Sometimes the language of a story can carry the reader along as if on a wave of the character’s unique perspective. In “Grade Inflation,” Dan Gutstein has accomplished precisely this. The delightful turns of phrase here put us alongside Barry as we feel his frustration, his idealism, his weakness, his anger, his vulnerability. Barry wants to battle a system bigger than he is, and he knows he will fail, yet in this realization lies his struggle with himself. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor.
Barry waited in his office until dark but the student did not arrive. He’d emailed her earlier in the afternoon, and within minutes she’d replied, “I think I know what this is all about.” They’d set a four o’clock appointment. At half past four, Barry had emailed the student again, and once more at five, “Where are you?” Barry compared the time on his computer to that on his watch. He stood at the window, on the seventh floor, looking down at the college’s main administrative building. The light from street lamps seemed to blow around in the mild breeze, flickering on branches and leaves. Two blocks to the left, beyond an apartment complex and a squirrel park, Barry looked for the subway entrance, relentless quantities of people sloping down the first of two escalators beside the curve of the university’s hospital. He considered his portraiture in the glass, his nose twisted from two breaks, the rumpled black jacket, a thin tie that always finished at the belt-line of his jeans. He thought, I make just the right amount of money for this crap.
His friends called him by his last name. On the upper-right quadrant of his desk sat a yellow sticky note that read, “How’s it going, Barry?” The author had underlined “Beers at The Tiger” and the date. Barry collected his papers, all graded, save one, which he couldn’t really call a paper, exactly. A forgery, maybe, but not a paper. It was time for a hysterical overreaction, Barry decided, and steeled himself by placing both palms on the imitation wood surface, beside the computer. “If every student,” he began, but stopped short. He listened, but six o’clock on a Thursday evening meant darkened halls, no shoes ticking anywhere near his door. “Fucking two-thirds of the freshman class on the fucking Dean’s List,” he said. Now, that felt better. “It’s more of a distinction not to be on the Dean’s List, than to be on the Dean’s List. Texting culture—brb, c-ya, imho—in celebration. Everything devalued. The meaning of words forever corrupted!” Barry woke the computer by rolling the mouse around on the mouse pad. He clicked on Vaska’s second email to him, after he’d proposed the four o’clock meeting. “i’ll be there,” she wrote, in lower case letters. “c-ya.”
At the elevators, he waited beside an artificial plant. It had been potted, as it were, with genuine dirt. A faculty member from electrical engineering, a man wearing a turban, appeared a beat or two later. Two of the elevators would not move; another had risen to “3”, but hadn’t budged in a couple minutes; and a fourth was stuck, in a loop, among the parking levels, going back and forth between “B1” and “B4”. The engineering faculty member unfolded the school newspaper. We need a new A, Barry reasoned. It was like currency. Giving more and more A’s and B’s makes them worth less than the Gentleman’s C in the Olden Days. We need to devalue our fucking A’s! The door behind him clicked shut; the engineer had opted for the stairwell. None of the elevators moved. Barry thought about ‘grade’ as in rank, as he, too, dropped down the many stairs to the first floor. How many of his part-timer office mates had referred to themselves as “professor,” violating the distinct meaning of the title, as employed in the hierarchy of post-secondary education. Barry clipped through the final door into the balmy evening. The problem had nuance, but if full-timers controlled the academy, then they had allowed this spirit of permissiveness to blow into the classrooms. Barry threw a fist into the air. He was a washed-up rocker-dude who had toured the country, once, in a beat up van, to play bass guitar in his band, Hometown Stranger.
“The thoird of many!” bellowed Brownie, busting the word on purpose, enjoying the advantage of his height. He drank from his glass suddenly, and the foam, afterwards, bubbled off in his whiskers. The Tiger was an upstairs-downstairs bar, thin and rowdy, and though it sat on the edge of campus, before campus bled into a bland, cream-stone area of law firm buildings, it drew a few students. Barry panicked for a moment, fearing that he would discover Vaska, perched upstairs, glaring down from the banister, but Brownie stuffed a pint glass into his hand and shoved him around until Barry dropped onto a barstool. Brownie looked good on paper—fluent in several romance languages, dedicated to the classics of various cultures, could boast of a publication credit in a reasonable encyclopedia—but he was doomed, despite his bowties, double-despite his bowties, to flounder in a group office, as a career adjunct. He didn’t walk; he bellied. He didn’t sip or taste; he gulped or burbled. He didn’t play political heed; he farted, loudly, and often, claiming that he’d once blown the lettuce off the plate of a patron at a preposterous outdoor café.
“Barry,” he said, “I don’t drink beer. Anymore.”
“It’s only six o’clock,” said Barry. “Already?”
“Bring on The Glenlivet,” said Brownie, raising two fingers, as if he were hailing a taxicab.
“The, The Glenlivet,” said an elderly regular clad in a black and white logger’s shirt.
“It’s called The Glenlivet. If you’d like a drink of it, then you should ask for The, The Glenlivet.”
“Listen, you sod,” said Brownie, bending down. “You got a beef?”
“Yeah,” said the man. “Yeah, I do.”
“Everywhere you go,” said Brownie, straightening up. “Everywhere you go.”
“The, The Glenlivet,” said the old man. “That so hard to say?”
“Glenlivet,” said the bartender, slapping down a tumbler in front of them, but Brownie and the regular threw their eyes in lopping circles, opposite directions.
Barry tapped Brownie on the elbow. “Hey,” he said. “When was your last plagiarist?”
“Aw, come on,” said Brownie.
“Come on, Barry. Can’t we just drink?”
Barry shook his head. “When you drive through the mountains,” he started, “and you see the road sign, with the elevation in black numbers, and the truck tottering?”
“The grade—it always stays the same. It doesn’t get higher, every year.”
“That’s a weak example,” said Brownie. He clapped the man in the logger shirt. “Weak,” he reiterated, as the man waved him away, a draft fizzling in his fist.
“Is it? Our colleagues—Janet, uh, the Latino guy—you know, those who’ve been granted entry to the country club—Cornelius, man. Is it? Is it a weak example?”
The elderly man in the logger shirt stood up, hoisted his belt, puffed out his gut, and took a walk at Brownie, menacing him. “You two,” he said, thumbing the air, “outta here.” Brownie took a couple steps backward, before many of the patrons began to laugh. For a moment, Barry had felt the old fear, the inability to detect humor, the ruddy flash of relief, and the shame at his miscalculation. “Shit,” Brownie said, as the regular sat back down. “You really had me going.”
Brownie jabbed out his arm, driver-style, to prevent Barry from stepping into the intersection. The light had turned yellow, and with the early drops of a rainstorm plunking his eyes, the colors of the traffic signal bled, Barry thought, like the minutes and seconds, the many sub-directions of a compass, if that, he reasoned, were correct. Brownie held onto a fistful of Barry’s shirt, as if he were going to strike him.
“Sieges that failed,” he said.
“Ah, well,” said Barry. “Vienna.”
“The Ottomans,” said Brownie.
“The Ottomans!” said Barry, hurling his fist sideways.
Brownie released his hold on Barry’s shirt.
“Leningrad,” he said.
“Stalingrad,” said Barry.
“Who the hell knows?” said Brownie.
“I sure as hell don’t,” said Barry.
“How about the rope-a-dope?” said Brownie.
“The Rumble in the Jungle?”
“Blocks, parries, footwork, feints.”
“That’s not my understanding, of what happened.”
“Well, then,” said Brownie. “What’s your understanding, of what happened?”
The light changed, and the two office mates crossed Columbia Road. They took a right on Mt. Pleasant, and continued toward their second bar, The Crow, a neighborhood spot where bags of potato chips were clipped to the wall, and they could guzzle bottles of crummy beer in the dark, appropriate suite of booths. The night had turned luminous in the rain, a sooty, industrial quality to the clouds.
“No,” said Barry, “all I’m saying is, Foreman punched himself tired, and then Ali, with what remained of his strength, toppled him. Classic.”
Brownie dwelled on some aspect of the conversation. That he had spoken too soon, or that he didn’t, in the end, care about the finer points of accuracy. The walk had sobered him, perhaps. “Midway,” he said.
“Was that a siege?” said Barry.
“You’re damn right it was. The United States of Fucking America besieged by the Imperial Fucken Forces of Shintoist Fucken Worship Your Arsewipe Nippon. And it sure as hell determined the outcome in the Pacific Theatre of Operations. Dude.”
“Who the hell knows?”
“I sure as hell don’t,” said Brownie.
They pulled open the door to The Crow, which was humid and stale on the inside, the walls redolent of old smoke. A few men in mountain-hiking vests argued at the bar. One of them was saying, “The neutral zone trap,” while the others shook their heads in dismay. The jukebox was playing the Rolling Stones song that Barry, the former rocker, could never identify by title, even though he’d heard it—“Whoo whoo, Whoo whoo”—a couple hundred times.
Brownie was the kind of fellow who perspired in any weather, outside or inside, and Barry mistrusted that quality, the beads above the brow, the matted hair and perennial glimpses of scalp. After the contest involving ‘sieges that failed’, the two had disputed examples of ‘union graft’ and then ‘angry fiscal conservatives’, Brownie saying that, in the spirit of ‘Plymouth Rock’ patriotism, he detested the former and resembled the latter. Both had been patrons of a storied cafeteria, and therein made sightings of several politicians, including Nancy Kassebaum without Howard Baker, and Ralph Hall, and Barney Frank. To be fair, they had espied Barney Frank on another occasion, far removed from the eatery in a soiled ‘wife-beater,’ staggering up 17th Street on a warm, woozy morning. Barry found it disconcerting that he and Brownie could tolerate a conservative like Kassebaum and a blue dog like Hall. So much so that he tried to steer the conversation into the territory of NASCAR dads, but wound up fending off an attack on a politician—Ralph Nader—he couldn’t tolerate. Nevertheless, when Brownie called Nader a ‘Filthy Arab who could learn a few things from a good old chap like Gunga Din,’ Barry reminded Brownie of his failed hair transplant, and the futile lawsuit and weighty fees that had ensued. Brownie chucked a few bank notes onto the table and bellied out of The Crow, but not before he aced a soaring fart. Barry tilted his beer in his shaky right hand and resisted the impulse to engage, however public, in a hysterical overreaction.
Barry hired a taxicab driver who’d been swaggering with other drivers outside a convenience store, and asked for a lift to campus. The man turned out to be Ghanaian, and mentioned a boxer, Ike Quartey, who Barry hadn’t heard of, even though he feigned some vague knowledge. “They call his jab The Bazooka,” said the driver, as the brightness of the city’s late lights played into the ministerial darkness of the automobile. “He has won a bout this very evening. No matter how tough the other may be, when you face a fellow from Accra, you can never be safe. But,” the man decided, wagging his index finger in the rearview mirror, “not all my people are pugilists.” The cab halted outside the English Department. “You are studying?”
“I teach,” said Barry, forking over a ten.
“Ah, Professor!” said the driver. He tried to curtsy, or bow, as he made change.
“Keep it,” said Barry, who stepped out of the car. The rain had withered to an impossible drizzle, the little drops pesky in his vision. The driver waved from his seat, a cushion of wooden beads, as the taxicab chuffed toward the subway entrance beside the university’s hospital.
Barry swiped his identification through a card reader beside the entrance. The elevator, for once, was open and waiting, and floated him, a ding at every level, to the seventh storey. The hallway lights were on, strangely, and this gave Barry some hope, as he rounded the corner to his office, but there was nothing—not a note, not a revised paper—in the plastic mailbox attached to his door. He might’ve gone at that point, but decided that, certainly, Vaska had slipped a token, instead, under the door. Even a note that read “sorry i was late, c-ya” would have bettered his feelings. Barry twisted his key, pushed in, and flicked the switch, only to discover Brownie, curled up like a comma, snoring, on the floor. When Barry cut the office light in retreat, Brownie shot up, fully dressed, in a groggy state of false awakening, and proclaimed, “Abrupture.”
Instead of trudging home, Barry returned to The Tiger. It wasn’t very late. The Wizards game was still playing, in the fourth quarter, as Antonio Daniels brought the ball across the time line. If only they were still the Bullets, he thought, Calbert Cheaney dribbling the ball up the court, his left hand flashing a signal above his head. Barry sat next to an abandoned drink at the bar. The bartender nodded at him and he ordered a beer. When he asked where everyone had gone the bartender shrugged with embarrassment, his hands fluttering above a plate of soggy cheese fries. The drink belonged to the old regular in the logger shirt, who didn’t recognize Barry upon his return from the restroom, and carried one stool to the side with a look of subdued polemic on his face. Barry took a few pulls on his pint when he became aware of some energy upstairs, beyond the banister. Not everybody had left, he thought.
A moment later, he felt a hand on his shoulder. There, beside him, stood Vaska, who had turned in a plagiarized paper. He was drunk. She was buzzed. She smiled.
“I saw you here, earlier. I meant to come downstairs and say hello but by then, you’d already walked out. I’m sorry about the paper. I know I was wrong.”
She continued speaking, but the warmth of the alcohol diluted Barry’s attention. He would not go home with her, or anything ludicrous like that, not that she was offering, and not that he, in reality, was capable of that sort of maneuver. The real issue was that his resolve to punish her—before she’d even appeared at his side—had weakened. She wore many rings on many fingers and her smile contained the whitest teeth. She’d brought her drink along, and sat at the stool beside him, thinking, perhaps, that she ought to invest in her good fortune: that her professor, who’d sought her out for academic dishonesty, was inebriated and vulnerable. She bit one of the three olives off a toothpick, before replacing the others in her martini glass, and Barry sighed, realizing that he did not possess the malice, in sufficient quantity, to make it.
—photo Kheel Center/Flickr