The Architect of Misfortune

“Beautiful weather today, huh?”

Vernon Tyler Fulton, Jr. dares to make small talk with me as I position myself uncomfortably against the unyielding steel of the park bench.

In so many ways, he doesn’t recognize me.  He doesn’t connect this aged face with its teenage counterpart – the girl that he asked to prom as a joke.  Behind these sunglasses, he doesn’t see the 16 year old eyes that he filled with tears as I showed up to the dance all alone after my mother told me that I had put too much work into my hair and make up and dress to not go out and let the world see how pretty I was.  He doesn’t connect my weathered hands with the balled up fists on that night when I saw him dancing with Myrtle Grace Henderson.  He has no idea.

He has no idea that this stranger that he happened to sit next to at the park was someone that he humiliated when he was a kid.  He has no idea that his victim still remembers.  He has no idea that I have been the architect of all of the misfortunes that have befallen him in the 68 years that have passed since that night.

“How ‘bout it?” he prods for a response, unrelentingly trivial.

“It’s alright.  A bit too hot for me,” I give him.  He guffaws like a cartoon character, a laugh just the same even after all these years.

This is no chance meeting.  This is the moment and location that I’ve chosen, after a lifetime of vengeance, to come clean.  Today is the day when I tell Vernon Tyler Fulton, Jr. that every wrong turn and accident and bout of bad luck that he has stumbled through in his life has been at my hand.

“You don’t remember me, do you?” I ask him.

“Sorry.  Can you speak up?”

“I said, ‘you don’t remember me, do you?!’”  It’s already coming out angrier than I intend.  I dial it back to a simmer, the same relentless simmer that has fueled me for over half a century.

“Did we meet somewhere?  Where’d you go to high school?”  At least he’s on the right track.  I wonder how many other former classmates he has shared this interaction with – the struggle to reconcile our now elderly bodies with those youngsters that lurk like ghosts in our memories.

“Seminole,” I reply curtly.

“No!  It can’t be.  You’re not…” his mouth hangs open, my name on the tip of his tongue.  “Surely it isn’t you…You’re not…” and I realize that he’s stalling, waiting for me to complete his sentence.

“Rosie Stephenson.”

“My goodness!  I haven’t seen you since…” He does it again.  He has found gracefulness in being old and forgetful.

“Prom, 1946.”  It’s a lie, but I can’t stand to draw this out any longer.

“No, I think we went to college together too,” he ponders aloud.  He’s right, we did.

“We did.  I was the one who told all of the sorority girls that you had venereal diseases.  The one who started those rumors about your fraternity burning all of the bed sheets to try and get it under control,” I test the waters.

His face twitches, like behind his enormous old-man sunglasses he is trying to see some aspect of the past dancing just over my shoulder.  Then he laughs again, that same laugh, after all these years, that same laugh.  “They called me Venereal Vernon!  Heck, I heard some of the girls even started calling them Vernon Diseases!  None of that was true, thank goodness, but boy did the rumor mill have a field day with that one!”  There is no anger in his tone.  I’m vexed.

“Remember that guy that you paid to write your American History term paper?” I don’t wait for him to respond, “He was a bum that I dressed up to make the offer and take your money.  I wrote the paper and filled it with idiocy that I was almost certain that you would notice before putting your name on it and turning it in.”

He slaps his knee and laughs even harder.  “I remember that!  The teacher read the paper aloud to the class, along with all of her corrections.  I got so far beyond embarrassed that eventually I had to start laughing at myself with everyone else.”

“You had to take the entire class over again,” I remind him of the somberness of a wasted semester.

“Sure did!  Failed it all on my own that second time too!  Eventually had to switch majors,” he chuckles.  I’m annoyed.

“In high school, I paid that boy from Holy Mother Prep to put that hit on you – the one that ended your football career.  Remember that one?”  I press on the last word, beginning to lose my cool.

And he laughs again.  “Oh man!  That guy really put a hurting on me!  He managed to concuss me and tear my knee up both in one tackle.  Luckily my head was too fuzzy for me to fully understand how much pain my leg was in.  I wonder what happened to that guy.  He coulda played in the NFL!”  Vernon muses.

“One month, I poisoned all of the sod that you ordered for your landscaping business.  That one had to hurt your pocket book.”

He laughs.

“When your wife used to leave the kitchen window open in the fall, I would always come by and throw fistfuls of salt into whatever she was cooking.”

“She always said that she was a better cook in the Winter!”

“Over the years, I’ve kidnapped 8 cats and 3 dogs from you.”

“I thought it was too much of a coincidence that they kept running away from us!  Even the kids stopped believing us!”

I tell him about how I put rat pheromones around the outside of his favorite diner and got the place shut down by the health department.  “That place used to have the greasiest bacon in town,” he muses wistfully.

I tell him about how I managed to infect each of his children with chicken pox, one right after the other.  “The Poxy-est Summer,” he and his wife had called it.

I tell him about how many nails I’ve put into his tires over the years.

I tell him about how I used to saw at the soles of his work boots when his wife used to make him leave them outside.

I tell him about all of the times that I took bagged up leaves from his neighbors and spread them across his yard.

I tell him about the time that I sabotaged his house’s septic tank.

I tell him about every new car of his that I’ve covered with a hundred tiny scratches.

And he laughs at all of it.  None of it phases him.  I’ve devoted my entire life to ruining his entire life and he hasn’t even noticed.

“Aren’t you mad?!” I finally spit.

At this, he laughs the hardest.  “What’s the point?  It’s all in the past now.  Those things weren’t much fun at the time, but I got through them.  Besides, all of that crap is just part of life!  You can’t ask me to sit around and stew on every bad thing that’s ever happened to me.”

But that’s exactly what I had done.  I had “stewed on” one cruel joke that was played on me for over three quarters of my life.  I had wasted years on trying to ruin someone else who hadn’t even noticed.

“I remember now,” Vernon says quietly.  “Prom 1946, I stood you up.”  For the first time, he isn’t laughing.  “That was such a mean joke.  I’m so, so sorry Rosie.  If I could take back anything, it would be that.  Please forgive me.”

And I do.  After 68 years, I forgive him.  I don’t exactly have much time to do anything else but forgive him.

“Do you want to go get a sandwich?” Vernon asks.

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