42 • Favor
Will set his coffee cup on the desk and let the strap of his brown leather satchel slip off his shoulder, catching it at his elbow. He slumped into his chair, bag lying across his lap, and let his head rest against the chair back.
He couldn’t remember a single day in his career in which he had not felt eager to work. Work filled Will. It grounded him, rooted him to his place in the world unlike anything else could. But today was beginning to look like that day.
Nina needed a place to live. Pearl needed company. Joe needed a family. Cameron … Cameron didn’t seem to need anything, which seemed unfortunate. And Mad Dog—
A green tennis ball skimmed across Will’s desk and he jumped as it bounced off the wall behind his chair.
Mad Dog needed child care.
“What the hell, Mike?”
Mad Dog whistled the Rolling Stones “You can’t always get what you want, ” the song he always said should be the claim adjuster’s official theme song, as he went into his office across the hall. “Morning, Willie, ” he called, then went on singing.
But if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need.
“Good to know I can count on you, at least, ” Will said, picking up the ball and squeezing it in and out in his left palm. “What are you working on today, Mike?”
“Gotta finish up that pipe burst at the Fitz place. What a freakin’ mess. Have to drive up and meet the contractor this morning. Don’t know why. Half the thing won’t be covered anyway.”
Will plugged his laptop into the docking station on his desk as he heard the Windows startup song from Mad Dog’s computer sound the mournful end of a peaceful hour.
The chorus from Will’s machine chimed in a few bars later. He pulled Nina’s file from his bag and stared at the pages thinking about all the ways his work, even if performed impeccably, would always come up short. Nina needed what he could never write enough insurance checks to provide, and as long as she stayed with a guy like Justin, she’d never have the chance to find. He’d seen it happen before. The woman worked day after day trying to get the house rebuilt, too exhausted from juggling kids and fixing meals in a residence hotel, fighting contractors and insurance companies, she’d have nothing for her man on the few occasions when he did come looking for a little ass, so he’d find a little somewhere else. Oh, he’d keep her around long enough to get things put back together and just when she’d let out a sigh of relief that the house was ready and they could all go back home, he’d tell her he’d pay for the hotel a few more days but then she was on her own, that his new girl would be moving into the house with him.
He could see it coming with Nina. But there was no way to warn her. And maybe no need. Deep down, Will knew that she knew this, that it was just the transactional life she lived, and thanks to the fire she’d managed to purchase a few more months with Justin, which wasn’t so much a life with Justin as much as a place to live and food on the table for the kids. She would already know this and before long would begin to notice the single guy working for the contractor and would make sure Lucy Mae felt comfortable around him. Nina was a smart woman, savvy, resourceful, fierce about her kids. She would do fine, Will told himself, as he reviewed the emergency living expense provisions in the policy for the twelfth time, making sure he’d found all the possible allowances for her.
“Not that it matters, ” Will mumbled aloud. He hit the Save to Upload button on his report. “Claim checks make terrible bandages for flesh wounds.”
He leaned back in his chair and put his feet on the desk as the report left his screen to embark on its instantaneous journey through cyberspace to the insurance company rep’s desktop 726 miles away. He picked up the tennis ball and tossed it toward the suspended ceiling panels, trying to hit an old water stain directly above his head. He pondered his next project for the day.
Instinctively, he picked up his phone. It rang a second later.
“Phillips, ” he answered as he tapped the green phone icon.
He sat up. “You’re releasing him today? Isn’t that a little soon?”
Will switched the phone to his other ear. “Well, yeah, sure. Medicare. But still.”
He paused. “But he can’t take care of himself. He lives alone for crying out loud.”
Will’s face reddened and he stood up from his chair. “Look. I don’t care what his paperwork says. I barely know the man. I’m not his legal guardian.”
Fists clenched, Will listened a while longer, mumbled “Very well, ” and hung up.
He walked to his office door, closed it softly and let his forehead fall against it, standing still for several minutes. Mad Dog was still whistling in his office.
Will finally turned, facing into his office leaning his shoulders on the door. With a heavy sigh, he dialed Pearl’s number.
“Oh, good, you’re home. Mind if I stop by for a minute? I have a big favor to ask of you.”
The phone call would give Pearl a few minutes to imagine the most outlandish thing Will might ask her to do, which would in turn make the favor he would in fact ask seem small, even trivial in comparison.
When he got to the house, he tapped lightly on the screen door and stepped into the back entry without waiting for her to answer. “Pearl?” he called into the kitchen, peering around the corner.
Pearl was at the sink, drying her hands on a colorful towel. “What’s your big favor? If you need to be late on your rent again—”
“No, no. My rent will be on time, ” Will said. “And I’ve never been late a single month, by the way.” He pointed at the table. “Listen, can we sit a minute?”
“You look very serious, Mr. Phillips. Yes, let’s sit.”
Will pulled a chair for Pearl and sat across the table from her. “You remember my friend Joe?”
“Do I remember? I’m old, Mr. Phillips, but I can remember a man you brought to dinner three nights ago.”
“Great. Well, he’s doing alright now—”
“Were we worried he wasn’t doing well after dinner? If there’s anyone we should have been worried about after that fiasco I think it would be me—”
“No, no. Dinner was fine. Of course. Listen, he had a slight heart attack—”
“Oh dear. Is he—”
“He’s okay, like I said. His neighbor Midge found him. Spent the night in the hospital. ”
“That Midge sure seems to keep an eye on him, ” Pearl said. “I think she’s a little sweet on him.”
Will opened his mouth to answer and closed it, tipping his head slightly. “Um, okay. Anyway. Cameron and I were at the hospital with him most of the night. Now they want to release him.”
“That’s wonderful he’s doing so well so quickly.”
“Sure. Wonderful, ” Will said, rubbing the back of his neck. “They’re releasing him to me. He needs home care. He can’t stay alone.”
“Releasing him to you?” Pearl’s eyebrows nearly reached her silver hairline. “Why on earth would they release him to you? You barely know him. And you couldn’t take care of a goldfish. I’m sure Midge will be sore.”
“It’s a long story.”
“You’ll tell it to me? I do love your stories.”
“Yeah, I’ll tell you. You’ll especially love this one. Could think of it as payback for the dinner guest stunt.”
“Payback stories. Better yet.”
“The best. Anyway. About the favor. Can I bring Joe here?”
“Here? To my house? Why in the world would you think to bring him here?”
“Well, I can’t move up there. I have a business to run. You have plenty of rooms upstairs. I thought if I could bring him here, well, you could kind of keep an eye on him during the day.”
Pearl pushed her chair back slightly. “You would like me to keep an eye on your new friend all day while you go to work?”
“It would only be a couple of days, Pearl. Until he gets his legs back under him. He’s a good guy. You enjoyed his company. You could reminisce about all those summers you didn’t know you were together.”
“It isn’t enough that you get yourself into these predicaments, but you have to drag me into them as well.”
“Gosh, Pearl. You make it sound like I do this all the time.”
“Remember those chickens you ‘rescued’ from the side of the road and I had to babysit while you tried to find a farm to take them?”
“Comparing a grown man to chicken-sitting?” Will asked with his impish grin. “I’m surprised at you.”
“And how about the time you volunteered to bring sandwiches for the Rotary Club fundraiser and then had to leave town all of a sudden because of some cyclone somewhere and I had to make 50 sandwiches in two hours?”
“We don’t have cyclones around here, Pearl. It was a flash flood and a very nice family whose house washed out. I had to go.”
“Cyclone. Flash flood. Same difference.”
“And I didn’t even ask you. You volunteered. And you had two days notice but made the sandwiches all in two hours because you are just that good.”
“Why thank you, Mr. Phillips.” Pearl smiled and sipped from her teacup. “But flattery won’t help you this time. After that stray kitten, I am immune to your emergencies. I will not be conscripted into your old man project.”
“Can you promise not to tell anyone these stories? I have a reputation, you know, ” Will said.
“Of course I would never tell them. I have my own reputation to take care of.”
“Good. Let’s seal that pact with this one last favor, ” Will smiled, putting out his hand. “For Joe’s sake.”
Pearl held her teacup to her lips and stared at Will over the top.
“Fine.” Pearl set her cup back on the saucer, nudging it into the saucer’s depression with the bend of her middle finger. Arthritis had extracted a high price from Pearl’s hands, wide knuckles loudly punctuating otherwise slender, delicate hands. Will wondered how long since the fingers of a tender lover had laced between hers and when her skin, despite its loosening and translucent thinning had been touched beyond the requisite poking and palpating of the physician or the accidental brushing up against of the embarrassed 16-year-old bag boy at the grocery. To live in measure with one’s age must surely not mean one day out of nowhere casting off its innate desire for the feel of another’s skin.
“It’s settled, then.” Will returned Pearl’s steely glare with his boyish smile and squeezed her hand gently. “I’ll get his room ready.”
Pearl didn’t move. It was possible she hadn’t blinked in a full three minutes.
“It’ll be fun. You’ll see.”
From Pearl, nothing.
Will pushed back his chair and stood. He smoothed the front of his jeans and slid his hands into his pockets.
“Okay then. I’ll be going, I guess.”
He headed toward the servant stairway and reached for the door knob.
“Go up the front stairs, Mr. Phillips. You’ll need fresh sheets for the bed from the closet in the hall.”
Pivoting on one foot, Will leaned over and gave the still motionless Pearl Jenkins a light kiss on the cheek and called out a quick “Thank you!” as he hurried through the butler’s pantry toward the front of the house.
Pearl had enough sets of sheets, crisply folded and neatly stacked in the hall closet, to supply an army barracks. Dishes clanked together in the kitchen and the sound of Pearl’s whistling carried through the dining room into the hall.
“Damn, she’s good, ” Will said as he clicked the closet door closed, faded green linens tucked under his arm.
She’d done it, that Pearl. By making him fight to bring Joe home and letting him think he’d beat her in the game, Pearl made him unwittingly eager to take on this challenge and care for his guest.
“So damn good.”
(to be continued)