All Paul could think about as he tried to maneuver his way around a lethargic old lady in the cereal aisle of Food Lion was “Good God, you old hag, could you move any slower?” Paul, who’d stopped by this particular Food Lion after a 12-hour shift as a nurse at a nearby hospital, was hurriedly hunting an ice cream cake for his daughter, who was turning 6 the next day. Because he was in such a rush, he didn’t consider — even for a second — the life story of the old lady moving past the Cheerios at the pace of an arthritic tortoise.
Had Paul taken the time to talk to her, he would have learned that her name was Virginia Smathers, and that she was an 89-year artist of regional acclaim. She was born on a farm in Kansas to an alcoholic/abusive father (John) and a mother (Mary Jo) who, while sweet at heart, was too timid to stand up to her intimidating monster of a husband. Virginia, however, was headstrong. At the age of 17, on a morning after her father drank too much rot-gut whiskey and pummeled Mary Jo in the bathroom, Virginia gathered all her belongings — which included a few select paintings she’d completed — and walked out the front door, unsure of where she was going, but knowing that wherever she ended up would be better than where she was now.
“Come on,” Paul thought to himself. “How can you not move any faster than that.”
After leaving home, Virginia took a train to a small town in West Texas named Alpine. She figured Texas would be expansive enough that her father would never find her there. The wide open desert, the cacti and the jackrabbits, spoke to something deep inside of her, and thus she stayed for a couple years. At the time of her arrival, her only semi-marketable skill was her painting ability, which she’d meticulously crafted in the tiny attic bedroom of her childhood farmhouse, usually while her parents were violently fighting downstairs. Not long after arriving in town, Virginia met the owner (name: Tyson Ford) of an art gallery who admired her work — and, truth be told, her slender body — enough to display her paintings in his store on main street. He gave Virginia a job at the gallery, which provided enough income to, if nothing else, procure basic necessities. She rarely thought about her old life in Kansas, other than to wonder how her mother was doing.
“Good. Lord. Bird,” thought Paul, massaging his temples. “Get. A. Move. On.”
It came to pass that Tyson, who at 35 was much older than Virginia, fell in love with the gorgeous young artist who’d showed up on his doorstep out of the clear blue Texas sky. Theirs was not an even-handed relationship: Tyson, of course, had all the power, and while he possessed an outsize passion, his heart was equally capable of soaring virtue and immense evil.
The first year of their relationship went well enough: Tyson, a drunk by nature, cut back on his alcohol consumption, preferring instead to stay high on the delicate touch of his beautiful (and talented) teenage girlfriend. But things quickly soured: Tyson grew possessive of Virginia, berating her when he believed she’d flirted with this or that guy who’d wandered into the gallery after catching a glimpse of her striking bone structure through the storefront window. Thus Tyson started drinking again — whiskey, to boot — and the beatings began occurring like clockwork. But Virginia, to her credit, had always been much stronger than her mother. She refused to live life cowering under the fist of an oppressive monster. She resolved to leave Tyson before the situation worsened, and quickly made good on her resolution: indeed she high-tailed it out of Texas all together and headed toward the East Coast.
“Pick a side,” Paul thought. “If you’d just stay on one side or the other I could slip past you, grab my cake and get the hell out of here. But you’re slinking from left-to-right like some kind of drunken snake. WHY?!”
Life was infinitely better for Virginia on the East Coast. She settled in Wilmington, North Carolina, once again picking up a job at a local art gallery (name: Beachbrush) whose owner (name: Betsy Painter) agreed to show Virginia’s work — work that, by the way, consisted mostly of highly-unique mangled portraits of men, which a critic at a regional publication of notable reputation once described as “speaking deftly to the brutality and contradictory nature of the typical hegemonic male.” Virginia wasn’t quite sure what the words “deftly” and “hegemonic” meant, but she figured the review had been positive enough.
…work that, by the way, consisted mostly of highly-unique mangled portraits of men, which a critic at a regional publication of notable reputation once described as “speaking deftly to the brutality and contradictory nature of the typical hegemonic male.”
Virginia, while content at Beachbrush, was determined to open her own gallery by the time she turned 40. That way she’d have the power to display whatever paintings she damn well-pleased. A place all her own: that was the dream. And thanks to some financial help from Betsy (who was a heterosexual woman and thus devoid of darker ulterior motives), Virginia was able to open such a place by her 41st birthday. She named it Mary Jo’s, and it stayed in business until she retired some 40 years later. The store was a greater success than even Virginia could have imagined, fostering a brimming network of creative friends whom she remained close with for the rest of her life.
“That’s it. Just a few more steps and you’ll be out of this aisle,” thought Paul. “You can do it. I believe in you.”
One beautiful spring day not long after Mary Jo’s ribbon cutting, Virginia walked to her favorite spot on Wilmington Beach, just up the street from her gallery. It was one of those magnificent late May mornings that allow the soul to breathe: the harsh chill of winter had subsided and the muggy blanket of summer had not yet descended. Virginia let the warm sand massage her tired feet. “What has my life been?” she wondered in the manner that only a middle-aged woman can. An image of her unshaven father flashed across her mind so vividly that she could smell the liquor seeping from his pores. She thought of Tyson, all those years ago, screaming and throwing coffee mugs across the kitchen as she took shelter in the corner, shielding her face with a painting. “How many lives do we live?” she pondered.
Couples were scattered across the beach, holding hands. Some flicked their feet into the surf. “Do I need anything else?” she whispered to no one.
A moment later, she saw two artist friends walking her direction on the sand. “Hey Virginia! Fancy seeing you here,” said one. “Care to join us?” Virginia did, and the rest of the morning it was as though she was walking on air.
“And you did it! Congrat-u-lations!” Paul thought as the old lady reached the end of the aisle and moved out of his way. “And it only took half-a-century!”
Paul, still wearing his scrubs, walked briskly to the freezer section and grabbed the mint ice cream cake his daughter had been clamoring about for the past week. He tucked it under his arm and approached the register, which was being manned by a teenage girl (Madisyn) with significant acne on her forehead. Madisyn smiled at Paul as he approached: “How are you doing today, sir?” she asked. Paul tossed the cake on the conveyor belt. He paid for the damn thing and stormed out of Food Lion without acknowledging Madisyn’s existence in any way.
Paul hadn’t considered that Madisyn’s mom was a meth addict and that she’d never met her father. But in Paul’s defense, Madisyn didn’t consider that he had just worked a 12-hour shift at one of the busiest hospitals in the state. She also didn’t ponder the notion that one of Paul’s longest and most beloved patients had died under his care just a few days prior.
The pimple-faced teen had no idea about any of this as she slid the cake across the plastic surface of the register. All she could think about was what a dick this guy was, and Good Lord, couldn’t people be nicer to each other every once and awhile for a change?
Then she saw an old woman approaching the register, carrying a tub of Moose Tracks ice cream. The old lady flashed a grin at Madisyn, who believed she saw something unique in the wrinkled woman’s smile — something transcendent, content, immaculate.
“Good evening, ma’am,” Madisyn said. “And how might life be treatin’ ya today?”
I’m not one to believe in vague portents, but after living through a year as awful as 2020, I’m not really sure what to believe anymore.
On the opposite end, there are the forgotten. The lottery nobody wants to win, but must be won by some. The unluckily lucky ones, the one-in-a-million that nobody wishes to be.
Jo never thought of himself as a river guy, per se, yet one morning he awoke in a canoe, floating down a body of water that clearly was a river.