Chapter One (excerpt) from the novel
by Matthew Clark Davison
Wednesday May 1st, 2013
A single word printed over the picture of
Thomas and his fourth-grade class asked
Pedophile? There it hung in Times New
Roman bold, staring up from the online
edition of the newspaper. He remembered
the day that photo had been taken, only a
year ago, when one of the parents snapped
the candid shot as he and the kids lined up
for a field trip beneath the oaks on the
school grounds just as the Portland spring
had started to give way to summer and
geraniums had begun to dot the forest floor.
His body buzzed with a foreign set of
sensations as he sipped mint tea. Only one other time, in college, had he felt something similar, the first of his HIV test results. Fear, yes. A tamped-down terror that buzzed in his chest, prickled and dampened the skin of his forehead, his scalp. Just as the mint had started to calm his stomach, another wave hit him as Thomas stared again at the online photo on his phone. His students’ eyes were covered with black bars, the kind he’d seen thirty years ago on naked people in medical dictionaries when he and his older brother James were kids and would sneak away from the children’s lit section and into the science room at the library.
Thomas clicked to Contacts, then Family, then James. Before the first ring, his older brother picked up, said hello. Up until now he hadn’t told any of his family because up until today, even with all of his lawyer’s warnings, he didn’t believe there’d be reason.
“There’s an unfortunate work situation,” was all Thomas managed, imagining a national newspaper picking up the local story and James seeing it first. “If anyone contacts you, don’t comment. And don’t mention anything to anyone else in the family, especially the girls.”
Just then, his lawyer, Jerome, pulled into Thomas’s driveway and honked the horn. “More later,” Thomas said, cutting his brother off. He got up and grabbed his rain jacket from the back of the chair, made his way to the door.
They met in Mercy’s office first. Then in the vice principal’s. Now it was time for the town hall. Once inside the recreation building, they walked toward the room normally used for school presentations. The arrangement of the space mimicked his own classroom, with a wall of windows opposite the entrance. A podium usually stood solo in front of all the glass, which never made sense to Thomas, because it backlit rather than highlighted the speaker. In his classroom, the same area was where his kids had circled for story time that day nearly a month ago. Here, two tables were assembled and angled at forty-five degrees to each side of the podium. Between the tables and the entrance, they’d put out seven rows of chairs. Thomas and Jerome had been instructed to sit at the table on the left, Lisa and Conrad Jay—Toby’s parents—near the investigation teams on the right. Thomas pulled his phone from his pocket. His nephew had texted a moment before, Another state votes to allow gay marriage!
Victory! Thomas quickly typed and sent before turning off the ringer.
Thomas and Jerome took their places just before the Jays sat down. Had there been a judge sitting on a riser, the room would’ve resembled a courtroom instead of a community forum or town hall: Thomas with his lawyer on one side, one of the sheriffs and the district attorney and her team on the other. It struck Thomas that Mrs. Jay’s dress looked like a man’s oversized oxford shirt, and she kept playing with the built-in belt. She’d worn the same dress to the King Farmers’ Market the Sunday morning after they’d hosted the fundraising party for the scholarship fund. Like the Jays, many Country Day parents lived in the West Hills, which was a considerable drive to northeast, and Thomas had been shopping at that farmers’ market for years without ever encountering Country Day-ers. King’s, unlike the other outdoor markets, had opened a month early this year, in April, instead of May, so it drew a larger crowd.
He remembered the awkwardness as he and the Jays looked into each other’s canvas bags. Mrs. Jay talked about melon, about heirloom versus hothouse tomatoes, about kale—which kind is best, which to avoid, as if she were an expert on organic food instead of a person who led a sales team. She seemed relaxed, in charge. Her eye contact reassured Thomas that the incident with her husband from the fundraising party had gone unnoticed. In fact, the tone of their conversation reminded Thomas of her occasional appearances at her son Toby’s bi-monthly parent/teacher conferences (which Conrad usually attended, solo), where her contributions seemed both urgent and meaningless, as if she were playing a game—not of domination, but certainly something to do with control. She needed to lead. If Thomas started in on Toby’s social skills, she’d redirect to his reading comprehension. Her manner was compelling, convincing, as if by rerouting she’d uncovered the topic that everyone wanted to discuss all along.
This made Thomas wonder if it had been his own meekness that kept him from calling her right after the other incident—not the one at the party, with her husband, but the one in the classroom with her kid. The sheriff’s report showed that Toby had said something after school that same day—the Friday before the fundraiser—and the Jays still invited him.
No matter what the order of events, he couldn’t blame them for inquiring, even if they should’ve called sooner. Maybe it took the weekend to sink in? At the very least, it must’ve been confusing. If Toby, who didn’t usually lie, indeed came home and told them, as they claimed, that “Thomas touched my pants,” they deserved to hear an explanation. But they’d been given one. The same one by several witnesses. Why hadn’t that been enough? What were they doing here? Unable to think of another reason they’d taken this route, pushed it this far, Thomas could only think of the other incident: Conrad’s dumb kiss at the fundraiser. He regretted not having said something then, too—to her—right then and there, at the party, and if not at the party, the farmers’ market. But he had doubted himself.
Lisa Jay possessed a particular combination, a peculiar set of qualities that, individually, Thomas dealt with well: power, wealth, sincere directness, and a strange, almost masculine beauty. Having worked with kids of high-performing parents for years, and having grown up with his father, Thomas knew how to deal with alphas.
Mrs. Jay’s particular mix, the ever-shifting emphasis on one or two traits over the others, and the relentless-seeming need to drive the narrative, threw him off, not because he found it distasteful, he didn’t. He found it alluring. Sexy? Not only that, but Thomas wasn’t completely sure she’d seen the kiss between her husband and himself, and if she hadn’t, mentioning it would have caused trouble rather than alleviated it.
Matthew Clark Davison's debut novel, Doubting Thomas, will
be published this summer. He’s on the faculty in Creative
Writing at SFSU and creator and teacher of The Lab :: Writing
Classes with MCD. The textbook version of The Lab, co-authored
by Alice LaPlante, will be published by Norton in 2022. His prose
has been recently anthologized in Empty The Pews and 580-Split;
and published in or on Guernica, The Atlantic Monthly, Foglifter,
Lumina Magazine, Fourteen Hills, Per Contra, Educe, and others;
and has been recognized with a Creative Work Grant, Cultural
Equities Grant. Clark Gross Award for a Novel-in-Progress, and
a Stonewall Alumni Award.
Collage and ink on paper (with author photo) by artist Zach Grear