Excerpt

The Nix

Nathan Hill

August 31, 2016 
The following is from Nathan Hill’s novel, The Nix. Hill’s short fiction has appeared in many literary journals, including The Iowa Review, AGNI, The Gettysburg Review, and Fiction, which awarded him its annual Fiction Prize. A native Iowan, he lives with his wife in Naples, Florida.

“You  think I cheated?”  says  Laura  Pottsdam,  college  sophomore  and habitual, perpetual cheater. “You think I plagiarized that paper? Me?”

Samuel nods. He’s trying to look sad about this whole situation, like when a parent has to punish a child. This hurts me more than it hurts you,is the expression he’s trying to produce, even if he does not sincerely feel it. Inside, he secretly likes when he gets to fail a student. It’s like revenge for having to teach them.

“Can I just say? Once and for all? I. Did. Not. Plagiarize. That. Paper,” Laura  Pottsdam  says  of  the  paper  that  was  almost  entirely  plagiarized. Samuel knows this because of the software—the truly exceptional soft-ware  package  subscribed  to  by  the  university  that  analyzes  every  essay completed  by  his  students  and  compares  them  to  every  other  essay  in its  massive  archive  of  every  paper  ever  analyzed  anywhere.  The  software’s  inner  brain  is  made  of  literally  millions  of  words  written  by  the nation’s  high-school  and  college  students,  and  Samuel  sometimes  jokes to  his  colleagues  that  if  the  software  ever  achieved  sci-fi  artificial  intelligence and consciousness, it would immediately go to Cancún for spring  break.

The  software  analyzed  Laura’s  paper  and  found  it  to  be  ninety- nine percent  plagiarized—everything  had  been  stolen  except  for  the  name “Laura Pottsdam.”

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PLURIUM INTERROGATIONUM

(OR, “THE LOADED QUESTION”)

 

“I  wonder  what  is  wrong  with  the  software?”  says  Laura,  second- year university student out of Schaumburg, Illinois, communications and marketing major, five foot two or three, dirty-blond hair that in the greenish gloom of Samuel’s office looks a pale legal pad yellow, thin white T-shirt featuring  what  seems  to  be  promotional  material  for  a  party  that  happened almost certainly before she was born. “I wonder why it’s malfunctioning. Is it wrong a lot?”

“You’re saying it’s a mistake?”

“It’s like so weird. I don’t get it. Why would it say that?”

Laura  looks  like  she  showered  in  a  wind  tunnel,  her  hair  is  so  frazzled  and  disorganized.  That  she  is  wearing  tiny  frayed  flannel  shorts roughly the size of a coffee filter is impossible to ignore. Ditto her deeply bronze  leg  tan.  On  her  feet,  she’s  wearing  slippers,  Muppet-fuzzy,  that yellow-green color of cabbage, with a gray-brown film of dirt around the footpads from being worn too often outdoors. It strikes Samuel that she might have come to his office today literally wearing her pajamas.

“The software isn’t wrong,” he says.

“You’re saying never? It’s never wrong? You’re saying it’s infallible and perfect?”

The  walls  of  Samuel’s  office  are  dutifully  decorated  with  his  various diplomas,  the  shelves  filled  with  books  with  long  titles,  the  whole  dark place  affecting  a  generic  professorialness.  There’s  the  leather  chair  in which Laura currently sits lightly kicking her slippered feet. New Yorker cartoons  taped  to  the  door.  Little  windowsill  plant  that  he  waters  with a  pint-size  mister.  Three-hole  punch.  Tabletop  calendar.  A  coffee  mug with Shakespeare on it. A set of nice pens. The whole tableau. A coatrack with  emergency  tweed  jacket.  He’s  sitting  in  his  ergonomic  chair.  He’s briefly happy about the correct usage of the word “infallible.” The musty odor in his office might be Laura’s sleep smell, or his own smell, still lingering after staying up late playing Elfscape last night.

“According to the software,” he says, looking at the report on Laura’s paper, “this essay came from the website FreeTermPapers.com.

”“See? That’s the thing! Never heard of it.”

He’s one of those young professors who still dresses in such a manner that  his  students  might  regard  as  “hip.”  Untucked  shirts,  blue  jeans,  a certain brand of fashionable sneaker. This is read by some people as proof of good taste, by others as a sign of internal weakness and insecurity and desperation. He also sometimes curses in class so he doesn’t seem old and square. Laura’s shorts are flannel with plaid bars of red, black, and navy blue. Her shirt is extraordinarily thin and faded, though it is difficult to tell whether this fade is from overuse or whether it was made in the factory  to  appear  this  way.  She  says,  “Obviously  I’m  not  gonna  copy  some stupid paper from the internet. It’s like, no way.”

“So you’re saying it’s a coincidence.”

“I don’t know why it said that. It’s so, you know, weird?”

Laura  occasionally  puts  that  upward  phonic  at  the  ends  of  her  sentences  so  that  even  her  declarations  sound  like  questions.  Samuel  finds this, like most accents, difficult not to mimic. He also finds her ability to maintain eye contact and keep her body relaxed and unjittery through-out all this lying remarkable. She does not display any of the involuntary physical indications of deception: she breathes in a normal manner; her posture is relaxed and languid; her eyes remain fixed on Samuel’s rather than  doing  that  up-and-to-the-right  thing  that  indicates  she’s  accessing her more creative brain parts; and her face does not seem to be working unnaturally hard to show emotion, as emotions seem to flutter across her face in a well- timed and more or less natural and organic way rather than the usual liar’s face where it looks like the cheek muscles are attempting to mechanically excrete the proper expression.

“According  to  the  software,”  Samuel  says,  “the  paper  in  question was also submitted three years ago to the Schaumburg Township High School.” He pauses to allow this fact to land and sink in. “Isn’t that your hometown? Isn’t that where you’re from?”

 

PETITIO PRINCIPII

(OR, “THE CIRCULAR ARGUMENT”)

 

“You know,” says Laura, shifting in her seat, moving one leg under her in what might be the first outward physical sign of distress. Her shorts are so small that when she moves around in the leather chair the skin of her lower buttocks squeaks against it or pulls off with a moist little sucking sound. “I wasn’t going to say anything, but I feel really offended. By all this?”

“You do.”

“Um, yeeeeahh? You asking me if I cheated? It’s really, like, rude?”

Laura’s shirt, which Samuel thinks was indeed artificially faded using dyes or chemicals or perhaps UV light or harsh abrasives, says “Laguna Beach  Party,  Summer 1990”  in  bubbly  vintage-looking  letters  with  a graphic ocean scene in the middle and a rainbow.

“You shouldn’t call somebody a cheater,” she says. “It stigmatizes them. There’s  been  studies?  The  more  you  call  someone  a  cheater,  the  bigger amount of times they cheat.”

The bigger number of times they cheat, Samuel wishes she would have said.

“Plus you shouldn’t punish someone for cheating,” Laura says, “because then  they  have  to  cheat  more.  To  pass  the  class?  It’s  like”—her  finger draws a loop into the air—“a vicious circle?”

Laura  Pottsdam  consistently  comes  to  class  between  three  minutes early and two minutes late. Her seat of choice is in the far back-left corner.  Various  boys  in  the  class  have  slowly  shifted  their  own  desk  preferences to get closer to her orbit, creeping mollusk-like from the right side of the classroom to the left over the course of the semester. Most sit next to her for a span of two or three weeks before they suddenly shoot away to the opposite side of the room. They’re like charged particles colliding and bouncing apart in what Samuel assumes is some psychosexual melodrama playing out extracurricularly.

“You  never  wrote  this  paper,”  says  Samuel.  “You  bought  it  in  high school  and  then  used  it  again  in  my  class.  That’s  the  only  thing  under discussion today.”

Laura draws both her feet under her. Her leg releases from the shiny leather with a wet pop.

 

APPEAL TO PITY

 

“This is so unfair,” she says. The way she so effortlessly and fluidly moved her legs is a sign of youthful flexibility or serious yoga training or both. “You asked for an essay on Hamlet. That’s what I gave you.”

“I asked you to write an essay on Hamlet.”

“How was I supposed to know that? It’s not my fault you have these weird rules.”

“They’re not my rules. Every school has these rules.”

“They do not. I used this paper in high school and got an A.”

“That’s too bad.”

“So I didn’t know it was wrong. How was I supposed to know it was wrong? Nobody ever taught me it was wrong.”

Of  course  you  knew  it  was  wrong.  You  were  lying  about  it.  If  you didn’t think it was wrong, you wouldn’t have lied.”

“But I lie about everything. It’s what I do. I can’t help it.”

“You should try to stop that.”

“But I can’t be punished twice for the same paper. If I was punished in high school for plagiarism, I can’t be punished again now. Isn’t that, like, double jeopardy?”

“I thought you said you got an A in high school.”

“No I didn’t.”

“I’m pretty sure you did. I’m pretty sure you just said that.”

“That was a hypothetical.”

“No, I don’t believe it was.”

“I think I would know. Duh.”

“Are you lying again? Are you lying right now?”

“No.”

They  stare  at  each  other  for  a  moment  like  two  poker  players  who are  both  bluffing.  This  is  the  most  eye  contact  they’ve  ever  shared.  In class, Laura almost always stares into her lap, where she hides her phone. She thinks if the phone is in her lap she has effectively concealed it. She  has  no  idea  how  obvious  and  transparent  this  maneuver  is.  Samuel  has not asked her to stop checking her phone in class, mostly so he can savage her grade at the end of the semester when he doles out “participation  points.”

“At  any  rate,”  he  says,  “double  jeopardy  doesn’t  work  that  way.  The point here is that when you submit work, there’s a basic assumption that it’s your work. Your own.”

“It is mine,” she says.

“No, you bought it.”

“I know,” she says.

“I own it. It’s mine. It’s my work.”

It strikes him that if he doesn’t think of this as “cheating” but rather as “outsourcing” then she might have a valid point.

 

FALSE ANALOGY

 

“Plus  other  people  do  worse  things  than  this,”  says  Laura.  “My  best friend? She pays her algebra tutor to do her homework for her. I mean, that’s way worse, right? And she doesn’t even get punished! Why should I get punished and she doesn’t?”

“She’s not in my class,” Samuel says.

“How about Larry then?”

“Who?”

“Larry Broxton? From our class? I know for a fact that everything he gives you was written by his older brother. You don’t punish him. That’s not fair. That’s way worse.”

Samuel  recalls  that  Larry  Broxton—sophomore,  major  undeclared, buzz-cut  hair  the  color  of  cornmeal,  usually  in  class  wearing  shiny  silver oversize basketball shorts and a monochromatic T-shirt featuring the gigantic logo of a clothing chain found in roughly all of America’s outlet malls— was among the boys who had crept toward and, later, bolted away from  Laura  Pottsdam.  Larry  fucking  Broxton,  skin  as  pale  and  sickly green as the inside of an old potato, pathetic attempts at a blond mustache and beard that looked more like his face was lightly crusted with panko bread crumbs, a kind of hunchiness and withdrawn, inward manner that for some reason reminded Samuel of a small fern that could only grow in the shade, Larry Broxton, who had never once spoken in class, whose feet had  outpaced  the  rest  of  his  body,  growth-spurt-wise,  and  had  resulted in a kind of floppy walk, as if his feet were two large and flat river fish, feet on which he wore these chunky black sandal things that Samuel was pretty sure were designed for use only in public showers and pools, this same  Larry  Broxton  who  during  the  ten  minutes  Samuel  gave  to  each class for “freewriting and brainstorming” would idly and subconsciously and  casually  pick  at  his  genitals,  he  could,  almost  every  day,  invariably, during  their  two-week  sitting-together  period,  on  the  way  out  of  class, make Laura Pottsdam laugh.

 

SLIPPERY SLOPE

 

“I’m just saying,” continues Laura, “that if you fail me you’ll have to fail everyone. Because everyone’s doing it. And then you won’t have no one left to teach.”

“Anyone,” he says.

“What?”

“You won’t have anyone left to teach. Not no one.”

Laura  looks  at  him  with  an  expression  she  might  also  give  someone who’s speaking to her in Latin.

“It’s a double negative,” he says. “Won’t and no one.”

“Whatever.”

He  knows  it  is  a  graceless  and  condescending  thing  to  do,  correcting  someone’s  spoken  grammar.  Like  being  at  a  party  and  criticizing someone  for  not  being  well-read  enough,  which  in  fact  had  happened to  Samuel  his  first  week  on  the  job,  at  a  faculty  get-to-know-you  dinner at the home of his boss, the dean of the college, a woman who had been a member of the English Department before bolting for her current administrative gig. She had built her academic career the typical way: by knowing  everything  there  was  to  know  about  an  extraordinarily  small field  (her  specific  niche  was  literature  written  during  the  plague,  about the plague). At dinner, she had asked his opinion on a certain section of The  Canterbury  Tales,  and,  when  he  demurred,  said,  a  little  too  loudly, “You haven’t read it? Oh, well, goodness.”

 

NON SEQUITUR

 

“Also?” Laura says. “I thought it was really unfair that you gave a quiz.”

“What quiz?”

“The quiz you gave? Yesterday? On Hamlet? I asked you if there was going to be a quiz and you said no. Then you gave a quiz anyway.”

“That’s my prerogative.”

“You lied  to  me,”  she  says,  affecting  this  injured  and  aggrieved  tone that sounds inherited from thousands of television family dramas.

“I didn’t lie,” he says. “I changed my mind.”

“You didn’t tell me the truth.”

“You shouldn’t have skipped class.”

What was it exactly about Larry Broxton that enraged him so much? Why the actual physical revulsion when he saw them sitting together and laughing  together  and  walking  home  together?  Part  of  it  was  that  he found the boy worthless— his manner of dress, his casual ignorance, his prognathic face, his total wall of silence during classroom discussions, sitting there motionless, a lump of organic matter contributing nothing to the class or the world. Yes, these things angered him, and that anger was magnified at the knowledge that Laura would let this boy do things to her. Would let him touch her, would actually nuzzle up willingly to his tuberish  skin,  let  his  crusty  lips  press  against  hers,  allow  herself  to  be  felt  by him, his hands, his raggedly chewed fingernails that held little purplish globs  of  goo.  That  she  might  willingly  remove  his  oversize  basketball shorts  back  at  his  squalid  dorm  room  that  surely  smelled  of  sweat  and old pizza and body crust and urine, that she would allow all these things willingly and not suffer for them made Samuel suffer for her.

 

POST HOC, ERGO PROPTER HOC

 

“Just  because  I  skipped  class,”  says  Laura,  “doesn’t  mean  I  should  fail. That’s really unfair.”

“That’s not why you’re failing.”

“I mean, it’s just one class. You don’t have to go so, like, nuclear about it?”

What  made  Samuel  suffer  even  more  was  the  thought  that  what brought  Laura  and  Larry  together  was  likely  a  mutual  dislike  of  him. That  Samuel  was  the  glue  between  them.  That  they  both  found  him boring and tedious, and this was enough to make small talk on, enough to fill in the gaps between the heavy petting. It was, in a way, his fault. Samuel felt responsible for the sexual catastrophe that was ongoing in his class, back row, left side.

 

FALSE COMPROMISE

 

“I’ll tell you what,” says Laura, sitting up straight now and leaning toward him. “I can admit I was wrong about copying the paper, if you can admit you were wrong about giving the quiz.”

“Okay.”

“So  as  a  compromise,  I’ll  rewrite  the  paper,  and  you’ll  give  me  a makeup  quiz.  Everybody’s  happy.”  She  lifts  her  hands,  palms  up,  and smiles.

“Voilà,” she says.

“How is that a compromise?”

“I think we need to get beyond the conversation of ‘did Laura cheat’ and toward the conversation of ‘how do we move forward.’ ”

“It’s not a compromise if you get everything you want.”

“But  you  get  what  you  want  too.  I’ll  take  full  responsibility  for  my actions.”

“How?”

“By saying it. Saying that”—and here she puts her fingers in the air to indicate quotation marks—“I take full responsibility for my actions”—end air quotes.

“You  take  responsibility  for  your  actions  by  facing  the  consequences for them.”

“You mean failing.”

“I mean, yes, failing.”

“That’s so not fair! I shouldn’t have to fail the class and take full responsibility for my actions. It should be one or the other. That’s how it works. And you know what else?”

 

RED HERRING

 

“I don’t even need this class. I shouldn’t even be in this class. When am I ever going to need this in real life? When is anyone ever going to ask if I know Hamlet? When is that going to be essential information? Can you tell me that? Huh? Tell me, when am I ever going to need to know this?”

“That is not relevant.”

“No,  it’s  very  relevant.  It’s  like  the  most  relevant  thing ever. Because you can’t do it. You can’t tell me when I’m going to need this information. Because you want to know why? Because the answer is I won’t.”

Samuel knows this is probably true. Asking students to examine Hamlet in terms of logical fallacies seems pretty stupid. But ever since a certain provost came to power who is obsessed with teaching hard sciences and mathematics in every class (the reason being that we have to funnel our students into these disciplines to effectively compete with the Chinese, or something), Samuel has had to show on his annual reports how he promotes mathematics in his literature classes. Teaching logic is a gesture in this direction, and one that he now wishes he taught more thoroughly, as Laura has used, by his internal count, maybe ten logical fallacies in their conversation so far.

“Look,”  he  says,  “I  didn’t  make  you  take  the  class.  Nobody’s  forcing you to be here.”

“Yes you are! You’re all forcing me to be here reading dumb Hamlet, which I’m never going to need for the rest of my life!”

“You can drop the class whenever you like.”

“No, I can’t!”

“Why not?”

 

ARGUMENTUM VERBOSIUM

 

“I cannot fail this class because I need it to satisfy a humanities credit so I have room in my fall schedule to take statistics and micro so I can be ahead for the next summer when I’ll need to get internship credit so I can still  graduate  in  three  and  a  half  years,  which  I  have  to  do  because  my parents’ college fund won’t cover four full years even though there used to be plenty of money in it but they had to use it for the divorce lawyer and they explained to me that ‘everyone in the family has to make sacrifices in this difficult time’ and mine would be either taking out a loan for my last semester in college or busting my butt to finish early and so if I have to  repeat  this  class  it’ll  screw  up  the  whole  plan.  And  my  mom  wasn’t doing  very  good  post-divorce  anyway  but  now  they’ve  found  a  tumor? In  her  uterus?  And  they’re  operating  next  week  to  take  it  out?  And  I have to keep going home once a week to quote-unquote be there for her even  though  all  we  do  is  play  Bunco  with  her  stupid  friends.  And  my grandmother who’s all alone now after Grandpa died gets confused a lot about which medications to take on which days and it’s my responsibility to take care of her and fill her weekly pill cases with the right drugs or she  could  go  into  a  coma  or  something,  and  I  don’t  know  who’s  gonna take care of Gramma next week when I have to serve my three days of community service, which is so stupid because everyone else at that party drank  just  as  much  as  I  did  and  yet  I  was  the  one  arrested  for  public intoxication and the next day I asked the cop on what grounds could he possibly  arrest  me  for  public  intoxication  and  he  said  I  was  standing  in the  middle  of  the  street  yelling  ‘I  am  so  drunk!’  which  I  totally  do  not remember doing. And on top of all this my roommate’s a total pig and a total slob and she keeps stealing my Diet Pepsi and not even paying me back or saying thank you and I’ll look in the fridge and there’s one more Diet Pepsi missing and she leaves her stuff everywhere and tries to give me advice about eating healthy even though she’s like two hundred and fifty pounds but she thinks she’s some diet genius because she used to be three hundred and fifty pounds and she’s all like Have you ever lost a hundred pounds? and I’m like I never needed to, but she goes on and on about her triple-digit weight loss and how she totally changed her life since she began her weight-loss journey and blah blah blah weight-loss journey this and weight-loss journey that and she’s so incredibly annoying about it and even has this giant weight-loss calendar on the wall so I can’t even put up any of my posters but I can’t say anything because I’m supposed to be like part of her support network? And it’s like my job to ask her if she’s hit her calorie burns for the day and congratulate her when she does and not tempt her by bringing in quote-unquote self-destructive food and I’m not sure why I’m the one who gets punished for what is in reality her problem but still I go along with it and I don’t buy Doritos or Pop Tarts or those individually  wrapped  Zebra  Cakes  even  though  I love  them  because  I want to be a good supportive roommate and the only thing I allow myself and like my only pleasure in life is my Diet Pepsi, which technically she’s not even supposed to have anyway because she says carbonated beverages were one of her food crutches before she began her weight- loss journey, but I say Diet Pepsi has like two calories so she can deal with it. And—oh, yeah—my dad was stabbed at a foam party last week. And even though he’s doing fine now I’m finding it hard to concentrate on school because he was stabbed and also what the fuck was he doing at a foam party anyway, which is a question he completely refuses to answer and when I start asking  about  it  he  just  tunes  me  out  like  I’m  Mom.  And  my  boyfriend went  to  college  in  Ohio  and  he  constantly  wants  me  to  send  him  dirty pictures of me because he says it takes his mind off all the pretty girls out there so I’m afraid if I don’t do it he’ll sleep with some Ohio slut and it’ll be my fault, so I take the pictures and I know he likes it if girls are shaved and I’m okay with doing that for him but I get all these little red bumps that are really itchy and ugly and one got infected and imagine having to explain to some ninety-year-old nurse at student health that you need an ointment because you cut yourself shaving your pubes. And besides all of this now I have a flat tire on my bike and one sink in our kitchenette is plugged up and my roommate’s gross hair is always all over the shower and sticking to my lavender bar soap and my mom had to give away our beagle because she cannot deal with that level of responsibility right now and there’s  all  these  low-fat  ham  cubes  in  our  refrigerator  that  are  like three weeks old and starting to smell and my best friend had an abortion and my internet’s broken.”

 

APPEAL TO EMOTION

 

It goes without saying that Laura Pottsdam is now crying.

 

FALSE DILEMMA

 

“I’m  gonna  have  to  drop  out  of  school!”  Laura  howls.  Her  words  are coming out in a weeping monotone all smashed together. “If I get an F I’m going to lose my financial aid and won’t be able to afford college and I’ll have to drop out!”

The problem here is that whenever Samuel sees someone else crying, he needs to cry too. He’s been this way as long as he can remember. He’s like a baby in a nursery crying out of sympathy for the other babies. He feels like crying is such an exposed and vulnerable thing to do in front of other people that he’s ashamed and embarrassed for the person doing it, and  this  triggers  his  own  feelings  of  shame  and  embarrassment,  all  the layers of childhood self-loathing that accumulated while growing up as a huge crybaby. All the sessions with counselors, all the childhood mortifications, they come rushing back at Samuel when he sees someone crying. It’s  like  his  body  becomes  a  big  open  wound  that  even  a  slight  breeze would physically hurt.

Laura’s crying is not restrained. She does not fight the crying but instead seems to wrap herself up in it. It is a full-on eye-and-nose-discharge cry accompanied by the typical sniffles and hiccupy breathing and facial contractions  that  tighten  her  cheeks  and  lips  into  a  grotesque  frown.  Her eyes are red and her cheeks shining and wet and there’s one small pellet of snot that has crawled terribly out of her left nostril. Her shoulders are hunched  and  she’s  slouching  and  looking  at  the  floor.  Samuel  feels  like he’s about ten seconds away from doing the same thing. He cannot bear to see someone else crying. This is why the weddings of work colleagues or  distant  relatives  are  a  disaster  for  him,  because  he  weeps  totally  out of proportion to his closeness level with the bride and groom. Sad films at  movie  theaters  present  a  similar  problem,  where  even  if  he  can’t  see people crying he can hear their little sniffles and blown noses and fitful breathing and can then extrapolate their particular kind of crying from his vast inner archive of crying episodes and sort of “try it on” for himself, a problem magnified if he happens to be on a date and is thus hyperalert and aware of his date’s emotional tenor and mortified that she might lean in for some kind of crying comfort only to discover that he is weeping like ten times worse than she is.

“And I’ll have to pay back all my scholarships!” Laura half shouts. “If I fail I’ll have to pay them all back and my family will be broke and we’ll be out in the streets and going hungry!”

Samuel senses this is a lie because scholarships don’t really work that way, but he can’t open his mouth because he’s trying to stuff back his own crying.  It’s  in  his  throat  now  and  tightening  around  his  Adam’s  apple and  all  of  those  devastating  childhood  weeping  fits  start  rushing  back at  him  now,  the  birthday  parties  he  ruined,  the  family  dinners  stopped halfway through, the classrooms sitting in stunned silence watching him run out the door, the loud exasperated sighs from teachers and principals and most especially his mother—oh how his mother wanted him to stop crying,  standing  there  trying  to  soothe  him  and  rubbing  his  shoulders during  one  of  his  fits  and  saying  “It’s okay,  it’s  all  okay”  in  her  gentlest voice,  not  understanding  that  it  was  exactly  her  attention  to  the  crying and acknowledgment of the crying that made the crying worse. And he can feel it pushing up on his larynx now and so he’s holding his breath and repeating in his head “I am in control, I am in control,” and this is for the most part effective until his lungs start burning for oxygen and his eyes feel like pressed olives and so his two choices are either to burst out with a naked weeping sob right here in front of Laura Pottsdam— which is  just  unthinkably  awful  and  embarrassing  and  exposed—or  perform the laughing trick, which was taught to him by a junior- high counselor who said “The opposite of crying is laughing, so when you feel like crying try to laugh instead and they’ll cancel each other out,” a technique that sounded really stupid at the time but proved weirdly effective in last- ditch situations. It is, he knows, the only way to avoid a devastating blubber-fest right now. He’s not really thinking about what it would mean to laugh at this moment, simply that anything else would be a million percent better than  crying,  and  so  when  poor  Laura—all  hunched  over  and  weeping and  vulnerable  and  broken—says  through  her  wet  gurgles  “I  won’t  be able to come back to school next year and I won’t have any money and no place to go and I don’t know what I’ll do with my life,” Samuel’s response is “Hah-hah-hah-hah-hah-hah-hah-hah- haaaaah!”

 

AD HOMINEM

 

This was, perhaps, a miscalculation.He can see already the effect of his laugh registering on Laura’s face, first as a ripple of amazement and surprise, but then quickly hardening into anger and maybe disgust. The way he laughed— so aggressively and insincerely, like a mad evil genius in an action movie—was, he could see now, cruel. Laura’s posture has become rigid and on guard and erect, her face cold, any hint of her crying erased. It cannot be emphasized enough how quickly this happens. Samuel thinks of a phrase he’s seen on bags of vegetables in the grocery store: flash frozen.

“Why did you do that?” she says, her voice now unnaturally calm and even. It is an eerie, barely contained composure with a dangerous edge, like a mob hit man.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.”

She studies his face for a painfully long moment. The snot pellet from her nose has disappeared. It’s really a remarkable transformation, all evidence  of  her  actually  physically  crying  has  vanished.  Even  her  cheeks  are dry.

“You laughed at me,” she says.

“Yes,” he says. “Yes I did.”

“Why did you laugh at me?”

“I’m sorry,” he says. “That was wrong. I shouldn’t have.”

“Why do you hate me so much?”

“I don’t hate you. Really, Laura, I don’t.”

“Why does everyone hate me? What did I do?”

“Nothing. It’s nothing. It’s not your fault. Everyone likes you.”

“They do not.”

“You’re very likable. Everyone likes you. I like you.”

“You do? You like me?”

“Yes. Very much. I like you very much.”

“You promise?”

“Of course I do. I’m sorry.”

The good news is that Samuel no longer feels in danger of crying, and so his body relaxes and he gives Laura this feeble little smile and he feels so good that the whole situation has calmed down and seems to be at an emotionally even and neutral level now, and he has this feeling that the two of them have just navigated some seriously treacherous shit together, like war buddies or the stranger next to you on an airplane after going through  really  bad  turbulence.  He  feels  that  camaraderie  with  Laura now, so he smiles and nods and maybe winks at her. He feels so free at this moment that he actually winks.

“Oh,”  says  Laura.  “Oh,  I  get  it.”  And  she  crosses  her  legs  and  leans back in the leather chair. “You have a crush on me.”

“I’m sorry?”

“I should have known. Of course.”

“No. I think you’ve misunderstood— ”

“It’s okay. It’s not like the first time a teacher’s fallen in love with me. It’s cute.”

“No, really, you’ve got it wrong.”

“You like me very much. That’s what you just said.”

“Yes, but I didn’t mean it that way,” he says.

“I know what comes next. Either I sleep with you or I fail. Right?”

“That is not at all right,” he says.

“That was the plan from the beginning. This whole thing is just to get into my pants.”

“No!” he says, and he feels the sting of this accusation, how when you’re accused of something it makes you feel—even if you’re innocent—a little bit guilty. He stands up and walks past Laura and opens his office door and says, “It’s time for you to leave. We’re done now.”

 

STRAW MAN

 

“You know you can’t fail me,” says Laura, who is definitely not getting up to leave. “You can’t fail me because it’s the law.”

“This meeting is over.”

“You can’t fail me because I have a learning disability.”

“You do not have a learning disability.”

“I do. I have trouble paying attention and keeping deadlines and reading and also I don’t make friends.”

“That’s not true.”

“It is true. You can check. It’s documented.”

“What is the name of your learning disability?”

“They don’t have a name for it yet.”

“That’s convenient.”

“You  are  required  by  the  Americans  with  Disabilities  Act  to  provide  special  accommodations  to  all  students  with  documented  learning disabilities.”

“You do not have trouble making friends, Laura.”

“I do. I don’t make any friends.”

“I see you with friends all the time.”

“They are not lasting.”

Samuel has to acknowledge this is true. He is right now trying to come up with something mean to say to her. Some insult that would equal in rhetorical  weight  her  accusation  that  he  has  a  crush  on  her.  If  he  hurts Laura’s feelings deep enough, if he insults her hard enough, he would be exonerated. It would prove that he does not have a crush on her if he says something really mean, is his logic.

“What accommodations,” he says, “do you feel entitled to?”

“To pass the class.”

“You think the Americans with Disabilities Act was written to protect cheaters?”

“To rewrite the paper then.”

“What specific learning disability do you have?”

“I told you, they haven’t named it yet.”

“Who’s ‘they’?”

“Scientists.”

“And they don’t know what it is.”

“Nope.”

“And what are its symptoms?”

“Oh, they’re really terrible. Every day is, like, a living hell?”

“Specifically, what are its symptoms?”

“Okay,  well,  I  stop  paying  attention  in  most  of  my  classes  after  like three minutes and I usually don’t follow directions at all and I never take notes and I can’t remember people’s names and sometimes I’ll read all the way to the end of a page and have no idea what I just read. I lose my place while reading all the time and skip like four lines and don’t even know it, and most charts and graphs make absolutely no sense to me, and I’m terrible at puzzles, and sometimes I’ll say one thing even though I totally mean something else. Oh, and my handwriting is really sloppy, and I’ve never  been  able  to  spell  the  word aluminum,  and  sometimes  I  tell  my roommate that I will definitely clean my side of the room even though I have no intention of ever doing this. I have a hard time judging distance when I’m outside. I totally could not tell you where cardinal north is. I hear people say ‘A bird in hand is worth two in the bush’ and I have no idea what that means. I’ve lost my phone like eight times in the last year. I’ve  been  in  ten  car  accidents.  And  whenever  I  play  volleyball  the  ball sometimes hits me in the face even though I totally do not want it to.”

“Laura,”  says  Samuel,  who  senses  his  moment  now,  who  feels  the insult coalescing and bubbling up, “you do not have a learning disability.”

“Yes, I do.”

“No,” he says, and he pauses dramatically, and he’s sure to pronounce these next words slowly and carefully so that they’re fully heard and comprehended: “You’re just not very smart.”

 

ARGUMENTUM AD BACULUM

(OR, “APPEALS TO THREATS”)

“I can’t believe you said that!” says Laura, who’s now standing with her bag in hand ready to indignantly walk out of his office.

“It’s true,” says Samuel. “You’re not very smart, and you’re not a very good person either.”

“You cannot say that!”

“You don’t have a learning disability.”

“I could get you fired for that!”

“You need to know this. Somebody needs to tell you.”

“You are so rude!”

And now Samuel notices that the other professors have become aware of all the shouting. Down the corridor, doors are opening, heads are popping  out.  Three  students  sitting  on  the  floor  surrounded  by  book  bags who  might  have  been  working  on  some  group  project  are  now  staring at  him.  His  shame-aversion  instincts  kick  in  and  he  does  not  feel  at  all as brave as he did a moment ago. When he talks now, his voice is about thirty decibels lower and a little mousey.

“I think it’s time for you to go,” he says.

 

ARGUMENTUM AD CRUMENAM

(OR, “APPEALS TO WEALTH”)

Laura stomps out of his office and into the hallway, then pivots and yells at him: “I pay tuition here! I pay good money! I pay your salary and you can’t treat me like this! My father gives lots of money to this school! Like more than you make in a year! He’s a lawyer and he’s going to sue you! You just took this to a whole nother level! I am going to own you!

And with that she pivots again and stomps away and turns the corner and disappears.

Samuel  closes  his  door.  Sits  down.  Stares  at  his  potted  windowsill plant—a pleasant little gardenia that’s presently looking droopy. He picks up the mister and squirts the plant a few times, the squirting making this slight honking noise like a small duck.

What is he thinking? He’s thinking that he’s likely going to cry now. And Laura Pottsdam will probably indeed get him fired. And there’s still an odor in his office. And he’s wasted his life. And oh how he hates that word nother.

 

 

From THE NIX. Used with permission of Knopf. Copyright © 2016 by Nathan Hill.




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