25 • Conversation
Pearl sipped her ice water and scowled at Will over the top of the glass. She turned to Cameron and smiled.
Will looked away. “Believe it or not, Joe is from Chicago too, isn’t that right Joe?”
“But you’re not from Chicago, Mr. Phillips, ” Pearl corrected him before Joe could answer. “You’re from Naperville. That’s 30 miles away. You don’t hear people from Longville saying they are from Dennison.”
“True, but Naperville is pretty much Chicago. Same difference, ” Will said. “And, it’s Will.”
“Same difference, Mr. Phillips, ” Pearl said, raising an eyebrow. “And what a ridiculous expression. Mr. Murphy, are you actually from Chicago, or do you just go around saying you are to show off, like Mr. Phillips here?”
Joe laughed and set down his fork. “You have a delightfully sharp wit, Pearl. I imagine not everyone can stay ahead of our friend Will.” He clapped Will on the shoulder. “I’m from actual Chicago. The real deal. My parents and my brother and I lived in a walk-up flat in Logan Square–that’s a neighborhood, not another city like Naperville–between Logan and Diversey with my parents and one brother. Married my high school sweetheart and we lived six blocks from my parents. Stayed there until I retired.”
“And what work did you retire from, Mr. Murphy?” Pearl’s expression softened and she set her glass down.
“Please, I don’t want to add to the fun between you and Will, but it’s Joe. I’d sure love it if that’s what you called me.” He smiled at Pearl, then looked at his lap and fingered the stitching along the edge of the white linen napkin. “I was a firefighter. 47 years.”
“You must have seen a lot of excitement serving on the Chicago fire department, ” Cameron said. “What made you move out here?”
“My wife.” Joe looked up. “Her grandparents lived here and she loved to visit when she was a girl. She was enamored with Main Streets and county fairs. She’d lived her whole life in the city, but she wasn’t built for it. Before she’d agree to marry me, I had to promise one day we’d live here.”
Joe looked over at Will and his eyes filled. Will nodded almost imperceptibly. “Hey, old man. If you’re done with the mashed potatoes, why don’t you pass them over here.”
“It’s possible I’m just not done with them.” Joe winked.
“Goodnight nurse!” Pearl kicked Will under the table again, hard. He stifled a groan and shifted in his seat, reaching a hand down to rub his shin. “I am so sorry, Mr. Murph–Joe. I have been trying for years to teach Mr. Phillips some semblance of good manners. I’ve decided tonight it is beyond hope. From now on, I’m going to set him a place in the kitchen while the grownups dine in peace out here.”
Pearl glared at Will and snatched the gravy boat from his hands. He shrugged. Cameron held back a smile and reached for the salad.
“Oh dear. It’s not as bad as all that, ” Joe said, chuckling. “He does mean well.”
“Really, Pearl. Joe’s right. It’s part of why you find me so charming.”
“It shouldn’t surprise me at all that the two of you would stick together.” Pearl pushed her chair back from the table and picked up the water pitcher, which was nearly full. “I’m going to get some water.”
Will looked at Cameron and nodded slightly toward Pearl. Cameron slid her chair out and stood. “I’ll help you.”
Joe and Will half stood as the women got up, then settled back into their chairs. Cameron followed Pearl into the kitchen.
Pearl set the pitcher down hard on the counter.
“Is everything okay?”
“Oh, this dinner is just not going right at all. Between Will inviting his friend and not telling me you’d rather have chicken, and now his dreadful table manners. I don’t understand how it is I haven’t already strangled him. It’s probably good I can’t make it up the stairs to his bedroom anymore. He is incorrigible.”
Cameron put an arm on Pearl’s shoulder. “He means well, Pearl.”
“Why does everyone say that about him? And why can’t someone who means so well not ever get it right?”
“They’re boys. Sure, they look like men. They’re old enough to be men. But look hard at them, Pearl. They’re boys, through and through. Look, I think Will really likes Joe, and I think he really wants you to like him too. He’s just trying too hard.”
“Well, he could have at least told me about his cockamamie scheme before the man showed up at my door. I planned this dinner to help him out and this is how he thanks me.”
Cameron smoothed the front of her sweater. “If I could say so, Pearl, I think you might be trying a little too hard too.”
Pearl looked up. “What?”
“You want him on his best behavior so he’ll make a good impression on me. But it won’t matter. Will on his best behavior won’t impress me.”
“Oh, I see.” Pearl looked at the floor and her shoulders drooped. “I’m very sorry to have put you through this dinner tonight if you already knew you didn’t care for him. How very awkward for you. He’ll be humiliated, of course. And angry at me for it.”
“Pearl, stop. That’s not what I meant. I enjoy Will’s company just fine. He’s funny, smart. And he covers it pretty well but he has a sensitivity that intrigues me. I just mean that I’d rather he wasn’t on his best behavior. I think we’d all enjoy the night more if he could just act like himself.”
Pearl smiled and grabbed Cameron’s hand. “You like Will. You’ll go out with him.” Pearl did a spin on one foot and had to catch the counter to get her balance. “This is so exciting. I’ve never gotten this far with Will before.”
“You are very sweet, Pearl, ” Cameron said. “But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I don’t need Will to impress me, but that doesn’t mean I’m ready to date him. Or that he’s ready to date me.”
Pearl stood still and smiled. “Good enough for me, Dear.” She picked up the water pitcher and handed it to Cameron. “Here. Pretend to fill it for a minute. I’m going back in.”
There was a new bounce in Pearl’s step as she walked toward the butler’s pantry. “I finally picked a good one, ” she said, rubbing her hands together, then pushed the door open and walked through with her head held high.
Cameron leaned against the counter and sighed. “It doesn’t mean I’m ready to date anyone, Pearl.”
“I’m so sorry about that, ” Pearl said as she took her seat at the table. She smiled wide. “We were out of water. Cameron’s bringing it. What else can I get you, Joe?”
“I’m just fine, Pearl, ” Joe said, placing a hand on his round middle. “Can’t tell you how long it’s been since I’ve had true home cooking. I’m stuffed.”
“You left room for pie, didn’t you, Joe?” Cameron set the pitcher on the table and sat down. “I saw a gorgeous apple pie on the counter. I think it’s still warm.”
“My grandmother’s recipe, ” Pearl beamed. “And yes, it’s still warm.”
“I’ll make room, ” Joe laughed. “It’s not right for a man to turn down a still-warm apple pie from a beautiful woman.”
Will looked at Joe and cocked his head.
“That’s right, Will, ” Pearl said. “You better have saved room too. You heard what Joe said about the pie baked by a beautiful woman.” She tucked a curl behind her ear.
Will moved his legs to the other side of his chair, just in case. “Of course I have room. You took the potatoes and gravy away from me.”
Pearl smiled and said nothing. Will turned to Cameron and Joe. “It’s because of the pie, you know. A lot of guys think I live here because of the rent, but I could find cheaper rooms. It’s really just the pie. Warm from the oven, melting ice cream slowly trickling down the sides. You will never–”
“Pearl?” Will asked. “I didn’t mean anything about the cheap room. It was a joke.”
“No, ” Pearl said, putting her face in her hands. “It’s not your dumb joke.” She looked up at Will. “Though, thank you for what you said about my pie.” She put her face back into her hands. “I forgot the ice cream. As good as my pie is, it’s not the same without.”
Joe scooted his chair back. “I’d be happy to run out for some. It’d only take a minute.”
“Great idea, but I’ll go, ” Will said. “You are our guest. Look, you kids all stay here and psychoanalyze me. I’ll be back before you have the coffee ready.”
“This is so embarrassing, ” Pearl stood at the table. “Let me get my purse.”
“Sit, Pearl, ” Will said. Pearl glared. “Sorry. Sit please. Let me do this. I want to.” Will smiled and walked out.
She picked up the mashed potato bowl. “I may as well clear dishes while we wait.”
“I’ll help you, ” Cameron said, getting up.
“Oh, no dear, ” Pearl said, waving her off. “Wait. I have a better idea. Run out the back and go with Mr. Phillips.”
Cameron shook her head. “Oh, he’ll be fine. He can manage ice cream, I’m sure. Let me help you with the table.”
“No, really. Go with him. No doubt he’ll do fine with the ice cream but I’d just like you to go along.” Pearl bumped the pantry door open with her hip and hurried into the kitchen to the back door. She stood on the porch and waved to Will, who was backing out of the gravel driveway into the alley. He rolled down his window.
“What is it, Pearl? You want Rocky Road instead of vanilla?”
“Wait a minute, Cameron would like to go with you.” She turned back to open the porch door. “Come on, Dear. He’s waiting for you.”
Cameron stepped outside. Pearl gave her a light push on the backside, but Cameron didn’t miss a beat. “We’ll be right back now, ” she said. “You and Mr. Murphy had better be on your best behavior.”
“Oh, heavens, Cameron. I hardly know the man. Now get going before the pie cools.”
(to be continued)