I complain to my neighbor I’ve got no time for another do-good committee,
but he insists. He insists by saying I’ll bring it “some gravitas.”
I smother the phone with my palm and snicker, recalling the tormented teachers
of My Boyhood, that doomed old republic. How would wine-sick Mr. Haas
react to such talk? For him, I invented an author, whose “little known works”
I wrote a theme on, and he gave me an A. Or Miss Dilson, thin-haired and wattled
English instructor– I let a grass snake wriggle out of my backpack
onto her floor– what might she think? Or above all poor Mr. Merrill,
first Latin instructor, on whom I pulled that slew of idiot tricks.
I guess he must have taught me gravitas. The word, I mean.
Would he connect its meaning to the punk who glued his desk’s drawers shut,
who festooned the bumper of his trail-worn Plymouth sedan with a string of cans,
and aped him exactly, if I say so myself, for my cynical sect of classmates?
Biggest cynic myself, I relied on his rage as diversion, impatient
as I was with all his lessons. I wince even now to think of that room:
the mustard-colored globe on a shelf, its intriguing African nations,
whose names, though I didn’t know it, would change; dust puffing from the trough of the blackboard;
the soporific swish of the janitor’s broom along the hallway;
syncopations from the blighted elm whose limb-tips always strummed
a pane when weather blew up from the east; the disheartening bouquet
from the basement kitchen, where invisible workers thumped around as they fixed
another bad lunch. I still see Mr. Merrill’s eyes as he glowered.
The eyes held something other than simple fury, or so I thought–
not that I cared. He was just an old man, if younger no doubt by years
than I am now. Like my father, he’d been in the European Theater,
so that as I write this I understand he knew things I’d never considered
and wouldn’t need to in later life. He may even have hoped I wouldn’t.
Whatever the case, he must have seen that I wouldn’t stay forever
what I seemed to be as I fidgeted there, sullen, restless, ruthless,
desperate to break away from that stuffy third-floor box, that cage,
its never-ending, meaningless sum, esse, fui, futurus.
One day I’d understand the look he fixed on me. It was grave.