dropped his cigarette, and said, “Do you have time to talk now?”

“I have another class,” I said.

“After that?”


“See me when you can, then,” he said.

As he walked off, someone asked me, “Who’s that?” and I told them he was a psychologist. “You need one,” they said. Everyone thought it was pretty funny. They continued thinking it was funny during gym, poking me in the shoulder blades, saying the coach was going to stick me in goal.

My voice told me I wouldn’t stop any of the balls, and I didn’t.

The first three kicks went right through the goal posts. “You’re not even trying, Cussak,” the coach yelled, which was true. My voice told me I wouldn’t stop any of the balls, and I didn’t.

Going down the hall later, Mr. Grimshaw was coming out of the staff room. He saw me and wagged his come-along finger at me. “You’ve got a chance to make a contribution to science, Cussak,” he whispered, pushing me in the direction of McKelvey’s office. “Now, get in there and do it.”

McKelvey was scratching away at this blackboard, my name in the centre, all these arrows going off in different directions, pointing to circles containing words like sports, girls, recreation, academics.

“Ah, Cussak,” he said. “Here’re the areas we’ll explore.” He jabbed the chalk at the board, telling me to describe my particular defeats.

I sat back in my chair, looking at the arrows, the categories, all leading back to me. It was pathetic in a way. Regardless of what I said, I was moving one step closer to small engine repair.

That made me mad.

“Well, where do you want to start?” McKelvey asked.

“Girls, I guess.”

“Splendid. How do you handle rejection?”

“I don’t,” I said. “In the smoking area after you left? Two girls asked me out. Then another at my locker.”

I didn’t know her. I waved, anyway. She looked confused at first, then she waved back.

Just then, a girl walked past the door. I didn’t know her. I waved, anyway. She looked confused at first, then she waved back.

“That’s the one from my locker,” I said to McKelvey.

He eyed me warily.

“How many of these girls do you end up dating?”

“All of them.”

“Cussak, if you’re having me on — ”

“I’m not,” I said. “It’s a real problem. I can’t concentrate. All the time I’m trying to write those tests, I’m getting notes. Love notes, mostly. When can I see you? Where can I see you? When are we going to have sex?”

“You — you have sex with all these girls?”

“I have urges.”

“And this voice of yours — ”

“Rooting for me all the way.”

“Cussak, if this is true — if — you’ve just thrown my thesis for a loop. How can someone with your failure rate do so well with women?”

“Hard to say, I just do.”

McKelvey stood up and took off his jacket, the elastic of his underwear sticking up over his waistband. He went to the blackboard. “Sports, academia, social gatherings — failures — you said so yourself — ”

“I’m just worn out, I guess,” I said.

“I’ve never heard of a defeatist satyrist.”

“I’m having a hard time believing you’re a — well, a satyrist, Cussak. I’ve never heard of a defeatist satyrist.”

“Is that good or bad?”

“I have no idea. A defeatist isn’t supposed to have sexual conquests. And I doubt you’re some kind of Marquis de Sade — ”

“Was he a defeatist?”

“No, god, no. I doubt he had a defeatist moment in his entire life.”

“What am I, then?”

“I have no idea,” he said, sitting down. “ I’m going to need some time. I’ll let you know when we should talk again. If you don’t mind me asking, how many girls are waiting for you?”

“Hard to say,” I replied. “I’ll know when I get outside, obviously.”

“Yes,” McKelvey said. “Obviously.”

“As for the plethora of girls you have circling you on a daily basis, I’ve never seen that, either. Have you?”

The next day, I was called down to Grimshaw’s office. He was sitting there holding a paper. “McKelvey slipped this under my door last night, Cussak,” he said. “Interesting reading. Frankly, I’ve never heard of a defeatist satyrist. As for the plethora of girls you have circling you on a daily basis, I’ve never seen that, either. Have you?”

“No, sir,” I said.

“I didn’t think so,” he said, taking off his glasses and rubbing his head. “I’m recommending you for tech school, Cussak. I’ll notify your parents.”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

I left, heading down the hall to my locker, getting my coat and going out the side doors. In the parking lot, I noticed the students in their classes, buckling down, on their way to the top. Maybe I wouldn’t reach the top. Then again, there were a lot of small engines. Millions, according to McKelvey. Who knows? The money could come rolling in.

“Small engines might be just the thing,” I told my parents when they got Grimshaw’s letter. They weren’t happy, but they weren’t unhappy, either. As Grimshaw said at the end of the letter, “Your son has a very active — if somewhat inflated — imagination. He might surprise us all.”

Not bad, when you think about it. Life was looking better all the time.

Robert Cormack is a satirist, blogger and author of “You Can Lead A Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive).” You can join him every day by subscribing to


Robert Cormack

1 year ago #4

Ken Boddie

1 year ago #3

The trouble is, Rob, that the engine comes fully attached to the rest of the vehicle, and Australia Post don't have an envelope big enough to allow me to send it by either normal mail or parcel post.  Perhaps I just don't have a sufficiently “active — if somewhat inflated — imagination”? 😂🤣😂 

Robert Cormack

1 year ago #2

Ken Boddie

1 year ago #1

They may send defeatists to the small engine school, Rob, but they at least give them a sound grounding in economics. Last time I put my car in for service they charged me like I was made of money. I felt totally defeated. Perhaps it’s infectious?

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