Me, Cinderella?

By: Aubrey Rose



“Of course.” Eliot paused, then realized the man didn’t want to speak in public. “Your office?”

“Yes, please, this way. Crazy weather we’ve been having, isn’t it?”

Eliot murmured his assent as the gray-haired man led the way down the hall and into his office.

“As you probably know, there have been rumblings about the internship program. Please, sit.” The department chair sat behind his desk. Eliot scanned it quickly. On the desk were a number of official-looking papers: grant proposals, staff recommendations. A picture of a slim, blonde wife and two children. A half-empty glass of water. A gilded clock on a marble base. A framed plaque of commendation from a mathematical society. He had no mathematics on his desk save a pile of student homework papers.

Eliot eased himself into the leather chair in front of the desk. His frame was too long, his elbows jutting out over both armrests.

“Rumblings?” he said.

“On the email lists for the math department.” Patterson raised his eyebrows meaningfully, but Eliot didn’t get the meaning.

“I don’t read them.”

“Ah, hmm.” Patterson shifted in his chair. “But of course you’ve talked with the other professors in the department about your work.”

“No.”

“Well,” Patterson said. He tapped a pen on his desk. “Well.”

Eliot stared ahead calmly. The clock on the desk filled the room with its ticking.

“It’s just that…” the department chair began. He coughed.

“Just that what, Dr. Patterson?”

The man coughed again into his hand, evidently not wanting to bring up the subject. Eliot leaned over and pushed the half-empty glass of water toward him.

“For your cough.”

The gray-haired professor looked startled, his eyes glinting with suspicion. Eliot met his gaze coolly. Patterson set the glass aside without taking a drink and leaned forward over his desk.

“It’s been some time since you’ve last published anything, Dr. Herceg—”

“Eliot.”

“—and many in the department feel as though you have been too selective in your internship program. Dr. Carrey, for example.”

“The one whose son was rejected last year,” Eliot said. The math professor had called Eliot to beg for his child’s acceptance. That conversation had not gone well.

“That’s right.” Patterson did not meet Eliot’s eyes. “Many here take his side.”

“Good for them.”

“And many have noticed that you have not visited your internship program in Budapest at all since its inception.”

“I manage the students remotely.”

“Some say you don’t manage at all.” Patterson breathed heavily, as though under a great weight.

“I have tried to do my best working from here. I need to focus on my research.” Eliot felt his skin heat up slightly. He hated to lie, even a lie by omission. Truthfully, he could not bring himself to return to Hungary.

“That’s another thing. Since your contributions to the mathematical profession have waned…”

“I’m working,” Eliot said, lightly touching his fingertips together, “on a difficult problem.”

“So you may well be. But since you do not—or cannot—publish, we feel that it would be beneficial for you to increase your contributions in other areas. For example, taking on more students for your internship.”

“I take on many students each year to the academy.” Eliot tilted his head to one side, casually cracking his neck.

“But only one from this university!” Patterson pointed one finger in the air, as though he had made an important issue clear. “Only one!”

“Are the students from Pasadena inherently more qualified than those from other universities?”

“No, but many are qualified who are not picked. Dr. Carrey’s son, for example.”

“Dr. Carrey’s son is incompetent,” Eliot said. “He should not be practicing mathematics at all, let alone at the Hungarian Academy.”

Patterson licked his lips but ignored the insult.

“Then surely you could pick others. More than one!”

“Surely. But why should I favor Pasadena?”

“Pasadena University supports you and your fellowship, Dr. Herceg.”

“Eliot, please.”

Patterson leaned forward, his eyes narrowed, and Eliot knew just then what was on his mind.

“Your fellowship here is continued, in part, because of your contributions to the prestige of this university.” Oh. So that’s what he was driving at. Eliot realized why the department chair had been so eager to talk with him. This conversation had nothing to do with mathematics. Eliot spoke his next sentence carefully, as though wading through a particularly difficult proof. He wanted the point to be perfectly clear.

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