Man Overboard: An Atlantic "First"

JAMES BALLARDhas studied at St. John’s College in Annapolis and served with the Strategic Air Command. He is currently living in Piney River, Virginia, where he devotes much of his time to the writing of poetry and short stories.

RANDALL was opening a bottle of beer when one of the students knocked on his door. He knew it was a student because of the knocking. When any of the other teachers came by. they banged on the door, or kicked on it, or called through to ask if he were busy. He was, this afternoon, or he was thinking about being busy, with test papers from the morning, and he wanted to keep quiet until the boy went away. But that wouldn’t do. And he put the bottle down and went to the door.

It was Bob Mercer who was knocking. “Captain Randall, sir! How you doing?”

“Hello, Mercer. Come in.”

“Well — I could. You sure you’re not too busy, Captain?”

Mercer was asking for something. Maybe he wanted to be assured it was all right for him to be here.

“Not too busy. Come on in, man.”

“Yessir. Thanks.”

But whatever Mercer wanted, that wasn’t it. Nor was he here to ask about his test score. There had been a mathematics test that morning, analytic geometry, and most of the papers needed to be graded. Mercer never bothered, though, about his scores. Last week he had got a B instead of the A plus he usually got, but he had still been high man. He was a near prodigy in mathematics, and he was in honors squad in the rest of his classes. Maybe he didn’t want anything after all. Maybe he had just dropped around. Then Randall saw his eyes notice the bottle of beer.

“Have a chair, Mercer. What’s on your mind?”

“Nothing special, Captain. Just thought I’d stop by for a minute. See how things are going. Grading papers, aren’t you?”

“Off and on. I haven’t got to yours yet. How do you think you did?”

“Don’t know. What did you make it such a hard one for, Captain?”

“I just wanted to be ornery.”

“All those problems about hyperbolas? That was a rough test. Captain Randall.”

“Did you flunk it?” Mercer was going to ask him for a beer. He considered saying something that would make it easier for him to ask. But if he did that, Mercer might begin hoping he would give him one. Begin thinking he would. He was already hoping.

Mercer smiled. “Won’t know till I see the score, Captain.” He swallowed. “I don’t guess I did. Can I have a bottle of that beer, Captain?”

“No, buddy.”

“ — Oh. OK.”

Danish beer. He had got a case of it, yesterday.

Mercer wanted some. He was hurting for it.

“Well, that’s OK, Captain. Thanks anyway.” His voice was louder than it had been. It sounded especially friendly. He wanted to show that he had only accidentally in passing thought of suggesting a beer, and it was all right about being turned down. “Uh — OK if I smoke up here, sir?”

“Sure. Go ahead.”

Mercer got a cigarette stub out of his shirt pocket.

He looked at it and smiled. “Hard times, Captain.” When he was lighting it, he had some trouble getting the match pulled out of the folder. He was shaky.

“You out of cigarettes, Mercer?”

“Yessir. Just about.”

He got a pack from the carton in his desk. “Here.”

“Hey. The whole thing? Thanks a lot, Captain.”

But it was going to take more than cigarettes. He wished he could have given him a beer. It was against regulations to drink with the students, to allow them to drink at all, but that was not the reason he had said no. Mercer himself was the reason. Then in that case, it was the reason to go ahead and give him one. This was square, to be playing I Know What’s Best for You with the boy.

He found Mercer’s paper out of the stack. “I’ll take a look at how you did on the test. Since you’re here.”

“Yessir. I tell you who wants to know what their grade is, though, Captain Randall. Gene Pack. You know?”

“Stick around then. I’ll see how he came out.”

“Yessir.” Mercer sat down.

He liked seeing Mercer’s mathematics papers. Mercer spent more time with the printing and with drawing the diagrams than he did with working out the problems. He had a fund of solutions, although it didn’t appear that he himself realized he did, and matching the appropriate one to a problem was hardly ever any trouble to him. He had learned draftsman’s lettering, and he used ballpoint pens with different colors of ink. The other boys, including Gene Pack, needed to do a lot of erasing, and they stuck to pencils.

Mercer got up again. He went over to the window. “It hasn’t been so cold lately, Captain Randall.”

“It hasn’t, has it? Going to be spring before long.”

“Yessir. You can always look for it about this time of year.”

He heard a bumping sound. When he looked up, Mercer was bumping his forehead against the window frame.

“Cut that out, Mercer.”

“Yessir. Sorry, Captain. I’ll be glad when it does get to be spring. Birds come out, everything gets green. You like springtime, Captain?”

“It’s the best time of the year.”

“I think so too. Did you know white-nosed bumblebees can’t sting, Captain?”

“Did I know what?”

“White-nosed bumblebees can’t sting. Didn’t you know that?”

“No, I didn’t. I didn’t know bees had noses.”

“Well, the front end. They call it the nose. I have this book about insects. I’ll lend it to you sometime, if you want to see it.”

“I’d like to. Bring it around when you think of it.”

“Yessir. Hey. I still have your book about thermodynamics. ”

“I haven’t needed it, Mercer. Keep it longer if you want to.”

Mercer started to say something else. Instead, he only smiled, “I’m slowing you down, Captain. You want to go ahead with those papers, don’t you?” He turned back to the window.

Mercer’s paper had two problems missing. It had a wrong answer for another one. The grade came out C-minus. Last week there was a B. Next week it might be an F.

He was working on Gene Pack’s paper when the bumping started again. This time it was louder. It was bound to be painful.

“Mercer, will you cut that out?”

“Oh. Yeah. Sorry, Captain. I forgot it bothered you.”

“I’d think you’re the one it would bother. Smoke, or something. Do some push-ups.”

“I’m already smoking, Captain.”

“Then do some push-ups. Come on. I’ll do some with you.”

“I can’t, sir. I just can’t. But you go ahead, if you want to. They say it’s good for anybody, once in a while. That is, they say it is.”

“Would you like to see your paper, Mercer? I’ve finished with it now.”

“That’s not much of a paper to look at, Captain.”

“Why did you leave out those two problems?”

“I don’t know. I just did.”

“Go ahead and work them now. You can if you want to. You didn’t use up all your time this morning.”

“I — No, sir. I don’t want you to think I’m not interested, it isn’t that. I just— I’ve got to cut out. Captain. I think I’ll go see what Pack and those others are doing.”

“Stick around, Mercer. Work those two problems, and I’ll buy you a drink. I’ll buy you an ice-cream cone.”

“Yessir. I think I’ll just check on those others for a minute. I better see what those kids in my squad are doing, too. I’ll see you later, Captain Randall. OK?”

“OK, Mercer. You take it easy.”

THER was something he had meant to do. The bottle of beer. In a minute, he went ahead with it.

He could have done more just now, as to Mercer. They could have listened to some records, or gone over to the gym and boxed awhile. He could have taken Mercer driving for an hour or so. Just about anything besides sit here and let him beat his head against the wall.

It bothered him that Mercer, at the age of seventeen, should be a drunk. There was no reason for it that he had been able to get to. He had read Mercer’s personal-history file in the office, and he had had some off-duty acquaintance with him, but he still didn’t know how it had come about. Mercer was in his junior year, but this was his first year at this school. This one was called Rampart Ridge Academy. It had a grade school (the Intermediate Battalion) and a high school (the Advanced Battalion). It was a semimilitary school, There was no saluting or drilling, but the students and also the teachers wore uniforms that had a sort of Marine Corps look, and the teachers, the Corps of Instruction, were addressed as Captain.

Mercer had gone to public school before he came here, in Wheeling, West Virginia. He hadn’t been in any jam before he got here. A few of the boys had, or they had flunked out of other private schools. Most of them were here, and Mercer was, only because as a private school the Academy had more class than public schools. His father had an automobile agency and a hardware store in Wheeling. Both his parents were living. He had two younger brothers and a younger sister. All his grades in public school had been high, the same as they had been here until lately, and his file had the usual letters of recommendation. He had a buddy here, Gene Pack, and for the first months he had had several other friends. He was a student officer. He was adjutant of a squad of grade-school boys, and he could handle them without having to yell at them. By all evidences, he was an aboveaverage boy from a reasonably sound family. But there was the other. Something had gone wrong.

Randall was sure that Mercer trusted him, but the one time he had tried to get Mercer into a conversation about liquor and drinking, Mercer had closed up about it. Whatever it was that had gone wrong, he was guarding it. Or maybe it was guarding itself, keeping itself from being molested. Before long, he might not even be making C’s. Or be knocking on the door anymore.

Mercer’s physics teacher was Robbie Roberts. Last fall, Robbie attempted to arrange a psychiatric interview for him. It was only an attempt, since the school’s executive officer, the principal, said no. All the Rampart Ridge students were selected carefully before they were matriculated, he said, and in any event the Academy was a school rather than a medical institution. Just before Thanksgiving, Mercer’s father visited him, and Robbie undertook then to talk with Mr. Mercer. Nothing came of that either. The man was indignant at the suggestion that his son was drinking, and recommended that Robbie confine his efforts to instruction.

“He had a point,” Robbie said. “I guess you’ve heard about the boy whose teacher gave him a note to take home. For his parents to give him a bath. The boy brought a note back the next day: Don’t smell my son, teach him. You see? What I’ve come to, if they stink, they can stink their way and I’ll stink mine. In the meantime, I’ll just give them physics lessons. And they’ll just learn. They damn well better.”

It sounded sensible. It sounded like the right way to look at it. And it was easy to get a bellyful of Robert Mercer. There was nothing anybody could reasonably want that the boy didn’t have, that he hadn’t had all his life. Certainly nothing material. He was a good-looking boy, he had a good mind. And here he was, whimpering for a beer, smoking butt ends of cigarettes.

But Mercer stayed on Randall’s mind. And finally he decided that when he got finished with the papers, he would find him, and go ahead and take him for a drive. It wasn’t likely to make any difference if he did; there was no point in imagining that it would. Whatever Mercer was asking for, it would take somebody who had more than he did to have it. Both of them knew it. But even so. He had only a few papers left. Four. They could wait.

WHILE he was putting his shirt on, there was another knock at the door. This time it was Gene Pack. Mercer’s roommate.

What Pack had to say, Mercer had already left for town. He had jumped the fence, meaning that he had gone AWOL. The town, Annistown, was twenty miles east, toward Washington. Students could get passes on weekends, or if an instructor accompanied them and there was a special reason, during the week. This was Thursday, and there was no instructor accompanying Mercer.

“Did he have any money, Gene?”

“He sure did, Captain. He had eight bucks. He won it just a little while ago. We were sticking pins in each other.”

“What in God’s name for?”

“Well, in ourselves. It doesn’t hurt.”

“All right, but what were you doing it for?”

“Well, the way it is, the one that can stick himself the farthest, without hollering, he wins. Everybody puts up a quarter or fifty cents, and that’s the pot.”

“If it doesn’t hurt, why does anybody holler?”

“It’s just the way people think about it, Captain Randall. You see the pin, and you think it’s going to hurt, so you yell. Or swear or something. Any kind of noise, you lose. Because it isn’t completely the money, you know. It’s prestige too, not to make any noise.”

“Jesus God.”

“Oh, it isn’t usually the money. I guess it was this time. With him. Listen, Captain. That is — do you know what he wanted it for?”

“I can guess. He wanted it to get drunk with.”

“Yessir. I didn’t know if you knew about that or not. He asked me to lend him two bucks. I told him I wouldn’t till tomorrow night, when we could go on pass. And then after a while he said he was coming up here. I told him he wouldn’t get anywhere With you, either. What he said, he just wanted to talk to you.”

“He really said that, Pack?”

“Yessir. That’s the exact quotation.”

“Did he give you any idea what he wanted to talk about?”

“Not really. He just said he wanted to talk to you.”

Mercer had been trying to send him a message. Bumping the wall. When he left out answers on the test.

“Pack, have you and Mercer ever had any serious conversations? The two of you?”

“I guess we have, Captain. Sex, and things like that. He won’t talk about drinking, though, if you mean that. He shuts right up.”

“And you wouldn’t come across with the two bucks.”

“I wouldn’t today. I told him. I only had three. He could still have two, if he still wanted it, but I just thought he’d go ahead and wait. Till tomorrow. But he wouldn’t.”

“It looks like he made out better today. Since he found a pin-sticking game. If you can call it a game.”

“He didn’t find it. Captain. He promoted it. He got it going. You know what he used to get in it? A pack of cigarettes.”

”He did, huh? You know where the cigarettes came from? Right here.”

“Yessir. That’s what he said.”

“That’s good going, all right. Running a pack of cigarettes into eight dollars. There must have been a bunch of you in it, though. If it starts with just a quarter a person.”

“It was just ten of us. I got in so I could win instead of him. I almost did win. And then he offered to make it double or nothing. So that way he got it up to eight bucks. Pen bucks, actually. But he had to pay the referee, so that cut it down. The referee gets paid by the winner.”

“Why don’t you have teams? We could get some other schools in on this, have a conference.”

“It’s not anything to get mad about, Captain. Something like yogurt is all it is. Those people that can stretch out on nails.”

“That’s yoga. Yoga. Have you ever heard of tetanus, Pack? Lockjaw?”

“Well, I’ve heard of it, yessir.”

“You might — All right. All right. When was it Mercer left?”

“Yessir. It was about twenty minutes ago. That’s what I came up here about, Captain. We got off the track. What I was thinking, we could go after him. Or you could, you’ve got the authority and all that. He said he’d be back early, but he won’t. I guarantee you he won’t. He may not even be back tonight.”

“And it was Annistown he was going to?”

“That’s where he was starting. He could end up almost anywhere.”

Annistown was small, but parts of it were not safe to be in after dark. Especially for a kid, drunk. Mercer probably hadn’t reached the highway yet. It took about half an hour to walk to the highway from the school.

“Sir? Couldn’t we go see if he’ll come on back?”

The Keystone Kops. The Pursuit of Robert Mercer.

“He’ll head for that South End part of town, Captain. He’ll be lucky to get out without getting knocked in the head or something. We’re not supposed to go there at all. When it’s two or three of us it’s not so bad, but it’s going to be just him by himself. What if it was a friend of yours, Captain? What if Robbie — Captain Roberts — was fixing to do something, and you knew it?”

“Settle down, Pack. We’ll catch him.”

They probably would. If they didn’t, the Annistown police could pick him up and hold him for safekeeping. The only thing, it wouldn’t especially matter. They were not what Mercer was running from. And he couldn’t be held permanently, by the police or here at school.

HE HADN’T yet got to the highway when they reached him. They rounded a curve, and there he was. Tramping along, and he didn’t look back, even when the car slowed. But when the car drew up alongside him, he stopped. And waited.

“Go for a ride, Mercer?”

“Ride where, Captain?”

“Anywhere you want to. Where you headed?”

“Annistown, Captain.

“Where all the beer is, huh?”

“Yessir. Enough of it.”

“ Think it is enough for you, Mercer?”

“What’re you doing, Captain, you trying to be one of the boys? Talking straight from the shoulder or something?”

Pack called over to him. “Cut that out, Mercer. You’re being a pain, you know that? You think this is all Captain Randall has to do, is pole up and down the road for you?”

“I didn’t ask anybody to pole up and down for me. Let me alone, Pack, how about it?”

“Man, you are a pain. I asked him. if you want to know.”

“Then you can go to hell then, will you? The whole bunch of you.”

Pack got out and went over to him. “Listen, Mercer. Bob. This ain’t any way to be.”

“Will you let me alone? You said all you were going to say, back in the room. Why can’t you let somebody do something?”

“Mercer baby.”

Randall put the car in gear again. “Mercer.”

“Yeah? Now what?”

“What is this yeah. Mister?”

Mercer looked away. “Yessir.”

So with that, he knew Mercer was coming back with them. “Listen, Mercer. If you want to go to Annistown, I’ll drive you down there, OK? Or if you want to go back, we’ll do that.”

Mercer was amused. They watched each other for a while. He began walking again. He stopped. He went a little farther. Then he turned, snarled, and went around the front of the car. He kicked the right front tire. Pack was opening the door for him, and he got in. “All right. All right. We might as well go on back if it’s going to be all this. Jesus Christ. Get in, Pack, will you? All this just because somebody said they wanted a beer.”

Going back, Mercer was holding his left arm close across his chest. Maybe that was the arm he had used the pins on, and it was getting sore now. Maybe it was a defense. Pack reached toward him once, but he drew away quickly. Pack didn’t try anymore.

Randall looked at him once or twice in the rearview mirror. Mercer’s face looked numb. He was sealing himself off.

“Mercer, are you sure about those white-nosed bumblebees?”

That hadn’t been exactly the right thing to say. He wished he had thought before he said it.

For a minute, he and Mercer were looking at each other. A dog he had once, a red setter, it got one of its front legs hurt, the left one, and by the time it got back home it had gnawed that paw off, and green flies were clustered on the end. When it looked at him, its eyes were clouded and too bright at the same time. It got back home, but it never let itself be a pet afterward. He had failed it, and it wasn’t able to. Mercer stared back at him, unacknowledging, and then, looked away. Later on, tonight or very likely this afternoon again, Mercer would cut out again. Just possibly he wouldn’t, but it was only a small chance. They drove along.