Later, the bell rings and prayers are said and still Merk Shepherdson hasn’t shown. The snow falls and the trees scrape the windows and the test has been distributed and, still, no Merk. But this is normal, snow or not, his sauntering in late, his shirt tail hanging over his empty belt loops, his face bristly with stubble.
“Anyone seen Merk?” I say, finally, to some shaking heads and a few blanks stares.
And then he arrives, just as he always does, his coat still on, his boots untied and full of snow, his two-day-old scruff white with melting flakes. He hands me a note. Always a note. It excuses his tardiness.
“Books away,” I say, watching Merk slide toward his back-corner desk, where I can hardly see him. The boys watch him, too—his balanced stride, his half-closed eyes—even the cool ones who’d never admit to it.
I presume Merk hasn’t studied, but can never be sure, as he always seems to—between being late and sleeping through class—pull off an A, at the very least a B. I don’t know how the kid manages. I wonder if he has a buddy, someone to help him with homework, a guy to write him study outlines, an older friend who’s taken the tests. I mean to change the tests each year, really I do. But somehow I’m always behind, each morning scrambling to my computer to peer at the calendar of lesson plans and find last year’s materials. Sometimes, if I have time, I reread the poem or the essay for the day, but never the novels, not front-to-back, cover-to-cover. Only in parts, so that I’ve memorized passages.
I sit behind my desk and pull an essay from atop the stack, which has been staring me down for days. It happens to be Merk’s, an essay on the persuasive techniques of the jeremiad, the puritans’ reliance on melodramatic structures. Have I read this before? Perhaps in a text book somewhere, or online, or in someone else’s paper from years past? They all blend together, these kids and their essays. But it’s not in these boys to be original. Only to get things done. Only to take short cuts. One must take such short cuts here, or sink, I suppose.
I spy movement from the back of the room and glance in its direction. There, Merk and the boy next to him, Jim, engage in furtive conversation, Merk’s head bent over his paper, his eyes on Jim, his lips now tightened into a knot. Jim leans toward Merk, his lips moving tacitly, as though I weren’t in the room at all. Then, he freezes for a moment, suddenly aware of my eyes on him, and his head drops, his knees relax, and he slides himself back into his desk.
“Can I help you boys with something?” I say, aware that as soon as I do I have acknowledged their behavior. I have promised action.
“No sir,” Jim says, shaking his head, but he’s adopted a scowl, a bitter one that stretches across his face like silly putty, and I wonder if he’s mad at me. I almost worry over it. Merk has all but forgotten the incident, his pen working furiously on his answer sheet, his head now resting on his hand closest Jim, to block Jim from his sight, to pretend he hasn’t just been caught talking during a test.
Already, I wonder if I’ll turn them in, or if I’ll give them a break, if only to make my life easier. If only so they won’t hate me. But I already hate myself for thinking so.
Jeffers is waiting for me in the broom closet at lunch, an unlit cigarette poised between his fingers, a lit one hanging from his lips. I pull up a bucket and crouch beside him.
“I think I caught Merk and Jim T. cheating today,” I say, taking the cig from Jeffers. I light up. He pulls a drag.
“Oh, yeah? Cheat sheets?” Jeffers’s tie is loose again; his fly is mostly unzipped. I wonder if he’s walked down the hall that way, his blue boxers like a beacon toward his crotch. I wonder if he does it to be subversive.
“No, they were talking.”
“Oh, yeah? Did you hear it? What’d they say?”
“What are you going to do about it?” Jeffers’ eyebrow arches and his eyes squint to keep the smoke out—a rather douche bag look, I think—and I count the reasons why we’ve become friends. If we are friends.
“It’s a little late, you know. I mean, to do something. You should’ve done it during the test.” Jeffers shifts on his perch and adjusts his purple tie on his shoulders like he’s going to tie it, but he doesn’t. “Might as well leave it, you know?”
But I’ve already compared their tests, their mutual wrong answers. The chance of these two boys separately deriving identical language is the same as one of the million proverbial monkeys typing Shakespeare.
“Anyway,” Jeffers says. He drops his cigarette butt into an empty Diet Coke can and stands, his blue boxers now staring at my nose. I look away. “Just use it.”
“Yeah. You know, to your advantage. When you need something from one of them.”
“Seriously, Jeffers,” I say, picking up the Lysol to spray the tiny room, watching alcohol mist the dank mop and rusted paint cans. I think again on the secret world my brother and I had imagined, how it had always been dark and almost cloudy there, hiding all sorts of things in its nooks and corners. “What the hell is wrong with you?”