"God, that's gotta be painful. Who was it for?"
Ron blinked. "They fired you and gave you a going-away party all today?"
"Not exactly. I thought it was one of those awful birthday parties. I saw cupcakes in the office kitchen fridge, and this feeling of dread just gripped me. I think it was a psychic premonition."
Ron rolled his eyes.
"But when I went, everyone was being really nice to me and asking what I was going to do next. So I kept saying 'I don't know. Go to the movies?' and they kept laughing like this was so funny."
Ron squinted at her and pushed back the hair sticking out from under his lumberjack cap.
"Then my boss stood up and was like To Maureen. Hoping she moves on to greener pastures. Or at least better-paying ones. So then I was like, 'What are you talking about? I'm not leaving.' and then everyone got real quiet and my boss asked if I got the email he sent last week."
"Wow. That sucks."
The soccer mom in back of Maureen shoved her purse into her spine. "Are you done ordering yet?"
Ron ignored the woman. "At least you get unemployment."
"No, I don't. It was only part-time. I worked thirty-five hour a week, but they said they couldn't afford the insurance costs if they put me on full time."
Ron shook his head. "Dumb sons-of-bitches. You know, Europeans might be lazy, but they've got the right attitude about health care. Maybe we should move to France."
Maureen felt another jab and the voice in back of her spoke, "Can I order now? My kids are in the car!"
Ron sighed as Maureen moved over, then put on the fakest grin he could muster.
"Welcome to Uncle John's Burger Shack. Can I help you?" Ron prided himself on his grin, which bordered on the criminally insane. He told Maureen that he liked to think that smile made customers lose their appetites. It was pretty terrible.
After the soccer mom finished ordering, Ron asked, "So what are you gonna do? Get another job?"
"I have to. My mom said she won't give me anymore rent."
Ron pulled a plastic cup off the shelf, dropped it, dusted it off and put it on the tray. "I told my parents if they didn't pay my rent I was going to camp out on their front lawn."
"Excuse me, I know that you didn't just pick that cup off the filthy floor and put it on my tray." Maureen focused on the soccer mom huffing next to her.
Ron shrugged. "So?"
"That cup is meant for a child, and in case you didn't know, children have weaker immunity systems than big people like us. You give a child a cup like that, swarming with germs, and they could catch anything. They could die!"
"Lady, I'm no child expert, but I think Junior's had a lot worse stuff in his mouth than a cup that was touching the ground for at most five seconds."
The woman's face turned red. "Listen up, smart-ass, I want to speak to your manager!"
He plastered the grin on his face again. "Lady, you're talking to him."
This would have worked out well except at that moment Ron's real manager came out of the storeroom and asked what the problem was.
Maureen looked to Ron who gave her the secret code to leave the premises quietly. As she walked out, she heard his manager promise the lady a meal on the house. She could feel Ron psychologically cringe. He hated when customers were rewarded for their stupidity.
Maureen lay on her bed. She tried to convince herself this was the worst thing that had ever happened to her. That soon she would be thrown out on the street, forced to sleep in her car, unable to take a shower when she wanted to. When they repossessed her car, she would have to live with her family, and the idea of sleeping in her old room, which was now a sewing room/office/library/pantry made her want to cry. Although many of Maureen's siblings also did not possess jobs, they would welcome the opportunity to direct the familial disappointment at a newcomer. She could barely imagine what dinners would be like. The only thing that would allow her to take up residence with them and not get bitched out was if she picked up a hearty drug problem. But that cost money.
Maureen groaned and rolled over. In reality, she knew things could be a lot worse. Maybe if she took a nap, it would give her the spiritual strength to check the classifieds. She sleepily wondered if she'd remembered to steal her neighbor's paper this morning, and then was jerked abruptly awake by Ron stomping in, reeking of fryer grease.
Maureen opened her eyes. "Did you get fired?"
He snorted and stripped off his shirt, revealing a pale hairless chest. "Are you kidding? They?re not going to fire me. I'm the only real employee they've got." Ron was referring to the fact that he was the only Uncle John's employee who possessed both a driver's license and legal citizenship.
He grabbed a random T-shirt from a pile on the chair and slipped it on. A sparkling horse winked up at him. He regarded it for a second then sat down and looked for a cigarette.
Maureen sighed, "I'm ruined."
"Shut up. Did you take my lighter?"
Maureen looked at Ron as he fumbled for a light. In the grease-stained khakis and purple spangled T-shirt, he looked like he worked the snack bar at a homosexual beach club. It was a beautiful observation, but she didn't share it with Ron since he was a self-described homophobe. He said it stemmed back to the time he went on a family camping trip and his uncle suggested he change out of his wet swimsuit in his tent. Although his aunt, cousins, and immediate family were also present, Ron was convinced his uncle wanted to catch a glimpse of his naked silhouette on the tent wall. As a result, he refused to change and caught pneumonia. He hated gays ever since.
Ron lit the cigarette and punched his leg. "Oh goddamn, with all this fun, I almost forgot." He pulled a crumpled pamphlet out of his pocket and handed it to her. "Look, every time I doubt the existence of God, there he is providing for me!"
"What is it?"
Maureen looked at the wrinkled paper and encountered a cartoon of a smiling child desperately grasping a pen while money signs swarmed around his head. An American flag fluttered in the background. "MONEY FOR SCHOOL!" screamed out at her in bold letters.
Ron sighed and grabbed it back from her. "It's a contest. You write an essay and they'll give you 500 bucks! How great is that? I found it stuck under my windshield after I got off of work."
Maureen took it and studied the inside. "But isn't this like a scholarship? I mean, you have to go to school."
"I'll make something up. I'll tell them I enrolled, but haven't been accepted yet. You can do that."
Maureen scanned the curiously smeared text. "Are you sure? When my sister got those scholarships, she had to fill out a ton of forms."
Ron stood up and pushed his hair back while looking at himself in her dresser mirror. "Well, if you're going to be so pessimistic, then I won't let you help." He ran a finger over his teeth, then turned back to her, "Come on. You help me write an essay and we'll split it. Well, I'll get 300 because I found it, but you get 200. That's enough for awhile."
"I don't know. What makes you think we'll win?"
Ron stared at her. "Please. We're like the smartest people I know."
But Ron didn't really know anyone, thought Maureen. The dirty pamphlet stared up at her, promising more work than she'd probably want to put in. But then again, at least she could put off looking for a job. She'd be doing something instead of facing the torrent of job listings she was completely unqualified for. "Okay, so what are we gonna write about?"
Ron finished adjusting himself, then walked to the door. "I don't know. You think about it. The deadline's in a couple weeks." He stood at the door. "Give me some ideas when I come back later."
"Where are you going?"
"Over to the Steak Palace."
Melissa Watake worked as a waitress there. Ron had been trying to put the moves on her for three months now. Unfortunately, the "moves" consisted of Ron sitting at one of her tables and nursing a Coke for two hours. Not only did he give off the vibe of a stalker, but also a cheapskate. Even though Melissa was only sixteen and obviously repulsed by Ron, he was persistent. Some might admire that. Melissa certainly didn't.
Maureen thought of reminding him that he was still wearing a T-shirt with a sparkly horse galloping across it, then thought better of it. After all, she had an essay to think up.
It was early evening when Ron came back to her house. Maureen had just finished watching a show about a group of gorgeous, urban twentysomethings, who dealt with hard-hitting issues like abortion, suicide, and general 21st century ennui, and also had a talking cat. Sometimes the cat was shot in live-action, and sometimes it was a puppet. The series was incredibly successful, and Maureen wished she'd thought of it.
"Any luck with Melissa?"
From Ron's face and the soda-spill on the horse shirt, she guessed not. "Someday she's gonna feel really bad about what she's said to me."
Maureen slid over so he could sit on the couch. "Well, I thought of a topic."
"At least someone was productive tonight. What is it?"
Maureen gathered up her paperwork and cleared her throat.
Ron was silent for a second. "That's it?"
"Maureen, that's the stupidest topic in the world."
Maureen was shocked. She had been working on this for most of the evening. She'd even managed to use her neighbor's computer to do some research.
"You don't like whales?"
Ron rubbed his face. "Whales are cool. But, if we write about whales, they're going to think we're idiots or something." He sighed, "We're supposed to write about astrophysics, or dead authors or something. Jesus, we might as well write about dragons."
"It's got to be a factual topic, Ron. And I think whales are really interesting. Did you know the heart of a blue whale is as big as a small car? I just found that out."
Ron yawned and stared at the TV. "Whatever. It's a dumb idea."
"No, Ron, you'll see. Whales are very interesting."
Ron nodded and picked at his ear. "I have to get out of my job. Uncle John is being such a pig. Now he's saying I need to adjust my attitude towards customers. He wants me to shadow Carrie Rysbuck."
Carrie Rysbuck was one of the most annoying, up-beat employees Uncle John's boasted of. This was due largely in part to the spray paint she huffed in back of the restaurant.
"I mean, it's just depressing." Ron suddenly sat up. "You know what job I think I'd be really good at? Newscaster."
"Aren't they usually actors?"
"I don't know. Or maybe I could give bus tours. Be an independent tour guide. Yeah, that sounds good."
The television screen spawned another show opening. It depicted the comedic daily tribulations of a court-appointed public defender during the Spanish Inquisition. There was always a ton of blood.
Maureen shuffled together her research notes. She couldn't understand who wouldn't want to learn about whales. Maybe people who liked sharks, but that's it. "I think I'll go to the library tomorrow to do some more work."
"You know, the essay."
"You're still doing that?" Ron looked at her in disbelief. "I guess. But I really think there's something to this tour guide idea. Basically, all we need is some maps and a bus." He regarded her. "Do you know anyone who has a bus?"
Before she could answer him a character on the show was dismembered, and they were both momentarily distracted.
Two weeks later, Maureen got a call at ten o'clock at night. A husky voice asked, "Is this the residence of Ronathan Mercurio?"
"Who may I ask is calling?"
The mouth on the other end coughed, "I'm calling from the Billions for Brains Foundation. Is this Ronathan's home?"
Maureen perked up. The essay! "Yes, it is." She'd put Ron's name on the essay. It only seemed fair. He had been the one who found the pamphlet. Also, she'd borrowed some money from his wallet to pay the mailing costs.
"Well, are you his parent or legal guardian?" Maureen looked at Ron's passed-out form in the living room, still wearing Uncle John's oil-spackled lumberjack motif uniform.
"In a way, I guess."
"Well, Mrs. Mercurio, let me be the first to congratulate your son on winning the five hundred dollar scholarship."
"Oh geez! That's great! I can't believe we won! We won!"
The voice wheezed out a thin laugh. "Your son won, you mean."
Maureen stopped jumping up and down. "Oh yeah, of course. My son." She was about to call Ron in when she stopped. "My son?"
"Or your legal ward?"
"Why would Ron be a legal ward?"
"Well, Mrs. Mercurio, we don't expect a child to be answering phone calls this late in the evening."
"But what makes you think he's a child?"
The voice was silent and then broke into the thin laugh again. "Madam, I honestly don't know where this is going." It rasped again. "Your son will be awarded his prize money at a banquet at the VFW hall on Market Street on April 12th. An invitation will be sent to you in the mail."
Maureen nodded into the phone.
"We look forward to seeing you and your husband and, of course, young Ronathan there."
She was about to hang up when she realized he was still talking. "Refreshments and food will be provided free of charge. The only thing we ask is for you to bring a small contribution of twenty dollars for miscellaneous expenses. You know, the cost of the plaques and the hall rental, and whatnot. You'll bring the money, won't you, Mrs. Mercurio?"
"Sure. I mean, it's for education, after all. The essay was really that good?"
"Oh yes, oh of course. Superb. Extremely well done for a child. We especially enjoyed that delightful illustration of the whale done in glitter on the cover page. There were a few misspellings, but well, none of us are perfect, now are we?"
After she hung up the phone she tried to stride into the living room with intelligence, and ended up kicking Ron's outstretched legs.
"Hey, what the hell are you doing?"
Maureen turned to him with what she hoped was a scholarly air, then dissolved into excitement. "Ron, we won the award! You know, for the essay! A guy just called to say we won. Isn't that great?" Maureen patted his arm, "Thanks for believing in me."
Ron looked puzzled for a second, then remembered what she was talking about. "Wow, we won? We're getting 500 bucks? This is fantastic!" He looked to the ceiling, "Thank you, Jesus! What'd he say?"
"Nothing. Just that we won and that there's going to be a buffet and we'll get a plaque and the money. The only thing is, he kept referring to you as a child or a legal ward. What the heck is that?"
"That's like when a kid gets adopted. They're not orphans, they're legal wards." Ron looked suspicious, "Why would he say that?"
"I don't know. Isn't this great? He said he especially liked my whale drawing."
Ron got up. "Wait. Do you still have that pamphlet?"
Maureen pawed through a pile of papers on the coffee table. She found it remotely in one piece and handed it to Ron.
He scanned it quickly, then shut his eyes. "Oh Lord, why do you taunt me?"
Maureen looked at him worriedly, "What's wrong?"
He gave her a bitter smile and shook his head. "I knew we should have read this thing the whole way through." He pointed to small print on the last page. Apparently the contest was not valid in Kansas and Utah, and only applied to students under twelve.
Maureen stared, "Why would they put that all the way at the end? It's practically on the back!" she sighed, "So we don't get the money?"
Ron glared at her, "Are you kidding? 500 bucks, Maureen. I won't have to harass my parents for a month. We could go to Toronto!" He thought for a few minutes, then nodded. "Okay, here's what we're going to do. I got this cousin, Jimmy. I'm sure I can borrow him for a day. We go to the ceremony, pretend he's Ronathan and get the money. Simple."
"Will we split the money with him too?"
"Absolutely not. He'll just spend it on crap. Man, with this money we could put a down payment on our tour guide van! Awesome!"
"How old is he?"
"I don't know. Like nine or ten."
"Won't he wonder what's going on?"
Ron waved a hand. "Not really. Frankly, my family thinks he might be a little slow in the head. My aunt tried to get him to take these piano lessons. She got this really good teacher and everything, but he just sucked. He said it was because the teacher yelled at him, told him the next time he asked to go to the bathroom during a lesson, she was going to make him wear diapers. Who knows? When did you say the ceremony was?"
"The man said it was the 12th. The invitation should get here any day."
"God, that's like a week from now. They could've given us a little notice. I'm going to have to call Aunt Sally right away." He grabbed the phone off the end table.
"Ron, I still don't know. I mean, wouldn't this be a little psychologically damaging?"
"What are you talking about? He's from my family, isn't he? If he was going to be psychologically damaged, I think he'd be pretty set by now. Besides, he gets a free meal, he gets recognition, and he doesn't even have to do anything." Ron paused, "In fact, it might actually give his confidence a little boost. We might be making him stronger! Did you ever think of that?"
"Don't you think they'll ask for identification or something to make sure he's your kid?"
"Maureen, he's ten. How much ID do you think he has?"
Maureen shrugged. It just seemed different when they were only exploiting the scholarship committee. Less sleazy.
"I know. I'll tell her I'm taking him to that Colonial House in Milburn. She'll love it." He dialed the number. "That Colonial House is still around, right?"
The afternoon of the 12th, Aunt Sally stood on her lush front lawn, waving to Jimmy as they ushered him into the car. Maureen couldn't believe that such an attractive woman could produce such a goofy looking child.
Ron turned around in his seat. "All right Jim. You ready to go to the Colonial House?"
Jimmy stared at them from the backseat. Maureen didn't think she ever saw a weirder kid, and she was from Iowa. She felt bad that Jimmy was so ugly, and decided to be sincerely nice to him in order to mask the fact that he was almost repulsive.
They drove in silence for a bit, with Ron occasionally peeking in his rearview mirror. At one point, Jimmy began pulling up pieces of the seat cushion. Because Ron knew his car was junk, he simply nodded to the kid encouragingly when Jimmy caught him looking.
"Hey, Jim. Listen, I know you're excited to go to Colonial House and everything, but we just gotta pick something up first. Are you hungry?"
"Well, great, cause where we're going, it's got food. So we'll get fed, and then, I don't know, maybe you could help me pick up the thing I need?"
Maureen studied the nonplussed face of Jimmy. "I heard you took piano lessons."
Jimmy's eyes immediately widened and he ducked his head.
Ron made a grimace. "I wouldn't ask him about that. He's still got some trauma."
"Sorry Jimmy." Maureen mumbled, then faced forward again.
When they got to the VFW hall on Market, there were a total of three cars in the parking lot.
"Okay, now Jimmy, just let me do the talking and we'll get something to eat and then we'll head off to Colonial House."
Maureen asked, "Is anybody even here?"
Ron rolled his eyes. "They're not gonna have the buffet in the parking lot, Maureen. We're not animals."
As they were getting out of the car, the hall's front door opened, and a man's head stuck out. He made a big show of looking around, and then appeared startled to see them. If he wasn't wearing such a severe business suit, the effect would have been at home on a cartoon rabbit.
"Well well well," said the man in a deep, rich voice as he walked over to them. "This must be young Ronathan." He held out his hand, and Ron nudged Jimmy to shake it. The kid did, then scratched at his nose. The man smiled. "It's a pleasure to meet such an intelligent young man."
Ron half-heartedly rumpled Jimmy's hair, then wiped his hand on his pants. "We're all really proud of him. This is a big day for us."
Maureen wondered why they were talking outside.
The man chuckled as if reading her thoughts. "I'm sorry to say that they haven't finished setting up yet. There was a bit of a situation with a bingo tournament. They're clearing the blood up now." He smiled at them. "But don't worry, it'll be ready for the awards."
They shuffled their feet for a bit, and Jimmy wandered off to pick up a piece of trash. "Speaking of awards, when do we get our money?"
The man looked at Ron with a strange benevolence. "As soon as we get set up, they'll be a nice buffet. Then we'll honor the children and you'll receive the scholarship money along with a very beautiful plaque." He looked to Maureen. "I trust you brought the fifty dollars, Mrs. Mercurio?"
Maureen blanked for a moment. "I thought it was twenty?"
The man coughed. "Oh, of course. But that was before we realized just how expensive it was to rent the hall. Apparently, it's in very high demand right now."
Maureen looked around at the empty lot, the highway on one side, the vacant beauty parlor and dollar store that stood at the other. "But I only brought a twenty."
"We accept checks, too."
"I don't have a check book."
The man's face fell. "You don't have a checking account? How old are you?"
Ron looked back and forth between them, then said, "Wait, what the hell are you talking about?"
Maureen turned to him. "I totally forgot to tell you. They need twenty—"
"Fifty," The man smiled sweetly.
"—dollars for like, expenses."
"Can't you just deduct the money from the scholarship amount?"
The man smiled again. "Mr. Mercurio, that's not the way it works."
"So we can't get the scholarship without fifty bucks?"
The man spread his hands and gave off the aura of a humble public servant just trying to do his job.
Ron stared at him for a moment. "You know what? I think that's bullshit."
The man looked startled, and again Maureen was reminded of Wile E. Coyote moments before the anvil crashed.
Ron pointed to the crooked form of Jimmy who was now carving a picture into the hard packed lot dirt. "My son is a genius, and you're not gonna recognize him because of some stupid dues? That is a goddamn travesty!"
"Mr. Mercurio. Please. There's no need to get angry. As soon as we get our required donation, we can give him the award."
"No way. Give him the award. Then we'll give you the money."
The man's face suddenly didn't seem very cartoonish anymore. "Mr. Mercurio, I don't think you understand what you're talking about."
"You know, you're right. I don't understand how this little bit of bureaucracy is going to cost my darling child his education." He motioned to Maureen. "Did you know that my wife had to get a mastectomy after she got done breast-feeding? She almost died! Times are hard right now!"
Maureen didn't know what the status of her mammary glands had to do with their economic situation, and the man didn't seem to either.
"Well, I'm certainly sorry it had to turn out this way, but I guess we will just have to give Jimmy's award to some other, more grateful scholar." The man turned to go inside.
Before Maureen even realized it, (before she thought even Ron realized it), Ron jumped forward and grabbed the guy's arm. They struggled and the man knocked Ron to the ground.
Maureen looked around worriedly. "Ro— Husband, what are you doing? Let's go."
All at once, over the yelps and obscenities coming from the dusty wrestling match, she heard the distant call of sirens and faint chanting coming from the corner of the lot. She looked over to see Jimmy jumping up and down and screeching. It wasn't until the police cars pulled in and turned off their horns that she realized he was yelling "pigs!" over and over.
The police officers rolled out and pulled Ron and the guy apart. Ron was crying. He hurriedly wiped away his tears, leaving smudges of dirt.
He informed Maureen, "Sometimes my eyes water when I get hurt. It's no big thing." A tall, sunburned cop asked Ron, "Are you Mr. Kenneth White?" He shook his head. The scholarship man looked like he was about to command the cops to arrest Ron for assault, when another man, wearing a T-shirt that read "I love snatching kisses, and vice versa. Virginia Beach '83" popped out of the VFW doorway.
"Hey Kenny, what's going—" He took one look at the cops and didn't even finish the question before rushing out the door and across the deserted lot. The one police officer sighed and turned to the redface. "Do I really have to chase him?"
"Yeah, I guess. Use the car."
The cop ambled over to the car while the burnt policeman turned to the scholarship man and handcuffed him. "Kenneth White, I am placing you under arrest. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say—"
Ron stared at the scene and mouthed the words along with him. A lifetime of cop dramas had not been wasted.
As the cop led Mr. White to the patrol car, Maureen asked, "So officer, uh, what's going on?"
"I probably shouldn't say, but what the hell." He stuck Mr. White into the police cruiser. "Apparently these guys have been running a racket, telling people their kids won scholarships, hitting the parents up for money, then leaving town." The cop shook his head, "You know, I've dealt with serial rapists, elderly abusers, everything, but this— this just makes me sick."
Ron grimaced. "I can't believe people would use kids like that."
"You said it. Well, I guess I better get Mr. White to the station. He's gotta lot of 'friends' that will be very interested to meet him, including my partner Reese who he personally swindled 200 bucks from." The cop shook his head, "Reese's boy is dumb as a sack of hammers. It makes me ill to think of guys trying to exploit that natural dumbness. Who says everyone's gotta be a Captain Da Vinci?" He slid into the driver's seat and drove away. Maureen could just make out the other cop car further down the highway, patiently following the faltering run of the "kiss snatcher."
Ron shook his head. "I can't believe we didn't get the 500 bucks."
"I know," sighed Maureen, "I'm gonna have to look for a job now."
"Are we still gonna go to Colonial House?" Jimmy asked.
"I don't think so, Jimmy. Why don't we do something a little less intelligent? Like go to the Pizza Circus?" He muttered to Maureen, "I'll tell them he's retarded. I'm sure it'll get us a discount."
When they got in the car, Maureen turned to Jimmy.
"You know, I think you learned a valuable lesson today: Even smart kids get exploited sometimes, even though those smart kids are actually dumb kids in the first place. Or they were dumb kids who were told—" She was getting confused. It sounded better in her head.
Jimmy seemed to understand. They all drove to the Pizza Circus and stuffed themselves until Jimmy got sick, and a woman looking suspiciously like the Uncle John's soccer mom hit Ron in the face with her purse.
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