Additions or Substitutions?
ARCHIE SNELL WALKED INTO CAMPBELL'S CAFÉ and eased over to the east corner. The windows there looked out upon the street, and every Friday for the last five years he sat at the same table. The Marmon Plant--where he welded the racks that held the clothes in the Wal-Mart stores--worked a four-day, ten-hour shift that gave him Fridays off, unless he worked overtime. There had been no overtime since Melissa died. Archie still missed his wife. As he sat, he watched for Jenny Wilkinson, his waitress.
Jenny never dressed up, and he knew as a single mother, she struggled to survive. Archie wanted to ask Jenny to the Gillette Coon Supper last January, but he was afraid the biggest political event in the state of Arkansas might have been too intimidating for a first date. He thought about buying her a dress for the event and even found one at the Belk’s store at Success that he wanted to see her in. Made of purple silk, the dress would have clung to the curves of her tiny body, but Archie worried the low-cut neckline would have revealed too much of her ample breasts—too much for Jenny. Archie saw how hard Jenny worked at the café, how she struggled to maintain her independence. He didn’t want to offend her, so he went to the supper alone. The dress still hung from its mannequin the last time he was at Success.
The café bristled with the sounds of silverware touching china and loud conversation. But Archie saw Jenny look his way and smile. He left her a dollar every time he came in, even if all he had was a cup of coffee. He hoped that wasn’t the only reason she was glad to see him.
A dwindling community with a small city square, Delbert, Arkansas, hadn’t changed much in decades, and the changes had been more of subtraction than addition. The old courthouse sat empty now, condemned by the State when the legislature passed new earthquake standards for government buildings. All the government offices had moved to a building in Success, the new county seat. The dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial honoring the five boys the county lost overseas drew the biggest crowd since the county fair.
Then Ibn Browning, a California Seismologist, predicted a devastating earthquake would hit the New Madrid fault on December 2nd, 1991; April was almost gone, and the city only had seven more months to prepare. Browning had predicted the exact day of the earthquake that hit San Francisco on October 17th of 1989—the earthquake that interrupted the World Series between the Giants and Athletics and killed thousands of people. Delbert sat five miles from the geographical center of the New Madrid fault line.
On the east side of the cafeteria, a poster pinned to the wall in the middle of the room interrupted the lines of phones that circled the dining area. Yellowed from time and cigarette smoke, the sign described the breakfast special: “2 Eggs, Choice of Meat (ham, sausage or bacon), Biscuits and Gravy or Toast, with Hash browns and Coffee, $2.99 plus tax.” At the very bottom of the poster, in even bigger letters, the sign said “No Substitutions, just O missions.” A distant relative and namesake of the singer from Delight, Arkansas, Glen Campbell owned Campbell’s Cafe. He also served as the head cook. Glen collected old telephones, and the antiques lined the walls of the dining area.
Jenny walked over to Archie, bringing him a cup of coffee. In a voice small enough to match her petite frame she said, “The usual?”
“How are your angels doing? They ready for Easter break?”
“I start talking about my girls and you won’t ever get your breakfast, Archie.” Jenny’s girls were thirteen year-old, green-eyed twins who dreamed of growing up to be gypsies. They had most of the boys in Delbert convinced they already knew how to cast a spell after they showed up at school last month with a worn Voodoo book their mother bought them at the Nu-2-U Flea Market. The flea market occupied the space vacated by Belk’s after they moved to a new store in Success.
“Let me see a menu.”
“Our breakfast menu hasn’t changed since Glen put that poster up last year. What do you want, a Danish?”
“I been ordering the same thing in here for five years. Just thought I’d try something different.”
“Glen’s supposed to be learning how to cook omelets at some cooking school in Little Rock this weekend. You can order one of them next Friday. But I’ll have him scramble your eggs and put a slice of cheese on them for now.” She wrote on her little order book.
“That’s a substitution,” Archie said.
“No, that’s an addition. Cost you a quarter extra.”
“Then I want fries instead of hash browns.”
“That’s a substitution. Can’t do it.” She turned away, then stopped and looked back at Archie. “What’s gotten into you this morning? You never order anything different.” Then she smiled and walked away.
Archie and Melissa had celebrated ten years of marriage on their last anniversary in 1985. They married on Ground Hog Day, and Melissa had laughed and said that she would forever be Archie’s shadow.
“No matter where you go, I’ll be there with you,” she told him.
They lived a simple life together, a typical Delbert family working two jobs, Archie at the Marmon plant welding store fixtures, and Melissa as a secretary at the White law firm. They survived on their good credit, with the bulk of their paychecks going toward their mortgage, car payments and insurance. Once a month, if they’d had no other surprise expenses, they splurged for dinner at Ed’s Catfish House at Success, where Melissa would eat her fill of crab-legs off the buffet. But Melissa had missed a lot of work in 1986, and not only had they stopped the monthly outing to Ed’s, they’d used all of their tax refund to catch up their bills. Melissa suffered from debilitating headaches. The missed work strained their limited budget and their relationship.
“You only have headaches when I want sex or when you have to go to work,” he’d said their last morning together.
“Archie, that’s not so.”
“Why don’t you go see the doctor?”
“With what? We can’t even make the co-pay for an office call. It’s all we can do to keep seeing that counselor.”
“We could if you’d get out of bed and go to work every day,” Archie said.
“I’m going to work today. Just leave me the fuck alone.”
“Fuck you then,” he said as he walked out the door.
A robust man who never spent a day sick in his life, Archie saw sickness as weakness and an excuse to avoid work. He didn’t understand headaches, and he knew Melissa didn’t like her boss. But there were no other attorneys she could work for in Delbert, and a secretary’s pay wouldn’t make it worth the drive to Success.
Archie went to Campbell’s Café and spent that morning drinking coffee and flirting with the waitress named Jenny. The missed day of work cost him the perfect attendance award he had received at the company Christmas dinner for the last five years, but watching Jenny’s hips move beneath the snug fitting cotton of her dress set off an ache in Archie that embarrassed him. He couldn’t get up from the table for fear of being noticed, and his erection refused to go away. The tightness of his jeans could only be relieved by one thing. Just before noon he slipped out of his booth and made it to the door. He called the White law firm from the payphone out on the square. Melissa could meet him at home, and he would apologize. They could make love for the rest of the afternoon. Things would be all right. They would find a way to pay their bills. But when Archie called the White law firm, Randy Johnson told him Melissa wasn’t at work and hadn’t called in that morning.
As Jenny scooted around the café, Archie sipped his coffee and waited on his breakfast. He noticed all the little things that had always seemed so neat about her. Her hair was never mussed, and she didn’t wear all the make-up the other waitresses at Campbell’s wore. She never came to work with hickies on her neck. He knew her twins had never met their father; the rumor was he had died before she even knew she was pregnant.
Just before last Thanksgiving, Archie saw Jenny at the Piggly Wiggly over at Success buying groceries with her daughters. Archie started to speak with her. He wanted to meet the little girls he’d heard so much about, but when he saw Jenny reach into her purse and pull out the USDA food coupons, he understood. He’d never bought groceries with food stamps, but he could only imagine how embarrassing it must have been for her. Wallace and Owens was the only grocery store in Delbert, and Maude Nelson was the bookkeeper there. Maude was Archie’s neighbor. She’d installed a privacy fence—six inches across the property line on Archie’s side—to separate their properties. Maudie was a short woman, and when she’d get started talking, she’d stand a five-gallon bucket up next to the fence and climb up on it so she could see Archie while she chatted. The only person in town who spread more rumors than Maude was Delilah Starr, the beautician married to Reverend Mooney Starr. Maude let everyone in the county know who had bounced a check, or used food stamps to buy groceries, or hadn’t paid the bill she sent for their monthly tabs. Archie figured Jenny must come to Success to buy all her groceries, or Maudie would have told him about her. While keeping his distance, Archie watched as Jenny and her twins bagged their groceries and left the store.
After Thanksgiving, Archie went to the Department of Human Services at Success. Every year the agency hung the names of the children receiving aid on a tree for people in the community to adopt for Christmas. He pulled Jenny’s girls off the tree and spent his Christmas bonus on whatever they listed. The life insurance money he’d collected from Melissa’s death had paid his mortgage, eliminated the debt on their vehicles and left him a surplus that he no longer had anyone to spend on, and Archie wouldn’t spend it on himself. He didn’t deserve it. Jenny never knew who bought the presents. He respected her for her ability to get along alone--a skill he hadn’t mastered yet. But the Friday after Christmas he saw Jenny asking everyone at the café if they knew who had bought all the presents for her girls. No one accepted credit for the mystery gifts, so Jenny just thanked and hugged all of her customers, thinking surely she would get the right one. She never knew when she hugged Archie’s neck that she had.
As Jenny placed Archie’s plate on his table, she said, “Did you hear what that damned Mooney Starr did?” Without waiting for a response from Archie, she said, “He requested prayer for me and my girls because Donna and Dana put a hex on Mooney Starr Jr. Said they had participated in Devil worship.”
Archie laughed. Reverend Mooney Starr preached at the Delbert Nondenominational Free Worship Tabernacle. The church sat next door to his wife’s beauty parlor. The sign in front of Delilah Starr’s God’s House of Beauty Salon promised “A touch from above with every snip.” Delilah and the Reverend knew all the gossip in the town, and if the news was really bad, the good Reverend, always handling the matter as delicately as possible in order to impart the graveness of the situation, would ask for special prayer for Brother or Sister So-and So, “Who as we all know is going through a special trial from the Devil himself.”
At Campbell’s Café, Archie knew that having your name included in a special prayer request or added to the prayer list on Sunday morning was Delbert’s version of being selected the Mardis Gras King. Larry Cole held the record for the most requests due to his activities on behalf of the Republican Party. He had five. Archie had two—both garnered within the month after Melissa’s death--and that left him tied with the sheriff who was listed twice the month his daughter died from an accidental discharge of his firearm.
“I guess them girls hold the record now for being the youngest.”
“I’m taking that book away from them. I should have known better,” Jenny said.
Archie picked up his fork and watched her as she walked away from his table. He hadn’t been with another woman since Melissa’s death. He had never cheated on Melissa, though he needed the past five years to convince himself of this truth, and he never understood if he felt worse for leaving Jenny his last five dollars after arguing with Melissa so hard about their finances or because Jenny had stirred feelings in him his wife couldn’t. The marriage counselor had told them Archie’s impotence was a psychological problem that would resolve itself. Their marital problems had created stress that interfered with his normal functions. But Archie had never expected a waitress at the local café to solve his problem.
Archie rushed home from the cafe that day in 1985. Melissa needed to see some kind of doctor to help her with the headaches. Maybe a psychiatrist could help her. His impotency had been all in his head; the bulge in his Levis proved the counselor was right.
He walked in the door of the house.
“Melissa,” he said as he walked in. She wasn’t on the couch. He figured she’d be sitting there watching one of those daytime shows that always made fun of Southern people.
He walked back to the bedroom.
“I think we need to get you an appointment with a doctor and have you examined,” he said as he walked into the bedroom he shared with his wife. The odor of the room nauseated him.
Melissa lay tangled in the sheets. Her head tilted to her left, and her brilliant blue eyes, now a dull gray, stared unblinking at Archie as he stood in the door. He knew before he touched her that her skin would be cold.
Archie eased around the bed, watching her eyes, hoping they would follow his movements around the room, praying they would blink, looking for some sign of life. The last words he’d said that morning before he left were “Fuck you.” He backed away from the bed until he hit the wall, and his knees buckled, letting his body slide down the knotty pine until he sat on the floor.
One side of her face swelled and looked like she’d just had her wisdom teeth pulled. Archie saw a dark colored stain on the sheets where her hips lay flat on the bed. The smell. Archie had heard that sometimes, when people died, their bowels released, but he had never been the first to discover a body.
“I didn’t mean what I said,” he cried out loud.
The clock on the nightstand showed the time was 12:35. Eddie Leach would be writing people up at the factory for being late from lunch. He sat on the floor and thought about what to do next. He knew he had to call someone. He needed to call work and tell them he wouldn’t be back for a few days. But work no longer mattered.
On the hard wood floor of the bedroom he spilled the breakfast Jenny had served him that morning. Archie decided he should call the sheriff. He stood up and walked to the other side of the bed where he sat down again. His hand touched Melissa’s stiff leg, and he jerked away, falling off the bed. The smell caused him to retch again. When he had nothing left in him, he got up and walked into the kitchen where he found an old green bucket they used to wash their cars. After removing the spatters from his own clothing, he filled the bucket with water and Mr. Clean and returned to the room.
As he scrubbed the floor, he decided to call Wilson Underwood. The sheriff of Jester County for over twenty years, Wilson would likely be out in the country and would take some time to get there. Archie looked at the dark stain on the sheets. He sat on the bed and kissed Melissa’s forehead, then he eased the sheets from around her arms and off the bed. He piled them in a heap at the door and took the green bucket back to the kitchen. After emptying the bucket in the back yard, Archie filled it again and returned to the bedroom. He couldn’t let them see her like this.
He pulled the fitted sheet off the bed, and stopped. Archie knew he needed to clean her first. So he shifted her body. Her skin felt cold to his touch, and he had to straighten her arm and her leg so she didn’t look so peculiar. After he closed her eyes, he eased her panties down off her torso; the odor caused him to retch again as he fell to the floor. This time he had nothing left in his body to give.
When he had regained control, Archie got back up and threw the panties into the pile at the foot of the bed. Then he took the washcloth and spread her legs. The dark brown liquid her body had expelled at her death had partially dried, and Archie gently scrubbed her thighs, and the hair that marked her vaginal area. He then turned her over and cleaned her from behind. He talked to her as he gently cleaned her cold skin. Rinsing the cloth repeatedly in the bucket caused the water to turn brown, and he took his time with Melissa. He knew he could never apologize for all that had happened that morning, but he hoped this would somehow show her that he was sorry.
While he sat on the side of the bed running the washcloth over her one last time, he decided to call the sheriff. Archie finally took the fitted sheet off the bed and lay Melissa off to the side of the wet spot on the mattress. He gathered the soiled linens and carried them outside. When he came back in, he went through her clothes and found her a clean pair of panties and a different nightgown. After he dressed her, Archie placed the call.
Sheriff Wilson Underwood and Archie watched as Pete Carter, the Coroner, completed his investigation of the scene. Pete stooped over the body and opened one of Melissa’s eyelids. He made a note on a form held in place on a clipboard.
“Does she have any prescription medicines? I need to collect them if she does,” the coroner said.
“No. She wouldn’t go to a doctor,” Archie said.
Then Archie took her by the ankles and helped Pete and the sheriff load Melissa’s body onto the gurney. Her legs were already stiff, but her arms flailed awkwardly as they lifted her from the bed.
“Archie, I’m not gonna order an autopsy,” Underwood said. “I’m closing this case. Go ahead and make the funeral arrangements.”
“Does he know what happened?” Archie nodded towards the coroner.
“Pete says it was an aneurysm,” Underwood said. “But the only way to know is with an autopsy. I can order one if you want, but they’ll cut her to pieces.”
“No. If I have a choice, don’t. Wonder what you gotta do to become coroner?” Archie asked.
“Pete just filed and ran for the office. The state sent him to school after he won the election. I’ll see you at the funeral, Archie.” Underwood got in his truck and left.
After selecting a casket and deciding to bury Melissa in a plot a cousin of his had available, Archie returned to his empty house. The home sat in the middle of a close subdivision. The houses were all small, averaging between one thousand to twelve hundred square feet. All were built on a concrete slab and had Masonite siding on the exterior walls and single-pane aluminum windows. The lots were barely bigger than the houses that sat on them, and anyone who mowed the thin strip of grass that separated the cracker-box houses risked incurring the wrath of his fellow homeowner for blowing grass trimmings on the neighbor’s carport.
Archie had noticed the people standing outside as the ambulance left with Melissa’s body. He’d even heard someone ask, “Why isn’t he handcuffed?” As he pulled into his gravel driveway, he saw a group of people standing behind the privacy fence at Maude Nelson’s.
The small home he had shared with his wife seemed large and empty now. Archie could hear Maudie Nelson ouside, chatting with the neighbors and laughing. Laughing. How could anyone be laughing. His rage swelled and he burst through the closed door of the bedroom where he grabbed the linens and clothes and took them outside and piled them in the middle of his backyard. He carried the mattress out the back door and threw it on the heap. The chatter from behind the privacy fence had stopped, and Archie saw Maude Nelson standing on her five-gallon bucket, surrounded by other pairs of eyes that peered over the top of the fence and watched him as he walked to the metal shed where he stored his push-mower and grabbed his ax. He heard a gasp. Through the thin cracks of the privacy fence he saw Maudie fall off her bucket as the people staring at him with her scattered and ran. He laughed aloud. Then he took his ax back inside and splintered the headboard. Every time he struck the wood, the ax buried up to the hilt. He kicked and struck and hammered and slung the splintered pieces through the closed window, shattering the glass and bending the aluminum windowpane. He would never spend a night with another woman on the bed he shared with Melissa.
After destroying the bed and hauling it out to his backyard, Archie returned to his shed for the gallon of gasoline he kept for his mower. He soaked the wood and linens until he emptied the full can, and then he tossed a lit match on top of the pile. The whoosh of the fire startled Archie, and he stood and watched as the flames and black smoke reached for the sky.
No one called the fire department.
But Archie’s rage set the rumor mill on fire in the town of Delbert. The sheriff and the coroner may have ruled Melissa’s death a natural one, but the town formed its own opinion. Many said the sheriff was a fool for not ordering the autopsy. Underwood’s decision became an issue in the next election. Others said Archie had cleaned and burned the bed as soon as he could to destroy any evidence. Still others claimed even if he hadn’t killed her, he should have stayed home with her that day. Somehow, someway, the court of public opinion of Delbert always found Archie culpable for Melissa’s death.
This court always convened at Campbell’s Café, and he couldn’t bring himself to ask out a waitress who heard everyday at work how he had killed his wife, even if that waitress had stirred feelings in him his wife no longer could.
But the prediction of the exact day of the earthquake that was to hit the New Madrid fault had set the city teeming with new life and new rumors to feed the mill. The city planned a festival for Friday, May 3rd, in order to call the attention of the populace to the need for preparation months in advance of the predicted earthquake. The festival would also be used to promote the downtown district.
Jenny came back around and filled Archie’s glass of tea.
“I would like to take you and the girls to the Earthquake festival,” Archie said.
He could see her eyes moving over the lines of his face, and he wondered what she thought as she stood and looked at him. Was she wondering whether to believe the rumors? Did she even want a date? Archie had never seen her with a guy before, but he didn’t think she was a lesbian; after all, she had two daughters. Was she worried she would wind up with another prayer request on Sunday morning?
“Mr. Campbell has two rules, no substitutions, and we are not supposed to date the customers. Well, three. We have to smoke out back. But he says if we break one rule, we might as well break them all.”
She stepped across the aisle and poured some tea in two other glasses, then turned and began to walk toward the back of the café where an elderly couple stood waiting to be checked out. Then she stopped, turned, and looked at Archie.
“I guess you can have your fries next Friday. That’s when the festival starts, isn’t it?”