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I Keep These Secrets for Ephraim O’Connor

Mr. Jarvis wore sweatshirts like us, not the button-ups and ties of the other teachers, and if a kid said something funny, he would laugh. So for that whole semester, my second in seventh grade, Mr. Jarvis— Physical Science, third period—was without question my favorite teacher, and we began our learning with him on a handout. He challenged us to The Game. Our tests, he called Innings, and each of us would play nine on our own, but The Game could only be won together, as a team. If everyone kept a test average above C by the end of The Game, he promised us a pizza party. On test days he showed us the scoreboard, so that we’d know what we had to do.

The chart was anonymous, but even a stupid kid would find it impossible to survey the class and not see that Average Number 14 (with a solid D-) was Ephraim O’Connor. We all knew him. He’d slept through much of elementary, was making good on his threat to do the same with middle school. The only place he ever looked awake came behind the garbage bin at lunch, smoking nicked cigarettes and kicking softly the rusted metal. There, Ephraim lived his patient life, as if his only goal was to free a little garbage before they coasted him on a bed of Fs through to high school and beyond.

We begged Ephraim to try. Minny Jorgensen offered to tutor him for every Inning, but even though she’d never gotten a B, not on anything, not in all the years the sadsack group of us studied together, Ephraim refused.

“Piss off,” he said. “You ain’t me.”

A week before Thanksgiving, we did an adult thing, got together a committee on the playground and decided that someone should sneak Mr. Jarvis’s text for a night, let Ephraim copy the answers to the rest of our tests.

We were hungry. We were starving. We were such desperate children, the neediest of all made things.

Mr. Jarvis kept his desk unlocked, put on a good show of letting us know this, letting us see his trust in us like it was the one living thing in our otherwise funereal seventh grade diorama of rulebooks and principals and suspectful schoolyard monitoring. See—watch me pull out your questions and answers—look how accessible they are, but you, and you, even you—I trust you all implicitly. You are well-on to your grownupness. So there, in his top desk drawer, the answerbook sat, and we knew it.

My brother Tommy gave me rides home from school, once he was done with his shift at the restaurant, because my mom still had another shift, and because there wasn’t anyone else. Tommy wasn’t reliable, though, not really, so I was always around after school, when the rooms had emptied like turned-out prisons, and so I was volunteered by our committee to get the book, and so I did.

When I gave it to Ephraim the next day, he punched my stomach hard, and I had to spit up into the green tile fountain outside our classroom, the only one in the building with cold, flushing water. The principal sent me home at lunch because I still looked ill.

A week before the next Inning, I braved Ephraim a second time and asked for the book back, which he pulled out of his locker, its pages snarled into the unraveled spiral of a notebook. Inside his locker, stuck into the slats on the door, Ephraim had a picture of an unknown man, but maybe one I could ID—father for sure, with the same slack face, the same square jaw, the same curtained eyes, as closed as they could be while slitted open. I’d never met that father, wasn’t more than half-naïve at my perceptive best, but I got a bit from that picture. Eph’s father wore an orange jumpsuit, a string of bold numbers on the chest. The background of room was but white brick and hard plastic chairs, a few tables, a few random women, a few kids, lots of men in orange. Others in blue uniforms, wearing badges and tasers. I knew what happened in that picture—visitation—and I knew what that was, even if I never got such with my own father, gone from my life so long he might well be standing beside Eph’s dad and I wouldn’t have known a lick better.

So Eph had a father he missed, and I had a missing father. I was about to say so, this thing that twinned us in my stupid kid thoughts, but Eph laid a threat between us, if I ever told about his father: “My father killed a man. Killed two. He’ll kill your dad. You too. So don’t you ever say.” And so I kept two secrets for Ephraim O’Connor.

When the next Inning came, he went from flunking to getting just two out of sixty wrong, a grand slam, which proved him as sorry at cheating as learning, but Mr. Jarvis seemed oblivious. He said our party would happen on a Wednesday because he could get a good deal from his brother, who ran a pizzeria in Hamtramck.

But, you see, this party was not a real thing, was make-believe and never happened, and we never heard of it again.

A week before end of term—Tommy late, Tommy not coming, Tommy forgetting me, again, and again, and again—I came in after school a second time to ask Mr. Jarvis why.

He sat back in his swivel chair, his loafers shedding chunks of playground dirt onto his scarred desk. He labored at a fat wad of gum on the inside of one of his teacher’s editions with a pair of scissors and bottle of fingernail polish remover.

“Forgive me, Jimmy,” he said. “Turns out, a party would’ve been against school policy. No food outside the cafeteria.”

I was afraid, and already a skeptic in the making. I did not believe him, his answer so slippery and so parentlike, so hands-off and unlike a sweatshirt as to surely be a lie.

“Was it Ephraim?” I asked. “Was it because I—”

“No,” he said. “No. It was rules, is all. Can’t break the rules around here for anything.”

And when Tommy did come for me at last, an hour late, he left the car parked at the curb and walked up to where I lay, on my back on the low brick wall which circled the gymnasium.

His arms twirled, his hands in his pockets, and I saw something in his slack shoulders that I wouldn’t have the day before, just that yesterday—Tommy was a teacher, too, as were many adults, almost all of them. Assuming The Game was the same to everyone else as it was to them. Assuming you can kill a man and just go on living in a world that never changes because of any work you’ve shaped.

—and I watched my brother, not looking at me and not apologizing, and at last I understood something real and true. That this was the world of the adults: lies and looking aside—

But I’ve never told that secret, either, not out loud. I keep it for Ephraim, and for me. For Tommy, and all the world besides.

With Physical Science, I’d sinned—stolen the answers, killed some faith, ate my own lies as slippery as guts—but in the parking lot, outside—a forever place—I had only waited for a ride away.


Curtis VanDonkelaar won the 2016 Literal Latte Short Short Contest and The Gateway Review’s 2016 Flash Fiction Contest. His work has appeared with journals such as Passages North, the Vestal Review, Western Humanities Review, MAKE, Hobart, and DIAGRAM.

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