14 • Ruby Chenille
Will checked the clock. If he’d grown up a Boy Scout, he would have been able to tell by the sun’s position, nearly straight overhead, that it was just after 1:00. Damn. If he didn’t get lost, he’d be at Joe Murphy’s by 3:00. Joe could have him captive for hours before he could make a polite excuse to be on his way.
“What’s your problem, Phillips?” he asked aloud. “You stop, exchange a few niceties with the old man, pick up your Thermos, and say goodbye. How hard is that?”
Seemed not hard at all. Will wasn’t looking for new friends, after all, certainly not customers who’d become friends.
Margery Burnette was determined to be his friend. He’d been called to her house near the lake last winter. Margery was a snowbird, spent the cold months in a retirement villa in Florida. She came back early when her neighbor called last February.
“Margery, ” she said, “your ruby chenille bedspread is laying out on your front lawn. Did you come home and not tell me?”
No, Margery had not come home. She was still lying poolside under a floppy cotton hat on a chaise lounge at the trailer park in St. Pete, reading the latest Oprah book club title, sipping sweet tea through a straw and humming the notes of the big country hit single she was going to write. She caught the next flight home to find her house turned upside down by a handful of truants who’d gotten bored on just the second day they skipped out of school.
Will spent two hours with Margery going room by room through her stately three-story summer home, taking notes as she listed what was missing from each. Drawers had been dumped out, beds stripped, furniture broken and slashed with a box cutter they didn’t think to take with them. They had kicked the back door in, but closed it securely, propping a patio chair against it from the outside when they were done, as though to keep out other delinquents like themselves.
In the master bedroom, Will knelt amidst pink and purple nighties strewn across the floor. He picked up an overturned drawer from Margery’s vanity table and slid it into its slot. Margery rummaged in the closet, looking one last time for a ring she insisted had been in her jewelry box. Will looked up to see her bury her face in a full length mink coat and let out a single low, muffled moan. She held herself there a moment, then pulled back and wiped her face on a bright orange and purple scarf she picked up from the floor.
“I said I wasn’t going to cry, Mr. Phillips. Now look at me.”
Will picked up a nightie, folded it and set it into the drawer before pushing it closed. He stood up.
“If you needed to cry, Miss Burnette, it would be understood. By now you’ve earned it.”
“They stuffed steel wool into my garbage disposal and ran it until the motor burned out. Who does that?” she asked, looking at Will as though this sort of question had an actual answer.
“And they dragged my favorite bedspread out into the yard and left it there in the snow. Why, Mr. Phillips? Why?”
“I don’t know, Miss Burnette. If we knew the answers we could probably solve the problem, and then guys like me would be out of work.”
Margery looked at Will, who was pulling blankets up to the bed.
“I write songs, you know. Famous ones.” She paused. “I shouldn’t tell you that. It’s a big secret.”
“A secret, eh?” Will smiled and picked up two oversized pillows and tossed them gently onto the bed.
“Yes, a secret.” Margery picked up a turquoise necklace from the floor and reached behind her neck to hook the clasp. She slid her hands behind her salon-dyed big Nashville platinum hair to lift it out from behind the necklace. “You watch the country music awards? That song that won song of the year a few years ago—I wrote it.”
“Is that right? I have to admit I don’t listen to a lot of country music, but maybe I know it, if it was a big hit. What song?”
“Oh, I can’t tell you which one, ” Margery said, wagging her finger at Will. “Part of my contract. I’ve probably said too much already.”
“Well, of course I don’t want to get you into any trouble, ” Will said. “I’ll pretend this conversation never happened.” He winked.
Margery played with the large turquoise pendant hanging over her ample bosom. “Oh, you’re impossible. So easy to talk to, it seems like I’d tell you anything. I only write songs for one artist—he’s won vocalist of the year before. He pays me $25, 000 for a song, and neither of us tells anyone. He makes like he writes them himself, but he doesn’t. That’s our deal. But trust me, you’ve heard all kinds of my songs without knowing it. And he looks after me pretty good. He was livid when he heard what happened at the house. Wanted to fly right out here and I had to tell him that was nonsense. Besides, how could he show up in this little town without bringing on all the paparazzi?”
Will nodded. “You sure don’t need a bunch of Nashville reporters in your front yard.”
“He sent me that big bouquet of flowers in the living room though. Did you seem them?”
“Shoot. I must have missed them on the way in, but I’ll be sure to take a look and appreciate them right before I go.”
“I want to take you to lunch.”
“Oh, that’s very kind of you Miss Burnette, but I can’t let you do that.”
“But I want to.” She leaned into one foot in such a way that Will almost felt she’d stomped it, without lifting it from the floor.
“I have this big long code of ethics I have to follow. Even have to sit through classes on it every year to keep my license. I just can’t accept gifts from people. It’s a rule. You don’t want me to have to sit through more boring lectures, do you?” Will smiled.
“So I can’t send flowers to your office, either?”
“Well, folks don’t usually send flowers to guys like me anyway. But no.”
“And if I did send them you’d refuse them? You would send the florist away with them?”
“Well, no, I’d probably take them if they showed up at the door. But I’d give them to my landlady.”
Margery Burnette crossed her arms over her chest and tapped her foot, squinting her eyes at Will.
“How long then?”
“Yes. How long do we have to wait? If I called you in six months, then could we be friends?”
Will chuckled at the memory and reached to turn on the radio, which happened to be tuned to the country station and happened to be playing a very popular song by a former vocalist of the year, which may have been written by a woman sipping sweet tea through a straw poolside at a retirement villa in St. Petersburg.
Barton Keyes never had this problem. He waved his big cigar in the air from behind his big wooden desk and scared people who hadn’t even done anything wrong into thinking they were guilty. He could make anyone sweat. And nobody ever begged to be his friend. Will needed a big cigar. Or a big desk. Instead he got lonely retirees and overwrought single mothers who wanted to be his soul mate.
His phone rang. He didn’t recognize the number. Will punched the radio off with two fingers and clicked his headset on.
“Hello, I’m looking for a Ray Johnson.” He didn’t recognize the voice.
“Sorry, You must have the wrong number. There’s no Johnson here.”
Will disconnected the call and reached absentmindedly to his lap, taking the loose fold of his Levis in his hand.
Around mile marker 56, Will realized he was on Highway 10 traveling east, not south. Highway 10, apparently, didn’t run north and south. He wondered how far he was from Colbyville but refused to ask Barbara for help.
“I’ll work it out, Barbara, ” he said, glaring at the closed glove box. “I’ll work it out.”
(to be continued)