68 • Water
Will froze, suddenly unable to remember which boxers he was wearing and whether the plaid of his shorts showing through the back of his jeans would either clash with his sweatshirt and offend Pearl’s fashion sensibilities or would be a nice matchup and make him look like some sort of obsessive who coordinated his underwear with his outerwear.
Does it matter? he asked himself as he stood, shoulder still to the door, and Joe waiting patiently for him to finish processing this information so they could go into the dining room.
He concluded the coordination of his shorts and shirt would not matter to Pearl nearly as much as if she saw there was something to coordinate at all and decided his best course of action would be to follow Joe’s advice and keep his back to the wall or his ass in the chair, literally, as much as proverbially. He would deal later with whatever it was that compelled him to assert this defiance in the first place, jotting a mental note to remind himself it is surely more simple to just keep playing by other people’s rules. Maybe he even liked it.
“Ready?” He smiled at Joe.
“Ready.” Joe followed him out to the dining room where Pearl was already serving the hot disk onto everyone’s plates. Cameron was telling her about a vegetarian cafe in Uptown Minneapolis that she was sure Pearl would love.
“But I hear the parking is atrocious in the city, dear,” Pearl said, shaking her head. “Probably best that I just learn to cook these dishes myself so I don’t have to go all that way.”
“I could drive you. We could go on tour.” Joe leaned over and kissed the top of Pearl’s head as he walked around the table to his chair. “We could make signs to hang on the truck: PEARL AND JOE DO VEGETABLES. And when we see those billboards with the cows saying EAT MOR CHIKIN, we could roll down the windows and yell ‘Not even that!’ as we go by.” Joe scooted his chair up to the table and waved a hand at Will. “Sit, man. You’re making us all nervous standing there like the butler. Maybe even the butler that did it.”
Will stood to the side of the table, holding the water pitcher in front of himself in both hands, mentally navigating the maneuver to his chair which involved either turning his back to Pearl or to the buffet mirror, which was in Pearl’s line of sight. He stayed to the side of the mirror. “Who wants water?”
“Just pour some for everyone and sit down, dear.” Pearl held up her glass. “Joe is right. You’re making us all nervous.”
He leaned across the table to fill Pearl’s outstretched glass. Then he turned to Cameron, still not moving from his position at the corner. “Do you feel nervous?”
Cameron lifted her glass and wrinkled her brow. “I don’t know if I would say nervous exactly. It’s more like —” she turned to Joe. “Joe, what’s the word for when you feel embarrassed or uncomfortable about a situation but it’s for someone else?”
Will closed his eyes so Pearl would not see them roll halfway into the back of his head.
“Oh, yes. I know what you’re thinking of but I can’t put my finger on the word. It’s not chagrin. Maybe shame?”
“No, shame isn’t it. That’s too strong. It’s like awkward, but not really.”
“Yes, yes. I know just what you —”
“Will!” Cameron startled him with a shout and Will jumped, splashing water on the table. “My glass is full. You really need to pour with your eyes open.”
Will set down the pitcher and grabbed the napkin from his plate and mopped up the spill. Pearl, strangely, was silent, watching the chaos unfold and having nothing to say to Will about his obvious buffoonery. He took the opportunity to slip to his chair, hoping Pearl was more focused on the spill than the back of his Levis.
“Empathy,” she said quietly.
“What?” Will said.
“Empathy. That’s the word you’re looking for.”
“Yes!” Cameron dabbed the last bit of water from above her plate. “I like that a lot better.”
(to be continued)