We were late to the wedding
"Shit!" I yelled as I heard the squeal of brakes, followed by a crunch and clatter behind me. "Shit, Shit, Shit, just what I fucking need!" I looked in the mirror on the drivers side, nothing. The passenger's side mirror didn't reveal anything amiss. The rear view mirror showed nothing either because of the giant box in the bed of the dump truck. I pulled on the emergency brake and hopped out.
Stepping around to the rear of the truck to see what had run up my butt I was first assaulted by the high pitched voice of a very angry female.
"You fucking asshole! Where did you get your driver's license? By mail order?"
She was standing by the side of the road, having exited the small car on that side because that is where the steering wheel was located, on the right. The car, a tiny MG, was partially buried under my truck. Traffic from both directions was whizzing past me so I walked around her car to join her.
She was trembling and visibly shaken but there were no bumps or bruises. "Are you okay?" I asked. The way she looked me up and down before turning in disgust made me think she was okay.
Cars were slowing down to inspect the accident. Some of the drivers wanted to know if we needed an ambulance or the fire department. I waived them on.
"Look at what you've caused," her arms were very animated, flailing wildly in all directions as if she was unable to control them. I looked at the tiny car. The hood was crumpled, the radiator was leaking fluid and the right front tire was already flat. It wasn't pretty.
Having done as she requested, I turned back to her, trying to conceal the comical sight I had just witnessed. Just then I heard a piece of metal hit the road, making me strain to maintain my composure.
"Well, what are you going to do about it?" she screamed at me. I detected a Yankee accent and wondered what a fine looking lady like her was doing down our way... driving that English car with Arkansas plates and the steering wheel on the wrong side.
"Got a phone?" I asked, emphasizing my natural drawl. A hard glare came over her face as she inspected my face for any hint of amusement.
"Are you doing that on purpose?" she yelled to make herself heard over the after-work traffic.
"Doing what?" I inquired, innocently.
"That down-home hayseed accent you're putting on. I've lived in Little Rock for over two years and I know you don't all talk like that, it's just too... ," she stopped in mid sentence as she produced a cell phone from her purse. "Who should I call?" she asked, still yelling but almost civil now.
Before I could tell her to call the police I heard a siren. It sounded like it was on top of us; a passer-by must have already called them. A minute later Barker drove up with the lights on his cruiser flashing. He parked behind the MG, got out of the police car and immediately began ordering inquisitive onlookers to move along.
Barker was about my brother's age, 24 or 25. They had probably been in the same class. He had been on the police force for about 2 years. I tried to remember his first name, 'was it Jim?' no James, he wanted to be called James.
"James, how's it hanging," I said, trying to sound friendly as he approached.
"License and registration," Officer James Barker demanded. The surly bastard acted as if he didn't recognize me. "Fat James," that's what Chuck used to call him when they were in school. Wonder what he would do if I said, 'Fat James, how's it hanging?' But he had lost weight since joining the police force, James looked lean and mean.
We both went to our vehicles and returned with the documents. Officer Barker handed us each an accident report form. "Want me to call a wrecker?" he asked the lady. She nodded, silently, looking as if she was resisting an urge to cry.
"I'll do it," I volunteered, reaching for her cell phone. I knew that our local police department always called Husky's, one of two body shops in town. My friend, Freddy was always complaining about how the police cut him out of getting wrecker business. Just then I heard James on his walkie-talkie, instructing his dispatcher to have Husky's come out as soon as possible. "We got us a traffic snarl here," he added.
While exchanging insurance information I recorded her name and address, Veronica Perkins, Little Rock, Arkansas. Veronica's age was twenty-eight, she was 5'6" and weighed 112 pounds according to her driver's license. In the photo, her dark hair had been shorter than it was now. I also noticed that she was smiling and there was a distinct dimple on her right cheek, a mannerism I had not witnessed in the short time we had spent together.
She leaned over the rear of her little car and seemed to be taking pains to record my name and address, my age, height and weight. She reminded me of one of those cigarette ads you see in magazines, shades riding on her head, sweater loosely tied around the neck, shirt with button down collar. I averted my eyes when she suddenly turned with a question, catching me checking out her ass.
Placing a hand above her eyes to shield them from the sun, she frowned, "Is that the name of your business?" she asked, pointing to the sign on the door of my truck, 'Charlie's Turkeys, ' the sign read, which did not agree with the name on my license, Ernest Tucker.
"Yes ma'am, that's my brother's name, it's a family business," I explained, not revealing that the business had been named for my father who had started the business and operated it until his death just over two years before. My brother was really Charles Tucker Junior but had never gone by Junior; we always called him Chuck.
Husky's Wrecking Service pulled up about the same time another police car arrived. Skip Husky went to work with a winch while Sergeant Griffin made measurements of the skid marks and snapped pictures. The little car reminded me of a piglet and its mother, sucking fuel from my truck's gas tank. He put Officer James to work directing traffic. Then he interviewed Veronica and me separately.
While the sergeant was talking to Veronica, I grabbed a broom from my truck and swept up the glass and stray pieces of metal from the highway.
Skip Husky talked to Veronica while sergeant Griffin spoke to me.
"How did this happen, Ernie?" Grif wanted to know. He was a few years older than me but everyone knew everyone else in our small town. Some you liked others you didn't. Grif was okay, for a cop.
"A school bus stopped suddenly in front of me so I stopped. She ran up my butt," I summed it up for him.
"That's not what she's telling me," he warned me, speaking of Veronica.
"I know, she's pretty upset about the whole thing," I acknowledged.
"Which school bus was it?" he looked at me closely as if he didn't believe my story.
"What would a school bus be doing out here at 5 p.m.?" he said to himself.
"Don't know for sure, she drove off while I was looking in my mirror," I said.
"She?" he asked. "Who was the driver?" Grif wanted to know.
"Don't know for sure," I repeated, trying to recall who was driving school busses this year. Nearly all the drivers were female but I hadn't seen more than the hair. "They all look alike from the back," I shrugged, helplessly.
Grif gave me a disgusted look and took a few steps away. When I followed him he held up his arm, a signal for me to stay where I was.
"Step on your brakes for me, I need to check your tail lights," he ordered.
I pumped the brakes a few times, knowing that the red lights were going on. When I got out of the truck Sergeant Griffin gave me the thumbs up signal and recorded something in his note book. I watched James direct traffic and Veronica talk to Skip Husky. Grif was talking on his cell phone. He made several calls before walking back to me and gave me a slight smile.
But he didn't say anything. We stood there silently, waiting for Veronica to finish her conversation, and then he motioned for her to join us.
"Miss Perkins, I've verified Mr. Tucker's story and it checks out. The school bus driver stopped suddenly to avoid hitting a dog and Mr. Tucker slammed on his brakes to keep from ramming into the bus. You must have been traveling too close or you just didn't see that he was stopping," Sergeant Griffin explained in his professional policeman's tone.
"By the way," he turned to me, "the driver was Sally Combs, she knew it was you behind her but she didn't know there had been an accident, said she didn't hear anything." Sergeant Griffin searched my face for a reaction. He must have remembered the history between Sally and me. Everyone knows everything about everyone else in our town; it's not just the police either.
Veronica was shaking again. "What school bus? Is he making this up? I didn't see any school bus," she stammered, becoming highly agitated.
"I don't see how you could have seen the bus in that car you were driving," said Grif, alluding to the low slung ride and the right-side steering.
Veronica wasn't paying attention. She was watching the wrecker drive off with her car aboard. With a forlorn look on her face she turned to Sergeant Griffin, "I've missed my ride," she exclaimed as if to say, 'what else can go wrong?'
"Can I carry you someplace?" I offered.
She turned to me and after a long disdainful stare, "Carry? Can you carry me someplace? Is that what you said?"
Sergeant Griffin was clearly amused at how Veronica was mocking my use of the colloquial expression but he was all business. He advised both of us to complete the accident reports and turn them in at the station... 'pronto, ' was the word he used.
Just then an announcement came over both officers' walkie-talkies. Without even a last minute, 'have a nice day, ' they peeled rubber in the same direction, sirens blasting and lights flashing. Veronica and I were left at the side of the road. "Can I carry you someplace?" I repeated my offer just to be pesky.
She had no choice. I let her climb up into my truck on her own. Distantly and without looking my way, she meekly told me she had to get her suitcase out of her car. We made the short trip to Husky's in silence. The car had been off-loaded from the tow truck and parked in a row of dented vehicles.
As we were getting the suitcase and a travel bag out of the MG's trunk Skip came out of the shop to see what we were doing. He told Veronica that it would take a few days for him to give her an estimate for the repairs, adding, "Those parts ain't easy to come by."
"Skip, do you mind if Freddie swings by and takes a look at the car?" I asked him.
"Ain't no skin off my nose, one way or the other. He probably needs the work more than me," he answered, an edge on his voice. His arm made a sweeping motion around the lot to show how many wrecked cars there were, waiting for insurance approval to go ahead with repairs or waiting for special parts to arrive.
"What was all that about?" Veronica wanted to know. She handed me her heavy bag and marched back to my truck, climbed up into the cab and slammed her door closed. There was no other place to put her bag so I placed it on the seat between us.
"May as well get a second estimate, I'll ask Freddie to take a look at the damage if it's okay with you?" She didn't say anything so I decided to forget about calling my friend.
Driving aimlessly, I was just about ready to ask her where she wanted to go when she spoke up. "Where can I can rent a car?"
I thought for a long time, weighing the options as how to best answer her question, 'hell no! Are you shitting me?' "Not that I can think of," I answered solemnly.
"Is there an airport nearby? I need to get to St. Louis tonight."
I thought for a few seconds, same options. "Not that I can think of," I said, maintaining a straight face.
It must have been sinking in that I had not caused the accident. She was becoming less hostile. Perhaps the fact that she was stuck in a small town in the middle of nowhere and at my mercy had something to do with her change in demeanor.
"What about a bus?"
"Now you're thinking," I congratulated her, "hand me the phone out of the glove box there, I'll check."
"Here, use this one," she said, "offering her cell phone to me."
"It would be better if I use mine," I insisted, skirting my reason for needing my phone with the number keyed in. Until 6 months before I had dated a girl who worked at the bus station but had never memorized the number. It was stored in my phone.
Vera answered on the second ring. She seemed surprised to hear my voice; we hadn't ended our relationship on the best of terms. Naturally she was curious when I inquired about the bus schedule to St. Louis.
Veronica interrupted my conversation with Vera, "It's not St. Louis, it's a small town forty miles this side of the city," she said.
"That's not even a stop," Vera told me, "anyway; the next bus will be 10:40 a.m., gets to St. Louis at 3:10 p.m."
"10:40 tomorrow?" I asked to make sure I was hearing correctly. Veronica threw her arms up in the air and I said thanks to Vera, leaving her even more curious, I'm sure.
"What time do you have to be there?" I said without thinking.
"The practice is at seven, there's no way I'll make that is there?" Her voice was soft, almost human.
"No way," I assured her, "what's the big deal anyway?"
"My college roommate is getting married tomorrow, I'm supposed to be a bride's maid and I haven't even been fitted for the dress or anything, she'll kill me if I don't show up."
"I'll take you," I spoke on the spur of the moment without giving it a thought.
"You will?" Veronica had turned to face me, mostly hidden by the large case between us. Her eyes had a soft look, her mouth was open, a look of astonishment in her eyes.
"I feel somewhat responsible for making you late," I confessed, then warned, "you'll miss the practice."
She shook herself into reality, "you're going to 'carry' me, ' in this?" she said, looking around at the bouncing cab of my truck.
"I'm going home to get the car," I laughed, turning off the highway, toward our farm.
Chuck was pissed. He had plans for the car and he didn't like my being gone over night. Mom took the news that I was driving a stranger one hundred and sixty miles with a shrug like she always does when I do something insane. Anyway, Veronica had come in the house with me and mom was quite taken with her.
"Take that load of leaves out and dump them; be sure the birds get their ration of food," I said to Chuck as I headed to my room to shower and change clothes.
Chuck didn't like me ordering him around, especially in front of an attractive female but we had an understanding. I was the older brother and I gave the orders. He bellyached about having to do everything but when I came out of my room he had left the house.
"When did you gas up last?" I asked my mother. It was really her car but we all shared it and my dad's pickup truck. She didn't remember.
"Don't you want something to eat before you go?" mom said with her usual motherly concern. When I shook my head, she touched my arm, "let me make you a sandwich," she said as she trotted off to the kitchen.
Left alone with Veronica, I made a face as if to apologize for mom being mom.
"Aren't you going to take something along to wear?" she asked.
I was puzzled. I was wearing casual slacks, a shirt with a sweater over it. I planned on picking up a jacket from the hall closet. "I'm wearing this," I tried to explain, wondering what was wrong with what I had on.
"They're going out to eat after the practice; you don't want to pass up a free meal, do you?"
"Look, I'm taking you up there, then I'm coming back home," I said, trying to speak emphatically. "What time is it anyway?"
"But if we do get there in time to have dinner with them," she paused, a pouting look on her face, "I want you to look nice, that's all."
"Yes honey, take your suit along, just in case," it was mom, back with a bag of food that I was sure she hadn't just 'whipped up.'
"Okay, okay," I said, heading for my bedroom. I heard Veronica call out, "bring your shaving kit, just in case."
By the time we reached the Missouri boot-heel I had to stop for gas. It was after seven. Veronica had a map which she kept unfolding every time we passed a town. She opened the bag of food and offered me a sandwich.
"What was that you were hauling in the big box on your truck?" she wanted to know.
"Leaves," I answered. Even though the sun had gone down and it was dark inside the car I could almost 'feel' the expression on her face. I told her about our operation, beginning with how I had come home to run the farm when my father died because Charlie couldn't handle it alone. We raise several thousand turkeys per year and sell them to stores and restaurants around the state with the bulk of the business coming at thanksgiving and Christmas. As a bi-product, we compost the manure and that's where the leaves come in. We use the leaves and other yard waste in the compost.
"What did you mean by having to come home? Where were you?"
"Little Rock," I said, smiling because that's where she had said she lived now.
"Really, what were you doing in Little Rock?"
"Working," I said, glancing in her direction, wanting to see if I could tell if she was really interested or just making conversation. It was hard to tell in the dark but her body was turned to face my way. "I'm an architect," I volunteered.
"Really?" disbelief in her voice. "And you gave it up to... ," she didn't finish the sentence but I knew what she was alluding to. I had abandoned a promising career to come back to a small town and raise turkeys.
"It was important to mom that we keep the farm going," I finished her thought.
"But..." I could see that she had stopped to think of a tactful way to put what she was about to say, "don't you miss it? The city and..."
I knew what she was thinking. Picking up leaves to mix with crap and killing turkeys for a living was a strange transformation from heading projects in a leading architectural firm.
"I still dabble," I said. "They give me small projects that I can handle from home via the Internet or overnight express services."
Very perceptively, "Don't you have to 'be there?"
"Sure, I do on site inspections but not just Little Rock, we do projects all over the state so I do an overnight trip about once per month."
Between folding and unfolding the map, Veronica told me something of herself. Originally from upper Connecticut, she had gone to school in Boston where she met Patty, her friend who was getting married the next day. Upon graduation, Patty departed for New York City and Veronica remained to attend law school.
"Really?" I expressed disbelief. Having first seen her rattled at the accident scene I would never have guessed that she was a lawyer.
Patty had made a splash in advertising, spending her time between New York and L.A. They had only seen each other twice since college.
"Why Little Rock?" I asked.
"It's a long story," she said, stretching her supple body, arching her back. "My dad knows people there; let's just leave it at that."
We had not gotten into marital status, relationships or anything personal. I was happy to 'leave it at that.' But she touched on it when I ask what her specialty was.
"I do divorces for the firm. You can't imagine how many depressing stories I hear, bitter guys who cry on my shoulder and gals who want to take them for all they're worth. So many sad stories, I hear them all, so many mistakes are made. That's the reason I'll never get married."
I was struck by the change that had come over this woman, from the wrathful 'bitch' I had met a few hours before on the side of the road, she was now melancholy, a mere mortal.
"You sound bitter; don't you like your work?"
"I love it," she answered, much to my surprise.
"They're not all sad cases, some just need to be fixed and divorce is the only answer. And, the work is very rewarding."
"I'll bet," I said, thinking she was referring to her hourly rate.
"My little car?" She paused, sensing in the darkened car that I had nodded my head, "the guy had it shipped to New Orleans and went there to pick it up, unbeknownst to his wife." She paused again and we laughed together.
"It was the last straw. They had been married ten years and the wife had a list. They really couldn't afford the car. The guy had bought other extravagant toys over the years, a motorcycle, a boat and one of those vacation time shares. She's a nice girl and I felt sorry for her so I offered to buy the car. The guy was furious but he sold it to me for a good price in order to save the marriage."
"Did you really want the car?" I asked bewildered by the contrasting characters this woman was describing.
"I'll admit that I did it on a whim. I was surprised that he accepted my offer. I'll never get used to the right hand drive. Do you think it can be repaired? So it looks okay and drives okay, I mean?"
I assured her that the car could be repaired if the frame had not been bent beyond straightening.
"Just the other day the wife came back to see me, telling me that her husband has made a down payment on a recreational vehicle. She was beside herself, saying that not only can they not afford an RV, they can't afford to use it. What's more, she doesn't want to go anyplace with him. She's adamant; she wants the divorce."
"Did you offer to buy the RV?" I joked.
"Not on your life, I'm not that good-hearted? I sent the husband notice, we're filing."
We were making good time, cruising at seventy miles per hour. The fall weather was cool but it was a clear night with not much traffic. It was nearing 9 o'clock.
"Where do we turn off, anyway?" The map was produced and Veronica guided me into the town. It was 9:15 p.m. and the church was dark when we arrived.
"So much for the practice," Veronica said, laughing as if she didn't care. She made some calls and spoke to her friend who guided us to a local restaurant where the wedding party was having a late dinner. The town was very small, two minutes and we were there. They were still talking when we pulled up to the place. I got out and opened the trunk to get her bags out.
"Don't do that, come in with me, aren't you hungry, it'll be fun," Veronica said to me, the telephone was still in her hand and I was certain that the bride to be was listening. I had a three hour drive ahead of me and wanted to get going.
"I'm really not hungry," I pleaded.
Rushing over to me, Veronica pushed the phone to my ear, "Ernie, you've got to come in, we're all dying to meet you," said Patty, the bride to be.
Fifteen people cheered as we came through the door. They had the place to themselves. As it turned out, Veronica only knew Patty, her college roommate who took charge of introducing us to everyone. "And this is her friend from Arkansas, he 'carried' her up here," Patty repeated each time we were introduced.
The group was a mixture of locals and friends from both coasts. Soon, everyone was sharing stories about Patty and the groom, Peter. I was a little surprised that Veronica didn't reveal anything about the misfortune with her car or how we had met only a few hours before. At one point she answered a question that had been directed to me, "he's an architect," she announced to the table, while rubbing my arm and looking at me, admiringly. I soon got the impression that it was expected that I stay for the wedding.
"How did you two meet?" a heavy-set man across the table wanted to know. I glanced at Veronica before answering and noticed the dimple in her right cheek. "She's a lawyer and I'm an architect, we're both activists and have a lot of common interests," I began.
"Like what?" the man asked. Veronica was holding her breath, the dimple had disappeared.
"Traffic issues," I said and immediately felt Veronica's finger poke me in the gut.
Patty came over to talk to Veronica. "I brought your dress, do you want to try it on here or wait till you get to the motel? Oh, I didn't tell you..."
I lost track of what they were saying, Patty was whispering. I made conversation with the guy sitting across the table and checked the clock. It was nearly midnight.
"Well, you can guess what that was all about," Veronica said to me in the car. Somehow, I knew she was talking about the whispering conversation between her and Patty.
"Does it have something to do with the accommodations?" I ventured a guess.
"You were listening," she accused.
"My hearing isn't that keen," I countered.
"Their house is full so she arranged for some of us to stay at the only motel in town," she said.
"And it's full too," I guessed.
"You were listening," she said, poking a sharp finger into my arm.
"So what do we do?" I questioned. This was getting good. I had given up all thoughts of driving home that night. Good thing I brought my suit, we were going to a wedding the next day.
She leaned over and whispered, "there are two beds in the room, you can sleep in one and I'll sleep in the other."
"Don't you wear pajamas?" Veronica asked. I had laid claim to one of the beds and striped down to my boxers. I was watching her model the blue frilly bridesmaid's dress.
"Not this time of the year," I answered truthfully. Besides, I hadn't planned on staying overnight.