7 • Secrets
The phone fell to the floor as Will turned onto his side and pulled the quilt over his chest. He faded off to sleep in his red plaid boxers, black socks, and graying white t-shirt. Even by himself, Will hated to be uncovered. He only took his shoes off for bed, and left his socks on except in the shower. A guy never knew when he might have to move fast, and there wouldn’t always be time to bother with shoes and socks when needing to run for one’s life. He didn’t mind wearing a t-shirt when he was alone, but kept to long sleeves when he left the house.
Barbara claimed not to mind, but there always seemed to be a flicker of something when she eyed other guys, tan and shirtless, at the beach. Will had shaded himself under a large umbrella, SPF 75 slathered over whatever small bit of skin was exposed.
The beach held a certain aura of terror. It didn’t help that he grew up in the decade of the disaster movies—The Towering Inferno, the Airport series, The Poseidon Adventure, Jaws. When his family visited the beach during spring break when he was 10, he was warned about jellyfish and how they could sting him. What was worse, he was told, they were not easy to spot, so a guy could easily step on one and be stung in the foot and injected with venom, and it would feel like being electrocuted. Maybe a guy would even die. When they got to the beach, Will’s father practically had to force him out of the car. Will stood barefoot, frozen on the sand, socks and shoes in his hands, well back from the tide and unable to appreciate the vastness or wonder of the ocean, overcome by his fear of death at the slimy tentacles of an unseen jellyfish.
He was grateful for the frigid temperatures on the Florida coast that day so that no one felt like staying very long in the cold wind. He always figured he only narrowly escaped a stealth jellyfish that had fixed its 24 eyes on his ten little toes. He wiped the sand quickly from his soles and pulled on damp socks and shoes, retreating to the old green Chrysler and the safety of the back seat. Tom and Molly clambered in after him, chattering about cold water and soft sand and arguing over who picked up the biggest shells. Will hadn’t picked up any shells at the beach. He had no reason to remember having been there.
It was a night of fitful sleep, awakening frequently to images of drowning and electrocution and the feeling of slime and sand between his toes.
The night sweats had been waking him for months now but he was afraid to think too hard about the cause. When he woke early, he cursed and threw the blanket off, welcoming the rush of cool air against his wet skin. His t-shirt was soaked through. “You’re like a woman in midlife, Phillips, ” he said to himself, lying on his back with his arms out, knees bent up, trying to keep skin from touching skin until he cooled down. A near-full moon flooded through the trees into his room casting light strips across his legs and chest.
“How long is it going to be tonight?” he said, to no one in particular. Most nights he lay awake an hour or two. Sometimes he fell back to sleep just before his alarm. Will never used to set an alarm, believing the jarring from sleep was so unsettling it put him in a foul mood all day. When he stopped sleeping through the night, he started looking for tricks to sleep better and read somewhere that not having an alarm kept a person from sleeping soundly because he could stop always up looking at the clock. So he started setting an alarm, but still hated the jarring so much that he was always up looking at the clock anyway, hoping to wake before it went off. Either way, he was in a foul mood all day.
As the perspiration wicked away, his skin began to feel chilled. He got up and plodded down the dark hallway, felt along the wall in the bathroom, not wanting to turn on the light, and sat down on the toilet. Mad Dog would say only a woman sits down but it was the middle of the night and Mad Dog was an ass. What did he know about women? Besides, Mad Dog wasn’t here. Will sat with his head in his hands, wondering how much coffee he’d had and if the stream would ever end.
The stream did end, after what seemed like half an hour. He didn’t flush. It would upset Pearl to know this, but it would also upset Pearl to wake to the sound of his flushing as it went through the old house’s pipes. He walked back into the dark hallway and into his room.
Will punched his pillow a few times to fluff it up, pulled the blankets back over himself and closed his eyes, even as he knew he wouldn’t be sleeping. It just felt like one of those nights, no matter how tired he was. He looked at the clock: 3:15.
Rolling over, he reached under the bed and pulled out a Sports Illustrated magazine. He had other magazines, but they were in one of the small closets in his room. He kept his work clothes and an old stereo setup in one of his closets, and the other had some of Pearl’s old things and he never used it. He found the magazines stacked in a corner behind her wedding dress and some long tablecloths one day, and guessed a former tenant must have left them behind.
At least he assumed the magazines belonged to the former tenant and that they weren’t Pearl’s. Of course, one never really knew. People so often thought they knew things about other people that simply aren’t knowable. Maybe Pearl had secret trysts with Dottie, the retired auto mechanic who could swap out a catalytic converter faster and cheaper than any of the guys coming out of trade school waving their fancy diplomas around. Will missed the days when Dottie was still working and he could take her out for a piece of pie and coffee to work out the kinks of an auto repair he was writing up. She wore crisp khaki work shirts and chinos, slicked her thick brown hair back with Brill cream like Ronald Reagan in Bedtime For Bonzo, and had a voice that dropped a full two octaves lower than Will’s.
The thought of Pearl, the fancy lumberman’s granddaughter, cavorting with Dottie on the sly made him chuckle softly to himself. They’d look pretty sweet together, actually, Will thought, fumbling on the floor for his keys.
He squeezed the little flashlight on the ring so he could read the latest news about the Cubs. Baseball was still the only sport he cared about. Football and basketball had too much contact, too much stimulation. Baseball was sedate, more cerebral. A guy had time to think as the game dragged on.
By four o’clock Will was antsy, but it felt too early to get up. He’d tried to sleep again after realizing the magazine didn’t have a single story on the Cubs. And he didn’t want to read about the Yankees. He stared at the moon until he lost track of time. Knowing he wouldn’t sleep again, he got up and opened his window. The screen was missing already so he crawled out through the small opening onto the wood shakes of the porch roof below his room. It was brightly lit by the moon and there in a spot where the moss growth on the shingles was less, he sat down. The night air was cool and damp. A blanket would have been nice, but it seemed too elaborate, so he just sat, knees pulled up to his chest, listening to the quiet of a small town just before dawn, silent save for the occasional 18-wheeler that passed through on the three-lane highway that cut the town in two. The birds weren’t even up yet, and the slight breeze made the leaves rustle like they were whispering secrets to each other about the guy in his underwear on the roof. It’d probably be in the weekly newspaper along with who poured coffee and “a good time was had by all.”
There in the moonlit silence, Will found himself wanting. Lacking, yes. He always found himself lacking. But tonight he also found himself wanting something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. A wishing he felt in his chest and as the silence grew more quiet, the wanting grew more noisy.
“Cigarette, ” he said aloud. “That must be it.” He crept back to the window and crawled in, grabbed a flannel shirt from the floor and his cigarettes and lighter from his Levis pocket. He thought about taking his phone so he could check the time, but remembered he’d told Mad Dog he’d be in late, for no real reason at all.
He went clumsily back out the window, rapping his shin on the sill on the way out and muffling a cry of “Ouch!” into a low grunt, then sat down and leaned back against the house and rubbed his leg. He lit up and sucked in deeply, holding it a few moments before letting it out nice and slow. The light breeze carried the smoke toward the open window.
“Pearl, ” he said. “Dammit.”
All he needed was for Pearl to smell smoke in the house and she’d be calling 911. When all his buddies on the volunteer fire department showed up, it’d be more than the trees gossiping about the guy on the roof. He knelt in front of the window and closed it to just an inch, so he could get back in, then held his cigarette away from the window and rested his head against the chipped asbestos siding, closing his eyes to listen to what was left of the night sounds.
I should go camping sometime. Maybe I could sleep like this.
He took a few more drags of his cigarette, then ground it into the shingles and dropped the stub into his shirt pocket. There was enough left worth keeping for another time. With his hands resting atop his bare knees, Will dozed off with his head against the wall.
When the birds woke him, he found the morning light working its way across the wood shakes. Traffic was picking up on the highway and it was best to get off the roof before the neighbors spotted him. He slid his fingers into the open crevice in the window and pushed up. The window wouldn’t budge. He shifted, getting on his knees in front of the window and sliding both hands in and pushing again. Again it wouldn’t budge.
Will placed his palms against the sash and pressed up. The humidity had tightened the window in the casing just enough that he couldn’t open it back up. There he was, squatting on the front porch roof in his boxers and socks, stranded. He didn’t have his phone. He didn’t have his shoes.
This is why a guy always, always has his shoes. Damn.
He got up and walked the perimeter of the roof, looking for his best way out of the situation. The downspouts were loose and wouldn’t hold him. But the front porch had a waist high rail. If he could reach that with his feet, he’d be home free. Will got backward on his knees and eased himself over the edge. Once before on a windy day when his ladder blew away from the house, this had worked. Maneuvering his way down in the corner where there was an ornamental column supporting the roof, he managed to wrap his legs around the column and held onto the eaves trough with one hand while he grabbed one of the flourishes at the top of the column with the other. It was good, actually, that he didn’t have his jeans on, because his clammy bare legs held the column while the denim would have slid. He shimmied down the column until his foot reached the railing and was so proud of getting off the roof that he forgot his age. He turned toward the yard, planted his feet and squatted, leaping to the ground, then landed on his right foot, turning his ankle and crumpling to the ground behind the hedges.
Holding his leg, Will curled up and clenched his jaw to keep from crying out in pain. The door across the street creaked open and slammed shut and the neighbor’s dog started to snort and sputter. The dog knew Will was there, but his neighbor did not, and walked down the sidewalk with his dog straining backwards against the leash.
Will stood, stayed hunched behind the bushes, and held himself up on the fence as he hobbled to the back where there was an outside stairway accessing the second story of the house. He’d pulled himself halfway up the stairs when he heard the door open below him and Pearl’s footsteps patter across the back porch. He stood still. Pearl walked out into the yard and shook out a rug from her kitchen.
Who shakes their rugs at 6:00 in the morning?
Pearl turned to go back and paused to look up at the trees shading the back yard. Will watched her, silently, hoping. As her eyes came back down, she caught his gaze and dropped her rug on the ground.
Will looked at his feet and sighed.
She shouted up at him. “Mr. Phillips! Are you just getting in for the night? And Lord, have mercy! Where are your pants?”
“Mrs. Jenkins, you might be the most observant person I know. You remind me of a man in a short story I read once, this guy that noticed things that people would rather were left unnoticed. You might enjoy it.”
Pearl Jenkins put her hands on her hips.
Will’s best approach would be to answer the way one must answer children’s questions about delicate subjects: Answer only, and precisely, the question asked.
“My pants are right where I left them. On the bedroom floor.”
Pearl’s mouth opened. Then it closed, as though she had something to say, but didn’t. Will moved in swiftly with a diversion.
“I think I’ll go put them on. It’s chilly out here. Maybe you should pick up that rug off the ground before it gets dirty, and then maybe you’ll pour me a cup of your fresh-brewed coffee.”
“Oh, ” Pearl managed, looking at her rug in the grass. She picked it up, gathering herself. “And have you had your breakfast? I’ll make you some toast with jam.”
“Perfect, ” Will said. “I’ll be right down.” He pretended to tip his hat, nodded, and went quickly up the stairs.
“Oh, and Mr. Phillips, ” Pearl said as he opened the door. “Come down through the servants’ entrance straight in to the kitchen, please. My living room is a fright and I don’t want you to see it.”
The old Jenkins house had, in fact, actual servants’ quarters on the second floor—now his kitchenette—with a separate stairway into the main floor kitchen. Pearl’s living room was undoubtedly spotless as usual, but she often made a point of telling him to come through the servants’ entrance as though to remind Will of her status. He always obliged. It was a small thing, and it seemed to make her happy.
“Well played, Phillips, ” he muttered to himself as he walked into the bathroom. “Today it’s Pearl. Tomorrow it’s Joe. You may as well quit adjusting and open up a senior daycare.”
(to be continued)