She threw her cigarette into the street before she knocked on the door. A woman let her in, told her to walk right on through. The boy sat at the dining room table, his head in his hands. She set her books down on the table, and said, “Well, then.” He looked up at her and she saw the violet circles around his eyes. She presumed it was from a steady diet of sugar. She shook her head at the lack of motherly wisdom these days.
She didn’t have a degree in math like it said on the business cards her boyfriend had printed for her, but she knew just enough to get by. The mother handed her the kid’s test folder, white crinkly papers with red loops drawn around numbers big and small. She cleared her throat and opened her black-rimmed eyes wide. “We’ve got us some work to do here, mister,” she said. She smiled at the mother, who hesitated, but left them alone. She set him to work on a practice sheet she had cribbed from a book at the public library. “This’ll get you going, “ she told him. The quiet of the house was unnerving for a Saturday. She remembered in her own house growing up the sounds of cartoons punctuated by cereal commercials, the smell of her mother’s Aqua Net and cigarette smoke and her father bitching that he had to take out the garbage and mow the lawn. She took note there was no man around this house.
The mother moved like a ghost from room to room, pushing things into boxes, throwing things into big, black trash bags and pushing the hair out of her eyes with a delicate, back of the hand swipe. The boy was uncommunicative. He scratched his pencil on the paper, and plugged in some numbers. She wagged her finger at him, put a big red X next the #4 problem. The boy opened his mouth to speak, but she asserted her authority. How else could she ever get this enterprise off the ground if she let a kid tell her she was wrong? She put her hand up, a signal to him that the red X would stay. Better to be tough up front. You can get easier as you go along. “Sit up straight,” she told the boy through clenched teeth, in a voice she had practiced in the bathroom mirror just that morning. The boy stared at something beyond her. He raked his hands through his soft ginger hair. The mother had been removing the framed family photos from the piano that sat kitty corner in a room flooded with sunlight. The boy sniffed. “What’s this now?’ she asked him, genuinely confused, as the tears started to flow. The mother threw down the paper she’d been wrapping the frames in and let out a yell of frustration.
The mother spoke: “It probably wasn’t the best time to start this.” The boy bolted from his chair and left them standing there together. They both jumped at the slam of a door. The mother picked up the work sheet from the table and looked at it. She raised her eyebrows when she got to #4. The tutor stiffened. The boy’s mother handed her a twenty-dollar bill, even though they had agreed on thirty. “We’ve got a lot going on now,” the mother said by way of explanation and waving her arm over the boxes and bags that surrounded them. Outside, the tutor saw a U-haul in the driveway that wasn’t there before. She placed her business cards in mailboxes up and down the street paying special attention to the houses with toys or bikes strewn on the lawn. “What’s going on?” he snorted and went back to chopping haphazardly at the bushes. She was bound to get some business. It seemed like everyone needed help these days.
Michelle Reale is an academic librarian on faculty at a university in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Her fiction has been published in Verbsap, elimae, Eyeshot, Word Riot, Monkeybicycle and others.