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Hard to Be Good



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I was just standing there, minding my own business, trying to keep my mind away from all temptation, when Mr. Linden, my boss at the academy’s maintenance department, called me over.

“Bud,” he said, “I’d like you to go with Merlin here and check for a leak in the hot-water pipes.”

I don’t know what got into Merlin. He started winking at me and just kept winking until Mr. Linden abruptly turned around and handed us a pair of flashlights.

“What’s going on here?” he asked loudly. “Something wrong with your eye, Merlin?”

“No, sir!” he said, as innocent as snow on a June day. “We’re on our way!”

So off we went. I knew I was in trouble right then, the way Merlin was grinning away at me.

“What’s up, Merlin?” I said. “You look like you’ve slept with a coat hanger in your mouth all night.”

“You’ll see.” He led me over to the board.

This board was really something to see. It was the pride and joy of the maintenance department. It was three stories high with a hook and ladder, and it was covered with pegs and all sorts of exotic tools that looked like they might be used in surgery or in cleaning out old septic tanks. I often spent hours just standing there looking at it when I should have been working.

Merlin climbed up the ladder, pulled himself over to the right, and grabbed a monstrously huge pair of wire cutters.

“What are you planning to do?” I called up. “Fix the pipe by cutting it in half?”

“Shhh! he said, putting his finger to his mouth.

I knew I was doomed right then. I could just feel it happening. So I tried. I really did. It’s hard to be good. Nothing comes easy in this life, but goodness comes about last of all. I’ve tried about as hard as a person can, but when they give out the rewards for goodness, I’ll probably have to steal mine.

“Look, Merlin, I don’t know what you’re up to, but I don’t want any part of it. I’ve gotten into enough trouble this year. I’m turning over a new leaf. Pure as newly fallen snow. I’m starting to like going a week without being punished for something.”

He was coming down the ladder, dangling those giant pinchers from one hand. “Aw, cut it out. Would I ever lead you astray?”

INTO THE DEEP

Well, he ducked into the tunnel with those shears, and I had no choice. I mean, Mr. Linden had specifically told me to go fix that leaking pipe with Merlin. So I walked into the tunnel after him. It was my duty.

The tunnel itself was a carefully guarded secret. It consisted of a maze of walkways and water pipes connecting all the buildings on campus—underground. The walkway was narrow, and you had to duck your head; sometimes you had to crawl. Some pipes were so hot that if you put your hand on one, it would stay there when you walked away.

We reached a fork in the tunnel. Merlin’s flashlight veered off to the left. Toward the girls’ dorm. To perdition. It was hot enough down here.

And still I followed him. Followed the trail of water leaking down the tunnel. Toward the girls’ dorm. I mean, it was like someone had planned it that way.

I found the leak easily. Merlin had walked right past it. I don’t know how he could have missed it. I couldn’t fix it, though; couldn’t do anything—Merlin had all the pipe sealer. We ended up together at a large iron gate.

“I’m not going any farther,” I said, my voice trembling a little. “And if you do, I’ll report you. Anonymously!”

“Aw, cut it out,” he said, fiddling with a large iron chain wrapped around the gate. “We’re not going to do anything now. It’s too risky, dummy. Deans are walking up and down the halls like sentries. I’m just setting things up.”

He grunted as he brought all his weight to bear on those giant cutters. The chain snapped in two. I watched him as he carefully replaced the chain and padlock, putting the links together in such a way that no one could tell the chain had ever been cut. “Now, where’s that leak?” he asked.

We fixed the leak, quick like. Then Merlin cut the chain to the gate at the boys’ dorm the same way he had done the other.

We ended up back at maintenance. Merlin nodded knowingly at me. “Nine sharp. Tonight.” Then with a wink he was gone.

I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t on TV or something. I mean, this was starting to read like Mission Impossible or Escape From Alcatraz. I think it was too late right there. I was hooked. The call of adventure was too strong. Sometimes it was just too hard to be good.

CALL OF ADVENTURE

“You’ve got to be crazy!” Bev shouted that evening at the cafeteria dinner table. “You’re mad! Insane!”

“Shhh! Quiet!” I shouted in a whisper. “You want the whole world to know? You want to get me into trouble?”

“Nine? Tonight?” she asked. “What if we get caught?”

“You mean you’ll help me, then?” I tried not to sound too hopeful.

“Help you what?”
“Just what I told you.”

“I let you into Julie’s room, keep guard for you, and that’s it?”

“That’s it.”

She hesitated for a moment. “But Julie won’t be there. Her floor is going swimming tonight.”

“I know,” I said, glancing around the room. “We’re going to goose her room with toilet paper and shaving cream. To get back at her for the time she filled Merlin’s car to the ceiling with Rice Krispies. Look, think of this as an adventure.”

“I don’t know.”

Well, I knew girls were finicky, so I played my trump card. “Merlin and I are in this together,” I said, “and we’re counting on your help.”

“Merlin’s coming with you?” she asked too quickly, blushing.

“Yep.”
 
“OK, then. For Merlin’s sake.” And that was that.

But Merlin never showed. I waited in the basement until 20 after nine. Merlin never came. It was getting late. Bev was waiting. It was meant for me to go.

Things went off without a hitch. The tunnel seemed a little spookier this time and I was late, but I managed to meet Bev as planned in the basement of the girls’ dorm. She led me upstairs, and soon I found myself alone in Julie’s room.

No one had ever told me that not being good could seem like so much fun. I had that room decorated so nicely a pig farmer would have died from envy. Toilet paper streaming everywhere. Shaving cream dripping from the walls. Cornflakes in the bed. It was beautiful!

I was just putting on a few final touches when Bev jumped in the door. “You better hurry!” she said, scared like. “I think I just saw the bus pull up!”

I started to open the door, then heard footsteps in the hall. I closed the door quickly. “Oh, oh! There are girls out there in the hall. Bev! Get me out of here! Quick, before Julie comes!”

She must have read the desperation in my eyes. “Wait a minute; I know what you can do!” She ran to the closet. “Here, take Julie’s bathrobe. Here’s her shower cap too. Put it on, quick!”

It was embarrassing, but I didn’t need any prompting. After dressing I marched right out into the hall, almost bumping into three jabbering girls. I put my head down low and passed them. I was walking fast and low to the floor so my jeans and shoes wouldn’t show. I passed two more girls on my left, wet towels and swimsuits slung over their shoulders.

It was about that time that I heard an earth-shattering scream. I’d recognize Julie’s scream anywhere: it starts out low and kind of works its way up toward deafness. I started running—down the hall, knocking aside two girls, then right out the side door and across the campus through the snow. Somehow I got rid of the robe and shower cap. They’re probably still in a snowbank.

My heart was racing so fast it almost beat me back to the dorm. I ran up the stairs, right smack into Merlin. “I’d like a word with you—later!” I panted. Then I dashed into my room. It was all Merlin’s fault. And even Mr. Linden’s and Bev’s fault. They never should have let me get into this mess!

QUESTIONING

They never caught me. But a few days later the maintenance crew was called in for questioning. Seems that Mr. Linden had been making a routine check of the piping system and had found some chains cut on the gates in the tunnel.

When my turn came, I confessed. Confessed the whole thing. I knew they had nothing on me, but I still confessed. I hadn’t been able to eat. Every time I had walked to the cafeteria I had turned and fled, fearful of bumping into Julie. At night I’d wake up sweating. I stayed away from Bev. As a matter of fact, I stayed away from all the girls. I guess I was afraid they might recognize me, shower cap or not.

So I told Mr. Linden everything, except that I didn’t tell him about Merlin. Not that I was particularly fond of the guy, but I just couldn’t squeal on him. So he and Mr. Campbell, the principal, assumed that I had cut the chains and set everything up. Well, if I was going to die, I might as well bury myself too.

“At least I appreciate your honesty, Bud.”

I sat there wondering how Mr. Campbell’s voice could paralyze me with its very inflection.

“We’ll still have to bring the matter before the disciplinary committee, though. We’ll be talking to you again. You can go for now.”

The next time they called me in, I was all packed. The suitcases were there, waiting for me in the closet. But I listened in amazement.

“We’ve decided that you’re to be put on probation for the rest of the school year. One more incident like this, and you’ll be out. Is that understood?”

I couldn’t believe my ears were in the same room. They were letting me off the hook.

“Yes, sir,” I answered, still unable to believe it.

“I put in a good word for you, so the committee decided to grant you leniency because of your honesty and also because Merlin Sanders came in and confessed his part in the whole scheme. I hope you’ve learned your lesson.”

“Yes, sir! Thank you. I’m really sorry, sir!” And I meant it.

NEW VIEW

Later that winter it snowed for a week straight. Pale wisps of flakes cleansed the landscape with pure, new whiteness. Then one afternoon the snowing thinned, and the sun broke through a quilted blue sky.

When classes let out for the day, some of the town students brought out their shiny, brightly colored snowmobiles. Their curving trails over the silver-whitened hills reminded me of pieces of rainbows.

I was driving a bright blue-and-white Arctic Cat. Julie and Merlin were holding on tight behind me. I could hear their laughter come bubbling up over the whine of the engine. Off across the flat fields we raced, watching the light sparkle in the flying shivers of snow. The speed was alive, exhilarating. The cold, whipping wind cleared my mind, and I began to imagine having new vistas of understanding.

I was just glad to still be there. Glad that Julie and Merlin had become my good friends. And I was glad for Mr. Campbell’s kindness. I knew that had I been asked to leave school, being good would have become harder. At least for me. But being forgiven put a new light on things. It made friends out of potential enemies. It made being good easier.

We circled the campus, arching about the sun, splashing through crests of snow. Then we swung sharply into a turn, all three of us, leaning far out over the rippling snow, laughing with sheer delight.

 

This story originally appeared in the November 24, 1984, issue of Insight. Paul Freeman wrote from Boise, Idaho.

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