By Michael Anthony
Arvee Grice led a simple life. Some might even call it monastic. But, this Wednesday evening his predictable routine was about to change. After returning books he had read about America’s earliest explorers and checking out several others at the New Madrid Public Library, he scooped up the hardcovers and spun to leave.
He didn’t see the woman standing behind him until it was too late.
With pages flapping, books flew like wounded birds in every direction before hitting the floor in a succession of loud thuds. Embarrassed by his clumsiness, Arvee knelt to retrieve the volumes scattered across the carpet.
“I’m sorry,” the woman stammered. “I should have been paying attention.”
“No, it was my faul…Rita?” a surprised Arvee said.
“Yeah. I’m really sorry. You’re not hurt are you?” he repeated to the woman from the accounting department of the manufacturing plant just south of town where Arvee ran a packaging machine. Though they worked for the same company on the bank of the Mississippi, their paths rarely crossed and certainly never like this.
“No, I’m fine,” Rita Morris assured him.
After sorting and tucking the books under their arms, Arvee and Rita walked out into a pink August twilight awakening to cicadas and mosquitoes. The sun was slipping behind the slate roof of the Presbyterian Church across Powell Street and its steeple cast a long shadow that darkened the library sidewalk.
Arvee glanced at Rita several times as they crossed the parking lot. He had always thought she was attractive but figured she wouldn’t be interested in a guy from the shop floor. Besides, he hadn’t dated in years. So, his skills were a bit rusty. “Reading some health books, huh?” Arvee remarked about Rita’s selections.
Instinctively, she deflected the attention back to him. “Guess you like history.”
“Yeah. Figure I’ll have time on the road.”
“You going away?” Rita asked while fishing for car keys in the bottom of the large black purse that swung from her shoulder.
“Taking next week off to visit my brother in Chicago and go to The Art Institute.”
“No way!” Rita chirped as she leaned against the fender of her car. “I’m going to be up in Hammond to see my nephew before he heads off to USC. Oh, I love The Institute.”
“Wow! Maybe I’ll see you there,” Arvee laughed, knowing he had better odds of hitting the lottery than actually meeting her in Chicago.
The rays of the setting sun illuminated Rita’s face and hair as if she was on stage. Arvee snapped a mental picture of the moment. After an awkward pause, they wished each other a pleasant trip. Then, Rita slid into her small car and Arvee started up his F-150.
He followed her out onto Powell Street. Nearing the corner, Rita sped up and cut a hard left as the traffic signal turned red. Just as she did, Arvee spotted that mail truck careening down Virginia Avenue with the green light in its favor.
An enormous explosion of steel against steel and a hailstorm of glass and chrome skidding across asphalt jarred the otherwise calm summer air. Arvee parked his truck and ran to the enmeshed vehicles, “Rita, are you okay?” he yelled through the shattered side window.
“I don’t know,” she mumbled; her hands trembling; her shoulders quaking.
He didn’t see any blood.
The car’s left front fender was ripped open and twisted across the equally crumpled hood. The mail truck sat at an awkward angle, its driver holding his head in his hands. “You all right in there?” Arvee called. The driver nodded without looking up.
Realizing how close she had come to having the front end of that truck buried deep into her door and maybe even her hip, Rita sobbed uncontrollably. Though relieved she wasn’t seriously injured, or worse, Arvee knew the fault was hers.
A street-weary police sergeant seemed more interested in finishing the paperwork then determining culpability, so the accident report didn’t assign blame.
“You should go to Valley General,” the cop suggested. “Get some X-rays as a precaution. Need a ride?”
“I’ll take her,” Arvee offered.
“No,” Rita protested. “I’ll call a cab.” Her legs wobbled as she pushed off the bumper of Arvee’s pickup.
“Listen,” Arvee said. “I’ll drive you to get checked out.”
“Lady, take your friend’s advice,” the cop grunted before folding himself back into the patrol car that disappeared down Powell Street.
“Thanks for taking me to the hospital and bringing me home,” Rita grinned as Arvee walked her to her apartment door on which hung a strawflower wreath.
“Just glad you’re okay. Kinda changes your plans for Indiana, huh?” Arvee said.
“More like ends them,” Rita sighed. “No way I can get my car fixed before Saturday and I certainly can’t afford a rental.”
Arvee paused, then said, “Look, I’m still going up Sunday morning. Want to ride with me?”
Rita flushed at Arvee’s well-intentioned offer. “No. I wouldn’t be good company.”
“But, you said you were excited to see your nephew before he went off to college,” Arvee countered with her own admission.
“I’ll send him a check,” Rita said while rubbing her hip.
“Look, I’m going anyway. Be nice to have someone help pass the time.”
Rita hesitated; then agreed, albeit half-heartedly.
It had begun.
Unbeknownst to Arvee, he was being canonized into Rita’s Pantheon of Perfect Men. In her mind, he was a gentleman at the library, her hero at the accident, her friend at the hospital, and now, with his offer of a ride to Indiana, her savior. She thought, “No way could this soft-spoken man whose smile cut wide across a face too large and too round ever become another Elroy.”
As her father, Elroy Morris belittled Rita from her earliest memory until seventeen when she left home for a sweet-talking welder who, as Rita would soon discover, had abandoned his wife and child for her. When after a few months, that welder up and disappeared with an eighteen-year-old counter girl from Hafner’s Ice Cream Stand, Rita returned to her father’s home and scorn. Ever since, her relationships started in a burst of great enthusiasm for having found the perfect man, but ended in great disappointment when his human imperfections inevitably surfaced.
Arvee was just entering the enthusiasm phase.
“Pick you up Sunday around ten,” he said cheerfully.
Four days later, Arvee stowed Rita’s suitcase beneath the tonneau cover on the bed of his pickup, then asked, “Music?”
“Anything but military marches,” she responded.
“Because that’s all my father ever played.”
Arvee laughed and steered the truck out onto Levee Road. “Okay,” he said while checking the rearview mirror, “but don’t expect too many marches on KZMO. Mostly Beethoven and Bach.”
“Really? You look more like the Hank Williams type,” Rita said with a hint of her father’s biting sarcasm.
“Because I drive a pickup?” Arvee parried.
Rita watched the loop of the Mississippi disappear behind a stand of evergreens atop Dawson Hill. “Never heard the name Arvee before,” Rita said.
“Short for Ronald Victor. Hate the name Ronald; and, Victor even more.”
The next hour passed with a typical social conversation about childhood schools, favorite vacations, and the latest good movie. Arvee turned towards Rita just as she opened that large black purse. It looked like a portable pharmacy with pill bottles, ointments, inhalers, stomach remedies, and a variety of similar medications. Catching Arvee’s inquisitive stare, Rita mounted a quick defense. “I need them all.”
“Okay,” he shrugged without judgment.
Rita expected the usual questioning about the contents, which she took for those mysterious ailments she could never fully describe nor could the doctors accurately diagnose. Rita had long ago rejected one physician’s recommendation she seek psychological help, telling him, “I’m sick, not crazy.”
Instead, Arvee simply asked her, “Hungry?” as he drove up an exit ramp towards a roadside restaurant that proclaimed the best steaks this side of the Mississippi. Rita said she could have something light, though Arvee was in the mood to test the eatery’s claim.
While walking towards the entrance, they heard shouting coming from across the parking lot where a man towered over a boy who looked to be no more than ten.
“People like that shouldn’t have kids,” Rita complained to Arvee. When he didn’t readily agree, she spun. “Right?”
“Hey, I don’t know what’s going on. Could just be a long ride in a small car with a whiny kid. When I was his age I drove my folks crazy.”
“Nobody should suffer that kind of abuse,” Rita declared. Her sensitivity to the incident did not go unnoticed by Arvee, who let it pass without comment until they sat down.
The stark differences of opinion about the man and boy made lunch increasingly tense. Though Rita didn’t share all the details, Arvee perceived that Rita’s strained relationship with her own father colored what she saw. By the time they returned to the pickup, Rita’s face was a cold mask of anger. She pulled a cigarette out of her purse and lit up while reaching for the door handle.
“Sorry, I don’t allow smoking in my truck.”
“Oh, geez,” Rita grumbled as she crushed the cigarette beneath her shoe. “Okay?”
They were back on the interstate when Arvee said, “Listen. I know you’re upset about that guy back there, but we don’t know anything about them. I don’t condone abuse, but I also don’t judge folks, especially without all the facts.”
Instead of responding, Rita glared out the window. She was beginning to question her decision to spend six hours in a truck with this man. Some minutes and miles farther up the road, Rita turned and said, “You’d understand if you had children.”
Arvee’s hands tightened on the steering wheel. “I did,” he grimaced.
The word ‘did’ caught Rita off guard. Another few miles passed before she asked the burning question.
Arvee answered, “Had a wife and daughter.”
“Messy divorce?” Rita said.
“No,” Arvee replied sharply. “Killed by a drunk driver six years ago June.”
Stunned, Rita swallowed, then mumbled, “I’m sorry. People who do that should be thrown in jail.”
“Especially when they’re family,” Arvee added.
“What?” Rita blurted in disbelief.
“Yep.” Arvee’s voice went flat. “I was bass fishing downstate with my brother for the weekend when my father-in-law came over to take Marianne and our little girl Ellie shopping in Dyersburg. He misjudged the entryway to the bridge and ended up overturned in the river. Bastard escaped without a scratch, but they were trapped inside. He didn’t even try to save them.”
“Oh my god,” Rita moaned. “I’m so sorry,” then, added, “and, for everything I said back at the restaurant. Really.” Noticing Arvee’s tear-rimmed eyes, Rita said, “I don’t remember hearing anything about that.”
“We were living in Caruthersville then.”
“Did he go to jail?”
“No. Lawyer got him off on some technicality about the evidence. I didn’t even let him go to the funeral,” Arvee said. “About a year later, he shows up at my door and pulls a gun from his pocket, begging me to shoot him.”
Unsure she wanted to hear Arvee’s answer, Rita nonetheless asked, “And…?”
“Told him, ‘Do it yourself, you son-of-a-bitch.’ Then, I slammed the door in his face. Never saw him again. Don’t want to either.”
“Can’t blame you,” Rita told the man who was now a mythical god driving her to Indiana.
Arvee flipped the visor down to reveal a photograph held in place by rubber bands. “Ellie and Marianne might be gone, but they’re in here – forever.” His fist pounded his chest. Then, he turned to Rita. “Losing them taught me something important. If we let our anger for someone who hurt us define our lives, then happiness will always elude us.”
Arvee’s words burned into Rita’s heart in a way that no one else’s had. Not the therapists she had visited; not the ministers she sought out; not even her closest friends ever put it to Rita so bluntly and directly. The ‘awful life’ Rita had convinced herself she was living paled in comparison to the anguish this man bore without complaint.
Arvee and Rita did spend an afternoon wandering Chicago’s Art Institute and had dinner in a little restaurant on South Wabash as trains rumbled overhead on the L. When they went out on their first real date back in New Madrid, Rita’s large black purse was much lighter. All those meds, along with her cigarettes, were now gone.
Michael Anthony is a writer and visual artist living in New Jersey. He has published fiction, poetry, illustrations, and photographs in literary journals and commercial magazines. Most recently these include Bull & Cross, Storyland, Burnt Pine Magazine, and The Oddville Press. The American Labor Museum exhibited Michael’s photojournalism essay, “Mill Ends,” on the waning textile industry, which he documented while working in a textile mill. A book containing the images and recollections was subsequently published with the same title.