Indirect Object (Part Three) by Susan McCarty
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.
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.