“Positive Comments” by Owen King

stack of what appears to be vinyl records off to the side with a pair of headphones on top, "POSITIVE COMMENTS | OWEN KING" written onto the image against a blue wall

The following is an excerpt from the latest installment in the Ploughshares Solos series: “Positive Comments” by Owen King, available now for $1.99.

Cass dropped her phone into her bag, crossed her arms, and turned her attention to the feckless junior loitering in the office doorway.

The previous day, Jon Kearns had emailed for an extra day to turn in his assignment, swore that he was out of town and couldn’t get a ride back until the next day. In a moment of weakness, Cass–knowing instinctively that he would blow it–had given it to him, exactly twenty-four hours of grace, and now he had blown it. That he had fulfilled her expectation gave Cass a feeling of considerable satisfaction, and the satisfaction, in turn, made her feel terrible.

“Okay, Jon. What is it? You know that the extended deadline for turning in your project is past and that my office hours are over.” She checked the clock. “As of sixteen minutes ago.”

Jon withdrew his head slightly and smiled at her. Cass widened her eyes at him.

“Ahh,” Jon said. “Well…” He slipped forward and sat down in the blue velvet armchair in one very quick movement, as if she might not notice.

“Gosh, have a seat,” Cass said.

Jon stood up. “Sorry.”

This bothered Cass more than his sitting down in the first place. He wasn’t fucking sorry! “No, fine, sit.” He sat back down. “You’re really not going to take it sixteen minutes late?”

“I’m really not,” said Cass, who really wasn’t. “I’m absolutely not,” she repeated.

A sandy-colored beard dotted Jon Kearns’s scalded-looking cheeks. He was outfitted in a t-shirt for intramural Frisbee and cargo shorts with tattered pockets. He bore a faint, unprepossessing resemblance to Henry VIII in Holbein the Younger’s portrait. He was one of the overzealous ones; when he raised his hand in class, he literally bounced in his seat. For the most recent assignment, “Inside Out,” which asked the class to represent themselves as they thought other people saw them, Jon had painted himself as a leering R. Crumb-style country maniac–wrinkles, bug eyes, overalls, jigging on a peg leg–on the surface of a mirror. It was unoriginal, but Cass graded it a B+.

“I was clear about this in the syllabus. Deadlines are final. And I still gave you an extension, which I never should have done.” He stroked the arm of the chair. “Hey. This is a super comfortable chair. Where did you find it? Crazy fabric.”

The armchair had been in the office when Cass moved in, brown and chewed, carcass-like. Because she was a lonely masochist, she’d reupholstered it herself. The material she’d used had been harvested from a set of thrift store drapes. It was tacky, but it had esteem. She wasn’t getting into any of that with the likes of Jon Kearns, though. Her job was teaching. His job was doing the work. Intro to Art Theory was like an island that sat in the path of a major current; every castaway on campus eventually drifted up on to its beach, and rotted there. The entitlement made her want to squeeze people’s faces–people like Jon Kearns–squeeze them until their eyeballs quivered. She couldn’t believe she’d given him an extension in the first place; this was exactly why she didn’t give them. If you let someone take advantage of you, they would.

Owen King is the author of the novel Double Feature and co-author of the novel Sleeping Beauties. His short fiction has appeared in publications such as One Story, Prairie Schooner, and Subtropics. He lives in New York’s Hudson Valley.