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.
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.
“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.”
“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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