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The Two-Body Problem
About the Author: Over the last fifty years, Josh Pachter has contributed almost a hundred short stories to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and many other publications. In 2018, one of his stories finished second in the EQMM Readers Award balloting, and another was a Derringer finalist. This is his third appearance in Mystery Weekly.


“So how are you going to handle the two-body problem?” asked Stacey, draining her beer.

I emptied the pitcher into her glass and signaled our server for a refill.

“Do we really have to talk about that now?” Shellie said, taking my hand. “This is an engagement party, Stace, not a wake. Bottoms up!”

The “two-body problem,” for those of you who don’t inhabit the Halls of Academe, is a plague that afflicts married couples in many fields, but particularly doctoral candidates in esoteric disciplines such as, oh, let’s say marine biology.

Cynics have long pontificated that those who can, do, while those who can’t teach. Some academics really want to teach, though, rather than dedicating their careers to mere lab rattery, and when two of those in an esoteric discipline get hitched, the two-body problem rears its ugly head. With the job market the way it is, it’s tough enough for one let’s say marine biologist to find a tenure-track position at an R1—which is, for the uninitiated, a top-level university that values teaching but also supports faculty research, i.e., the best of both worlds. When there are two of you in the same competitive field, the challenge is exponentially compounded.

I’m a year ahead of Shellie at Major R1 U. I’ve completed my coursework, written my dissertation, and am scheduled to defend at the end of April. I’ll nail the defense, I have no doubt, which means I’ll have my Ph.D. in hand in time to accept an appointment for fall semester, if I’m lucky enough to get an offer.

Shel, on the other hand, is ABD: All But Dissertation. She’s aced her coursework and is slaving away at her diss. The light at the end of her tunnel is at least a year off. If I land a gig outside of commuting distance, she can either stay behind on her own while she writes and defends or come with me and hope to find adjunct teaching work at my new school or an instructor-level slot at a nearby community college until she finishes her terminal degree.

Meanwhile, we comb through the postings in the Chronicle and study the weekly HigherEdJobs listings, and I can tell you that the job market for marine biologists right now is tighter than an unshucked oyster.

So when we spotted the opening at Out-in-the-Boondocks State U, we both pounced on it. It was by no means an R1, but it was a job in a tight market. The department was tiny, so, if one of us was in fact to be hired, the odds were stacked pretty high against there being much in the way of adjunct work for the other one. Google Maps told us the campus is a daunting eighteen-hour drive from here, and an Internet search showed no CCs within about a three-hour radius.

If either of us were to get this job, we would be two-body problemed but good.

We both applied, of course. And, miracle of miracles, we were both invited to interview, me on a Thursday and Shellie the following day. Since we’re not yet wed, we have different last names—we’re thinking about hyphenating, but haven’t decided which one to put first—which means we each were offered mileage and two nights in a local hotel. They knew from our applications that we’re both at Major R1 U … but not that we’re engaged. So, although it made perfect sense for us as fellow grad students to drive together, we decided to take the two rooms so as not to muddy the waters.

We left home on Tuesday and, after a night in a Motel 6 halfway, arrived in Boonieville late Wednesday afternoon. We looked around the town a bit—small, homey, pleasant, decent kayaking on a nearby lake, a movie theater, a club that had local bands on the weekends and occasionally brought in a singer/songwriter we like—grabbed a quick dinner in an anonymous chain restaurant and were in bed in our separate quarters by 9 PM.

Well, I was, anyway—I had a long day ahead of me. I’m not sure what Shellie did. Probably sat up watching Stephen Colbert and James Corden.



This story appears in our OCT 2019 Issue
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Reader Discussion

13
Oct
Best flash story I have ever read!
By Susan Rickard

13
Oct
Makes me think of my niece and her husband always professing at a different university. Hopefully they don't run into this problem though! Nicely written!
By Joan Goede

13
Oct
A delightful little mystery, witty, slick and smart. A great twist of an ending.
By Bill Engleson

13
Oct
Love it! Obviously as a MysteryWeekly story and not an article in an academic newsletter I knew it was going somewhere - but that was not the somewhere I was expecting! I love the lightness of the tone - the story made me smile and the ending made me laugh.
By Barbara Brennan

13
Oct
Great story, Josh! Love the twist ending, wordplay, and all the jargon.
By R. Krauss

13
Oct
Frankly, I though the twist ending was improbable. And the final sentence is total trite.
By David Berger

13
Oct
Smart, entertaining, and the perfect length.
By Jill King

14
Oct
As a retired higher-ed academic, "Frankly, I though[t]" it was fun. I especially liked the breezy voice. And the "twist ending" leaves us wondering what Mr. PhD might be capable of. Nice work.
By Jim Courter

15
Oct
Enjoyed the clever story, Josh, all the way to the surprise ending. My solution to the two-body problem? Dig a double-wide hole.
By Earl Staggs

15
Oct
I enjoyed this story but, truly, couldn't see the mystery in it. However, I loved the betrayal ending.
By Frances Dunn

16
Oct
Smart, witty, clever are the words that come to mind while reading this fast-paced story. Well written and an unexpected ending, although we know who will really get the position...only one body.
By Tina Jude


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