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image by Erika Price

The sock on Valerie’s left foot was completely soaked. It was wet, and her foot was sopping and clammy from the toes to the ankle, and if she placed all her weight on her left side she could feel a sickening squish that was audible, she was pretty sure. She looked down at her boots and wriggled the toes on her right foot. She couldn’t tell if that one was wet, dry, or sweaty. It would be better if both her boots were leaky. Then she could justify buying a new pair. Her Wrong State University Faculty SmartPass was in her mouth and her hands were in her purse.

“Ma’am?” the kid behind the counter said.

Valerie snapped to attention. When she’d started considering the boots, and her misery, there had been a line for coffee five students deep. Now it was just her, front and center, facing the tow-headed undergraduate in a cornflower and puce apron, the school’s signature colors.

“What can I get you?” he asked.

“Um, a large coffee, room for cream,” she said, around the card in her mouth.

She wiped it on the front of her suit, to get rid of spittle. Then she handed it to the kid. The coffee was lukewarm. As she poured cream and tepid honey from a crusted and bear-shaped bottle, it lost all its heat entirely. The moisture in her sock was going to turn to trench foot by the time the day was done.

Valerie took a bitter, cool sip. A chill asserted itself on the back of her neck. Before her eyes, her account balance briefly flashed: $45.68. Another week before her next teaching assistant stipend would be processed.

As Valerie crossed the university cafeteria and past the round-faced, cow-eyed undergraduates, she imagined her foot molting and sloughing off in the bath. If she had a peg leg, maybe the students would finally show her some respect. They wouldn’t ask her to shows and try to by her vodka tonics when they caught her lurking in the back of the campus bar, that was for sure.

Valerie looked away from the horde of kids and started digging around in her purse again. Her fingers brushed past the thick manila folder crammed with exams. The tests she gave were open book, open note, and open internet — and the average grade, before the curve, was a C. But Wrong State prided itself on its high GPAs and its well-off, satisfied student clientele. So Valerie curved, let student-clients debate her over answers, and offered copious extra credit.

That was what they called them, now. Student-clients. Valerie only had a three and a half star rating on ProfessorYelp, the minimum required to retain her at-will position. She couldn’t afford to give out C’s. So grading harshly was hardly worth it. Instead she scanned, ticking off wrong answers here and there, turning a blind eye to the most egregiously incorrect open-ended responses. It saved her hours per week; the display in her left eye told her as much, whenever she reviewed her weekly calendar.

Valerie kept rooting around in her bag, until her hand snagged on a metal joint and her heart quickened. She’d bought a bunch of screws and seams and epoxy from a hardware store, for her grant research project. Her hand wrapped around the rigged edge of a screw and held it as she walked.

“Val.” The voice cut through her and stopped her at the door of the building. “Val. Come over here.”

She turned on her heels. Her dissertation adviser Gus was slouching against the wall, holding a copy of American Artificial Intelligence Monthly and a vapor cigar dappled with beads of rain. His hair was matted and pushed to one side and a fresh-looking ketchup stain was on the lapel of his wool coat.

“Oh shit,” he said, “I mean ‘Dr. Faber.’” He did a little fake bow without adjusting his posture.

“Oh, yeah. Thanks.”

“I’m not interrupting you am I?” He looked at her coffee. “You’re not just waking up or anything, are you?

Valerie tapped on the lid. “Oh. No. This is round two.” Her voice sounded strange to her. She realized that except for rebuffing her students and ordering coffee, she hadn’t spoken to anyone in days. It was hard to modulate herself back into a regular, conversational volume. Always she was projecting to the back of a room, trying to force her way into the minds of distracted students wearing opaque smart glasses.

Her adviser pushed off the wall and opened the door for her by backing into it. His stomach brushed against her side when she tried to get out. Valerie dropped the screw back in her bag.

They walked across the quad. A great holographic bubble covered the turf and kept it watered and lush year round. There were adult children of all sizes and shapes lounging in the grass, throwing balls, smoking, pretending to read. A group of girls were gathered around a rabbit, throwing leaves at it. The creature nuzzled the grass. It dropped a leaf and somebody cooed. Valerie made a mental note: small, cute, useless motions were endearing. She would have to add this to her project.

“So I was talking to Frank about your application,” her adviser said. “He told me some troubling stuff. Do you have time to talk about it now?”

“Um. Sure.”

Gus Santos was one of the last professors at the university to be granted full tenure. He was proud of being a relic, and prouder still of the cadre of desperate graduate students that came with it. Valerie had been the jewel in his crown. He still thought he could polish her up and show off her work as if it were his, despite her having graduated. As she stepped down the stairs, Gus followed.

Valerie’s office was in the second basement, in a closet by the boiler room that had been recently carpeted and dusted out. There were still a few centipedes. She shoved her way in, past the boxes and spare mechanical parts, and pulled out her chair for her adviser to sit in. While he settled down, groaning, she darted to the corner of the room. Her project was sitting bare, its arm lying in a heap of old computer circuits. She threw her coat over it so Gus couldn’t see. She sat on the floor.

“The budget for next year is not looking so hot,” Gus began.

“Oh?” Valerie swallowed coffee and fiddled with the lid. This was not a new refrain.

“And I was looking at your feedback…you aren’t good at upselling. Frank told me you didn’t get a single student to buy a supplementary textbook.”

“I don’t think it’s necessary for the course–”

“It’s necessary if you want the department to be in the black, Val. Excuse me, Dr. Faber. Just what are you doing during office hours?”

Valerie shrugged and looked around the room. The shelves were covered with dusty wheels, circuit boards, wires, old laptops, and empty computer duster canisters. “Working.”

“That project,” Gus said, pointing to the corner. “is a farce, Val. You should be using your out-of-class time messaging students, selling course materials.”

Valerie sighed and pretended to find a ball of fuzz on her lapel supremely interesting. Adjunct instructors were expected to pay their own way, by taking on extra students, offering tutoring, and enticing students with fancy, online and mobile-optimized course supplements and temporary electronic texts that self-destructed when the term was out, so they couldn’t be resold.

But Valerie was not adept at the upsell. Once, she tried to sit a wide-eyed freshman down and sing an optional learning app’s praises. The girl had begun to cry, snot running from her noise as if from a spigot, crying poverty. She was on a scholarship. She already was waiting in the library until 3am each night so she could snag an hour or two with the books in course reserves when nobody else was awake. She could afford no more, tolerate no more expectation. Valerie’s neck broke out in hives and she told the girl to go, not to worry about it.

“Those course add-ons,” Valerie started, “don’t go well with my class.”

Gus shook his head. “We don’t have a position for you next year, okay?”

Valerie pressed her knees into her chest. “But I’m so close. Dr. Santos, I need, like, six months. I could have it done before winter break. I’m about to have a breakthrough, trust me — the publications –”

He stood up and walked over to her. Gus smelled like burnt hair, the way all old men seemed to. He touched her on the shoulder. Valerie almost wished he would touch a little harder; the way he was grazing her flesh tickled and felt fake. If he were to squeeze her, she could provoke herself to outrage.

“If you’re gonna stick around here, it’s not gonna be as a researcher. That’s just the market,” Gus told her. “You’re an adjunct, okay? That’s all we’ve got. And right now the clients aren’t buying what you have to sell.”

“No one likes Basics of Human-Computer Interactions,” Valerie said. It was a shit course, with low enrollment and lower student-client satisfaction. The undergrads were all digital natives; they understood human-computer interactions better than the faculty. There was no reason for them to take the course.

“I can’t make them like the class. Maybe if it were a requirement…”

Gus squeezed her shoulder and her skin reddened. “Sex it up a little. Make it like a TED Talk. You know those TED Talks? Get a slicker outfit, and one of those, what’s it called, my wife gets them, blowouts? You know. Maybe a manicure. Add some hologram video thingies. Make it a good product.”

Valerie frowned and pulled away.

“I can’t do your job for you,” Gus said. “Jesus. I’m just trying to help you save your ass.”

His words turned to faint murmuring as Valerie turned to the corner of the room and willed her attention away. Underneath her coat, in the corner, Valerie had a life-sized animatronic squirrel arm welded to a mass of wires, wheel, and gears. At the moment, she wanted nothing more than to pick it up and place its full weight on Gus’s carotid artery. His eyes would bug out, go jelly-like and run down his lapel. That might wash some of the ketchup off his ill-fitting suit. The vision was intense, almost a hallucination, and it brought Valerie great solace.

“I’ll work on it,” she said.

“Good,” Gus said. He went to the door and tapped his knuckles on the frame. “It’s not that hard Vally girl. Throw all this shit out. You want to impress your students? Build a sex robot or something, like those fuckers at Northwestern.”

She laughed emptily. “Yeah. That would work.”

After Gus left, Valerie stared at the mound of robot parts under the coat. The lump was formless, but body-sized and hard to ignore. She blinked a few times, restarting the display system in her eye. Then she kicked off her boots, peeled the damp socks from her freezing feet, walked over to the door, and forced it shut. She took a page from a student’s exam, wrote on the back of it, and taped it over the little window in her door.

WORKING ON A FUCKING AWESOME BREAKTHROUGH IN ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE AND EMPATHY PROJECTIONS, DO NOT DISTURB UNTIL AFTER SUMMER TERM IS OVER. — DOCTOR VALERIE A. FABER

— — –

Originally published at erikadprice.tumblr.com.

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