During my free period, I take both tests to the Dean’s office and sit in his scratchy, institutional chair, awaiting his arrival. I stare at Jim’s neat handwriting, Merk’s chicken-scratch marks, both remarkably the same, in the end. The clock overhead clicks by, and I remember how few minutes of free time I have each day, how I have wasted ten of them already, sitting here, all because some kid hasn’t studied.
The door beside me creaks open as someone knocks.
“Oh, hey,” Merk says, his top button unbuttoned, his tie missing.
“Hay is for horses,” I say, sounding like Father Michael, a man I’d detested in high school. “Where’s your tie?”
Merk shrugs. “Eckert around?” he says, glancing around the door, as though Mr. Eckert had been hiding from him behind it.
I shake my head. “Whaddya need?”
“Apparently I’m scratchy,” he says, rubbing his chin. “Need a shave.”
“Scratchy, huh?” I place the tests on Mr. Eckert’s desk, the answers face down, and open Mr. Eckert’s top drawer, taking out a new, disposable razor. Merk slides around the door, knowing that a mirror hangs on its opposite side, uncaps the razor, and takes the first long, dry stroke across his cheek, the scratch sounding like someone driving over pebbles in an old truck.
“Having a bad day?” I ask, watching the boy’s cheek start to bleed, the tiny pimple heads being decapitated with each pass of the blade. Merk shrugs again and stretches out his upper lip, shaving it clean and then rubbing away the hairs. I have come to hate Merk’s stoicism—that constant shrug when asked a question, the lugging of unlaced boots across the tiled floor as he arrives late, the slouch in his shoulders as he nods off in class. As though he has no care in the world. As though not a soul can touch him. I want Mr. Eckert to arrive so I can turn this kid in, teach him a lesson, give a bruise he won’t forget, and I want to walk out and forget it all, leave Merk for someone else.
“You should be in class,” I say.
He sighs and turns to look at me, his face drawn and sullen, and for a moment I see a hint of feeling in this boy, an original emotion wanting to emerge.
“Everything okay?” I ask. He brightens for a moment, his face contemplative as though recognizing, for the first time perhaps, that I am his English teacher, a man of books, that I’ve lived in many worlds. That maybe I’ll understand if he wants to tell me something. Something secret.
“What would happen, say, if I left here?” he says.
“I mean, would I go to college? Could I still get in, if I were at public or something?”
I sit, my head cocked, wondering whether he knows I’ve caught him cheating, that I’ve considered turning him in and plan to call parents right after the last bell. He knows he’ll receive a zero, be suspended for a while, his future at Bishop up for review. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Never mind,” he says. He drops the razor in the trash, rubs his ruddy face, and slinks out the half-open door.
After school, I sit alone in the broom closet and light up another smoke. I bring with me a copy of The Giver. I need a refresher. I sit on the overturned bucket, the book in my hands propped up on my knees, the dog-eared pages calling me to the passages I’ll teach. I notice a worn tie I’d not seen before, a boy’s uniform one, its red and blue stripes staring at me, hanging from a spray bottle on the shelf, and I struggle to remember if it had been there before. I pull it down and wrap my knuckles in it like a streetfighter might.
The door opens and there stands the janitor, Bill, his giant key chain jingling by his side. “Oh, good. It’s just you,” he says, rather surprised.
“Just me,” I say, wondering whom else he expects, since he’s never come in when both Jeffers and I have been here. I wish I knew Bill better, then—knew him well enough to ask what normally happens in this closet—this secret world—in my absence.
“I need the mop,” he says, waiting for me to stand. He eyes the tie wrapped around my hand and I feel rather creepy about it for some reason, and so I snub my cigarette in the Diet Coke can and shove the tie in my pocket. He closes the door and I let out a lung’s worth of air and lean against the wall. I’m relieved now that Eckerd never showed to his office and that the boys’ parents didn’t answer my phone calls. I feel in this cramped room a sense of space. Here, even while staring at grungy, half-used cleaners, I pretend the day has gone well: that I’ve given a new test; that I’ve reread Lolita from cover to cover; that I’ve not looked up toward Merk and Jim during the test but stayed focused, rather, on an insightful paper on the jeremiad, one I’ve never read before, one that makes me think so deeply and profoundly that I don’t noticed the activity coming from the back, the moving lips and the leaned-over bodies; or, maybe, that I’ve been granted a snow day, time to read alone, time to sleep in.