57 • The Call
“Did you go to work with Mr. Phillips today, Mr. Murphy?”
“That I did.” Joe slid Pearl’s chair out and waited for her to sit and scoot forward before taking his own seat at the dining room table. “Did we not get rid of that pesky Mister business the last time I was here?”
Pearl dipped her head and blinked, unfolding her linen napkin and laying it across her lap. “Of course we did. These old habits, you know.”
“They are harder to lick the older we get.” Joe shook out his napkin and tucked it under his chin. Pearl’s eyes widened and she opened her mouth to protest when Will gently set his hand on top of hers.
“He’s not me, ” he murmured.
Pearl closed her mouth into a tight smile. “Yes. Yes they are.”
Will lifted his hand and laid his own napkin across his lap. “Joe was a great help today, in fact.”
“Is that right? Do tell me what you did, Joe. And promise me you weren’t following Mr. Phillips around on some high roof.” Pearl spooned a serving of hotdish and reached for Joe’s plate. “I might just have my own little heart attack.”
Joe laughed and held out his plate. “There’s a reason I retired from the fire department. I like to stay on the ground these days.” He stirred his fork around the steaming casserole on his plate. “You could say going to work with Will is a little like going to Happy Hour at the bar.”
“Oh?” Pearl raised an eyebrow.
“Not every day is like that, Joe.” Will handed Pearl his plate. “I had to go take care of a semi load of beer that overturned on the highway.”
“You were there?” Pearl tapped the serving spoon against Will’s plate to empty it. “Enid Blomgren told us about it at coffee this afternoon. We thought it would be fun to bring out our patio chairs with some pretzels and peanuts.”
“That’s what was missing!” Joe pulled up his napkin and wiped his mouth. “Pretzels.”
Will shot a look at Joe.
“You don’t mean — ” Pearl held the serving spoon over her own plate.
“I just mean if a guy — or lady — is going to go out to a big beer spill, he — or she — should have some pretzels.”
“But you didn’t — ”
“Oh, my stars. Can you imagine someone who just got out of the hospital sitting on a keg in the middle of the highway drinking a beer? Without pretzels?” Joe grinned and reached for the green beans.
Pearl stared at Joe. “No, of course not. I cannot imagine anything quite so foolish.” Her eyes narrowed. “And of course, Mr. Phillips would never have allowed something like that on his watch.”
“Yes. Your Mr. Phillips takes his responsibilities very seriously.”
Will straightened in his chair. “Pass me the beans, Joe?”
Pearl looked back and forth between the two men at her table. Will wondered if the whiff of mischief she’d picked up was tainted with barley and hops.
“I am going to be outnumbered here for a while, am I not?” she said.
“You could always invite that nice Ms. Julian over to balance things out.”
Will glared at Joe. Pearl turned and gestured toward Joe with her fork. “You’re exactly right about that.”
“I don’t think you need to worry about being outnumbered, Pearl. Joe looks to be a free agent.”
“Come on, Will. You’re the only one who doesn’t want to see what there is to see. Even Midge could see it when we went to pick up Emily.”
“Emily?” Pearl cocked her head. “Who is Emily?”
Will leaned his head back and closed his eyes, quietly wishing for a return to the less complicated life of just days ago when his biggest concern was whether Mad Dog would sit at his desk and write on his tablet.
“Emily Dickinson, of course, ” Joe answered, not missing a beat. “We stopped at my house for a few things — especially for my toothbrush. I just did not like the one they gave me at the hospital. And I grabbed my copy of The Poems of Emily Dickinson.”
“I love Emily Dickinson. You will bring it to read after Checkers tonight?”
“I’d be delighted.” Joe pulled his napkin from his shirt and wiped his lips. “I’ll read the one about the wing with feathers.”
Will looked up from his plate where he’d been studying the scattering of fennel seeds in the hotdish. “Wing with feathers?”
“Thing. The thing with feathers.” Joe wiggled his finger in his ear and pointed at Will with an impish grin.”
“Seems I’m going to need Cameron here after all, ” Will said under his breath.
“What was that, Mr. Phillips?”
“Oh, nothing. Just remembering I need to make a call.”
“Well, if you mean you need to call Ms. Julian, there’s no need.”
Will’s fork froze midway to his mouth. He looked from Pearl to Joe and back again to Pearl.
“No … need? What does that mean?”
“I already called her. Mr. Murph— I mean, Joe—thought it would be nice if she came by tonight.”
“And when exactly did we find time for this conversation?”
“When you boys came down to help me with dinner, of course. Don’t you remember?” Pearl reached for the pitcher, condensation droplets trickling down the narrow grooves of the hand-cut lily design in the crystal. Will studied her small mouth as she formed words, and watched as she pressed her lips into a small smile. He saw less of the petty smirk he wanted to convince himself was there and more of a sincerity, even kindness, than he’d been able to easily attribute to Pearl as of late. It felt like ages since she’d caught him on the back stairs in his boxers and invited him in for coffee and a good story. But how long had it really been since his life complicated itself — no, since Joe complicated it, and since Cameron. Just days? Maybe weeks? He’d invited none of this upon himself and yet here it was. And now here was Pearl, not whisking towels or brandishing knives, but just being kind, even if her kindness further complicated his life.
“I don’t remember that conversation, no, ” he said, finally, lifting the pitcher from Pearl’s hands and tipping it to fill her glass with ice water.
“Oh, that’s right. You had to step out for a few minutes.”
“You sent me to the store for a head of lettuce. Which I see you didn’t use.”
“Well, by the time you got back everything was ready to go on the table so I skipped the salad.”
Joe cleared his throat and tapped his sternum with his knuckles. “Maybe I should have a little of that water over here.”
Pearl had no plans for a salad, of course. Her kitchen protocols were far more orderly than would allow for a last-minute salad, even with her new-found dreams of plant-based eating grandeur. He’d been played, again, by Pearl’s unending, meddling kindness.
“You sent me to the store so you could talk about Cameron and me?”
“Oh, heavens no, Mr. Phillips. Everything needn’t always be about you, you know.” She fanned her fingers to wave him off and took a sip from her glass. The ice cubes clinked as she set the glass back down. “Mr. Murph — Joe — one day I am going to get that right. Joe wanted a moment alone.”
“Exactly. He’d been dogging me to call Cameron before we came downstairs and he convinced you to get me out of the way so he could tell you to call her.”
“Joe, ” Pearl turned to Murphy, who was quietly shoveling forkfuls of casserole into his mouth. “Do you have a cell phone?”
Joe wiped his mouth and reached around to his back pocket. “Sure do.” He held up a thick vintage Nokia phone with worn silver buttons and a small gray LED display. A patch of duct tape held the battery cover in place.
“You see? If Mr. Murphy wanted to call Cameron, he surely could do it himself.”
“Then what? Why did you two need a special little moment alone?”
Pearl looked at Joe and raised an eyebrow. Her eyes were soft. Joe put his phone back in his pocket and nodded. “Go ahead.”
“Mr. Murphy wanted to know if I could set him up with a poker game.”
Will pushed his chair back slightly from the table. “Wha— A poker game?”
“He didn’t think you would approve.”
Will picked up his napkin and twisted it between his hands. “But he thought you would?” He pointed at Pearl. “And wait. He thought you’d be able to set him up?” Will laughed and scooted his chair back up to the table. “That’s a good one, ” he said, picking up his fork and poking around in his hotdish. “That is a good one.”
“I did, though, ” Pearl said softly.
“Did what?” Will chewed and swallowed, still chuckling.
“Set him up for the back room game at Marvelle’s.”
“Wait. How do you know about that game? I can’t even get in. Mad Dog can’t even get in.”
Pearl smiled her most demure smile. “Because all of you are tinhorn gamblers. They want serious players.”
“Tinhorn. And you know this because …”
“Surely you don’t think pool and checkers are my only hustle, Mr. Phillips.”
“You’ve been in the back room at Marvelle’s? For poker? I don’t even know who you are any more.” Will smiled and leaned on his elbow, resting his chin in his hand.
“Oh, of course you do. Don’t be silly. You know exactly what you want to know.” Pearl picked up her fork. “Now get your elbow off the table and stop staring. It’s impolite.”
“Can you get me in?”
“No.” She pointed with her fork. “Elbow.”
Will sat up straight. “Come on. I have money.”
“I should hope so, seeing you pay so little for rent. But no. You’re too young to lose it. And you might need it for a nest egg, you know, if things work out with you and Cameron.”
“Ah, and so we come full circle. Joe asked you about the poker game and then asked you to call Cameron.”
“But you called her while I was gone.”
“It was Pearl’s idea to call. She wanted to get more of these here—” Joe waved his hand around the table “—veggie recipes.” Joe reached for another serving of broccoli potato casserole.
“You two have it all figured out, don’t you.”
“Come now, Mr. Phillips. Do you really believe we have so little going on that we want to spend our time plotting for you?” Pearl spread butter over a warm slice of wheat bread. “And do you really think the potluck mavens I coffee with have any idea how to prepare health vegetarian meals for you two? Enid Blomgren’s specialty is beefy noodle hotdish and Francis Oberholdt’s repertoire is limited to eight different varieties of 6-layer Jell-O Pudding dessert. Having Cameron Julian across the street is like having my own personal Rachael Ray right in the kitchen.”
“Rachael Ray is not a vegetarian.”
“Don’t deflect. It would be like that if she were. Besides. Rachael Ray is really good with potatoes, and vegetarians love potatoes.”
“And fennel seed.”
“Yes, I imagine Rachael Ray knows what to do with fennel seeds too.”
“So Cameron isn’t coming to see me.”
“I am so sorry, Mr. Phillips. She is, in fact, not.”
“So I could go to my room after dinner and no one would protest.”
“Would you protest, Mr. Murphy?”
“Well, I would say it’s a damn shame for you to miss her visit.” He turned to Pearl. “Pardon my French. But I do figure a man ought to do what he thinks he ought to do.” He put his knife through the butter and picked up a slice of bread. “Almost forgot this, ” he said, tapping the crust. “What about you, Pearl. Would you protest?”
“Goodness, no. It’s been an exhausting week and I completely understand if you want to go upstairs early and rest.” Pearl smiled. “Ms. Julian would understand too, I’m sure.”
Will wiped his mouth and set down his fork. “Well then. That’s all settled”
Joe folded his arms across his chest and sat back in his chair with a wide grin, his joy at being in the company of his new friends spilling over until even Pearl and Will were grinning, though they didn’t know why.
(to be continued)