The Still Life of Basketball Merle Jones

Transferring into St. Anne's Catholic High School as a senior was almost unheard of so students weren't quite sure what to make of the new guy - Merle Jones - when he on the first day of senior year.

Who was he? Where did he come from? Why was he there? What was his story?

His classmates were polite and friendly in welcoming him to their ranks but nobody went out of their way to get to know him and Merle didn't show all that much interest in assimilating himself into the study body either.

There were only 44 Seniors in the graduating class so it was hard not to notice Merle as he roamed the halls and sat in the various classes. He didn't talk much and he socialized even less.

He drove a nice car but nobody knew that much about him - not that anybody particularly cared. There was already a fraternity among the graduating class and if Merle considered himself to good or special to blend in, the heck with him.

But it was a Catholic School, after all, so teachers made sure Merle was included in various activities and school events while calling on him in class for oral responses. A few kids tried to engage the reserved new guy in ongoing conversation and interaction but he wasn't all that engaging or particularly invested in such exercises.

Lauren O'Keefe was one of the Seniors who attempted to be accepting and welcoming. She served on the Hospitality Committee and she saw it as her responsibility to be friendly.

Merle wasn't rude or mean - he just wasn't interested. But Lauren continued to say hello every day and on occasion she and her friends sat with him in the crowded lunch room.

Sometimes, Merle bought two lunches which Lauren found amusing.

"Some kids can't even stomach one of those," she joked.

Lauren and her friends invited Merle to the homecoming football game and they were surprised when he actually showed up, sitting with them in the stands and watching the Saints lose to the Greenville Giants 27-24.

"The football team is better this year," Lauren said after the game. "They have a new guy, JT Stevens, who's supposed to be pretty good. Have you met him? He's a Senior like us."

"I think I've seen him around," Merle said.

"He's new like you," Lauren said. "Except he came Junior year which is a little less mysterious."

Merle didn't respond to that comment.

"Anyway, there's a dance tonight," Lauren said. "You should come."

Lauren was pleased when Merle showed up for the gathering but he didn't dance or talk much and he left early.

"You think he's in hiding or something?" Lauren's friend Mary asked. "He's a strange dude."

"He drives a nice car," Lauren reasoned.

"Maybe he's a drug dealer," Mary theorized. "On the lam. Hiding out from the law."

"Yeah, I'm sure that's it," Lauren said sarcastically.

A few days later, Lauren accompanied her parents to The Morrison Funeral Home in Greenville for the wake of one of her father's co-workers, a nice guy she had met several times.

Lauren hated wakes but as a Catholic she believed it was the right thing to do showing up for the service to offer her prayers.

Lauren was surprised to see Merle in the funeral home office talking with the owner of the business. Both were wearing suits and dress shoes. Merle didn't notice her standing in the hall until he came out of the office and almost bumped into her, literally.

"Oh, hi," he said awkwardly.

"What are you doing here?" Lauren asked. "Why were you talking to the undertaker?"

"He's my grandfather," Merle explained.

"How come I've never seen you around town before?" Lauren asked suspiciously. "Why are you new to the school?"

"My mother and me just moved to town," he explained.

"Why the Catholic School instead of Greenville High?"

"My grandparents are paying," he shrugged. "You knew the deceased?" He asked.

"Paul Reynolds, a nice guy my father worked with," Lauren sighed.

"Oh, sorry," Merle said.

"You don't help with..." Her voice trailed off.

"No, not that," he said with relief. "Directing cars. Placing flowers. That sort of stuff."

"Oh," Lauren said. Then she gave him a look. "You're probably good at this job."

"Why's that?"

"You don't have to talk to dead people."

Merle looked flustered. "It's been a weird adjustment moving to a new town and school, that's all."

"I know you're the new guy and all that but you haven't exactly been Mr. Personality," she let him know.

"All the Jesus stuff weirds me out," Merle admitted.

"You're working at a funeral home," Lauren laughed. "You should be keenly in touch with Jesus."

"I suppose."

"Did something bad happen?" She asked.

"What do you mean?"

"Why does somebody change schools senior year?" Lauren wanted to know.

"Kids are talking, huh?" Merle guessed.

"A little," she admitted.

"You can tell them I'm not a mass murderer."

"They don't think that," Lauren said with embarrassment.

"Did you think that?" Merle asked.

"Of course not," she frowned.

"I appreciate it."

"You could try harder," Lauren told him. "Being nice. Interested. Engaged."

"I'll see you around," Merle said.

Lauren nodded and she watched him head out the back door for the parking lot.

Now Lauren was more confused than ever. Who was this guy!?