Indirect Object (Part Four) by Susan McCarty
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.