The end. It’s finally over Annie thought. My final option was gone. Her mother’s “sympathetic” phone call had been basically, “I don’t want to say I told you so, but I told you so.”
It was the same words with the same phrasing, the same intonation Annie had heard most of her life, not really vicious, but with condescension thicker than her four-year-old Jimmy’s self sculpted peanut butter sandwiches. Annie had even renamed her mother’s words as “I-T-Y-S’s.”
Jimmy and his two-year-old sister Jamie were about the only two things Annie did right according to her mother. Graduating from Prairie State University in three and a half years with a 4.0 grade point average was impressive, but when her BFA with a painting major did not produce any jobs, another “I-T-Y-S” was forthcoming.
So Annie settled for being a receptionist for Brock Auto Mall, which was how she met Ricky. Ricky Martin, his real name, was the best salesman Brock ever had, averaging over twenty-three sales a month. In one day he sold four cars, two SUV’s and a pick up truck, but what Ricky sold best was himself.
His introduction was the same one he used with his customers, “I’m Ricky Martin, no, really. I had the name first. I can dance better than him, sing better than him, and as for looks, I’m too modest to say.” He said this with a smile and a roll of his pale blue eyes, which always got a laugh and never came across as conceited. He was an excellent salesman.
Annie thought him to be one of the most attractive men she’d ever seen, not cute, but with a definite masculine presence. He was an excellent dancer, too. As for his singing, well, two out of three’s not bad. Even his small church choir told him, “They really needed someone who could read music.” Annie found his tone-deaf enthusiasm a minor flaw. In just six months they were married.
A year and a half later Jimmy arrived followed by Jamie two years after that. Annie had never been happier. Although Rick, as she called him, worked ridiculous hours, nights, weekends, and still flirted with his female customers--the married ones really ate it up he’d confided--Annie never doubted his faithfulness. He was a great father when he was home.
Then the police arrived. There’d been an accident. Annie knew he was an aggressive driver. No, it wasn’t an auto crash. The next day’s Summit Observer page two headline said it all. “Meth Lab Explosion--2 Killed.”
Although Summit had a population of 45,000 and growing, it was still a small town in many ways. One way was the discretion with which the Observer handled the story. It did not include the fact that Ricky Martin and Casey Ivarson were undressed and that the bodies were found intertwined on the bed at the old abandoned Sleep-Eze Motel just south of town on highway 15.
The police were kind, especially after Annie mistook Casey for another man. “No, I don’t know him. Ivarson sounds familiar even though there aren’t too many Ivarsons in Summit.” Annie collapsed when told the whole story.
Two days later after working her way through anger and grief, she managed, under sedation, to stand by the closed coffin and accept the condolences of family and former co-workers. She almost felt sorry for them; what could they say? The crowd had been sparse, and she had time to weigh her options. All the platitudes crowded in. As painful as it was, she knew she had to get on with her life. She couldn’t afford to keep their expensive apartment. Beside the cost, it was filled with too many memories. Starting over, going to another town with two small children didn’t seem to be very practical. Moving back home with mother? There had to be another choice.
It was almost nine. The visitation was nearly over. Somehow she had made it. One more small step. She was dealing with everything in tiny increments. A late visitor, he looked familiar. It was one of her college professors, the English 101 instructor; what was his name? How nice. He always seemed to be truly interested in his students. And he always talked so fast. His name, his name--how embarrassing. “It was so nice of you to come.”
“Mrs. Martin, I’m so sorry. I want to apologize.”
“Perhaps if I’d have been stronger. I knew she was wild when I met her. It was at an English department function. She was a freshman dating a graduate student. That’s why she was there. Otherwise I’d probably have never met her. Well, she dropped him that night and came after me. I was flattered, overwhelmed.”
Annie’s bewildered look caught his attention.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I teach at Prairie State. You see, I’d given up on the idea of marriage and a family ever since I was wounded in the first Gulf war. Ironic, isn’t it. For years I was so involved in my studies that I was never interested in family life--no time--until it became impossible.”
“Excuse me, I’m confused.”
“No, why are you telling me all this?”
“I’m sorry. Let me start over. I’m Frank Ivarson. I teach at Prairie State University.”
“I know. I was your student.”
The professor was silent for a moment, “Oh my gosh. Annie. Is it you? But it wasn’t Annie Martin, it was, it was Benson. Annie Benson.”
“You have a good memory.”
“My only student to ever earn a perfect score on an essay. Problem Solution. You wrote on world hunger. Ho hum, another boring essay, I thought.”
“I’d forgotten that.”
“The conclusion, let me see if I can remember--‘If we can only learn to swallow our scruples, along with our pets and relatives, we can eliminate world hunger.’ Outrageous, hilarious. You out-Swifted Jonathan Swift.”
The funeral director peeked in to check on the laughter.
Annie glanced at her watch, “I guess it’s closing time.”
“I haven’t said what I came to say. I’m so sorry, and now even more so when I discover it’s you. Please accept my apology.”
“If it wasn’t for me, your husband would still be alive. It’s my fault. I brought her to Summit. Casey was my wife.”
Annie stumbled back against the coffin. Another sedative? No, she wanted a clear mind for this.
“Please forgive me.”
“Don’t blame yourself, professor.”
“All I wanted was a wife and kids. I thought we could adopt a couple of children. She called me an old fool. There’s no fool like an old fool.”
“You’re neither old nor a fool.”
“Thank you, Anni--Mrs. Martin.”
“Annie is fine, professor.”
“Please call me Frank.”
“I should be consoling you, too. After all, you lost a wife.”
“In name only. We’ve been separated for over eight months.”
Annie’s mind seemed to be clearing. She stepped forward to look at his slightly receding hairline above the sincere face. “I especially remember two things about your class. You always put your students’ concerns first.”
“That’s my job. What was the other thing?”
“You’ll get conceited.”
“No, tell me.”
“All the girls in class had a crush on you.”
Frank looked away and blushed, then looked directly at Annie, “All?”
Annie just smiled and opened her purse to show him Jimmy and Jamie’s pictures. Maybe there was another option, another chance, another beginning.