Dr. Perkins was halfway through a small hotdog wrapped in cheese and bacon when the question came up.
“So, what do you do?”
The woman had jet black hair tied up in a bun, indicative of the pseudo-Chinese fashion the West often incorrectly associates with that of Japanese geishas. She continued this theme with a deep red silk dress accented by a long slit that revealed a single perfectly-tanned thigh. She was tall, taller than Perkins, who assiduously searched for a small plate or napkin on which to rest his nearly-consumed hors d’oeuvre. He resignedly ate the last bite and responded, “I’m a professor at Olympia University.”
“Oh? What do you teach?”
“Oh, I don’t teach anything now. I’m on a year sabbatical, you see.”
“Hmm.” The woman looked past Perkins and gave a slight smile. “And what does that involve?”
“Well, right now, I’m finishing up a qualitative analysis of the perceived racist connotations of a speech given by Geoff Rawls, president of Alexandria College, in 1997.”
“That’s when I was chair of the modern languages department at Alexandria. I wanted to understand what aspects of his comments were most responsible for the vitriol that followed him weeks later.”
The woman furrowed her eyebrows and took a sip of something purple. “So, you’ve been working on this paper for… eighteen years?”
“Well, not exclusively. There have been a number of edits, peer reviews — I was able to interview the original student whom the comment was aimed at and get his perspective and that of his tribe.”
The woman put down her drink and wriggled her fingers in the air above her head. She mouthed the words “Come, come.” Perkins continued.
“He was Native American, you see, of the Hopi tribe, and Dr. Rawls off-handedly mentioned that the student’s work in developing new compounds for fire extinguishers was akin to making ‘fire water.’”
“That certainly sounds racist.”
“Yes, to many, it did. But Dr. Rawls defended himself by claiming the comment was said purely in jest and that his past work with Native American groups spoke to his great respect for their culture.”
“There you are, Tim!” The woman grabbed an older man with patches of graying facial hair and kissed him on the cheek.
“Of course, it did not help matters when Rawls met with the student and tribal leaders, and then referred to their supposedly constructive dialogue as ‘smoking the peace pipe.’”
The woman picked up her drink and put her free arm around the other man.
“Tim, this is…”
“Walter Perkins, nice to meet you.” Dr. Perkins shook hands with the man for several seconds.
“Walter is a professor, but he doesn’t teach anything,” the woman explained. “Tell me all about Budapest! Francine told me you just got back this month — I want to hear everything.”
Tim shrugged his shoulders and asked, “You have four hours and some Scotch?”
“Oh, stop!” The woman laughed and guided the man to the bar.
Perkins grabbed another small hotdog wrapped in cheese and bacon from a passing server. He walked slowly onto the terrace and gazed at the darkening horizon. A cool wind wafted against the professor’s face. He winced, even though his eyes were protected behind his thick-framed glasses. He walked to the railing and peered down at the eighteen stories of nothingness that obscured the passing cars, flickering streetlights, and mating rats that surely awaited below.
“Niggardly! Niggardly! Niggardly! Niggardly!”
Perkins directed his gaze to a cackling young woman and her terrified companion. The two women wore nearly identical black dresses that fell to just above their knees.
“See?” the originator of the outburst asked. “No thunder or lightning—it’s just a word. Means to be cheap, stingy.” She took a long swallow from her glass.
The other woman darted her eyes back and forth, and tried to pry the drink from her friend’s fingers. “It’s not a nice word. You shouldn’t say it.”
“Actually, your associate is quite right,” Perkins said. He took a bite of his hotdog. “The word stems from the Old Norse verb ‘nigla,’ or to fuss about small matters. The pejorative term for African Americans is a much more recent term that traces its roots back to the Latin adjective ‘niger,’ meaning black.”
“See?” asked the woman with a now-empty glass.
She slumped down on a chair behind her. Her friend crossed her arms and looked Perkins up and down.
“So, what do you do?”
Jared Golub is an international English teacher currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Communication from Marquette University. His work has previously appeared in Flash Fiction Magazine and The Marquette Literary Review. He was recently named a winner in the Norman H. Ott 50-Word Short Story Contest. And he only used 48 words.