The blade on the paper cutter is sharp and sinister. It is precise, but still, your edges are never right. Your sides are cockeyed and tilted. Black ink births tiny white fringe with each slice. The machine is imperfect, and it is flawed, but it’s better than you could ever be with scissors or clippers or knives. Cutting paper is a young person’s game.
It’s safe, too. Too safe. So safe you could never hurt yourself—not at work, not even a little, not on your smallest finger so you could have something to talk about with your colleagues when they come into the teachers’ lounge to microwave old meat and canned beans and prattle at you about their spouses and their students and kids these days.
You can’t help but admire it, though, the paper cutter. It’s solid. The plastic safety guard that houses the blade boasts three thick screws, only one of which is stripped from over-tightening, but that wouldn’t stop you from unscrewing it if you had to. You could. And what if you did? One day, maybe, if you did, maybe you could cut yourself, just a scratch, and you could talk to someone about how you cut yourself, or you could ask the nurse for a bandage, and she would let you lie on the green vinyl in her office with your hand above your heart, finger wrapped in gauze and pointing at the rotten corked ceiling, and somehow that would give the day, the school year, your life promise of something different or interesting—something better.
Or wouldn’t Señora, with all her colors, be surprised when she walked in and saw the look on your face after you’d lifted the blade high and stuck your neck under that miserable plastic ruler and sliced off your own head—one perfectly linear slice—the blade self-sharpening against your bones, your un-flushed cheeks pressed all over with tiny half-inch by half-inch squares. She’d ask if you’d gone and sliced off your own head, neck and all? And you’d say it seems that way, and ¡Qué va! What nonsense!
They’d make you teach anyway. They’d tote your head into the classroom, onto the podium, and slump your body in a desk. The looks on the students’ faces would be enough to make you think that you’ve finally done it—given them something to remember you for.
But they won’t. They won’t remember you even though you let them watch movies every two-hour-delay day since the school mounted TVs in the corners of the classrooms. They certainly won’t remember you for every professional development seminar and Microsoft Office training workshop you attended each summer for twenty years just so you could learn enough PowerPoint to let them play Jeopardy! at the end of every unit.
No, no. They’ll remember Miss B from down the hall.
Sandee B is a late-hire at the end of September, and suddenly your students run in yelling where’s our candy? Miss B gave us candy!
What for? you say.
Because it’s Halloween!
This makes you upset because no, it’s not. It’s hardly fall. But the stores all have candy and so does Miss B, and the students run and clap and squeal and beg, and when one of them hands you a Peanut Butter Pumpkin, you don’t refuse it, and at 3:00, you take it to the lounge and open it very carefully with the paper cutter.
# # #
The going rumor is Miss B is left-handed, and you don’t care because who cares? Plenty of people are. But she’s the only teacher in the building who is, your students tell you, and you say that’s bullshit, but it’s true, and the students love her for it because when she writes on the board, they don’t have to wait for her to move to read it.
But does she play PowerPoint Jeopardy! with you? You ask, but they don’t answer because its 8:15 on a Saturday, and you’re alone in your house with the ticking clock. So you get in your car, and you drive to school just to look in her classroom window to glimpse the world from behind her desk. You can’t believe the knickknacks—gifts from students? you wonder—a mug that says TGFLHP across it in huge Helvetica text, and by the time you’ve figured out what that stands for, it’s snowing, and you wonder how long you’ve been standing there.
When school begins again, you mount a case against Miss B, asking the students if she’s so great, then how come she’s not Miss A? You could be Miss A. Or Mr. A if you dress right. Or anyone. Anyone besides no one, which is who you are. You’re anxious. You hiccup. You’re wearing the same suit you wore to your interview all those years ago—black slacks and jacket too tight, too short, too faded from too many delicate cycles. Another hiccup. You lie on your desk on stacks of ungraded papers with your neck cricked back, and your head dangling off the edge, your eyes shut. You control of your breathing. You hum with the idle and hiss of the school buses outside your window. Behind your eyelids is an upside-down world where frowns are smiles, and up is down, and right is left. You take action.
At class time, the “WELCOME BACK” on your bulletin board is inverted, and a perfectly capsized alphabet is displayed in chalk across the front of the room, but the students don’t notice your upside-down classroom. They’re too excited. Small, halved sheets of copy paper whirl around you like tornadic debris, and excitement roars from the students in great huffs and puffs. You feel green and weak, and you worry that at any minute, the steam engine of their frenzy could bowl you over.
And what are those? you ask.
Permission slips, they say, for a trip to a big indoor theme park/museum for the left-handed.
But you’re not left-handed, you tell them.
They know, but Miss B planned the trip for Cultural Awareness Week, explaining about minority groups who are overlooked and forgotten: the blind, the meek, the left-handed, and so on.
The entrance to the building is enormous with The World is Not All Right written in huge Orwellian letters above glass doors that go up and up, are tremendously heavy, and have handles on the left side. In the lobby, there are portraits in the styles of famous left-handed artists: the hand of God, an impossible staircase, the anatomical man. Lines form on the left, exit on the right. The concession stand sells overpriced handles of left-handed sodas and slices of pizza with left-handed crusts. The gift shop distributes all products for lefties: flashlights and pencils and mouses and such.
On the bus ride home, some students sleep, and the girls make up hand claps and rhymes, and they sing:
The Great Miss Sandee
Took us to Left-Handy Landy
Let us all have Cotton Candy
How many times can we thank Miss Sandee?
You don’t join in because you haven’t gone on the trip. You stay in the classroom in case there are students who don’t have the shared interest in, or signed permission for, the trip to the Left-Handed theme park/museum. There aren’t. You sit in your classroom alone and scowl. Your classroom scowl turns into a parking lot scowl, a kitchen scowl, an in-front-of-the-TV scowl. Your scowl teleports through your red pen onto student papers and into your nightmares.
In the morning, in the lounge, during your daily brainstorm of ways to decapitate yourself with the office supplies, you remember the paper cutter, and how devastatingly safe it is, and how beautifully right-handed. You experiment with the impossibility of proper use without the dominance of the right hand—the struggle for precise setup and the inability to obtain proper leverage with the lever attached steadfastly on the right such as it is. You are rejuvenated.
You use the paper cutter at every whim. You incorporate it into every facet of your curriculum. Your lesson plans are contingent upon every paper size except 8.5 x 11. At the end of the March unit, you give up on PowerPoint Jeopardy! in favor of a more primitive Wheel of Fortune vocabulary practice on the blackboard with letters you hang yourself and a colorful spinning wheel you construct by slitting bright paper into sophisticated shapes and affixing them together in a large, rainbow circle.
The students rediscover the joy you’ve always provided them, and your scowl disappears. You feed off their energy and your warmth. You sweat. You bask in a sauna of satisfaction.
# # #
You can’t remember the last time you looked forward to Faculty Senate. You’re ready to have celebratory songs sung for your innovation with paper, but then the senator from the music department stands up and condemns you for wasting resources. There are seconds and thirds to his motion, and it all happens so fast that by the time you make a note on your pocket-sized note cards to create a pocket-sized Robert’s Rules, the hammer comes down, and the Faculty Senate President asks if you heard him, and yes of course you did, even though you only half heard his order about putting in requests for supplies from now on. You write feverishly, listing places you can buy your own paper supply—better kinds, too: cardstock, watermarked, oversized, a laminator.
You hear applause. Metal chairs scream across the floor as your colleagues stand. You recognize the heels and the young legs that clack across the linoleum. You look up. Miss B has been named employee of the month.
She’ll go on to take teacher of the year, you think, and educator of the decade—a once-in-a-lifetime woman.
The Great Miss Sandee.
You can’t shake her praise, even after you’ve gone home. Each ice cube in your tumbler is a hand clap.
The only one who I can’t stand-y.
Wish I was a vigilante.
How much do I hate Miss Sandee?
You measure out your feelings in ounces of tequila.
You add a drop of Pepsi and call it a Long Island. You chomp and suck on the last piece of ice. You seach “Facts about Left-Handed People” online and find, as the first result, an infographic. Left-handers are richer, you read, and smarter, and comprise only fifteen percent of the population. Fifteen percent. Which means there’s an eighty-five percent chance she’s lying.
# # #
You become Miss B’s mentor so you can keep an eye on her. You replace her specialty mouse with a right-handed one to see if she notices. She does but won’t say anything—to you or to anyone. You buy a set of souvenir notebooks—gifts for Miss B. They’re thick with big, merciless spiral bindings, but they don’t bother her. She flips to the back and works through the pages in reverse, which makes you xenophobic and angry.
You hide her scissors. She doesn’t know it’s you who’s done this. One day when you’re relaxing in the lounge, Señora microwaves leftovers behind you while Miss B expresses her frustration with the paper cutter, tells you she can’t use it herself—has to send students to do her cutting, and they never get it right, she tells you—the martyrdom of living as an outcast in a right-handed world. You suggest she approach it from the other side, upside down, something a real lefty would have tried already. It’s awkward, she says, to push with this kind of force. It might be easier, you tell her, if it weren’t for the plastic safety guard over the blade. She agrees. She removes the screws with the butt end of a fork Señora has left in the sink.
You write to Mr. Richardson—using your left hand so he won’t suspect your handwriting—about how Miss B is wasting paper resources, and violating safety concerns. On the PA, he announces that the paper cutter is off limits until further notice thanks to an anonymous complaint, but he knows who the complaint is from, and he starts to notice that something’s not right with you at all. He delegates colleagues to check on you.
Señora stops in to wish you felicitaciones on Cinco de Mayo, but you don’t notice her. You push past her in your doorway because behind her, the halls are lined with construction paper art you’ve not noticed before. Turkeys, you think. No, not turkeys. Peacocks. Handprint peacocks in greens and blues and every last thumb-head pointing toward Miss B’s classroom. You see how misshapen they are—the students struggling to trace their right hands with pencils in their left. She’s winning, you think. She is turning them against you.
You steam down the hall toward her classroom. A million feathery eyes observe you, study you, wondering what you’ll do next, how far you’ll go. You’ll break her arm if you have to. You could do it. You don’t answer when the senator from the music department asks you if everything is all right. You don’t see him. You don’t see anything except Miss B’s door with its knob on the left and its nameplate on the left and the handprint peacock she’s drawn taped beside it. You raise your left hand to match hers on the construction paper—a perfect fit. You admire her work for some time—the way she blends colors, her attention to detail, but you’re troubled by how exact and smooth the pencil marks of her outline are—how unlike the students’. And of course! She’s used her right hand! A con-artist, you think, ambidextrous at least, the proof you’ve been waiting for.
You snatch the drawing and turn around, rolling the sticky tac in your hand. Your colleagues are staring, whispering and yellow under the fluorescent lights. They wait, in your doorway, for you, but you enter the teachers’ lounge instead.
You stink of sweat. You pine for summer, but it’s so hot already. You reach for the freezer door to cool off a little, but you find the handle missing—no, moved. A new refrigerator? You clumsily pull from the other side, nearly cracking yourself on the nose, but you’re glad you didn’t. The freezer is misty and you love the way the cold smells. Miss B has a microwave lunch stored inside with her name attached by sticky note. You grab the frozen paper tray and rub it on your forehead, the nape of your neck. You pull out your collar and shimmy it down your back until it pops out the bottom.
You’re distracted by the crunch of the paper cutter. You don’t bother to pick up the lunch. You turn around and see a student pulling down on the lever. You ask what she’s doing and she tells you she’s cutting paper—an errand for Miss B. Did she ask permission from Mr. Richardson? you ask her. Did she know how dangerous it was to use that thing without the plastic safety guard?
When the room is empty, you cut Miss B’s peacock into confetti. Each slice makes you feel confident and vivacious. You hiccup. You lie on your back on the supply table. You put your head on the hard grid surface and thread a small piece of your hair through. You make the cut. The sound is heavenly. You hiccup again and thread more hair through and make more cuts and repeat and repeat until the student comes back and says eew, are you cutting your hair with that?
Your hair is clean, you tell her, and you’re cutting it over the wastebasket. And it’s hot. So hot.
She runs off after Mr. Richardson. He’ll make you stop, but too bad for him. You lock the door. By the time he returns with the keys, you’ve cut off your hair at the roots and your hand at the wrist.
You admire the way your blood pools in the crevices of each half-inch by half-inch square. As you drop your hand in the wastebasket, you notice the imprint it’s left behind. Your handprint, a white bird in a crimson sea—a flag that unites yourself and Miss B in secession from this right-handed union. Your colleagues gawk at you through the small window of the teachers’ lounge door. They panic and scream and knock until finally, smiling and gracious, you invite them in.
Megan Fahey a first-year MFA student at West Virginia University and a recent graduate from the MA in writing at Coastal Carolina University. She also works as Assistant Fiction Editor for the Cheat River Review. In addition to having some short plays produced, her fiction has been published in The Ampersand, Allegory E-Zine, Foliate Oak, and is forthcoming in Cease, Cows.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Paper Cutter”:
Author Megan Fahey chose to write this in second-person point of view and present tense—something not often seen—and did it superbly. That alone gives it freshness. The fact that she also gave us a wonderful voice with delightful humor made it irresistible to us. And memorable. The author let her imagination take off and plunged us into the mind of what one can only describe as “an interesting character.”