Spring 2010

Colors / Green

A bill of goods

Paul Maliszewski

“Colors” is a column in which a writer responds to a specific color assigned by the editors of Cabinet.

I received the counterfeit hundred-dollar bill at a bookstore of all places. It was February 2009, and I was giving a reading in Washington, DC. A former student of mine came up after the event to say hello. The student, whom I’ll call Jeffrey, had two copies of Fakers, my then recently published book of essays. One copy was for him, he said. The other was a gift for his father. As I signed the books, Jeffrey mentioned that he had a good fake for me. I expressed some surprise, though I had heard this gambit a few times before and was, frankly, a bit weary.

Jeffrey was a bright enough student, not that it was hard to distinguish oneself in the introductory creative writing classes I taught at George Washington University, where the silent, sullen majority of my students paid more attention to premium denim and high-priced highlights than the literary style of whatever writer I assigned, hoping against all reason that the right book by the right author might cleave the ice of their frozen selves. In such company, Jeffrey did stand out. At least at the beginning of the semester, when he managed to turn in some good writing—honest, expressive stuff.

About halfway through the course, however, Jeffrey stopped attending class. Every now and then, he sent me emails, always in the middle of the night and always apologizing and alluding to vague personal problems. He promised to make up all missed work, but I didn’t see him again until the last day of classes, when he showed up late with “The Big Game,” his forty-seven-page masterpiece. “The Big Game” was a fictional account of a marathon poker night featuring a kid named The Kid and assorted old hands, all of whom were “rugged” or “grizzled” or “pockmarked” though otherwise interchangeable. The story proceeded card by interminable card, hand by plodding hand. The Kid’s pile of money rose and fell. He was up $500, then he was down $700, then he was up again, and so forth. Five pages in, I guessed the Kid would, against all odds, prevail and also that this Kid was, without too much imaginative nipping and tucking, none other than my student. Owing to the lateness of the story, as well as its mind-numbing lack of all style, Jeffrey earned a C-minus for the assignment and a D for his final grade, a generous estimation, I thought, of what work he completed. I handed the signed books back to Jeffrey and thanked him again for coming. He seemed about to go when he stopped and asked if I had ever done any looking into counterfeit money.

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