30 • Questions
Will woke early but stayed in bed much longer than usual the next morning. Most Saturdays he went to the bakery with the guys and played dice over a fried cinnamon twist and a cup of coffee. His whole body ached in what he liked to call a “Barbara Hangover” and he didn’t want to see or talk to anyone. Around 9:00 he heard Pearl downstairs and remembered the cigarette in the flowers. He rethought his cavalier ideas about upsetting her and got out of bed, pulled on his jeans and hustled out the back way. He dug around in the peony bush under the stairs and found the cigarette butt. He glanced up at the kitchen window to make sure Pearl wasn’t standing at the sink, then went to the bushes to find his phone. The low battery light was flashing. When he lit up the home screen, he saw a missed call.
“Uhhn, Barbara!” he groaned and he jerked his hand to get away from the phone, tossing it back into the shrubbery.
He took a step back. “No way. She didn’t call back. She wouldn’t. Ever.” Will put his hands in his pockets and stood facing the bushes. He contemplated walking away and leaving the phone, chalking it up to a “mysterious disappearance” and getting a replacement through his phone’s insurance plan.
Why in the name of all that’s holy does that woman have to shake her rugs every single morning? Will did not turn around.
“Tell me you are not relieving yourself into my boxwood.” Pearl’s heels clomped down the cedar porch steps.
He shrugged his shoulders.
Will turned. “For heaven’s sake, Pearl. I know you think I am a complete savage after last night, but please. I would never do that. Not in town.”
“I am sorry, Mr. Phillips. It just looked like— Oh, never mind. Do you want to come in for coffee? I have fresh Danish from the bakery.”
“I don’t think I do, ” Will said, surprising himself and Pearl with his quick certitude. “Thank you, though. There’s something I need to accomplish. Maybe I’ll stop later this afternoon.”
“Alright then, ” Pearl said softly. She picked up her rugs and went back inside.
Will turned back to the bushes and reached in for his phone. He pushed it into his back pocket and returned to the stairs, walking quickly on his toes, stray bits of gravel in the grass poking into his bare feet.
He stopped in the small kitchenette upstairs for a glass of water and took three ibuprofen tablets before he went back to his room to lie down. He pulled the phone from his jeans and held it upright on his chest. The small blue alert flashed on and off above the darkened screen, like Barbara’s eye winking, teasing, inviting, mocking, first alternating and then at once, all of them together until finally he had to know. He wouldn’t call her back, no. Of course not. He just wanted to know how long she waited to call him back. He opened the home screen. One missed call. No voice message. He held his finger over the call log icon. “You are not calling her back, Phillips. Not.”
At last he pressed the little picture of a clipboard and brought up his call log. He blinked and swallowed hard.
There it was.
11:23 p.m. 605-549-0628 JOE MURPHY
Will sat up and rested on his elbow as though it would help him see his phone more clearly. “What the hell.”
He released a sigh of relief that Barbara hadn’t called, but then felt his ears heat up because Barbara hadn’t called. How could she be so small? He felt relief that Joe must be okay, then shook his head in irritation that Joe had called so late.
“Pick one, Phillips. Pick one feeling and just go with it for five minutes. Otherwise, let the whole thing go.” Will plugged the phone in and set it on the nightstand. “I don’t really want any of them, thanks.”
He pulled the blanket to his chin, turned to his side and fell asleep.
About an hour later, his phone jarred him from deep sleep. He rolled over and grabbed it without opening his eyes. “Look, Barbara, I didn’t call. Not really. My phone butt dialed. It does that. I need a new phone. I promise, it won’t happen—”
“Will? Is everything okay?” Joe interrupted Will’s sleep-addled Barbara raving.
“Huh, wha-? Joe? Geez. Sorry, man. I was asleep.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“You didn’t. I was sleeping. Yesterday, I mean. Today I was awake. Already.” He rubbed a hand across his face and sat up. “Joe? Did I call you?”
“Last night, Will.” Joe chuckled. “I called you back, but you didn’t pick up. Probably sleeping already.”
“Or in the bushes.”
“Nothing. Never mind. Everything okay with you, Joe? You didn’t answer when I called last night and I thought you’d have been home.”
“The craziest thing happened. Freakish. If I were a betting man, I couldn’t get these odds.”
“You’re not going to believe this. I got out of my car last night, turned to close the door, and got nailed right in the middle of the face with a baseball.”
“Holy shit, Joe! Are you okay?”
“Fine, I’m fine. There’s a baseball diamond to the west of my place. You know it? Of course you do. You’ve been here. The American Legion team was having batting practice when I got home, and one of those kids hit the most beautiful line drive—well, I’m told it was beautiful. I guess I can’t really say for sure. Ball came over the fence and Boom! Dropped me straight to my knees.”
“What did you do?”
“Well, fortunately, Midge was out. You know, my neighbor. The dancer, remember? She was working out some new moves on her porch (you must see her sometime) and she saw the whole thing. She rushed over (I think she has a thing for me) and took me to the emergency room. There was a lot of blood. I almost fainted. But it’s all pretty good now. My glasses are bent sideways and I have a fantastic shiner. Slightly displaced fracture of the nose, they say, so I guess I’ll be smelling sideways for a while.”
“Damn. I’m really sorry to hear that.”
“Oh, it’s fine. Could have been much worse. Figure there’s not much margin for error when you’re talking about a head, so an inch or two to the right or left and I’ve got a fractured orbit or fall down dead.”
“Guess we should’ve let you play that last verse on the harmonica like you wanted. Could have missed the whole thing.”
“Nah. Consider myself lucky. Going to buy a lottery ticket today, see if I can’t milk this good fortune a little longer.”
“Buy me one too. I could use a change of luck today.”
“Will do, Will. Say, did you need something when you called?”
“Last night. I tried to answer from the ER but Midge took my phone away and made me lie down on the exam table. ‘I used to be a nurse, ’ she kept telling me. She just wanted me lying down, I think.”
“Oh, right. Yeah. I called last night.” Will laid back down on his pillow and rested his arm across his eyes. “Nothing, Joe. Just wanted to make sure you got home alright.”
“Sure that’s all it was?” Joe asked. “You don’t seem like the kind of guy that is always checking after things.”
“Heh. You’re right about that. Figure most things will tell you if they need something. You just have to be paying attention to catch it.” Will looked out the window. “Archie tells you things without saying them, right?”
“Oh, sure. He scratches at the front door with his left paw when he has to go. But—you’ll like this—when he wants to go check for squirrels, ” Joe said, “he scratches with his right.”
“Somehow that doesn’t surprise me.”
“So then, Will. What were you calling about last night? Were you scratching with your left paw or your right?”
“Ah, ” Will chuckled, his voice flat. “You’re good at this.”
“Nah, just a lucky guess. What’s a guy who spends most days in his house with a dog, a handful of cats and a lot of dust know about how people think?”
“I don’t know what I wanted, Joe.” Will closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose between the index and thumb of his right hand. He knew Joe would believe that he did know, and Will suspected he would be right. But there are things a guy can know, and then there are the things a guy can name. He figured Joe would understand this as well.
“You don’t know, Will?” Joe asked. “Or you can’t name it yet?”
Will smiled a half smile, on just one side of his face. He was right about Joe. “Yet, ” he said. “You’re a hopeful guy.”
“The naming will come. That’s why you need to keep reading the poets. For centuries they’ve been the ones finding names for things that have none.”
“You sound a little like Rushdie, my friend.”
“Keep reading, Will. Maybe you’ll even write some of those names down yourself.”
Will laughed. “I’ve never had a customer quite like you, you know?”
“Notice how you didn’t tell me No?”
“You’re a hard man to say No to.”
“I wonder if you know why you came out here.”
“I came out to handle your claim, Joe.”
“No, not to my house, though you did a fine job with that. I got a check from the insurance company this morning, ” Joe said. “I’m talking about coming out here to the Dakotas. I came for my wife, too late for her to appreciate it. Been here ever since to make it up to her. I wonder if you know why you came. And why you stay.”
“Why’d you leave Chicago, Will?”
“Damn, Joe. Don’t beat around the bush. Just go ahead and ask me what you want to know.”
“You don’t have to answer, Will. I don’t actually need to know. I have this hunch, though, that you do.”
Will sighed again and ran his hands through his hair. He needed a haircut. Something shorter. More definitive.
“Let me ask it a different way. Did you leave Chicago, or come to Dennison?”
“You’re going to play semantics now?” Will’s tone tightened, a mild irritation evident that he hadn’t felt before toward his friend. “I did both, obviously. I am not there; I am here.”
Joe chuckled. “Easy, boy. Like I said, I don’t need an answer, but I think you need the question. Seems to me most times when folks get a new place to live they are either moving toward something or away from something else. And it also seems to me that more often than not, it’s the escape that is the bigger draw than the new opportunity. You see what I’m saying?”
“So which was it for you? Did you leave Chicago, or did you come to South Dakota?”