“Did anyone work problem number 12?” Mr. Bentley asked the class.
The students all shook their heads.
Except Jeff. He raised his hand. “I did.”
“Oh?” Mr. Bentley said with raised eyebrows. “What did you get for your answer?”
“(X-Y)/(X + Y).”
Mr. Bentley looked at him strangely. “That’s what I got too. Did anyone else work it?”
Mr. Bentley looked at Jeff with newfound respect. “It’s a hard problem. Did it take you very long?”
He modestly shrugged his shoulders. “Not really.”
“Would you like to show the class how you got your answer?”
“No, that’s all right. You go ahead.”
He was a senior in high school. His family had just moved to town because his father was the new superintendent of schools. The reason he appeared so bright in math was because he’d used his dad’s stationery and written the publisher for the teacher’s supplement that had all the problems worked out.
After putting the problem on the board, Mr. Bentley turned to Jeff and asked, “Is that how you did it?”
Jeff casually nodded his head. “More or less.”
The class bell rang, and it was time for lunch.
He ate alone. He didn’t care. There was nobody in this town he wanted to know anyway.
When school was over he went downtown and continued to look for a job.
A week later he found a job at an expensive men’s clothing store. He worked after school and on Saturdays. They didn’t actually let him sell anything; he unpacked clothing, cleaned the rest rooms, dusted, and ran errands.
Upstairs the store was mahogany and marble, but in the store’s basement there was no need for a good impression because no customers ever ventured that far. Alterations were made in the basement, and there was a large steam press which hissed clouds of steam. The two women who worked there were grumpy and were always complaining about everyone else.
Beyond the alterations room was an entire area full of mannequin parts—a bin for heads, and another for arms. And scattered along the dimly lit hall stood headless, armless bronzed torsos on the roughened cement floor.
Another section was filled with remnants of past window displays—signs which define for us what the “Man of Action” is wearing. But the “Man of Action” changes every season, and the signs were for last year, so the signs lay in stacks gathering dust, waiting for the window man to finally decide what to keep and what to throw away.
Jeff spent much of his workday in the basement. Starting from cardboard slabs he made up suit and tie and sock boxes. He also mailed altered suits to out-of-town customers. Also it was in the basement where they kept the supplies for polishing and dusting the mahogany upstairs.
One day he walked to the end of the dreary hallway. The lighting was bad and the clutter more evident as he proceeded.
What a mess, he thought. He moved aside a sign and saw a stack of men’s magazines. He was embarrassed by the cover on top. Making sure nobody was around, he opened it up and quickly thumbed through its pages. There was a centerfold picture.
I’ve got no business looking at this, he thought, closing it and walking away.
Four days passed, and he never returned to the magazines. He congratulated himself on his self-control.
But one day he returned. It was a day when it seemed as if the world was against him. At breakfast his parents scolded him for driving the car but never putting any gas in it. His dad warned him that he’d better spend more time studying if he ever expected to get a college scholarship. At school he said hello to a girl, but she looked coolly at him as if he weren’t even there.
He forgot the combination to his locker and had to go to the principal’s office to ask for it. The girl working there smirked and suggested he write it on his hand so he wouldn’t forget it. He flunked a world history exam. After school his boss yelled at him as soon as he walked in because two days ago he’d switched two suits and sent an old suit to a state senator who’d bought one especially for a press conference.
On that day, when the world seemed to be tumbling down on him, he found himself in the basement lifting up the old signs to again gaze at the stack of magazines.
Life was the same dull routine day after day. Besides that, nobody really cared about him anyway. What good did it do to try to live right when things just turn out rotten anyway?
He picked one of the magazines from the bottom of the stack and quickly stuffed it in his school notebook and walked away.
Later that night, at home, after family prayer, when his mom had embarrassed him by insisting on a good night kiss, he went to his room and closed the door and read the magazine from cover to cover.
The next day at work he returned it to the bottom of the stack, and nobody was any the wiser. It was his little secret.
Over the course of the next two weeks, in the same way he read every magazine in the stack.
It doesn’t matter, he thought. I’m still the same. It hasn’t affected me at all.
Shortly after, he met Holly. She was from a small branch in a town 50 miles away. She was a sophomore and he was a senior, and they met at a seminary Super Saturday. She had blonde hair and blue-green eyes. Her high cheekbones made everything about her face seem more dramatic. Her laughter reminded him of wind chimes.
After the first scripture chase, he sat behind her so he could watch her every move.
After the lesson, they all went to the gym to play volleyball. He stood next to her. Before the game started, she turned to him, smiled, and said, “You’re new here, aren’t you?”
They talked. He couldn’t remember what he said, because he was so anxious to have her like him. The game started and they lost, but he didn’t care because she said she enjoyed getting to know him and that she hoped to see him again sometime.
When it was all over, he walked her outside to her parents’ car, he asked her if he could come up and visit her sometime, and she said she’d like that.
“Do you think we’ll be good friends?” she asked.
“I hope so.”
“I do too.”
He asked her for a picture, and she said she’d mail one to him.
On Monday of the next week, his math teacher asked him to sign up for the special college preparatory exam because if he did really well he could get a scholarship next year and anyone as bright as he was should be able to get a full-ride scholarship anywhere in the country.
“I’m not that smart,” Jeff said.
“I think you’re too modest. I’ve noticed the way you do all the homework. You’re the best student I’ve ever had. I insist you take the exam.”
Monday afternoon Holly’s picture came in the mail. He sat at his desk and looked at it and dreamed that they’d fall in love and that someday she’d let him kiss her.
He phoned and thanked her for the picture.
“I hope we can be good friends,” she said.
“Can I tell you something? Last summer I met this guy and we really got along well and it was the first guy I’d every really dated. But after the second date he just quit. He didn’t ever call me or say what was wrong. I figured it was probably something that I’d said. Of course my parents said not to worry, but that’s what they say about everything.”
“He was a fool to quit dating you,” Jeff said. She smiled. “Thanks. I needed that.”
He took the standardized math exam, but he didn’t do as well as people expected. “I think I had the flu that day,” he explained to Mr. Bentley when the results came in.
He checked the magazine pile every week. Another new issue appeared on top of the pile. He told himself he wouldn’t read it, but after a few days he broke down and did.
He always promised himself it was the last. Somehow promising himself made him feel better.
Another Super Saturday rolled around again. He sat next to Holly in class. Afterwards everyone went roller skating. He skated with her the whole time.
He asked her if she’d go with him to the junior-senior prom, and she said yes.
The next week Mr. Bentley asked to speak with him privately. “I don’t understand how you can do so well on homework and so poorly on the hour exams.”
“I get nervous taking exams,” Jeff said.
“Is that the real reason?” he asked.
The junior-senior prom came. Holly had made arrangements to stay with Church members in town.
After the dance he drove out to a country lane and parked. He kissed her for the first time.
He kissed her again. Suddenly, uninvited, came a flood of images from the magazines. He didn’t like the thoughts racing through his mind. He tried to make them go away, but they wouldn’t.
Suddenly he was afraid of himself around Holly. He started the car and drove to where she was staying that night.
“Is anything wrong?” she asked.
He felt terrible. He realized that if she knew what he’d been thinking, she would hate him. “I’d better go now. Good night.”
“What did I do wrong?” she asked him.
“Nothing,” he said.
“You won’t ever call me again, will you? What’s wrong with me? At least tell me that.”
“It’s me. There’s something wrong with me.”
As he drove home, he hated himself. He decided not to date her anymore because of what he might do if he listened to the thoughts put there from the magazines.
He promised himself not to read the magazines anymore, but he did. They didn’t demand much from him except that he turn the pages.
One day Mr. Bentley called him in after class. “I think you’ve been cheating on the homework, but I can’t prove it. For your own sake, if you have, then admit it. No class is worth damaging your integrity over. Just confess what you’ve been doing, and I won’t flunk you. I’ll give you a C—a good, clean, honestly earned C.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Mr. Bentley had to give him a B because there was no proof.
Graduation day finally came. Jeff came down with the flu and asked to be excused from commencement. It was better that way.
Throughout the summer his father kept asking him to apply for college, but he didn’t feel like it.
One Sunday his Sunday School teacher told him he’d been chosen in the premortal existence to be alive at this time to help prepare for the second coming of the Savior.
She doesn’t know me, he thought. She doesn’t know the way I really am. Nobody does.
His bishop asked him to get ready for a mission, but Jeff knew he wasn’t that kind of guy.
He had no plans.
One Sunday in July, his bishop asked to speak to him in his office.
The bishop talked about being made an elder. Rather than having to explain why he didn’t want to be an elder, Jeff went along with the idea.
The bishop gave Jeff an interview. It started out easy enough, but before Jeff knew it the bishop was in deep waters.
Jeff wasn’t ready to confess. So he lied.
Perhaps because he had no reason to suspect any misconduct, the bishop wasn’t as penetrating with his questions as he should have been. When it was over, he told Jeff he’d passed the interview. “Stake conference is next Sunday. We’ll see you then. Your parents will be proud of you. Now the only thing you have to do is go see the stake president.”
“What for?” he asked.
“He needs to interview you too.”
The executive secretary had set up all the interviews on Sunday after church, but he’d set them too close together, so there was a line of people waiting to get in. Two of the guys from his ward, also graduating seniors, were also in line.
Holly and her father showed up in the hallway too because her father had a meeting to go to.
“Is it all right if I stand next to you in line?” she asked.
“I guess so.”
He looked at her. She was more beautiful than he’d remembered.
“What are your plans now that you’ve graduated?” she asked.
“I’m not sure.”
“I hope you go on a mission,” she said.
“I know you’d be a great missionary.”
He shook his head. “I doubt it.”
She touched him on the sleeve. “You’ve got to have faith in yourself. I think you’re … special.”
He shook his head. “No I’m not.”
“There you go again.”
He couldn’t look her in the face because she reminded him of what could have been.
“You quit coming to Super Saturday.”
“Yeah,” he said.
“I got busy.”
“I wished you hadn’t been so busy,” she said quietly. “But I learned from it.”
“What did you learn?”
“That you can’t depend on other people to make you feel good about yourself. It’s got to be inside you.”
For a moment he allowed himself the luxury of looking into her eyes. She was not afraid anymore. He looked away.
The next person in line went into the stake president’s office.
“Did you pass?” someone asked the one coming out.
“What do you think?”
“I doubt it, but hey, if you can pass, anybody can.”
They all laughed.
His face turned crimson red because he was next in line.
“Is something wrong?” she asked.
“Your face is so red. Do you have a fever?”
“Yeah, I guess I do. You’d better stay away from me.”
She smiled. “I’ll take the chance it’s not contagious.”
“I hope it isn’t.”
Several minutes passed. He turned to her and said quietly, “I have a problem.”
“What kind of problem?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“You need to tell someone. You can’t keep a problem to yourself.”
The door opened again. President Rossiter came out and shook Jeff’s hand and asked him in.
They went through the same questions again, and again he lied just as he had to the bishop.
When they were finished, President Rossiter looked uneasy.
“Is something wrong?” Jeff asked.
“I’m not sure. Maybe you’d better tell me.”
“I just don’t feel good about what you’ve said.” Jeff wiped his forehead.
“Let me explain something, Jeff. You could probably lie to me or your bishop and get away with it. We’re only human, and we might never know the difference. But when I ask these questions, I represent the Lord as if he were asking them, and if you don’t tell the truth, then it’s as if you were lying to the Lord. Now let’s go over some of the questions one more time.”
They went over the questions one by one. Again Jeff lied, but by the time the questions were over his face was dripping with sweat.
President Rossiter shook his head. “I’m sorry, but there’s something wrong. Would you like to talk about it?”
Jeff shook his head. “There’s all those people waiting in the hall. If you take too much time with me, they’ll know there’s something wrong.”
“Telling the truth doesn’t take any longer than lying does.”
Jeff sat there stone faced.
“God knows what the problem is. Let me know too, so I can help you with whatever it is. You are important in his eyes. He reserved you to come to earth at this time to help bring about the Second Coming.”
Jeff shook his head. “I wish people would quit saying that. It’s not true about me. You don’t know me. Nobody knows what I’m really like.”
“Then why don’t you tell me,” President Rossiter said quietly.
“All right, I will. I lied to my bishop, and I lied to you. I’ve cheated in school, and I’ve read magazines. Bad magazines. Don’t tell me to stop. I’ve tried that, but no matter how hard I try, I’m just not strong enough anymore. It’s like it’s got control over me, and no matter how hard I say to myself I won’t ever do it again, I can’t stop. How can you possibly know what it’s like? I’m not like any of the people waiting in the hall out there. I’ve got a dirty mind.”
He tried to make the shame come out quietly, but it didn’t. It was the first time he’d cried since he was six years old. So now, he thought bitterly, on top of everything else, I’m not even a man, and everyone in the hall knows it because they can hear me crying.
President Rossiter put his arm around his shoulder. Jeff wondered if he’d talk about this in stake conference, and if after that people would stand in the halls of church and secretly smirk as he walked by.
He asked President Rossiter about it. “I don’t tell anyone, Jeff, not anyone.”
Jeff finally opened up and told it all—about the magazines and the thoughts that wouldn’t go away, and about cheating on homework, and about all the lying he’d done to cover it all up. He told every secret thing he’d done until it was all out in the open, and there was nothing left to hide. When he was finished, he asked, “Will you excommunicate me now?”
“Jeff, your bishop and I are going to work with you to help you repent, so you can wipe the slate clean again.”
Jeff looked up. “I can start over?”
“If you repent, you can. Your bishop will outline some steps to follow.”
“But I’ve disappointed the Lord.”
“Yes, you have.”
“But how can he forgive me for what I’ve done?”
“Because he loves you.”
“And if I do, someday will I be able to be an elder and go on a mission?”
“Yes, but it’s up to you. You can be forgiven if you turn from your sins and repent.”
“But what about the bad thoughts?”
“Replace them with good ones.”
Half an hour later he walked out into the hall again.
“It’s about time,” one of his high school friends complained. “What were you two talking about in there?”
President Rossiter smiled. “Bob, come on in and find out for yourself.”
Jeff started down the hall. He walked past Holly. He turned away. He didn’t want her to see his eyes because they were bloodshot from crying.
“Are you all right?” she called out after him.
He stopped walking and turned around to face her. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
“Can I walk with you?” she asked.
He smiled at her. “I’d really like that.”
The next day at work he put all the magazines into a box and lugged it up to the floor with the mahogany and marble.
The store was momentarily without customers.
“Hey, do these magazines belong to anyone?” he announced loudly.
All the salesmen came up to the counter where he’d set the box. They looked at the box full of tattered, dusty magazines. One by one they all denied that the magazines belonged to them.
“If they don’t belong to anyone, I guess nobody will mind if I just toss ’em out, right?”
He went outside and dumped them in a trash can just in time to see the garbage truck coming down the alley.
The hydraulic ram on the garbage truck crushed the box and mixed it with other garbage collected on that block wilted brown lettuce and old potato and carrot peelings and a large pail of darkened, deep-fat grease from the restaurant next door.
On his way inside again, he started whistling a hymn to himself. He decided he’d call Holly after work and ask if she’d go with their family on a picnic next week out at the lake. Maybe he could teach her how to water-ski.
Inside again, he passed a mirror customers used to look at themselves when they tried out clothes for the “Man of Action.”
He smiled at his reflection in the mirror. He liked what he saw.