Meredith Carter would never forget Joe Arridy’s eyes. They fixed on her the moment she walked into the room, following her with a look of blank curiosity and mild pleasure.
He didn’t say anything but fiddled with a toy train in his hands. The red paint on the engine was peeling, and the train was based on a model at least thirty years old. She wondered if it was a childhood toy.
Meredith tucked her long chestnut hair neatly behind her ears. She was tall, uncoordinated, and wise beyond her years. She was one of the many women in the 1930s who were older and stronger than they were supposed to be. It was a symptom of the Great Depression. The poorer and hungrier women got, the less they cared about being told to stay home and watch their children starve.
She took out a pad of paper and settled herself in the seat across from his. His dull eyes continued to unsettle her. She silently demanded some emotion to enter those wide, empty orbs.
She couldn’t believe she was taking on this assignment. Her boss, Sam Colburn, had refused to listen to her pleas to give it to someone else. She sighed. At least it was better than her last piece on breakthroughs in yeast fermentation. As the only female writer in a major metropolitan newspaper, she often found herself writing the stories no one else was willing to take up. Joe Arridy was one of those stories.
“Hello, Mr. Arridy. My name is Meredith Carter from Colburn News. I’m here to talk to you about a piece I’m writing,” she swallowed and felt like she would choke on the dry air. “I have almost everything I need for the story, but I’m struggling with the ending. I was hoping you could help me with it.”
He made no reaction or sign of comprehension. She expected this would happen and knew she had to persevere.
“So today is a very important day,” she pressed on. “Did you have anything special to eat this morning?”
He finally spoke, a childish grin spreading over his face. “I asked for two cheeseburgers and a pecan pie. But I’m saving the pie for later.”
She froze, her pen suspended in midair. She never expected this. She felt completely off guard. Why was he smiling? Was he trying to be funny?
She was suddenly filled with fury.
“Is this all a big joke to you?”
He didn’t respond to her question. He just lifted the train toward to her face, and up close, she could see his dirty fingerprints smudged on one side. She regained her composure. She had to be professional about this. She pulled out a stack of photos, showing him a black and white image of a young Pueblo girl.
“Tell me about her,” she requested.
“Don’t know her,” he replied absentmindedly after a cursory glance at the picture. He returned his attention to the train, smiling as he pushed it around in circles.
She frowned. This was also unexpected. Her boss was hoping these pictures would evoke some emotional or even aggressive reaction. She wasn’t getting anywhere with him.
“I see. I was wondering about your family. I know they’ve been suffering. Are they here today?”
Mild irritation crossed his face, but he grinned again. “My Papa didn’t wanna come. Mama did earlier. She cried a lot. She kept saying she was sorry, over and over again. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. I don’t think she was too happy to see me.”
She looked dismally at her notepad and the few lines she had scrawled. Most of it was useless. She needed him to say something real and meaningful, even if it was just to spit in her face. She needed a man like Joe Arridy to be more than just a lonely shell cooped up with nothing but a toy train. She wanted him to be pensive and thoughtful or even bitter and spiteful. She couldn’t handle this dull happiness.
The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them. “You know I think your brother would agree. I spoke to him earlier for a quote, and he said that you were getting exactly what you deserved.”
Then, for the first time, Joe Arridy’s eyes lit up. It was exactly what Meredith had been waiting for. And it was terrible. Gone was the mask of indifference and blank silence, Joe Arridy’s face twisted with horrified anguish.
“He said that? Daniel said that? Is he here? Did he come? Danny! Please, I need you. Danny.”
As he clawed blindly in the air for the brother who had abandoned him, Joe Arridy wept and wailed like a child. She noticed how thin his body was and how raggedy his clothes were, but none of that compared to the gaunt phantom look that had clouded his face.
All of a sudden, nothing sounded better to Meredith than another story on the merits of yeast fermentation.
“Stop,” she cried out, “I’m sorry. Please stop.”
She saw the sobbing wreck of a man in front of her, starting to curl up within himself. She saw him reaching reflexively for his toy train, holding it to his chest as he murmured softly. She saw his eyes, tortured and confused, but somehow still so empty. Something struck her.
When her voice came out, it was small and alien to her.
“Joe. Do you know who the president is?”
To her horror, he shook his head slowly. She decided to switch tactics.
“Does the name Roosevelt sound familiar to you at all?”
He shook his head again.
She could see the lack of recognition in his eyes. She tried Babe Ruth, Amelia Earhart, and William Shakespeare. She tried days of the week, hours on a clock, and the meaning of the word oath. None of it was familiar to him.
Meredith realized then that she was breaking the number one rule of journalism. She was writing the story she wanted to see, not the one that was actually playing out in front of her, the one she couldn’t force herself to accept.
With trembling hands, she pulled out the picture of the Pueblo girl one more time, holding it straight in front of Joe Arridy’s face. Once again, he wore an easygoing grin. When he tried to focus his attention back to his train, she moved the photo along his line of vision, forcing him to look at it.
“Joe,” she pleaded with a shaky voice. “Tell me about this girl.”
“Don’t know her,” he repeated.
This time, against all odds, she believed him.
Joe Arridy was mentally disabled. Joe Arridy should never have been in this room.
“Ma’am, it’s time for you to leave.”
She looked up to find a tall man in a uniform pushing the door open, gesturing for her to exit. She coughed, trying to return her voice to normal.
“I don’t understand. I was told that I had more time.”
“His appointment got moved forward. You have to leave now.”
Joe gave her a wide toothy grin and offered her his hand in farewell. She jerked her own forward as if to grasp his, but then she suddenly shoved it back into her pocket. She froze in place, incapable of moving even if she wanted to. The tall man seemed to sense this and grabbed her arm to drag her out of the room. She dug her heels into the ground, giving up any sense of composure.
“No! No! Please don’t. Not yet,” she cried. “Please I think there might have been some mistake. I need more time with him.”
He escorted her outside and gave her a wistful smile. Without thinking, Meredith picked a direction and started walking. Everything was numb, so numb. She shoved her hand in her purse, digging wildly for a cigarette. She started to take longer strides, almost breaking out into a run in her haste to get as far away from Joe Arridy as possible.
“Careful,” a man called out from across the street. “Those things will kill you.”
That was the wrong thing to say. With a huff of frustration, she blew the hazy, toxic air straight into his direction before turning down the street.
Sam Colburn had a horrible feeling that he was stuck in the wrong time. It was a feeling that crept on him but had since consumed him. It was certainly true that he was not built to withstand depressions. Raised as a trust fund baby and accustomed to a life of ease, he was built like an opulent monument, rich but easily collapsible in the wake of disaster.
There were men just like him all across the country, ex-city slickers with fine pressed suits who were used to waving their fists in the air and demanding expensive, foreign coffee. When the depression hit, people realized that there were more important things in life than getting fancy coffee for the Sam Colburns of the world. So everybody stopped listening when they yelled.
Sam Colburn merely responded by yelling even louder. He had absolutely no qualms about yelling at Meredith Carter. He never liked that Carter girl. She was too cold and too calculating. He was an old-fashioned man and firmly believed that a proper woman’s place was in the home. She definitely did not fit his definition of a proper woman.
She entered his office, carrying a small stack of papers.
“Mr. Colburn, I have the story you wanted.”
He looked at her nonchalantly from his desk chair. Internally, he perked up like a shark smelling blood. He would never tell Carter, but today of all days, he really needed someone to jeer at from his pedestal. Nothing was going right in his life. His secretary had gotten his coffee order wrong again, and last night, his wife had started up again with all her gender equality nonsense. She had gotten it into her head that a woman could do a job just as well as a man could. It was absolute nonsense.
“Oh. Carter, actually met the deadline this time? Just leave it on my desk, and I’ll get to it later.”
He knew exactly what his words would do to her. On paper, it was a perfectly reasonable request. But for some reason, Meredith Carter’s hand shook and she could not- she would not- put her story on top of a pile of other articles. She couldn’t just cast it aside among pieces like “The Housewives of Colburn” and “Yankees Win Big.” As a master of subtlety in the art of steamrolling people, Colburn felt a stroke of triumph as she shoved it onto his desk and balled her fists.
He couldn’t help himself. He had to say it.
“Who do I have to kill to get a coffee around here?”
And just like that, he steamrolled over the concept of subtlety itself.
“I’ll be going, then,” she said icily, turning quickly so he wouldn’t see the wet pools forming in her eyes.
He did. Samuel Colburn was an old-fashioned man, and good old-fashioned men did not abandon a crying woman no matter how improper she was. He knew he had crossed the line.
“Wait, Carter. Stop,” he called out. “Meredith.”
That’s when she stopped, not out of any conscious desire on her part, but out of sheer shock. She turned around slowly, disbelief etched into her face. She found the same blank look of surprise reflected in Colburn’s face.
Sam Colburn was the kind of man who drove fancy cars, waved his fists violently, and shook his head every time his wife mentioned women’s rights. Sam Colburn did not apologize. And Sam Colburn did not say “Meredith.” Except, he did.
He took advantage of her silence and rushed on. “That was insensitive. I apologize. You were incredibly brave to pursue this story. How are you holding up?”
That small act of kindness was all it took.
Meredith Carter was the kind of woman wore knee length skirts, ignored people who shook their fists a lot, and cheerfully endured all the jeering that came from being the only female writer at Colburn News. Meredith Carter did not break down. Except, she did.
Because the twenty year old woman sinking to the floor as her skirt rode up her legs was not Meredith Carter. She was a little girl realizing that maybe her whole life was just the story she wanted to see. She closed in on herself, wrapping her arms around her legs, silent tears streaming down her face.
“I don’t know. I guess I just feel… disgusted and confused. I went in there prepared to hate him. I couldn’t hate him. I couldn’t help him. I was so utterly useless.”
She looked up at him with teary, searching eyes. She looked at him the way he always wanted to be looked at, like a God who had all the answers. He didn’t feel any of triumph he had expected.
“He tried to shake my hand, and I just couldn’t. I looked at those dirty fingernails, and I thought about what they say he did. I thought about what it meant if they were right and what it meant if they were wrong. Either way, I just couldn’t. Would that have given him some sort of comfort? Did he deserve it?”
Once she started, she couldn’t stop.
“I wish he did it. I wish he was the one who killed that Pueblo girl. It’s terrible, but at least then there would be some semblance of fairness. No matter what, the world cheated Joe Arridy. I called his psychologist after the interview. He told me that Joe had the mental capacity of a six year old. I can’t get it through my head. A six year old,” she scoffed bitterly. “Did he deserve it? Does anyone ever deserve it?”
Sam Colburn knew she wasn’t talking about a handshake, and he also knew what she wanted to hear. She needed to hear that she was not temporary and that she mattered. That Joe Arridy was just a name that would fade in the years to come.
Sam Colburn couldn’t honestly give her those answers, but he could pat her back and watch her cry. He could let her have the pain. He could let her have the growth that would eventually come from it.
Seeing her at her strongest, a sobbing mess falling apart on his office floor, Samuel Colburn had a thought. For him, this thought was more like a revolution than a revelation.
“Hey, Carter. You’re a woman, right?”
Something like a mix of hysteria and relief released forced itself out of her in a choppy laugh.
Samuel Colburn had realized that if the woman sitting across from him, this strange woman who forced her way into a male dominated workplace and charged headfirst into the darkest corners of life, didn’t meet his definition of a proper woman, then no one ever would.
“You’re an odd bird though, aren’t you Carter? You went to college and all. How do you feel about this equal rights business?”
When the office lights turned off that evening, two people left the building, strangers to each other and to themselves. These new people were kinder, colder, weaker, stronger, and impossible to recognize but all the same familiar.
Samuel Colburn still shook his fist and made unrealistic demands of all the baristas in the city. But had taken on the habit of picking up an extra cup for his secretary. He also started talking to his wife more, not just talking but listening. Within a month, Colburn News hired five more female journalists.
Meredith Carter, that extraordinary girl, went home, had a good cry, and then decided to keep marching forward. But she also learned to stop sometimes and take a look back. She gave up her usual routine of taking the train home and caught a taxi. Meredith would never ride a train again.
As for Joe Arridy, minutes after his interview with Meredith, the tall man took him to a small chamber. Joe walked in cheerfully as he always did, carrying his train and smiling at everyone he passed. He wondered vaguely if there was some sort of celebration. Then a man in black robes held up a cross and said a few words. Everyone left before the toxic air crowded the room and Joe Arridy’s lungs. Then the world cheated the happy man who loved his toy train, didn’t know the meaning of the word oath, and deserved a hell of a lot more than he got.
Meredith skipped the news the next week. She already knew exactly what it would contain: “The Housewives of Colburn,” “Yankees Win Big.” and her own piece “Joe Arridy: A Conversation with the Happiest Man on Death Row.”
Meredith Carter never did forget Joe Arridy’s eyes. But the rest of the world did.Too often in our memories, the Great Depression is just a story of numbers and green paper, not a story of people.
It was the decade of inflation and unemployment, but it was also the decade with the greatest number of executions in American history. It was the decade when twenty six states passed laws forbidding married women from entering the workforce and discriminated against the single ones who did. These were symptoms of the Great Depression. The poorer and hungrier people got, the less they cared about the Joe Arridys and the Meredith Carters of the world.
However, the poorer and hungrier we get, the more we need to care about these stories. We need to hold on to the Joe Arridys and the Meredith Carters, those victims that show us how cold and cruel the world can be. We also need to hold on to the Sam Colburns, those small flickers of change who give us hope that it won’t always be.