by Orley M. Amos, Jr.
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Professor of Economics
Oklahoma State University
Chapter One: The Professor
Except for four years of college and an occasional daydream, Tyler Martin had spent the bulk of his twenty-one years of existence wandering through what university-folk off-handedly refer to as the 'real world.' His two decades of experience gave Tyler Martin the confidence to identify this 'real world' whenever or wherever it might appear. Tyler reached the inescapable conclusion that THIS was NOT the real world. Tyler Martin was quite confident, quite emphatic in fact, that he was NOT in the 'real world.'
The dreariest, bleariest, dankest of overcast twilight late-autumn evenings was no match for the eerie darkness that enveloped him. Perhaps the cause of the eeriness was the glow of dull green light. Or maybe Tyler's overwhelming sense of an unearthly environment came from the overwhelmingly, unearthly environment. The dense foliage that surrounded him appeared to be the creation of an unbalanced biologist playing a hideous practical joke on mother nature.
The highlight of this forest-like flora was a preponderance of towering, tree-like plants with yellow trunks and broad red leaves. The expansive red leaves were fashioned at the top of each 'tree' like an opened umbrella. 'Umbrella trees' was the obvious thought for anyone raised in the sheltered confines of 'the real world.' Interspersed with these majestic umbrella trees were a myriad of smaller yellow plants with red-orange leaves folded like adolescent closed umbrellas awaiting their opportunity to attain legal, regal adulthood.
The green glow permeating the foliage was especially eerie as it flickered off the underside of the canopy formed by the tops of the full-grown umbrellas. This covering, like a distraught circus tent, formed a protective shield to the brilliant pink sky that managed a few curious peeks through infrequent gaps. One small crack in this umbrella canopy, where 'real world' citizens might have expected a normal yellow sun, showed the presence of a dazzling blue circle of light.
An immeasurably small fraction of this radiant blue light made its way through the umbrella shield, through the dense foliage, and down to the base of the smooth, yellow trunks were it conspired with the incessant green glow to tickle the tops of a thick, red, invitingly soft, layer of carpet-like grass.
Intermixed with the youthful, folded umbrella plants and protruding haphazardly from the otherwise smooth layer of red, carpet-like grass were the apparent sources of the green luminescence. Jutting from clumps of what would otherwise pass as normal, knee high, brush (if not for the distinctive turquoise hue) were thick stalks of varying lengths that shone with a brilliant green radiance. These glowing sticks and their turquoise nests were most noticeable along a narrow strip of orange dirt that formed a narrow path through the bizarre foliage.
This accented strip of orange was also where Tyler Martin found his face. He laid motionless on the dirt, blowing puffs of orange dust into the air as he tried to breathe. This was one heck of a way to earn extra credit.
Tyler rolled to an awkward sitting position and plucked his smudged glasses from the orange dirt. He searched in vain for a dirt-free spot on his shirt that might serve as cleaning rag. His blurred, nearsighted vision, however, amplified this grotesque environment and convinced him to abandoned his search. He blew as much dust as possible from his spectacles, and restored them to their accustomed position. He then tried to brush the thin, penetrating layer of dust from his clothes. This attempt was equally futile, but it gave him time to collect his thoughts. Sitting in the ominous twilight of this macabre world, memory of recent events began to trickle into his brain.
Little more than twenty minutes had passed since Tyler had begun a trek, seldom undertaken by mortal students, down ancient halls and up darkened stairs to the office occupied by Professor Francis. Documented testimonials skirting about the student body of Western State University purported, on the highest authority, that Professor John Francis ate inquisitive students then mounted their heads in a trophy case. It was quite a collection, so they said, accumulated over the centuries by this enigmatic economics professor. Tyler was somewhat wary of this last bit of folklore, recalling vaguely that the formal study of economics had been around only since the late 1700s.
Unfortunately, the obscure notion of some guy named Adam Smith writing something about wealth that marked the origination of economics in the late 18th century was about the only bit of economics that Tyler could recollect. This was most unfortunate given the final examination for the course was a mere five days away.
Tyler needed help!
That's why this normally introverted senior braved the seemingly impenetrable barrier of intimidating rumors for a visit to Professor Francis.
Professor Francis was a tall, thin, elderly man, with more scalp showing on his head than most men would have liked. His face was dark, lined, and creviced with shadows. His eyes were dark brown, almost black, and deeply set in his head, an impression reinforced by his long, curved nose. This was not the matinee idol of star struck teenaged girls, but rather the horrific vision brought to late night slumbers by spicy foods and a ghastly imagination.
Tyler adjusted his perpetually skewed glasses and knocked hesitantly on the frame of the opened doorway. The figure of his first, and probably last, economics professor could be clearly seen a few feet away, seated behind an aged wooden desk, head bowed over a scholarly book, and eyes fixed to its yellowed pages. Without a discernible motion of his head, Professor Francis made a decisive motion with his hand for Tyler to enter and be seated. Uneasily, Tyler edged into the office, setting his books on one of two available chairs. After two unsuccessful tries, he placed his posterior in the other.
Still without head movement, the professor asked in his resonant voice, "What can I do for you, Mr. Martin?"
Taken aback that the professor knew his name, Tyler began to fumble through his notebook. As he fumbled he said, "I... uh... have some uh... questions about uhm... class. I um... uh... I don't seem to get what we're doing."
Professor Francis raised his head a full one-quarter of an inch, clearly distracted from his previous affairs. He said emotionlessly, "You should have withdrawn weeks ago."
"Oh... uh..." Tyler, caught off guard, stammered, "I... uh... don't want to drop the course. I... um... just don't uhm... seem to understand what economics is all about. I mean, I uh... sort of understand, but I don't really understand. Do you know what I mean?"
"Well, Tyler," the professor asked, raising his head and moving his gaze slowly toward the intimidated student, "Please tell me what it is that you do not understand. Tell me exactly what you would like to know."
"Let's uhm... see," Tyler said, still searching for an intelligent question buried in his notes. He quickly became frustrated, then said, "I... uh... I just don't understand what it means. I don't understand economics."
"The beginning," the professor rumbled in his baritone voice. Then nodding towards Tyler's notebook, he said, "The definition of economics. The one I gave the first day of class."
Once again Tyler fumbled with his notebook, finally finding the page with the definition. "Yes," he said, "it's right here."
The professor paused for a long moment, fixing his glare on Tyler, then calmly spoke, "Well... what does it say?"
"Oh..." Tyler looked up at the professor then down at his notes. "It says that... let's see... uh... okay... 'Economics studies the allocation of scarce resources in the production of goods and services used to satisfy unlimited wants and needs.'" Tyler looked up with a blank expression.
"There you have it--that is economics," the professor said with a flip of his had, as he dropped his head and returned attention to his book.
The blank expression never left Tyler's face. "I know what it says, I just don't get it."
The professor raised his head once again, clearly annoyed. He thought for a moment. Finally he asked, "Do you have brothers? Or sisters?"
"Yes," Tyler responded, somewhat confused, "one brother and two sisters. But...?"
"And I presume that your family would frequently sit down for a large meal? Perhaps a Sunday dinner?" the professor continued.
"Sure," Tyler nodded, "Mom would fry up a chicken, with mashed potatoes and corn on the cob."
The professor's lips bent into a knowing, but somewhat sinister smile. Tyler felt as though he had just been trapped in a spider's web.
"You preferred the dark meat of the chicken, the drumsticks in particular," the professor continued the inquisition.
Tyler nodded, then said, "Yeah, but I usually ended up with the back, maybe a wing if I was lucky. My older brother, and my sisters, all liked drumsticks." A trace of sibling jealousy was easily detected in his voice. "In fact, everyone in my family liked the drumsticks. But, I don't see..."
"Then let me ask you--did everyone eat drumsticks, and if not, why not?" the professor queried.
"Aw, come on professor," Tyler said with a surprisingly brave smile, "a chicken has only two drumsticks,"
"Then why not buy more chickens?" the professor prodded.
"We couldn't afford it," Tyler responded with no apologies. "I mean we weren't poor, but we weren't exactly rich, either."
The professor returned his eyes, for what he hoped to be the final time, to the yellowed pages of his book as he said, "That, Mr. Martin, is economics."
"What?" Tyler asked, "fried chicken?"
"Yes, Tyler," the professor answered forcefully without looking up. "Fried chicken is a good, just like thousands of other goods in the economy. It is a scarce good, because a limited amount is available. But the limited availability is only half of the problem. The other is the amount that people want. In your family everyone wanted drumsticks. In fact, your family wanted more drumsticks than available from one chicken. The limited quantity meant your family could not get all that it wanted."
Tyler nodded in agreement as he stared at the professor's thinning hair.
The agitated professor, eyes still fixed to his book, continued, "How did you decide who received the drumsticks?"
Tyler smiled angrily at the top of the professor's head, "I was the youngest, I got what was left over."
The thin, sinister smile returned to the professor's lips, "There was a better way?"
"Why sure," Tyler said preparing to answer a question he had obviously pondered many times before. "We should have taken turns getting the drumsticks. I mean, there's no reason why my brother always got first pick."
"In fact," the professor nodded slightly, "there were many ways to allocate chicken parts among your family."
Tyler marveled at the manner in which the professor had so easily slipped the term 'allocate' into the conversation.
"That is economics," the professor concluded. "Like your family, the world has a limited number of goods. However, the desire for those goods is unlimited. Everyone wants the drumsticks. These goods must be divided among those who want them."
"So, economics decides who gets the stuff?" Tyler jumped in, trying to get into the flow of the professor's impromptu lecture.
"Not quite," the professor scolded, his head still poised over his work. "The decisions are made by people, governments, and businesses, not by economists. Economics is merely the study of how and why those decisions are made. Economics examines how goods are allocated."
The degree of understanding that Tyler thought he had, quickly vanished. "I don't know professor. There's so much to understand. Scarcity, resources, goods, allocation. It just doesn't make sense. I mean, I read definitions and I think I understand, but then I don't. I don't think I can take the final exam next week."
Professor Francis jerked his head up, his penetrating glare quickly deflating the minimal confidence that had been building within Tyler.
"Uhm... is there... uh... any way I can do... uhm... maybe... uh... some extra credit," Tyler proposed, erroneously thinking that the professor would be enthralled by his interest in going above and beyond course requirements.
"EXTRA CREDIT!!" the intimidating professor bellowed. Bookshelves rattled, walls vibrated, and papers fluttered through the air--all equally frightened by the sound of his voice.
Professor Francis rose to his feet, walked briskly around his desk, and stopped at a bookshelf directly behind Tyler. Tyler winched as he felt the professor's presence. On his way to the bookshelf, Professor Francis kicked the office door shut with his foot. The closed door changed the atmosphere in the office from merely ominous to life threatening. It grew darker and quieter as the light and sound from the hallway were abated. This atmosphere gave the professor an appearance more foreboding than anything seen in class. Tyler's stomach grew queasy as he imagined the professor sinking sharp teeth into the flesh of a senior's unprotected appendage.
"You want extra credit, do you Tyler? I will give you that chance. I will give you a special lesson, a very special lesson. A lesson that you will never forget!" The professor began to laugh softly as he pulled a tattered book from the shelf. It was an old leather-bound volume, mangled about the corners, with thick brownish pages showing signs of a long life.
Tyler felt apprehensive--what with his life hanging in the balance and all--but at the same time honored.
"I will teach you economics in a way that few have learned it before," the professor said, his voice becoming increasingly deeper and more foreboding.
The professor opened his book and mumbled some words that were foreign to Tyler's ears. As he uttered the sounds, Tyler grew lightheaded. His knees trembled and he fell from his chair to the floor. His head spun as he lay crumpled on the cold tile of the floor. For a long, excruciating instant his body lost touch with reality and substance. For an instant there was nothing....
Then there was orange dirt. He found himself, perplexed but alive, on the narrow strip of orange dirt, in the eerie twilight of a multi-colored forest. As his grogginess began to fade, so too did his wide-eyed wonderment over the unbounded weirdness surrounding him. His bewilderment was quickly replaced with the sheer fright induced by often told stories of a flesh-eating economics professor. Tyler jumped to his feet.
"PROFESSOR FRANCIS!!!" he screamed in a voice that would itself curdle blood. His horror was met with nothing but silence. He cried out again, louder and more terrorized, if such was possible.
On weak, trembling legs, Tyler nervously tried once more to clean his grimy glasses, as if such action would negate all that had happened in the preceding twenty minutes.
With glasses askew but in place, and after acknowledging that hopes of rewinding past events were futile, he sucked a quivering breath into his lungs. He reexamined his surroundings. He was standing on a path--a peculiar path leading in only one direction. Tyler was surrounded on three sides by the red carpet of grass; the yellow trunks of the umbrella trees; and the green, glowing, stick plants protruding from clumps of turquoise brush. The orange path lead only to the front. 'Why just one direction?' he bounced the thought inside his head.
As he did, an ear-splitting voice, emanating from everywhere, yet coming from nowhere, spoke, "That path, Tyler, will lead you to economic understanding. There is only one direction."
Tyler recognized the menacing voice of Professor Francis.
"WHERE AM I PROFESSOR?" Tyler screamed.
"You will receive a lesson in economics unlike few others. All you have to do is follow the path. The signs will tell you where to go. THIS is your EXTRA CREDIT, Mr. Martin."
"But, I don't want any extra credit. I changed my mind. I don't want a lesson. I don't want to follow the path. I want to go home," Tyler screamed out. "I understand economics now. Really, I do. It's like fried chicken." He pleaded.
His pleas were useless. The professor was gone.
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Copyright © 1997, 2002 by Orley M. Amos, Jr. All rights reserved. Not
to be quoted without permission of the author.