43 • Rings
Upstairs, Will felt along the top of the cherry door frame of the adjacent bedroom for a slender skeleton key and played it into the lock. The antique crystal knob turned easily and the door creaked open.
Sunlight poured in through the bay window, laying softly across the furnishings, which were covered in white sheets. The doors, windows and wainscot paneling were finished with a light birds-eye maple. A brass chandelier hung from the ceiling which was covered in embossed tin painted a faded rose. The plush burgundy carpet showed little sign of wear. The room was exquisite, with fine art hanging on the walls and an antique phonograph in the corner.
Will stood in the doorway, arms folded across his chest and took in the richness, only once glancing toward his own room which now felt like an episode of Gilligan’s Island in black and white on an old console television with rabbit ears antennae next to an Imax 3-D movie tour of Buckingham Palace.
“Pearl?” he called, without realizing he’d meant to speak.
“Yes, Mr. Phillips?”
Pearl’s voice was soft, and Will could have sworn it came from just behind him, not from the kitchen where he’d left Pearl sipping self-satisfaction from her teacup. Her voice didn’t even sound like it came from the base of the stairs, the closest Pearl had come to Will’s second floor existence in a couple of years.
“Pearl?” Will said again, this time realizing it. He didn’t move.
“What is it?” Pearl asked, still softly.
Will turned around slowly. Pearl stood on the landing, holding the railing while red and blue and green light circles from the stained glass surrounded her tan orthopedic shoes laced up over compression hose.
“Holy shit, Pearl—”
“Language, Mr. Phillips.” Pearl smiled.
“I think I’m entitled.”
“I think you’re not. Do you have a chair for a lady?”
Will threw the sheets into the room toward the bed.
“Yes, I do. Hang on.” He darted into his room, then put his head back into the doorway. “Don’t go anywhere.”
“Nowhere to go.”
“Do I need to get two rooms ready so you can stay up here now?” He came out carrying a small wooden side chair. “Or were you thinking I would carry you back down the stairs when you’re done checking my hospital corners on Joe’s bed?”
Pearl held Will’s arm as she sat down. “I think I surprised us both, Mr. Phillips. I just have to take my time.”
Will leaned against the cast iron radiator on the landing outside his room.
“So. What are you doing up here?”
“I wanted to make sure the room was okay.”
“You don’t think I could handle that?”
Pearl looked towards Will’s room. “Well, it’s not that . . .”
Will chuckled. “Alright. Point taken. In my defense, I don’t have a lot to work with in there.”
Her eyes went to the floor, then up to the room Will had opened. Pushing into wooden chair, she raised herself to her feet. Will stepped quickly and offered an arm, letting Pearl lead them into the vacant bedroom.
She stood silent just inside the door a moment, then lifted the cloth from the dresser, rubbing her palm over the smooth top. She pushed the fabric further back and traced her index finger along the shape of a heart carved into the wood, the letters P.B. and D.J. on either side. She tugged at Will’s arm and pointed at the blemish of teenage romance. “I caught heck from my daddy for that one.”
Will whistled low and shook his head. “Look at that, will you. He took you out behind the woodshed for it, so to speak?”
“No, he didn’t lay a finger on me. Didn’t even raise his voice. Daddy took me to the mill and showed me slices of trees. He taught me how to count the dark rings to figure the age, and then she showed me how the rings tell the tree’s story—how you could tell if there had been a drought because the rings got thinner and closer together for a few years. And sometimes, if the rings were thicker on one side than the other, he called it “reaction wood, ” when a tree would balance itself out if something was pushing on one side, growing thicker on the other side to support it.”
Pearl pulled the dusty cloth toward herself to cover the carving back up. “He showed me a dark lesion between the rings of one and said, ‘Look here. This is where the tree was wounded in a forest fire.’ The tree grew back over the scar, but it was still there, part of the tree where nobody saw it.” She patted the dresser with an open palm. “I told him the wood on the dresser was dead, that it would never grow back over the carving. ‘That’s right, ’ he said and drove me back home and told me to help my mother fix dinner.
She smiled. “I only went out with that damned Dickie Jacobs—”
“Language, ” Will said.
“I’m entitled. I only went out with him twice before he dumped me for that perky little Bridgitte. I’m still stuck with him and his scars.”
“So why haven’t you ever refinished the dresser now that it’s yours?”
“Mine?” Pearl looked up at Will. “Oh, no. It’s not mine. It’s still my daddy’s. And my daddy taught long lessons.”
She pointed at the sheets piled on the floor. “Let’s get the bed made for your friend.”
* * *
“Take a drive with me?”
Cameron fitted her Bluetooth into her ear. “Do we not say “Hello, this is so-and-so” when we call anymore?”
“I’m not so-and-so. And we have caller ID. You knew it was me when you picked up.”
“Try again, ” Cameron said, and tapped the red End button on her phone.
Will sat at one of the two stoplights in town staring at his phone in his palm.
0 minutes 17 seconds
The screen went dark, leaving him with his mouth hanging open.
The light changed and Will didn’t move. After a few moments a tap to his side window jarred him and he turned.
“Mind moving along, Phillips?” Jeb Weigel stood at his window, laughing. “Light changed two minutes ago.”
Will smiled and put up his hands apologetically, then pulled ahead. He’d never gotten used to this part of the small town way, how drivers only used their horns to say hello to a pedestrian or passing motorist, not to express anger or warnings or motivate another driver to action like on the streets of Chicago when honking was like breathing. He figured he’d lost days of his life to the cumulative minutes spent at an uncontrolled intersection, each driver waving the other on and nobody driving forward.
Jeb Weigel was visible in the rearview mirror as he got back into his pickup as Will cleared the intersection. He tapped his phone to redial Cameron.
“May I speak to Cameron Julian, please.”
“Hi Will. It’s me.”
“Ms. Julian, this is William Phillips speaking.”
“I know. What’s up?”
“I wonder if I might enjoy the pleasure or your company for a drive this evening.”
“Enough now. Stop.”
“As you wish.”
“Go for a drive? Tell me you aren’t wanting me to go look at crops with you.”
“Crops? Of course not, ” Will said. “It’s only May. There’s not much to look at. But we can go out and do that some Sunday in July.”
“Oh, great. I can’t wait.”
“Listen, go with me to pick up Joe. Pearl says he can stay with us.”
“Wait. Pick him up? He’s staying with you? What’s going on?”
“Yeah, they want to release him but he has to be in my care. This next of kin stuff is total bullshit.”
“You’re moving him in with you and Pearl? She’s okay with this?”
“She’ll never say it out loud, but she wanted it. Part of her mission to civilize me. And part of her little crush on Joe.”
“So I’m supposed to spend another night at the hospital with you and Joe? I’m exhausted, Will.”
“Oh. Yeah. Of course you are. I just … uh … thought.” Will was silent. “Hey, never mind. I’m sorry. I’ll go get him, but maybe you’d stop over sometime while he’s with us? I’m sure he’ll get a little bored with us and away from his house.”
“I’m sorry, Will. I didn’t mean—”
“No big deal, Cameron. This isn’t your thing anyway. I shouldn’t be dragging you into it.”
“Stop talking, would you? I wasn’t saying I wouldn’t go. You just surprised me that he’s getting out already and that he’s coming here.”
“Yeah, I’m still a little surprised myself… At all of it.”
“Pick me up in an hour?”
(to be continued)