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It was the Friday before the debate on Sunday and my family was a mess.
My father was, of course, more stressed than I’d ever seen. He wanted to do well in this debate because he cared about the issue. And this debate was his big audition. If he did well, he might get to do this regularly. I could see why that would be fun, but I had had no idea that my father thought it would be fun, too.
Stress is a communicable disease like measles. You can catch it from others, particularly from people you’re close to. My father was not being particularly nice that week. He snapped at my mother when she didn’t deserve it. Well, not that she ever deserves it. He wasn’t doing his chores because he was so focused on preparing. He was just a big bundle of nerves and no fun to live with.
But that was just the beginning for my mother. She was preparing to teach a couple of courses and was supposed to be sending in the list of books her students would be buying in the fall. That meant designing the courses, both of which were new ones for her. So, with a deadline coming up, she was reading through big stacks of books, trying to figure out what she’d be teaching week by week.
As if that weren’t enough, Maddie picked this week to come home from pre-school with head lice. Same as last year. At first you think having lice is disgusting, and you’re right. Then you think it’s embarrassing, which it also is. But if you’ve been through having lice once before, mainly you think it is just a major pain in the butt. My mother had to run everything through the washer and dryer. And then we all had to undergo The Treatment. (There’s a reason why the world’s great supermodels don’t wash their hair with lice shampoo.) And then, twice a day, my mother had to pick through Maddie’s long hair, looking for the tiny eggs lice leave attached to strands of hair. And, Maddie had a cold so it was hard to get her to sit still long enough to do a thorough job of it. Maddie would squirm, my mother would get annoyed, Maddie would cry, my mother would try not to yell…
I, of course, was a rock. I was calm, always cheerful, helpful and just a delight to be around.
Yeah, sure. I was worried that one of the newspapers would figure out who was behind the Foundation. I was worried what that would do to my father in the debate. I was worried Mr. Dunn would be better trained than my dad. I was worried that if I were found out, I had dug such a deep hole for myself that my parents would never speak to me again. I hadn’t lied to them, not even once, but I sure had gone out of my way to keep my $100,000,000 secret from them. At some point, keeping a secret begins to feel a lot like lying.
So, when my father came on Friday with copies of The Gaz and The Register, it took all of my self-control not to rip the copies out of his hands. I made myself walk upstairs one step at a time to read them.
The Gaz had an article about the Fordgythe Foundation on page five, right next to an article about how the high school’s football field was being re-seeded. It reported on some of our recent donations but had no more news about who was behind the Foundation. “Our investigation is continuing,” was all it said.
The Register had us all over the front page. There was a photo of Arnie Junger holding the bills I’d given him for his college education. “Local youth says he was surprised by the $10,000 he found in his mailbox.” Well, wouldn’t you be?
The headline of the lead article screamed: “The Fordgythe-Germany Connection! The Register Cracks the Case!” It began:
As the result of an extensive investigation by The Register’s award-winning investigative journalism team, we have learned that the “Fordgythe Foundation” is in fact a front for German financial interests.
The break in the case came as a result of sloppiness on the part of “The Foundation,” probably because they have been made nervous by The Register’s intense investigative journalism efforts.
“The Foundation” left a scrap of a funds transfer form in a “donation” it left for local high school senior, Arnold Junger. The Register has confirmed that the fund transfer came from a German-based bank. We continue our efforts to discover exactly which bank it was.
Of course, they don’t mention that their “investigative journalism” consisted of opening the package I’d sent to Arnold. I’d chosen his package as the one to “accidentally” contain the funds transfer form because I knew that Arnold was Mr. Dunn’s nephew. And he was interning at the Register, so I sent it to him at work. I was pretty sure that even The Register’s crack investigative journalism team wouldn’t miss that clue.
The Register had not only fallen for it, they had wrapped it in some very bad writing.
At dinner I asked my father about it. “It looks like The Register has cracked the Fordgythe Foundation case,” I said.
“I doubt it,” he replied, stabbing at his peas with an unusual fierceness.
“Why is it that?” my mother asked.
“He’s got one scrap of a funds transfer form. There are a thousand reasons why that could have been included in with a cash donation. And one of those reasons could even be that the Fordgythe people are trying to throw The Register off the scent.”
“That’d be devious,” my mother said. She smiled at my father. He smiled back as much as he could given that he wasn’t smiling much these days.
That smile made me more nervous than anything I’d read in either newspaper.
Sunday was the big day, so on Saturday if our house had been tense before, now it was like one of those balsa wood airplanes with a rubber band turned so many times that the knots have knots on top of their knots.
Mimi and Ari came over to take me out. “Let’s go spend some of that German money,” Mimi said.
“Did you leave that German form in the packet on purpose?” Ari asked.
“Accidents happen,” I said, smiling.
It was a beautiful night. As we got on the train to the city the sky was the color of the summer ocean. I checked to make sure that my backpack was tightly zipped and that the straps were in good shape.
“You want to go to a fancy restaurant?” Mimi asked excitedly.
“Actually, not really,” I said.
“Good,” Mimi said. “I was only pretending to want to in case you did.”
“How about a Chinese restaurant?” Ari asked.
“Great idea,” I replied. “Maybe we can find one that isn’t mainly a take-out place. You know, one with table cloths and everything.”
“Sure,” Ari said. “So long as they have sweet and sour. The expensive ones don’t have that.”
“And fortune cookies,” Mimi said.
So, that was our task: find the best Chinese restaurant that still had sweet and sour and fortune cookies. I like a challenge. But first, I had an errand.
The spot next to Salzburg Grille where Philip and Caroline had settled was no longer empty. New people had taken it over, two guys – probably in their twenties, although it can be hard to tell – sleeping on a blanket. I didn’t want to wake them, so we went next door and ordered four complete steak dinners to go. They were still asleep when we came back, so we left the bag between them. I put $1,000 at the bottom of the bag along with a note from the Fordgythe Foundation.
“I hope they wake before the food gets cold,” Mimi said.
“Maybe we should go back and wake them,” Ari said.
“No, let’s let them sleep,” she said.
Now we just wandered looking for our perfect Chinese restaurant. Along the way we bought a very bad giant pretzel from a push cart vendor who looked to be my grandfather’s age. While he hand the pretzel to Mimi, I slipped a thousand dollar bill into the coffee can where he kept his money.
We passed by a literacy clinic that teaches adults how to read. I went into a fast food joint’s rest room and tied up $30,000 with some of my mother’s yarn and packed the bundle and a Fordgythe note into one of the envelopes I’d brought with me. I shoved it through the clinic’s mail slot. “Remind me to have Ms. Minden call first thing on Monday to make sure that they got it,” I said.
We passed by a co-op store, the sort of place that sells whole-grain foods and lets people who can’t afford to pay work there a few hours a week instead. It had signs up trying to raise money to clean up the river. When the clerk was busy elsewhere, I stuffed ten $1,000 bills into the coffee can where you make donations.
A cab driver told us that he sends money back to his family in Haiti every week. He said he was saving money to bring them to the United States. When we got out of the cab, I gave him an envelope with $15,000 in it, but nothing identifying it as coming from The Foundation. “This is an extra tip. Don’t open it until after your next rider leaves,” I said. “And don’t tell anyone that you got it from kids.”
Our next stop took us past the Grille. The two men were awake now. The remains of their dinner were scattered around them.
“Hello,” I said. “Good dinner.”
At first neither spoke. They looked at each other. The taller one said, “Yeah. Really good,” eyeing us suspiciously.
“Why don’t you get out of here. Quit staring.”
Ari stepped in. “We’re not staring. We’re the ones…” I tugged on Ari’s sleeve to get him to stop.
“Who did what? Get out of here before I call a cop.”
“We didn’t do anything wrong…”
“You’re bothering me,” the man said. “This is our space. Go on back to your rich kid home.”
“Come on,” I said, “let’s leave them be.”
“Bye” Mimi said. “Good luck.”
We left, confused by what had happened.
“I feel terrible,” Mimi said.
“Me, too,” I said. “They weren’t very nice.”
“They were nervous about having so much money on them,” Ari said.
We passed a veterans’ center. They got an instant grant of $25,000 from the Fordgythe Foundation. It was more than I would have given normally, but I was making up for the rejection we’d just been handed.
“I’m getting really hungry,” Ari said.
“This place looks promising,” Mimi said, reading the menu of a Chinese restaurant a few doors down from the veteran’s center. It seemed to have it all, right down to the fortune cookies. It was a little expensive, but what the heck.
I looked in my backpack. I patted my pockets. “You know what?” I asked. “I gave away all my money.”
Ari and Mimi looked at each other. Between us we had $21 and three train tickets back. “So we’ll find a cheaper place to eat,” Mimi said.
Eighteen dollars later, we were full and ready to go home.