This story is by Michael Polzin and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
A CLOSER EXAMINATION
Lawrence was nearly late for his first class. Freshman economics. Out the door first, his roomy must have taken the last ink pen in the entire dormitory. Lawrence scrounged around and found another in the glove box of his faded VW out in the parking lot. Note to self: buy a package of ink pens. Lawrence eased into a desk in the back row of a dusty, dimly lit classroom – two overhead florescent lights out – as an elderly, wiry little professor spun away from the blackboard. He had written: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A FREE LUNCH.
The jumble of students settled into their seats. The virtues of Reaganomics seemed to be the topic of Professor Graham’s first lecture. Lawrence shifted in this seat and expelled a sigh of disappointment. Over thirty years after Ronald Reagan’s presidency mercifully concluded, it appeared to Lawrence his trickle-down theory led to today’s age of the wealth gap. Executive compensation had skyrocketed in recent decades while wages had flatlined. Lawrence favored those who advocated for co-ops over corporations as a business form.
The law of supply and demand. Free enterprise. Small government. Low taxes and minimal regulation. Lawrence had heard it all before. When the professor asked for comments or questions at the conclusion of his clearly fallacious lecture, Lawrence could remain silent no longer. Reluctantly, he felt compelled to raise a hand.
“Yes? In the back.”
“Aren’t you ignoring some rather glaring shortcomings, Professor? Isn’t it true that executive compensation has skyrocketed in recent decades while wages, when adjusted for inflation, have flatlined?” Lawrence asked.
“Abraham Lincoln once said we must protect the fire of genius. Entrepreneurs take risks. Huge risks, sometimes. Capitalism simply rewards them for their leadership and vision… Everyone, please be aware that you are responsible for the material contained in the first three chapters of our text by next Friday. There will be a short quiz.”
Lawrence noticed a few wry smirks directed his way as he and the other students shuffled out of the classroom. He was unfamiliar with the Lincoln quote but recalled how Honest Abe had allowed railroad barons to exploit America in a monumental way.
Lawrence would keep the misguided Professor Graham on his radar.
His next class, early American history, was across campus so Lawrence, still adjusting to his new corporeal form, had to hustle to arrive on time. He claimed a seat next to a row of open windows just as a mildly obese, thirty-something year old female professor entered the room. A gym membership, a few aerobics classes maybe, and she could be hot, Lawrence decided.
The professor welcomed them and began a discourse about the social and political conditions in Spain and Portugal around the time of Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to America. She speculated about the clash of cultures which must have occurred when Columbus came ashore on an island in the Bahamas, then searched for gold in Cuba and Hispaniola – present day Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The indigenous Arawaks lived communally and were characterized as hospitable, freely sharing food, water and gifts. The Europeans of the Renaissance by contrast, dominated by popes and kings, sought wealth and the spread of Christianity. These same clashes of culture were occurring today in places like Iraq and Gaza, were they not? The professor asked for comments or questions.
Lawrence once traded two goats for a young Arawak woman. He remembered Columbus’s fateful appearance on the island of Hispaniola. He knew he should keep quiet but could not resist the urge to raise his hand.
“Yes,” Lawrence began. “Isn’t it true that Columbus enslaved indigenous people and forced them to work in gold mines? According to Professor Howard Zinn, Columbus and other European explorers committed mass genocides. Wasn’t Columbus a modern-day Adolph Hitler?”
“There is some support in the historical record for that view… For those of you who wish to read more on this topic, A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn is an excellent source.”
Lawrence liked this professor. She would be omitted from the progress report to his superiors, his potential hit-list.
The professor moved on to a discussion of Plymouth Rock, the Puritans and Jamestown. Lawrence’s attention momentarily wandered to a buxom blonde seated across the aisle. He was enjoying this young, male, human body. He had forgotten how exhilarating this experience could be. The girl ignored him. Finally, the professor uttered those magic words “class dismissed.”
Grabbing his arm, a different girl – tall, lean and black – stopped Lawrence out in the hallway.
“In two classes, you’ve slammed Ronald Regan and Christopher Columbus. Who are you?”
“I’m nobody… My name is Lawrence. What’s yours?”
“I’m Patty. Are you trying to be a disruptive force here, or something?”
“To the extent that the truth is disruptive, then, yes, I suppose I am. Shouldn’t we all be trying to pull back the curtain a little and discover the truth? I mean, our leaders seem to be ignoring warnings from scientists about global warming and leading us into dubious wars over oil fields.”
“Yes, that is troubling. Have you been to the student union building yet? Have time for a Coke, or something?” Patty asked.
“Sure, I guess so.” Lawrence did not know where the student union was or even what it was about. He let Patty lead the way. He asked where she was from, what she was planning to major in, if she lived on campus. The basics. Patty was the daughter of an administrator in the school’s admissions office. She lived at home and commuted. Major undecided.
Lawrence followed her through the glass doors of the student union, posters and flyers announcing organizations, clubs and upcoming events. Inside was a foosball table, two couches, a few plastic picnic tables, and half a dozen vending machines. At the far end a stage had been constructed from plywood. Only a handful of students were inside. Lawrence noticed a trophy case with a framed picture of a basketball team. He hesitated in front of it.
“That’s the championship team from thirty years ago,” Patty said. “When my dad was a junior. The team advanced all the way to the final four in the NCAA tournament. As a senior, my dad led the league in scoring. He still holds this school’s all-time scoring record.”
“According to my mother, he was something of a legend around here for a few years afterwards. From what I’ve seen of you so far, Lawrence, you could be one too. In a different way, of course. Can you read a novel in a single day? Write an Op-Ed piece in ten minutes?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never tried either one.” Lawrence suddenly wondered if he was keeping a low enough profile here, as he had been instructed to. “But I don’t fire lightning bolts from my fingertips. I can’t levitate. I can’t read your thoughts.”
“Well, that’s a relief.”
They reached the vending machines and each purchased a soda. When they sat down at a picnic table, two girls approached, one wearing a professional basketball jersey over a tee shirt.
“You’re Patty Morris, aren’t you?” she asked.
“I am. This is Lawrence.”
“Nice to meet you both. I’m Luisa and this is Roxanne. We play basketball here. Okay if we join you for a minute?”
“Sure,” Patty said, and the girls sat down.
Luisa asked about Patty’s father and wondered if she would be playing basketball. Before Patty could respond, Roxanne informed them the school only had two girls’ teams: varsity and scrubs. All freshmen played on the scrubs. School policy. Good coach, though. Roxanne was a junior. Luisa, a sophomore. They were both hoping to make the varsity squad for the first time this season. Before they left, the girls told Patty and Lawrence about a party on Friday night at a sorority house off campus. Patty glanced at Lawrence quickly and smiled.
“May I enjoy the pleasure of your company at the party on Friday night, Miss Morris?”
“I’d be delighted to join you. Do you have a car? Or can you transport us telepathically?”
“I’m driving an old VW around right now. I’m afraid I left my telepathic transporter behind, on the mothership.”
Patty smiled. With a felt-tipped pen, she wrote her phone number onto the back of Lawrence’s hand. He chuckled and asked if he could walk her to her next class. Lawrence had a break between his own classes and, after escorting Patty, found the school library. Fifteen minutes later he discovered that the Lincoln quote about protecting the fire of genius was made in a speech about patent laws. The pompous, dust-flatulent old professor had taken it out of context.
Lawrence decided to keep this to himself. He was only a freshman after all, not yet seeking sainthood or legendary status. His mission was simply to observe and report.
He might mention it to Patty, though.