It was too bad that, as a college professor, Aaron Mite was expected to be approachable. Approachability was contrary to his nature. Thus, when a swingy-haired, tanned blonde female barreled toward his podium, he steeled himself against the encounter. Students rarely lingered after composition class to say, “What an enthralling lecture.” Particularly since the day’s presentation covered misplaced and dangling modifiers.
The blonde was one of hundreds who prowled the grounds of Metro Atlanta University, usually in perfumed packs of four or five. Her name was Megan or Chelsea or perhaps Payton. Aaron could tell by the determined set of her jaw that she wanted something from him, and it was probably a grade change. If so, she was wasting her time. Aaron’s grades were as permanent as the polar ice caps. Well, as permanent as polar ice caps were before the dawn of global warming.
“So,” she began.
This was a new habit of students, starting sentences with the word “so.” It wasn’t as distressing as misusing the word “literally,” as in “I’m literally starving to death.” It did, however, grate on Aaron every time he heard it.
“What does this say?” She rattled a paper in front of his nose and pointed her finger at a comment he’d written in red ink. Some of his colleagues had switched to less threatening ink colors—blue, purple and even hard-to-read orange—but Aaron still preferred the authoritative power of red.
He squinted at the scrawl. He often had trouble reading his own writing, but not in this case. Aaron recognized the phrase as one he frequently wrote in the margins of student composition papers: “This essay is not worth the papyrus it was penned on.”
He read the comment aloud and the girl—Leslie, Brittany or Taylor—wrinkled her nose. “I don’t get it.”
“It’s simply another way of saying, ‘this essay isn’t worth the paper it’s written on,’ but that would be cliché. As I’ve said several times in this class, clichés are the enemies of good writing.”
Her previously benign features turned cross. “You think I wasted paper writing my essay?”
“Yes. But, happily for you, paper is plentiful.”
She stared at him. Aaron stared back. For a moment they were engaged in a standoff, but the girl looked away first. “Whatever,” she said.
She wandered off, eyes fastened to her phone, poor grade seemingly forgotten. Not a surprise. Young people’s minds flitted about like gnats.
Another student remained in the classroom, Sabrina, a woman in her early thirties, who’d recently gone back to school. She worked part-time as an administrative assistant in the English and Foreign Language department at Metro Atlanta University .
Sabrina’s appearance in Aaron’s class at the beginning of the semester worried him. What if she was a terrible writer and he had to give her poor marks? Would she ever make photocopies for him again?
But she proved to be a competent writer and would likely receive an A for the semester. In fact, he was so impressed with her narrative essay, he urged her to take a creative writing class as an elective.
Sabrina was still gathering her things. Unlike the younger students, she didn’t start packing up her belongings ten minutes before dismissal time in anticipation of a hasty getaway.
She glanced up at him and said, “Professor Mite, I wanted to tell you how much I’m enjoying your class.”
Aaron was slightly taken aback. It was unusual for him to receive praise from students. In his teaching evaluations, he usually got comments like: “If Professor Mite ruled the world, a comma splice would be punishable by fifty lashes,” or “Dude hates the word ‘very.’ Use in essays at your own risk.”
Sometimes the comments were more personal: “Kind of cute, but needs a major wardrobe rehab. Wears the same jacket every day. Also, what’s with the limp?”
“Thank you very much, Sabrina. I’ve enjoyed having you as well.”
“I admire your fervent love for our language and excellent writing. You’ve inspired me to write a novel of my own.”
“That’s ambitious, and I wish you the best of luck. Do you have any idea what themes you want to explore? I can recommend some novels as inspiration.”
She thought for a moment and said, “Death, I guess.”
Her answer surprised Aaron. Sabrina was a chipper soul, continually smiling, always greeting everyone who came into the English department office suite and offering them candy from a seemingly bottomless dish on her desk. (Aaron was partial to the butterscotch disks.) Her desk was also littered with photographs of twin toddlers smashing their chubby faces into birthday cakes or cavorting in a kiddie pool. Death was the last thing he’d guessed she’d want to write about.
“Bravo to you for tackling such a challenging theme. You may want to consider reading Death of Ivan Ilyich, Slaughterhouse Five or maybe even White Noise.”
“Are those mysteries?”
“I want to write a cozy.”
Cozy? A cozy, when used as a noun, referred to a padded covering for a teapot.
“I don’t follow.”
“You’ve never heard of cozies?” Suddenly Sabrina was very animated. Her curls bounced on her shoulders, and her cheeks flushed. “They’re a category of mystery novels set in a small village, and the amateur sleuth is usually a female. There’s always a murder, but it’s never gruesome, and the victim tends to be a mean person who deserves to die.”
Aaron was momentarily taken aback. “Are you saying you want to write genre fiction?”
“Yes. I love to read cozies.”
“I see.” Aaron noisily cleared his throat. “What was the last…cozy you read?”
“It was called Dread and Breakfast. The sleuth is Abigail Appleworth, the owner of a bed and breakfast called the Pleasant Dreams Inn. One of her guests—a developer who wants to cut down the hundred-year-old oak tree in the town square and put up a parking lot—is bludgeoned to death with an overcooked crumpet.”
Aaron took a moment to absorb the highly improbable particulars. Then he said, “I’d like to know how you felt after you read the book. Did it change you?”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Were you affected by the themes? Did it prompt you to think critically? Did you spend time considering the underlying issues?”
“Well, no, but—”
“Or did it pass through you like cheap fast food?”
Karin Gillespie is the author of the national bestselling Bottom Dollar Girls series, 2016 Georgia Author of the Year, Co-author for Jill Connor Browne’s novel Sweet Potato Queen’s First Big Ass Novel. Her latest novel Love Literary Style was inspired by a New York Times article called “Masters in Chick Lit” that went viral and was shared by literary luminaries like Elizabeth Gilbert and Anne Rice. She’s written for the Washington Post and Writer Magazine and is book columnist and humor columnist for the Augusta Chronicle and Augusta Magazine respectively. She received a Georgia Author of the Year Award in 2016.
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