59 • The Joe Effect
“Her father?” Will put his hand over his mouth and leaned back in his chair. Joe stood straight, hands still folded over his belly where the bottom button on his shirt strained against the tug of the two sides of fabric, his otherwise tall stature dwarfed by the high ceilings and stately cherry wainscot on the dining room wall behind him. “I know you’ve been having a little trouble putting things together these past few days, Joe. But nobody would ever mistake me for a guy who could fill old Pete Butler’s shoes.” He shifted forward in his seat, placing his hands on the table. “And how is it I can possibly be both Pearl’s father and your son? We still need to talk about how that works.”
“Well, it is a bit of an interesting dynamic, don’t you think?” Joe smiled and his hands relaxed. “Would make for an interesting story if a brooding sort of fellow ever wanted to write it.”
“Cut it out. We’re talking about you now.” Will stood and extended his hand to Joe. “No matter, anyway. If you need someone’s blessing to woo Pearl Jenkins, I’m happy to give it.”
Joe clasped Will’s hand. “You won’t regret this, ” he said, shaking Will’s hand vigorously with both of his.
“I won’t? But are you sure you won’t. Are you really feeling up to this?”
“I’ve no right to be feeling up to anything, Will. In the last week I’ve been beaned between the eyes by a baseball out of nowhere and had a heart attack. But I’ve felt better since you checked me into Hotel Jenkins than I’ve felt in 10 years. Might be Pearl’s cooking. But I’m betting it’s just Pearl.”
“Well, the cooking can go a long way…”
“And if I may be so bold, I think maybe I’m good for her, too.”
“Is that right.”
Joe straightened his shoulders, pushing out his chest as he slid his hands into his pockets. “It is. She softens when I’m around.”
“Yes. I see how she is with you when she thinks you’re alone. She softens when she knows I’m here.”
“Maybe she’s just being polite until she gets to know you better.”
“I don’t think so. I think it’s more than that.” Joe rubbed his chin. “Is she harder on you lately?”
“Well, now that you mention it.”
“That’s you. The Joe Effect. I never read you as a guy who thought so much of himself.”
“Oh, I don’t know that I do. Could be Cameron, too. Or maybe a combination. But she softens around me. And if she’s harder on you lately then that means she’s feeling anxious around me and she’s saving up for you when I’m not around.”
“Pearl Jenkins, the great Economist of Aggravation, ” Will said. “You really think you’ve got her figured out?”
Joe laughed. “Heavens, no. If I should be so lucky as to spend the rest of my life with Pearl I sincerely hope not to have figured her out. Where would be the joy in such a thing?”
“Well, maybe if I give you my blessing, you could give me a few pointers in exchange.”
“Too late for an exchange. You already gave it. And I’ve given you pointers. Like when I told you to call Cameron.”
“Right. That’s not what I meant.”
A laugh carried through the butler’s pantry door from the kitchen.
“Listen, ” Will said, handing a stack of plates to Joe. “Take these to the kitchen. Dish soap is in the cabinet under the sink, left side. There are dishtowels in the center drawer of the island. Or, Pearl probably has one in her hand you could relieve her of.”
“And?” Joe took the plates.
“And washing the dishes will go a long way toward that … softening … you think is going on.”
“Where will you be?”
“In bed. I’m going up for the night.”
“But I thought that was just to prove something to me and Pearl about Cameron.”
“Maybe it was. And maybe now it’s to prove something to me.” He clapped Joe on the back. “Congratulations, old man. Don’t blow it.” Will stopped at the dining room door. “Make sure Cameron gets home alright.”
“You mean, all the way across the street.”
“Well, yeah. It’s farther than it looks.”
“You could stay and walk her out yourself, you know. Even walk her across the big scary street.” Something lit in Joe’s eyes, as though he apprehended something Will did not yet know. “That was your plan, wasn’t it?”
“I didn’t have a plan.” Will did a poor job of masking his annoyance. “Just make sure she gets home alright. I’m going to bed.”
An hour later, Will was still awake, lying flat on his back staring at the plaster and lathe on the ceiling when he heard Cameron and Joe talking and laughing on their way to the front door. Joe offered to walk her to her door, and of course she refused, insisting it was only a few steps across the street and she was just fine. As soon as he heard the latch of the front door click, he sat up in bed and leaned toward the window to watch Cameron walk across the street, simultaneously counting the creaks on the stairs as Joe climbed up to his room. Cameron was not quite to her door when he heard Joe hit the third step to the top which, thanks to a loose board, had a certain clunk in addition to the sorrowful creak, signaling the end of his watch. He laid back down quietly and held his eyes shut, the rumpled quilt pulled up to his chin, covering that he still had on his plaid cotton shirt over his t-shirt, cuffs still buttoned. Had he sat up for one more step, Joe would know he was awake and it would be another half hour of conversation.
And had he sat up for one more step, he wouldn’t have missed Cameron turning to look up at his window above the porch roof as she reached for her front door handle.
Joe stood in the doorway, silhouetted by the colorful glow of the streetlights through Pearl’s stained glass.
“Will, ” Joe whispered.
Will didn’t answer.
“Cameron got home just fine. You should call her tomorrow.”
He didn’t move.
Joe stood a little longer, then turned and padded down the hall to he bathroom to get ready for bed.
Will rolled onto his side, holding the quilt to his chest and facing the wall. He smiled to no one in particular. He might call Cameron tomorrow. He might not. Such a small thing, really. But it was a small thing he would decide for himself.
(to be continued)