Apr/May 2004  •   Fiction

A Thanksgiving

by Aaron Sitze

Art by Janet L. Snell

Art by Janet L. Snell

Arnold had gotten up early that morning to arrange the room. Seventeen chairs, spaced three feet apart in all directions, facing away from the windows. After his acceptance, the committee had sent him a terse appendix to the blue booklet outlining possible distractions and how to eliminate them. Windows had made the list. He put the two stopwatches, one for timekeeping, the other in case the first one failed, on the desk. He took a glance around the naked room, removing a lonely, orphaned square of scotch tape from the wall behind him. Perfect. Seventeen chairs. Three feet apart. Twenty-four sharpened, soft-lead pencils. Two stopwatches. Four double windows closed and shuttered. Twelve double fluorescents humming silently. Arnold opened the doors and instructed the examinees to their chairs.

You will have 45 minutes to work on Test 1. Do not begin work until you are instructed to do so. During this time you are to work only on Test 1. If you finish before time is called, recheck your work, then place your answer folder inside your test booklet and close the booklet. Do not turn the page to the next test. You may now break the seal and begin work.

The scientific method teaches us to isolate variables in order to reach conclusions. It is the only way to test for the existence of a particular phenomenon with complete objectivity. The committee was very clear about this, going so far as to diagram the theory on the dry-erase board. They used different colored markers to represent the variables. Then, one by one, they erased them until there was only one left. It had a big T next to it, and an arrow. Arnold nodded and asked pertinent questions, which were carefully designed not to sound obstructive or passionate. They were simply pertinent. The five-member committee answered him in turn, carefully forming sentences isolated from their emotions. The committee members sat at a long, molded graphite table. The chairs were comfortable and had ultra-straight backs designed to keep everyone looking alert and interested. Doughnuts were offered and left untouched. After 90 minutes, the interview was abruptly ended.

The committee's chairwoman was stern but pretty and wore a concrete-colored suit and professionally red lips. She sat at the center of the table.

"You understand each candidate's interview must not exceed the length of any other candidate's interview," she said. She smiled matter-of-factly, and her smile rippled tightly through the other members at the table.

"I wouldn't have it any other way," Arnold said.

Arnold's parents were religious and brought him faithfully to church, as they had been instructed to do at his baptism. They taught him the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments. Each week they sat in the fourth pew from the front, by the wall of stained glass Apostles. Arnold sat on the aisle, sandwiched between his father and an aqua-faced Simon-called-Peter.

His Sunday school teacher was a tight-lipped woman with big breasts none of the boys were allowed to acknowledge but they all secretly fantasized about. She made two things very clear. The first was that God was unknowable. You couldn't contain God in anything, she explained, even if it was as big as the world. The second thing was that the church was the house of God. "Like he lives here?" someone asked her.

"Yes," she said. "He's here. And that's why we listen to the priest, because he helps us see God around us."

From then on, Arnold listened very closely to the priest. He didn't understand the parables of Jesus or the idea of Holy Communion. But when the priest told the congregation to stand, Arnold stood. When the priest told the congregation to kneel, Arnold kneeled. If God was in there at all, Arnold thought, surely He would see how well he followed directions.

You are responsible for knowing if your calculator is permitted. If you are found to be using a prohibited calculator, you will be dismissed, and your answer folder will not be scored. You may only have one calculator on your desk in operation at a time. If you need to use your backup calculator, raise your hand, and I will check it. Do not share your calculator with any other examinees. Does anyone have any questions?

Papers rustled as he started the stopwatch. Arnold took a slow walk through the aisles, peeking at each paper as he went, wading through the whisper of pencils. After he had checked them all for correct formatting, he took his position at the front of the room and watched for raised hands. In 40 minutes, he would have to clear his throat and say, "You have 5 minutes remaining on this test." He watched the clock and waited.

"One must be precise in matters of standardized testing," the committee chairwoman told him. She handed him the thick, blue booklet. It landed on his desk and puffed out a small thunderclap. The chairwoman waited for his eyes to once-over the booklet before she continued. "Precision leads to reliability," she said, "reliability to objectivity, and objectivity to truth. These tests measure truth. Some people believe truth can never be known. But it can, Arnold." She let that sink in and straightened her back, pushing out her chest. He liked she said his name while she pushed out her chest, like it was directed at him. She glanced at her notes and went on. "One must, however, isolate all the outside variables first. The gender of the examinees will be constant: male. The age bracket of the examinees will be constant: 25 to 30. But the testing environment and the testing process must be constant as well. That is the reason for this booklet. Inside, you will find the instructions for the exam. As a proctor, you must read these instructions verbatim. By doing this, you insure you yourself do not become a variable."

Arnold agreed completely and thought about the concrete-colored woman naked in his bed, covers pulled up to her chin, her eyebrows raised.

When he was 14, Arnold became an altar boy. He didn't mind it. It was a nice break from the fourth pew. He got to wear a robe and a long, silver cross around his neck. The best part, though, was watching the priests before the service. It was like being backstage at a concert. They got dressed, went to the bathroom, and got everyone in order for the show. Before they went out, they said a quick prayer together. Then the doors opened, and they walked up three carpeted stairs and into the sanctuary.

During baptisms, the priest was busy holding babies and pouring water and couldn't hold the hymnal, so the altar boy did it for him, holding it with one hand at chest level, turning the pages when the priest indicated. It was one of the harder duties. The altar boy had to read along with the priest, upside down, and be quick turning the page when he got to the bottom. The priest's hymnal was heavier than the ones in the pews. Instead of being green, it was red, with gold trim and gold tassels for place-keeping. It was larger too, because it included line-by-line instructions for the priest.

Arnold knew the baptism liturgy well. The priest held the baby up, asked the congregation to rise, and said a blessing. The congregation automatically responded, "Hear our prayer." He had witnessed it so many times, he didn't look at his hymnal anymore. But the priest's hymnal was an entirely different world. It included instructions and stage directions, written in small, red font, off-set from the regular religious text.

After baptizing the child, present it to the congregation. Ask or motion for the congregation to stand. Then say, "We welcome you into the Lord's family. We receive you as a fellow member of the body of Christ, child of the same heavenly Father, and worker with us in the kingdom of God." Then say, "Lord, in Your name." The congregation will then reply, "Hear our prayer." Ask or motion for the congregation to sit. If there is another baptism, go back to page 79. If there are no other baptisms, turn to page 144: Prayers of the Church.

"Can I give them tissues?" he asked. The committee members were impressed. The men cocked their heads as if to say, well that's a tough one, yes, it's a tough one all right.

"The answer is no," she told him, and in response to his puzzlement, added, "If we give one person a tissue for the nose, and another person a tissue for the eyes, or to wipe the mouth, soon the tissues themselves become an irregularity. The idea is to eliminate these irregularities as much as possible. The testing environment must be exactly the same as every other testing environment. Only then can we truly assess the human brain. You see?"

"Yes," Arnold said, "I see now."

"In a way," she continued, "the proctor is the most important person on the team. The proctor directly delivers the words of the testing corporation. He is the avenue through which the corporation speaks to the examinees. In other words, Arnold, when you open your mouth, the corporation speaks through you. We are simply looking for someone who will not get the message muddied. Do you understand?"

"Of course," Arnold said. He wondered if she spoke as eloquently after sex. Or during sex. Arnold wanted to get laid.

When your watch or timer indicates exactly 40 minutes have passed, and you have checked the time, say, "You have 5 minutes remaining on this test."

"You have 5 minutes remaining on this test," Arnold said. A man in the fourth chair raised his hand. Arnold approached him silently and stooped to be near him.

"I think I've made a mistake," he said. His voice was full of guilt.

"Go on," Arnold said.

"I think I'm on the wrong test. I must've not been paying attention," he said.

Arnold looked over his test. He had indeed made a mistake. Arnold paused him with a finger and retrieved the blue booklet, expertly and silently leafing through the pages. He returned, holding the booklet in front of him.

"In the case of errors on the answer sheet, the examinee will have the opportunity to work on the appropriate section in the time remaining. The examinee will not regain lost time." Arnold made his voice as sympathetic as possible, because he was pretty sure the corporation would want it that way. The man looked like he felt a little better.

"Will this affect the scores?" the man said.

"I'm sorry," Arnold said. "I can't answer that." He returned to the front of the room, leaned against the desk, and folded his hands over his knees. The man worked furiously, and Arnold watched over him.

Stop, please. Put your pencil down and look up at me. You will have 35 minutes to work on Test 2. Do not begin work until instructed to do so. After the test, you must remain quietly in your seat until all test booklets and answer folders are collected and counted. Do not leave until I dismiss you. There must be no talking.

Arnold thought about sex a lot, but not as a perversion or an obsession. His thoughts entered and exited, and the motion of their passing reminded him of sex, and so he thought about it for a while and then stopped. Church was the worst, because it seemed inappropriate to him when he was a kid. Christ didn't have sex. But he couldn't stop the thoughts. His mind wandered as a teenager, and he ended up in bed with some girl at his high school, or the girl in the pew across the aisle and one up, the one with the blond hair and silky shirt, the swishy walk. She was two years older and was probably good in bed. Experienced. Maybe he'd show up at a party sometime, and she'd be drunk or something, and she would recognize him and take him into the linen closet, and he would fumble with her shirt.

His father nudged him, standing. Communion. He stood up, in front of the entire church, trying absurdly to cover the bean-pole in his pants.

"The biggest problem you'll face," she said, "is irregularities during the process. Tissues are really only a minor issue. But other irregularities can occur. Examinees can become ill and may need to leave. They may try to assist each other or go back to work on previous test areas. They may try to look ahead to future tests. I don't need to tell you these would seriously jeopardize the validity of the testing procedure, and as such, are prohibited."

Arnold nodded.

"That being said, you may still have to deal with these potential situations. But you can't go around yelling or getting in arguments with people. That would only distract the other examinees. Instead, you will find procedures for most irregularities in the blue booklet on pages 83-87." She paused while he found his place. "You will also notice, following those procedures, there is a page for reporting irregularities. Should one occur, the corporation must know about it, since it will influence the scores of the people nearby. Perhaps someone becomes belligerent and must be escorted out. Might the people around be distracted enough to lose 60 seconds of test-taking time?"

"Certainly," Arnold said, "although I don't think a person like you would lose concentration."

She smiled shyly, and her face flushed. It looked like dawn breaking over a parking lot. Arnold was beginning to think she liked him.

A proctor must be able to move and operate silently at all times.

At the halfway mark of Test 2, Arnold let a silent one go. It had been building in his intestines all morning, but he had kept clenching it back up. He hoped it would dissipate quickly.

Standing in the house of God, he held his hands in front of him, pressing it back so it didn't bulge out so much. He tried to be nonchalant. It was impossible. The girl saw him and whispered to her little sister. It was all over. When he approached the kneeler, he took away his hands momentarily to rest them on the railing. The priest frowned at him.

At the back desk, a hand was raised. Arnold weaved through the rows and approached the desk, silently stooping and immersing himself in his own horrid stench, which had inexplicably followed him.

"Can I... oh..." the man said. He wrinkled his nose.

Arnold acted confused, though the smell was thick and obvious.

"Can I... go to the bathroom or something?" the man said.

Arnold shook his head and mouthed, "You'll have to wait." Around him, there were other hands raising, wrinkled noses, looks of disgust. They eyed each other accusingly. He addressed each examinee, but doing so only spread the evil around. People began to mutter and put their noses under their shirts as if to say, "I'd rather smell my own self than you." It was immature but effective. A man had completely closed his test booklet and was angrily waving the air around him with his hand. The mutters began to become more vocal. Arnold gave a sharp shush and nearly gagged on the air. Answer sheets had become fans.

Report and describe in detail any irregularity, especially those that could affect the testing environment or test scores. Report all disturbances and distractions, however minor, on your Irregularity Report.

At one point in the interview, she became impassioned. "The corporation has found a way to truly figure out what it means to learn something," she said, leaning over the table at him, "and since learning is the base function of humanity, we can scientifically contain, for the first time in history, the concept of what it means to be human!" Her voice became suddenly hushed, and her eyes darted back and forth. "A proctor is more than just a reader," she said. "He is a shepherd, leading the examinees toward ultimate knowledge of themselves."

Arnold nodded and understood completely. The interview was going great.

The room had become utterly disordered. The men grimaced and paced the floor, which had become littered with pencils and scratch paper.

"Can't we open a friggin' door or something?" one of them said. Arnold shook his head, trying to be stern.

"Please take your seats," he said.

"But it smells like ass in here," the man said. "Come on!"

"You will not be able to make up this lost time," Arnold warned him.

"Who fucking cares?" the man said.

"I'm going to have to ask you to leave," Arnold said. "Please turn in your testing booklet and answer sheet. They will be voided."

"I bet you did it," the man said.

"Excuse me?"

"I bet you dropped that assbomb everywhere. Is this part of the experiment, too? Subjecting us to nasty stank and seeing how we react? This isn't worth it. Here, take it, I'm going to get some clean air."

The men laughed in agreement and admiration and looked at Arnold to see what he was going to do next.

After the prayers, turn and face the congregation. Then say, "May the Lord bless you and keep you, may the face of the Lord shine upon you and give you peace." Walk out of the sanctuary. The service is over.

When she had called him to offer him the proctorship, he had asked her out.

"Maybe after the tests," she said. "We're really close to a breakthrough with this one. I think we're going to discover something important, you know? We've got it cornered." She paused, realizing she had said too much, and then said, "I think you'll do great, Arnold. You're a natural."