Clearly the System Has Failed

by Michael Parker

Somehow, first semester of his junior year in high school, he ended up in a class called Business Machines. Some sort of scheduling error, as he was college prep, and normally placed in what was known as the accelerated classes, which referred not to the rate at which the learning progressed, but to the fact that in that long-ago era (this was 1975), students were deemed either bright or slow. The Business Machines classroom was located in the Vo-Ag wing of the school, which housed also Home Ec, Cosmetology, Carpentry, Auto Mechanics. The hallways smelled of oil burning off an engine block, of hair lathered with chemicals and fried beneath spaceman helmets. He had never been in this part of the school. He knew no one in the classroom. All but three of them were girls and the boys already had their heads on their desks. They looked him over first with derision for his dress—hair to his shoulders, new Levi’s, a blue pocket tee, Wallabees—and then with dismissal, which led him to decide, more out of defensiveness than snobbery (for he was not, despite his destiny, a stuck-up kid), that in two years, half of the class would be making blenders on the assembly line out at Hamilton Beach.

He could have walked out. Gone to the guidance office, informed them of the mistake. But something about all those machines lined up in the back of the room, carefully placed on high counters, machines he would learn the names and purposes of—the ten key adding machine, two or three types of cash register, several brands of electric typewriters, a Dictaphone—made him take a seat instead. He raised his hand when the teacher, a woman with a high ,dyed pile of hair and an efficient demeanor (Miss Southerland, he found her immediately exotic, for she called the roll as if she were leading the class in the pledge of allegiance), said his name. But within minutes they took a typing test and some mild attack of dyslexia (or nerves, as the rest of the class typed as if their machines were stalled on the tracks of an oncoming bullet train and only their flurrying fingers could save them from certain death) caused him to transpose a letter in his first name. Thereafter he was called, by Miss Southerland and by the surly girls who rarely referred to him at all, Cable instead of Caleb. Which he did not mind. Which in fact he loved. A new name seemed mandatory since Business Machines was its own zip code. Though it shared a hall with Carpentry and Home Ec, the smell of sawdust or meatloaf, the whine of a jigsaw or the hum of a blender never penetrated the walls of his sanctuary. All other sensory data was overpowered by the noise of machines engaged in their business. He came to school to listen to it. In time he came to hear the aria of levers and handles and pads, of friction and repetition, at all hours of the day and night. All these machines, he realized one morning on his way to class, would be obsolete almost by the time he graduated from high school. Some of them already were. But the paper slicer was so sharp that even its scissoring was distinguishable in the symphony, and the fact that they were doomed, that somewhere someone was already standing, patent in hand, with the prototype of something that accomplished the same task more efficiently and quicker, was, he realized finally, what sent him soaring. As soon as you learn how to operate me, as soon as you know my ways, I will be gone, sang the dissonant and percussive chorus of this song. Why this brought him such pleasure, when the D he made in the class kept him from an academic scholarship to college, when all the girls and especially the three other boys and even, after his obvious inability to master even the paper cutter with any sort of proficiency, Miss Southerland herself came to ignore him, was the most deliciously unanswerable part of it all.

MICHAEL PARKER is the author of six novels—Hello Down ThereTowns Without RiversVirginia LoversIf You Want Me To StayThe Watery Part of the World, and All I Have In This World—and two collections of stories, The Geographical Cure and Don’t Make Me Stop Now. A new collection of very short fiction, Everything, Then and Since, is forthcoming in summer 2017 from Bull City Press. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in dozens of journals including Five Points, the Georgia ReviewThe Idaho ReviewThe Washington Post, the New York Times MagazineOxford AmericanShenandoahBlack Warrior ReviewTrail Runner and Runner’s World. He has received fellowships in fiction from the North Carolina Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as the Hobson Award for Arts and Letters, and the North Carolina Award for Literature. His work has been anthologized in the PushcartNew Stories from the South and O. Henry Prize Stories anthologies. A graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill and the University of Virginia, he is the Nicholas and Nancy Vacc Distinguished Professor in the MFA Writing Program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.