8 • Stories
Will leaned over the sink and splashed water on his face, then looked up into the mirror and sighed at his reflection. His eyes were red and underlined with dark half moons. His graying blond hair was tousled. He cupped his hand against his face. At least he didn’t have much of a 5 o’clock shadow. His facial hair was light and he’d never been able to grow a respectable beard. Pearl would know he’d been up all night for sure. She might be polite enough to avoid asking, but she might not be.
Pulling on his jeans and pushing his feet into his work boots gave him a sense of relief at the feel of laces wrapped tight around his ankles, happy for the simple security of proper footwear. He ran his hands through his hair a few times and headed for the staircase, the smell coffee enlivening him.
Pearl made coffee the old fashioned way. At least it was old fashioned to Will, though not as old fashioned as brewing it in a kettle on the stove with an egg to collect the loose grounds. She brewed coffee in a tall silver General Electric percolator, nothing like the acrid, anemic dribble he made in his drip machine. What Will really needed was a French press to brew himself a stiff cup every morning. He could sit on the porch roof and drink it slowly, savoring the earthy notes while he hoped for a glimpse of his neighbor when she came out to walk her Samoyed. But it would take forever to fill his Thermos with a French press, and he’d probably have a heart attack before the day was up taking in that much caffeine. No, he was doomed to be an all-day tepid coffee slurper and miss the charm of a morning coffee ritual.
Will walked down the old wooden stairs to the servants’ entrance, making an extra effort to clomp loudly on the bottom few steps. Pearl lost track of the outside world when she worked in her kitchen, and he’d startled her before, barging into her kitchen unexpectedly when she hadn’t noticed him on the stairs. He rapped on the door before he opened it, then stuck his head out and said, “Good morning to the most beautiful woman in town, ” before coming all the way into the kitchen.
Pearl bustled around the spacious, immaculate room. She’d set two small plates, cups and saucers on the breakfast nook table. A tray of pastries sat on the center island. Pearl picked up a towel from the counter and wiped her hands. “Don’t just stand there with your hands in your pockets.” She nodded toward the tray. “You did come in through the servants’ entrance, didn’t you? Take that tray to the table.”
He smiled and picked up the tray and teased. “Mrs. Jenkins, I thought you said toast. I feel like I just stumbled into a tea party for your little lady friends.”
“I was going to give you toast and coffee and send you on your way, but it’s been so long since you’ve come by, and I had these goodies from the bakery I bought yesterday on the day-old shelf. I warmed them while you were … getting dressed.”
Pearl wouldn’t ask again about his pants. If she hadn’t been caught by surprise outside, she wouldn’t have asked at all. She was too proper for such things. But that didn’t mean she wouldn’t leave openings for him to fill in the blanks if he chose. And if he didn’t choose, well, then she would just let her imagination fill in the blanks and enjoy herself along the way. Will decided to let her imagination have this one. She’d no doubt enjoy the tale of his getting caught out on the roof, but would be terrified knowing how he’d crawled down. He didn’t think it was right to worry people more than was absolutely necessary.
“What do you hear from your grandchildren?” Will slid into a seat at the table, his back to the wall so he could face his landlady.
“Oh, they’re just precious, you know. Growing up so fast. My first grandson just graduated from high school and my last one just finished Kindergarten. So there you go. They’re all too busy to come and see me very often, but they send me pictures and newspaper clippings. And they call on the phone now and then. I suppose I’ll have weddings to go to before long. And maybe great grandchildren. Though I don’t know that anyone’s quite ready for that just yet.”
Pearl tipped the silver percolator and filled Will’s cup. “Tell me something about you, Mr. Phillips. Your work is always so interesting. Don’t you have a story for me today?”
“Well, we’ve had more than a few fires lately.”
“Oh, I don’t want to hear about fires. They scare me. I don’t know how I’d get out of this house in one piece. And all the heirlooms. I think I’d just hold on to my mama’s china doll in the living room and let the flames take me.”
“Don’t worry about a fire in this house. I just checked your smoke detectors last week. All the batteries are good. And you know I don’t smoke in the house.” He put a hand on his chest and felt the cigarette stub in his shirt pocket. Poor Mrs. Jenkins. How would he explain burning her front porch right off the house?
“Say, did I ever tell you about the time that old Doctor Runyan faked the theft of his truck?”
“Dr. Runyan, ” Pearl said, letting her lips play with the “R, ” forming a tiny round opening like a camera opening from a pinhole to a wide angle. “Sounds like a poet I once read. Or a lumberjack. No, I don’t think I’ve heard that one.”
“He was a wily character, Mrs. Jenkins. The kind of fella I’d like you to avoid when you go on those dating sites on the library computer looking for a man to warm your feet at night.”
Will winked at Pearl, and she tipped her head shyly, looking at him over her glasses in a way that didn’t confirm or deny his allegation. “Why, I didn’t know a person could find a man on the Internet.”
There was something in her dark eyes he hadn’t before, a curious mix of affection and mischief, with a tint of loneliness around the edges. “I did take an Internet class at the library one time. I was trying to figure out how to run that beast of a machine the kids set up for me. Oh, it’s all so confusing. I’m supposed to use that Skeep thing. Or maybe it’s Skape. I don’t know. It’s like the video telephone from an old James Bond movie. But it never works for me. They say I should be able to see the grandkids, but it all looks like a cartoonish Monet painting. Internet must be faster in California, I think.”
She went on. “The kids say they can only see the top of my head, that I don’t have my camera adjusted right. But I don’t see any camera. And my hair must look a fright then.” She smoothed her hand through her hair at the back, combing it against her neck with her fingers. “So what about this Bunyan character?”
“Well, Mrs. Jenkins. Like I said, Dr. Runyan is a wily fellow. He reports that someone stole his pickup near Williston. This is before the big oil drilling started up there, so you know how desolate it could be between there and Dickinson. It’s January, a day when it it’s only going to get up to 10 below. The good doctor tells me that he’s on an old township road on the way to a little farm place he keeps on the side. I know something is a little fishy right off, because he can’t remember the township road number.”
Pearl poured more coffee in Will’s cup. “Now, Mr. Phillips. Don’t be so hasty. Do you know I got turned around on my way to play bridge at Corona the other day? I drive there once a week and know the way by heart. But I ended up going south instead of north. Maybe the doctor was just having a bad day.”
“You could be right, Mrs. Jenkins. But if that’s all it was, the doctor was having the worst day in history. You know how it is when you’re talking to someone and you realize he’s making it all up as he goes along?”
“I think I’ve noticed that some time before. Say, for instance, when you ask a fellow on a staircase where his pants might have gone.” Pearl lifted her cup to her lips, curled on one side into a very slight smirk.
“Yes. Something like that.” Will smiled at Pearl and shook his head. “Anyway. This Runyan fella tells me that he stopped to pick up a young couple hitchhiking on this little township road that doesn’t have a name but leads to his farm in the middle of backwater North Dakota in January when it’s 10 below. And I say, ‘Excuse me, Dr. Runyan, but I think I’m going to need to get you on record about this. Do you mind if I turn on my tape recorder?’ Well, he doesn’t like it very much, but he’s smart enough to know he doesn’t have a choice, so he agrees. And so I tell him, once the tape is running, that what he says to me can be used in a court of law (even if it probably never would be) and he says he understands.”
Will stopped for a sip of coffee. Pearl rested her chin in her hand and ran her index finger along the rim of her cup.
“He goes on and tells me that this couple needed a ride, that they were on their way to New Orleans. Mind you, this was not long after Hurricane Katrina, so God only knows what they were headed to Louisiana for when people were tearing out of there like schoolkids after the last bell. He says he’ll take them to the next town but first he’s got to stop at his farm place and hook up his tractor. He has some snow to move out of the parking lot at his office. The young guy, he gets in the front, and the girl gets in the back of the cab, right behind the doctor. He says the girl’s wearing a red wool coat, pea coat style, and the fella’s wearing an oversized army jacket. They aren’t wearing gloves or caps.”
“No gloves or caps!” Pearl put her hand over her mouth. “Goodness! They must have been frostbitten. The poor dears. This doctor fellow couldn’t have been too terrible. He picked up a couple of freezing teenagers and got them out of the cold, after all.”
“No, Mrs. Jenkins. They weren’t frostbitten, ” Will smiled. “This is the thing about made up stories. The young couple wasn’t real, so they couldn’t have been frostbitten.”
“You’re making this story up? Shame on you, Mr. Phillips. I wanted a real story about your real work.”
Pearl reached for her cup and Will put his hand gently over hers. “I’m not making the story up, Mrs. Jenkins, ” he said softly, holding her gaze and seeing she was upset. “I’m telling you a true story about a story Dr. Runyan made up.”
She puzzled for a moment, then turned her head toward the window, as if looking into a camera, and smiled and cocked her head. “Oh. That’s different. Never mind.”
Will laughed out loud and picked up his cup, gesturing an accolade toward Pearl with it and said, “Mrs. Jenkins, I may never tire of your Emily Litella.”
“I’m sorry for the disruption, Mr. Phillips. Please go on.”
“So he drives them to his farm and hooks up a flatbed with a late model John Deere loader and off they go. About five miles from Dickinson, he says the fella in the front seat tells him to pull over. ‘You want out here?’ he asks, and the guy says, ‘No, I want you out here.’ The young fella pulls out a Swiss Army knife, opens to a small blade and jabs it at the good doctor who of course pulls obediently to the side of the road.”
“That’s terrible, ” Pearl said. “I remember when my daddy was robbed at knife point in Chicago. He made like he was going for his wallet, then knocked the knife loose with one hand and decked the man with the other, just like that.” She slapped her hands together to suggest a job well done. “Your Dr. Runyan sounds like a coward.”
“Well, I’m not sure what all he was, but it sounds like your father was a brave man.”
“He was, ” Pearl said, her face softening. “He was.”
“So, Runyan says the kids take his wallet, throw him out of the truck and drive off toward the north, and he has to walk to town. Remember how far I said they were from Dickinson?”
“Yep. And remember how cold I said it was?”
“Yep. Ten below. He tries to hitchhike, but no one comes by because it’s such a remote stretch of highway. I ask him, ‘Don’t you have a cell phone, Dr. Runyan?’ Yes, he says, of course he has a cell phone in his pocket. But he doesn’t think to call for help because his service provider is notorious for terrible coverage outside of town. So he drags himself, half dressed (they don’t let him take his coat or gloves, which for some reason he left in the back seat even while he was hooking up the trailer). He goes into Denny’s which, he says, is the first restaurant he saw when he got to town. Never mind that Denny’s is a mile into town, and a guy passes no less than 20 other business of various types that would have gladly taken in a bedraggled, half frozen victim of a carjacking without question. But he goes to Denny’s, and the waitress won’t let him use the phone (his cell must still not be working) because it’s for customers only so he takes a table and orders a BLT and a coffee. Then she lets him use the phone so he can call the police. An officer shows up minutes later, but he doesn’t want to go to the station to file his report because he just ordered.”
“He’s a sensible man, this Dr. Runyan.” Pearl smiled.
“Sensible? Yeah. Okay. Sensible. Frugal too, I suppose. Criminal. Call him what you like, ” Will answered. “The officer takes his report there in the Denny’s booth and then the doctor asks him to call an ambulance. ‘What do you need an ambulance for?’ the officer asks. ‘Well, ’ Runyan spits out. ‘The guy cut me, of course. I need wound care.’”
“My heavens! When did the man cut him? He never mentioned that.”
“Exactly, Mrs. Jenkins. He never mentioned it. The officer tells him he doesn’t seem to be bleeding so he’d be glad to just drive him to the clinic where his family can meet him, but Runyan is insistent on at least going to the emergency room. He gets the check and pays his bill–”
“Wait a second. I thought they took his wallet.”
“I did too. So Runyan says they let him keep his drivers license and a ten dollar bill for his trouble.”
“Well, that was nice of them.”
“Yes. Nice. Runyan created characters with a conscience of sorts, perhaps in an effort to compensate for the failings of his own.”
“Well, I do hope when he went to the doctor they checked him for frostbite. He must have been a popsicle.”
“Funny you should mention that. I pulled his records from the ER. He was noted to be in excellent health, a physically fit man in no obvious distress. He presented with a one-inch cat scratch on his upper left thigh. The physician noted there was no blood on his slacks, and they were without cut or tear.”
“Left side?” Pearl mused, sliding her thumb and index along the handle of her cup. “Interesting.”
“You’re catching on, Mrs. Jenkins, ” Will smiled. “And the record was silent as to frostbite. Not a word. This guy’s story was so half-baked he had the sheriff investigating and the state’s attorney ready to file fraud charges if we could just find something solid to pin on him. We couldn’t, and ended up buying him a new pickup, flatbed and tractor. This is the way it is in the insurance business. You have to set aside truth in favor of what you can prove.”
“I don’t know how you sleep at night, Mr. Phillips.”
“You don’t know the half of it.” Will thought of his early morning meditation on Pearl’s porch roof. “Would you believe I got a call from the sheriff in the spring? They found the pickup. Care to guess where?”
“I would have no idea, and you know how I hate guessing games.”
“The truck was parked in the back lot of a convenience store directly across the street from Denny’s. The plates were taken off and the store owner didn’t notice it there until he was doing his lot cleanup after the snow melted. Figure that one out.”
“What in the world?” Pearl said.
“We took the truck to sell it, and found it had over 150, 000 miles on it, even though it was only a few years old. Tranny was about to blow. Tires were bald. Odds are he didn’t want to fix it and couldn’t sell it, so decided to abandon it and make a little easy money on the way. Probably sold the tractor and flatbed for cash. They were never recovered.”
“My stars. Now I’m going to wonder about my own doctor. What do you suppose he’s up to?”
“You don’t have to worry about Doc Roberts. What you see is what you get with him. Want to hear the best part of the story?”
Pearl nodded with a smile and finished her coffee. “There’s more?”
“Yep. About six months after the whole thing went down, Runyan called me and demanded to know when I was going to pay his dental bill.”
“Dental bill?” Pearl’s eyes widened.
“Yes, dental bill. I figured he just had his insurance companies mixed up and told him he should call his medical or dental company. But he said, ‘No, you have to pay it. It’s from that carjacking incident in January. My teeth are all loose.’”
“’What?’ I asked. ‘Your teeth are loose?’ I couldn’t figure his angle on this one. ‘Well, yes, ’ he said, and he seemed awfully upset about it. ‘How did your teeth get loose, Dr. Runyan? And maybe before you answer I should turn on the recorder again. I think there’s going to be some interest in your answer.’”
“I turned the recorder on and asked him again. ‘My teeth were loosened during the carjacking when I was struck in the mouth with a lead pipe.’ I tried to mask my shock. ‘A lead pipe? And who struck you in the mouth with a lead pipe?’ I asked. ‘The girl in the red coat, ’ he said. ‘Because I didn’t get out of the car fast enough.’”
“The girl hit him?” Pearl asked. “Golly, I think I might have too. You know, if I had a lead pipe handy.” She giggled softly.
“I’d like to see that, Mrs. Jenkins.” Will smiled. “So I said, ‘Listen, Dr. Runyan. I’m curious about this. Why is it that we’ve talked more than a dozen times, I have over 90 minutes of a recorded interview with you, you’ve been examined by a physician, you’ve been interviewed repeatedly by law enforcement, and yet, somehow, after six months this is the first time we’re hearing about a girl hitting you in the mouth with a lead pipe?’”
“’Well, ’ said the doctor, ‘No one ever bothered to ask me that.’”
Pearl laughed out loud, a full, spirited laugh that seemed much larger than her, the kind of laugh Will had once heard someone say “contained a whole universe.” She gracefully tossed her head back, and as she did, a single silver lock slipped loose from her French twist and tumbled onto her shoulder. Will couldn’t help but join Pearl’s mirth, finding her delight utterly irresistible.
“Oh, Mr. Phillips, ” she said, as both their laughter began to subside. “I don’t know how you do it. I’d have been ready to strangle that scheming doctor.”
“It’s part of what keeps me coming back. Seems like every day turns up a new character, never a single one like the last.”
Will looked over his coffee at Pearl, who had quieted and was absentmindedly staring into her cup, again running her finger along the rim. The silver tress now hung across her front, nearly into her lap, its soft variegated waves catching bits of the sun. He hadn’t realized how long her hair was, never seeing it apart from her classic updo.
With a quick tip of his cup he drank down the last of his coffee and got up from the table. “I’d best be moving along or Mad Dog Delaney will chew on me for his midmorning snack.”
“You’ll come again, Mr. Phillips? It’s really been too long, ” Pearl said, as Will carried his dishes to the sink.
“There’s nothing quite like your coffee and day-old pastries. Of course I’ll come again soon.” He lifted her hand and gave it a light kiss and bowed. Pearl smiled in a way a person smiles without realizing, staring over Will’s shoulder out the window at some other someone far off somewhere. Will reached and gently tucked the loose lock of hair behind Pearl’s ear. “You’re doing alright, Mrs. Jenkins?”
Pearl started, shook her head just slightly. She combed her fingers behind her ears and said, “Yes, yes, of course, Mr. Phillips. I’m just fine. You get off to work now. And let’s keep our pants on today.”
Will tipped his invisible fedora and disappeared behind the door to the back stairs, leaving Pearl to gaze out the window a little longer.
(to be continued)