Indirect Object (full text) by Susan McCarty
The ACT tutor selects a binder from the shelf. On the spine of the binder is his student’s name: Mackenzie H. Currently, there are three Mackenzies attending the tutoring center, the others being Mackenzies S and G. What can account for the popularity of the name? He can only think of Spuds Mackenzie, the beer dog from the eighties. Surely this is not the Mackenzie fountainhead. It’s an ugly name—unlyrical, masculine, ahistorical. Later, if he remembers, he will Google it.
In the front of Mackenzie’s binder is the subject and the book chapter he’s assigned to teach her today: Reading 2. This is their fifth meeting. He’s also teaching her English and Science, although “teach” is maybe not the right word. He reads to his students from the book that the for-profit testing center he works for has developed, though “reads” is not the right word either because the tutor goes to pains to disguise the fact that he’s reading the book aloud. What he does is he speaks aloud the things the center wants his students to know about taking the ACT. He does this while looking at the side of his students’ slack and zitty faces. The things he says are his own words but the ideas are borrowed. The sessions vacillate between speaking (the tutor) and taking timed practice tests (the students).
Sometimes, the tutor asks a student a question:
“What’s the main idea of this passage?”
“Like, there’s…um, there’s the independent…the Declaration of Independence and it…”
This is one kind of silence. The tutor is intimately acquainted with it by now.
“What about it?”
“Um, it’s the Declaration of Independence so it’s about independence and how it’s declared for our freedom.”
“Well…okay, the passage is about the Declaration of Independence but in what way?”
“Like for our freedom in the revolutionary war?”
“No, that’s not…Look, in your own words, what’s the passage about?”
“The Declaration of Independence.”
“And…our freedom to have independence to be declared?”
“The passage is about how the Declaration of Independence was moved to a bunch of different locations and now it’s where?”
“That last paragraph?” He taps on the paper—tap tap tap—to crowd out the silence.
“Oh. Um. It’s. At the Nat—the National Archive.”
Chive, like the herb.
It’s not that the students are stupid. Well, maybe some of them are, but he can tell that a lot of them are quick from the way they stumble through the swamp of the language, the way they blindly string together words from the text, the way every sentence ends in a question mark because of the panicked question implicit with each answer: “Does what I’m saying even make sense?” He can tell they just don’t read, and because they don’t read, language does not illuminate for them: it befuddles. So far, not a single one he’s asked can remember the title of the last novel they read. He used to ask what they read for fun but got nowhere with that. Now he asks what they read for class, but it’s as if he’s asked them what they think of Wittgenstein’s truth function for all the blank looks they give him. Sometimes he wants to ask that instead. If he did, if he asked them, they would try to answer. They always try to answer. They don’t want to think about anything—in fact, he sometimes doubts their ability to think at all, these children of the internet—but they all, always, attempt to answer. For Wittgenstein, the opacity of language was a problem to be solved. The tutor had been writing his dissertation on Wittgenstein. An impossible task, his committee had warned him, given the time and funding available. Wittgenstein would have hated these children—probably would have hit them as he was wont to do in his day—but he might have understood their fear.
And why should these kids know how to think if no one has ever taught them? That is not his job. His job is to help them score an average of five points higher on the ACT so that they will be eligible to go to college where their academic, if not intellectual, handicaps will become someone else’s head-slapper.
Some version of this narrative unwinds itself in the tutor’s head every day he works, which is nearly every day except for Sunday when the center is closed because the franchise owner is an evangelical Christian, but today it feels as though the tutor’s resentment is really given the room to bloom and grow in his soul. His first client (the franchise owner does not like this word, but it is more honest than “student,” so the tutor thinks of them as clients, even if, at work, he refers to them aloud as students), Peter M., is a greasy, stooped boy, who makes a game of underenunciating his answers and then, when the tutor asks him to repeat himself, Peter rudely (it seems to the tutor) and loudly overenunciates, which gives the tutor the odd feeling of being embattled, but instead of arguing about anything, Peter is only, for instance, defining the scientific method, furiously and with the sibilance of a snake. By the end of their session, the tutor is fantasizing about smacking an expression onto Peter’s sacklike head. After Peter comes Mackenzie, in a pair of gold-sequined Uggs. The tutor makes a little hatch mark on the first page of her file. According to his count, this is the ninth different pair of Uggs she has worn to her sessions. When it had become clear several weeks ago that his student was wearing a different pair of puffy, aesthetically displeasing boots to each session he had with her, and coordinating her outfit based on each pair, he performed a cursory internet search, and from what he understands, Uggs (how strangely appropriate the name: that comic-book sound of disgust, that premier syllable which begged for its suffix, -ly) were very expensive. Even the knockoffs were nearly a hundred dollars. The tutor did not suppose he had bought a thousand dollars worth of shoes in his entire adult life. Certainly not since becoming a graduate student, ten years ago. Since the problem with his funding last year, he was, in fact, struggling a bit to buy meat, now that gas was on the rise again. He lived a half hour from the testing center when traffic was light.
And this was probably just a sampling of her entire shoe wardrobe. Surely she did not wear the things through the wilting Midwestern summers. Mackenzie slumped into the green plastic chair beside him. “Hi,” he said and one side of her face went up as if he’d just given her news about which she was highly skeptical.
“I didn’t do my homework. I was just too busy. It was like I had cheer tries and this city college scholarship thing I had to write a whole paper for, so I just didn’t get to read about the different kinds of passages or whatever.” She manages to sound accusatory, as if the tutor is to blame for this. He makes another tick mark on the first page of her file. They are never to castigate the students themselves. He would tell the center director, instead, who would tell the parents who could then choose to punish or not, since they were paying for the whole setup in the first place. The tutor makes his face a mask and does not give her the satisfaction of his own penal impotence. Penal impotence he thinks and coughs into his fist.
“Okay, the four kinds of reading passages are social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and prose fiction’.” Prose fiction, he hated the clunky redundancy the term seemed to carry with it. It confused the students, although pretty much everything confused the students. Confused students. There was another redundancy. Stated as an analogy: fiction is made of prose just as students are made of confusion. Unfortunately, there are no analogies on the ACT.
He tells Mackenzie to do her homework now, in front of him. She reads four passages and he skims them with her so that he can ask her questions about them. The humanities passage is a brutal piece of business jargon, a parody of itself. It is, in fact, completely devoid of humanity.
He asks her the main idea of the prose fiction passage, which is the beginning of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. He asks her to tell him the correct order of events which scientists use to describe the eventual death of our star, the sun. He says, “I’m going to read you part of one passage and you tell me the main idea. ‘In today’s markets, leveraging best practices in order to improve margins above and beyond those of the competition necessitates constant assessment and reassessment.’”
What emptiness, he thinks. He thinks of his Ludwig. ‘What we can say at all can be said clearly.’ If Wittgenstein was alive today, he would definitely kill himself, like three of his brothers before him.
Mackenzie answers each question without actually proving that she has retained a shred of information from or impression of any of the passages. He gets the notion that she had just been sitting there, staring at the test booklet margins for fifteen minutes rather than reading the passages. When he asks her a question, her eyes skitter, panicked, across the page, and she spits out words as she sees them in the text, hopping from one important-sounding word to the next, stringing together sentences with incorrect prepositions, running across the bridge of her answer as it collapses under her. This is how it goes for an hour. As she skulks out of the room at the end of their session, her Uggs wink at him under the fluorescents, as if they are flirting with him, and he sees in a flash how she will grow up to be a selfish and incurious adult, probably while making a lot of money. How she would trade her Uggs for breathtakingly expensive heels and pay someone to wax her pubic hair. He sees the pink cocktails. Maybe she would aspire to appear on “The Bachelor.” She might make a good Bachelorette. He can see she will perform the signs of cultural femininity without being particularly attractive, yet she will read to other adults as attractive, even if her skin is orange, and her lips too pink. He makes his final marks on her chart and puts her binder aside. He picks up the next binder in his pile, makes a mark on the front page of his chart and waits for the next client to appear.
The tutor pokes his head out of the tutoring lab and scans the waiting room. It is Tuesday at four, Peter’s usual time, but no Peter.
He sits at his tutoring table and draws lopsided prisms in his notebook. He draws a dog sitting, a side view. He draws a car that seems to be going somewhere but isn’t. He draws a crude map of the world and fills in the continents so that they look like turds. He puts a dot in the middle of the North America turd. You are here. Here you are. Here. The sound of students saying stupid things is all around him, choking him. The air is out of the room, which smells strongly of pencil shavings and reheated meat gravy which wafts out into the tutoring room from the kitchenette. The tutor puts Peter’s binder back and tells the front desk he’s a no-show.
When he gets home, the tutor eats a frozen pizza and watches “The Apprentice” and feels superior to the stupid, conniving people on the show, to the dummies watching the show, to the people who are tricked into thinking they feel anything for the connivers who are not people as much as caricatures of people—“people”—like that, in scare quotes. He watches TV and feels superior to practically the whole country, which is the only way he knows to make up for the loneliness.
Peter misses another session and the tutor is called into the office by the enigmatic, evangelical learning-center franchise owner.
“Listen, there’s a problem with Peter.”
“A problem?” inexplicably, the tutor’s pulse quickens.
“He won’t be coming in any more.”
“Okay…” the tutor wills him to say more, but the franchise owner stops there, with his mouth halfway open. He is wondering whether he should continue. The tutor prompts him. “Is it something I’ve done?”
Henry closes his mouth and puts out his hands, “No no, nothing like that. Peter died.”
“I wasn’t going to tell you, but—”
“Why weren’t you going to tell me?”
“I guess…I don’t know. I’m not sure I thought it was appropriate conversation for the workplace.”
“But here’s the thing. Here’s why I’m telling you now: The parents want to meet you.”
“Yes—well. They’re grieving and they want to, you know, they want to hear about their son. They want you to tell them about Peter.”
“How’d he die?”
“Oh, I don’t…that’s not something we ask, here.”
“When do they want to meet me?”
“Tomorrow—I’ve scheduled you for a four o’clock session with them.”
“Yes, just pretend it’s a regular tutoring block.”
“Out there?” the tutor gestures at the open room full of laminated particleboard tables and mismatched plastic chairs with aluminum legs. On each table is an oversized clown-colored stopwatch. A tutor must use the stopwatch—never his phone or her own wristwatch—to proctor exams and practice tests for his students.
The franchise owner shrugs, “Where else could I put you?”
“I don’t know if I’m comfortable with this.” But that is not exactly true. It would be more true to say the tutor does not feel anything about this or about Peter or his parents, including compassion, empathy, or any kind of largesse of sentiment. Technically, it is this feeling, this lack, that makes the tutor uncomfortable.
“But you knew Peter best.”
The best of whom? The tutor cannot conjure Peter’s face. Then he pictures himself slapping Peter, and there: there’s the face.
Tonight, it is “Dancing with the Stars” and two half-hearted rounds of masturbation.
The parents are ashen, elsewhere between themselves, but entirely present to everyone else in the room. Their presence is alarming to the other tutors, who know why they’re here, and to the students, to whom the appearance of parents—foreign, awkward, and uncomfortable, not to mention larger, outsized for the scale of the room and the furniture in it—in the tutoring center was formerly unthinkable.
The tutor shows them to one of the open tables where he may or may not have worked with Peter on lab methodologies, or on the differences between subject and object.
“I love you,” he had said once, antagonistically, to Peter, who had continued to stare at the table, but with a new, slightly different kind of veiled anger.
“It’s how to remember the difference. I am the subject because I am loving and you is the object because you are being loved. ‘You’ is the object of my affection.”
“I is. I mean, I am.”
The tutor’s stomach shrank a little. “No, I didn’t mean you you. I meant—”
He remembers the hard little sneer on Peter’s face, and sees now how it was birthed from the larger, unconscious sneer of his father. The father is wearing some sort of heavy, furred coat—it may be cashmere or lambswool—and looking incredulously around the room like he detects a shit smell. The man puts a large hand on the fake wood-grain on top of the trapezoidal worktable. “This is where he…learned?”
Ha, the tutor wants to say. Ha ha ha ha ha.
“Sit.” He pulls out the two small green plastic chairs for them and because the chairs are short, sized for children, Peter’s parents lower somewhat unsteadily.
“Wait,” booms the father, startling the mother who has only just regained her balance. “Where did Peter sit?”
The tutor puts his hand on the back of the wife’s chair and accidentally touches the valley of her spine, which is knobbier than her general, maternal physique suggests.
“Here, he sat here, and I sat where you’re sitting.”
“Get up,” says the father to the mother, who still has not spoken and even now does not. There is hardly even a question in her eyes as she rises, steps to the whiteboard on the wall, and leans against it, clutching herself, like a person drowning in a dream.
The father swings his hips into the other chair and pats the open seat in front of the tutor. “Teach me,” he says. And so the tutor sits down beside the grieving, sneering father, picks up a Reading curriculum binder, and begins to speak.
When they leave, the tutor notices that the dry erase marker from the whiteboard has transferred onto the mother’s camelhair coat, the padded shoulder of which now reads, “whom.” To whom, with whom, for whom. The tutor looks to the whiteboard but the preposition has been wiped away entirely.
The tutor does not know how to receive the father. That is to say, he doesn’t mean to make the ambience in his apartment romantic, but there is no other readily available model for how to host, at least not available to the tutor. So when the father knocks on the door, a stick of incense and some candles are flickering in various corners of the room. The tutor’s speakers shed John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” into the air around them.
The tutor says, “Come in,” and sweeps his arm over the dingy vista of his apartment. He says, “Have a seat,” thinking the father will choose to sit at his small table in the kitchen because that’s where the tutor usually sits, but instead he goes to the couch.
Besides the couch—a crumby brown chenille thing he’d picked up at Goodwill—there are only the two kitchen chairs. To get one and plop it down near the couch, while there’s all that perfectly good couch real estate, all those cushions where the father isn’t sitting, seems rude and alienating. But in equal parts, joining him on the couch seems overly familiar, too close. The tutor knows he can’t hesitate too long, or his guest will begin to feel awkward, so he does the easiest thing and perches lightly on the other end of the couch. He sees that Peter’s father has unfolded and is now carefully smoothing his cloth handkerchief onto his lap, as if he is a diner at a reasonably nice restaurant, instead of a stranger in a soupy-smelling one-bedroom apartment. The gesture makes the tutor extremely nervous.
“Thanks for penciling me in. I’m sure you’re on a tight schedule.” The father reddens, embarrassed by the obviousness of his platitude. The tutor and his apartment are clearly not on a very tight schedule, at least not one that involves, say, working to make money. “And I’m…I’m very glad that you’ve been able to host this meeting. I want to do you a favor and cut right to the chase. My son.” The man drops his eyes to his lap and swallows. “Were you and my son…involved?”
The tutor blinks and feels warm all over. Then he shivers. Then he is warm again. The man will not make eye contact with him. He just sits there in his fuzzy black overcoat with a hanky on his lap like a lunatic. The tutor feels set up. The father, on the voicemail from two days ago, had sounded lost, weak, in need of something that only the tutor could provide. Some strange measure of tutoring solace. Which was why the tutor had called him back—the tutor being moderately uncomfortable with the situation—but also in possession of a modicum of human empathy—and also somewhat bored.
When the father speaks again, his voice is low and he seems to be having trouble catching his breath. “I found his notebooks, his school notebooks and his ACT notebooks, from tutoring with you.” The man reaches into a briefcase at his feet and pulls out three spiral-bound college-ruled pads, hands them to the tutor. The one on top is open to a page where Peter has penciled the equation for Newton’s universal law of gravitation. The equation and its labels are orderly, but in the margins of the notebook, in twenty different styles and scribbled at all angles, is the tutor’s full name. Over and over again. Here in cursive, there in block letters filled in with horizontal stripes, shiny with graphite. In the notebook below it, there are some grammar notes from one of their sessions. There is the phrase, “I love you” with its subject and object labeled. Under that, Peter has written a series of sentences under the heading “indirect object:”
– I want to give him my love.
– I want him to love me.
– For him, I would do anything.
– Will he give me his heart?
Then, further down the page, an impressively veined sketch of a spurting cock. The tutor feels heavy, as if, impossibly, the gravitational constant has increased.
“I didn’t. I mean I would never.” There is more stammering, which, the tutor realizes with frustration, makes him sound guilty. He takes a breath. “Listen, I had no idea your son had these feelings. I can’t even—nothing like this even occurred to me, okay? This isn’t me. Maybe someone else?” Is he even making sense?
The father regards him silently for a long moment. “I believe you. When we found these, we hired an investigator. He’s done a thorough background check on you. And Peter’s phone and email turned up clean. And the set-up at the center was so out in the open…”
“You’ve been investigating me?”
“He was my son.”
The couch pings and the tutor looks up from the notebooks to see Peter’s father has moved closer to him. The man shakes slightly; the tutor smells his sweat. The first side of the record has ended.
“I need to ask you… This is going to sound very odd, but—I didn’t come here to threaten you. I wanted to. Well. My son, he felt love for you, or something like it. And he’s gone now and it is somewhat my fault. Maybe,” here the man’s voice cracks and he begins to cry, “Maybe very much my fault.”
The tutor puts a hand on his shoulder because what else can he do.
The man takes the hanky off his lap and presses it against his face, puts it down again, turns back toward the tutor and says, “Can I kiss you?” and then they are kissing, the father closing the distance without waiting for an answer, the hard fact of his teeth behind his lips, pressing painfully against the tutor’s mouth, and then the invading tongue. The tutor puts his hand on the man’s wet rough face but does not push it away. The kiss ends and the silence between them seems filled with possibilities, some exciting, some frightening, many a mix. It pulses like a heart or a star or something large in flight. And then the man is rustling through his apartment toward the door and his handkerchief has fallen to the floor like the trifle of a damsel and then he is gone.
Mackenzie’s Uggs are purple suede today. He’s seen them before, which seems to indicate that she has cycled through her entire collection, for now. The tutor is feeling off-kilter. He sometimes gets a whiff of Peter’s father, whose scent seems to be lingering in some crease, somewhere, and he is confused by his own reaction to it.
He and Mackenzie are supposed to review some basic terms from biology. Mackenzie looks at the list and says, “I don’t remember any of these.”
“You don’t really need to know them. You just have to read very carefully. The science test is really just another reading test. Read the passage in the workbook.”
She reads the passage.
“Now tell me something about what alleles are and why they’re important.”
She sighs. “I don’t know.”
“They’re for genetics.” She looks at him and he nods. “For the recessive ones? Or like, the dominance?”
He puts his pencil down and takes a deep breath. All these children filling the air with their language. He thinks of Peter, of his inscrutability and his low, quiet voice. Peter already disappearing, disappeared.
Wittgenstein is suddenly in his mouth. “‘What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence,’” says the tutor.
“What does that mean?” asks Mackenzie.
“Think about it.”
“I think it means—”
“No, don’t answer. Think about it.” Mackenzie doesn’t say anything more, which he takes as participatory. “Close your eyes,” he says and presses the button on his stopwatch.
“This is weird,” she says and he shushes her again and she is quiet again and he sees her eyes really are closed and so he closes his too.
Susan McCarty‘s stories and essays have appeared in The Iowa Review, the Utne Reader, The Collagist, Conjunctions, Indiana Review, Willow Springs, and other journals. Once upon a time, she was an assistant editor at Penguin and Avalon Books. More recently, she’s been an administrative fellow for FC2, an artist-in-residence at VCCA, and a Steffensen-Cannon scholar. She has an MFA from Vermont College and a PhD from the University of Utah. She teaches creative writing at Salisbury University and is the author of the forthcoming collection, Anatomies.