At the bar I ask whether we, as college professors, should friend our students on Facebook, or, more specifically, whether we should accept friend requests from our students. I don’t want to be more involved than I have to be with my students’ personal lives. But I also don’t want to be the only square in the music department who closes himself off from the student body. Joseph says that if I don’t accept their friend requests I will miss out on some “classic shit”. Kristen points out I won’t be able to tell “if they’re lying about being too sick to go to classes.”
I learn of Elliot’s broken engagement from one of his posts:
The degree of pain and heartache I am feeling is inhumane…
which a week later continues with:
Is there something inherently unlikable about me? What is it that makes people turn around when they see me…
before eventually he admits defeat by downgrading his relationship status to:
I consider asking Sandra why she dumped Elliot, as it is obviously she who did the dumping. I run into her at the local music store when I stop in to get ready for the upcoming semester. I’ve never seen her happier. But I don’t ask her anything. I don’t want to be involved.
Elliot is one of my seniors. This is our first lesson in months, even though he promised he would take lessons over the summer. For three years he’s been in and out as a performance major. Whenever he lost the faculty’s approval he had to re-audition, and thus he kept re-entering and re-exiting the program, annoying almost everybody in the process. After his junior recital, which was technically optional as he was out of the program at the time, we decided to give him one more chance to prove us wrong.
And here we are, the first week of classes, I haven’t seen him in months, and with the first few notes it’s obvious he took most of the summer off. In a few days he is scheduled to play not only for me but also for the entire faculty who will then collectively decide whether he can graduate with a performance degree.
And he’s crying, so I can’t even yell at him.
“Can we put off Elliot’s jury a little longer?” I ask my colleagues on his behalf.
Kristen laughs. “Isn’t it tomorrow? He wants a stay of execution?”
“Why prolong the inevitable?” Joseph says, he our department chair, less amused than Kristen. “I personally have been looking forward to failing him all summer. Unless of course he’s made leaps and bounds, and I’m talking Julliard quality.”
“Yes, the jury is only a formality,” Kristen agrees, laughing less, but still some, “to make his failure as a college student official. Breakups can be hard, but you can’t let that get in the way of academic development.”
“Unless he’s got something on you,” Joseph says, joining in on Kristen’s fun. “Dirty pictures or an incriminating recording. What are you hiding, Dr. Bell?”
“One week?” I ask, ignoring them both, which is all it takes to get them to reschedule.
Elliot has always been annoying in a “no balls” sort of way. But at least he shows up to the hearing, which is more than he did yesterday for what should have been his second lesson since April. And at least he wears a tie. But he plays very few right notes. If there’s anything more useless than an undergraduate performance degree, it’s a non-specified bachelor of arts in music, which is what he will receive if I don’t convince Joseph and Kristen to give him one final chance – for real this time – two weeks from now.
“Hi, Tyler, have you seen what lover boy posted today?” Kirsten asks me in the faculty lounge as I heat water for tea. “Your soaring senior?”
“Who? Elliot?” I ask. She shows me the screen of her iPhone, which is open to Facebook. “Why are you friends with him?” I ask.
She shrugs. “He was in my first-year seminar.”
Is anybody looking for an engagement ring? I have one for sale.
“Oh, good God.”
Kristen laughs. “This is usually when you make a joke about his balls.”
“Have you looked behind the couch? Maybe they’re back there.”
“Do you even want to graduate?” I ask.
“I’m sorry, I just have a lot going on right now…” Elliot says.
It has been over four months since he began his online pity party. I’ve decided I will no longer allow it as an excuse.
“I can’t pass you if you sound like you haven’t picked up your trombone in a week. What’s going on with you?” To ask this is an invitation into his private life, a mistake, but I recover by not giving him time to answer. “I don’t want to make you write out a practice chart, like I do with my freshmen, but if that’s what it will take then that’s what we’ll do.”
“I’m sorry, it’s just that I’ve been feeling…”
“Elliot, please, it’s getting harder and harder to defend you. You realize the only reason you haven’t failed yet is because of me. I’m the one sticking up for you. You would be a communications major if it weren’t for me.”
“I know, I’m sorry, Dr. Bell. It’s just I’ve been going through a lot lately…”
“So I’ve read.”
“…Plus I’ve got this ring I need to sell…”
“Yes, Elliot, I need to cut this short so I can get to a meeting I’m almost late for.”
I sit back as I watch Elliot pack up slower than anyone has ever packed up a trombone in the history of the world. Finally he’s at the threshold of the door. I stand up, too, and grab a random folder to authenticate my excuse.
“See you later, Dr. Bell.”
“Take care, Elliot. By the way, how much are you asking for that ring?”
“I paid eighteen-fifty, but I’d take sixteen hundred. Are you interested?”
“No!” I almost shout. What’s wrong with me? “See you later,” I say, and I hurry down the hall to the meeting I’ve made up.
Elliot fails again. He plays better than last time, but based solely on this performance we probably wouldn’t have accepted him into the performance program as an incoming freshman, let alone pass him as a senior. He seems content to receive the useless degree he’s now officially set to receive. Kristen and Joseph would have taken more pleasure in failing him if they hadn’t been expecting me to beg for a final-final chance for him. But I don’t even bring it up. Nor does Elliot ask me to.
Then he gets into a car crash. The light turned green so he went. But the driver in front of him hadn’t budged because of a jaywalking pedestrian.
“He’s willing to settle privately, so the insurance companies don’t get involved…” Elliot explains.
“Sounds like a man without insurance.”
“…And I know that if I reported it my rates would raise for sure…” He’d had an accident last year, too, I now recall. “But if I do settle privately I’ll have to ask my parents for money…”
I end up buying his engagement ring.
“I really can’t go lower than fifteen hundred, Dr. Bell.”
“That’s fine, Elliot, you can keep it. I’m not paying fifteen hundred for something I don’t even want.”
“I paid eighteen-fifty, though, and…”
“Hold out for eighteen-fifty, then.”
“Could you go fourteen, at least?”
I cave at a thousand and bring him cash the next day.
“I saw Sandra the other day while I was buying valve oil,” Joseph says. “She said more during those two minutes than I’ve heard her say the last three years.”
After sitting through another inglorious student recital, the three of us have gone out again, per custom. Kristen buys the first round and puts her hand on my arm when she sets my drink in front of me. I love it when she does this, but she does the same with Joseph, so I don’t get excited.
“She’s liberated,” Kristen says. “Free from oppression.”
“What are you implying?” I ask.
“Just that if Elliot had his way,” Joseph says, “she would’ve spent their marriage chained to the radiator with just enough slack to reach the kitchen and the bathroom.”
“Are you joking?” I ask.
“And the laundry room,” Kristen adds.
“And eventually the nursery,” Joseph says.
“And that at some point somebody told Sandra it’s not 1950 anymore,” Kristen continues.
“What?!” I say. “What are you basing this on?!”
Joseph starts to laugh and then chokes on his beer. Kristen whacks him on the back.
“She discovered what a useful thing the brain is, and that she’d like to use hers.”
“And that she even had one in the first place!”
“Where are you getting this?!” I plead.
They both grin at me. “Forget we said anything,” Kristen says.
“Right,” Joseph agrees. “You don’t want to be involved in your students’ lives and we should respect that. I apologize for bringing it up.”
They’re laughing at me, and I don’t understand why.
Needless to say, I look at Elliot differently the next time he’s in my studio. I eye him closely as he plays his etude. He’s a small and unintimidating guy. He doesn’t look like a future wife beater. I’m going to tell Joseph and Kristen they don’t know what they’re talking about.
“That’s sounding a lot better,” I say. “Good improvement in general. You doing all right?”
“Well…” he begins.
“Keep up the good work, Elliot.”
“…I’m going to need another five hundred dollars for the ring.”
“I paid eighteen-fifty for it. I really can’t go lower than fifteen hundred.”
“But you did. You went lower. You took a thousand.”
“I just need another five. It’s still a good deal.”
“Not for me. What am I going to do with it?”
“Propose to someone.”
“Elliot,” I say. “It’s time to go. I’ll see you next week.”
After our faculty meeting the next day I linger longer than usual. Finally I’m alone with Joseph, who, as the instrumental music chair, ran the meeting.
“What’s up, Tyler,” he says, as he finishes packing his briefcase.
“This kid, Elliot,” I say.
“You know what, Tyler? You tried your best with that kid. You tried your ass off. We admire your dedication, honestly; Kristen and I were talking about it the other day; we really do. But it’s a losing battle. Just go through the motions with him, and in a few months he’ll be out of here, and if there’s any justice we’ll never see him again.”
“I guess you’re right.”
“Those kids happen. They shouldn’t, but they do. And Elliot was a freshman your first year teaching, right? Of course you’re attached to your first class. I get it. But a kid like that, all you can do is tell him to grow a pair and kick his ass to the curb. Believe me, he’s no reflection on you.”
Sometimes I have an appointment, a makeup lesson, and a faculty meeting in the same afternoon and it’s not worth going home before the student recital that evening. But the practice rooms closest to my studio are filled with students so sitting alone in my studio during the six o’clock hour isn’t as quiet as one might like. One of the practicing students is scheduled to perform in an hour. If you don’t have it by now it’s too late, I want to shout. But I’m not going to complain about a student practicing. A mixture of woodwinds, brass, and piano, it’s easy to pick out my students by the sound of the instrument, their playing quirks, their mistakes. None of them are Elliot.
Someone knocks on my door and I go to answer. I smile in greeting the middle-aged couple.
“I’m sorry, you look familiar, but I can’t quite place you.”
“Mr. and Mrs. Deborg, Dr. Bell,” the man says. “Elliot’s parents.”
Now my smile is forced, and I feel the ingenuity seeping through.
“What can I do for you?” I ask, and add, “Is Elliot all right?”
“Elliot is as good as anyone would be after being betrayed by his teacher and mentor.” Mr. Deborg is taller than me, and therefore much taller than Elliot. He does the talking, while his wife hides meekly behind him.
“Betrayed?!” We have to speak loudly over the sounds coming from the practice rooms. “I have fought to give Elliot chance after chance and he has continuously let me down.”
“You took advantage of a boy’s vulnerability…”
“Boy? He’s twenty-one!”
“…And you stole that ring from him for a fraction of its value.”
“Stole?! A thousand dollars is nothing to sneeze at. And he practically begged me to buy it. What do I want with an engagement ring? I don’t even have a girlfriend.”
“It’s worth almost twice what you gave him.”
“Not to me. To me it’s worth much, much less.
“Look, he can have the ring back. I’ve got it in my car; I’ll go get it. And then you can give me my grand back. That sounds good to me. Let’s do that.”
“He’s got no use for an engagement ring.”
“I’ve got no use for it!”
“Dr. Bell,” Mr. Deborg talks down to me. “A deal is a deal…”
“Yes! That’s right! It is!”
“But you didn’t hold up to your end of the bargain. You owe Elliot five hundred dollars, and really, you should give him more, for the inconvenience.”
We have an audience. The practice rooms are silent and the kids, maybe a dozen of them, have come out of their holes to watch the show.
I reach inside my studio for my coat, turn off the light, and close the door. Rather than commenting on the absurdity of their accusation, I say, “I’m leaving now.”
I’m supposed to go to a recital in a little bit, part of my duties as a faculty member, to help determine whether a flute major will pass her senior recital and thus fulfill a requirement to graduate this December – only one semester late – but I decide to go straight home instead. On my couch I watch the baseball playoffs and peruse my phone. I see that earlier in the day Elliot posted on Facebook:
I’m coming to grips with being betrayed by the people I trust the most.
Tomorrow, I decide, if Elliot doesn’t give me my money back for his ring, I will go downtown and pawn it. I’ll take a hit, I don’t care, as long as I’m no longer responsible for it.
Kristen texts me, no doubt between recital pieces, calling me a wise man to spare myself the torture of tonight’s faux-virtuosic performance. Joseph texts later, after the recital would have ended, to say that a) the recital was one big pile of mediocrity but they’re going to pass her anyway, and that b) there is a bizarre accusation going around about me of which he just got wind. I try calling him but he doesn’t answer. He often leaves his phone in the car when we go to the bar. I consider joining him – Kristen is with him, I’m sure – but I’m still too freaked out to leave the house.
The next morning is my busiest teaching morning of the week. I’m in the zone two minutes into my first lesson and don’t give Elliot a thought. I’m a little exhausted by noon, and when my last student leaves, I lean back at my desk and enjoy a sense of accomplishment.
“What the hell is going on?” Joseph says at the door, inviting himself in, and closing the door behind him. “Last night one of my students told me you conned that Elliot pansy out of the engagement ring Sandra gave back to him? They’re saying it was a priceless heirloom and he was so desperate for cash that you took advantage of him and forced him to accept six hundred dollars for it? What the hell is wrong with you?”
“Family heirloom? He didn’t even pay two grand for it.”
“So the rest is true?!”
“No! Almost none of it is true!”
“Almost none?! Look, I know we give you a hard time about wanting to keep your distance from your students’ personal lives, but that’s actually a good rule to live by, so I would’ve hoped you weren’t taking us seriously.”
“Oh God, is that really what’s going around?”
“Oh yeah,” Joseph says. “Real shit storm. So guess what you and I are about to do?” I look at him blankly. “We’re going to see the dean. He wants you in his office ay-sap. Like, now, if you’re free.”
“As your chair I’m going to sit in on the meeting and defend you. But before we head upstairs you need to tell me with as much detail as possible what the hell is really going on.”
My phone vibrates. It’s Kristen calling me. I’ve received thousands of texts from her but I don’t think she’s ever actually called me. I wonder if she calls Joseph.
“I was leaving for an appointment when I saw that the side window of your car is shattered, and the door is wide open!”
“Oh no!” I shout, startling Joseph a good bit. I give him the abridged version and he says he’s right behind me but I’m already down the hall, out the building, running for the parking lot.
“Hi, Dr. Bell!” I hear someone call.
I look over and see Elliot sitting on a bench.
“Hey buddy, you doing all right?” I say, not stopping to talk, but slowing down enough not to be rude. He’s smiling, which is strange under the circumstances, but I haven’t seen him smile in months so I welcome it. “Stay out of trouble, I’ll catch you later.”
“Tyler, I’m so sorry,” Kristen says as I arrive at my car. “I wish I could stay and help but I’m running late. Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”
She touches my arm before getting in her car and driving off. I’m left staring at the shards of glass along the passenger side of my car. There have to be witnesses. It’s not like the faculty lot is hidden. The sun was up when I arrived this morning. I can see students milling about from here. I can even see Elliot sitting on the bench, watching me. I look at the streetlights and trees, thinking there must be a security camera hidden somewhere. I’m mildly confident that whoever did this will be caught. Assuming it’s a student, I hope he’s expelled, or at least put on probation.
Then I remember something. I open the glove box, but the ring is gone.
“Ahh!” I loudly groan.
“Jesus, Tyler, I’m sorry,” Joseph says, as he finally catches up. “What kind of an animal…is anything missing that you can tell?”
Just the evidence, I think to myself. Joseph puts his arm on my back and bends over to get a better look inside.
“Was there anything valuable?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” I mumble.
“You have insurance, I assume,” he says. “Go ahead and call the police. I’ll talk to the dean and we can do our thing later.”
“What? Oh, the dean? Yes, let’s do that later.”
Joseph walks back towards the music building while I dial 9-1-1. I close the car door and, even though anyone with an arm could easily reach inside, I press the automatic locks. I turn to go sit next to my student while I wait for the cops to arrive. But Elliot isn’t there anymore.
Joshua Britton had two degrees in music and is the author of the short story collection, Tadpoles (Bird Brain Publishers). He has published short fiction and non-fiction in Tethered By Letters, Cobalt Review, Bodega Magazine, Rhodora Magazine, The Bombay Review, Typehouse Literary, The Tarantino Chronicles, and Spank the Carp. Follow Joshua on Twitter @JP_Britton and www.joshua-britton.com.