Authors: Don Winston
“Hydrangeas,” she said, pointing to the large flowering shrubs that popped out on nearly every page, some pink, some blue. “Big ones. It must rain a lot down there. Does it?”
Cody ate silently, not knowing hydrangeas.
“It looks expensive,” she said. She pulled out a cigarette and tore off the top third, her latest gimmick at smoking less. Cody followed her onto the balcony, through the plastic vertical blinds into the sticky air.
“They might have a scholarship opening. There’s a wait list,” he said.
“Yes, I read that,” she said. “That was in my letter, too. What exactly does that mean?” She looked out over the apartment complex pool. Across the fishbowl, two teenagers smoked while Jimi Hendrix blasted from their parents’ apartment. An elderly woman in a floral housecoat sat on another balcony, staring out blankly. At least their balcony didn’t face Route 18. Marcie had paid extra to face in.
“It means I can apply,” Cody said.
S’wanee’s letter explained that due to a handful of students who had already been offered scholarships matriculating elsewhere, there were now a small number of openings. Like most schools, S’wanee was seeking ethnic and “geographical” diversity. The letter was vague about everything else. It wasn’t an offer. It was simply a statement of fact and a cordial invitation to inquire more, if interested. S’wanee wasn’t begging to give away money.
“How did they get my address?” she asked. “Same as the other schools,” Cody answered. “From the SATs. All the colleges buy that information.” “Right,” Marcie said. “The SAT knows how to milk it. Wish I’d invented it.”
“I thought you liked Rutgers,” Marcie said. “Don’t worry about it,” Cody repeated.
“No, I’ll call them tomorrow. See what they’re hawking.” Marcie got up, her cigarette pushed into the crowded ashtray. “I have a date. Just a drink. Do you have a date? Aren’t you doing laundry tonight?”
• • •
Marcie didn’t leave quarters, so Cody crossed over to the gas station, bought a Gatorade, and coaxed five dollars in change from the cashier he knew. The communal washing machine was full but finished. He emptied and piled strangers’ clothes in a wheeled wire bin and ran his big mixed load, editing out Marcie’s bras. She hand washed her “delicates” to keep the wires strong.
In the bright, humid room, the washer hummed and squeaked. Cody opened his MacBook on his lap and piggybacked on one of the four unsecured networks that were usually running in the area. He deleted spam and launched his Safari browser.
He remembered the S’wanee web address from the letter, although it was fairly obvious.
The website needed help. At the top of the home page sat the school name, static in purple block letters. Underneath was the upended football-shaped school seal next to the Latin motto:
Ecce Quam Bonum
—untranslated. Below were twenty photographs on a plain grid, many from the brochure, but color-enhanced and brassier. Emerald-green lawns and vibrant stone paths connected matching Gothic buildings that almost looked orange. The hydrangeas appeared neon.
The only people were in archived, mostly black-and-white photos. College boys from the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. Apparently girls and color arrived together in the ‘60s. A few of the students wore long black gowns over their tweed jackets and ties and floral dresses. Most of the boys wore oxfords and khakis; almost all the girls wore hair bands. Everyone looked very tidy. For some reason there were three pictures of dogs. The website was a weird, intriguing mess.
There was no search box and no directory of professors, classes, or athletics. There were just two links: the admissions office and the student newspaper, the
. It was down for the summer and only said “See You In September!” under the masthead. The admissions link had an address and phone number and nothing else.
The site had no moving parts, but it froze his browser after a few clicks. Cody force quit, relaunched, and opened a new tab.
Wikipedia listed two entries first, including “Swanee,” the Al Jolson song about a Georgian river, before redirecting him to Monteagle University, the school’s official name. The exclamation point flagged “multiple issues,” including “needs additional references or sources for verification,” “its neutrality is disputed,” and “may require cleanup,” which Cody remembered from other Wikipedia college entries written by overzealous students and alumni. NYU’s entry in particular had tons of “issues,” in a city full of opinionated loudmouths and “haters.”
Monteagle College was founded in 1857 by an Episcopal diocese in Monteagle, Tennessee. In 1948, it added a science graduate program and became a university. The school was technically located in the next town called Sewanee, the place-name given by the once-native Cherokee tribe. The school’s nicknames included “the Mountain” and “the Domain,” but over the decades the shortened “S’wanee” became so ingrained that the school officially adopted it in the early seventies. The school sat atop the Cumberland Plateau in southeastern Tennessee. The campus was officially thirteen thousand acres, but only one thousand were developed. The rest was “scenic mountain wilderness.” S’wanee had six hundred and seventy-three students from forty-three states and nine foreign countries.
Google linked only to the Wikipedia entry and the school’s own underwhelming website. The town had a newspaper called the
, but no website. Yahoo’s auto-suggest drop-down box listed “S’wanee Massacre” as a top hit, but there were no links. Perhaps an obscure Cherokee battle from the pilgrim days, or a long-defunct and quasi-forgotten student band from a faraway decade. Cool name for a band, Cody thought, wishing he played an instrument.
The dryer buzzed. It was 11:45. Cody had been looking at the school’s pictures for over an hour. As he went to close his MacBook, an e-mail dinged in from S’wanee, thanking him for visiting their website and inviting him back again soon. Cody was surprised a Stone-Age website had such advanced tracking capabilities. It was an automated e-mail, not personalized, but Cody went into his browser’s preferences to remove the cookie.
On second thought, he let it stay.
• • •
Thirty minutes later, Cody lay in bed, thinking. He heard Marcie return and go quietly to her room.
“How was it?” he asked through the papery wall between them.
“Eh,” she said, agnostic. “Oooh, clean laundry. Thanks, kiddo.”
“You’ll call tomorrow?”
Marcie was silent a moment. “No, I don’t think so. Why would I?”
“The school. S’wanee.”
“Oh, the school. Yes. Yes, I’ll call the number. Why not?”
“I can do it,” Cody said.
“No, I said I’d do it,” Marcie said. “Why are you still up?”
Cody could tell his mother had had one more glass of wine than usual.
“I’m not,” he said. Cody needed only five hours a night and was usually up.
“Me neither. Go to sleep, kiddo.”
A few moments later, Cody heard the whir of the electric toothbrush, as Marcie polished and polished.
wo days later, Friday, was hot, even by eight a.m. Marcie had to be at work early for a training seminar about a new antiaging serum. “You know, they don’t pay us extra for this,” she complained as Cody drove them to the mall after Marcie’s Starbucks pit stop. He didn’t ask but knew she hadn’t made the call yet.
Cody sat outside in the employee bench area behind JCPenney. Marcie finished her wake-up cigarette and said she’d see him at lunch. Cody watched the rush-hour traffic in the distance under a peach haze. A river of cars heading to the city. He wanted to go.
By 10:15 the Genius Bar was crowded, as usual. By noon he had fixed a slow iMac by reinstalling the Firefox browser, which he wasn’t supposed to do, but the customer was non-pushy and didn’t talk with a Jersey accent. Like Cody, he was from someplace else. He also fixed two “fucked-up” iPods by pressing the reset buttons. He wondered if anyone read their user’s manual.
He checked in an old iBook that needed more extensive service from the pro techs in the back. “It’s password protected,” the customer whined. “Don’t you need the password?” “Don’t worry about it,” Cody replied to the grating voice, knowing the pro techs had password-hacking software, although he wasn’t supposed to reveal that. He would think that was obvious.
At one thirty he took his sandwich from the employee refrigerator and met Marcie on the bench. The parking lot was mostly empty. Marcie was crushing out her first cigarette.
“What are you doing tonight?” she asked. “Do you have a date?”
“No,” Cody answered.
“It’s Friday night. I’m taking you out. Dinner and a movie. My treat. That’ll be fun! We haven’t done that in a while.”
They hadn’t done that since Christmas.
“Okay,” Cody said, eating his sandwich. Marcie walked away from the bench to light her next cigarette, waving the smoke from her son who hated smoking.
• • •
Cody drove them home at six so Marcie could walk the dachshunds and “freshen up” before the movie. Stuck to their locked mailbox by the elevators was a purple and orange door tag from FedEx. For him.
“You coming up?” Marcie asked.
“I’ll wait here,” Cody answered.
Cody had never gotten a FedEx before. He studied the door tag. His name was handwritten in a scrawl. The package was from “TN 37383.”
S’wanee had sent him a FedEx package.
It was a first delivery attempt. It had to be signed for. FedEx would attempt delivery twice more and then return the package to S’wanee. Or he could pick it up in person at the FedEx facility between five and seven today.
Cody looked up the FedEx address on his iPhone. It was twenty minutes away. It was 6:22. If he left now, he’d get there in time, even in rush hour. Cody ran up the back stairs to the street level where Marcie walked the dogs. He could take them all and bring them back, or else he’d go by himself and come back and then they’d go to the movie.
Marcie and the dogs weren’t outside. He called her.
“Yes, kiddo?” Marcie said.
“Where are you?” Cody asked.
“Um. In the apartment.”
“I got a FedEx package,” Cody said.
“Yes. I saw that.”
“I can go pick it up there before seven.”
“Now?” Marcie asked. “Back back,” she said, slightly annoyed at the yappy dogs.
“It’s from S’wanee.”
?” Marcie was now slightly annoyed at him. “Can I
catch my breath?”
“I’ll go and come back,” Cody said.
“No!” Marcie yelled. “We’ll be late for the movie.”
“I don’t want them to send it back,” Cody said, startled by his own urgency.
“Geezus, it’s a stupid
. It won’t self-destruct.” Marcie hung up.
Cody folded the door tag in half and slid it into his back pocket, behind his wallet.
• • •
Cody couldn’t concentrate on the movie, even in 3-D. On the drive to the theater next to the mall, Cody noticed FedEx trucks for the first time. In the long, snaking line for tickets, he wondered why kids wore dark hoodies with the hoods up even in the heat. He wore the same Abercrombie & Fitch moose polo he had worn to work. He’d paid full price, since there wasn’t an Abercrombie at his mall.
Marcie stood out, not because she was older, but because she looked chic and sexy, like she was on a date. And she was so skinny. The girls half her age were fat and cheap-looking. Marcie really didn’t belong here either.
“Do you want popcorn?” she asked as they passed the mobbed concession stand.
What had S’wanee sent him by FedEx?
There were endless commercials before the movie. Pepsi and Nike and the local Nissan. The crowd talked through them.
FedEx was expensive. And urgent. Did they send FedEx to everyone? Surely not.
Marcie nudged him. “Put on your glasses.” He’d missed the previews.
And the package was sitting on a shelf, in a warehouse, twenty minutes away. Or was it already on a truck for delivery tomorrow? FedEx didn’t lose packages, did they?
“Are you bored, kiddo?” Marcie whispered hoarsely, stylish in her plastic glasses, and then answered herself. “I’m bored. Let’s go.” The movie was loud, and Kate Beckinsale was yelling onscreen, and Marcie and Cody scooted past the zombies and walked up the aisle.
“Movies have never been worse,” Marcie said in the parking garage, stamping out her cigarette. She had kept her 3-D glasses. “I paid for them.”
They were at the Olive Garden in their mall. Marcie spooned her minestrone in circles. She’d eyeballed the restaurant and found the prospects wanting, happily married or not. Cody was full after half his pasta. It was rich, and the plate was big.
Tomorrow was Saturday. Cody would be at work. He’d miss the package again. Did FedEx deliver on Saturdays? Did that count as a second attempt? He had Sunday off, but he knew they wouldn’t deliver then.
“Angelina Jolie is really the only movie star we have right now,” Marcie said. “Her and Catherine Zeta Jones.”
“I like Kristen Stewart,” Cody said, filling the silence.
“She’s so lazy. I feel like I’m boring her from the audience. And she doesn’t know how to wear a dress. I bet she smokes a lot of pot.”
Cody could call in sick tomorrow and wait for the package. But the store was busy on Saturdays, and he would lose seventy-eight dollars, after taxes.
Marcie flagged down the waiter. “Can you wrap this up? And the check, please?” She handed him her mall ID for the discount.
“Back, back!” Marcie said to the dogs at their apartment. “Can you walk them? I’m sleepy.”
“Thanks for tonight,” Cody said, grabbing the leashes off the counter.
“We used to have fun,” Marcie said, holding her new John Irving. She was a voracious reader and bought them in hardback. “I think you need a girlfriend.” She closed the door to her bedroom.
Outside, the dogs sniffed about on the grass while Cody called the 800 number from the FedEx door tag. He pressed 0 again and again until he got to an operator in India.
• • •
Cody found the FedEx warehouse on a quiet industrial street flanked by storage facilities. They were open till two on Saturdays and had held the package back from the truck. There was no parking lot, and the street was lined with cars, so he turned on his hazards.