• Thomas Genevieve

"Smile"


“Where are you sitting today?” Kathy asked her son. She already knew the answer though; the discussion was had before the tutor arrived. But instead of responding on cue, the son continued picking at his braces with his fingers. She motioned toward the long corridor off of the kitchen and said, “You’re going to sit in there, right?”

Her son, Ryan, allowed for an uncomfortable silence to enter the room before he nodded his head, his thumb still dug deep in his mouth.

“Oh, so we’re moving today,” the tutor said. “Sounds good to me.”

Although his optimism was somewhat forced, his readiness to move was not. He didn’t care much for the workspace that hosted their first two sessions—a granite island in the middle of the kitchen—because the stool he sat on did not have a back. He left each session with a dull pain running down his shoulder and neck.

The stool at the island also faced sliding glass doors, which led to a deck overlooking the tree-lined property at the edge of their manicured lawn. On the deck, Kathy reclined on a chaise lounge chair for most of the session with a crime novel on her lap, standing only periodically to preen one of the dozens of potted plants arrayed throughout the deck. Her proximity made the tutor slightly anxious. He felt as if he were being assessed or auditioned for future sessions.

The tutor felt that Kathy, or Kathleen Brantley Pennington as it appeared on her checks, had not yet given him a reason to believe that he was being scrutinized. But he knew better than to trust the intonations of the amenable greetings and departures, or to search for clues in facial expressions in order to uncover the opinions of the town’s parents. Kathy’s countenance was especially confounding because she possessed a flat alacrity. When the pitch of her voice changed, nothing on her faced confessed excitement.

“All right, gentlemen, let’s see where we’re working today,” Kathy said as she walked the tutor through the corridor to a room at the other end of the house. Adjacent to the room’s entrance, another door, which opened to a space with a vaulted ceiling and a brick fireplace, immediately caught the tutor’s attention. Before Kathy moved past him to close the door, the tutor noted a long, green stretch of putting turf that spanned the length of the room.

“Would you like a bottle of water?” she asked the tutor.

“Yes, please.”

She turned to her son. “Ry?”

“What?”

“Bottle of water?”

He shrugged and said, “I guess.”

The tutor placed his book bag on top of a folding table and removed his computer and books. Ryan sat in one of the chairs, crossed his arms, and leaned back, balancing on the chair’s hind legs.

“No books?” the tutor said. “Why don’t you go get them?” The front legs of the chair returned to the floor, and Ryan left the room.

The tutor scanned the new environment and decided it was not a designated office or den. He recalled passing something of the sort when he was escorted through the house to the kitchen. Instead, the room seemed to be more of a dumping ground for the home’s oddments. The portable table and chairs, the kind brought out of storage for parties or card games, were placed among assorted pieces of furniture that did not synchronize with the aesthetic intent he noticed in other parts of the house. However, paint swatches scotch-taped to the wall—Autumn Pumpkin, Harbor Fog, and Chestnut Mood—led him to believe that the décor’s incongruity might only be temporary. Next to Harbor Fog, a post-it note with a trio of question marks awaited judgment.

A series of empty hooks still remained, while its picture frames leaned against the mahogany wainscoting.

On the folding table’s vinyl top, freshly sharpened pencils pointed out of a metal cup. Several spiral notebooks and colored folders fanned out across the middle of the table. Two fluorescent highlighters had also been placed next to neatly folded copies of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. But when Ryan returned, he immediately swept the contents onto the floor to make room for the books he then dumped all over the table.

“How was your weekend?” the tutor asked.

“Good.”

After a pause, the tutor followed up with another question. “What did you do?”

“Connecticut.”

“Oh, cool. Where in Connecticut?”

“Danbury.”

“What’s there?

“Family.”

“Was it like a family party or something?”

Ryan turned to the tutor and, for first the time since he arrived, looked at him. “Sort of.”

Kathy returned and set two bottles of spring water on the table. “So what do you boys have on the agenda for today?”

Her smile, straining across her face, revealed a set of braces the tutor had not noticed until that moment.

“The same agenda as last time,” the tutor said. “We have a lot on our plate.”

“Well, I should leave you two to get started. If you need anything, I’ll be around.”

“Great,” the tutor said.

Before she departed, she gave another smile, this one tight-lipped, concealing her braces.

“What do you want to start with?” the tutor asked.

“I don’t care.”

“You said that last time.”

“Well, maybe that’s because I really don’t care.”

“Have you been keeping up with our schedule?”

“Probably not.”

“What does ‘probably’ not mean?”

Ryan spun a pen counterclockwise around his thumb. After three rotations, the pen dropped. The tutor finally relented.

“Ok, we will go down the list like last time and try to divide our time evenly.”

*

Initially, the tutor was contacted a few weeks before the end of the recent school year. Ryan, Kathy said, had some difficulty completing writing assignments. He also had trouble organizing his essays, and, unfortunately, when he did, he had a tendency of losing them or not turning them in on time.

“He needs to hand in two essays,” she said, “or else it might weigh down his average for the final quarter.”

“What are the essays about?” the tutor asked.

“I have no idea,” she said.

After talking to Ryan’s Honors American Literature teacher, the tutor learned that Ryan was not only missing an essay on the diction of the Beat poets and an analysis of the American Dream but also several short writing prompts. And, although the teacher said she could not prove it, she knew he had cheated on his last reading quiz.

But the tutor never heard back from Kathy until two weeks after the Fourth of July. When they spoke on the phone, the conversation was similar to the one a month earlier—her anecdotes nearly identical. This time she added that Ryan needed to be “up to par” with all his summer assignments.

“What subjects?” asked the tutor.

She shuffled some papers around before reading off a list. “Government, economics, physics, British literature, geography, and pre-calculus.” Kathy arranged some more papers and then said, “He’s also taking an online class in personal finance this summer to make room for choir this year. Do you know anything about personal finance?”

“Yes,” the tutor said without hesitation. “I can take care of everything except the math and science.”

“This will definitely help,” she said.

*

Ryan slumped back into his chair and continued to twirl the pen around his thumb.

“Ok, let’s see the annotations.”

The tutor reached over and picked up A Man for All Seasons. He removed the same folded sheet of paper he remembered Ryan had tucked into the middle of the book at the end of last session. On the top, it read: “A Fool for All Seasons.” To the left of the fold, in slight, barely perceptible writing, it said: “Thomas More”; to the right of it: “silly idealist/ idiot.” Below that: “Richard Rich,” and next to it: “shrewd/sensible.”

“You didn’t add to it,” said the tutor.

Since Ryan was indifferent and the tutor did not want to return to the polemics of last week, he said, “Listen, they’ll check the annotations in September. You need something. Write in the margins, post-it notes, a sheet of paper. Something.” The tutor made his sigh audible so Ryan could hear his despair.

One after another, the pen-twirls had consistently smooth rotations.

“What about Dubliners? Did you start it?”

“Yeah. I read it.”

“How much?”

“Three of the stories. They were horrible.”

“Great. Which ones?”

“The ones I said I would read.”

“Remind me, I don’t remember.”

“The one about the girl who buys a pie and loses it. She almost cries and then she sings horribly.”

“Clay.”

“Yeah, whatever. It was dumb. The worst. And the one about the guy who’s a loser.”

“What guy is that?”

“The loser. He wants to write poems, but he doesn’t, and he’s jealous of his friend who’s successful and travels a lot.”

“It’s probably not fair to call him a loser.”

“He’s a loser. Not dumb like the Thomas More guy. Just a loser.”

“Where are the annotations?”

“I forgot.”

“We talked about it numerous times.” The tutor tore out a sheet of loose-leaf paper, handed it to Ryan and said, “I want you to make at least make five annotations for each story. Cite the page number and write something more than you did last time.”

“What do you want me to write down?”

“It’s not what I want you to write down. This is what the assignment requires. It’s the same as we discussed last time: characterization and symbolism. Mark off the quote and explain it. Briefly explain it. That’s all.” The tutor became aware he had raised his voice in exasperation.

Ryan set the book on the table and flipped through it. When he found the page he was looking for, he leaned his elbow into its spine as if he needed to break its will. After wincing on behalf of the book, the tutor opened his own copy but could not focus long enough to read. Instead, his eyes wandered to the two conjoined, curtain-less windows in front of him. Set in rectangular panes of dark wood matching the room’s crown molding and wainscoting, the windows delivered the room’s only light. He counted eight frames across, four going down. The frames eventually dissolved away leaving him with one large illumination of a rich, blue sky on top of the verdant hues of dancing leaves.

The tutor placed his book on the vinyl tabletop and tried to move his chair back. Since the rubber caps on the bottom of the chairs stuck to both the rug and hardwood floor, he did not move.

“A library book?” Ryan said noticing the tutor’s copy of Dubliners.

“Yes, I couldn’t find my copy. I think I loaned it to someone a few years ago. What’s wrong with a library book?”

“Library books smell.”

The tutor sniffed the book.

“Smells fine to me.”

“No, they smell like ass.” As Ryan shook his head in disapproval, the windows’ light exposed the glitter of rust in his red hair. He hunched over his contorted book and scrawled some words in the margins of the page and then jotted down additional notes on the loose-leaf paper. On his pale forehead, a cluster of whiteheads rose out of a raw, pink patch of skin. The tutor tried not to look at it, focusing on Ryan’s glasses instead.

“How’s the annotating?” the tutor said.

“Fine.”

“Want to talk about what you’ve written down so far?”

“Not really.”

The tutor craned his neck toward Ryan’s work and said, “Looks good,” although he had not read a single word. He leaned back in his chair and gradually retreated into himself.

Ryan continued working for what the tutor assumed was twenty minutes, without pause, or without a single gesture that could have intimated he was aware another human sat next to him, until he hastily tucked his sheet of paper into the middle of the book and frisbeed it onto the loveseat behind him. “I don’t know what else to write,” he said and threw up his hands, a movement that could have been interpreted as either capitulation or victory.

“Well,” the tutor began, “we have the current events log.”

“God no.”

“The budget outline thing for personal finance?”

“No.”

“The map stuff?”

“How about the physics problems?” Ryan said.

“No,” the tutor said. “We will do the econ definitions.”

“I guess. It’s so stupid. You even have to admit it. Having students define twenty-five economic terms and write page-long journal entries about how each one affects their lives. Twenty-five! During summer vacation! That’s bull.”

“Well, this is what you signed up for.”

Ryan didn’t respond.

“All right,” the tutor said. “Get out the list of terms.”

“I don’t know where they are.” He began to spin the pen around his thumb again.

“Get that and all of the other directions we printed out the first time I was here. We said you would keep them in the purple folder.”

Ryan opened up the purple folder, sifted through a stack of papers, and closed it. “It’s not there.”

“I have it,” the tutor said and reached into his bag and pulled out another copy.

Ryan shook his head. “Where do I even get this crap from?”

“Online. These are basic econ terms. Just look up a generic definition and connect it to your everyday world. I’ll help you come up with ideas for the journal entries.”

“Do I have to get my computer?”

“I can go get an econ textbook from my car, and you can hand write it if you prefer.”

Ryan did not answer. Instead, he stood and stretched his gaunt limbs over his head. With one hand he grabbed his elbow and pulled it behind his neck. After he did it to the other arm, he yawned and turned his back to the tutor and faced the window. He shook out both arms and adjusted his stance, keeping his legs shoulder-width apart and head tucked down. He shuffled his hips and shoulders with slight recalibrations—as if trying to recall a prior lesson or the demanded imitation—until his position had taken its correct place. He locked one fisted-hand on top of the other, shifted his weight, and commenced with the swing. He held his follow-through—watching the shot only he could see, land on the greens only meant for him.

The tutor looked up at the frozen pose and acknowledged that the invisible club would have cracked him square in the temple.

Ryan left the tutor to the brightly lit window, and although the tutor was not aware how long Ryan was gone, he presumed it must have been considerable, because when he returned, Ryan spoke voluntarily. “It took a while to find the cord.”

“Fine, let’s get going,” said the tutor.

After Ryan plugged in the cord, he raised the lid of his laptop and tapped out a password. He then stared at the screen in silent deliberation before finally opening the internet. To get a better a view of the screen, the tutor attempted to adjust his chair, but once again the rubber caps on the bottom of the front legs grabbed the carpet.

“Having trouble there?” Ryan said.

“It’s hard to move the chair. Come on, what’s the first word.”

Ryan peered at the list of terms and began typing. Since he seemed to regain momentum and did not care for the tutor’s input, the tutor gazed past the screen.

Through the door to the room with the vaulted ceiling, a thin male voice began to complain about a commitment he had to keep. As he grew louder, his pitch became higher. In the middle of a diatribe—which included the mentioning of a flight, a brain-dead client, and a declaration that he could not be bothered with such trivial matters—his words came to an abrupt stop. The conclusion of his jeremiad was delivered in a soft, indiscernible tone.

Even though the tutor tried to focus his hearing beyond the door, all he could hear was the pattering on the keyboard next to him. And when the patter abated and did not continue, the tutor awoke to the blinking cursor waiting below the term “Opportunity Cost.”

“You need help making the connection?”

“No, it’s easy.”

“Ok, then keep going. You’re on a roll now.”

To the tutor’s surprise, Ryan kept at a steady pace. He considered commenting on Ryan’s writings—to break the silence, to see if Ryan had a grasp on the terms—but he didn’t. The tutor followed the heavy steps walking back and forth in the next room. A silence preceded each sharp “click,” which presumably sent a golf ball down its expected trajectory. Eventually, the ball escaped the turf, rolling in slow defiance until hitting the door.

“Patents and licenses,” the tutor said. “Both act as barriers to entering the market.”

Ryan didn’t respond. The tutor returned to the footsteps and imagined each putt falling short or veering to the side of the hole. By the time the footsteps finally stopped, the tutor had become more conscious of the time. A countdown, he decided, was the only way to endure the insufferable, remaining minutes. There were seventeen left.

He knew it was wrong, though, to wish away time, to squander the present. He acknowledged it was a crime against existence, but he had no choice. As was his practice, he saved a visit to the bathroom toward the end. Whether he needed to go or not, he always allotted himself one trip per session. It was a wise way to chew up the final minutes. He watched the remaining time crawl down to sixteen, and from sixteen to fifteen.

“You’ve done great today,” he said to Ryan.

“Really?”

“Yeah, totally.”

“I dunno. I don’t think what I wrote was any good”

“Don’t worry about it. Just get your ideas down. Think about how many pages you will eventually turn in. Do the math. The teachers will not have time to read every word. They will give summer assignments like this a check mark and move on to the school year.”

“Yeah, probably. Do you know who I will have next year?”

“Schedules will not be finalized for another few weeks, but I’m pretty sure Jensen or Evans will teach it.”

“Jensen’s a bitch.”

“Well, regardless. I will put in a good word for you when we get back.” The tutor finally lifted his chair away from the table and walked to the window. “Why do you give me such a hard time?”

Ryan minimized his document and clicked on a leaderboard of a golf tournament.

“I want you to earn your money.”

The blue sky still rested above the summer treetops. A lone, little cloud crawled across the sky. The tutor felt the cool air whispering through the air ducts at his feet.

“I see.”

The trees stood like sentries guarding the back of the property. Because of the yard’s sloping declination, the tutor had the sense he was looking eye to eye with the hundred-foot trees’ exaggerated majesty.

Below, in the middle of the lawn, Kathy knelt with a spade in hand and hacked away at a slab of earth. By the start of August, even though most lawns had succumbed to wilt, the Pennington’s lawn appeared soft, thick. Crews must have attended to it earlier because freshly mowed shadows lined the greensward. The tutor could not discern Kathy’s intention.

He moved away from the window and walked the perimeter of the room. Of all the pictures along the floor, one faced the mahogany wall. He crouched down and flipped it over. It was a painting of an upholstered armchair. On its lavender cushion perched a parrot with a watermelon balancing on its head. Climbing up the leg of the chair, a salamander.

“What are you doing?”

“Looking at the painting, That all right with you?”

Ryan shrugged.

The tutor pressed his finger over the watermelon as if he could topple it from the parrot’s head. He then placed the picture back along the wall and circled behind Ryan. He took a big sip from his water, causing the plastic to pop, piercing the quiet of the room. He set the bottle back on the table and moved behind Ryan. With a deep breath, he filled his lungs with air. He tilted his head from side to side and rolled his shoulders to loosen his tension and allay the dull pain that ran down his neck.

The tutor wondered if Ryan could feel his presence. He rested his fingertips on the back of Ryan’s chair, but Ryan did not move. He saw himself nudge the back of the boy’s head. He saw himself yank his pale ear and watch the indignant reaction.

“Today,” he would tell Ryan, “we will read Araby aloud.”

He would hold the boney, freckled arm behind his back, palming Ryan’s coarse skull against the table and say, “Please repeat.”

“Today we will read Araby aloud,” Ryan would say.

And as the disappointment of the narrator mounts, the tutor would say, “And what would you have bought Mangan’s sister at the bazaar?”

But instead, he leaned over Ryan’s shoulder and watched words like “tipping point” and “expenses” emerge on the screen. The tutor excused himself and left for the bathroom. He let his thoughts empty out and did not reflect on what was lost. From the bathroom window, he could see Kathy’s patch of dirt in the middle of the yard. He dried his hands and returned to Tyler. The tutor decided that this was enough. No one would notice or mind that he wrapped up four minutes early.

“All right, I think we’re at the hour.”

Leaving the tutor to pack his books and computer, Ryan disappeared down the corridor. The tutor took another sip of the water and stuffed it in the front pouch of his bag. He decided not to wait for Ryan and his mother, opting to escort himself down the hallway back to the kitchen. At the granite island stood Kathy. She capped her pen and placed it on the counter. She leaned into her checkbook and tore the check from its spine. When she picked up her head, she gave a tight-lipped smile.

Thomas Genevieve is a teacher living in New Jersey. He has been writing fiction, with a specific focus on short stories, for about six years. When he is not writing, he maintains a steady diet of the cultural arts.


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