"A compelling, unpredictable narrative that moves beyond its calm suburban setting into darker social and psychological territory…[Matson] is a writer of uncommon wisdom and emotional depth." Tom Perrotta, author of The Leftovers and Mrs. Fletcher
Greg Goodman is a very ordinary guya not-very-ambitious school teacher and football coach who takes his attractive wife, Patty, their twin adolescent daughters, and the comfortable ease of their suburban routine for granted. Until lightening strikesboth literally and figurativelyas Greg runs a pattern with his junior varsity team during a muggy August practice and fifteen-year-old Timothy Phelps is directly struck. This crisis threatens to unravel all the strands anchoring Greg to his normal habits of being. When Timothy's mother, a stripper and addict who abandoned Timothy as a child, enters the mix, Greg discovers his own complicated and misguided longings.
As in her debut novel, Suzanne Matson employs "crisp, clean writing…[and] compassionately drawn characters" (New York Times Book Review) to create a gripping story about the nature of love, trust, family, and marriage. Set in a seemingly safe world of split-levels and carefully tended lawns, A Trick of Nature powerfully captures the characters' emerging self-awareness as they are forced to test the assumptions they hold about themselves and the connections that bind them.
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|Publisher:||Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.65(d)|
About the Author
Suzanne Matson, a 2012 fellow in fiction writing from the National Endowment for the Arts, is the author of four novels and two collections of poetry. She teaches at Boston College and lives in Newton, Massachusetts.
Read an Excerpt
It was a perfect June day: clear, windless, hot without being sticky. Mitch was on the driving range when Greg arrived. Greg waved, then went inside to buy his own bucket. He found a place on the line and began briskly sending the balls down the range in long, hooking arcs. Mitch kept trying to correct Greg's swing, but Greg didn't have the patience to be a real student of the game. When anyone gave him pointers, he knew he acquired a glazed, unlistening attitude. Greg's reason for golfing was to get his butt off the couch, plain and simple. He found that after a round of nine holes he usually had the energy to take care of some little chore like changing the oil in the car, or stopping at the hardware store to buy a set of hinges for the basement door that hung askew.
He whacked away at the golf balls, not really caring how far or straight they were going. He liked the pleasure of swinging the club until his whole upper body felt warm and loose, and hearing in rapid succession the crack of each ball against the driver.
They waited their turn to tee off. The foursome they were behind was going to slow them down today, that much was sure, a quartet of grandfathers in pastel slacksjocose, relaxed, and none too spry. They moved as if they had all the time in the world, which Greg assumed they did, in their respective retirements. During summers Greg had time to waste, too. He just wasn't able to accept it like these geezers. Maybe that was his problem: summers felt too much like retirement to him. But retirement represented the end; and at thirty-eight, what had heaccomplished? What had he even begun?
Every summer vacation he experienced this uncomfortable feeling of being without compass, adrift on a raft of days he was expected to steer in some purposeful way. At the end of each school year he forgot what summer felt like, and he behaved like the rest of the teachers, like the students, even, as they all leaned forward into June, their collective longing for freedom seeming to actually tip the school toward the powdery dust of the baseball diamond, the mowed football field, the empty, sun-heated bleachers.
This year was like the others. When the weeks arrived he had been so impatient fortime he would spend fixing things around the house, reading, lifting weights every afternoon in the cool of the basementhe felt obscurely abandoned, confused by the falling away of routine and hurry. He washed up the breakfast dishes after Patty and the girls left the house. He puttered through the morning until it was time to make a sandwich, the radio he turned on for company playing rock from twenty years ago, songs that still felt fresh to him. Some mornings he couldn't even wait until noon for this ritual, not out of hunger, but out of impatience to move to a new thing.
As soon as he had the time to begin his projects of self improvement and home improvement, they ceased to interest him. He knew that Patty expected to hear about something he did that day when she returned home from worklumber bought, a trip to the library, a shrub uprooted and moved farther away from the houseand he resented what he imagined as this wifely investment in how he spent his time, her interest in his days making them seem less his own. They spent the summer envying each other. Her complaint, voiced often enough so that he knew when it was coming, a particular little sigh of fatigue preceding it, was that she never had enough time to catch up on things at home.
For his part, Greg envied his wife her alarm set at six, her ten-minute allotment of shower time, the fact that she had to put on real clothes and not just shorts and a T-shirt, and her last-minute dash around the house to gather up her keys and bag. He disliked how when he gave her a peck of a kiss and wished her a good day, he saw that in her mind she was already in the driveway, on the road, settling into her office chair and booting up her computer. She would have her neat In box, her neat Out box, and at the start of every day In would be empty, or nearly so. She would have her computerized calendar, with little chimes and bits of music periodically reminding her to leave her desk for meetings and appointments. By the end of the day Out would be fairly bulging with accomplished tasks.
Even the twins had a tight schedule now that they worked as summer baby-sitters, which meant they left the house earlier than their mother, and returned later. Their days were regimented by the needs of the children they tended: naps and mealtimes, snack breaks and play periods, and afternoon walks to the playground that they synchronized with one another. He pictured the twins with their charges approaching the playground from opposite directions, meeting at the slides like the wings of a butterfly coming together. But with or without their jobs, the twins wouldn't be company for their father during the summer. They were fifteen now, not old enough to drive places by themselves but old enough to have friends who could drive them. They strove never to be seen in his company outside the house.
Greg had his odd summer employments. He taught Driver's Ed in June, and coached for the football team in August. During the trough of five weeks or so in between, Patty would usually take a week off for their vacation, but never more than that, because July was the beginning of the fiscal year for her accounting firm, and there was too much work to do.
Those weeks he was at loose ends felt too long to be unoccupied, yet too short to begin a new way of life. Of course, if it had been Patty's time off she would be up early, throwing rugs out of the house to air, taking down venetian blinds, plotting neat little rows of marigolds and petunias. Greg meant to be like that too, disciplined and focused, but somehow he always wound up watching cable reruns of Star Trek in the afternoon, the lazy, secret glow of daytime TV imparting the same mix of pleasure and malaise it had given him as a kid.
The ebbing of his self-worth corresponded to the ebbing of his desires in general, and he seldom reached out for Patty at night during the season of midsummer. When everyone else he knew seemed to look younger than usual in summer shorts and tan, and to delight in the aphrodisiacal mixture of slowly cooling patio combined with gin and tonic and the primitive flare of the lighter fluid on coals, he did not. The evening barbecues didn't feel like hard-won snippets of vacation he deserved after a long day. He dutifully handled the tongs, tweezed the charred disks of hamburger onto the toasted rolls his wife and girls held out, drank his beer and stretched out on the lounge chair, listening to Patty talk about her meetings as the stars gradually appeared, first one at a time, then in a great swatch, like the rhinestones Patty had punched into her denim jacket when they were both in high school.
The girls would wander off, leaving the two of them alone. Patty would wind down, high on her day, her drink, the soft breeze blowing through their yard. She would murmur something about the twins, which meant she had tuned her radar in to find themwhether they were doing their nails in a lighted bedroom upstairs, or sprawled in the dark family room blued from the TV, waves of sitcom laughter surging from the open window. Then she would reach over and lightly put her hand on his thigh, sometimes edging the tips of her fingers inside the legs of his shorts, and he would almost unconsciously flex a muscle there, but he wouldn't reciprocate, wouldn't reach over to rub her neck, or even rest his palm on her arm. Weirdly, he desired his wife most when she wasn't there, when he was lying by himself on the couch watching an old episode of Love, American Style or I Dream of Jeannie. That was when he remembered himself as a person with appetitesflashes of the taut, hungry boy he had been, stretched out on his mother's rug in front of the TV. There was no irony then to the watching, just the cramped longing that came from seeing Barbara Eden's legs outlined beneath her filmy genie pants, teasing him with the exotic freedom of adulthood. Greg had idolized Major Nelson: his razor-sharp uniform, the fact that his work involved missions, and the lovely, unbelievable secret of his girlfriend in a bottle. When the Major was in one of his frequent welters of confusioncaught between the sexual pull of Jeannie's charming chaos and the inflexible demands of his military superiorsthe preadolescent Greg had keenly sympathized.
THE OLD guys must have felt Mitch and Greg's antsiness at their heels, because they motioned for them to go ahead on the next hole. Good for them, Greg thought. They weren't about to let anybody ruin their good time.
"Greg! Long time," one of them said. Greg squinted against the sun. He recognized Ned Bennett under the plaid cotton hat, the man who had been his father's internist. The last time he had seen him had been seven years ago in the hospital, by his father's bedside.
"Family well?" Ned asked.
"Everyone's fine, thanks."
"Glad to hear it. We're going to step aside and wait for you youngsters to play through. Wonderful day, isn't it? Give my regards to your mother."
Greg wondered why his old man couldn't have been more like thatamiable and relaxed, a pleasure to be around. Why hadn't he ever just gone out and enjoyed a round of golf with a few friends? For one thing, he didn't have any friends. For another, he would have whined that he was too broke for a ritzy game like golf. Ray Goodman had divided the world into haves and have-nots, and put himselfnothing but a peon for the fat cats who own the plantsquarely in the latter category. But the simple fact was that his father had needed to play the victim. He had never been able to admit that he had the power to enjoy his life. And now it was over, and it had been a miserable thing from Greg's point of view, radiating discontent into the lives of everyone around him.
By the time they were at the third tee, Greg had worked himself into the silent fuming which always happened when he started to run through the list of grievances he still had against his lather. Mitch interrupted his thoughts.
"I need to say that we're golfing next Wednesday at nine, and that we had lunch after," Mitch said.
Greg was slow to catch on. "You want to golf next Wednesday?"
"No, I only want to be able to say we did. To Sandy." Mitchell wasn't looking at him. He was studying the lay of the fairway, lining up his shot.
"I'll be seeing someone. A woman." He grinned, then turned away from Greg to address the ball. He made a series of tiny weight shifts on the balls of his feet. Then he twisted in what looked like an almost violent motion, and connected driver with ball, sending it in a deep and perfect arc, its dot disappearing into retinal memory.
Mitch turned back to Greg, his fair skin flushed with satisfaction. The smear of sunblock on his nose combined with his dark glasses and baseball cap gave him the smug mask of a lifeguard.
"How long has this been going on?" Greg asked. The question came out sounding aggrieved, as if Sandy had asked it.
"It hasn't," Mitchell said, smiling again. "It will. On Wednesday."
"Who is she?" This new fact, combined with Mitchell's casual attitude, was changing the whole color and shape of the daythe fir trees lining the course, the high, thin beards of clouds, the carpet of preternaturally green grassall of it had grown sharp-edged and vivid. A minute ago, Greg had been lost thinking about his father; the grooves of judgment were worn so smooth he could travel them effortlessly. Now he felt a kind of tilt, as if everything he knew were sliding to the side, making room for things he didn't.
"She's a client. She hired me to redo her office's billing system. We had a few lunches, and one thing led to another."
"Wow." Greg shook his head and took his swing. He sliced the ball into a stand of trees. They picked up their bags and began walking.
"So, just in case I need a backup for my whereabouts, can I count on you?" He must have realized what he was asking; Sandy and Patty were good friends.
"Won't you feel like an asshole every time you look at Sandy after this?"
"That's just it." Mitchell stopped him by grabbing his elbow. His blond eyebrows were drawn up with excitement above his aviator rims, and his forehead was faintly beaded with sweat. "It's been a turn-on for me with Sandy, too. The whole thing has got me feeling charged up. Things have never been better with Sandy."
"Oh, for Christ's sake, Greg. You mean to tell me you never"
"even wanted to?"
"That's different." There had been Jane, single and in her first year of teaching English at the high school. Jokey, athletic, quoting Shakespeare to him over lunch in the faculty room. Greg hadn't been that far out of college himself; in many ways he had been closer to the randy adolescent boys he taught than the husbands and fathers he lived among in the suburbs. That spring he and Jane had jogged together after school. By late May, when the contagion of recklessness from graduating seniors infected everyone at school, Greg had found himself watching Jane's bare limbs on the trackspeculating, wanting. It had taken him a while to quell that. But wanting was not getting. It didn't count for the same at all.
"I don't think it's so different," Mitch countered, "if you do it, but don't really get involved. This woman, she's married, too. She wants to be as careful as I do. My marriage will come out of this fine, believe me. Better, even."
That's when it occurred to Greg that Mitchell had done this before, and he hadn't seen. Did Sandy see? He couldn't believe that she would stay if she did. But then they had two kids. Maybe she knew and stayed anyway. Maybebut he couldn't imagine itshe did it, too.
"I didn't know you were such a prude, Greg," Mitchell said mildly, after sinking his putt and retrieving the ball. "Forget I asked."
Somehow this irritated Greg more than the original request. If he said no, he would be taken out of the loop. He wouldn't hear any more about Mitchell's affair, and he suddenly realized that he wanted to, needed to even. Was he really a prude? Or was he simply a more honorable man than Mitch? He had always thought they were a lot alikemen who did their best by their kids, felt settled and lucky in their marriages. When had Mitch become this other person? And where did that leave Greg?
"You can say we're going golfing," Greg told him.
"Okay, I will." Mitchell clapped his hand on his shoulder.
THAT NIGHT in bed he rolled over and found Patty, her skin cool and moist from the shower. She smelled like a complicated medley of fruits and herbs from the various potions she rubbed on her skin before coming to bed. Her hair was wet. He wasn't looking at her face, but he knew it would be pale and luminous from the moon shining in their room.
"Kind of hot, isn't it?" she murmured, as he pushed her T-shirt up, feeling her familiar curves and hollows, as known to him as anything on earth. He didn't answer, but slipped her panties off and continued to travel the lines of her body with his hands. She played possum for a few minutes, waiting, he knew, to be persuaded. Finally she rolled toward him. When he closed his eyes he saw blue like the sky over the golf course, immense and dizzying. He shifted and pushed inside his wife; only then did he feel himself bound by gravity again.