Written from a place of more than a little anger, I present “Useless Degree” for your reading pleasure. Mostly trunking it because I think it just didn’t quite hit as high of a note as it could have and I just feel that other stories I have waiting to query are better choices for market. Still think it’s enjoyable.
Especially if you’ve ever had to field these sorts of questions.
Final note, I’m really not that bitter about my degree, I just play someone who is on TV.
“Why do we even come to these things?” Melissa slumped down into the seat next to Josh, releasing a tired groan that pushed away a few errant strands of strawberry blond hair from her face.
“At least people aren’t immediately making you question every single decision you made in your life,” Josh swirled the wine glass sitting before him, staring into the… he couldn’t even remember. Cabernet Sauvignon? Malbec? It was definitely one of those two.
“Oh yeah, it’s way better for people to act like being a glorified secretary is something I should feel grateful for,” Melissa downed the contents of her own glass before making a disgusted face. “Was that the… Malbec?”
“I don’t know. Was it…” Josh lifted the tasting notes that were on the table in front of him, “Full bodied and fruity or more earthy?”
“Then I still don’t know which one it was because there’s three earthy ones on this list.”
“Well, which one is sweet and high in alcohol?”
“The empty bottle.”
“I just remembered why we all come to these things.”
“Because everyone from our alma mater, young or old, loves to get plastered on someone else’s dime?”
“Well, why else do we donate?”
Josh sat up in surprise, and actually turned to face Melissa, “You donated?”
“I meant like… the collective we,” she smiled awkwardly and gestured to the spacious studio apartment filled with an odd collection of people aged roughly twenty-three to seventy.
“Good, scared me for a second because I sure as Hell haven’t donated.”
“How could I donate? I can barely pay off my student loans,” Melissa leaned forward across the table, picking up different bottles until she finally lifted one higher than the others. “The Pinot Noir was the one that tasted like cherries, right?”
“If you say so.”
An older smiling woman seated herself across from them, gripping one of the earthy reds before pouring herself a glass that a polite person would call generous. Her eyes lit up when they landed upon Josh, “Oh you’re the one from oh-nine, right?”
Josh flicked the ridiculous button they had pinned to his blazer when he had showed up at the Alumni Wine Tasting. “How’d you know?”
The older woman gave a wine-laced giggle, wagging her finger, “You’re a funny one.”
“That’s what they say,” Josh flashed a smile that would be winning if not for the purple stains left by the many ‘tastes’ he had taken that night.
She then pointed at Melissa and said, “And you’re class of Twenty Ten, right?”
“Yepper,” Melissa’s voice was chipper and excited. Far too excited. If anyone who wasn’t half in the bag heard her, they’d probably be slightly insulted.
Lucky for the young alumni, the smiling older woman was at least two sheets to the wind. Her smile widened across her soft face, Josh imagined that she was once a cute woman. Age hadn’t ravaged her, nor had it been kind. She simply looked like someone who had strolled over the hill. Rather than introduce herself, she just looked from Melissa and Josh and then back to the other. Suddenly she blushed, “Oh, I didn’t mean to interrupt a private moment.” Her voice became very quiet on the last two words.
Melissa’s eyes went wide, and Josh bit back a sigh. Instantly the younger woman was putting out the fire, “We’re not together. We’re just friends.”
“Oh…” She then gave a sad, pitying look to Josh, “Oh. I’m sorry, I just… silly me. I bet you two get that a lot.”
“Only at…” Josh began before Melissa nudged him in the ribs.
“Yeah, every so often. We’ve been good friends since my sophomore year, so it happens.”
The older woman nodded, her eyes slightly glazed and her mouth open just a little bit. Then they suddenly lit up once more, “Now I remember, you’re the one who has the degree in Arcane Studies, right?”
Melissa frowned, and Josh found himself fighting back the urge to snap at the tipsy woman, “Yeah, that was me.”
“So what is it like?”
“What is what like?” Josh’s voice became curt whether he wanted it to or not.
“Being a wizard. Don’t you learn how to cast spells and stuff in Arcane Studies?”
“While it is not necessarily a requirement to take the classes, yes, I do know how to cast magic spells, and perform various rituals. Arcane Studies is about more than that though, it’s about the underpinning concepts of magic and the way it interacts with the world. We discuss the history, and cultural impact of it. There’s cosmology that a lot of people don’t fully understand, and the way it interacts with physics is…”
“So what do you do now?” She asked, oblivious to his larger explanation of his degree.
Josh paused, and took a deep breath, “I uh, I work at a few restaurants on the Lower East Side, and I, uh, tend bar at a cocktail lounge in Williamsburg.”
“Oh, I…” She sat there for a beat before taking a sip of her wine, “I just thought you all went on to be wizards and stuff like that.”
“Well, I’m…” Josh’s elbow hit the table with a slight thud while his fingers went through several frustrated grasping motions before finally curling toward his head and he rested his forehead against them. “I am a wizard, in the sense that I am a practitioner of the arcane arts but you don’t just get hired to be a wizard. It’s not a skill set that tons of companies are looking for.”
“Doesn’t the government hire wizards though?” Even through her boozy haze she could see that Josh was becoming annoyed. She then reached out and touched his arm, “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to offend you, I’m just not familiar with how that all works.”
Josh’s fist slammed down on the table, shaking several bottles and shrugging away the woman’s hand, “Yes, the government hires wizards, ok? Have you ever tried to get a job with the government? It’s a job in itself, and even if you get your hands on an org chart and convince the right people to let you shadow them and you volunteer, there’s no guarantee they’re going to hire you. Plus, you need to have the time and money and support to be able to do that. I’m not from around DC, I couldn’t just live there and try to get a job with the Department of Homeland Security or the Department of Defense. I don’t even know if I could pass the security checks for that. Getting those clearances is a whole other hurdle.”
The woman merely nodded, “Oh, you know, I just saw a friend of mine.” She gestured to another cluster of people, must of whom were nowhere near her own age, “I’m going to go say hi.”
Josh muttered insults beneath his breath as the woman walked off. His muscles loosened ever so slightly when Melissa touched his shoulder, “Man, you’re really pissed aren’t you?”
“I’m just sick of this patronizing shit. It’s bad enough the job market has sucked since the day I graduated but now all of a sudden everyone looks at your degree like it’s the end all and be all of your life.” Josh shook his head, “The guy who’s apartment we’re in, he has a damn theater degree and he owns this whole building.”
“You think it’s any easier for me? I have an English degree,” Melissa downed her wine, once again making a face, “And that doesn’t taste like cherries.”
Josh tossed back his own wine, “You know what it all tastes like?”
“Yeah, yeah it does.” Josh got up and yanked the ’09 pin off his blazer before stuffing it in his pocket. “Want to get out of here? One of my roommates said they’ll be drinking on the roof all night.”
“Sure, let me just swipe one of these bottles,” Melissa stood up before looking for anything that hadn’t been opened, or barely been touched.
“Ok, I’m going to uh, thank the guy who owns the place for having us and stuff.”
“I’ll meet you in the hallway.”
Josh laughed, “So, what am I your boyfriend now? Saying goodbye for you.”
“Shut up,” she smacked him playfully on the forearm, “Just don’t be a dick.”
The young man rolled his eyes and turned back to navigate through the small clumps of his fellow alumni. Most of them had fallen back into the same cliques that had once dominated their lives on campus.
A group of men and group of women clustered next to each other without quite intermingling. Based on their clothing alone Josh knew that they were the former fraternity brothers and sorority sisters. The men all wore navy blazers and khaki pants while discussing their jobs in finance. Next to them was a circle of pastel cardigans and pearl coated necks. Josh was surprised though, he had expected some petty conversation involving complaining about other women at their jobs, but instead they were talking about something that had happened the other week up in Gramercy. Some building that had collapsed or something.
Josh was certain one of the older women was clutching her pearls at that moment and saying, “Those poor people,” with years of practiced sincerity.
Over by one of the windows was a trio of people that were giving everyone else in the room death glares. No alumni event would be complete without a group like them, Josh decided, the people who thought they were too cool to have actually gone to the same university as everyone else. One of them actually met his gaze and gave him a firm nod. Josh didn’t know why but he returned the nod.
Picking his way through the rest of the groups, reminded him about aspects of campus life he had completely forgotten; the sheer number of a capella groups there had been, the ineffectual student government, and the existence of science departments. He had taken a few physics courses in school, but they were cross-listed with his own major, dealing explicitly with how magic and physics interact. Josh had long ago forgotten that there was much more to the sciences on campus. A few seconds after walking past a group and their happy memories of the Chemistry Department’s Summer Still, he once more found the knowledge slipping from his mind.
Josh finally found his target, the older gentleman who owned the apartment they were all getting drunk in. He was talking to a pair of women, one close to his own age and the other who was easily in her mid-forties. Josh waited slightly off to the side for a moment before he realized they weren’t going to acknowledge him and he’d have to actually interrupt them. “Excuse me,” he said softly, instantly gaining three sets of eyeballs staring at him like he were the most offensive human being on the planet, “I uh, I just wanted to say thanks for holding this event here and letting my friend and I into your home. It was very nice of you.”
“Oh yes, of course!” The older gentleman replied, instantly gripping Josh’s hand with his own cold and clammy fingers. “Aren’t you the young man with the Arcane Studies degree?”
“Uh, yeah, that’s me.”
“That must have been so interesting,” the elder woman’s voice had that politeness that was perfected only from decades of dinner parties, “It’s a very old program, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, uhm,” Josh’s neck muscles loosened, amazed that someone actually knew anything about what he had studied, “The oldest in the country actually. It wasn’t attached to the school when it was founded but it was on the same land.”
“Arcane studies, what did you want to do with that?” Asked the middle aged woman.
Josh looked at her, taking in the sharp cut of her pants suit and immediately feeling his neck muscles tense up once more. “Well, I, uh… you know, I wanted to study magic and the mysteries of the universe I suppose.”
“So you’re in research or in grad school?”
Josh frowned, “Actually, I uh, I’m in the service industry. I’m a bartender and a waiter.”
“Oh,” The woman’s lips pursed, “Did you ever think about going back and getting a different degree or going to grad school?”
“No,” Josh couldn’t help himself as his voice once again became harsher than he wanted it to, “No, I really don’t plan on going back to school. I’m quite happy with my education.”
“I’m sorry, I just thought if you weren’t working…” She trailed off, already realizing the insult she had made.
“What? If I’m not working in an office or something, that I’m dissatisfied with my life? That I’m going to decide that my degree was what? Useless?”
“Well, I wouldn’t put it in words like that…”
“No, you would.” Josh stared her down, his own pale blue eyes locking onto her dull green. “Just not to my face. You’d save it for when you went home to your husband and your kids. I’m that fucking morality tale of getting a degree in whatever you feel like, and how it screws you over.”
Josh took a step back from the woman, and raised his arms as his voice gained so much volume, it began to shake the walls, “Attention, everybody. Hi, I’m Josh, Class of 2009, and I majored in Arcane Studies.” He glared out at the crowd of assembled alumni, “I’m sure a lot of you are wondering what I expected to be able to do with a degree like that? Well, maybe I thought I’d like to be able to do this whenever I wanted.”
“Blitzstrauben!”Arcs of lightning burst from his fingertips, perfectly arcing between them. The lights in the room instantly dimmed as he seeped the electricity through invisible strands of ether. With a wave of his hands the light bulbs went back to normal and the lightning disappeared, leaving only the stench of ozone in its wake. “Or maybe something like this,” Josh smacked his hands together in a loud clap, “Verwandeln!”
All of the wine suddenly turned perfectly clear, and Josh knew that it had a perfect pH level of 7. “That’s right, I just turned all your wine into water. What are you going to do about?” The room just continued to gawk at Josh as he fumed, nostrils flaring and eyes bulging. “Oh that’s right, you can’t do anything about. You need me to, because I’m the only wizard here.” Josh snapped his fingers, “Umwandeln!” The wine turned back to their respective ruby colors.
Turning to the open air next to him, Josh concentrated before spreading his arms apart. The air seemed to waver and shift, like you were suddenly staring down the street on a hot day. The lights dimmed and static electricity filled the air as a bright and unnatural light seemed to seep into the world. It was a color that wasn’t quite blue but it wasn’t quite yellow, which didn’t make sense to most of the people staring as the color solidified and became a door way before their very eyes.
“You see that?” Josh shouted as wind began to howl through the oversized studio apartment. “That’s a dimensional portal that will take me wherever I feel like. I got my degree because when I was twelve, I saw past the Gods Damned Veil and had the mysteries of the universe revealed to me. I thought to myself, ‘Hey, maybe that’s a sign. Maybe I should do something about all of this.’ So yeah, that’s why I got a useless degree. See you later, you bastards, I’m going to go ride on the back of a creature you can’t even imagine. For fun.” Josh’s middle fingers burst from his outstretched fists so hard and with such malice that all of the apartment’s light bulbs burst into shards of glass.
Josh stepped through the portal, which closed behind him nearly instantly.
The crowd of alumni stood in the dark, unsure of what to say or do. Each of their eyes were still merely glued to the spot where the young twenty-something had once stood before literally stepping through a gateway to realms unknown and inaccessible to them.
The door to the apartment opened up, filling the large space with the florescent light from the hallway. “Hey, have any of you guys seen…” Melissa stopped in mid sentence as she saw the darkened apartment, and shocked crowd. “I uh,” Melissa bit her lip, “uhm, Great wine tasting, guys. Can’t wait for the next one!”
She blushed deeply before backing out of the room and closing the door shut behind her.