Authors: Don Winston
There were three people in line. The lone attendant looked Cody’s age and was in no hurry. Behind her were FedEx posters of London and Paris and Beijing. The World on Time.
She checked his driver’s license and disappeared into the back. Two more people had lined up behind him.
Cody’s boss had given him a full hour for lunch but asked him to hurry. The new iPads made the Genius Bar busier than usual. “Go! Go get it,” Marcie told him. “I need the exercise.” Marcie did speed laps around the mall’s top floor during her lunch break when Cody wasn’t there to eat with her.
The girl was gone forever and then passed back by the counter to the office to get her supervisor, who went to the back with her, and then the girl returned with the FedEx rectangle. She scanned and slid the envelope across, saying nothing. “Thank you,” Cody said.
Cody pulled the tab across the envelope in his front seat and emptied a square cardboard sleeve onto his lap. It was white with purple lettering and said, “The Information You Requested,” although he hadn’t.
Even before he opened the sleeve, Cody knew what was inside.
y three thirty the Genius Bar had slowed, and the next appointment was at three forty-five. Cody slipped through the back workstation, where the real geeks fixed the broken computers that had been checked in and not just reset. He took a tester MacBook with him. Nobody stopped him—everybody trusted Cody.
On the back stairs near the freight elevators, Cody slipped
The S’wanee Call
DVD into the slot. He heard the disk spin and accelerate, and the screen went black for a moment.
And then S’wanee came alive.
Clanging bells from an unseen tower and then a burst of color and energy and voices and students and professors talking to him directly, explaining this world they lived in and studied at and played in, inviting him in and asking him to stay, and he was there with them, in their beautiful world.
They were bright and casual and in between classes or on their way to practice, and some were in their ancient dorm rooms, others clustered happily on the trodden lawn, as if they’d always belonged to one another. They were articulate and excited about life and living and not embarrassed to show it to anyone who cared to look in at them. Had they always been that way?
It was a slick, fast-cutting production, an avalanche of people and places and
s and longings. There was so much they wanted to show and say, to tell him all about it…
“Cody! We need you!” His boss was leaning out the metal door, down the cinder-block hallway.
• • •
“We are devoted to this thing called the S’wanee Call. The S’wanee Experience. It’s life-changing, I would say.”
“Because there’s something about the S’wanee Call that really binds us together and that we can all say we share in.”
They liked that phrase, the “S’wanee Call.” It did have a ring.
“Just last weekend, a friend of mine, we were having dinner, and he said, ‘You know, I just had a great S’wanee Day,’ and students here really know what that means.”
Maisy, the mother dachshund, nosed her way into Cody’s off-limits bedroom and watched him at his computer, unafraid.
“It wouldn’t be S’wanee if you weren’t friends with your professors. They play more than just a teacher role; they’re mentors, they’re friends, they’re family, I guess.”
The microwave in the kitchen beeped a reminder that his Olive Garden leftovers were done and waiting.
Anne from Atlanta, English major; Ross from Boston, psychology; Maddie of Scottsdale, history; Sean from Miami, undecided; Dean Emeritus Apperson, behavioral sciences—gray, tweedy, with crisp diction and an easy smile. He sat in a tapestry chair by a crackling fireplace. Was he thin blooded, or did it get cold there? The preppy students were dressed for sunny warmth. They were white and black and Asian and Latin, although Cody suspected it was a careful sampling.
“We all live together, eat together, work together, play together, we just see all of each other all the time. It’s very close-knit, very tight.”
On a flowered field, an older black gentleman, nattily dressed and mustached, juggled tennis balls high as his spirited black German shepherd jumped and lunged and snatched them from the air, one-two-three. Like a circus act.
Football, basketball, soccer, swimming, track, equestrian—varsity, intramural, and club. The students were active, fit, and glowing. The girls sparkled without vanity or attitude. You could talk to them.
“The campus itself asks you to think. To think a thought.”
The views from the Mountain were cinematic. The trails, trees, bluffs, and waterfalls of the Domain reminded Cody of Yosemite, or was it Yellowstone? He’d never been to either.
The music was ill matched, like the government-issue videos they showed in school. How to save a choking person and not bully gays. Cody had learned to floss his teeth to this music. S’wanee deserved a better score.
The Extra Features teased out S’wanee traditions and superstitions and ghosts—the Order of the Gownsmen honorary society, the dogs as reincarnated professors, the headless nurse who wandered by some building. The crying baby heard in the chapel when S’wanee lost a football game.
All of it fresh and trampled and pastel and threadbare and burnished and timeless and so very now. We live here together, up on the Mountain. We’ll be back in the fall, just so you know.
Ecce Quam Bonum
—Behold How Good.
“It’s going to be hard to leave this place.”
“Did they send you a
?” Marcie was looking over his shoulder, her eyes slightly blurry. Back early from her date, another misfire.
“You wanna see it?” said Cody, eager to share.
“How we gonna pay for it, kiddo?” Marcie asked, unplayful, leaving his room. Cody and Maisy followed.
“We can ask them,” Cody said. “They’ve got scholarships. And loans. Just like Rutgers. They gotta have those things.”
“I mean this apartment!” Marcie said, pouring her wine over ice. “So I would… what? Move? Pack up and move to a one bedroom? A studio?”
“I hadn’t thought of that yet.”
“I have to think about it! I thought this was settled. I thought we were done with it.” Marcie thought for a moment and then kept going.
“You know,” she said, “I was asking around at work, the girls at work. No one’s ever heard of this.”
“Heard of what?” Cody asked. “S’wanee?”
no one’s heard of S’wanee.
haven’t heard of S’wanee. What does that name mean anyway? It’s so odd.”
“It’s a Native American name. I don’t know what it means,” Cody said.
“Indians? Tennessee Indians. And now it’s a college,” Marcie said, and then she said, “Whatever. No one’s ever heard of any school trolling for students this late in the year.”
“So the perfume sprayers at Macy’s are now college experts?”
“Don’t be ugly,” Marcie scolded, and then absorbed his sting. “That was ugly.”
“I mean, they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
“One of the girls,” Marcie continued, gaining steam, “actually he’s a boy, and his boyfriend is a college graduate and has a very good job, and he says it’s very strange.”
“You have the boys at Macy’s asking their
“I mean, how unpopular is that place? How
“Rutgers is still looking for students,” Cody replied, matter-of-fact. “All years. So is every school that sent me a letter. You can check their websites. I guess they’re all unpopular and desperate.”
“Someone’s done their homework,” Marcie said, pushing back. “Someone has the same suspicions I do.”
“I’m not suspicious,” Cody laughed. “But enrollment is down everywhere. It’s just a fact.”
Marcie was out of arguments and getting louder.
“I just never thought you’d work so hard to run away from me!” she said.
“I’m not running away. It’s college. People do leave home, you know.
Cody didn’t respond. Marcie took a cigarette and didn’t tear off the top.
“Fine,” she said. “I’ll call them. Right now.”
She fumbled in her purse for her iPhone.
“It’s almost midnight,” Cody said.
“I’m sure a college this fancy has voice mail,” Marcie replied.
She picked up S’wanee’s letter from the coffee table and went into her room.
“No!” Cody, alarmed, followed her. “You’re drunk.”
Marcie rolled her eyes and continued on to her balcony. Lighting up, she squinted at the letter and dialed.
“Mom, please don’t!” Cody pleaded. “Not now!”
Marcie slid the glass door between them and put her finger to her lips, listening. She blew smoke and cleared her throat.
“Yes, this is Marcie Marko,” she said pleasantly, professionally. “You were kind enough to send a letter to my son Cody. About potential openings in your freshman class for this fall. I was following up to ask a few questions and…possibly start a conversation. If you could return my call at your leisure, I’d be most…”
After the call, Marcie cracked open the door for Cody. She sat on her balcony and picked a bit of tobacco from her tongue.
“Done,” she said, exhaling.
“Thank you,” Cody said, relieved. She’d made a better impression than he would. She usually did.
“Come sit with me, kiddo.” She patted the chair and looked out over the pool.
“Do you want your wine?” he asked.
“Just come sit with me for a few minutes. It’s a nice night.”
• • •
Before going to bed, Cody glanced once last time at the S’wanee DVD, still animated and beautiful on his laptop. He noticed a small purple button in the bottom left corner, inviting him to visit the school’s pitiful website. He was surprised they advertised that. He hit the button, which launched a new tab in his browser.
The website had grown up overnight.
n Monday it rained, hard and constant. The thick air made Marcie cough on their ride to work. A single, deep hack. She’d been smoking more, and whole cigarettes. Most women her age looked defeated, almost pathetic, when they smoked, but Marcie wanded hers stylishly, with movie-star glamour. Still, she needed to stop.
Cody had stayed up late clicking through the new, improved S’wanee website. It was full-on and impressive. Not only did it include the videos off the DVD, it had full listings of classes, professors, and student organizations. The site must have been down for maintenance before. He’d merely seen the placeholder while they updated and got ready for the new school year.
At lunch, Cody took his sandwich to the food court, where they met when it was raining. Marcie was already there but stood by the ladies’ room near the Panda Express, on her phone. She was listening, not talking. She was straightening her leopard-print belt around her tiny waist.
Cody caught her eye, and she held up a be-right-there finger. Then she pivoted and retreated into the ladies’ room, still listening. Cody knew the look on her face and the pivoting retreat. Chastened, slightly guilty, and quietly defiant. The same look and pivot whenever bill collectors caught her at home. She always took their call—too proud to hide and confident in her fierce negotiating skills. “We bailed you guys out, you know,” she’d remind them, as leverage.
He’d seen the look just three nights ago, when her credit card company had called the apartment again. The next morning, she canceled their landline. They never used it, they were wasting money. All true, but Cody suspected the nightly calls were finally wearing down her pride. Now, apparently, they had tracked down her cell phone and followed her to work.
Cody had finished his sandwich by the time she returned and sat next to him, antsy. She rubbed her fingers and touched her stomach. She did nonsensical things with her hands whenever she was restless and thinking. She scanned the half-empty food court. Then she looked at her son and became still, as in a trance.
“You okay, Mom?” Cody asked.
Marcie blinked back to reality. “Sorry, kiddo,” she said, sucking her teeth. “Had to deal with something.”
Cody fought the urge to ask if anyone else had called. Marcie’s lunch break was already ruined.
“Are you done?” she asked, fishing into her purse. “I need a cigarette.”
“It’s raining outside,” Cody said.
“I know,” she replied, leaving the table. “I’ll catch you later.”
• • •
Marcie was late to meet him at the employee entrance that night. She was clearly still bothered by the pestering call and sat silently most of the way home.
“Stop at the Pathmark,” she said suddenly, digging into her purse for coupons.
She surprised him by making dinner. Tri-tip steak, premarinated, and rice pilaf from a box cooked in chicken broth and brussels sprouts steamed in the bag and sautéed in olive oil, soy sauce, and brown sugar. “My mother’s way,” she said. She also picked up a strawberry-rhubarb pie from the store’s bakery. “While it’s in season,” she said. The dinner was an effort.
Marcie stirred her small portions and ate a few bites. She’d lit a single candle for the table. It was still raining outside.
“We should plan a trip this summer,” she said. “We haven’t celebrated your graduation yet.”
Cody washed the dishes while Marcie took a bath and then scanned the TV channels, standing in her lavender silk robe. She settled on a
, but muted the sound. She paced and peered out into the rain and decided against a smoke. She kept the cigarette between her fingers, poised.
Cody’s iPhone pinged. He glanced at it and quickly went to his laptop.
S’wanee had sent him an e-mail. Addressed to him by name. It was 9:23 p.m.
It was an invitation to apply for admission. It included a link to a standardized online application service. It needed to be returned within one week.
Cody found his mother smoking on the balcony, protected by the balcony above. One arm folded and looking out.