The Zen of X and Y

NPR recently announce the winner of its Three Minute Fiction Contest. This entry isn’t it. Reading my tome again after having toiled for almost 45 whole minutes creating it the day before the submission deadline a very long time, I can see why it didn’t place. The good news is that (1) I don’t have the pressure of the instant notoriety caused by publication in The Paris Review and (2) I can now correct a few things and publish it here.

600 word limit. The prompt was “the character finds something he or she has no intention of returning.” That was it. All else was fair game: style, voice, genre, humor, serious, whatever.

Not my normal subject matter but I did put in my characteristic twist at the end. For your reading pleasure, my contest entry that placed in the top 27,000!


            Billy Watson hated algebra class with all the passion a sixth grader could muster. Daily, he lamented “Will I ever really need to know what x is, given y?” To make matters worse, his teacher, Mrs. Smith, had made it her mission in life to be his personal inquisitor. During class, the task master would rap her old wooden ruler on Billy’s desk, demanding he start again with another attempt to prove the axiom du jour. Billy had a hard enough time being raised by his father; the last thing he wanted was another surrogate mother. But as the school year ended, Billy was amazed to learn his final grade was a B. The happiness was short-lived once he learned Mrs. Smith was being reassigned to teach the seventh grade class next year. “This will be the shortest summer vacation ever,” he thought.

Everything changed when Billy found Mrs. Smith’s ruler.

On the last day of school, Mrs. Smith had received a phone call and left abruptly. Billy couldn’t have planned it better than to have a last minute substitute grant everyone an hour to sit and talk. At the end of the day, he started his trek home with a brisk walk through the teacher’s parking lot. That’s when he noticed Mrs. Smith’s still vacant parking space. “She’s so mean, the other teachers won’t even park in her spot,” he thought. Billy looked down and noticed a flat piece of rectangular wood, lying off to the side. Picking it up, he knew immediately it was that ruler, the veritable mace of mathematical angst with the name “Smith” emblazoned on the back. He imagined two decades of former algebra students cheering as he picked up the ruler in victory.

He was not going to give this ruler back.

Summer vacation came and went; it was never long enough for Billy. And while he knew Mrs. Smith would soon enough reenter and ruin his academic life, at least this time she would not have her old sidekick. Even if she had bought a new ruler, Billy was smug with the knowledge she would be without her weapon of choice so carelessly discarded earlier.

Coach Bickford greeted the new seventh grade math students with a short, loud blast of his whistle.  “He has a degree,” Billy asked himself “in mathematics?” To most students, the coach wasn’t a teacher; he was the man always yelling at the football players, forcing push-up after push-up. Coach’s class policy on personal accountability was then bellowed as if a military order. “If you can’t hack the work, suck it up and do the extra assignments. Your grade is up to you – no more molly coddling; you’re in seventh grade now, ladies – and gentlemen. The assignment will be on the board; come in, sit down, hit the books. I’ll be at my desk if you need help, but the onus for success is now on you.”

Billy raised his hand and asked about Mrs. Smith. The coach softened for just a moment, saying she had passed away a few weeks after school had let out. “Breast cancer,” he said. “She had been fighting it for over a year, but on the last day of school she received word her final treatment failed.”

Billy’s mother had died of breast cancer. Now it made sense. Now he understood. Now Billy realized the purpose of the undue attention. He thought a quiet prayer, thanking God for Mrs. Smith.

Billy Watson had found more than just a ruler – something he would never give back.


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