17 • Bubble Gum and Steak
Will drove through town looking to find his way back to the highway. “Phillips, ” he said, “how hard can it be to find your way out of a town 10 blocks wide?”
He’d driven past the small supermarket three times before he recognized the circle he was traveling. The clock on the dash said 4:50. With a sigh at the realization he wasn’t going to get back to the office today anyway, he pulled into a parking space at the front of the store and went in. The teenager at the front till had straight brown hair parted at the side and combed to partially cover one side of her face. She hadn’t quite mastered the seductive “smoky eye” with her eye shadow, though clearly it wasn’t for lack of trying. Even so, keeping just one garish eye out in the open was probably to her credit. Her blue smock hung loosely over a tight t-shirt, pulled over a slight bulge at her waist pushed up by too-tight jeans. Will silently wished this period in teenage fashion would fade quietly away.
“Excuse me, ” he said. “Can you tell me how to get to the Interstate?”
She blinked at Will and chewed her gum a little slower, tilting her head to the side. “The Interstate?”
“The In-ter-state.” The girl drew out each syllable as though it would conjure some knowledge she clearly did not possess. “That’s the big one? I think we take that up to Fargo.” She brushed the hair away from her covered eye.
Will focused on the sign above her head and bit the inside of his cheek to keep from a sharp answer. Why was he not just asking Barbara? She was no more pleasant to talk to but at least she gave him straight answers. He’d never once heard her ask about “the big one.”
“Yes. The big highway that goes to Fargo. Can you tell me how to get to it?” He shifted on he feet. “Please?”
The girl twisted her long hair around a finger and blew a large purple bubble that burst softly across her nose. It’s okay, Phillips, he told himself. She’s a person, not a caricature. But she does do a damn fine impersonation of a caricature. You have to give her that.
“Umm.” She turned to face the door, “That’s north, right? Then you would go left past the elevator and drive for a while. And then you would turn. But I’m not sure where.”
“You’re not sure where? But you do know you turn.”
“I think so. Yeah. You definitely turn. Does that help?” She smiled.
“Immensely. Thank you.” Will looked towards the back of the store. “I don’t suppose there is anyone else here?”
“Bob, I think. You want to talk to him?”
“Sure.” Will pointed toward the meat department. “That way?”
“Yeah. Just walk down Aisle 2. You shouldn’t have any trouble finding him.”
The sound of a bubble popped lightly into the air as he walked away. Shouldn’t have any trouble. I get that a lot.
He walked past the peanut butter and salad dressings in Aisle 2 and found a man in a white apron leaning over the meat counter refilling the flat iron steaks from a stainless steel cart.
Will cleared his throat. “Excuse me, are you Bob?”
The man stood upright and turned, wiping his hands on his apron. He stood a good six inches taller than Will, broad shoulders stretching the sleeves on a black t-shirt. His blond hair was shaved close to his head and he sported a trim reddish soul patch under his bottom lip.
“That’s me. What can I help you find?”
“The Interstate, actually.”
“The Interstate? Is that all?”
“Yes, sorry. That’s it. Just needing to get back to Dennison. I understand from your girl out front that I should go left, drive a ways and turn. Think you could fill in the blanks for me?”
Bob laughed and put out his hand. Will studied it a moment and looked at the packs of red meat he’d been handling. He swallowed and shook Bob’s hand, then stuffed his hand in a fist into his pocket.
“Brittany. There are things she’s good at; we’re pretty sure of it. We’re still waiting to discover them. Guess we can rule out directions as one.”
“I know the feeling.”
“Listen. Main Street runs in front of the store. Go east all the way out of town and for another two miles. It’ll take you right to the highway.”
“I shouldn’t turn?” Will asked. “Are you sure?”
“Don’t turn. Not until you get to the on ramp.”
Bob moved a few more steak packages from the cart and Will imagined a nice ribeye sizzling on the grill. Maybe he would treat Pearl to dinner.
“Have any specials today, Bob?”
“T-bones. Best price of the season. I can wrap them up good for you so they stay cold all the way back to Dennison if you want.”
“Better price on the t-bones, but I’ve got ’em, sure.”
“Wrap me up a couple. Not much fat, mind you.”
Will took the steaks, wrapped in white butcher paper under newspapers for insulation and headed to the front, hopeful that running the cash register was one of Brittany’s things. He passed the cooler on the way and saw Bob stocked Sam Adams, a lager the stores didn’t carry at home. Pearl was the type who would prefer a nice Riesling, but she’d probably already have one in her cabinet. He reached into the cooler and pulled out a case.
He couldn’t show up with steaks and beer and nothing else. Pearl would insist on cooking something or pulling leftovers from her fridge. Other people’s leftovers made Will terribly nervous. He detoured to the deli and picked up a small container of a Mediterranean pasta salad with black olives and tiny pepperonis. Pearl would think they were cute. He tucked the steaks under one arm and carried the beer in one hand and the salad in the other.
“Bread. I should get bread, ” he thought, as he veered toward the bakery. He picked up a crusty baguette and slid it under his arm above the meat.
“Phillips, enough, ” he muttered under his breath. “You came here for directions and look at yourself. You’re a grocery-shopping happy little homemaker. Check out. Now.”
He started for the front of the store again when remembered dessert. You don’t need dessert. Check. Out.
Will decided he was right. If Pearl thought she needed dessert, she’d probably already have a pie baked. And if not, he could always take her for a walk downtown for ice cream. He carried his items to the cashier, almost dropping the meat when he pulled the bread from under his arm to set it on the conveyor.
“Did you find everything okay?” Brittany asked. “And Bob?”
“Yep, ” Will said, “I found Bob and all these things I wasn’t really looking for.”
She ran each across the scanner and Will bagged his own groceries, a habit he’d picked up since stores started staffing almost exclusively with teenagers who got too caught up in talking about their next break than getting any work done.
He swiped his debit card through the machine and took his receipt. As he drove off to the west he imagined surprising Pearl and firing up her grill. Noticing 3rd Street out his window, he realized he’d driven away from the store in the wrong direction. He turned to go around the block and approached Joe’s house, slowing. Archie was in the front yard chasing a tennis ball that kept bouncing away from him and Joe was sitting on the stoop reading the newspaper under the porch light.
Will pulled up to the curb. Joe looked up and smiled. “You still in town, Will?”
“A bit embarrassed to admit it, Joe. But yeah.”
“Got lost, did you.” Joe shook his head. It wasn’t even a question.
“A little, ” Will chuckled. “Even after I got directions at your grocery store, I still turned wrong.”
He looked at the grocery sack on the passenger seat. He’d seen a gas grill around the back of Joe’s garage when he’d been there the first time to scope the water damage. Pearl wasn’t actually expecting him, and by the time he got home she’d likely have had her dinner.
“Hey, Joe. Does your grill still work?”
“Gosh, I have no idea. Haven’t touched it since … well, a long time.”
“Want to try it out?” Will held up the grocery sack and Sam Adams and grinned like a little boy who’d just found his Christmas presents under his parents’ bed.
Joe jumped off the front steps like that little boy’s brother and ambled down the sidewalk. “A splendid idea, Will. Come on inside.”
Will opened the door and got out, reaching back in for his groceries. As he turned to close the door with his shoe, he stopped and set the beer down on the seat and opened his briefcase. He pulled out the gray Keats volume and tucked it under his arm.
Groceries in one hand and the beer in the other, he pushed the cab door shut with his hip. His phone started to buzz in its holster as he crossed the street. He hesitated, then let it go and kept walking.
Joe was already back at the door, holding it open as he waited for Will. He beamed. “I was going to head down to the senior center for congregate supper, but I can do that any day. I don’t remember the last time I had someone in for a meal.”
“First things first, Joe. Let’s check out the grill. Matches?”
Joe waved Will into the house and followed him to the kitchen. He rummaged through a drawer but found nothing.
“Never mind, Joe, ” Will said. “We’ll use my lighter.”
“Your lighter? When are you going to give that up, Will? You know it will kill you one day.”
Will’s phone buzzed again. “Nah, pretty sure whoever is calling me will do me in first.” He looked around for a place to set his groceries. “Hey, Joe, clear me a space on the counter, would you?”
Joe closed the drawer and stared at the counter top, bewildered as though seeing the stacks of paper towel rolls, unopened jars of peanut butter and cans of Folgers coffee piled as high as the cupboards for the first time. “Oh. Gosh. The kitchen has really gotten away from me this week.”
He picked up two jars of pickles and pushed the piles apart to make room for Will’s sack of groceries. “Here. Set your stuff down right here.” He tapped the open space with one of the jars, then turned away to find a place for his pickles, turning in a circle three times like a dog looking for the spot he’d marked the day before, and finally opened the refrigerator, which was completely empty, and set them on the top shelf.
Will set his things in the cleared space. “Joe, ” he asked, slipping his hands into his pockets and leaning back against the counter. “When’s the last time you used the kitchen?” Joe’s face lit up to answer. “I mean, really used it. For more than piling stuff you’re not going to eat?”
Joe looked at the floor, and when he looked up Will was sure his eyes were a shade more gray than they had been.
“I don’t know, Will. Long enough that it probably doesn’t matter anymore how long.”
The two held each other’s gaze for what felt to Will like an hour, and then Joe’s eyes suddenly sparkled blue again. He clapped his hands together. “Your lighter, Will. Let’s go see if we can blow up the grill.”
He smiled and pulled a red Bic lighter from his shirt pocket. Then he tossed it straight up into the air and caught it with a backhanded flip of his wrist. “Here you go, Joe. Let’s get something started.”
The phone buzzed again, now the third time in less than ten minutes. Will pulled it from its holster and sighed when he lit up the display. He tapped the “Ignore” button. “Mrs. Decker, ” he mumbled.
“Do you need to take that, Will? I don’t mind.”
“No, Joe. I don’t need to take it. It’s after business hours. I would lose my mind if I took every call. That’s why the good Lord invented voice mail. After she wears herself out calling, she’ll leave a message. Bet you a quarter it’ll take another four times.”
“You’re on, ” Joe said. “But I might point out that you took my calls after hours. Even placed one to me pretty late in the evening once.”
Will rolled his eyes and grinned sideways at Joe. “Yeah, well, that was different. I’m not sure how, but it was different.”
Mrs. Decker wouldn’t need to leave a message. Will already knew what she wanted.
“One more day, ” she’d ask. “Give me just one more day.”
She’d beg for more time and Will would feel like a Chicago mobster about to break some poor sap’s leg over a gambling debt. The truth was, no matter how many times a guy gives a lady like this “one more day, ” it’s never enough days to do what needs to be done. That one more day is burned up, every time, like the fuse on a stick of dynamite and Boom! The one more day’s gone and all that’s left to show for it is a bigger mess.
He’d been giving Mrs. Decker “one more day” for over two years now and the statute of limitations was about to run on her case. If he gave her one more day, it would cost him with the insurance company. So that was it. No more days. No more time. No more extensions. He was done.
His old boss Jimmy Martin had once called him Mrs. Claus when he went soft on a claimant and gave him an extra day in a rental car. One more day and $52.78 gets you Mrs. Claus. Jimmy always knew how to hurt a guy. Any adjuster worth his salt was no Santa Claus with a big bag of goodies over his shoulder. But Mrs. Claus? The little woman who stays home and packs a nice lunch and stirs little marshmallows into hot cocoa for her Santa? No. Will would learn to be less like Mrs. St. Nick and more like Ebenezer Scrooge on a cold winter night. He would say to his spindly Bob Cratchett of a Mrs. Decker, “No.”
“No more days, ” he said aloud.
Joe raised his eyebrows.
Will knew, of course, that he would give Mrs. Decker one more day. And he would be haunted late into the night by the ghost of Jimmy Martin, rattling heavy chains and moaning, “Mrs. Claus. Missssus Claaaaus.”
“It’s different, eh?” Joe said. He winked. “For starters, I’m sure I’m much more charming than your Mrs. Decker.”
“You’re absolutely right about that, Joe.” Will walked down the five steps to the back door and held it open with a slight bow, waving the old man through. “Why don’t you and your charm go see if you can’t get a little something going on the grill.”
Joe chuckled. “I’ll have you know, Will Phillips, that I’ve lit a few fires in my day.” He pressed a hand against the wall to steady himself as he walked down the steps. “’Course, I extinguished a few, too.”
(to be continued)