FACING THE MUSIC • by Peter Wood

Carrying the water-stained box of wineglasses he had found under a stack of Bach Bimonthly in the basement, Simon stepped into the cramped galley kitchen of the decaying townhouse N.C. State University provided him and his wife, Tara. He’d hoped for a few minutes of quiet before their company arrived, but Jack and Kate were already sitting at the ancient Formica table.

Simon’s eyes lingered on Kate, his teaching assistant. She was a music professor’s dream. She had movie star looks, played several instruments and laughed at his jokes. With her long black hair cascading off her N.C. State sweatshirt, she looked ravishing. He never tired of her.

Jack, the only grad student with the arrogance of a full professor, was another matter. The thirtyish professional student in jeans, an oxford shirt, and topsiders, raised a plastic cup in a toast-like gesture.

“Don’t use those wine glasses much, eh, Bud?”

Simon winced. Nobody called him Bud, except Jack. “They were a wedding present.” He felt like a moron.  The answer didn’t even make sense.

Tara hummed the Flintstones theme as she checked the lasagna in the oven. How ironic, Simon thought, that a music professor’s wife couldn’t carry a tune.

Jack sipped his wine. “Don’t worry, Bud. We bought you some watered-down American beer.”

Kate gave Jack a playful peck on the cheek. “Jack, you goof.”

Simon’s hatred of Jack reached new levels. He kept his cool. “Thanks, Jack.”

Tara cleared her throat. “Give me the glasses, okay, honey?”

“Yeah, sure.” Simon set the box down.

“Bud, question,” Jack said.

Simon sighed. “What?”

“If Bach’s so talented, why wasn’t an Oscar-winning movie ever made about him?”

Simon taught a graduate Bach course and had written a half dozen journal articles, but felt ill-prepared to discuss the composer right now. Jack had that effect on him. “Bach wouldn’t exactly pack a theater.”

“Ah. So, it’s not because the man’s not relevant?”

“Don’t listen to Jack, Professor. He’s full of crap,” Kate said.

Jack smirked. “So, Bud, Kate tells me she’s been grading your students’ term papers.”

“She’s a great help. I give her the tough ones.”

“Right…” Jack looked at Kate. “Could you get me another drink, Hon?” He held up his empty cup.

Tara stopped setting wine glasses on the counter. “Simon, I thought graduate assistants weren’t allowed to grade papers.”

“It’s one of those Department policies nobody follows. It’s good experience for Kate.”

Jack broke the ensuing silence. “It must have been murder for Bach, being a genius, knowing his students couldn’t match his talents. Isn’t that what you’ve found, Bud?”

Simon forced a laugh. “Jack, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Listen, Bud — ”

“Don’t call me Bud.” He didn’t laugh this time.

“Sure.”

A hint of a grin crossed Kate’s face.

***

Kate and Tara did most of the talking at dinner. Jack somberly drank the Budweiser Simon had brought him when he asked for more wine.

Tara finally broke away from a prolonged debate with Kate about whether Scooby Doo had a better theme song than the Flintstones. “Bud, how are teaching assistants assigned?” she asked Simon.

Jack snickered.

“It’s complicated.”

“Do you have to have Kate?”

Kate looked up from her dessert.

“No.” Simon crammed a chunk of pecan pie into his mouth.

“Could you be his assistant?” Tara asked Jack.

Jack flashed a salesman’s grin. “My professor and your husband would have to work something out.”

Simon interrupted. “What are you getting at, Tara?

“Couldn’t Jack and Kate switch assignments?”

“Wonderful idea.” Jack said. “I’d get to work with my Bud for a couple of years.”

“That’d be great,” Kate said. “My Dad’s always saying that I should get as diverse an education as possible and Jack’s professor knows more about Appalachian folk music than anybody.” She turned to Simon. “You’d like my Dad, Professor. He’s a lot like you. He’s very wise.”

Simon felt like somebody had punched him in the gut. Was he really that old to Kate?

“So, Kate,” Tara asked. “Have you and Jack been dating long?

Kate laughed. “We’ve gone out a few times, but nothing serious. I’m only twenty-five.” She added in a stage whisper. “Jack’s past thirty.”

Jack stood up. “Well, this old-timer has to use the facilities.”

When he left, Kate leaned across the table to Simon and Tara. “Jack’s not exactly what I’m  looking for right now. He’s fun and cute, but kind of…” She paused as if looking for the right words.

“Arrogant?” Tara suggested.

“Yeah. He’s always bragging about how loaded his parents are. I want to make my own way.”

Tara nodded. “Sure.”

Kate rolled her eyes. “He thinks because his Dad’s a Trustee, he should just be handed a Masters.”

“I hadn’t heard that,” Simon lied.

“I wish he’d grow up.”

Jack returned. “Did I miss anything?”

Kate laughed. “No.”

“Always one step behind the women, eh, Bud?” Jack asked Simon.

Simon studied Kate. She was twenty years his junior. He needed to act his age. He had never intended to stray from Tara, but just thinking he could socialize with kids was bad enough.

Tara winked at him. He winked back.

Jack cleared his throat. “So, Bud, email me your schedule and I’ll get back to you about team-teaching.”

Simon could start acting professorial with Jack. He’d never be taken seriously if he let students run all over him. Tara did him a favor. “It’s professor. I don’t team-teach. Monday we’ll discuss a citation checking assignment.”

“I’ll get those term papers from Kate.”

“You’re not ready to grade yet. Kate’s the rare student, but you’ll get there eventually, Jack. Just not today.”

“Sure, Bud.”

“Don’t call me Bud. I’d hate to give you a bad reference someday.”

Jack’s smile looked strained.

Simon whistled a few bars of the Flintstones and stood up. “Who wants coffee?” He slapped Jack’s back. “How about you, Bud?”

“Um, sure,” Jack muttered.

Kate laughed. Simon and Tara joined in.


Peter Wood is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina where he lives with his surly cat and patient wife. He has had stories published in Asimov’s, Daily Science Fiction, Stupefying Stories and Every Day Fiction. This story started out as a round-robin writing game with his friends, Laura and Paul, about ten years ago. Pete is the one with no musical talent in his marriage. His wife plays multiple instruments, sings with several groups and has the voice of an angel.


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Every Day Fiction

  • I enjoyed this story. Perhaps it’s the teacher in my soul 🙂

    • Pete Wood

      Thanks, Derek!
      I’d drop any class that Simon taught. 🙂

  • I enjoyed this story. Perhaps it’s the teacher in my soul 🙂

    • Pete Wood

      Thanks, Derek!
      I’d drop any class that Simon taught. 🙂

  • Paul A. Freeman

    The first paragraph of this story did it no favours, what with all those superfluous adjectives. Then there were the four main characters, two described in too much detail. Less should have been more – for instance, we got the idea of Jack being arrogant and annoying just from his behaviour, not from listing what he was wearing. Overall, although I was engaged by the story, by the end nothing much seemed to have happened.

    • Pete Wood

      Thanks for reading. Good points.
      You and Stephen King agree on describing characters physical appearance and clothing. In On Writing King says not to waste the reader’s time describing what characters are wearing.

      • Michael Ampersant

        Well…Michael Chabon, who is really an exquisite writer, almost always hints at physical appearance and clothing, even for the most passing characters. Not to mention Stephen King himself, who is okay as a writer, but not really good.

      • MPmcgurty

        I think it also depends on the genre. Some writers describe only items of clothing or accessories that help define the character (an unusual pendant, or the rock band logo t-shirts that John Sandford’s Virgil Flowers always wears).

        • Michael Ampersant

          As far as I remember King’s book “On Writing” (that was the title, wasn’t it), the characterization thing…her refers there to Elmore Leonard, and Leonard’s technique of partial characterizations, with a quote from Leonard about the advantages of a (very) partial characterization, at it lets the reader free to fill in the voids. This, I think is very important. We should always create ambiguity and work with it. If you seek disambiguation, go write a paper for a learned journal.

          • MPmcgurty

            I don’t know what “…her refers there to Elmore Leonard” means (although I’ve enjoyed his books), and I never read King’s book. But if your reply to me is concerning ambiguity, I disagree with “always”.

          • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

            The thing about rules for writing and writers is that there are no rules. There are great guidelines–including Leonard’s “Ten Rules for Writers”–but there’s always a place where the exception is better than the rule. Great writing is luck and the magic moment every bit as much as hard work and refinement of craft. If a handbook made it happen we’d all be laughing gleefully from our hilltop estates…

          • Michael Ampersant

            Couldn’t agree more. In my comment I was reacting to someone who had brought up King’s book.

            Although…reading the EDF stories (for example) there’s a lot of elbow room there for applying simple rules before we push the envelope and need to break them (the rules). A lot. These precious adjectives, these precious adverbs…that’s sort of rule no.1, avoid them, and yet….why is it rule no.1, especially in English?…Because it’s vocabulary is so rich, there’s almost always an expression at hand that denotates the targeted meaning of the compound term directly.

          • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

            Well–this is why writing is both art and craft. Practice makes you better but nothing can teach you about the intangible moment of finding the perfect way of saying something. The stories I labor over often go clunk. But the ones that just seem to fall out of my head when I didn’t even know they were in there…

    • Michael Ampersant

      Agree…not much happened.

      • S Conroy

        Disagree. Think a a lot has happened at the psychological level.

        • Michael Ampersant

          You might have a better psychological sense for that…I may have just missed it.

          • S Conroy

            Or my interpretation could be totally off the wall…

          • Michael Ampersant

            Well, I don’t want to hurt Pete’s feeling (I think I don’t really because I include practically everybody)…whenever I read a flash story on EDF, which I do now daily, I get the feeling that something is off. And I don’t get this feeling when I read Alice Munro, for example (there’s not much wrong with Pete’s story, by standards). I’m fascinated by this. If my view on this carries in any way (I mean, if I’m not completely wrong), it means that good writing it’s really, really hard to achieve.

            (I’ve submitted only one story to EDF so far, it’s still on the slush pile, should it get published you can unload on me accordingly)

          • S Conroy

            To be honest I don’t expect Alice Munro or * – fill in your favourite Nobel prize winner – here. Occasionally there is a story where I go, wow. That’s just good. Full stop.
            And there are also stories I devour because they’re “my kind of story”, where I’m happy to ignore a clumsy sentence or two. In this story, I felt I could visualise the characters and imagine what was going on between the lines. There often is a lot going on under society’s polite veneer and this story touched on that nicely. For my tastes that’s more interesting than a story which is all action plot.
            Looking forward to unloading on that story of yours ;-).

          • Michael Ampersant

            yes, cool…looking forward…

          • Michael Ampersant

            If I could just add something…of course, even in a pure action plot 90% is psychology, provided it’s a good action plot. Thinks of Crighton’s “Time Line,” which was clearly written with the movie in mind, and where LESS than 90% is psychology…we’re transported to the middle-ages, our characters gallop about on their mounts…up and down, here and there…less than 90% psychology … and it’s terribly boring, and the movie was terribly boring, too.

            Twilight, the vampire thing, for example, is so good because 99% or more is about emotions that drive the story, even though it’s not particularly well-written, terribly edited, an so forth.

            We need to get the reader going. Anything less than a nervous breakdown means defeat (haha).

          • S Conroy

            Oops. Haven’t seen either film or even read the book. But still agree with you. I’ve nothing against action when the characters and their motivations are well developed and driving the action, rather than being incidental carboard. (I’m not a fantasy fan at all, but like the many millions got sucked right into Game of Thrones.)

          • Michael Ampersant

            Fantasy…neither am I…just to nerve you further, here’s a brief passage from my own work, regarding Twilight, and it might be self-explanatory:

            “. “I understand Count Dracula and his folks,” I hear Tex saying as they approach, “they were mean-spirited and banking blood wasn’t on the agenda then, surely they had to feed on humans, but the Cullens of Twilight, Doctor Carlisle is a medical doctor, and they’re so preppy and above the fray and in favor of gun control, I’m sure, I’m sure they’re liberals, all of them, why don’t they just purchase blood? Why this hunting of deer in the rainy forest of the Puget sound?”
            “You don’t get it.”
            “And you should look at the deer, these cute bambies grazing on succulent ferns growing for the occasion between the redwood trees. And then there’s a sense of impending danger because the director of photography won’t hold still, bambi’s eye blinking backwards, at us, a cry for help that goes unanswered because we’re strapped to the comfort chairs of this multiplex, popcorn cups in hand. And now she’s off, bambi, running for her life, bambi, and Dr. Carlisle is chasing her, although you can’t really see him chasing her, what you see is a vortex of black substance chasing bambi, but it is Carlisle, we can be sure, he’s implied by the story, it’s him or Emmet or Rosalie or Esme or somebody else of his clan.”
            “You don’t get it.”
            “No, exactly, I don’t get it,” Tex says.”

            …In this spirit…

  • Paul A. Freeman

    The first paragraph of this story did it no favours, what with all those superfluous adjectives. Then there were the four main characters, two described in too much detail. Less should have been more – for instance, we got the idea of Jack being arrogant and annoying just from his behaviour, not from listing what he was wearing. Overall, although I was engaged by the story, by the end nothing much seemed to have happened.

    • Pete Wood

      Thanks for reading. Good points.
      You and Stephen King agree on describing characters physical appearance and clothing. In On Writing King says not to waste the reader’s time describing what characters are wearing.

      • Michael Ampersant

        Well…Michael Chabon, who is really an exquisite writer, almost always hints at physical appearance and clothing, even for the most passing characters. Not to mention Stephen King himself, who is okay as a writer, but not really good.

      • MPmcgurty

        I think it also depends on the genre. Some writers describe only items of clothing or accessories that help define the character (an unusual pendant, or the rock band logo t-shirts that John Sandford’s Virgil Flowers always wears).

        • Michael Ampersant

          As far as I remember King’s book “On Writing” (that was the title, wasn’t it), the characterization thing…her refers there to Elmore Leonard, and Leonard’s technique of partial characterizations, with a quote from Leonard about the advantages of a (very) partial characterization, at it lets the reader free to fill in the voids. This, I think is very important. We should always create ambiguity and work with it. If you seek disambiguation, go write a paper for a learned journal.

          • MPmcgurty

            I don’t know what “…her refers there to Elmore Leonard” means (although I’ve enjoyed his books), and I never read King’s book. But if your reply to me is concerning ambiguity, I disagree with “always”.

          • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

            The thing about rules for writing and writers is that there are no rules. There are great guidelines–including Leonard’s “Ten Rules for Writers”–but there’s always a place where the exception is better than the rule. Great writing is luck and the magic moment every bit as much as hard work and refinement of craft. If a handbook made it happen we’d all be laughing gleefully from our hilltop estates…

          • Michael Ampersant

            Couldn’t agree more. In my comment I was reacting to someone who had brought up King’s book.

            Although…reading the EDF stories (for example) there’s a lot of elbow room there for applying simple rules before we push the envelope and need to break them (the rules). A lot. These precious adjectives, these precious adverbs…that’s sort of rule no.1, avoid them, and yet….why is it rule no.1, especially in English?…Because its vocabulary is so rich, there’s almost always an expression out there that denotes the intended meaning of the compound term directly.

          • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

            Well–this is why writing is both art and craft. Practice makes you better but nothing can teach you about the intangible moment of finding the perfect way of saying something. The stories I labor over often go clunk. But the ones that just seem to fall out of my head when I didn’t even know they were in there…

    • Michael Ampersant

      Agree…not much happened.

      • S Conroy

        Disagree. Think a a lot has happened at the psychological level.

        • Michael Ampersant

          You might have a better psychological sense for that…I may have just missed it.

          • S Conroy

            Or my interpretation could be totally off the wall…

          • Michael Ampersant

            Well, I don’t want to hurt Pete’s feeling (I think I don’t because I include practically everybody)…whenever I read a flash story on EDF, which I do now daily, I get the feeling that something is amiss. And I don’t get this feeling when I read Alice Munro, for example (there’s not much wrong with Pete’s story, by standards). I’m fascinated by this. If my view on this carries in any way (I mean, if I’m not completely wrong), it means that good writing is really, really hard to pull off.

            (I’ve submitted only one story to EDF so far, it’s still on the slush pile, should it get published you can unload on me accordingly)

          • S Conroy

            To be honest I don’t expect to find Alice Munro or * – fill in your favourite Nobel prize winner – here on a regular basis. But occasionally there is a story where I go, wow. That’s just good. Full stop.
            And there are also stories I devour because they’re “my kind of story”, where I’m happy to ignore a clumsy sentence or two. In this story, I felt I could visualise the characters and imagine what was going on between the lines. There often is a lot going on under society’s polite veneer and this story touched on that nicely. For my tastes that’s more interesting than a story which is all action plot.
            Looking forward to unloading on that story of yours ;-).

          • Michael Ampersant

            yes, cool…looking forward…

          • Michael Ampersant

            If I could just add something…of course, even in a pure action plot 90% is psychology, provided it’s a good action plot. Thinks of Crighton’s “Time Line,” which was clearly written with the movie in mind, and where LESS than 90% is psychology…we’re transported to the middle-ages, our characters gallop about on their mounts…up and down, here and there…less than 90% psychology … and it’s terribly boring, and the movie was terribly boring, too.

            Twilight, the vampire thing, for example, is so good because 99% or more is about emotions that drive the story, even though it’s not particularly well-written, terribly edited, an so forth.

            We need to get the reader going. Anything less than a nervous breakdown means defeat (haha).

          • S Conroy

            Oops. Haven’t seen either film or even read the book. But still agree with you. I’ve nothing against action when the characters and their motivations are well developed and driving the action, rather than being incidental carboard. (I’m not a fantasy fan at all, but like the many millions got sucked right into Game of Thrones.)

          • Michael Ampersant

            Fantasy…neither am I…just to nerve you further, here’s a brief passage from my own work, regarding Twilight, and it might be self-explanatory:

            “. “I understand Count Dracula and his folks,” I hear Tex saying as they approach, “they were mean-spirited and banking blood wasn’t on the agenda then, surely they had to feed on humans, but the Cullens of Twilight, Doctor Carlisle is a medical doctor, and they’re so preppy and above the fray and in favor of gun control, I’m sure, I’m sure they’re liberals, all of them, why don’t they just purchase blood? Why this hunting of deer in the rainy forest of the Puget sound?”
            “You don’t get it.”
            “And you should look at the deer, these cute bambies grazing on succulent ferns growing for the occasion between the redwood trees. And then there’s a sense of impending danger because the director of photography won’t hold still, bambi’s eye blinking backwards, at us, a cry for help that goes unanswered because we’re strapped to the comfort chairs of this multiplex, popcorn cups in hand. And now she’s off, bambi, running for her life, bambi, and Dr. Carlisle is chasing her, although you can’t really see him chasing her, what you see is a vortex of black substance chasing bambi, but it is Carlisle, we can be sure, he’s implied by the story, it’s him or Emmet or Rosalie or Esme or somebody else of his clan.”
            “You don’t get it.”
            “No, exactly, I don’t get it,” Tex says.”

            …In this spirit…

  • I’m with Simon, if I heard “Bud” one more time I was going to scream. Nicely done. In fact there was an overall layer of talent that was appreciated. However I think the story suffers from conflict issues. The two characters, Simon and Jack are not equal to each other and the whole thing depreciates because the struggle isn’t strong enough. Sure Simon is victorious in the end, but there wasn’t a whole lot he had to do to get there.

    • Pete Wood

      Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment.
      You’re right about Jack and Simon being unequal. In earlier drafts, Jack stood more toe to toe with Simon. But, I had so much fun knocking him down a notch. . .:)

  • I’m with Simon, if I heard “Bud” one more time I was going to scream. Nicely done. In fact there was an overall layer of talent that was appreciated. However I think the story suffers from conflict issues. The two characters, Simon and Jack are not equal to each other and the whole thing depreciates because the struggle isn’t strong enough. Sure Simon is victorious in the end, but there wasn’t a whole lot he had to do to get there.

    • Pete Wood

      Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment.
      You’re right about Jack and Simon being unequal. In earlier drafts, Jack stood more toe to toe with Simon. But, I had so much fun knocking him down a notch. . .:)

  • I found too much dialogue about too much that didn’t matter. Unengaging in a Larry David way.

    • Pete Wood

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Jeff.

  • I found too much dialogue about too much that didn’t matter. Unengaging in a Larry David way.

    • Pete Wood

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Jeff.

  • Michael Ampersant

    It doesn’t ring true…the interaction Simon and Jack..no professor would invite a hated TA for dinner, even if it’s only a formica table, even if it’s NC State, unless he’s under serious duress. And then, what? Nobody gets killed, or slapped in the face. Tara and Jack don’t even maintain an affair. What is this about? What happened to John Irving? What happened to John Updike?

    • Pete Wood

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.
      Simon’s wife invited Jack, not Simon, but I see your point.
      “only NC State”? I don’t want to give the impression that I think poorly of the school. I took graduate level English classes there and have attended more arts events there than I can remember. It is a great school and I am very happy to live close by.

      • Pete Wood

        For some reason your second paragraph didn’t show the first time.
        First paragraphs of stories are challenging. There is a temptation to cram in way too much information. It is probably the part of the story that I rewrite the most.
        Good thoughts. Thanks again for reading.

        • Michael Ampersant

          Oh Peter, now I realize you’re the author. Yes, the dig at NC State was cheap. I regret, and retract. I always misbehave, sorry, my partner Chang just told me. And we couldn’t agree more about first paragraphs.

          Yes, people rewrite them so much, the first paragraphs, in the end they are overwritten.

          You know, there’s a lot of literature about first sentences and first paragraphs. (“Writers Digest,” etc). I think it’s all bullshit. Sure, sometimes a first sentence is sheer magic. But usually it isn’t. And it doesn’t have to. The only thing it needs to do, it needs to get you to the second sentence. And so on. Good writing (caveat: I’m not a professional) good writing depends on all sentences in equal measure, and a really bad one near the end could be worse than near the beginning.

        • Michael Ampersant

          …something more about the setting of your story…it’s a set-piece campus story, senior teachers vs. junior teachers, what’s going to happen next…it’s fine, any conceivable plot has by now been told 100 000 times in the world literature, I’d say, a set piece setting like your’s needs to be illuminated/informed by irony, by some implicit reflection on the clichés, and your take on them. Any story like this needs to be self-reflexive to some degree. Have a look at Updike’s “Roger’s Version.”

      • Michael Ampersant

        Yes…Simon’s wife invited them…I figured belatedly.

        • Pete Wood

          1984 has a great first line.
          Moby Dick.
          Tale of Two Cities

          • Paul A. Freeman

            Funnily enough, I often think that the final line of 1984 is the clincher. Imagine what a let down the novel would be if the final line was “Winston still wasn’t too keen on Big Brother”.

  • Michael Ampersant

    It doesn’t ring true…the interaction Simon and Jack..no professor would invite a hated TA for dinner, even if it’s only a formica table, even if it’s NC State, unless he’s under serious duress, the professor. And then, what? Nobody gets killed, or slapped in the face. Pants don’t drop. Tara and Jack don’t even maintain an affair. What is this about? What happened to John Irving? What happened to John Updike?

    It’s reasonable well-written, though. The initial paragraph is too talkative (“water-stained,” “cramped,” “decaying,”…), like most initial paragraphs in short stories, and the overall tone is not dry enough, but there are few words really out of place, and most dialogue lines sound natural…

    • Pete Wood

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.
      Simon’s wife invited Jack, not Simon, but I see your point.
      “only NC State”? I don’t want to give the impression that I think poorly of the school. I took graduate level English classes there and have attended more arts events there than I can remember. It is a great school and I am very happy to live close by.

      • Pete Wood

        For some reason your second paragraph didn’t show the first time.
        First paragraphs of stories are challenging. There is a temptation to cram in way too much information. It is probably the part of the story that I rewrite the most.
        Good thoughts. Thanks again for reading.

        • Michael Ampersant

          Oh Peter, now I realize you’re the author. Yes, the dig at NC State was cheap. I regret, and retract. I always misbehave, sorry, my partner Chang just told me. And we couldn’t agree more about first paragraphs.

          Yes, people rewrite them so much, the first paragraphs, in the end they are overwritten.

          You know, there’s a lot of literature about first sentences and first paragraphs. (“Writers Digest,” etc). I think it’s all bullshit. Sure, sometimes a first sentence is sheer magic. But usually it isn’t. And it doesn’t have to. The only thing it needs to do, it needs to get you to the second sentence. And so on. Good writing (caveat: I’m not a professional) good writing depends on all sentences in equal measure, and a really bad one near the end could be worse than near the beginning.

        • Michael Ampersant

          …something more about the setting of your story…it’s a set-piece campus story, senior teachers vs. junior teachers, what’s going to happen next…it’s fine, any conceivable plot has by now been told 100 000 times in the world literature, I’d say, a set piece setting like your’s needs to be illuminated/informed by irony, by some implicit reflection on the clichés, and your take on them. Any story like this needs to be self-reflexive to some degree. Have a look at Updike’s “Roger’s Version.”

      • Michael Ampersant

        Yes…Simon’s wife invited them…I figured belatedly.

        • Pete Wood

          1984 has a great first line.
          Moby Dick.
          Tale of Two Cities

          • Paul A. Freeman

            Funnily enough, I often think that the final line of 1984 is the clincher. Imagine what a let down the novel would be if the final line was “Winston still wasn’t too keen on Big Brother”.

  • I had someone tell me once, when I complained about an television advertisement, that it wasn’t “for me.” I think that this story must fall into the same category. I didn’t get it. I have read it twice. I still didn’t understand what the story was trying to get across.

    The dialog distracted me. Dropping the “he said, she said” might help a little. Although, I am not sure the dialog that was there supported the story anyway. It seemed a bit superfluous. But that could be that overall the story’s intent eluded me.

    • Pete Wood

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  • I had someone tell me once, when I complained about an television advertisement, that it wasn’t “for me.” I think that this story must fall into the same category. I didn’t get it. I have read it twice. I still didn’t understand what the story was trying to get across.

    The dialog distracted me. Dropping the “he said, she said” might help a little. Although, I am not sure the dialog that was there supported the story anyway. It seemed a bit superfluous. But that could be that overall the story’s intent eluded me.

    • Pete Wood

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    I found it hard to believe that an over-age frat-boy type like Jack would crumple so easily. It would take someone with a little more character than Simon to overtly threaten a Trustee’s son. There’s no more intense hotbed of politics than a university’s faculty and administration.
    This was a little too much like “Who’s Afraid….” without the brutality.

    • MPmcgurty

      There it is. I couldn’t figure out what was missing from it for me until you bring up Woolf’s work.

      • Kathy

        Actually, playwright Edward Albee’s work.

        • MPmcgurty

          My God, yes. That’s terrible, since I just re-read The Sandbox in looking for one-act plays to compare for someone. Thanks.

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    I found it hard to believe that an over-age frat-boy type like Jack would crumple so easily. It would take someone with a little more character than Simon to overtly threaten a Trustee’s son. There’s no more intense hotbed of politics than a university’s faculty and administration.

    This was a little too much like “Who’s Afraid….” without the brutality.

    • MPmcgurty

      There it is. I couldn’t figure out what was missing from it for me until you bring up Woolf’s work.

      • Kathy

        Actually, playwright Edward Albee’s work.

        • MPmcgurty

          My God, yes. That’s terrible, since I just re-read The Sandbox in looking for one-act plays to compare for someone. Thanks.

  • Diane Cresswell

    This is a good piece written about the inequality within the realm of college professors and their TAs. My observation of this is based on the fact that I have worked for a number of colleges and have seen interaction between the two – professors and TAs. In some ways this isn’t really accurate and I wondered why was Jack so arrogant and why would he constantly rub his professor the wrong way, Professors do hold a great deal of power over the TAs which by the way are not picked because they are dumb! And I’m not even going to get into the wicked underbelly of the power of the little kingdoms within the faculties. So what is Jack’s real motive in doing this to Simon. However, I liked it though it would be more insightful with a bit more depth to the story. This one would be more fun fleshed out.

    • Kathy

      Based on my own experience working with graduate students and professors at a large urban university, arrogance, jealousies and insecurities emerge in personal relationships despite (or because of!) power imbalances, differences in age, gender or experience among the grad students and the professors. Simon may be one of those professors who has lost the competitive battle with his peers – other professors – and is hanging on to what limited power or perks (like having a TA) he has. Jack, as son of a Trustee, can risk being arrogant and mocking toward Simon. On the other hand, Simon has the protection of tenure from any threat Jack’s Trustee parent might be influenced to direct toward Simon. I know lots of TA’s who grade papers and exams, it’s their primary responsibility. I’ve done it myself.

  • Diane Cresswell

    This is a good piece written about the inequality within the realm of college professors and their TAs. My observation of this is based on the fact that I have worked for a number of colleges and have seen interaction between the two – professors and TAs. In some ways this isn’t really accurate and I wondered why was Jack so arrogant and why would he constantly rub his professor the wrong way, Professors do hold a great deal of power over the TAs which by the way are not picked because they are dumb! And I’m not even going to get into the wicked underbelly of the power of the little kingdoms within the faculties. So what is Jack’s real motive in doing this to Simon. However, I liked it though it would be more insightful with a bit more depth to the story. This one would be more fun fleshed out.

    • Kathy

      Based on my own experience working with graduate students and professors at a large urban university, arrogance, jealousies and insecurities emerge in personal relationships despite (or because of!) power imbalances, differences in age, gender or experience among the grad students and the professors. Simon may be one of those professors who has lost the competitive battle with his peers – other professors – and is hanging on to what limited power or perks (like having a TA) he has. Jack, as son of a Trustee, can risk being arrogant and mocking toward Simon. On the other hand, Simon has the protection of tenure from any threat Jack’s Trustee parent might be influenced to direct toward Simon. I know lots of TA’s who grade papers and exams, it’s their primary responsibility. I’ve done it myself.

  • Trollopian

    I liked this quite a lot, though I think it could go another round or two with an editor’s ruthless pen, but have an off-topic question:

    Is it usual for universities to provide housing for professors? Students, yes, but professors? Simon’s 45 (20 years older than Kate) and I was surprised to see him still stuck in “cramped” and “decaying” university housing, but maybe I’m just out of touch with academia. Thanks.

    • MPmcgurty

      I don’t know about “usual” but it’s not impossible, since many universities own inexpensive housing near their campuses.

  • Trollopian

    I liked this quite a lot, though I think it could go another round or two with an editor’s ruthless pen, but have an off-topic question:

    Is it usual for universities to provide housing for professors? Students, yes, but professors? Simon’s 45 (20 years older than Kate) and I was surprised to see him still stuck in “cramped” and “decaying” university housing, but maybe I’m just out of touch with academia. Thanks.

    • MPmcgurty

      I don’t know about “usual” but it’s not impossible, since many universities own inexpensive housing near their campuses.

  • Melissa Reynolds

    I love how Tara handles this situation. She doesn’t come across as a jealous wife, though she could have easily fallen into that. Instead, she masterfully redirects the conversation and reminds Simon that ‘he’s the man.’ To me that’s what this story is about: an intellectual type (who may be socially awkward) finally exerting his authority and his wise wife who nudged him in the right direction. I liked it.

    • Kathy

      I agree. I have seen many older professors who are flattered by the attention they get from much younger students seeking their approval, their mentoring, their recommendations, to the extent some professors do and say things that seem foolish and self-destructive when it comes to interactions with students. (Not a problem limited to academia!)

  • Melissa Reynolds

    I love how Tara handles this situation. She doesn’t come across as a jealous wife, though she could have easily fallen into that. Instead, she masterfully redirects the conversation and reminds Simon that ‘he’s the man.’ To me that’s what this story is about: an intellectual type (who may be socially awkward) finally exerting his authority and his wise wife who nudged him in the right direction. I liked it.

    • Kathy

      I agree. I have seen many older professors who are flattered by the attention they get from much younger students seeking their approval, their mentoring, their recommendations, to the extent some professors do and say things that seem foolish and self-destructive when it comes to interactions with students. (Not a problem limited to academia!)

  • Gerald_Warfield

    Enjoyed the story although it was, as others have pointed out, overwritten a tad. I thought the biggest weakness was lack of motivation. Jack had no motive other than to put down “Bud,” but we don’t know why he was so intent on doing that. “Bud,” on the other hand, had no vulnerability other than his age. He never seemed to be in any particular danger (job or marriage). The situation could have been a lot richer and the dialogue more pointed with a dose of campus politics: tenure, promotion, jealousy. One point I found odd was Jack’s comments about Bach’s students. J.S. was the most famous of generations of Bach composers, and he had four sons to follow him as composers two of whom became more famous than he (at the time). Almost any other composer would have been a better example.

    • MPmcgurty

      I suspected until quite close to the end that Jack was jealous, and that Simon and Kate were having an affair, and so I was sort of let down because I thought a grand row was about to happen.

    • Kathy

      I assume Jack commented negatively about Bach because the composer & his work is SImon’s chosen area of expertise.

      • Gerald_Warfield

        Yes, that’s possible, and its ineptness makes Jack look even more like a fraud. I hadn’t thought of that.

  • Gerald_Warfield

    Enjoyed the story although it was, as others have pointed out, overwritten a tad. I thought the biggest weakness was lack of motivation. Jack had no motive other than to put down “Bud,” but we don’t know why he was so intent on doing that. “Bud,” on the other hand, had no vulnerability other than his age. He never seemed to be in any particular danger (job or marriage). The situation could have been a lot richer and the dialogue more pointed with a dose of campus politics: tenure, promotion, jealousy. One point I found odd was Jack’s comments about Bach’s students. J.S. was the most famous of generations of Bach composers, and he had four sons to follow him as composers two of whom became more famous than he (at the time). Almost any other composer would have been a better example.

    • MPmcgurty

      I suspected until quite close to the end that Jack was jealous, and that Simon and Kate were having an affair, and so I was sort of let down because I thought a grand row was about to happen.

    • Kathy

      I assume Jack commented negatively about Bach because the composer & his work is SImon’s chosen area of expertise.

      • Gerald_Warfield

        Yes, that’s possible, and its ineptness makes Jack look even more like a fraud. I hadn’t thought of that.

  • Genghis Bob

    The first paragraph put me in a bad mood, and I never recovered.

  • Genghis Bob

    The first paragraph put me in a bad mood, and I never recovered.

  • S Conroy

    I really enjoyed this. I saw it as a power struggle between Simon and Jack with neither really winning. Yes, Simon puts Jack in his place, but only when he decides the game is about who is the alpha male in the academic rat race. That’s a game he can win with little effort. Winning Kate’s love doesn’t seem to be on the cards, so he convinces himself that it wasn’t what he wanted anyway..
    I figure Tara is the real puppeteer in this charade. She manages not to come off as the jealous spouse while manoeuvring Kate out of her husband’s reach. (She must think Simon is worth it…) I did wonder here whether she too was an academic to be in a position to suggest swapping assistants.

    • Kathy

      I agree about Tara’s role here and understand why she might want to switch out Kate for another grad student, but Jack? Really? Tara seems to care for her husband, and seems to be making the effort to protect him from his own worst instincts. She can see Jack’s aggressive and arrogant attitude toward her husband, so I can’t understand why she would do anything to put Jack in a position of further “attacking” Simon. Plus, the prof that Jack is assigned to now is unlikely to want to give him up that easily.

      • S Conroy

        Yes. That could make her secretly a bit more bitter about her husband’s lusting eye than I would have thought originally.

      • MPmcgurty

        Point about Jack’s current professor a good one. Unless NC State is run like the military, people can’t just be switched at a dinner. But I can see Tara removing the immediate danger and letting Simon grow a backbone while handling Jack.

  • S Conroy

    I really enjoyed this. I saw it as a power struggle between Simon and Jack with neither really winning. Yes, Simon puts Jack in his place, but only when he decides that the game is about who the alpha male is in the academic rat race. That’s a game he can win with little effort. Winning Kate’s love doesn’t seem to be on the cards, so he convinces himself that it wasn’t what he wanted anyway…
    I figure Tara is the real puppeteer in this charade. She manages not to come off as the jealous spouse while manoeuvring Kate out of her husband’s reach. (She must think Simon is worth it…) I did wonder here whether she too was an academic to be in a position to suggest swapping assistants.

    • Kathy

      I agree about Tara’s role here and understand why she might want to switch out Kate for another grad student, but Jack? Really? Tara seems to care for her husband, and seems to be making the effort to protect him from his own worst instincts. She can see Jack’s aggressive and arrogant attitude toward her husband, so I can’t understand why she would do anything to put Jack in a position of further “attacking” Simon. Plus, the prof that Jack is assigned to now is unlikely to want to give him up that easily.

      • S Conroy

        Yes. That could make her secretly a bit more annoyed about her husband’s lusting eye than I would have thought originally.

      • MPmcgurty

        Point about Jack’s current professor a good one. Unless NC State is run like the military, people can’t just be switched at a dinner. But I can see Tara removing the immediate danger and letting Simon grow a backbone while handling Jack.

  • MPmcgurty

    When I started reading this, I felt actual unease because I thought the story was building tension toward a full-blown affair exposed by smarmy Jack. I was a bit disappointed, then, when it turned out to be no more than Jack’s wife suggesting a solution that, in the end, made everyone happy. SarahCA nailed what I was looking for in tone with the Woolf reference.

    I did like Simon going alpha at the end. I’d cut last two paragraphs and end on Simon turning the tables on Jack with “bud”.

    Even with the turn toward the ordinary, I didn’t lose interest in the story. Glad Jack got his nose whacked.

  • MPmcgurty

    When I started reading this, I felt actual unease because I thought the story was building tension toward a full-blown affair exposed by smarmy Jack. I was a bit disappointed, then, when it turned out to be no more than Jack’s wife suggesting a solution that, in the end, made everyone happy. SarahCA nailed what I was looking for in tone with the Woolf reference.

    I did like Simon going alpha at the end. I’d cut last two paragraphs and end on Simon turning the tables on Jack with “bud”.

    Even with the turn toward the ordinary, I didn’t lose interest in the story. Glad Jack got his nose whacked.

  • Pete Wood

    Really good comments. I am honored for such a spirited discussion about my story. Thanks, everybody!

  • Pete Wood

    Really good comments. I am honored for such a spirited discussion about my story. Thanks, everybody!