24 • Dinner
“Mr. Phillips!” Pearl’s heels clicked against the oak floor of the dining room. “Where have you gone to? And thank you so much for not making the gravy liked I asked you.” She appeared around the corner drying her hands on her apron.
“Oh! I didn’t know our guests had arrived, since you haven’t let them in yet.” She squeezed Cameron’s forearm and smiled. “Welcome, Ms. Julian. So happy you could come.”
Pearl turned toward Will and glared before reaching a hand toward Joe. “And welcome to you as well, Mr. ah–”
“Murphy, ” Will said as Joe took Pearl’s hand in both of his. “Mrs. Jenkins, meet my good friend Joe Murphy.”
“Enchanted, ” Joe said, bowing lightly.
Pearl waved her guests toward the dining room. “Please, come in, have a seat. I’m delighted to have you both here.” She turned to Will, narrowing her eyes. Smiling through clenched teeth, she said, “Mr. Phillips, I wonder if I could see you in the kitchen please?”
Will folded his hands behind his back and clapped his ankles together. “Of course.” The four walked single file to the dining room, then Will followed Pearl into the kitchen.
In one single, fluid motion, Pearl snatched a white dish towel off the counter, twirled it into a rope, then turned and snapped it at Will’s knees. He jumped back and Pearl continued to advance, chasing him with the towel around the kitchen until she had him cornered between the wall and the trash compactor by the stairway door.
Will threw up his hands, hoping his lack of protection would cause Pearl to stop snapping the towel. She took one more shot, slapping at his abdomen, which stung through his thin cotton shirt. He rubbed his belly with one hand and put the other out toward Pearl.
“Okay, Mrs. Jenkins. I think that’s enough now.”
She put her hands on her hips and let the towel hang down at her side. “What were you thinking? Why on earth did you invite a man my age to dinner?”
“I’m sorry. I know how prefer your men to be younger.”
Pearl snapped the towel again, catching his bicep. Will rubbed his arm. “This is not a double date, Mr. Phillips. I won’t have it. It’s humiliating for me. And for that innocent man out there. What’s your pawn’s name again?”
“Joe Murphy, ” Will said. “And he’s not a pawn. This should be no more humiliating for you than it is for me when you parade me past your long line of hopefuls. Maybe if it’s good for the gander it can also go good for the goose. Not that I think you’re a goose, of course. Anyway. At least I brought you a date you have a chance with.”
Pearl stepped backward and leaned against the sink. “Is that what this is? Payback?” she said softly. “I work hard to bring nice girls I think you would like. Is it my fault you don’t hit it off? I can’t do everything for you, Mr. Phillips. And I can’t imagine you’d set me up this way just to even a score.”
“You’re right about that. I wouldn’t.” Will stepped out of the corner and leaned on the counter next to Pearl. “Look. I appreciate all the dinners. The way you are always on the lookout for someone for me. But it doesn’t work that way. I’m just not the kind of guy that–” Will looked down at the linoleum floor tiles. “Cameron’s great, you know? I think we’ll be good friends. But Joe, Mrs. Jenkins. I’ve never met anyone like him. He lives alone in a shambles. His life sort of imploded on him somehow. But he knows things. Deep things. The world needs him to come out of his house. I thought maybe the two of you could be friends.”
“I am not taking on a charity case, Mr. Phillips. I have my hands full with you.”
“He is not a charity case. I promise.”
“This is not a double date.”
“No, it’s not.”
“I have more towels in the drawer.”
“I know you do. And you are skilled with them.” Will brushed the back of Pearl’s hand with his own as they stood side by side at the sink. “Please? Let’s have a nice dinner. Get to know Joe Murphy. And then let’s play some cards. I didn’t tell him how you cheat.”
“I don’t cheat, ” Pearl bit her lip. “But all the same, it’s best not to let on to him.”
“Of course not.”
“I do get lonely, Will, ” Pearl said softly.
“I know. So do I.” Will laced his fingers between Pearl’s and stood quietly.
“Take off that apron and put the gravy on the table. You look ridiculous, like my little sister.”
“Thank you.” Will pulled the apron off over his head and made as though he was checking his reflection in the polished shine of the refrigerator, tipping his head to the left, then the right.
“Am I bleeding anywhere?”
He felt a thwack to the small of his back as Pearl snapped the towel lightly one last time. “Oh, don’t be such a sissy. A little blood never hurt anybody.”
“Actually, I was hoping for a little. You know, to show Cameron I’m tough like that.”
“Of course. I should have thought of that a long time ago. What girl wouldn’t want a fella who would fight a little old lady in her kitchen, and be the one that came out with battle wounds?”
“Good point.” He straightened his tie and turned to face Pearl. “So am I? Bleeding, I mean.”
“Lord, have mercy.” She threw the towel at Will’s chest and picked up the meat platter. “Bring the gravy you didn’t make. And fix your hair. You look like the Wreck of the Hesperus.”
Will hung the towel and combed his fingers through his hair. He picked up the gravy boat and followed Pearl to the dining room.
“Everything okay in there?” Joe smiled as he stood up from the table.
“Yes, everything is just fine. Thank you for asking, Mr. Murphy, and please, sit down.” She set the platter on the table and wiped her hands together. “Mr. Phillips here is a little late on his rent, again, and I wanted to talk to him about some chores he’ll be doing for me as a service charge.”
Will slid Pearl’s high back wooden chair out and she sat down. “Careful not to scratch my oak floor, now.” As he took his seat, he asked, “So what did you kids find to talk about while Mrs. Jenkins was extracting payment from me?”
“Ms. Julian was just telling me about her move from Minneapolis and the adjustment to small town life.”
“Please, ” Cameron interjected. “It’s Cameron. I’m not one of your mother’s friends, so there’s no need for titles.”
He laughed. “That’s a hard lesson for some of us to put aside, you know. But very well. And there will be no Mr. Murphy from you then, either. It’s Joe.”
“Well, where does that leave us, Mr. Phillips?” Pearl unfolded a yellow linen from her red plate and smoothed it onto her lap. If there was something Will loved about dinner at Pearl’s, besides her fine cooking, it was the way she set a table. For all her formalities, Pearl did not like to use her wedding china, and laid out her mother’s Fiesta ware instead. Each place setting was a different combination of bright colors. It didn’t matter the occasion. Dinner at Pearl’s colorful table always felt like he thought a birthday party was supposed to feel.
He shook out the faded cobalt napkin from his coral plate and started to tuck it under his chin. Pearl narrowed her eyes and he gently pulled on the bottom corner and lowered it onto his lap.
“Well, ” he said. “Seems to me that a few minutes ago in the kitchen you called me ‘Will’ for the first time in the 12 years I’ve known you. So maybe it’s time for us to join our friends on a first name basis.”
Pearl pointed the carving knife at Will. “You notice everything.” She turned it so the handle faced him. “Slice the roast, Mr. Phillips.”
“Or, ” Will said, reaching gingerly for the knife, “you know, just for tonight. We could try it. If you can’t sleep tonight, I’ll personally walk to you to church tomorrow so Father John can hear your confession.”
Pearl put up her hands. “Oh, I certainly don’t want to be the odd man out here. I’ll try it. For tonight. Don’t get any ideas, Mr. Phil— Oh, dear. Will.” She shook her head. “Just don’t get any ideas.”
“Pearl hates when I get ideas, ” Will smiled. “I think I have some pretty good ones, too.” He cut through the roast, serving a thick slice onto Joe’s plate, steam rising and thin dark juices running across his plate. “Cameron? Let’s have your plate.”
Cameron looked hard into Will’s eyes from across the table. He knew she was saying something but hadn’t any idea what. “No, thanks, Will. Why don’t you take that piece, and give the next one to Pearl.”
“Oh, umm. Okay.” Will returned the look, trying to grasp what Cameron was not saying.
“Cameron, dear. Did he slice off too much for you? He thinks everyone eats like a man. Or maybe you wanted a piece from closer to the center? It’s not quite as well done.”
Cameron was still holding Will’s eyes and he suddenly understood. Or thought he did.
“Joe, ” he said. “Pass that salad to Cameron. From what I’ve heard, Pearl’s three-bean salad is the biggest hit at the parish potlucks. At least until you get to the dessert table. I understand she rules there, too.”
Pearl waved him off. “Oh, you exaggerate, Will.”
“I’d be happy to, ” Joe said, “though I should serve myself some before I let the lovely lady have it.” He scooped a large helping of beans on to his plate. “A plant-eater, then?” He smiled at Cameron as he passed the large green bowl.
“Yes, I’m vegetarian, Joe.” She set the bowl beside her plate and reached in with the antique sterling spoon. “It’s like we were talking about before. I think it’s not very common out here, so I try not to make much of it.”
“You’re a vegetarian?” Pearl asked? “Oh, I do wish you’d said something. Here I’ve gone and killed the fatted calf.”
“Oh, Pearl, I wouldn’t have wanted you to go to any trouble. The bean salad really is perfect. And the potatoes.”
“Well, of course they are. But if I had known, I could have made chicken.”
Will put a hand over his mouth and leaned over the side of his chair, pretending to pick up his napkin.
“Pearl, you are very sweet, ” Cameron said. “But truly. The meal is perfect, just as it is.”
Will felt a kick to his ankle and saw Pearl’s shiny black pump retreat under her chair. He jumped and knocked his head against the underside of the table leaf.
“Mr. Phillips, what is it you are doing down there that is so important? I assure you, I vacuumed earlier today.”
“The floor is spotless, as always. I don’t know why we’re even eating at the table. We should be picnicking on the oak tongue-in-groove.” He sat up and wiped his mouth with his napkin. “Found it.” He tapped his knife on the table. “You are supposed to be calling me Will, by the way. It really does make me feel more like myself.”
“I have half a mind to show you what I can do with a couple of board feet of tongue-in-groove. And you stay up in your chair now or I’ll call you worse than that.”
“Now, Pearl. We’re all happy here. Pour some of my delicious gravy on your roast and tell me what you think of it.”
Pearl took a bite of her food. “Needs salt.”
“I knew it. I never put enough salt in.” Will snapped his fingers.
“You didn’t make the gravy, Will.”
“Oh, right. I owe you one.” He grinned at Pearl and ladled gravy onto his potatoes. “Can we talk about something else now?”
(to be continued)