The fitness test for the eighth-grade girls was always at the beginning of October. By noon the temperature had fallen thirty degrees in twenty-four hours. We stood there in our school shorts and tees, our legs covered with goose bumps, jumping up and down and slapping our hands against our bare arms. I never pushed myself at these things, but I was so cold that I ran to keep warm, and beat all the other girls. They had a second heat (strange word for a day that chilly) of the best runners. I obviously wasn't thinking. The name at the top of the list was mine, with the best time by six seconds: Clover Nora Fischer. Most people would be proud to win. Most people aren't bright enough to know any better. But it doesn't say much for my own intelligence that I won when I did know better.
Mr. Thomasson, the biology teacher, coached track. I was in his class, the last period of the day. He asked me to stay after and sat at his desk grading papers until everyone had gone and the halls had quieted. He closed the wooden door. The light from the hall shone through the frosted glass. I sat in a chair at the end of one of the lab benches, and he sat next to me, along the other edge. We were next to each other, at the corner of the lab bench.
"How do you like biology?" he asked. He leaned near enough that I smelled his breath. I never thought breath could stink that badly. Even without the halitosis, he was creepy. His skin was oily and his eyes protruded and he had acne scars on his cheeks. His hair was glued down and flecked with little bits of dandruff. I leaned back, wondering why I'd never noticed how repulsive he was, but he'd just been part of the school scenery, like the other teachers, and I'd never seen him this close. I hoped I never had to again.
I mumbled something about the class being okay.
"I hope it's more than okay," he said. "You're an extremely bright girl. You could do very well if you applied yourself."
I looked at the textbook. The cover was a picture of energy flows in an ecosystem. I hated biology. I hated the wetness: the circulatory system, sweat glands, reproductive systems. Bags of meat. As appealing as roadkill. The way we're made. The school put me in biology because Earth Sciences was full and that year my name was in the last group of students choosing classes, the group that got the leftovers. I hated seeing how repulsive life looks, hated the mechanisms. The dissections were worst: slimy things like earthworms and frogs. Slimy inside even more than outside.
"I'm pretty busy," I lied. "I have to help my mom after school."
"I'll talk to her," he offered. "She wants you to do well. I'm sure she'll let you out of some chores so you can study under me."
"No! Please." My mother taught Spanish at the same school, only three blocks from our house. All the teachers talked to her about me, and some of them talked to me about her. When Mr. Thomasson came to the school, mother had switched to teaching Spanish instead of biology. She had a Ph.D. in botany. I'd looked at her dissertation, on the bookshelf at home with all our other books. It was something about prairie grass. I didn't understand any of the words that were more than two syllables. I didn't want to take biology, but at least I didn't have to take it from my Ph.D. mother in a school where everyone knew her and loved her. When she walked home from school, one of her students, sometimes more than one, usually walked along. She would stand at a corner, listening, when she should have excused herself, to go home and be with us. But she liked to listen to her students. If I happened to walk by, she would ask me to stay, but I would not, because I didn't want to be seen with her. In winter she always wore the same old dark cloth coat, but in spring and fall she wore one of her plain cotton dresses that embarrassed me; they were two inches too long. She was dowdy. She favored brown shoes and white ankle socks. You would have thought she was a spinster, not a wife and the mother of three children by two men. So I was glad she'd quit teaching the class; it would have been worse, taking it from her, than taking it from Mr. Thomasson, or so I thought. That opinion was about to change.
"Well?" he asked. "Would you spend some time with me? Learning the material?"
I couldn't believe he was coming on to me, all repulsive and old. How was I going to get through the semester if he kept acting like this? I was starting to sweat. I hate to sweat.
When I didn't answer he said, "Well, then, she knows the subject better than I do. Maybe she can help you."
Thanks. My mother? The most annoying human being in town? Mrs. Nit-Pick, Mistress of the Small Detail? "Are my grades bad?" I asked. "Did I flunk the test?"
"No," he said. "You still have a B. But you can make an A without even trying. You're coasting."
That made me mad. They were my grades, not his. Besides, he was starting to sound like my mother. She was always talking about the classes I "neglected".
Then he got really creepy. He scooted his chair closer and leaned toward me and put his hand on mine. "Clover, you should try harder. You have so many gifts, and you're wasting them."
"I'm really not that smart." I didn't expect him to buy this, but I didn't know what else to say. My brains weren't his business, but I couldn't say so, not to a teacher.
"Yes, you are. You only work at the things you like. Last year you came in near the back of the pack in the fitness test. This year you came in first. Why is that?"
"I, I grew?"
"No. You made an effort this time. Kids don't improve that much unless they've been running. Have you?"
"No." Maybe I should have said "yes". I wasn't sure.
"I'd like you to try out for the track team. I know it doesn't start until spring, but if you get ready over the winter I can help you. If you train hard, you can go to the state finals."
What did he think I was, some kind of racehorse for him to manage? Then he stopped holding his hand over mine, and actually took my hand in his.
"I have to go." I picked up my books.
I walked as fast as I could. When I was a block away, I looked back. He was watching me from the window.
At home I ignored my mother's greeting, and ran upstairs to my room. I closed the door and threw myself on the bed.
There was a knock on the door. "Clover? Is something wrong?"
She opened the door and closed it behind her and sat on the bed. Lying down was too exposed, too intimate. I swung my legs to the floor so I was sitting next to her, but not close. I put my elbows on my knees and looked at my feet.
"Did something happen at school?"
I shook my head.
"Mr. Thomasson said he was going to talk to you about the track team."
"He's a nice man. He cares about his students. He tries to help them. He wants to help you. He says you can be a 'star'."
"Why do you talk to the other teachers about me?"
"They talk to me. I can't very well tell them to stop. That would be rude, don't you think?"
"I don't care. Everybody knows everything. Everywhere I go, it's your-mother this and your-mother that. I don't have a life, it's like I'm a little piece of you."
"I'm sorry." She touched my shoulder, and I slid away from her. She said, "Is there some way I can help? Something I can do?"
"Send me to a different school."
"It's too late for that. It's too far into the semester."
"Then let me drop biology." You had to have permission from your parents to drop a class.
"You need the science credit. Lawrence High won't take you without it."
"I don't care. He's weird. Maybe I can quiz out."
"No. You'd have to take it in addition to your other classes next year."
I didn't want to, but she was forcing me to bring out my ace. "He made a pass at me."
"I think you must have misunderstood."
"No I didn't. He sat real close to me and held my hand."
"What did he say?"
"He wanted to help me. Coach me. But it was more like, spend time alone together."
"I'm sure he was talking about track."
"No. He wants to be around me. He wants to -- you know."
"Clover, I think you misunderstood."
"No I didn't."
"Lower your voice, please."
"I didn't misunderstand," I hissed. "He's a dirty old man. He wants to have sex with me."
"Just wait. I'm sure this will clear up, and you'll see that you're wrong."
"I'm going to report him to the principal."
My mother sighed and looked at the wall. Her eyes didn't move. She was looking for something, without seeing the wall. Finally she said, "Clover, what I am about to tell you you must never repeat to anyone. Will you promise me that?"
She stood. "Then you're simply going to have to take my word for it. He's a nice man. He wouldn't do that sort of thing."
Now I was curious. "All right. I promise."
"This is important. You have to keep this secret."
"I promise, okay?" What did she want, a sworn statement?
"Mr. Thomasson doesn't like girls."
"Well he likes me."
"No, I mean -- " she took a breath -- "he doesn't like girls that way." When she saw that I still didn't get it she said, "He's homosexual."
"Oh my God. He's queer?"
"Please don't use that word." She sat next to me again. "I didn't want to tell you. Now you can't make a fuss about this. He's a good man and he tries to help his students. He loves the smart ones, like you. He wants to help them."
"He's disgusting. Sex with boys. Pervert."
"Stop that." She almost never raised her voice, but she was speaking sharply. "He doesn't do that with boys."
"Men. Whatever. God. How gross."
"Clover, this is one of those times when you have a chance to grow up a bit. You can accept him. If you don't do that, then you close -- "
"Stop. Stop. Not another lecture."
"Listen to me -- "
"No. This is too gross. How did you know, anyway?" None of the kids knew. There wasn't any talk. He must have been very careful to hide it. I'd heard he was dating one of the other teachers, a woman who was a little younger than him, divorced with two sons in the high school. Mr. Thomasson even used to be married.
"We're friends. He talks to me. He trusts me not to tell anyone. That's why it's important you keep his secret. He would lose his job. He loves teaching. It's the most important thing in his life. He's a good teacher, and a good man." Her voice trembled a little. "Don't betray him."
She was such a loser. So weak. Always putting others first, worrying about them and their feelings. Then I looked at her. Her lips were that tight thin line, and her cheeks were pink, so she was angry. If I let out his secret she'd make my life hell. Not deliberately, but by being who she was: showing her disappointment, and giving me more lectures, and asking questions that referred to Mr. Thomasson when the time came to trust me on something. She wouldn't trust me again, because this was too important to her. I knew I could find a way to use the secret without the news getting back to her. Without exposing him.
I smiled at her. "Don't worry. I won't tell. But I'm not going out for track. And I'm not going for tutoring."
"Will you at least study harder?"
"Clover -- "
"No. I won't tell anyone. But I'm not going to study harder."
The next day Mr. Thomasson asked me to stay after class again. When the other students left, he closed the door. This time, he sat on the high stool behind his desk. I stood on the other side of the desk, holding my books against my chest.
"Your mother said she talked to you."
"I'm not going out for track."
"She said that. I wanted to discuss something else. She told me you were going to complain to the principal. She had to tell you about me." He waited, but I didn't say anything. "Clover, I have been a teacher for more years than you have been alive. Your mother and I are a lot alike. We like to see young minds grow. I want to help my students. I don't take advantage of them. I have never, ever done anything improper."
"You touched me."
"Yes, that was unwise. But it wasn't what you thought. I wouldn't try that, I wouldn't try to, even if you were, if I was... "
"I don't care. I want you to stay away from me."
"You're still my student."
"I want out of the labs. They make me sick."
"Everyone who takes this class has to do the lab work."
"I don't care. I hate it. I want out of the labs. If you let me out I won't tell on you, and I'll work hard. Hard enough to get an A." I had an idea, and said, "I'll do the extra-credit questions on the homework."
"How can?... " He thought for a moment. "I know a doctor who will write you an excuse. He'll say you have a formaldehyde allergy."
"So I don't have to do the lab tomorrow?"
"I'm -- seeing him -- tonight. I'll get it then."
"What if he doesn't?"
"He will. When I explain the situation, he'll do it. I'll bring you the slip, and you turn it in to the principal's office."
I nodded. What a relief.
"Can I trust you?" he asked.
"Yes, if you -- "
"Keep my part of the deal?"
"I will," he said. "I'll get you the excuse, and I won't work with you any more closely than the minimum."
"Good, because you're disgusting. Doing things with other men."
He looked blank for a moment and then his face closed. "No," he said. "I'm not the disgusting one. You are. You're as different from your mother as you can possibly be. Get out."
I asked, "But you'll get me the excuse?"
"Yes. We have a deal." He stood. "How I long for the old days, when children showed some respect. Now get out of here."
Of course my mother heard that I wasn't in the labs any more. It got back to her through a boy who told his dad, who mentioned it to my mother during a parent-teacher conference. That was almost a month later, and there wasn't anything she could do by then. I'd missed too much work to make it up, or catch up with the experiments they were doing.
We had an argument about it, in my room, where we had most of our arguments. She kept lowering her voice in the middle of her sentences, the way she always did: every time she started to yell, she caught herself and lowered her voice again. I always tried to make her lose her temper and yell, but she usually didn't.
Wyatt came upstairs and opened the door and tried to arbitrate, but when I glared at him and mother turned her back on him he shrugged and said, "Suit yourselves," and left.
We got complicated then. She decided that protecting Mr. Thomasson was more important than me being in the labs. She never lied. She hated dishonesty. It must have eaten at her, having to conceal this. Deception was not in her nature. But she was too simple to con me, and too realistic not to realize that the time had passed to change the situation. I gloated over her discomfort more than I did about getting out of the labs.
I kept my word. I got the highest grades in the class and did all the extra-credit work. It was worth it, not to have to do the labs. I didn't tell on him until a couple of years later, when I was getting high with my friend Angela and playing Truth or Dare, and I chose Dare, and she challenged me to tell a secret no one knew. At the end of that school year Mr. Thomasson quit and left town, and I thought maybe Angela had spread the news.
Our dishwasher broke about a week later, and until we got it fixed I helped mother do the dishes. Melody was glad, because she was free of them while I was stalking mother; Mel hated chores. I'm sure mother wondered why I was being so generous with my sister, since it was entirely out of my character, but she didn't say anything. She didn't pry about things she thought didn't matter (which, by and large, was a smaller subset than I would have liked). One day when mother was washing and I was drying and she was in a talkative mood seemed like the right time. I asked her, "Why did Mr. Thomasson move away?"
"His friend took a job at a hospital in Saint Louis," she said.
Friend, I thought. She always found the kind euphemisms about people and their weirdnesses. "Good," I said. "I hope he's happy."
She stopped washing and started to touch my arm, but her yellow rubber glove dripped suds when she raised her hand, and she lowered it to the edge of the sink so she wouldn't wet my blouse.
"Yes," she said. "So do I. He deserves to be happy.
We all do. I hope some day you understand that you do, too."