28 • What Would Barton Keyes Do?
Will laced his fingers behind his head and let his bent arms rest like wings against the pillow. How in the world did the conversation tonight make it all the way to Hafers in Graughton? He sighed, half smiling, half frowning, in his bed as he thought back through the unexpected path of the night at Pearl’s, from her angry towel-whipping to Joe’s surprise harmonica solo as the four of them stood on the porch saying their goodnights. “Easier to carry with me than a concertina, ” he’d said, only partially joking. And somewhere in between, there was Cameron.
He realized that at some point during the evening, Pearl’s interest in Will impressing Cameron shifted in favor of making her own impression on Joe, and he understood her ire toward him and its peculiar intensity, had something to do with this. Most nights, Pearl reveled in Will’s missteps—sometimes he suspected she even orchestrated them. She would chide him, throw up her hands in playful resignation for his date in a “Boys will be boys; Will will be Will” sort of a way. It was possible Pearl had not yet realized this about herself, but Will had seen it last year when she invited Ginger Rollins, the red haired hygienist from Dr. Mohler’s office. Will thought they were hitting it off nicely. She was laughing at his jokes, even setting him up for a good line here and there. When Ginger started feeling around at the possibility of seeing Will another time, Pearl caught on.
“Help me clear the dishes for dessert, Mr. Phillips, ” she said, then waved him off as he stood up from the table. “Oh, never mind. I forgot how you go all to pieces when you get a little something on your hands, and I’m fresh out of latex gloves. Maybe Miss Rollins could help me instead.” Will sat back down and the two went into the kitchen together. He heard Pearl talking and the two of them laughing, but couldn’t quite make out what was being said. When they came back, Pearl had a smug grin on her face and Ginger wouldn’t look at him the rest of the night.
Pearl worked her role as hard as any matchmaker ever had, but always managed to sabotage her own best work. If Will met someone, her job would be done. And worse, Will might one day move out. It was true: Pearl, in her charming and innocent style, humiliated Will time and time again in order to maintain their well-crafted way.
If Joe hadn’t been at the table tonight, she’d have been more attentive and seen what was happening between Will and Cameron—the sideways glances, the inside jokes, the way his eyes occasionally took their time around the soft curves of her tailored white blouse when she reached across to refill his water glass, and the way she thought to refill the glass as often as she did. If she’d have noticed, she would never have sent them to the store together. But she hadn’t seen. Joe was blocking her view of anyone else in the room.
Instead of the usual mischief-making over Will’s idiosyncrasies, Pearl had been genuinely embarrassed by Will, and fearful it would reflect poorly on her in Joe’s eyes. He’d never seen her like this, never been kicked and pinched under her table so many times. Will put up with the chiding in front of the candidates Pearl brought in, let her make a cartoon of him before women he didn’t really want to date anyway, because it was part of the fun he had with Pearl, sort of the Jenkins & Phillips show they’d grown comfortable with. He endured it because it was Pearl, and Will loved Pearl, and Pearl made the world’s finest apple pie.
But this felt different. Pearl was not teasing him. Will had, somehow, maybe just by showing up, humiliated her. Of course, what she was missing the whole time is that there were folks who liked Will just fine without her help. Two of them had been sitting right at the table with them all night long. Joe didn’t see Pearl through a filter of Will. He just saw Pearl. And from what Will gathered, Joe liked what he saw.
Will had no idea how he was going to fix this.
He stared at the ceiling some more.
“What would Barton Keyes do?” he asked himself aloud.
He thought a while, half dozing on his bed.
Barton Keyes would have done something long before he got himself into this predicament. He’d have put Pearl in her place years ago, wouldn’t be taking orders from an old widow living on Social Security and a measly rent check from a miserable boarder who didn’t know how to be a real man. Barton Keyes would lay it out for Pearl, let her know who was in charge, and never take another kick under the table again.
Will got up and put his shoes on. He ran his hands through his hair and tucked in the tails of his shirt. Pearl would pay no attention to him if he looked like he’d been in bed with his clothes on.
He tiptoed out to the hall, trying not to make the old floor joists creak, and stood at the top of the stairs. He leaned over the rail to listen for signs Pearl was still up. The lights were off downstairs, a blueish glow on the staircase cast from a streetlight through the stained glass.
Pearl Jenkins was in bed. It wouldn’t do to wake her for loud declarations of the Way It’s Going to Be Now. And who was he kidding anyway? He was no Barton Keyes. He wouldn’t stand up to Pearl. He had no stomach for such confrontations. Anyway, he knew how it would go. He’d gather the balls to speak his mind, tell her he wanted her to start treating him like a man and stop making a fool of him in front of her guests. She would be crestfallen, probably even tear up, and tell him how sorry she was, that she didn’t know, and say what an old fool she was. Will would feel terrible and tell her to never mind, that she was right to do it, and of course he’d just been having a bad day. Even as he’d ask Pearl to stop making him her whipping boy, he’d beat himself back into submission so she didn’t have to.
Will made a dozen such refusals of himself every day. It was simpler to have these conversations with himself than with others who only thought they understood him and what he wanted.
He walked quietly back to his room and turned off the light. “When will you learn, Phillips, ” he said to himself as he took off his shoes and dropped over on the bed. “You don’t have it in you to be that kind of man. You’re still the rosy cheeked boy with green eyes and blue eye shadow.” He pulled a pillow over his face.
(to be continued)