Fiction from S.F. Wright

Strange Business

Strange_Business

Original image via morgueFile

I WAS TIRED of working as an adjunct and making no money, so I enrolled in a class to teach high school. I didn’t want to teach high school; I wanted to teach college. But after four years at my university and getting skipped over three times for full-time positions, I knew this wasn’t going to happen.

The class met once a week. There were seven students, three women and four men, including me. One guy was Stan Chang.

Stan was about my age—36—and tall and slender. He always looked stressed and overworked. He said he wanted to be a high school math teacher.

I didn’t talk much to Stan the first weeks and didn’t learn much about him except what I overheard: he lived in Rutherford with his sister; he had an MBA; he owned a car but sometimes took the bus.

_____

One night after class I took the elevator with Stan, which in retrospect I’m not sure was accidental: I’m fairly certain Stan intended to get me alone. As soon as the doors shut, he began telling me of a side business he had which entailed selling software on EBay. I didn’t listen closely, but I nodded and said “Oh, really?” when it seemed called for. By the time the doors opened, I discerned Stan had an angle.

“So a person would make thirty dollars for selling that kind of software, and for the kind the customer can install more than once, they’d make forty. You understand?” He spoke with passion.

“I guess. . .” We were walking to the entrance, and I sensed I was about to be shanghaied.

“I have some merchandise in my van. Where are you parked?”

Hesitantly, I pointed to the lot.

Stan brightened. “Me, too. Come on; I’ll show you.”

I inwardly sighed but followed him across the street.

I thought my eleven-year-old Accord was crappy, but it was luxurious compared to Stan’s car. His van was at least 20 years old. A third of the burgundy paint had rusted off. A taillight was held with duct tape. Three hubcaps were missing.

Stan opened the door. Papers were strewn across the seat and gum wrappers lay on the floor. In the back, there was a child’s safety seat.

Stan handed me two CDs, one with 2015 on it, the other with 2013. As he had in the elevator, Stan enthusiastically explained how people sold these for him on EBay and how much they made. And like before, I didn’t pay much attention. I wanted to go home, and waited for the moment I could politely tell him I wasn’t interested.

“I take care of everything—” Stan counted his fingertips “—merchandise, shipping, everything. All you have to do is sell it.”

“Well, thanks for letting, know,” I said. “But I don’t think it’s for me.”

Stan’s face darkened, as though mad for wasting his time. “You can make a lot of money,” he said, but no longer enthusiastically; rather, his tone was challenging, even ominous.

“I believe you,” I lied. “But it’s just not for me. Thanks for telling me about it, though.” I was free, but there was something I was curious about, even though I wanted no part of this.

“Where do you get the software from? And why’d someone buy it from you rather than just, like, Microsoft?”

Stan looked into the distance, as though preoccupied. “I have my sources,” he said. He didn’t offer any info on the second question.

“Right.” Then, since I saw an opportunity to part on a positive note, I nodded toward the backseat. “I didn’t know you had a kid.”

Stan looked at the child’s safety seat. “I don’t have a kid.”

“Oh.” I was about to ask why he had that seat then but decided I didn’t care.

But Stan answered anyway—or he sort of did. “That’s just there,” he said.

I nodded slowly; then I coughed. “Well,” I said. “Thanks anyway for letting me know. See you next week.”

Stan didn’t respond.

_____

The following class Stan was absent, but he was there the week after. As usual, he looked stressed and fatigued.

He didn’t say anything about his business offer, and I didn’t mention it either. As far as I was concerned, I was fine if we never spoke of it again.

But something about Stan’s demeanor toward me had changed: before, he’d been polite and sometimes cheerful; now, he was dismissive. He wasn’t rude exactly, but he was somewhat brusque; whenever we talked, Stan acted as though he were a clerk and I a customer he didn’t want to deal with.

As with his response to the child safety seat, I decided I didn’t care. The semester was almost over; after a few classes, I’d never see him again.

That evening, I saw Stan get on the elevator with a guy named Martin. Stan talked excitedly. They were the only two on the elevator, and as the doors closed, Stan saw me approach. He didn’t hold the door.

_____

Except for a few brief exchanges in class, I’d only speak to Stan once more. After the penultimate class, I was getting on the elevator and saw Stan approach. Unlike what he did to me, I held the door.

He muttered thanks as the doors closed, and seemed content to remain silent, which was fine by me. But then halfway down, Stan said, “Martin’s selling software for me. He’s going to make a lot of money.”

I nodded politely. “Really?”

“That could’ve been you.” Stan’s eyes narrowed. “But you didn’t want to.”

I shrugged and tried to force a smile. “Well.”

But Stan didn’t say anything else. When the elevator reached the bottom floor, I couldn’t get off fast enough. “See you next week,” I said, cordially; but I walked quickly ahead of him toward the entrance.

It was drizzling. I hurried across the street. As I pulled out of the lot, I saw Stan at the bus stop (apparently, he’d not taken his van tonight). He looked agitated and tired, as he had tonight, as he had all semester. He held his jacket over his head as a makeshift umbrella. I made a right, and glanced at him in my rearview mirror. That was the last time I saw him.

_____

For our final class, we met at TGI Friday’s. Of the seven students, five showed. Stan Chang didn’t.

I sat next to Martin. We talked cordially about the class, films, and sports, while dutifully eating our mediocre chicken sandwiches (neither of us, we’d confided, had wanted to come, but had out of a sense of obligation). Eventually we ran out of things to talk about; but then I remembered something I’d been meaning to ask.

“Stan told me you were selling software for him. How’s that going?”

Martin rolled his eyes. “He tried to get me to sell software is more like it. It was a scam. He wanted me to buy the software and then sell it. On top of that, I think the stuff was stolen.”

“Man.” Then I added, self-deprecatingly, so not to appear self-righteous, “I guess it was a good thing I said no.”

Martin poured ketchup onto his fries. “I’d say. I should’ve said no, too, but I let myself believe it was legit.”

I thought of those CDs vaguely titled 2015 and 2013. “Crazy,” I said.

Martin nodded and took a sip from his Coke. “Strange business.”

We moved to other topics—the Yankees, high schools that were hiring, the TGI’s décor. By the time we’d exhausted the subject of where the items hanging on the walls were purchased, I felt I’d stayed the appropriate amount of time. I said good luck to Martin, shook a couple of my classmates’ hands, and thanked my professor. I then left and haven’t seen any of those people since.

_____

Six months later, after working a couple of substitute jobs, I found a full-time English position at a high school, and have been there since. I’ve no idea what happened to Stan Chang. I don’t know if he became a math teacher (though I doubt it), nor do I know what happened with his EBay business—if he’d turned it into something, if he got in trouble (Martin did say he suspected the merchandise was stolen). Stan was a minor figure from my past, whose role shouldn’t justify a story, let alone anything more than an occasional thought.

Yet I still think of Stan Chang—not frequently, but more often than one would assume. And I’ve told the story of my knowing him many times and still tell it. It is, for one, a quirkily attractive story, and, depending on how I tell it, at times even absurdly funny; and I’ve never bored anyone with it. But there’s more to the story than its humor and quirkiness, and more to why I’ve told it so often and still tell it. There are a plethora of potential reasons for this, yet whenever I seem close to grasping one it flutters away, leaving me back to where I was, wondering why I still think and talk of Stan. But perhaps this fluttering away is in my head; maybe I do know the reason, or know I can find it, but prevent myself because I don’t want to know. And that, perhaps, is as close to an answer as I’ll get.

.

.

S.F. Wright lives and teaches in New Jersey. His work has previously appeared in Steel Toe Review, The Tishman Review, Across the Margin, Razor Literary Magazine, and Pretty Owl Poetry, among other places. His website is sfwrightwriter.com

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