Calculus 1

He was good at math — but some problems aren't so easily solved.

Piece of paper with algebra equations

Weekly Newsletter

The best of The Saturday Evening Post in your inbox!

SUPPORT THE POST

“ENGINEERS’ PAD.” That’s what the sign said, on the door of our dormitory room. It was my roommate’s idea. Dennis Meyer and I were both second-semester freshmen — my major was electrical engineering, his was chemical engineering — and the small words on our door were from a label he’d clipped off a package of graph-paper pads we had to use for drawings in our drafting classes. Since all the pages were preprinted in grids of horizontal and vertical x– and y-axes, each little tablet was called an “engineer’s pad.” In fact, that was the brand name; Dennis had just used ­Wite-Out and a black pen to move the apostrophe over one space and thus include both of us. I should explain here that Dennis was extremely pleased with the fact that he was an engineer, or at least an engineering student, and wanted the world to know it. The truth was, he probably should’ve chosen a different major, in which case he’d have lived in an accountant’s pad or a business student’s pad, but that’s a whole nother story.

On this particular afternoon, during the final week of the spring semester of our freshman year, I opened the door to our dorm room to find Dennis sitting on the side of his bed, staring at me. “About time you got back,” he said.

“This is when I always get done on Mondays,” I said. “I have a three-o’clock lab, and our final was today.” I studied his face, which seemed more haggard than usual. “What’s the problem?”

He blew out a long sigh and rubbed his eyes. “The problem is, I’m about to flunk Calculus 1. I need your help.”

Another word of explanation. At this university, engineering students of all categories were required to take four semesters of calculus (the last of which was called Differential Equations), but during the fall semester of the freshman year, we were given a choice: We could choose to start in with the first calculus course or take a fairly easy algebra “review” course instead. I chose Calculus 1, to get it over with. Dennis, probably to try to help his grade point average a bit before getting thrown into the briar patch of the really tough courses, chose College Algebra. As a result, I was taking Calculus 2 this semester, and Dennis was just now getting around to taking Calculus 1 — and was having a hard time of it. In fact, his grades were so pitiful, he’d said he was going to have to ace the final in order to pass the course. And if he didn’t pass the course, he could kiss his engineering major goodbye. And this coming Friday was the final exam.

I dumped my books on my desk and shook my head. “It’s your own fault, Dennis. You haven’t been studying enough. Now it’s caught up with you.” Actually, that was nothing new. Ever since Dennis had pledged one of the big social fraternities at the beginning of the semester, he’d been spending a lot more time with his nose in a beer mug than in the books. Unlike me, he had the money required to be a frat rat — but what he didn’t have was the time. As usual, though, he didn’t like me saying so.

“Don’t lecture me, Zack Harwood. The only reason you’ve been spending so much time studying is that you screwed up and lost your girlfriend. How smart was that?”

He was right there. Several weeks ago I’d had a bitter fight with Mary Ellen Burns, my sweetheart since the ninth grade (we’d even enrolled in the same college to be together), and shortly afterward, I discovered that she’d begun seeing someone else. I didn’t yet know who she was dating, but I did know that I was sorry I’d told Dennis about it. The only good thing was that in my heart­broken state I had indeed been hitting the books even harder than usual, and it appeared my GPA for this semester — actually for this entire first year — was going to be great.

But that was only part of it. I’d always loved math and science, and the difficulties of a technical major were just easier for me than for Dennis Meyer. It was probably one of the reasons he was now requesting my assistance.

“You asking me to help you study?” I said. “If you are, I’d say you got a lot to learn before Friday.”

He let out another sigh. I almost felt sorry for him, but not quite.

“I don’t want you to help me study,” he said. “I want you to help me pass the test.”

“And how am I supposed to do that?”

“I’m going to cheat,” he said.

 

After a long pause, I shrugged and said, “Do what you want. But understand this: I won’t help you cheat.”

He didn’t reply right away — but he also didn’t look worried by my reply. Which made me wonder why.

“I’ll pay you five thousand dollars,” he said.

Those words seemed to echo in our small room. They hung there in the air for a minute while I asked myself if I’d heard him correctly.

“You’ll what?”

“Five thousand dollars. Cash.” He paused and added, “I know you’re broke, Harwood — you’re always broke. Think what you could do with five thousand bucks, dropped into your lap all at one time.”

I thought about it, all right. It was mind-boggling. I knew I wouldn’t do it — couldn’t do it. I’d never cheated on anything my whole life. But, my God, five thousand dollars?

“For an hour’s work,” he said. “Probably less. And I’ve thought it through, start to finish. There’d be no risk to you, or me either.”

I hadn’t said anything in response yet. I’m not sure I trusted my voice to respond. And I think he took my hesitation the wrong way.

“Let me explain it, okay? Then you can decide.”

I cleared my throat. “I don’t need you to explai—”

“Here’s what would happen,” he said, holding both hands up, palms out. “The exam’ll be given in the back room on the third floor of the Dalton Building, at two o’clock this Friday. I already know you’ll be done with your finals before then.”

“Listen, Dennis —”

Those words seemed to echo in our small room. They hung there for a minute while I asked myself if I’d heard him correctly.

“You listen. Just let me tell you this, okay?” He leaned forward. “There are only 15 students in Calculus 1 this semester, and I sit by myself on the back row. I’ve asked around, and I know that exam is always one single page of multiple-choice questions. Each problem has to be figured out on scratch paper that the student provides, and only the answers are marked on the sheet. None of the worksheets have to be turned in. The profs probably designed it that way to make the papers easy to grade. Okay so far?”

I started to reply, then changed my mind and nodded for him to continue.

“The exam’ll be three hours, so even though there won’t be many problems listed on the sheet, each one will probably take a long time to solve.” Dennis gave me an intense look. “But you know all this already. You took the course last year — got an A in it, if I recall — and this stuff is your cuppa tea anyway. Both of us know you could solve those problems in your sleep.”

I frowned. “What exactly are you saying, Dennis? I won’t be taking the exam. You will.”

“Not the way I’ve got it planned,” he said. “Look, I told you I sit on the back row, right? Well, the answer sheet needs to be marked with a number-two pencil. And the classroom’s just old-fashioned enough to have a pencil sharpener mounted on the sill of a row of windows in the back of the room. Windows that have no screens, and that are always open unless it’s freezing cold or pouring rain. And the seven-day forecast says — I just checked — that Friday afternoon will be clear and warm. You with me so far?”

Actually, I was. And although I’m a little ashamed to admit it, I did want to hear what he had to say. “Go on,” I replied.

“When the exams are handed out, and I have the sheet in my hot little hands, I plan to roll it up loosely, bind it with a rubber band just tight enough to keep it from unrolling, tuck it into the long sleeve of my shirt, and walk back to sharpen my pencil. In the process of sharpening, I’ll slip the rolled-up exam sheet out of my sleeve and drop it out the window. Three floors below, you’ll stroll past just as the rubberbanded sheet falls into the grass. You’ll pick it up, go over to the Campus Grille, take a seat at a table near the back, unroll the sheet …”

“And complete the exam,” I said.

“Yep. I figure it shouldn’t take you more than 45 minutes or so. Work the problems, fill in all the blanks with a pencil, and when you’ve finished, seal it in a plastic bag that my messenger will provide. After that, you’re done.”

“Your messenger?”

“An old guy my fraternity hires to do yardwork and odd jobs at the house,” Dennis said. “His name’s Oscar Wilson. I’ve already talked to him about it. I’m paying him well to be my runner Friday afternoon, and to keep his mouth shut. He’ll be waiting for you at the Grille.”

“Where’ll he be running to? He can’t very well take the completed exam back to the testing room and hand it to you.”

Dennis laughed. “I wondered, at first, whether I might get him to do just that. Bring it in a preprinted envelope maybe, like a special-delivery letter. Except the P.O. doesn’t do special deliveries anymore. I guess we could try certified mail, that kind of thing, where I’d be called out of class and could sign for it and so forth — but all that’s too risky. Instead, my messenger will take the plastic bag containing the test sheet you’ve given him and go to the third-floor restroom in Dalton Hall an hour before my three hours are up, and place the waterproof bag — with the exam sealed inside — under the lid in the back of the toilet tank in the last stall on the end.” He paused. “What do you think?”

I shook my head, trying to picture that. “I think you’ve seen The Godfather too many times.”

“It worked for Michael Corleone,” he said, “and it’ll work for me. I’ll request an urgent bathroom break half an hour before the end of the test period — I’ve heard they allow that — and then I’ll go to that last stall, lift the lid of the toilet tank, take out the plastic bag, remove the exam sheet, throw away the bag, and button the sheet inside my shirt. Then I’ll replace the lid, go back to the classroom, sit at my desk, wait until everyone’s attention is someplace else, take out the sheet, sign my name at the bottom, and turn it in.” He smiled. “I pass the course, you get five grand for your trouble, and no one’s the wiser.”

I stared at him for a long moment, my mind whirling. “This is crazy,” I said.

He grinned. “I agree. But it’ll work. By the way — no one’s allowed to take a phone or an iPad into the exam. I assume the test-taker could use it to help with an answer, right?”

“Depends on the question,” I said, “but it’s possible. Some of the more common equations and integrals are online, and in that case you could Google them and save time. Why?”

“Because I’ll give you my iPhone to keep during the exam. I won’t be able to have it with me anyway, and if you do need to use the internet you’ll have it available.”

I started to object then realized it made sense. I also realized this was a sly attempt to remind me of my bleak financial situation. He and I both knew I had dropped and broken my cellphone two weeks ago and had been doing without ever since — because I didn’t have enough money to replace it.

I couldn’t seem to stop thinking about the five thousand dollars.

Again he saw my hesitation, and this time he judged correctly. “You can do this, Harwood. There’s really no risk. No one’ll ever know except you, me, and my bathroom messenger — and he doesn’t even know what he’s delivering, or why.”

I swallowed and said, “I can’t believe I’m even considering this.”

“You’d be stupid not to. This isn’t fraud, or a theft, or even a crime. It’s just breaking the rules a little, for an exam. A few dozen filled-in spaces on a single sheet of paper. Next year, in Calculus 2, I’ll study harder and all will be well. I just need to be able to get that far.”

I found myself nodding. “I see your point. Let me think about it, okay?”

“Fine,” he said. “But think fast.”

 

I thought about it all right, but not fast.

I mulled it over for two days, seesawing back and forth between No way can you do this and You’d be a fool not to. As I’ve already mentioned, I’d never cheated on anything before, and I wasn’t fond of the idea of starting now. But oh my God I needed the money, and I was already in a depressed state because of Mary Ellen’s sudden betrayal of me and her absence from my life. On the one hand, it would’ve been great to talk this problem over with her; on the other hand, she would’ve put a stop to the whole notion, and fast. If anything, she was more of a straight arrow than I was. Or at least she used to be. In the end, it was the five thousand bucks that made up my mind.

On Wednesday of that week, I took my fourth final exam, studied for two hours at the library for my fifth and last one (coming up on Thursday), swallowed whatever was left of my pride, and told my roommate I would take his offer and do the deed. He looked pleased but not surprised; even at the age of 18 he seemed to have realized the power of money in this world. I was only now becoming aware of it.

There was very little to do in terms of preparation. Dennis showed me a cellphone photo he’d taken of his runner, so I would recognize him on Friday; he made sure he had a rubber band small enough to encircle the rolled-up exam sheet and big enough not to roll it up too tight during its drop from the window to the ground; I made sure I had a number-two yellow Eagle pencil with which to fill in the answers on the sheet and a plain white 9-by-12 envelope in which to place the completed exam; and I stopped in at the Campus Grille on both Wednesday and Thursday to verify my suspicion that there were so few customers in attendance between two and five in the afternoon that I should have the back tables all to myself. There was nothing to do now but wait.

 

Friday came all too quickly. That afternoon at exactly 2:05 p.m., I walked around the corner of Dalton Hall with a stomach full of butterflies, detoured onto the sidewalk that hugged the rear of the building, and looked up to see — exactly as scripted — a loosely rolled sheet of paper fall from an open window on the top floor. I picked the white tube of paper up off the ground without even breaking stride and kept going.

At the Campus Grille, I grabbed a menu, took it to one of the back tables, and used it to shield my eyes as I looked over the sparse crowd. As I’d hoped, I saw no one I knew, no one who might drop by my table to say hello. I did, however, recognize the fellow whose face I’d seen in the photo Dennis had shown me. This was our messenger, already there and waiting. Oscar, I think his name was. He gave me a slight smile, and I nodded to him. I felt like a spy in a ’60s movie.

After a moment, I put down the menu, smoothed out the exam sheet, and spread out my work materials: pencil, scratch paper, plain white envelope for the completed sheet, and Dennis’s cellphone. I’d even brought along my old Calculus 1 textbook, though I doubted I’d need it.

I glanced through the exam questions, picked up my pencil, and was about to start the test when Dennis’s iPhone buzzed. At first I ignored it. I sure wasn’t going to answer his phone; Dennis was the only one who knew I had it, and he was in no position to be calling me now. After the fourth buzz, though, I did glance at it, just out of curiosity. The name on the display said MARY ELLEN BURNS.

I blinked. Mary Ellen?

Mary Ellen was phoning Dennis?

Now I was interested. I picked up the phone just as it went to voicemail, and I listened carefully as Mary Ellen cleared her throat and began her message. I would’ve known that voice anywhere.

Dennis? I’m sorry I missed you, because we need to talk. No, actually we don’t need to. I need to talk and you need to listen. I got the voicemail you left this morning, while I was in class, and no, I will not go with you to Arrowhead Lake this weekend. I told you that already. This has all been a mistake, anyway, you and I going out these past couple weeks, and I would never have agreed to it if Zack and I hadn’t had such an argument. The truth is, I still love him, Dennis. I’ve told you that. So please stop calling me, okay? Just leave me alone.

 I sat there staring at the phone for a long time after she’d disconnected. At last I exhaled a breath I’d been holding and raised my head to stare out the window. Outside, students filed past on the way to exams, squirrels scampered around on the parade ground, the wind stirred the branches of the oaks that lined the sidewalk. I looked at all this without really seeing it. My head was spinning.

Dennis and Mary Ellen. It was hard to believe. I felt like the world’s biggest idiot.

I was also mad as hell.

Slowly, I turned back to the stuff I’d spread out on the table, and to the exam lying there in front of me. And made up my mind.

I picked up the exam sheet, folded it once, and dropped it into the wastebasket beside the table. Then I looked again at the man at the counter — Oscar — and motioned to him. He hopped up and headed my way. In one hand was what looked like a small brown grocery sack.

He sat down across from me, a weathered guy of about 60, dressed in khakis and a baseball cap. “You done so soon?” he asked.

“I’m done,” I said. “But let me ask you a question. Has he paid you already?”

“Yep,” he said.

“And paid you well, I hope. Right?”

He nodded. “That’s right. Really well.”

“Good.” I picked up the white envelope and handed it to him. “Here you go.”

He frowned. “But … it’s empty.”

“Hmm. I guess it is,” I said. I looked around for a moment, then picked up the menu, tucked it into the envelope, licked and sealed its flap, and handed it to him. “Now it isn’t.”

“So it’s ready to go?” he asked.

“Ready for delivery.”

Oscar sighed and shook his head. “College boys. You guys are hard to figure,” he said. From his brown sack he removed a large plastic bag, probably a Ziploc, inserted the envelope, sealed the bag, put it into his sack, and got to his feet. “Restroom, here I come,” he said.

I nodded. “When you gotta go, you gotta go.”

He grinned, saluted, and left.

I gathered up my stuff and left too, with a lot of conflicting emotions. On the negative side, I felt a little guilty, and I was $5,000 poorer, and my roommate was about to be in deep trouble because of me — I tried to imagine his shock as he opened that toilet tank and found a snack menu instead of a completed calculus exam. On the positive side, I didn’t feel nearly as guilty as I might have, and I was encouraged by Mary Ellen’s words, and my honor was intact. I hadn’t helped anyone cheat on anything.

I walked back to our room, loaded my 15-year-old car with the clothes from my closet and a fairly small bag of my other possessions, put Dennis’s cellphone on his desk, and drove to Mary Ellen’s dormitory. When the lady at the dorm office assured me Mary Ellen had already left the campus, I left also, headed for home. My freshman year was done.

 

I never saw Dennis again. Not only did he drop out of engineering school, he left the college — or at least he wasn’t there when we came back that fall, as sophomores. Mary Ellen and I had already gotten back together and exchanged heartfelt apologies, and we wound up staying together for the next three years. We got married two weeks after graduation. I went to work for an electronics company not far from where she and I were raised, and she started what would become a successful real-estate business.

Ten years and two kids later, the four of us were vacationing in D.C. when I looked up from studying a Smithsonian brochure to see a late-night news broadcast on our hotel TV. Mary Ellen was in the shower at the time, and the kids were fast asleep. No faces were shown in the newscast, but the story mentioned three local attorneys who were being disbarred for “fraudulent misrepresentation and improper management of funds,” whatever that meant. One of them was named Dennis Meyer. I wasn’t sure it was my old college roommate and didn’t bother to find out, but I suspect it was. It made sense that he would’ve become a big-city lawyer, and that he would’ve eventually found a way to self-destruct.

I never said anything to Mary Ellen about it, but for some reason it stayed on my mind. One Saturday soon after returning from that vacation, we were all trooping out the front door for a trip to the Children’s Museum when I remembered my computer was on and headed back to my home office to switch it off. When I got there, I found myself looking for a moment at my screensaver, which showed a grinning and carefree long-ago photo of Mary Ellen and me and little Brad and Tommy. Staring into their beautiful and innocent faces, I couldn’t help wondering what career our two sons would choose, and what college they’d go to, and whether either of them would ever be tempted to do something he knew he shouldn’t, for money. I hoped not. I hoped life would turn out good for both of them.

I turned off the computer, left my office, closed the door, and looked at the small sign I’d taped there just after we’d moved in. I was still surprised Mary Ellen had allowed me to do it. It said “ENGINEER’S PAD,” with the apostrophe in the right place. It seemed memories were everywhere today.

Outside, the car horn honked. My family was waiting for me.

“Coming,” I called. And smiled.

 

John M. Floyd wrote “Music of Angels” for the September/October 2018 issue and is the author of seven books, most recently The Barrens (2018). For more, visit johnmfloyd.com.

This article is featured in the March/April 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now

Comments

  1. Very reminiscent of a Seinfeld episode where George had Elaine cheat on an IQ test for him.

    Also, Joshua C., I spoke with my son who will be graduating from college next month, and he said they still use paper for some exams ( the blue books and sometimes their own paper), but most are done on the computer. I do agree about not leaving voice mails, and only texting!

  2. I was a bit surprised to find another short story by John M. Floyd published in the SEP, considering that his last story “Music of Angels” in the Sept/Oct 2018 issue was quite boring and uninteresting. (Still not sure how *that* made it to print…)

    I will say that this second story of his was, at least, a bit more interesting in terms of plot, however formulaic it may have been. And I was pleased to see a 21 Century contemporary piece featured rather than the usual Post story which either takes place in, or was written during the 20th century.

    That being said, I must point out a couple of glaring flaws that any self-respecting Millennial/Gen Zer would notice in this story:

    – The main characters are 18yr old college freshmen of the Gen Z. But the author seems to have little understanding of that generation, its habits, or its thinking. Instead, it’s almost like he wrote a story that takes place in the past and then just dropped in references to iPhones, iPads, and Google to make it seem like the 21st Century. Nice try!

    – Gen Z (nor Millenials for that matter) does not refer to its girlfriend/boyfriend as their “sweetheart.” Like, at all. “Bae.” Maybe even “Boo.” But definitely not “sweetheart.”

    – Gen Z very rarely uses the phone to actually call people, let alone ever leave them an actual voicemail. They text. And post. A lot. But they fear vocal communication. Gives them anxiety. Idk.

    – Gen Z has probably never even heard of the “The Godfather,” or at least never actually seen it enough to reference it in passing conversation.

    – Finally, Gen Z is the digital Youtuber incubated generation. They are not about to hatch a scheme involving paper.

    In short, while the initial premise of the plot was interesting, the feel of its characters just wasn’t believable. Sorry, not sorry.

    Your online Friday Fiction section is bursting with new, talented *contemporary* authors. Please start publishing their work in the actual magazine instead of rehashing the same old dated (or deceased) authors.

    Actually, I take that last bit back. I love classic fiction. Especially by great classic authors. Keep those coming. But just be sure to mix it in with the new.

    Thnx. K. Bye.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *