Archie was furious, stomping out of the room in self-righteous indignation. How dare that smug bastard lay into his carefully thought-out plans? The jerk knew Archie had been working on this for weeks, ever since the plans for the new bridge had been proposed to the city council. They were agreed that the proposal was a disaster, that the route proposed for the interchange that would connect the bridge to existing roadways would not only level whole neighborhoods, it would also mean an end to the mitigation strategies he and his colleagues had been gently, patiently, assiduously laying out, month by month, for years. YEARS! Dammit anyway! Archie threw his butt down onto the first bench along the park walkway two blocks from the conference building and put his head into his hands. His chest was heaving with fury, disappointment, confusion. Betrayal, that’s what this was.
Back in the council chambers, Ragaviendra Pradhap Mehta, known to his friends as “RP,” tossed his iPad onto the tabletop. “Colleagues, thank you for your attention,” he sighed. “I’m afraid that our colleague Mr. Fitzroy has created something of a kerfuffle…” The 18 men and women in attendance chuckled softly, embarrassed to be laughing in a moment of such high tension, but RP had used the word for just this purpose. “Clearly he and I, in spite of our long and close association, do not see eye to eye on the best way to proceed with this project. Of course, the final decisions will be made by all of us, as a body, rather than by any one or two of us. Nevertheless, I must apologize for the disruption in what was otherwise, I believe, a wonderfully enlightening and highly productive conversation. I’m sure you would agree, yes?”
This was RP’s brilliance, orchestrating the collective mood. Didn’t matter who the people were or in what circumstances they came together. Whether it was his niece’s birthday party, attended by a good number of ADHD-affected children and their equally obnoxious parents, or a contentious meeting of the city’s budget and finance committee, it made no difference. RP had the extraordinary and – – everyone said so – – magical ability to bring folks together, calm people down, generate good feelings, even between those who considered themselves to be enemies … except … not this time. He knew Archie felt he’d been stabbed in the back, and by his best friend, no less.
Archibald Fitzroy and RP Mehta had first met in 4th grade, when RP joined the class shortly before Christmas break. He had just arrived from Gujarat, India with his parents, Pradeep and Lakshmi Mehta, along with his two older sisters and three younger brothers. Pradeep and Lakshmi were educated, proud, and firm in their commitment to make a new life for their family, having struggled for years to pull together sufficient funds to move all eight family members to join Pradeep’s parents in Philadelphia. Special care was taken of the two sisters, both blind from having survived the early ravages of malnutrition, and of RP, whose left leg was shrunken from the polio he’d contracted as a toddler.
Archie, on the other hand, was the second-youngest of an even larger tribe of 10 children, most of whom were already teenagers when he was born and took little or no notice of him, wrapped up as they were in sports teams or celebrity crushes, depending on their gender. Archie was big-boned and had a big appetite to match, an easy mark for the class bully who made it known by the summer of third grade that Archie had nothing, but nothing, to offer anyone. But then RP showed up and Archie, for the first time in his life, had the chance to act himself like an older brother. (Obviously, there was no use playing this part for his one younger sibling, a colicky 3-month-old who didn’t even know he existed.) So, Archie made it his job to look after RP, to show him the secrets to surviving the fourth grade, and to help him learn English by telling him the best TV shows to watch.
It wasn’t until years later that Archie learned some of RP’s own secrets. Archie was the first to get his driver’s license and one day Lakshmi roped him into taking RP’s oldest sister to an appointment with her eye doctor. RP went along for the ride, as well as to get Archie’s help with their speech-writing class assignment. “You never told me how your sisters became blind,” said Archie, as they shared a cig while leaning against the Buick in the medical center parking lot.
“Our village,” said RP, “You can’t imagine. So, so very poor. Everyone. From childhood until death – – which often came in childhood – – people were miserable. Stomach aches, skin diseases, rotten teeth, and on and on. And no one knew any better. Our village was very remote, frequently cut off from the outside world, either by monsoon rains or by dry season drought. People were in a lifelong state of hunger. Always, always, hunger. And many, many people went blind, and everyone just thought that’s the way life was, not knowing it could be any different. But then a health worker they’d never seen showed up in the village one day and my parents went to meet her – we NEVER had strangers in the village, so EVERYONE went to meet her. And she talked about nutrition, about vitamins, about different types of food, about the importance of clean water. This was long before I was born, maybe when my parents were even younger than I am now. From that day, everything changed. My father vowed to learn anything and everything he could to improve life for the village and eventually he came to the US and went to medical school, while my grandparents raised my two sisters – – but by that time it was already too late for them.”
Archie sat on the park bench, thinking about RP, about their years of friendship, about all the late nights and long weekends they’d spent together, drawing maps and scrutinizing budgets and leaning over engineering plans. He thought about how RP had, somehow, turned the kids who’d bullied Archie in grade school into their gang of best buddies in junior high. How in the world did he do that?
RP, my friend, he thought to himself, you are a madman and you have hurt me bad. But if there’s one thing I know about you, you always, always have the larger picture in mind, you know, the one that aggravates me to no end because as soon as you tell me what it is I wonder how come I didn’t see it myself. You bastard, my brother, you embarrassed me in that meeting but, goddamn it, you’re a genius. I just need to find out what, this time, is the bigger picture?”
Archie sat up and looked to his right, to see RP limping toward him with his cane. “What the hell, RP?” growled Archie.
“C’mon, Arch,” said RP, “Let’s walk. I’ll tell you a story.”
Cover photo by Mykyta Martynenko on Unsplash