Blue-Book Switcharoo

A Short Story of Approx. 3,800 words by

Jonathan Vos Post

(c) 1991 by Emerald City Publishing

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Maxwell Marenko, semi-punkishly attired in in black jeans, black shirt, and a white leather tie, oozed into the classroom like a cat with serious plans to open a canary cage. Dr. Thayer Kfouri, having heard that Maxwell had slipped through the loopholes of many a professor's rules, decided then and there to keep a sharp eye on the boy. Dr. Kfouri handed out the mimeographed exam questions. "Imagine," he thought to himself for the Nth time, "the priorities implied by a department rich enough to fly its assistant chairman to Paris for an irrelevant conference, yet too stingy to pay for xeroxing." Striding up and down the aisles between wobbly anti- ergonomic desks, he simultaneously distributed the blue-books, one per student, in which essay questions would be wrestled to the ground without being decisively pinned. "You have exactly 60 minutes starting ... now," he said, to the sea of students' heads leaning over in the time-honored examination slouch. He wrote "time remaining: 60 minutes" on the avocado-green chalkboard with a stub of chalk the length of a cigaret filter. "Imagine," he thought, "millions of devonian diatoms died to make this chalk, which will flower in brief glory upon the board and then smear away onto eraser and jacket-cuff, only to merge with the dust of this disintegrating campus."
"This one's in the bag!" thought Maxwell. He opened the blue- book, with its front cover emblem of Paradena Tech (a beaver holding a burning torch aloft) and its back cover logo of a coiled rattlesnake. As the saying went, "the beaver is the engineer of animals; the Tech-er is the animal of engineers." Immediately setting to work, he ignored the exam questions and scribbled, at top speed, a chatty news-packed letter to his mother. When Prof. Kfouri, a cadaverous looking old creep, squeaked "time remaining: 20 minutes" on the board, Maxwell asked for another bluebook, and received it along with a sour look. As soon as the prof turned his back, Maxwell slipped the blank blue-book under his shirt, and then resumed the letter to Mom. "And so, Mom, since I had to bail my poor roommate's girlfriend out of jail so that she could look for her missing driver's license, I had to spend this month's food money on the next semester's textbooks. So could you send more money, please? The leaves look very resplendent this time of year, with what I have learned are the carotenes of red and the xanthocyanins of yellow. You see what a fine education I am getting here? Thanks again for making it possible. Your loving son, Maxwell." When the bell rang, Maxwell dumped the full blue-book on the prof's desk, and was out the door as fast as a dry leaf blown ahead of the wind. He rattled down the steps, out onto the quad, past the last Live Oak (three hundred years old, propped up by steel crutches) and buzzed through the automatic doors of the Cordell Library. Clutching the mimeo'd exam questions in one hand, he dragged the blank blue-book out from under his black shirt, dodged to avoid the newly purple-painted columns, and pulled the reference book from its nose-level shelf. Flipping through the reference book, from which only a few pages had been torn by prior generations, he found everything he needed to write an informed series of essay answers, as if he had studied all term instead of partying his brains out. He liberated a 9x12 envelope when the 5th floor librarian was on coffee break, sealed the completed blue-book inside with spit and scotch tape, then carried the envelope to the campus post office. He planted the stamp, a blotchy portrait of a forgotten vice president, and carefully inked the address of his mother, blew it dry, and deposited the envelope through the ironwork encrustations of the mail slot. It dropped upon its fellow letters with a satisfying rustle, like a fallen leaf. "What a scam," he thought. "A dude as sharp as me shouldn't even think of cramming for exams. It would be a waste of good braincells. When I get rich, I'll be able to hire and fire creeps like the prof every day."
Early the next morning, as the sun poured down on campus like melted butterscotch, Dr. Thayer Kfouri made the call that Maxwell Marenko had expected. "Is this Mister Marenko?" "Yeah, Maxwell here. What do you want?" "This is Professor Kfouri. I think we have a little problem here." "Hey, prof, you're the one with all the problems. All I've got is a hangover. What's the deal, calling the dorm at an hour like this?" "It's about your examination answers." "Yeah, what about them? Surprised I did so well, are you? Even without homework, the rules say that a good enough final exam means you've got to pass me. Right?" "I'm not calling to discuss the lowered standards of a failed academic system, Mr. Marenko. I'm calling because your blue-book bears not the slightest resemblence to a set of essay question responses." "What do you mean? I answered every question, even the extra-credit. I put in lots of good quotes, so you'd know I read not just the assigned reading but also other texts on the subject. What's the deal?" "The deal is, young man, that what you handed in was a long letter to your mother which, for the sake of propriety, I did not read in any detail." "Oh, gosharootie, prof. I can't believe it! I must have given you the wrong blue-book. What an idiot I am. You've got to give me another chance." "Idiot you may indeed be, from the Greek roots meaning one who does not participate in the political life of his community. But just what do you mean by 'the wrong blue-book?' I have never given an examination in which this would have been considered 'the right blue-book.' Explain yourself immediately!" "It's obvious, now. I finished the questions at about twenty minutes to the hour, and then asked you for another bluebook, remember? In the second blue-book I wrote the letter to my Mom, because it would have been rude to just sit there and gawk at less prepared students. I must have mailed Mom the blue-book with the exam essays, and given you the one I ment to mail her." "A most peculiar story, Mr. Marenko. But just what do you mean by 'another chance?' As I said at the beginning of the term, there would be no make-up exams without a doctor's letter or other valid excuse for missing an examination. You did not miss the exam, much as I would have preferred to be able to give you a failing grade by default." "That's not what I meant, prof. Let me explain. I'll tell you my Mom's phone number. All you've got to do is call her. Just tell her to get to the post office right away, and to mail the blue-book right back to you without opening the envelope. That way, you'll know the whole thing is perfectly legit. I'll meet you at the campus post office tomorrow, where you can give me the right letter to mail her, and you can open the envelope with my truly excellent blue-book. What do you say?" "I say preposterous. But to give you the benefit of the doubt, I'll allow you to dictate your mother's phone number to me, and I'll agree to meet you at the post office when it opens tomorrow morning. But if the correct blue-book isn't there, not even the Supreme Court will be able to save you." "Would I do anything bogus? No way. Thanks a bunch, prof. I'll see you there. I just hope you'll be man enough to apologize to me for all your unjustified suspicions. Not that I'm asking you to turn an A into an A+ or anything. Nope. Okay, here's the number. You got a pen, other than the red one you were planning to write 'F' with? And be polite to the old lady. We wouldn't want to besmirch the hallowed name of dear old Paradena Tech, now would we."
"Greetings. This is Dr. Thayer Kfouri, of Paradena Tech. Am I addressing Mrs. Arabella Marenko? Yes? Well, this may take a while to explain. Your son Maxwell, a pupil in one of my intermediate classes, is very intelligent, to be sure. But he does not apply himself in what the other professors feel is an appropriate manner. Lacking proof, I will spare you my unfounded contemplations. "In any case, the issue at hand is a blue-book. Blue book. That's the covered, stapled aggregation of unlined paper which we distribute for the students to inscribe with answers to examination questions. Yes, an old tradition, not honored in many schools these days. It seems that your son has made either an unfortunate permutation in which he confused my classroom desk with the local post office, or an unfortunate underestimate of my own perspecuity. "He claims to have mailed to your residence a blue-book filled with essay answers which were to have been handed in to me, and to have inadvertently given me a blue-book whose contents may be characterized as an epistle to yourself. A letter, madam. "I will explain later, if you question my methodology, but do let me suggest a course of action which may benefit your son in the long run. What I want you to do is bring a dozen blank sheets of 8 1/2 x 11 paper, for which of course I'll reimburse you. Also, bring a stapler, or be willing to borrow one from the postal clerk. Your son has assured me that you will be receiving in tomorrow's post a blue-book containing miraculously correct answers to my most recent examination, sealed in a large envelope. "What I humbly request is that, when you arrive at the post office, you shall first of all ask the clerk to give you that envelope, prior to its being given to the mail carrier for delivery. Observe carefully how the envelope is sealed, so that you may replicate the sealing later. Then, if you please, carefully open the envelope. If there is indeed in a blue-book within, which you may recognize by the emblazonment of certain totemic animals, please pry open the staples. Remove the pages from the cover, staple them together, hold on to them for 24 hours, and then mail them to me at the address I shall shoirtly dictate. "Then, take the blank pages you brought with you, lay them horizontally upon the opened blue-book cover, staple them to the cover with two staples positioned as were the originals, and fold the pages neatly within the cover, so as to create the simulacrum of the blue-book at the time when in was blank, save for your son's name written on the front cover. "Place the signed blank blue-book in the envelope, seal it as best you can to approximate its appearence before you opened it, and relabel the envelope addressed to me. The post office can, I'm sure, supply the requisite tape. Oh yes, I'll reimburse you for not only the paper, but for the postage on both that envelope and for a second envelope, containing the previously bound blue-book pages, which you will post to me precisely one day later than the envelope we have just discussed. "Why? Because I fear that your son, rather than applying himself diligently to his studies, is trying an unethical maneuver to deceive me into giving him an unearned grade. Again, let me say that my fears may be entirely unfounded, based only upon the hearsay of my colleagues who have made certain charges which I am not prepared to evaluate in the absence of evidence. "If my fears are valid, however, the effect upon your son of seeing the envelope opened at our local campus post office, and seeing contents other than he expects, may give him rather a shock. That shock, needless to say, will be only the first step towards setting him back on the path of proper discipline, so that his native cunning may be channeled to positive effect. If I am correct, this is exactly the sort of unexpected lesson which has the potential to make his college education a period of wisdom, and not merely of information. "Shall I repeat these instructions? Do you have a pen or pencil with which to make notes, and with which to take down my address? No, really, Mrs. Marenko. No need to thank me. Either have just insulted your son, and hence yourself, for no good cause, in which case no apology would be sufficient, or else I am merely doing my duty as an educator. Very well, Arabella. Now here is my address..."
At nine a.m. the following morning, Dr. Thayer Kfouri met Maxwell Marenko on the granite steps of the campus post office. Together they passed through the wrought-iron doors, trod upon the polished marble floor that hinted at more stately days in the previous century. "Is there a 9x12 envelope addressed to me, Dr. Kfouri, from a Mrs. Arabella Marenko, my good man?" said the professor to a long- haired clerk in an aquamarine "I'd rather be windsurfing" T-shirt. "Hold on, let me check. Hey, Yanez, anything in today's sack for a -- how do you spell that?" "Kay Eff Oh You Are Eye." " Kay Eff Oh You Are Eye, you got it, Yanez? Okay, thanks. Here you go, doc." Dr. Kfouri took the envelope, held it up for Maxwell's inspection, flipped it over, and tore loose the scotch tape, noting to himself that it was applied very closely to where a previous strip had once adhered. "Is this the blue-book you sent to your mother by mistake, young man?" "Yeah, prof, that's my name on the cover, alright." "This is, not to put too fine a point on it, the blue-book which you have assured me contains the correct answers to the examination? The one which was somehow confused with the letter to your mother? Oh yes, here, take the letter now. You're welcome. The very blue-book which makes the difference between a passing and a failing grade for you, Mr. Maxwell?" "Yeah, yeah, cut the idle banter, man. That's the blue-book I meant to give you in the first place. I'm sure it's good for a pass. One more semester and I'm done with this two bit school anyway. Then, color me gone." "Color?" said Dr. Kfouri, removing his eyeglasses and peering at the corner of the blue-book with myopic attention. "Could it be that I detect a virtually microscopic smear of purple paint on the cover of this blue-book? Could it be that this smear is precisely the color of the paint so recently applied in the interior of the Dabney Ruddock Cordell Library? Could it be that, rather than posting this immediately upon leaving my classroom, that you took this to the library and improperly researched the answers to my examination questions? Could it be that you've been sliding through the educational process on the lubrication of mendacity? Could it be that you've tried to commit the high crime and misdemeanor of stealing a passing grade from a course which you deserve to flunk? Could it be that this is merely the first step of a larcenous career that will lead to the hangman's noose, or the electric chair, depending upon the state in which you are finally caught? Could it be that I have caught you right now, young man? Why, goodness, how pale you seem. Could that be due to yet another hangover, from your nocturnal dissipation? Well?" "I don't see any paint, man, and I don't know what got into you. Too many shots of sherry in the faculty lounge, or some weird projection of yours based on the ritual fight for tenure, or something on public TV you fell asleep watching or what? Come on, don't be so melodramatic. Just open the blue-book and check it out. Read it and weep, man. I'm a hell of a better student than you say." "Just so we have the ground rules established here, Mr. Marenko, let me first outline the two possibilities. One: this bluebook contains a plausible approximation to the right answers, in which case I owe you copious apologies. Two: this blue-book is, in fact, completely blank, because you outsmarted yourself by switching between THREE blue-books instead of the two that you meant to permute. In which case, you will not only receive a failing grade, but a significant letter of complaint to the Academic Dean, requesting a full hearing into your text-taking practices. One, or two. Which will it be?" "I don't know what you're blabbing about, prof. Just open the sucker, and let's take a look. Aren't you the one who's always droning on about the empirical method?" "As you wish, Mr. Maxwell. I am now going to open the blue- book..." Dr. Thayer Kfouri opened the cover of the blue-book, fully expecting to see the blank pages which he had instructed be placed therein. Maxwell Marenko fully expected to see the answers he had elaborated in the Cordell library two days earlier. This, however, is what the blue-book contents were: "Dear Doctor Kfouri, Thank you so much for your warm-hearted willingness to help my little boy, Maxwell. Yes, he is both intelligent and headstrong, so that since my beloved husband Lloyd Marenko passed away, bless his soul, it has been rather a challenge to raise Maxwell to meet the highest standards of achievement and behavior. Your phonecall was the first good news I've heard in years, not counting the sporadic and somewhat suspect letters from Maxwell in which, I'm sure, the truth has been somewhat bent. Your manly voice, your precise vocabulary, your firm intent, and your compassionate heart have utterly won me over. I know it sounds odd, coming so unexpectly from a woman of a certain age, but I do believe I've fallen in love with you. Since I am a widow, and you said that you were a widower, it is not utterly out of the question that we find out as soon as possible if we are compatible. Therefore, I am writing to tell you that I shall buy a train ticket as soon as I have posted this envelope to you, and expect to arrive on campus within hours of your reading these very words. I'll be bringing Maxwell's rather erudite essays with me. Maxwell has been without a father entirely too long! "Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment." Devotedly yours, dear heart,
"What kind of cockamamie conspiracy is this? You in cahoots with my Mom? I don't get it? How did this get in my blue-book? What did you tell her to get her into such a weird head trip? Professor, you've got to straighten this out!" Dr. Kfouri was as pale as bleached parchment. "This is worse than anything I could have imaginined," he stammered. "Both of our fates are in the hands of stochastic forces beyond our control. You're the crafty one, Mr. Maxwell. In order to spare us both from a future neither of us would want, without injuring your obviously irrational mother, we'd better come up with something right away. We need our own conspiracy. Come with me right away to the Faculty Club. I think we could both use a few stiff ones. Imagine! As I live and learn..."
-- The End --

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Copyright 1991 by Emerald City Publishing.
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