51 • Sleeves
Pearl had prepared a light lunch with sandwiches, her famous macaroni salad, and a fresh rhubarb pie.
“This is fantastic, ” Joe said, licking both sides of his fork after his last bite of pie. “They told me at the hospital I couldn’t eat stuff like this anymore, and look, here I am!”
“Well, the hospital was right, ” Pearl said, looking at her lap. “I just wasn’t quite ready.”
Cameron put her hand lightly on Pearl’s arm. “We should talk about that sometime. I can help you out with some ideas for what you can feed this fella.”
While they were eating, Pearl relived with great dramatic flourishes her favorite shots at the pool table, telling how her sometimes-boyfriend Jack had taught her to play since her father had forbade it, sneaking her into the billiard hall after school. She shushed Will when he tried to remind her that Joe and Cameron had made a good showing, whittling the table down to just one ball each before he took the final two shots to win the game for her. “They just got lucky, ” she said, “the same as you did when you took those fool risky shots at the end and nearly blew away all my hard, skillful work.”
When Cameron let escape a yawn and began to stretch her neck and shoulders, Will jumped out of his chair. “Well, it has certainly been a long day already. I’m sure you’re wanting to get home.”
Cameron nodded ever so slightly, glancing at Pearl from the corner of her eye.
“Let me see you out, ” he said.
“I know my way to the door. I’m good, ” she said.
“No, really. I’ll walk you.”
Cameron shrugged and excused herself, thanking Pearl for the lunch and telling Joe to let her know if there was anything at all he needed.
“Practice up while you’re here, Joe. We’re going to have a rematch soon.”
“Absolutely, ” Joe said, scraping his fork across his plate for any last tastes of pie. “You were always so good at Checkers. Not sure why you choked there at the end and let her take you.”
“Checkers?” Cameron turned back at the pantry door.
Will cupped her elbow in his hand, guiding her back to the door. “Leave it, ” he said softly.
“Of course. Checkers.”
“I do love Checkers myself, ” added Pearl, not missing a beat. “I’ll find my board and we’ll play this afternoon. I might even teach you a few things.”
“I’m quite sure you will, ” Joe said, “but I’ll warn you , I played a lot of Checkers during all those long hours at the fire station. I might actually be able to take you.”
“Looks like they’re going to do just fine together, ” Cameron chuckled and she and Will walked through the dining room toward the front door
“They are. She’ll keep him in line, that’s for sure.” Will rubbed his neck. “I’m a little worried about Joe though. First he’s breaking out of the hospital and then forgetting who we are and now the Checkers thing…”
“It’s probably nothing, Will. He’s been through a lot. Between the trauma and the meds and moving to Pearl’s house, he’s asking his mind to process quite a load. He’s just having trouble keeping up.”
“Maybe. Let’s hope you’re right.”
Cameron gave Will’s arm a little squeeze and slipped out the door. “Call me later.” She turned back at the bottom of the porch steps. “To let me know how things are going, I mean.”
“I will.” He leaned his shoulder against the door frame and watched his friend walk across the street, trying to remember when was the last time he’d had someone he’d consider to simply be a friend. Not someone he had to take care of, not someone he worked with. Just a normal person who would be a friend. He couldn’t remember anyone, with Barbara having eclipsed all his relationships when they were together, and the ghost of Barbara eclipsing them all now.
Finn was jumping up at the screen door and barking a small dog yip-bark. When Cameron opened the door and reached in to hook up his leash, Will turned back into the entry to find Pearl standing behind him.
“I’m just going to stop jumping when you make your mysterious appearances, okay? It will save us some time.”
“I sent Joe up the back way to his room to lie down. You must keep an eye on him.”
Will sighed. “You’re afraid he’ll try to make off with your silver candlestick holders?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Pearl waved him off with the back of her hand. “The silver is locked up in the chest. I mean he’s not thinking clearly. He’s completely forgotten my brilliance at billiards and thinks we played Checkers.”
“Oh, that.” Will pushed his hands into his pockets. “I know. Cameron thinks he’ll get back to himself once he’s had some rest and a chance to acclimate.”
“She might be right.” Pearl crossed her arms, rubbing a hand along her sleeve as though she were chilled. “She might be wrong.”
“Well, so you see why he needed a place to stay.”
“Oh, I didn’t doubt he needed that.” She tugged at an errant curl behind her ear. “I’ll deny it if you ever repeat me saying this, but I’m glad you brought him home.”
“I won’t test you on that.”
“No, don’t, ” Pearl said. “Anyway. You should get up there and get him settled. Tell him he should be good and take a rest and he can come down later and we’ll have tea.”
“You’ll spoil him, Pearl.”
“Spoil him nothing. If he’s going to be here he’s going to at least keep me company.”
Will smiled and leaned in to give Pearl a light kiss on the cheek. “Thank you.” He turned and jogged up the stairs two at a time, the steps creaking mournfully every time he put his weight into them.
When he poked his head into Joe’s room, the old man had his back to the door. Will knocked lightly on the maple casing and Joe turned around, buttoning a striped Oxford shirt. “Figured you’d be wanting your shirt back. I noticed you were a little reluctant to give it up.”
“Nah, it wasn’t that. It was just a little chilly in your hospital room, you know?”
“It was a little snug around my middle, anyway, ” Joe laughed, patting his belly. He picked up Will’s plaid flannel from the bed and held it out to him. “Here you go. Many thanks for saving me the embarrassment of having to go out in public in a hospital gown.”
“Well, more than once, anyway.” Joe chuckled, shaking his head. “Some strong medicine they’ve been giving me. I think it was that Myrna woman slipping me Roofies in my orange juice, hoping to take advantage of me later.”
“Myrna the nurse. I’m pretty sure that’s not her game.”
“Well, you can say that because you weren’t her love prisoner for a week. I’ve seen things no man should have to. And a few more sponge baths than were needed, if you ask me.”
“Right. Well. I didn’t ask you, now that you mention it. And I think I don’t need any more visuals I can’t unsee, so thanks.”
“Gotcha.” Joe looked around the room. “Say, where’s Emily?”
“Oh, yeah.” Will pointed out the door with a thumb over his shoulder. “She’s down the hall. Come on and I’ll show you where the bathroom is. You can bring her back.”
Joe followed Will down the hall. “So what’s really up your sleeve, Will?”
“Your sleeve. What are you hiding up there?”
Will turned into the bathroom without answering and picked up Emily’s carrier, holding it out to Joe. “Here you go. Back together again.”
Joe put his face up to the window grate. “Well, hello there. ‘Who are you? Are you nobody too?’” Emily purred inside her cage. “I’ll have you out of there in no time. And you can go prowl around looking for some hope with feathers.”
“Are you sure she won’t go downstairs?”
“She’s a good cat, Will. But who can be sure of anything?”
“Great. Well, maybe at least close your door when you go out and let’s hope she stays close when you’re here.”
“She’ll be fine. And didn’t you say Pearl was fond of Emily Dickinson?”
“Moreso than John Keats, anyway.”
Back in his room, Will slipped off his jacket and pulled his boots from his feet, letting them fall to the floor as he flopped over on his bed and pulled the blankets up to his chin. He rubbed a hand along his arm, feeling every pink and purple ridge of the scars under his fingertips as his eyes closed, hearing Barbara’s voice in the foggy background.
“Be a man for once, little Will. Show them that you are not such a girl.”
(to be continued)