Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from the T.S Poetry Press title, Adjustments: a novel by Will Willingham. We hope you enjoy.
Pearl had not told Will to come down the back stairs, but he did anyway, knowing she’d be in the kitchen frantically bustling around with her final dinner preparations. While he was in the shower, he decided what he had done to Pearl bordered on cruelty, if cruelty could be a little sweet. She would be frazzled enough wanting everything to be just right so she could later say her dinner was his and Cameron’s first date. But introducing a mystery character into her carefully-crafted plotline would be nearly too much for his tightly-wound landlady-turned-matchmaker.
He should tell her Joe was coming, he thought as he slid the offset triangle of his four-in-hand knot on his narrow plaid tie under the points of a blue Oxford shirt. Pearl also hadn’t told him to wear a tie, but he’d made the mistake of showing up for dinner once before with an open-collared shirt. There are some things a guy only has to learn once.
It would at least be a small relief to her to know he wasn’t bringing himself a date, which would be humiliating for Cameron and in turn for Pearl, and ultimately for his date who would be smart enough to see what had just happened.
He buckled his belt over the button of his brown corduroys and slipped on his shoes. No, he must not tell her about Joe. That small sense of relief would make just enough space for her to stop worrying about Cameron and start worrying about herself, and it would be like a cold front meeting a warm front and a tornadic funnel cloud the likes of which had never been seen on the Dakota plains would tear through Pearl’s kitchen. No, he would say nothing. Joe would have to be a surprise. He would simply continue to assure her that it was a good thing, that when dinner was over she’d be glad he’d invited his friend.
Will would, however, tell Cameron. He needed her help in case things backfired, to ensure Pearl did not direct her straight-line winds of fury against Joe. Cameron would need to be prepared to shove Will out in front of the bus while she grabbed Joe out of the street. Joe, of course, was good-natured enough to be able to handle anything Pearl dished out. But Pearl would hate herself in the morning.
He made his usual exaggerated stomps down the back stairs to alert Pearl of his arrival.
“My heavens, Mr. Phillips. Must you sound like an entire pack of horses got loose and are galloping around on my servants’ stairs?”
“Wolves travel in packs, Mrs. Jenkins. Not horses.” He gave her a light kiss on the cheek. “And they are very quiet.”
“Except for the snarling right before they devour you,” she said. Pearl slammed the knife hard through the carrot lying innocently on her wooden cutting board and a slice shot off the edge and into the sink. Will picked it up and popped it into his mouth.
“Oh, Mrs. Jenkins,” he said as he moved beside her. “You are very anxious about what I’ve done.” He put his hand over hers on the knife handle. “Please don’t worry. I wouldn’t do anything to ruin your evening. Promise.” Her hand loosened under Will’s. “Let’s cut the rest of the carrots, shall we?”
Pearl sighed. “Well, yes. But only because they need to be cut. Not because I’m not still upset with you. You’re on very thin ice with me, Mr. Phillips. If you make a fool of me or that nice Miss Julian, you can count on your rent going up.”
Will took his hand off Pearl’s. She kept chopping calmly away, seemingly content at her newfound tactic to keep Will in tow.
“You’re going to fine me?”
“Yes,” she said. “Twenty-five dollars a month for each time you slip up. Now stop flirting with me and go put on an apron.”
“My, but you seem the poor listener tonight. Must I repeat everything? Yes, an apron. In the pantry. I want you to mix up the gravy and I’d hate for you to splatter it all over your fancy pants.”
“An apron. I don’t need an apron.”
Pearl turned from the counter and looked at Will, one eyebrow raised and the other pressed into a scowl. She pointed the long chef’s knife toward the pantry. “Apron, Mr. Phillips, or get out of my kitchen.”
Will put his hands up in front of his chest and made his way to the pantry with his back to the wall. “Of course, Mrs. Jenkins. An apron.” He ducked inside the pantry door.
Pearl happily chopped her way through another carrot. Will called out, “Are these the only ones you have? Perhaps there’s an apron Mr. Jenkins used to wear?”
“Mr. Jenkins didn’t come into my kitchen very often. They’re one size fits all. Just pick one.”
Will looked at the three aprons hanging on hooks inside the pantry. Flowered. Ruffled. Each one. “Sure you don’t have one that’s less…festive?” He wondered how much he could talk his rent down if Mrs. Jenkins made him look foolish.
“It’s a festive occasion, young man. Come on now, gravy is waiting.”
Will pulled an apron off the hook, bright red begonias trimmed with white eyelet lace. He came around the corner and put the top loop over his head. Pearl turned and wiped her hands on her own bright flowery apron and said, “You look dashingly domestic, Mr. Phillips. Turn around and I’ll tie you.”
“Domestic wasn’t quite the look I was going for. How about I just strap on my tool belt? It’d catch the splatters and keep my fancy pants nice and neat without making me look like the florist shop blew up on me.”
“I like you in begonias. Oh, that reminds me. Did you bring flowers tonight?”
“Umm, no. Was I supposed to?”
“Oh, Mr. Phillips. You are incorrigible. There’s a bouquet in the refrigerator. I thought you might forget. We’ll act like you brought them. Now take the beef roast from the oven and get to work on the gravy.”
Will opened a drawer and pulled out two green oven mitts, then took the roaster from the oven. He turned and closed the oven door with his foot. He transferred the roast to a large cutting board Pearl had set out and was picking up the roaster to drain the drippings when the doorbell rang.
“Oh, dear,” Pearl said, looking at the clock. “One of them is early.”
“You just keep working. I’ll get it. It’s probably Cameron.” Will needed to get to Cameron first. And if it were Joe, well, he needed to get to him first too. He bolted for the pantry and into the dining room, too fast to hear Pearl call out after him.
“Mr. Phillips, you might want to take off that pretty apron!”
Will saw Cameron, split into a dozen tiny images through the beveled glass of the entry. He reached for the doorknob, not taking his eyes off the intelligent, savvy young woman standing on Pearl’s wide porch. It took longer than it should have to realize he still had an oven mitt—and the begonia covered apron—on. He yanked off the mitt and pulled open the door, greeting Cameron with a sheepish grin.
“Come in, come in.” He motioned with the mitt toward his apron. “I’m sorry, Pearl has me helping in the kitchen. I’m hoping she’ll take it off my rent.
“Anyway, come in. Come in.” He gestured to the parlor and giant staircase, evening sun streaming through the vast stained glass on the landing in a colorful array. “Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like Pearl Jenkins’ home.”
Cameron stepped in and looked around. “What lovely woodwork.”
“Yes, it is. As local legend has it, Pearl’s granddaddy was a lumber man and built the house to showcase his wares. The birds-eye maple in the dining room is stunning. We should go there before Pearl decides you and I ran off together before we even enjoyed her wonderful cooking.”
Cameron tipped her head. “So you’re okay with her matchmaking, even though you know nothing will come of it?”
Will swallowed at her certainty. “Well, yes. It’s not the first time Pearl has had me down to dinner, you know. I’ve learned to moderate my expectations. She, on the other hand, keeps turning them up.” He put the oven mitt under his arm and slid his hands into his pockets, rocking forward and back on the balls of his feet.
“I didn’t,” Cameron started. “I didn’t mean—”
“I know,” Will said, and smiled. “Look, before we go in there, I need to tell you I invited a friend.”
“Oh?” Will thought he saw Cameron’s eyes darken, her pupils widening impossibly across the deep pools. She shifted her weight and brushed a hand across her bangs in what seemed an effort to appear nonchalant.
“Yes, and Pearl is incensed. I didn’t tell her who it was, and if it goes badly, I’m looking at a spike in my cost of living that even Congress couldn’t achieve.”
There was a tap at the glass behind them. Will rushed past Cameron to the door. “Joe! Come in,” Will said, shaking Joe’s hand and clapping him on the back with the oven mitt.
“Why, you’re looking quite lovely tonight, Will. Is the apron new?” Joe laughed. “Now I feel underdressed.”
“Consider me the baseline control, Joe. Pearl Jenkins thinks I was born underdressed, so everyone looks dashing next to me.” He put a finger under his collar to adjust it. “The bow tie is a nice touch. You look downright professorial.”
Cameron cleared her throat. Joe pressed Will out of the way with a sweep of his arm. Cameron stood facing the two men, arms crossed over her chest, a smirk planted on her face.
Joe stepped forward and extended his hand. “You must be the fair Ms. Julian I’ve been hearing about.”
“Hearing about?” Will said. “I mentioned her once, today, when I invited you to dinner.”
“Ah, Will likes to be coy.”
“Call me Cameron, please.”
“If you will call me Joe.” He lifted Cameron’s hand and dipped his head to lightly kiss the back of her hand. “Oh, good grief,” Will said.
Joe pointed his index finger back and forth between them. “So this is the match your landlady is working up?” He let out a soft whistle. “She’s no slouch, I guess, your Mrs. Jenkins.”
Will scowled. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“Well, she’s got her work cut out for her, is all. You were right, Will. You’re terrifically outclassed here. Not going to be an easy sell.” He smirked at Cameron, who laughed and bit her lip.
Will rubbed the back of his neck. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, Murphy. Listen, that’s why you’re here. Cameron and I already know, I mean, we’ll humor Pearl for tonight. But if you play your cards right—and I mean literally, there’ll be a game after dinner—then you can redirect her efforts… elsewhere.”
“Mr. Phillips!” Pearl’s heels clicked against the oak floor of the dining room. “Where have you gone to? And thank you so much for not making the gravy like I asked you.” She appeared around the corner drying her hands on her apron.
“Oh! I didn’t know our guests had arrived, since you haven’t let them in yet.” She squeezed Cameron’s forearm and smiled. “Welcome, Miss Julian. So happy you could come.”
Pearl turned toward Will and glared before reaching a hand toward Joe. “And welcome to you as well, Mr. ah—”
“Murphy,” Will said as Joe took Pearl’s hand in both of his. “Mrs. Jenkins, meet my good friend Joe Murphy.”
“Enchanted,” Joe said, bowing lightly.
Pearl waved her guests toward the dining room. “Please, come in, have a seat. I’m delighted to have you both here.” She turned to Will, narrowing her eyes. Smiling through clenched teeth, she said, “Mr. Phillips, I wonder if I could see you in the kitchen please?”
Will folded his hands behind his back and clapped his ankles together. “Of course.” The four walked single file to the dining room, then Will followed Pearl into the kitchen.
In one single, fluid motion, Pearl snatched a white dish towel off the counter, twirled it into a rope, then turned and snapped it at Will’s knees. He jumped back and Pearl continued to advance, chasing him with the towel around the kitchen until she had him cornered between the wall and the trash compactor by the stairway door.
Will threw up his hands, hoping his lack of protection would cause Pearl to stop snapping the towel. She took one more shot, slapping at his abdomen, which stung through his thin cotton shirt. He rubbed his belly with one hand and put the other out toward Pearl.
“Okay, Mrs. Jenkins. I think that’s enough now.”
She put her hands on her hips and let the towel hang down at her side. “What were you thinking? Why on earth did you invite a man my age to dinner?”
“I’m sorry. I know how you prefer your men to be younger.” Pearl snapped the towel again, catching his bicep. Will rubbed his arm. “This is not a double date, Mr. Phillips. I won’t have it. It’s humiliating for me. And for that innocent man out there. What’s your pawn’s name again?”
“Joe Murphy,” Will said. “And he’s not a pawn. This should be no more humiliating for you than it is for me when you parade me past your long line of hopefuls. Maybe if it’s good for the gander it can also go good for the goose. Not that I think you’re a goose, of course. Anyway. At least I brought you a date you have a chance with.”
Pearl stepped backward and leaned against the sink. “Is that what this is? Payback?” she said softly. “I work hard to bring nice girls I think you would like. Is it my fault you don’t hit it off? I can’t do everything for you, Mr. Phillips. And I can’t imagine you’d set me up this way just to even a score.”
“You’re right about that. I wouldn’t.” Will stepped out of the corner and leaned on the counter next to Pearl. “Look. I appreciate all the dinners. The way you are always on the lookout for someone for me. But it doesn’t work that way. I’m just not the kind of guy that—”
Will looked down at the linoleum floor tiles. “Cameron’s great, you know? I think we’ll be good friends. But Joe, Mrs. Jenkins. I’ve never met anyone like him. He lives alone in a shambles. His life sort of imploded on him somehow. But he knows things. Deep things. The world needs him to come out of his house. I thought maybe the two of you could be friends.”
“I am not taking on a charity case, Mr. Phillips. I have my hands full with you.”
“He is not a charity case. I promise.”
“This is not a double date.”
“No, it’s not.”
“I have more towels in the drawer.”
“I know you do. And you are skilled with them.” Will brushed the back of Pearl’s hand with his own as they stood side by side at the sink. “Please? Let’s have a nice dinner. Get to know Joe Murphy. And then let’s play some cards. I didn’t tell him how you cheat.”
“I don’t cheat,” Pearl bit her lip. “But all the same, it’s best not to let on to him.”
“Of course not.”
“I do get lonely, Will,” Pearl said softly.
“I know. So do I.” Will laced his fingers between Pearl’s and they stood quietly.
“Now take off that apron and put the gravy on the table. You look ridiculous, like my little sister.”
“Thank you.” Will pulled the apron off over his head and made as though he was checking his reflection in the polished shine of the refrigerator, tipping his head to the left, then the right.
“Am I bleeding anywhere?”
He felt a thwack to the small of his back as Pearl snapped the towel lightly one last time. “Oh, don’t be such a sissy. A little blood never hurt anybody.”
“Actually, I was hoping for a little. You know, to show Cameron I’m tough like that.”
“Of course. I should have thought of that a long time ago. What girl wouldn’t want a fella who would fight a little old lady in her kitchen, and be the one who came out with battle wounds?”
“Good point.” He straightened his tie and turned to face Pearl. “So am I? Bleeding, I mean.”
“Lord, have mercy.” She threw the towel at Will’s chest and picked up the meat platter. “Bring the gravy you didn’t make. And fix your hair. You look like the Wreck of the Hesperus.”
Will hung the towel and combed his fingers through his hair. He picked up the gravy boat and followed Pearl to the dining room.
By turns thoughtful and hilarious (even, inexplicably, both at the same time), this deeply Midwestern book quietly unfolds a vision for how to navigate in a world where we can’t always resolve things.
As much as the characters have a relationship with poetry and story (and they do), it is also a profound book about naming both the things that have held us back and the things we want, to move us forward—a book about choosing life.
Photo by Ali T, Creative Commons license via Flickr.