My investigation tells me that Merle's life had never been on an upward trajectory, but he felt things were going to change the morning he parked his grandmother's sun-beaten pickup on Riverfront University's campus. The university was tucked away in a scenic Mid-west town full of mature trees, rolling hills, and a wide river well into its recovery from negligent industrialists. It was also a thousand miles from where he grew up.
He parked in a nice spot under a shade tree in the lot behind the admin building and checked his wristwatch. Early as usual.
The late summer wind blew through the opened windows. The other cars in the lot had their windows rolled up, and most were parked closer to buildings, unprotected by any shade.
A memory of Gran's voice spoke, "Fools take things for granted and then call themselves smart."
Gran had objected to the idea of Merle attending college. But she couldn't object to anything anymore. Merle knew that wasn't true. He could still hear her offering up opinions where none were welcome or needed.
His grandmother raised him on a steady diet of complaints, the most frequent of which was that no one was as self-reliant as she was. Twice a day, Gran recited a list of people and institutions who couldn't make it on their own.
His memory of her was as stubborn as she had been when she was alive, but he distracted himself from it by taking a few minutes in the rust-addled pickup to check his paperwork before his appointment with Mr. Rolland. It lay buried under a stack of dirty laundry in the passenger's seat. By the time he had it all counted, he was still early.
Waiting in the pickup was too much like being lectured by Gran. He put his paperwork in an envelope that was too thick to seal. The envelope made it uncomfortable to walk, as he was afraid each step could cause some of its contents to fall out. He didn't think to roll up the windows or lock the doors, as most of what he owned lay in the open bed of the pickup.
The exterior of the admissions building was an impressive structure built over 150 years ago, which naturally made it a terrible place to perform modern office work. Whoever retrofitted the interior had decided to smash the old aesthetics against business needs to see which one would be victorious.
It was, by my assessment, an historically ugly stalemate.
Merle followed the directions Mr. Rolland had sent him and found himself standing in front of a counter with an assistant sitting on the other side. A man who Merle thought was wearing a pair of women's glasses and was in a conversation with someone hidden behind a maze of cubicle walls but not out of earshot. If he was loud enough.
"Sir," Merle spoke softly.
The assistant rolled his eyes at the computer monitor, but it had been clearly meant for Merle.
Having met the assistant myself during the course of my investigation, I can say he's about five foot four in height and about seven feet tall in attitude.
"What do you want? We're about to start our lunch break."
The assistant was the only person Merle could see in the suite but suspected that the man was talking about the person on the other side of the cubicle walls.
"I have an appointment with Mr.
Rolland. I'm a bit early, but I was wondering if…"
"Son," the assistant cut in, "Mr. Rolland is currently on administrative leave."
"Do you know what time he'll be back?"
"Marsha," he maintained eye contact with Merle while raising his voice so she could hear, "We've got a boy here for Rolland."
"Oh, I bet he's a delight!" said Marsha's voice.
The assistant smiled and scanned Merle. "He's a fun one alright." then continued to Merle. "Mr. Rolland is on administrative leave. He's probably not coming back given what he's been accused of."
Merle fell apart in front of the man wearing women's eyeglasses. Somewhere in his mind, Gran told him he deserved this.
"But we had an appointment."
"The only appointment Mr. Rolland is up for are the ones with his attorneys. Now, if you'll please, Marsha and I are going on our lunch."
"Damn right we are," Marsha said.
"He was going to get me in. He had me bring a bunch of paperwork."
"You're not a student?"
"I was going to be. I couldn't apply when I wanted to because Gran wouldn't let me, but then she died so I could do what I wanted, and I wanted to go to college."
"Hold on, son. Your life story doesn't matter here."
"But I have nowhere to stay."
"Go home to your parents."
Merle didn't know how to say his parents had abandoned him long ago and that his home now belonged to someone else. His mind only offered silence and desperation.
The man behind the counter caught a hint of the meaning in those awkward seconds.
"I see. But. Still. Not my problem."
"Maybe you could take a look at my paperwork. Mr. Rolland said if I brought enough, he'd have no trouble getting me in."
Something he said changed the assistant's demeanor from sassy to curious. The assistant spoke his next words with caution.
"Let me see it."
Merle placed the thick envelope on the counter. The assistant did not take his eyes off Merle while sliding it into his grasp. He lifted the unsealed flap and gazed down.
"Well… that is a lot of paperwork."
Marsha cut in, "That boy still there?"
"I'm working with him, Marsha! Just cool it. I'm buying lunch today."
Merle asked in a shaky voice, "So, is that enough? I had to sell the farm."
The assistant waved him to silence and lowered the volume of his voice, "I don't understand. How did Mr. Rolland expect to enroll you in classes?"
"He just said that it was best to do it here on account of how unstable the computer systems could be when everyone schedules at the same time."
"He said that?"
"Yes, sir, he said that records get deleted, and he knew someone who works with technology who could fix those records. It was a little over my head."
The details may have been over his head,
but he had caught the meaning quickly enough.
"Certainly." the assistant said and then raised his voice, "Marsha! Who was that guy from IT who always came in to help Mr. Rolland."
"Some guy with a first name for his last name."
"That's right. Patrick."
His next question was directed to Merle.
"Did Mr. Rolland say how long your paperwork would be good for?"
"He said since I'm a special case in this complicated admissions program, I had to reapply each semester."
There was a moment where the assistant struggled with the math. He couldn't come up with a precise figure, but he knew it was worth the risk for the amount involved.
"I'm going to be taking over Mr. Rolland's special admissions program. So next semester, you bring your paperwork to me. Here's my number. You call and make an appointment, alright. No drop-ins."
"So I'm in?"
The assistant didn't acknowledge but leaned towards his computer, where his fingers started pounding on the keyboard.
"What did you say your name was?"
"That your legal name? Or is Merle short for something?"
"Sorry, my first name is actually Myrddin." and then he spelled it out for him. Gran refused to call him by the name his mother had given him but also wouldn't pay to have his name legally changed.
"I can see why you don't use it."
The man eyed the computer monitor as if he could influence the pixels with his sass while he typed vigorously.
"Marsha! Do you know if we have any unmatched doubles?"
"Ya, there was that one snowflake that came in earlier. Insisted his lawyer wouldn't let him live with a roommate."
"Are you sure it wasn't his doctor?"
"Coulda been. I wasn't paying attention."
"Dammit, Marsha, this important. The boy needs a room."
"He's still here?"
"Yes, and the sooner we find him a room, the sooner we'll go to lunch."
"Someplace nice, right? Don't cheap out on me."
"Where ever you pick, just what was that student's name."
A few more keys strokes, and then Merle heard what he had been hoping to hear.
"Alright, Mr. Abrosia. Welcome to Riverfront University. I will be sure to email you your courses as soon as I can get that arranged with Mr. Patrick.
Back at Gran's pickup, he noticed a suitcase of clothes was missing, but from the outside it looked like the thief hadn't taken anything from inside the cab. Even though the doors had been unlocked and the windows left open.
He double-checked to make everything was
secure for his short drive to his new home.
Then he stepped into the pickup, which rocked a little as he entered. Gran's memory made a comment on his current state of affairs.
He rearranged a few things to get to the bottom of the pile, where it smelled of musky basement and cardboard. The bankers box full of cash that the real estate agent had given him for the farm was still there, resting on the floorboard.
He knew he shouldn't count all the money right now, but he did need to see that it was all still there.
Of course, it was—his memory of Gran
retread old grievances with the bank in town.
"Never trust banks." plural. Not just one. All banks.
"Whoever takes your money keeps your money. Usually spends it. Either way, it ain't yours anymore."