The Lesson

by Thomas Kearnes

That young, still in junior high, I didn’t know why I was so impressed with Clayton March. I was, however, damn impressed. As he strutted toward us, his narrow torso and twitching hips lent him a tough femininity that made me think of my mom. He seemed impervious to ridicule. The words faggot and cocksucker were from a language he didn’t speak, filtered out, gibberish. How humiliating that Clayton was six months younger than me.

He stepped to the table and announced in his tight, hoarse voice the start of class. He whipped out a grade book, swiped from a real teacher, and began roll. There were only eight of us, but we still called out “here.” Piney Woods Day Care liked to boast how simpatico its children were, all friends, all day and every day.

“Teacher,” a girl named Olive said, sniffing back snot, “can we go outside for recess?”

“If you’re good children and refrain from vexing me, perhaps.”

“Teacher,” said a boy with a lazy eye, “Mom says I shouldn’t let you be the boss of me.”

Clayton slid a hand over his greasy, matted dark blonde hair. Not a single tuft rose in rebellion. “When you’re with your mother, do as she says.” With his red pen, he savagely marked the grade book. “But when you’re in my class, I am the boss of you.”

I could bolt any time I pleased. With my thick torso, muscular thighs and quick feet, I was always the first pick for kickball or dodge ball. Cattycorner to me, though, sat good reason to raise my hand and say please and pretend this all wasn’t more than a little creepy.

Bart’s chestnut locks flopped over his eyes. Every time he flipped them back, he smiled bashfully. He suffered from the adolescent affliction of believing his every gesture will be scrutinized; I knew a few things about that. Clayton lowered his eyes to inspect the grade book, and Bart mouthed those words—faggot, queer, pervert—that Clayton knew others brandished. A skilled teacher notices everything.

Bart popped his knuckles. Watching his bicep undulate stirred longings in me I didn’t fully comprehend. I was strapped in a car stalled on the tracks. Intense desire for another boy’s company made me a certain type of person, and my heart would’ve shriveled like bacon if Bart called me hurtful names. I wanted to be Bart’s friend, his only friend. I wanted him to stay overnight, our sleeping bags overlapped, sending dirty texts to the girls he liked. A year or two ago, we wrestled outside on crunchy, dead grass. He pinned me against the earth, and I held his gaze for a sweet eternity until we both burst laughing.

Clayton cleared his throat and smacked a ruler against the table. “Today is your math test. If you don’t pass this exam, you must explain to the class why you’re so dumb.”

Bart whispered, “What does he shove up his ass to get that little twist just right?”

I giggled, hand clamped over my mouth. Bart leaned back, a perfect passivity slipping over his features. Olive and another girl muttered excitedly about someone catching hell.

“Does math amuse you, Randolph?” I stopped laughing, dropping my hand followed by my head, and assured Clayton that I took arithmetic seriously. “I’m so glad to hear it,” he sniffed and whipped out photocopies from his grade book. “You’ll have five minutes to finish.” He passed out the tests. Bart took one and scrubbed under his arms. Ignoring him, Clayton continued. “Any outburst will be handled harshly.” He halted at the head of the table, his heels clicking together. Waiting for the Piney Woods van every day after school, he polished his black dress shoes. “Now, make me proud to be an educator,” he said.

With a flurry of bobbing eraser ends, we began our fake exam for our fake teacher. All of us, that is, except Bart. With a blue crayon, he wrote nonsense like “maybe” and “don’t think so” and “you suck.” The test couldn’t stump a first-grader: simple addition and subtraction. Clayton might’ve feared more difficult curriculum would leave empty seats. I flew through my test in under a minute then watched Bart deface his.

The day care center was a converted Victorian mansion in the historic district. Roads of actual brick lent what the city’s tourism division called “stateliness.” On a plasma TV at the end of the large playroom, most of the kids gazed like zombies at a cartoon about a neurotic sponge and his quasi-queer relationship with a dumb starfish.

Bart squeezed his thumb and forefinger together, placed them before his lips and sucked sharply. At the time, I thought he meant cigarettes. Now, of course, I know he either wanted pot or was willing to share. Then confused, I simply laughed. Guys like you to laugh at their jokes, even the stupid ones. Bart Callahan was the funniest bastard in the world.

The swift, searing pain in my left knuckles jolted me. Bart and I snapped up our heads. Clayton stood beside us, arms crossed and eyes narrowed. The ruler twitched in his hand. “Randolph, since you’re the better student, I’ll let you decide. Who should I discipline first, you or Bart?”

Bart smirked. “Gotta catch me first, ma’am.”

Clayton cut his gaze to my friend then returned to me. “I need your decision.”

That’s the spooky thing about childhood games, the scenarios your friends invent. You’re loath to give them up because of the time and energy invested. I could’ve told Clayton to piss off. Like most kids my age, though, I was so fucking miserable, I held fast to any fantasy offered—even a childish, unpleasant one.

A smile flickered across my lips, but Bart missed it. He drifted over to the sponge and starfish; they were arguing about something, dozens of little cartoon bubbles climbing from the ocean floor. The spell, it seemed, had ended for the other kids as well. Only Clayton and I remained, acting out our parts. His game always ended when he sought to punish a student. Not even the dumb kids wanted to peek behind that curtain. Me, though, I had to know.

How committed was Clayton to his sad, sad show? His devotion mesmerized me. He ordered me outside, instructing me to wait. I stood on the pavement, one foot inside a hopscotch square. The wind sliced through me, raw and frigid. Why couldn’t this happen inside? All week, the winter haze had obscured the sun.

I didn’t know where Clayton had found the paddle, or who had been dumb enough to give him one. He softly slapped the wooden instrument against his palm, stepping toward me lightly like a spider. He told me to bend over. I didn’t bend far enough, so he demanded that I grab my ankles. I didn’t question him. Decadent anticipation overwhelmed me, surging like an ice-cream migraine. I disgusted myself. Clayton swung and stopped inches from my bottom, back and forth, practicing like a golfer on the links.

He spanked me. He spanked me again. He kept spanking me until I cried out. No one watched. We were the only two boys in the world.

After Clayton was done, I gaped at him, unsure how to acknowledge what had passed between us. My buttocks tingled with electric warmth, every nerve ending alive and essential. I gasped, forgetting all about Bart and his unruly forelock. I massaged my buttocks, hoping the sensation would linger. It faded quickly, elusive like a dream recalled too late.

Clayton straightened his back, the paddle dangling from his hand. He suggested I come inside. It was freezing and I hadn’t brought my coat. Would I like to explain to the class that I caught a cold because I’m so dumb? Clayton waited for an answer. I really didn’t have one. Only one word sat on my tongue: again.

Thomas Kearnes graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with an MA in film writing. His fiction has appeared in Hobart, Gertrude, A cappella Zoo, Split Lip Magazine, Litro, Berkeley Fiction Review, PANK, BULL: Men’s Fiction, Gulf Stream Magazine, Night Train, Word Riot, Storyglossia, Driftwood Press, Adroit Journal, Eclectica, wigleaf, SmokeLong Quarterly, Sundog Lit, The Citron Review, The James Franco Review and elsewhere. He is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee. Originally from East Texas, he now lives near Houston and works as a cashier. His debut collection of short fiction, “Steers and Queers” will print at Lethe Press before year’s end.

Photo by: Ana Prundaru