Succumb Yr Thumb
by Ben Bush
I was standing in the bathroom stall of a dive bar with one my students. I took the lid off the top tank of the toilet. Eight beers were bobbing around, staying refrigerated in the fresh, cool water. I’d snuck a twelve-pack past the doorman when we came in and we’d already drunk the others.
“How much would you pay for one of these at the bar?” I asked.
The undergrad started to reach into his pocket.
“Don’t be an idiot,” I said. “I don’t want the money. It’s a review question.” The final exam was on Tuesday. I was a teaching assistant in Prof. Bhattacharya’s economic policy analysis course and I’d invited the students from my discussion section out to the bar to raise morale before the test. I shouldn’t have called him an idiot.
“I guess I’d pay about three dollars.”
He was a weird blond kid with straight hair, a baby face and a bowl cut—all of which made him look extraordinarily young and it occurred to me for the first time that some of the students in my section might not be old enough to drink.
“And you’d tip, right?”
“A dollar a drink.”
The undergrad sunk his hand into the water to pick up a can but I grabbed his wrist and held it there.
“Not yet,” I said. “How much would you pay for one of these at the grocery store?”
“I’d buy a twelve-pack just like you did and the per-unit price would be about fifty cents.”
The can shuddered against the side of the tank as our hands struggled over it.
“So,” I asked, “What’s it about?”
“It’s about imports, arbitrage, and relative value in different markets. Now give me my fucking beer.” He jerked his hand free of my grip, splashing water on the floor and on my pants like I’d pissed myself. He cracked it open and drank half of it before he slammed open the door to the stall and went back into the bar.
“Help yourself to more,” I shouted to the empty bathroom. There had been questions about that stuff on the midterm and you could bet there would be something about it on the final. I slid the lid back on and it clunked into place.
My wet socks squished around in my shoes as I trailed after the blond kid to the table where the students were sitting. I was surprised to see Klingerhorn staring at me. It took guts for him to be here. And who was I to stop him? He’d been suspended from school, not the bar. These were his friends, not mine.
I had to give the guy credit; he’d at least plagiarized from an interesting source—Steven Horwitz’s paper “Commercial Banking in a Free Society” on privatizing the production of currency. I’d reported this to the course professor, who expelled him from the class, which was pretty harsh. The professor had in turn reported him to the dean, who’d suspended Klingerhorn from all courses for the remaining semester. Klingerhorn was popular with the other students and so after his removal a certain resistance had taken over those that remained. This bar night was my attempt to re-create some kind of cohesion.
The blond one was complaining to this kid Steiner about how hard it was to understand Prof. Bhattacharya’s accent. If I hadn’t felt the need to win back their allegiance, I would have told them to take a look at his publication record and quit their bitching.
One of the kids leaned across the table toward me and raised his can threateningly close to my face. It was a toast. “Thanks, Mr. Sloatman. Until tonight I never knew Coors was an imported beer.” I flashed him a smile with pharmaceutical nervousness. I was still ramped up on Adderall from trying to squeeze in some work on my thesis, rushing through a frantic hour of re-shuffling spreadsheet columns.
The students seemed distracted. It was a week when the best parties of the semester taunted the computer lab and the study carrel and sudden, previously unthinkable re-prioritizing seemed continuously possible. Klingerhorn was the only one who seemed relaxed. He wasn’t cramming, writing papers, or taking tests. Suspended from school, he had nothing pressing to wake up to in the morning. He was free to enjoy the parties that the others were busy feeling conflicted about.
The waitress brought a shot of whiskey I’d ordered and ended up in small talk with some of the guys who she had classes with. Our table of students was almost entirely male. I’d TA’ed development economics the semester before and it hadn’t been nearly this much of a sausage party.
The whiskey had no effect. It was the Adderall. It was almost frustrating. I was drinking more than usual but I noticed Klingerhorn was matching me shot for shot. He was carrying on conversations with the students on either side of him but he was watching me the entire time. It made me self-conscious. I patted the damp section of my pants. When I’d read his paper, I could have just given him a stern talking-to, allowed him to turn in his paper the following week with a one-grade demerit and told no one. The fact was I’d done exactly that several times in the past.
The group started to thin out. They decided to get rest before tomorrow’s exams, drunkenly study, or head to another party.
I walked over to Klingerhorn’s side of the table.
“Hey, I just wanted to say it’s not personal between you and me—it’s just regulations, code of ethics and all that.”
“I thought you were an advocate of deregulation,” he smirked then glanced away from me and I could see his eyes begin to drift, unfocused, wandering, hazy and lost, across the room, but when they returned to me they were again piercing and clear. “If it’s not personal, why did you let it slide when Steiner did it and Boskin did it? Just a man-to-man and a docked grade.”
“How do you know about that?”
“How do you think? They told me.”
I guess that’s why they call them academic standards. You have to enforce them every time, across the board.
I realized this wasn’t a discussion I should be having in an informal setting and I also noticed I was continuing to talk. “By the time I saw your paper, I was just tired of the copying, the cheating. I felt like my leniency had given people the wrong idea, that it wasn’t serious.”
“Why me? Why not the next kid?”
Hearing our tense conversation, the last of the other students filtered out.
A liquory exhale from me. “Nothing can be changed now. The administration’s been told so we’ll both just have to live with our decisions.”
Again, his eyes unfocused and zapped back into focus. “My uncle and his wife,” he said, “got married right after law school and bought a house together.” He seemed to immediately have renewed energy with the change of topics, as if he knew exactly what to say next. “They had good jobs but with the student loans and the down payment, they didn’t have much money leftover and, when they moved in, the only things they owned were a copy machine, a dubbing tape deck and a bed.” My study-drug face jittered with skepticism. “Yeah, yeah,” he said, confirming my doubts about his story and then moving on. “This was a while back, in the nineties.
“After everything is moved in, they’re just standing there on the precipice of a new stage of life. What should they do? My uncle realizes he should make a copy of the loan agreement for their records. You want to have a duplicate of those things around just in case. He puts it face down on the copy machine and presses the green start button but instead of a copy of the contract, another copy machine appears in the room. This is really weird so he tries it again. Each time, another copy machine until the room is so full of copy machines you can’t even see the hardwood floor.
“His wife decides to use the dubbing tape deck to make a copy of a cassette—same thing. Each time, instead of a copy of the tape, another tape deck appears and then another. They’re stacking up on top of the copy machines. Exhausted and a little freaked out, my uncle and his wife head to bed. The two of them are trying to make a baby so they do it without a rubber. I’M COMING! I’M COMING! I’M COMING! OOOOOO!” Klingerhorn yelled this bit at top volume and every head in the bar turned toward the two of us alone at the table. I raised my hand and waved a little in an attempt at a reassuring greeting and to show I wasn’t touching him. Klingerhorn returned to the whisper he’d used earlier. “My uncle was really glad to have a place of his own instead of a tiny apartment so he could finally yell that kind of thing at top volume.
“At the end of the month, he’s writing out the check for the first house payment and—holy shit! His wife comes running into the room, clutching one of those pregnancy test sticks—Sure enough, preggers. Nine months later when she gives birth, it’s not a baby that comes out, it’s a whole litter of penis-vagina couplings. My aunt and uncle bring the little genital children home from the hospital and watch them fuck their way across the hardwood floor. They crawled like little inch worms: the shaft of the penis sliding into the vaj and then back out again while the little testicles pawed and stamped the ground. They didn’t cry or fuss and they didn’t eat much, which was convenient since my uncle and his wife were both expected to put in sixty hours a week at their firms.” He held my eye. “In the end, systems of reproduction reproduce only themselves. You really think the other students’ papers are any less regurgitated than mine? It all is. Everything is.”
I glanced down for a second—the whiskey residue at the bottom of the glass had gathered together into a single glob—then looked back at him. “From what you just told me, I’d say you’re better at making things up than you are at copying,” I said.
“Oh, that,” he said dismissively, sliding his chair back from the table to show our conversation was over. “I heard it from Steiner.”
Ben Bush is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a 2017-2018 Fulbright Fellow to Bulgaria. He is currently managing editor at The Organist podcast from McSweeney’s / KCRW (NPR-LA). His fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, The Literary Review, Yeti, and The Fanzine. His non-fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Believer, Bookforum, Salon, Los Angeles Review of Books, Poets & Writers, San Francisco Chronicle, and Conversations with William T. Vollmann (University of Mississippi Press). You can find him online here.