58 • Courting
“Joe, ” Pearl said touching the left side of her chin with two middle fingers. “You have a little butter.”
Joe dabbed at his chin with his napkin and raised his eyebrows for Pearl’s approval.
“No, other side.” Pearl cocked her head and moved her mouth to mirror Joe. “A little higher. There you go.”
“I don’t know the last time someone told me I had food on my face.”
“I’m so sorry to embarrass you, Joe.” Pearl patted his hand.
“Embarrass? Are you kidding? When you eat alone at Denny’s Café every night, there’s no one to tell you when you squirt catsup on your cheek or dribble Western dressing down your shirt. The waitress won’t tell you because she’s afraid for her tip. Too bad, too. I’d double it just for the attention.”
Will’s irritation softened, reflecting that the isolation of his friends was not a solitude they chose in the same way he had, but an imposition life had delivered to their respective doorsteps, a package of not at all what they had ordered.
“I’m glad you’re here, Joe, ” Will said.
Joe’s eyes glistened and he looked away quickly, reaching for the water pitcher. Pearl reorganized the bread basket and pulled the breadscarf over the top. Will looked at his hands in his lap, rubbing a small blue ink mark off his first knuckle with the opposite thumb. No one spoke for what felt to him like a full 10 minutes while he rubbed the knuckle red, when it was more likely just five seconds or so before the doorbell rang.
“Cameron! Thank goodness!” Pearl let go of the bread basket and all three pushed their chairs back and stood, announcing in unison, “I’ll get it!”
Pearl bumped into Joe on her way to the dining room door and he stopped to motion her by.
“Wait, ” Will said. “We shouldn’t all go. Let me.”
“No, no, ” Pearl said. “She might not be expecting you. I invited her; I should go.”
“I never get to answer the door any more. Can I go?” Joe’s eyes looked watery like Archie’s.
“Umm, yeah. I think you just trumped Pearl and me. You go.”
Joe walked to the front door smiling. He turned back to see Will and Pearl in the dining room doorway, Will’s hands behind him tucking in his shirt and Pearl smoothing the front of her skirt. Joe gave them a thumbs-up signal and continued to the door.
“Lord have mercy. You’d think we all wanted to go out with her.”
“I do not want—” Will bit off his words when Pearl gave his hand a hard squeeze.
“Don’t say that unless you really mean it.” She spoke quietly through her teeth. Will knew without looking that Pearl’s smile was unflinched by her words and made a mental note to ask sometime when they were all in better moods why she didn’t find herself a good ventriloquist gig. The kids in the hospital’s children’s wing, at the very least, would be enchanted.
“Come in, come in, ” Joe was saying as Cameron came in and stamped her feet lightly on the rug as though shaking off snow though the clear, late spring evening was completely dry. She leaned and gave Joe a light air kiss at his cheek. He turned to Will as she passed by him, grinning widely and giving him another thumbs-up. Will looked at the ground and made another mental note to remind Cameron that she now lives among the reserved Swedes and Germans and such displays of affection are unexpected, discomfiting to some, even, and a firm handshake would do just fine.
Pearl rushed forward grasping Cameron by the shoulders and giving her an air kiss of her own—something he had never seen her do with even her closest friends—as though she had read Will’s thoughts and felt compelled to silently rebuke his reservations. “Cameron dear, it’s so good to see you.”
“Oh, and you too, Pearl, ” Cameron said as she muah’d into the air on Pearl’s other cheek.
“So glad to see the Italian famiglia reunited, ” Will said, putting his hands in his pockets and pulling his shoulders in, simultaneously feeling ignored and wishing to squeeze himself through one of the tiny knots in the birds eye maple.
“Hi, Will.” Cameron smiled at him. He dipped his head in reply. “Pearl, I brought you something.” She held out a bright floral gift bag with fuschia tissue poking out the top.
“Dear, you shouldn’t have.” Pearl blushed the culturally-prescribed degree, waving Cameron off with one hand and reaching for the bag’s soft cord handles with the other, demonstrating the smooth, practiced no-no-yes of this same stoic Swedish-German community.
“Oh, it’s nothing, really, ” Cameron said, fully fluent in this unwritten code herself. “It’s a starter cookbook for vegetarian dishes. I’ve been using it so long I have them all memorized. So I’m passing it along to you.”
Pearl slid the dog-eared book out of the bag and flipped through, stopping occasionally to exclaim about the beautiful photography and exotic colors, here and there inquiring about an unfamiliar piece of produce.
“This will be so much fun, ” she said, finally slipping the book back into the bag. “Let me clear the dishes and then we’ll sit and you can show me your favorites.”
Will stepped aside from the doorway to let the women through. They walked past him into the dining room as though he weren’t there, leaning their heads together and laughing. He stood straight. “Go ahead and sit. I’ll clean up the dishes.”
Pearl turned. “Oh, no, Mr. Phillips. You needn’t do that. You were on your way upstairs for the night.”
“You’re not staying?” Cameron stopped at the pantry door and looked back.
“He had a full day. Big beer catastrophe on the highway.” Joe had come up behind Will and clapped a hand on his shoulder. “Our friend is pretty well tuckered out and was just telling us how he thought he’d retire early tonight.”
“Is that right, ” Cameron said. Will detected the slightest smirk and thought she could use some tutoring from Pearl on facial expression management.
“Well, I was going to. But it would be rude of me to come down and enjoy Pearl’s fine cooking and not help with the dishes. So I can manage to stay up just a little longer.” He picked up Joe’s plate and scraped bits of hotdish onto Pearl’s plate, then slipped it underneath and reached for his own.
“You’re a dear, Mr. Phillips. Such a good help.” Pearl smiled and he wanted to believe she meant it. “Do be careful with the plates. They chip so easily. And you’ll want to wipe the glasses by hand. The dishwasher spots them too badly.” She slipped her arm through Cameron’s and pushed open the door. “Let’s go to the kitchen.”
Will poured the water glasses back into the pitcher with a sigh, watching as the pantry door swung closed behind them.
Joe watched from the other doorway. “Caught your second wind?”
“Just don’t want to leave Pearl with all the cleanup.”
“I can do them so you can go rest.”
“No, thanks. I’m good.”
“A pretty girl can do that, you know. Replenish a man’s stamina. There’s certainly no shame in admitting that.”
“I’m still plenty tired, Joe. As you should be. I just want to help with the dishes. There’s no shame in that, either.”
“Oh, sure. I’m flagging a bit. But as I said, there’s nothing quite like the revitalizing power of a beautiful woman.”
“She’s too young for you, Joe.”
“Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue:
On both sides thus is simple truth suppressed.”
“What?” Will leaned on his palms on the table.
“Shakespeare. Sonnet 138.”
“Oh, okay.” He gathered the silverware and piled it loosely on top of the stacked plates, narrowly avoiding the cold casserole sauce on his hand. “But, what?”
Joe smiled softly. “Shakespeare wrote 138 about aging and lies.”
“You’re going to recite it to me even though I have no idea what you’re talking about, right?”
“No, I won’t recite it to you. Not all of it, anyway. You can look it up later.”
“And is there a point you’d like to make with it?” Will was exhausted, beautiful women or not. He could feel impatience taking shape in his words and working their way out of his mouth before he could reform them.
“Oh, love’s best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love loves not to have years old.
Therefore I lie with her and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flattered be.”
Shakespeare’s double entendre sunk in and the idea of Joe lying with anyone now made Will uneasy. “You weren’t going to recite the whole thing.”
“I didn’t. A sonnet has 14 lines.”
“Great. Fifty-seven percent is close enough.”
“That’s pretty good math.”
“Occupational hazard.” His weariness had now shifted well beyond impatience and was letting even improbable jealousy toward Joe creep in. “Even with a poetic lie she’s too young for you.”
“Do you really think so? I didn’t think we were so terribly far off.”
Will banged the spoon against the casserole dish. “Way off, Joe.”
“Gosh.” Joe’s face fell. “Will, I don’t mean to sound untoward, but how old is Pearl?”
“Pearl? Oh, man. Like 75, maybe 76?” He set the plates inside the empty dish and looked up at Joe, feeling his face flush. “Wait. Pearl?”
Joe looked toward the kitchen and laughed. He pointed with his thumb through the wall as though they could see Pearl and Cameron poring over the cookbook and pulling ingredients off the pantry shelf. “You thought I meant—”
“Cameron. Yes.” Will looked up from the table and put his hands in his pockets. “I feel like an ass, Joe. I’m sorry.”
“Well, we have established that you’re tired, right?” Joe laughed. “She’s a lovely woman, Will. Beautiful, intelligent, self-possessed.”
“Best in the county.”
“If I thought I might like to, um…” Joe cleared his throat but didn’t continue.
Will pulled out a chair and motioned to Joe to sit, then sat across the table himself. Joe remained standing, hands folded in front of him, looking every bit the nervous 17-year-old boy that he must have felt inside at that moment.
“What I mean is, um, would you mind it terribly if I were to, um…” Joe shuffled his feet.
“What, Joe? Do you need a glass of water?”
“No, I’m fine. I would like to court Pearl.” He steadied himself with a hand on the chair. “There. I said it.”
Will suppressed a laugh, trying to respect the gravity Joe had brought to the matter, conveyed by his uncharacteristic fit of nerves. “Are you asking me for permission?”
“Well, yes. I believe I am. You are the closest thing to her father I know, after all.”
(to be continued)