Rodrigo worked at a high-end technology firm on Route 128. His wife had left him and their kids 10 years ago after deciding the life of suburban homemaker – particularly one married to Rodrigo – was draining her, bit by bit, of her will to live.
Rodrigo came home from work one day, having picked up his children from baseball practice, to find the house empty. A hastily-scrawled note on the kitchen counter informed him that she had sold their German SUV for a 1978 Beetle and, with the remaining cash on hand from that transaction, now planned to follow the Grateful Dead around the country while she “found herself.”
Rodrigo took the news in stride. An engineer, he spent most of his time at the office not concerning himself with trifles like emotions, feelings, and human connection. While in college, he had created a complex mathematical formula that predicted with 97% accuracy how long any relationship between two people would last. Simply enter the key data about the two individuals, let the hard drive whir for a few seconds, and the screen would blankly flash the answer: 3 years, 7 months, or 2 weeks, or whatever time period applied.
He had used this program immediately after meeting his departed spouse, and had been told by the computer that the relationship would last 19 years and 9 months, which, to a then-27-year-old engineer was the same thing as the computer answering, “forever.” Unfortunately, as Rodrigo learned, his marriage fell within the 3% error rate his program couldn’t account for, leaving him a single dad with twin kids who now were both applying to college.
Saddled with the prospect of double-barreled tuition and one income, Rodrigo had long ago ceased being a parent. leaving the twins to largely fend for themselves. Always the realist, Rodrigo actively hoped that neither of the two people occupying his house aspired to go to a top-rate private college, as it would gut his sizable bi-weekly paycheck.
In the same cul-de-sac as Rodrigo lived a middle-aged mother of two named Francesca. Francesca’s husband died of an infection contracted during a failed experiment in which, as the self-selected and only subject, he attempted to prove the curative effects of horse dung on open wounds. It took less than a month for the misguided scientist to succumb to pervasive sepsis, leaving Francesca along with her college-age children.
Always heavily involved in her children’s lives, the untimely death of her husband spurred Francesca to previously-unthinkable levels of parental invasiveness. Her children would come home from school to find handwritten screeds explaining the intricacies of the college application process, research regarding the academic and social offerings of the nation’s finest institutions of higher learning, as well as their historical acceptance rates (broken down with analyses of each individual accepted student’s biographical information, illegally obtained with the assistance of Rodrigo, who moonlighted in extracting confidential data from secure servers to make extra money on the side).
Living squarely between Rodrigo and and Francesca in this suburban paradise were the Quinces. Also parents of college-age kids, they were loving though unsophisticated people. They had found their way into the neighborhood despite having no careers to speak of, no discernible motivation to do much of anything, and no accomplishments in their background other than being the lucky winners of the Massachusetts State lottery.
Because of their fortuitous financial situation, the Quinces paid little attention to the future in in general, and that of their kids’ more specifically. College – an abstract concept before their multi-million dollar windfall – remained equally theoretical even with a swollen bank account. In fact, with enough money to secure the futures of countless Quinces, the parents thought even less about higher education now than they had when living in a dingy apartment on the dodgy end of town.
* * *
Rodrigo’s twins – both boys – had radically different approaches to their educational futures. Pepe was a highly-motivated student, actively pushing for admission into an Ivy League school. He met with his guidance counselor on a regular basis, understood the admissions process backwards and forwards, and spent all of his non-academic time working to demonstrate skills and expertise worthy of a Yalie.
Francois, on the other hand, dismissed college as “a waste of time and money” and planned on entering directly into the fast-paced world of used-car sales, a profession he had demonstrated aptitude in by running an illicit blackjack room after hours at the local vet’s office. (His friend worked there on weekends and had a key.) Though distracted by barking dogs and shrieking birds, players came from all over town to participate.
Rodrigo, a man of little love and less patience, left his boys to figure out their futures unassisted. When his aunt from San Francisco visited and suggested that his approach might be too hands off, he cut her short, saying, “It’s not my job to figure this all out for them. They’re not going anywhere if I don’t keep my job and earn my paycheck, which is an increasingly difficult proposition given the fact that I lost 10 years of my career developing a ‘relationship forecasting’ tool that doesn’t work. They want to go to college? They have to figure it out. They need to become experts.”
(In fact, Rodrigo’s feared his career was on the brink less because of the failure of his relationship forecasting tool, and more because Federal authorities had recently appeared at his workplace. While he wasn’t sure of the reason for their visit, he worried that his side job assisting highly-neurotic and overinvolved parents like Francesca might have attracted their attention.)
* * *
Meanwhile, at Francesca’s house, her twins Millie and Jillie were gradually succumbing to the relentless reams of paper they found at their respective desks upon returning home from school every day. While Millie aspired to attend Juilliard for her mastery of the pan flute, and Jillie hoped to attend UCal Santa Cruz because any school that chose the banana slug as a mascot had to be cool, they had become increasingly passive on the subject of where they would spend the next four years.
Rodrigo spoke to Francesca from time to time, though recently, she noticed, he called her only from prepaid cell phones. During one of these calls, while discussing delivery of a thumb drive containing 15 GB of stolen admissions information from Princeton and the related amounts Francesca owed him for said data – including fees that were now 120 days past due – Rodrigo proffered the opinion that she spent too much time obsessing about her daughters’ future.
After carefully choosing not to point out that Rodrigo’s wife had left him to run around the country unbathed and perpetually stoned while listening to over-the-hill musicians perform music that only someone unbathed and perpetually stoned would find compelling, Francesca responded that “My girls have enough things to worry about in their lives without having to figure this whole college thing out. With dating, the constant threat of eating disorders, extra-curricular activities, grief counseling and family therapy necessitated by my husband’s untimely demise, and volunteering at our recently-created not-for-profit organization, ‘Dung Kills,’ Millie and Jillie don’t have a moment to spare to consider where they should spend the next four years of their lives. I’m their mother, and I’m going to relieve them of that burden by doing as much as possible for them so that they can successfully navigate these formidable obstacles to become the brilliant young women that I know they are.”
After 10 seconds of silence, Rodrigo replied, “Uh, whatever. Meet me at Starbucks tomorrow at 6 AM to pick up the thumb drive. And make sure you have the $1,500 you owe me placed inside a Starbucks bag that contains the blueberry muffin you’re buying me. I’ll have a grey mustache, a hunchback, and will be speaking with an English accent.” Without further explanation, he hung up the phone.
* * *
The Quinces kids – Igor and Barbie – hadn’t even considered college until their parents’ fantastic stroke of luck. Though both had scored well on their SAT’s and were in the top third of their class, neither had contemplated anything other than perhaps an associates degree at the local community college. With their sudden change in fortune, however, Igor and Barbie now viewed the world differently.
Igor had come to the conclusion that with millions in the bank, he had little need for higher education. He could now open the flower shop specializing in poison ivy that he had always dreamed of. Barbie, on the other hand, now wanted to attend the University of Colorado, attracted by the well-known party atmosphere there, and her conviction that with unlimited financial support, she could throw the coolest shindigs on campus while learning to ski at the same time. Her passion for partying and her ever-expanding desire to become a top-flight skier had merged to form a burning conviction in Barbie’s heart that the University of Colorado was the only place she could or would go. She was prepared to go to almost any length to demonstrate her commitment to the school, including purchasing a buffalo that languidly ate most of the grass in the Quinces’ quarter-acre back yard.
Their parents shrugged benignly when asked about Igor’s and Barbie’s plans. When apprised of Igor’s desire to open “Scratch & Sniff Flower Shop,” they replied, “Why would he want to do that? He doesn’t have to work another day in his life. He should enjoy himself instead and just relax.” And when they learned of Barbie’s ardent desire to attend the University of Colorado, they replied, “We really don’t understand the whole ‘college thing.’ Why spend money to make money if you don’t need money? I mean, we’re all for it theoretically, but we don’t know the first thing about how to go about actually getting her into college.”
And with that, the Quinces simultaneously turned to their newly-hired butler, requested frozen fruit drinks using ice made of genuine Antarctic glacial water, and discussed whether they would decorate this year’s Christmas tree with solid gold ornaments or platinum. The butler, eyes rolling upwards, went into the house and begged one of the other servants to “accidentally” cut him with a 12-inch steak knife so that he could file a disability claim rather than work another 10 minutes for the Quinces.
* * *
What will become of Rodrigo’s children? How will Francesca’s daughters fare? And will the Quinces kids realize their highest aspirations?
Equally important – what on God’s green Earth does any of this have to do with limb loss and/or prosthetics?
Stay tuned next week for the second installment and spellbinding conclusion of less is more’s, “serial killer.”