Excerpt of Matthew Clark Davison’s Doubting Thomas
Author: Edit Team
July 14, 2021
The following is an excerpt from Matthew Clark Davison’s debut novel, Doubting Thomas, which was released on June 8th from Bywater Books/Amble Press. Doubting Thomas follows the story of Thomas McGurrin, a fourth-grade teacher and openly gay man at a private primary school serving Portland, Oregon’s wealthy progressive elite. When he’s falsely accused of inappropriately touching a male student, Thomas is forced to resign from a job he loves during a potentially life-changing family drama. By turns rueful, humorous, angry, and wise, Doubting Thomas explores the discrepancy between the progressive ideals and persistent negative stereotypes held by the privileged regarding social status, race, and sexual orientation—and the impact of that discrepancy on friendships and family relations.
Matthew Clark Davison’s prose has been anthologized in Empty the Pews (Epiphany Publishing) and 580-Split, and published in Guernica, The Atlantic Monthly, Foglifter, Lumina Magazine, Fourteen Hills, Per Contra, Educe, and others. He is also full-time faculty in Creative Writing at San Francisco State University. His textbook The Lab, Experiments in Writing Across Genre, co-authored by Alice LaPlante, is forthcoming from W.W. Norton in 2022.
Every five years or so it snowed enough to turn Portland from green to white. While visitors loved the city’s flora, it could assert itself on its inhabitants like a bully, reminding everyone who ruled. Douglas and silver firs ganged up with western hemlocks. The forest provided cover, but also cast shadows.
Thomas’s flight from Colorado had landed safely that afternoon, but his boss Mercy’s too-careful driving through the snow from the airport had made Thomas carsick. Once home, he used a Jake-trick: ate an entire sleeve of Saltines, washing them down with mineral water infused with floating slices cut from a knuckle of fresh ginger. Now, with evening upon him, Thomas imagined himself a winter bird looking down from above as he watched out of the kitchen window as a cross-country skier left a pair of parallel lines in his snowy wake. He cooked a ground turkey chili, lunch for the upcoming school week, and willed the snow to stop because if it kept up, Mercy would call a snow day. Desperate for distraction, Thomas wanted to get back to work. He ladled the chili into containers to cool on the counter, cranked up the heat, and plopped himself on the couch. He listened as the snow turned to rain, and the rain to ice. Then the frozen needles of the evergreen tapped the glass of his living room window.
By the time the phone rang, it had gone too dark in Thomas’s house to see. He reached over the coffee table and turned on the lamp. The room glowed a reddish gold, a color similar to his best friend’s thick hair. Dana and Thomas caught up by phone most Sunday evenings, and after the usual hellos and how are yous, Thomas admitted that every time he returned from Colorado Springs, he missed Manny like nuts. She said into the phone, “Of course. Cancer is grueling and Manny made you laugh. It’s been a long time. Have you even called? Told him about Jake?”
“I’m not using the brother-with-cancer card to get the ex’s sympathy,” Thomas said. The tone Dana used when speaking Manny’s name—one of tenderness—caused Thomas’s cheeks to go hot. Odd. Other than Mercy, he’d told no one at Country Day about the breakup with Manny, nor of Jake’s cancer. Not one of his fourth graders, and certainly none of their parents. Mercy finally agreed to “professional development” as the white lie to account for the occasional Friday or Monday he’d taken off to go to Colorado in the nine months since Jake’s diagnosis. Mercy had said, “You could tell them. Openness is a C-Day core value.” She tried to convince him to discuss Jake’s cancer with his students. “And you can always mention that you’re sad because you miss someone you love. Appropriately,” she’d added.
Before and after work and on weekends he dealt with cancer and the fact of being single again. But he didn’t want to contend with his students’ or their parents’ reactions. He needed their neediness for problems he could solve.
Thomas had first called Dana a week after the initial diagnosis, when James’s medical school buddy in Head and Neck Oncology at Memorial Sloan Kettering helped the team in Colorado Springs finalize the diagnosis and treatment plan. Jake’s cancer turned out to be HPV-related. Originally, the slides made it look like another, less treatable strain. James revised his original, grim prediction to, “if the treatments don’t kill him, he’ll survive.”
“Are you sure I can’t join you for Easter?” Dana asked.
“I’m positive. If the PET scans are bad, it’ll be a shit show,” Thomas said.
Thomas looked out the window. He’d been fine earlier, but now, talking about Manny and his family, his little house in Portland felt as empty and sprawling as the desert plains he’d left behind when he returned from Colorado. Across the street, his neighbors, the Jurakas, had a walnut tree in front of the spotlight above the garage. The wind made the bare branches cast shadows. He felt his evening dread creeping in.
“I’d never be able to work under your circumstances,” Dana said. “What are you going to do tonight? Please don’t say stay home and grade papers.”
“You’re just allergic to work,” Thomas said into his phone. “For some of us, it’s a relief.”
Thomas cried only once since the breakup and Jake’s diagnosis. The two events had become intertwined in his psyche. Like the sides that made up his brain, each had its own set of characteristics and caused its own set of reactions, but they’d also merged into a big blob, affecting everything. A month or so after Manny left, just a couple weeks after his brother’s diagnosis, one of Thomas’s students, Toby Jay—while attempting a complex series of folds to create an origami frog—reminded Thomas of Jake as a boy. He’d remembered Jake with the other neighborhood kids his age. They’d lined up little toads, a half a dozen or so—that they’d gathered from the stream running through the backyard—under the McGurrin’s garage door. Cheered on by the other kids, who’d squatted down and tried to keep them from jumping out of line, Jake pressed the garage door button, and before Thomas had realized what they were up to, they’d squashed them all, leaving their skins emptied of their little yellow and white gut sacks.
Jake had reveled in the other boys’ attention as he bragged about his dad’s electric door opener, but later, he wept after Maddy smacked his face and made him scrub the dried entrails from the pavement with bucket and brush. That memory opened up to a feeling so intense and distant, Thomas couldn’t recognize it as his own. He went mute in front of his class in the middle of a sentence. In that pause, he imagined it evening already, at home next to Manny, recalling both stories, the one of Toby with the origami frog and the one with little Jake with the squished toads. When he realized Manny wouldn’t be there, Thomas motioned to his aide to take over, locked himself in the bathroom and sobbed. When it finally passed, he could smell his own body’s odor under his woodsy, citrusy cologne.
Now a pile of his fourth graders’ papers sat next to him on the couch. He swallowed, said, “I’m behind. Besides, I can’t go out. I’m all dried up.”
“Bullshit,” Dana said. “The forties are the new thirties. You’re in great shape.”
“I meant my sinuses,” Thomas said. “Colorado? The airplane?”
They laughed. He felt something rigid in the pocket of his hoodie. Thomas and his nephew Max had worked on a thousand-piece jigsaw over the last visit, an image of an elephant walking toward the photographer’s camera, Kilimanjaro in the background like a camel’s hump on the elephant’s back.
He pulled the small jagged piece of shellacked cardboard from his sweatshirt pocket and stared at it for a long time. Finally, he rotated it forty-five degrees so blue was on top. Under it dabs of white over brown. A smidge of snow on the tip of the mountain. A tiny piece of sky.
“I’ve got a date,” Dana said, with a slight tremolo.
“Another bored housewife?” Thomas asked, picturing Dana on her couch with Otto, the purring Himalayan circling her lap.
“Um, no, and fuck you very much,” she said. “That was a phase, not a habit. This one is butch. Like out-and-in-the-WNBA butch. But that’s all you’re getting. I don’t want to jinx it.”
“She sounds cute,” Thomas said.
“She is. And she’s got a huge cock,” Dana said. “A whole collection of them.”
The image of his best friend shifted from couch and cat and herbal tea to bed and box of dildos. “Charming,” Thomas said, and they laughed again. Dana kept him from going morbid. As much now as when the two met nearly twenty years ago in Berkeley, at Cal, during grad school.
“Speaking of cute and butch, how’s our Max?” Dana asked. “Is your nephew gay yet?”
“Not yet, but there’s progress,” Thomas said, making his way back to the kitchen, turning on the light. “He’s the public defender of same-sex marriage in Colorado Springs. Quite the little activist.”
“Good,” Dana said. “We need him.”
“It makes me nervous. He’s dealing with classmates whose parents are involved with those weird megachurches and he’s the only Black kid in his class.” Thomas lidded the plastic containers of chili, now just a bit warmer than room temperature.
“They should move to Portland. Max should go to Country Day,” Dana said.
“Totally,” Thomas said. Even with Mercy’s recruiting efforts, Country Day had a smaller percentage of Black students than Max’s school. He closed the refrigerator door and headed to his office. “Jake and Sheree worry. And who could blame them?”
“No one. Aren’t the Springs the headquarters for Focus on the Family or whatever it’s called? And don’t they have an active chapter of the KKK there?” Dana asked.
“Yes on the first. Not sure on the second,” Thomas said, but he remembered the first time he’d taken Max to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. A mom feeding the giraffes looked at Thomas holding four-year-old Max. She called him a n-lover. Actually used the n–word. The giraffe’s giant black tongue grabbed the cracker the woman had balanced on her open palm. Then her pink-faced daughter said the word again, pointing at Max, before mother and daughter joined hands, turned and walked toward the elephants, leaving Max and Thomas and the giraffe silent, blinking. By the time he’d collected his wits and recovered from shock, it was too late. His fury turned to guilt for not defending his nephew—too stunned to talk back to the woman. When he returned home, he immediately reported it to Jake, who said, “What kind of bubble do you live in that you’re so shocked? Shit like that happens all the time.” Sheree looked at Jake and laughed at Thomas’s naivete. “This here,” Sheree said, grabbing Max, pointing at Thomas and Jake. “It’s whiteness. We don’t have that,” she said.
Sitting at his desk, phone pressed to his ear, Thomas pulled an envelope from the drawer and put the puzzle piece inside.
“My date just texted. She’s waiting outside,” Dana said. “Send Max my love.”
“Do everything I wouldn’t do,” Thomas said, lingering on his best friend’s phrase, imagining love an object one could send. He thought of wrapping the puzzle piece in a sheet of tissue paper, the kind they use at fancy stores. He licked the glue, sealed the envelope. The two hung up.
Thomas went and turned on the outside flood light to check on the snow and rain from the living room window. A pair of eyes reflected the light and startled him. Whose dog had gotten into his yard on this too-cold night? After locking gazes, Thomas realized that it wasn’t a dog, but a coyote, with a rabbit or squirrel in its long snout. The animal’s lean body was covered in thick gray-brown fur, gorgeous against the surrounding white. Its long, bushy tail waved once from side to side.
“Hello,” Thomas said, and tapped his finger on the window.
Last year, in a unit on local Native American mythology, a storyteller from the Wasco tribe had come to Country Day for a mini assembly. “Sometimes,” the man said, “the coyote is a hero; in other stories, he’s greedy, reckless, and arrogant. In still others, he is a comic trickster. Lack of wisdom gets him into trouble, cleverness gets him out.”
“Then is he a hero or a fool?” one of the kids asked.
“He’s both,” the storyteller said, looking weary. Later, Thomas heard the man in the hallway on his phone, soon after shaking Thomas’s hand and graciously receiving the praise of the other teachers, he said, “I’m tired of bullshit one-hour gigs that take an hour to get to. They’re not really interested in us. They’re just checking a box.”
Now the real coyote put the squirrel on the snow and looked up to Thomas.
“It’s not mine,” Thomas said. “Take it.”
As if the animal could hear through the glass, the coyote picked up its meal, turned around, crossed the street and pranced into the Juraka’s yard before disappearing into the woods.
Doubting Thomas By Matthew Clark Davison Bywater Books Paperback, 9781612941998, 272pp. June 2021