The History Tutor
by Rufi Cole
It was dusk, and the trident maple was shivering its thin branches by the driveway of the house, the three-point leaves the red of a woman's lipstick. Fall only took a few days in Shanah, and all of the pecan trees that lined their block had already stripped, their leaves turning a withered brown and falling to the street at the first cool breeze. Only the trident maple remained, blushing furiously. The girl and her tutor sat on the screened porch on the bench swing, their books open on their laps.
"Read the next paragraph," the tutor said.
The girl read: "Jacques Pierre Brissot denied the Assembly, decrying Louis XVI as a traitor and unfit monarch as a result of his flight. He appealed to the sovreignty of the nation and demanded that if monarchy continued, it do so under a different monarch. He drafted a petition to be signed by the masses at the Champ-de-Mars."
Here the tutor stopped her. His lips were chapped and puffy and he licked them before he spoke, "Now, what is Brissot's argument?" A moth flew into the bug-zapper mounted in the eaves on the other side of the porch. The girl considered, tucking her hair behind her ears. The aroma of the burnt moth was carried along by the breeze.
"I guess just that it isn't fair," the girl tried, craning her neck to look at her tutor's face, "that one guy would get to rule the country, when he, like, left and didn't want to rule it anyway." She bit her lip. She was touching her legs with her hands, massaging the thin skin over her knee caps. The tutor recrossed his legs.
"Let's keep reading," he said. A dog barked from the house next door, and a man's voice said, "Hush up now."
"On July 17th," the girl read, "an immense crowd gathered to sign the petition. The Assembly called for public order, and dispersed the crowd. But, drawn by the oratory of Georges Danton and Camille Desmoulins, the crowd returned."
"This," the tutor interrupted, "is really the turning point. You have to understand that. Do you understand that?" The girl nodded. Her eyes lingered on the lips of her tutor as he spoke. He turned his face away and she lowered her eyes to her book.
The girl's brother came out onto the porch in just his shorts. The fine skin on his narrow chest shone in the dusk light. He sat, his back against the house, at the feet of his sister.
"Devon," the girl said, "I'm having my tutor right now, go back inside." The boy said nothing but remained. The girl looked desperately at her tutor, but he was sipping the root beer that the girl's mother had left out. It was too cold for soda, but he drank now.
The girl continued reading, scooting slightly closer to her tutor, "This time, when Lafayette and mayor Jean-Sylvain Bailly," she pronounced the French names badly but with flair, licking her lips, and continuing, "ordered the crowd to disperse, the crowd threw stones. Lafayette ordered his men to fire in the air; the crowd did not disperse. Lafayette ordered his men to fire into the crowd."
Her brother lifted his leg up, setting his dirty foot in the lap of his sister. The girl suddenly stood, letting her book drop to the floor, "Devon, get! Get! Get back in the house, or I'll tell Mama. Go away now!" The boy laughed but disappeared inside the house. When she turned back to her tutor, the girl's eyes were sparkling, as though the crisp autumn breeze that ran across them now had filled her with madness.
Inside the house, standing by the stove, the girl's mother filled the smoking pan with okra, letting the cold green bodies slide out from the plastic bag. Her husband sat at the kitchen table, his beer untouched.
"Well, I don't know, I don't know, Rosy," he said, his hands laid out flat on the tabletop, "It sure seems like it. I don't know what to think."
"You know me, Tom, you know me better than that."
"Do I?" her husband said.
The dog next door barked, and the muted voice of their neighbor swore, "Hush up, godamnit." The dog continued barking.
Her husband suddenly slammed his hands down on the table, "I want to know! I want to know! Goddamnit, Rosy, tell me! Tell me the truth!" He was shaking with fury. His son watched from the crack between the door and the wall.
"There is nothing to tell," the mother said, her voice loud and echoey. The cold air blew in from the window above the sink. "Why," the mother said, "Do you keep trying to get me to tell you something? I've got nothing to tell. You've gone out of your head, Tom."
The okra was burning in the pan and the smell was sharp in the room.
"Maybe so," the husband said, and touched his can of beer, but then pulled his hand away from the chill.
On the porch the girl had turned so that she was facing the tutor. "Sometimes," she said, "I just can't stand it. I just can't. I feel like I'll go crazy here. And no one cares." She looked up into her tutor's face. He cleared his throat.
"Do you think, ever, that there could be just one moment, one moment where everything changes?" she asked, and laid her hand on his arm. The tutor was silent for a moment, and then said, "History is filled with causes, filled with reasons, and, for instance, with the massacre at the Champs-de-Mars, there were months and years of reasons that made that crowd unwilling to disperse, and those soldiers willing to pull their triggers. But that was the moment. And they did it. Why it was that moment and not another is in a certain way immaterial." He scooted slightly away from her by re-crossing his legs, and her hand fell down his arm and lay on the fabric of the cushion between them.
"Why don't you read the next passage," he said.
The girl looked out at the yard, which was almost completely dark now. Only the blood colored leaves of the trident maple by the driveway could still be seen, muted and blurry, through the darkness. She bent down to retrieve her book from where it had fallen, but brought her elbow too close to the table, spilling her tutor's rootbeer into his lap.
"Oh my gosh," she gushed, rushing to retrieve the glass, and patting the liquid with her hands, "Oh my gosh, I'm so sorry," she said. Her hands remained on the soaked fabric of her tutor's pants. "Oh, I am so sorry, please forgive me," she said. The tutor stood, frantically swatting the girl's hands from him. "It's okay," he said, "It's okay," and he left her there on the porch, disappearing inside the yellow light of the house. On the porch the girl watched another moth fly into the deadly blue light in the eaves, and noticed that a pile of their bodies has accumulated below.
Inside, the tutor found the mother alone in the kitchen. "Oh, what happened?" the woman said, rushing to the counter for a dishtowel. "Oh, nothing," the tutor said, "Just my own clumsiness." The woman knelt before him, holding the dishcloth to the stain, and pressing the rootbeer out of the tutor's pants.
"It's okay," the tutor said, awkwardly, his hands hovering over her head like unsure birds.
"No," the woman said, "Let me."
Rufi Cole graduated from The New School with a degree in Creative Writing. She now lives in California where she is writing her first novel. The History Tutor is her first publication.