Shortcuts

Carter was elbow-deep in papers when Eli texted him:

can I come over?

Carter took one look at the thick stack of unmarked papers by his left elbow and the whisper-thin deposit of marked ones by his right and texted back

sure.

In less than five minutes, Eli was sitting across from him, smiling ruefully at the papers.

“I farmed my quizzes out to my TA. Learn to love the system, Carter.”

“It’s not that much,” Carter protested, “and anyway, what’s wrong with quizzes? Aren’t they all you have right now? Midterm isn’t for a week.”

Eli leaned back, eyes musing over the different pennants decorating Carter’s office. When he worked his way up to speech like this, it usually meant serious business. Carter capped his red marker and laid the unfinished paper open in front of him.

“I’ve been sitting on this student’s essay,” Eli said, “I want you to read it.”

Even his tone felt like he was carefully skirting the subject. Carter tried to smile.

“Is it an uncredited reworking of an old classic?”

As a response, Eli set a blue book down on the desk.

“Why don’t you see for yourself?” he asked softly.

Now a little disconcerted, Carter picked it up. After seven minutes of reading he put it down again and blew air over his teeth.

“Man,” he said, “that—can you just give the kid an A for the semester and be done with it?”

Eli was smiling faintly, in a way that didn’t quite seem happy. “What’s your opinion on the writing?”

“I wish I could’ve written like that when I was in college,” Carter joked, “any way we get a finder’s fee for discovering this kid?”

Eli had put his elbow on the desk, now he leaned forward with his hand cupping his chin.

“What part did you like about it,” he asked, “specifically?”

Words fled. Carter picked up the essay again. “Well,” he began, flipping futilely through the paper. No specific phrases leaped out at him. In fact, the words were all a blur. In fact—

Eli met his eyes.

“There you go,” he said, “you see it too.”

Carter let the paper slide limply from his hand to the desk. “But…what? And how?”

Eli had lost all pretense of humor. “I first noticed it when I went to grade it. I wanted to pluck out specific examples to congratulate him, but I couldn’t. And then I realized I couldn’t think of a topic for it. And then I realized that I couldn’t even pick out specific words.”

Carter let his eyes fall to the desk. The blue book lay there, benignly beckoning, as if to say come on, read me again and again, you’ll never go away unsatisfied.

“Who?” Carter asked, as if it mattered. They never discussed their students.

“Boy named Edward Muntz,” Eli said, folding the book closed. “Never really stood out. Unremarkable in short-form assignments. Never leads a class discussion. In case you’re wondering, I checked. This is the first piece of homework I got from him with these…qualities.”

Carter tried not to look at the book. “And you wanted me to confirm?”

“Not just that,” Eli said, leaning back in the chair and putting his feet up, “I want you to be a witness.”

 

Muntz had a chubby pink face that didn’t quite fit his body, and a stubbly straw-yellow head of hair. He seemed too bubbly and eager, almost like it was a put-on.

Of course, Carter reflected, that could just be his suspicions talking.

“Am I in trouble, Mr. Forbes?” Muntz asked in a squeaky tenor. God, it was ridiculous. He was ridiculous, which just made the whole thing more of a shock.

Eli smiled and shook his head. “No, Mr. Muntz—”

“Please call me Eddie, sir—”

“Well, please call me Eli. My father is a sir, I barely rank Mr.”

Muntz giggle-snorted. Carter had to stare. The young man caught his gaze and Carter looked quickly away.

“Is there a problem with my essay?” Muntz asked with a noticeable tinge of fear in his voice.

Eli laughed comfortingly. “No, of course not. I love it!”

Muntz preened. “Thank you—Eli.”

“I really mean it. It’s extraordinary.”

“That’s…wonderful.”

“In fact I’m thinking of submitting it to the school paper.”

Muntz froze. Through years of experience, Carter could see the mathematics going off behind the student’s benign face, the weighing of options.

“Don’t you think other students deserve to hear about these things?”

“What things?” Muntz asked flatly.

“Why, the things in your paper, of course. Very topical subject.” Eli finished with a shit-eating grin.

Without moving in his chair at all, the young man rearranged himself. Gone was the golly-shucks student. In its place was a hardness that came out in Muntz’s voice and eyes.

“You know,” he said, tone a half-step lower.

Eli rocked back-and-forth in his chair, enjoying himself. “I know a game-changer when I see one.”

Muntz’s face was suddenly disagreeable. It didn’t fit. His boyish features twisted like a bulldog.

“So you want to expel me or something?” he asked in a sulky tone.

Eli leaned over the desk. “No, I want to study you. How the hell did you do this?”

Muntz leaned away, smiling, knowing. “Do what? All I did was what you told us, write what you know.”

“I meant stupid relationship observations and family anecdotes,” Eli said, “I didn’t mean pull a magic paper out of your ass. How did you do this?”

Muntz looked loftily out the window.

Carter felt he should interject. “You know this constitutes some kind of academic fraud, don’t you?”

Muntz’s eyes went mean. “What kind of bullshit is that?”

“You didn’t actually complete the assignment by the standards set out for it,” Carter said, “and yet you still tried to get an A. You cheated, Mr. Muntz. There’s no two ways about that.”

Muntz looked at him with contempt. “I knew there was a reason nobody takes your classes.”

Eli placed a hand over his heart. “I’m flattered you chose me, honestly. But this isn’t okay. I don’t know what kind of work went into this, or how hard it was, but this is still just lazy. Do you understand, Eddie?”

Muntz got flinty. The longer they were around him, the more his boyishness chipped away.

“Why?” he snapped. “What have I done wrong? You know what writers do? They struggle and sweat over mountains of drivel just to get the same result I did. I just found a shortcut, that’s all. The end result’s the same.”

“And that, specifically, is what tells me you haven’t done the work. Writing isn’t about the end result, it’s about the journey.”

“Yeah, that sounds like something an unpublished writer would say.”

Eli exchanged glances with Carter. “I’m not jealous of you,” he said, “I am trying to do what I am paid to do: teach you. I’m trying to impress upon you how serious this is. What do you think would happen if you tried this out in the real world?”

Muntz gave a lazy shrug. He was looking out the window again, like he was above it all.

“The same thing that happened with me. You have an extraordinary talent, and this is a flagrant misuse of it.”

Muntz got sly. “Anyone could do it—if I taught them.”

“And then there’d be a whole lot more people getting failed for the assignment. You are very shortsighted, Mr. Muntz.” Eli tapped his desk and sighed. “And I hope you know I do this for your own good.”

“You’re failing me?”

“More than that. I have to turn this paper over, Eddie. I’m sorry.”

Muntz looked coolly between the two of them. Carter didn’t like his calculating expression.

“How’s this for a story,” Muntz said, crossing his arms behind his head, “a professor invites a student up to his office. One of his colleagues is also there. Some discussion goes on behind closed doors. Something untoward happens. Do I have to spell it out for you?”

They both stared at Muntz.

“You know, if you worked this hard in class, we wouldn’t be having this discussion?” Eli asked blearily.

Muntz was smiling now. “They’ll believe it. Especially about you two.”

Eli didn’t answer. Carter slowly walked around the visitor’s chair and opened the door. Smiling grandly and keeping his eyes on Eli at all times, Muntz rose and exited the office. They heard his footsteps all the way down the carpeted hall and then the stairs. Carter shut the door.

Eli sank his head into his hands. “Fucking Christ.”

“Do they really think that about us?” Carter mused, looking out the window as Muntz jovially strolled across the quad.

“Does it matter? What are we going to do?”

Carter was still looking out the window.

“I think I have an idea,” he said slowly.

 

Muntz did not look pleased to see him in Tuesday’s class.

“Where’s Eli?” he asked.

Carter straightened a stack of papers on the lectern, entirely for effect. “Professor Forbes is indisposed, and asked me to fill in.”

Muntz shot him a look of naked hate. Carter smiled beatifically as the students ushered in. When the last man rushed in fifteen minutes after the hour, Carter led the class in applause.

He’s made it,” Carter crowed, “we can finally begin.”

This got some laughs. Did people really avoid taking his classes? Carter decided to investigate that later.

“Your professor has already told me so much about you,” he said, “so I’m sure I can run the class just as well as Mr.—” he pretended to check his hand, “—Forbes.”

Another laugh. He was priming the crowd. Muntz didn’t know what to do with it.

Carter made a great show of straightening the papers, shuffling them around, pretended to check notes.

“Alright, for the first order of the day—” he stopped and pretended to surprise himself.

“Edward Muntz is in this class?” he asked.

Muntz gave no sign of acknowledgment. It didn’t matter. The other students immediately looked at him.

Carter made a great show of putting down his papers. “Well, this is a pleasant surprise. The famous Mr Muntz.” He turned to address the rest of the class. “Your professor has been raving about your classmate. He turned in something this last assignment, something really extraordinary.”

Muntz colored deeply. The other students looked envious and shocked by turns.

Carter clasped his hands together. “I know it’s not usually done, but can I hear a reading from this wonderful, exceptional paper?”

Muntz sank down in his seat. “I haven’t got it back yet,” he muttered.

It hit the desk in front of him.

“What a lovely coincidence, it was in my stack of papers to give back.” Carter patted the sheaf of papers. “I’m sure you wouldn’t mind favoring us all with a little reading while I pass the rest of the assignments back?”

Muntz was stony-faced. He hadn’t so much as moved towards the blue book.

“I can get another student to read, if you’re shy.”

“No,” Muntz quickly said, and snatched it up. He opened it to the first page.

Carter smiled.

Muntz cleared his throat. He scanned up and down the page. He looked up.

Carter hadn’t moved.

Muntz was sweating. His pink face was shining as he struggled to start.

“It—” he said.

Carter stood, smiling expectantly.

“That—”

Carter stood, smiling expectantly.

“We—”

Carter stood, smiling expectantly.

Muntz swallowed. He stood up, ripped the blue book in two, dropped it on the desk, and promptly walked out.

 

The class was filing out when Carter saw him again. Muntz stood like shoal amid the tide of student bodies pressing out of the English classes, staring at the professor. Carter locked up the classroom and strode away, whistling.

Muntz caught up with him.

“You fucked me over,” Muntz hissed, “you sabotaged me out of spite. Pure spite.”

“It’s one of my greatest hopes that one day, dear boy, you will recognize that I saved you.”

Muntz was coloring again. “You set me back. But not forever. I’ll get better. And I won’t have to deal with people like you.”

“Maybe you will,” Carter said noncommittally, “and maybe you won’t. And maybe one day you’ll figure out the one person who is really setting you back.”

He dropped the tattered halves of the blue book on the ground in front of Muntz.

“Good-bye, Eddie.”

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under fiction

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s