Walter looked up into her sweet face, into those eyes, that when he looked and saw the color of the sky, he always thought of Lucy. Blond hair falling against her cheeks, that pink mouth, pulled into a pout, and he felt his heart give a jump.
"Just read them, Walter, please?" she asked. "Whenever you talk about doing it, I see it in your face, which I don't see when you talk about work."
He gave a quick look around the office; all ears were attending to their low-spoken conversation, but the gazes were away, on contracts, and catalogs, and furniture lists. Muffled sounds of filing cabinets and low-slung chairs being pushed under desks. Everyone hard at work, except for him. His boss would be over in a second, a reprimand quick at hand, to threaten Walter with more work. He had a future here, he would be told, if only he would apply himself. Although, after Willie Loomis' visit yesterday and the contract with Mr. Collins, he doubted that more underhand scoldings would be forthcoming. He was set. If he could just get Lucy out of the office before the conversation they were having blossomed into more than just that, and became something that everyone in the office could hear without even trying.
"Lucy…sweetie, I have a future here. We have a future here. We could get married, making the money I make here. But I have to make it here. I can't do that there."
There was a soft pause as Lucy picked at the edges of the topmost brochure. The all-color one that described the center and showed pictures of fine furniture, and then the next one, the catalog that told about the classes. The woodworking school in Beestoke, Vermont.
Then she looked back at him, her face in that listening, still way that she had, turning the words over in her mind when they were most important.
"You've asked me, you know," she said, pulling her hand back, clenching it at her waist. "In so many ways, but not in the right way. Not with your heart."
"My heart…" he began and then trailed off. Lucy often had a way of looking at things as if they mattered, every second of them, and he still wasn't used to that. But he found he wanted to become so, as his heart began racing, just a little bit, to keep up with her. Wanted that fire that she seemed to carry to be inside of him too. But a part of him, that stubborn part, knew that going to a two-year program to become a journeyman woodworker was not the quick way to buy a three-bedroom house in the suburbs of Portland, or any other fine up and coming city. His folks were only farmers, not a high school diploma between them. That Walter had finished school had been a blessing and his parents had wished him the best when he moved to the big city. Now Lucy, with her fired up ideas and her talk of passion, wanted him to go back to that. To go back to working with his hands. To dirty them with varnish and wooddust, to work in a shop, with tools shined with oil and a floor made of cement.
"I've seen you at work you love, Walter," she said to his silence. "When you fixed my mother's desk. You remember that desk?"
He nodded, pretending to arrange the papers on the surface in front of him. Hoping that maybe everyone in the office would think she was a customer. Fat chance of that, when she came in almost every day. Sometimes with baked goods and sometimes with flowers. He found that it embarrassed him almost as much as he wanted it. And on the days when she didn't come by? He found the hours empty and the day hazed over with discontent.
"Tell me about that day, Walter."
"I have to get back to work, sweetie."
"Tell me quick then, and I'll go."
Stubborn. Worse than a mule, who might be coddled with sweets or cajoled with a stick. No, she was more like a huge slab of rock, too unwieldy to lift in the hands. Too heavy to budge with a shove.
"Tell me what you remember."
Trouble was, he remembered it even without her insistence. The day when Lucy's mother, Roselyn, blonde like Lucy, and just as passionate, had been brought almost to tears when the piece of furniture she'd bought at an auction had been roughed up in transport. Walter had been there that day, newly dating Lucy and eager to impress. To be approved of. So, he'd offered. And had been taken up on it. And had spent the rest of that early spring day, a little chilly and overcast, in their garage. Filing down rough edges, gluing joints, putting tiny nails in when necessary. Sanding, smoothing. Fixing. Loosing all track of time, only to look up and find Lucy and her mother standing in the large open doorway, and Lucy had been smiling.
Her mother, astonished and pleased, had given his name to her friends, and Walter spent many a Saturday morning in someone's garage, or workshed, fixing and fitting. Making mistakes. Learning from that. Six months it had been, half his time he'd been at Northbrook's, but oh, so much more interesting. Not paying as much, but still, he had a full time job, didn't he? What did it matter if the people whose furniture he fixed could only slip him a five or a few ones? What he learned helped him at Northbrook's, bringing a few raises, in spite of his daydreaming and the horrid affair with the triangle table for Barnabas Collins. Which, in spite of its being arranged to everyone's satisfaction, continued to be a black spot on his record.
"I remember…" He stopped and tipped his head back so he could take in her entire face with his eyes. "I remember starting and stopping and, in between that, time didn't matter."
She was nodding, lashes low on her cheeks, savoring what he had said in a way that made him want to say something else just as important and meaningful. Something she would remember forever. The way he did when she said something to him.
"I know I'm pushing it." Her voice, soft, like feathers. "But tell me you'll think about it, and I'll meet you after work with something nice to eat."
His heart was padding his throat now, clicking along like a clock newly tuned and wound. Almost bursting. "I love you, Lucy," he said, not whispering it. Not really understanding why he said it, but feeling it, wanting to say it. Wanting her to know it was true.
Her eyes said it back to him, blue stones on fire, and the whisper of her knuckles against the back of his hand. "I'll see you at five, then."
Then, with a whirl of summer skirt, she was out of the office.
And in walked Willie Loomis, pausing in the doorway, holding it open for her as she went out, his gaze following the line of her calf, almost absently, like a man trailing the colors of a gorgeous sunset at the end of a bad day.
"Hey, Willie," said Walter, standing up. Reaching out with one hand to gesture to the chair in front of his desk.
Willie came closer, and did not sit down. Stood, instead, next to the chair, not even nodding a hello. In the shadows of the green-shaded desk lamp.
"You missed what was almost an argument," said Walter, sitting back down, smoothing his tie over his buttons.
"Yeah?" came the question. "What about?"
"About me going to woodworking school. See, look." He pushed the brochure toward the other man, his eyes catching the colored pages, filled with pictures of beautiful furniture. Blood still singing with the nearness of Lucy and her desire that he should be happy. "She thinks I'd be happier repairing than selling. That I'd be a whiz at making stuff. Like this Chippendale chair or something. Can you imagine that? Me making something like that?"
Willie picked up the brochure between his thumb and forefinger and looked at it. Then dropped it back on the desk. "That's a Queen Anne," he said, his eyes hard. With the total lack of modesty of a man who knew what he was talking about, but not bragging either. Just factual.
"Queen Anne?" asked Walter, picking up the brochure. "You sure?"
"See the curve of the back?" Willie pointed, his finger tapping hard against the surface of the desk, almost as if he were a teacher and Walter the slow student. "There's a curve there, where the seat joins the legs, that a Chippendale doesn't have."
Walter stopped. And looked. And saw what his dizziness over Lucy had been shielding from him. It was only his fourth time meeting face-to-face with Willie Loomis, but it seemed that every time Willie came in the office, he looked as though he'd been in a street fight or something equally violent only moments before. And this one the worst yet. Yesterday, Willie had seemed merely tired, his face a little white, eyes overbright, but he'd carried on fairly normally. Normally, compared to the triangle table affair. Willie had been a man almost out of his own control, crashing into the office, making his demands, using a voice loud enough to carry back to the owner's office. Stains on his shirt, collar bent over as if he'd slept in his clothes, he'd almost torn Walter's head off unless he did as Willie wanted him to.
This time, though. This time, Willie stood there as still as he could, as if one movement would threaten his balance or part of him might fall off. There was a bandage on his left hand, white strips that looked suspiciously like a pillowcase, wrapped round and round the palm. The gleam of salve soaking the edges, and the whole of it held stiffly at his side, tucked behind the curve of his thigh.
"Willie, are you sure you won't sit down?"
But then he didn't say anything else. Just stood looking at Walter, deep, gouged shadows under his eyes and no color on his face anywhere. Like a landscape in fog, with no clues to indicate what had happened. Walter didn't want to ask, didn't feel comfortable, after all, he barely knew Willie Loomis. Theirs was a business relationship, one that Walter was working very hard to maintain, especially in light of the contract he'd just signed with Willie's boss, Mr. Collins. There was a lot of money in the Collins family he'd learned through the office grapevine yesterday. And it was coming his way.
Then Willie twitched. Just once, as if something had stung him, a memory or a stray thought, hard enough to jerk him from his shoulders to the floor. His face going grey under the paleness, a wash of hardness now pushing through the bones beneath the skin. Eyes straying from focus, his whole body leaning to one side.
Walter thought of Lucy. What she'd do at this moment, if it were he, her beloved Walter, that looked like he was going to fall over in a dead faint. Walter stood up, and reached out his hand. Just above the level of the desk, just enough for Willie to see it there, and not enough for the whole office to be alerted to the fact that something was wrong.
"Willie, you okay, listen, why don't you sit down."
Getting no response, Walter walked around the desk. Seeing the various faces lifted in interest, he kept his composure, pulling the brochures toward Willie as he neared the other man, as if he were only interested in showing Willie their content. The faces went away, and Walter put his hand on Willie's shoulder. The shoulder twitched, and Willie spun to face him.
Walter could see it in his eyes, what he meant to say, his mouth was opening to say it: Don't touch me. But then Willie, his cheeks flushing with color, the only color in his face, seemed to realize where he was and what effect a comment like that would have, and did not say it aloud.
"I--" His voice broke, and he swallowed, slow, taking a breath. "I had a bad fall, off a ladder yesterday, I think I pulled a muscle. In my shoulder?"
That would make sense, though why Willie was making it a question, like he wasn't sure where it hurt, was beyond Walter. Standing a bit closer now, so their conversation couldn't be overheard, Walter voiced the other part of the puzzle. "Then why did you drive all this way? Couldn't it wait? Why didn't you just phone in the order?"
Willie was shaking his head, as if Walter simply didn't get it. "My boss wanted me to come in and ask you something in person."
Willie lifted his unbandaged hand, and wiped his upper cheek with the edge of the palm. The flesh under his eyes was moist, almost as he were standing in the midst of a very hot day, yet the office was cool and calm, the desk fans purring, ceiling fans spinning, utterly silent and obedient overhead. Walter realized Willie was sweating, not crying, as he had thought for a moment, and his initial impulse to be embarrassed flickered away. Willie was standing there, sweating it out, as if he were in pain. Like a football player, faking it so the coach wouldn't bench him for the rest of the game.
"Yeah, in person." Willie took another deep breath, mouth still open, processing what he was supposed to say. "He was real interested in the contract, and wanted to meet you. I recommended you, see, and so, he wants to know…."
"The kind of man I am," supplied Walter, looking down at his hands. It was hard to keep his gaze on Willie, when the other man was fighting so hard. To stay upright, to deliver his message, to be on his way.
"Yeah." Willie nodded. "He wants you to drive up to Collinwood, have drinks, talk things over."
This was different. "When?"
"Tonight. Around 8 o'clock. It's a three-hour drive and then three back. He says he'll pay you for your time, will you do it?"
Now Walter did look at Willie. At the sweat trickling down the side of his grey face. Unwashed hair plastered in front of his ear. Fatigue pulling at his eyes, which looked at Walter with desperation, a blank panic mirrored in the tightness of his shoulders.
"Of course I'll do it, especially if he pays." Walter smiled, trying to make a joke out of it. One that was wasted on Willie, who obviously, by his lack of reaction, except to relax the smallest of measures, hadn't even heard anything beyond the affirmation.
"But I still don't understand, I mean, you could have phoned, right? I mean, they do have phones up in your neck of the woods?" Another joke, one aimed at finding out why someone's boss would send an employee who'd been banged up falling off a ladder on a three-hour drive when it wasn't absolutely necessary.
Walter could almost hear the hard snick as something broke in Willie's eyes. "No, they do not have phones in my neck of the woods, but even if they did it wouldn't matter. My boss wanted me to come down here and give you the message and so I did. Now, when he asks you, you tell him, okay? Tell him I was here, and that I delivered the message in person just like he wanted. You tell him that."
Before Walter could give the angry reply that was forming in his head, Willie pulled out a piece of paper from the front pocket of his pants and slammed it on the table. "Here's the address and directions. Eight o'clock. At the Blue Whale. Right in the center of Collinsport. Okay? The number's there, you call them if you get lost."
Then Willie turned and walked off, his left hip hitching with every other step. His voice had been loud enough to raise heads and bestir comments not directed at furniture lists and estate sales. Walter didn't look at his co-workers. Didn't pay any attention to them, that would just feed the fire. He'd been so high on the list for being noticed and singled out lately, and this was just the topper. Willie Loomis had a way of making trouble for Walter without even trying, and Walter knew that the fewer meetings he had with Willie the better. He wanted to get ahead in this business, not get scrapped to the bottom of the pile.
As the door slammed behind the other man, Walter truly hoped that the meeting would just involve him and Mr. Collins. And not the troublesome, ill-kempt, surly Willie Loomis.
The echo of sound of wood against wood faded just as a truck engine started up, hard, outside in the parking lot. Walter looked down at his desk, pulling the brochures toward him. He would have to walk around his desk in a moment, and sit back down. Pretend to work. To analyze the new form that the State of Maine had produced to keep track of taxes earned and spent at estate sales in the Portland metro area. Surely more interesting than the description of one of the classes held during the first twelve-week quarter at the school. Lumber selection, it read. Buying and selecting wood appropriate to your designs. Pricing wood. Storing wood.
His heart started to jump again. If he went to work for Collins, he would make lots of money. But if he went to the school, he would work with his hands, and time would learn to disappear. And Lucy would be waiting for him at the end of each and every day. Wanting to hear about every detail. Chin resting on her hand, smile sweet and still and attentive.
Walter sighed. She was not going to be happy hearing about his meeting with Barnabas Collins. He'd have to tell her about that when they met for lunch, because he'd have to be on the road directly after work. And back late, which meant no goodnight-phone call, the one that lit his tiny bed-sit with the sound of her voice, and formed a glow behind his eyes that he took with him into darkness.
And then there was Willie Loomis. He wouldn't tell her about that. It would upset her and she wouldn't like that Willie had been rude to her beloved. Willie probably hadn't meant it because a pulled shoulder never seemed to wander very far from the nerve endings of the back. No, best not tell her that part. Best keep it to himself, and keep his fingers crossed that Willie didn't frequent the Blue Whale.
Walter made himself sit down. Made himself pull the paperwork to the front of his mind, and push Lucy to the back. Willie Loomis he shoved out of his mind altogether, along with Barnabas Collins and the money he had at his disposal. Paperwork first. Then lunch with Lucy, and hopefully no argument. He picked up his pen and began to review the new tax form. Five o'clock would come on its own, and if he could demonstrate to Mr. Collins his knowledge about the whole business, then maybe there would be a bonus in it for him.
Not that Lucy cared about bonuses, or any of that. She only wanted to hold his face in her hands and see the light of happiness there. That was what mattered to her. It mattered to him too, and he knew it, but it had a hard time competing with the need to get ahead. To buy that new, little house. To make of his life something his parents never could.
Bear with me, Lucy. I'll try to make the best decision.
Content with that, he focused on his work. And for the rest of the morning, it was only the memory of the tired fog in Willie's eyes that detracted him.
The road to Collinsport, the main highway, was a long, straight roller coaster. Walter had been up it a time or two, following local estate sales, but never on his own. And never like this, to meet a man for drinks and talk business. He followed Willie's directions to the letter, and long about the time that the sun was almost horizontal through the trees, he found a parking spot downtown, just next to the alley that ran behind a block of buildings alongside the pier. The Blue Whale's sign was unmistakable, a huge blue sperm whale, roughened by weather and a life preserver, lettered with the same name.
When he went in, he found the place decorated as though for tourists, those that used to come, for the strung nets and cork bobs were dusty and old. The floor was shiny though, from wear, and the jukebox near the edge of the bar looked new. The song coming from it was certainly current, and the red-checked tablecloths made the place seem a little more welcoming than might have been. And at the same time Walter was wondering whether he would actually be able to order a beer, not knowing if one was supposed to drink during business meetings, even casual ones in the evening, he spotted Willie standing at the end of the bar.
He made himself keep walking, disappointment lurching in his stomach. At least Willie had washed up, put on a clean shirt. Shaved even. The bandage on his hand was still in place, though, and he still looked white. He was watching the door and barely even seemed to notice Walter approach him.
"Hey, Willie," said Walter in his best office voice. It was better to set the tone now, all business, and no personal stuff. He didn't want to follow where Willie's troubles seemed to be taking him.
"Walter," said Willie.
"You almost sound like you were expecting me not to show up," said Walter in reply, trying to make it a joke and failing. Sarcasm seemed utterly lost on Willie, and for what reason he didn't know.
"Your boss here yet?" Walter asked, looking around. The room's tables had a few couples, mostly drinking cocktails, though toward the back of the room, where the shadows grew darker, there were a few hard-core drinkers hunched over their glasses.
Willie finally focused on him. "Any minute now," he said, as if he were suggesting that something nasty were about to happen. Then he looked away from Walter again, toward the door over Walter's shoulder. Willie's back was against the bar and he seemed to be propping himself on it as he faced the door.
"I don't mind standing," said Walter. The conversation, at least for the moment, seemed to be up to him. "I've been sitting for three hours, that drive, you know."
"I know it," said Willie, still not looking at him.
Of course Willie did. He'd made it four times all told to visit Northbrook's, and maybe countless others to Portland. Two of those trips had been in the last two days.
"Well, if anyone knows that drive, I'd say you did." Attaching this to a smile, Walter waited for the good-natured response, or the acknowledgement of his soft wit, but none came.
Those hard blue eyes found him again, red around the edges. From lack of sleep, Walter guessed, though he really didn't know. Didn't think he wanted to know. Whatever Willie was into, it wasn't going easy on him.
Willie opened his mouth to say something when there was a whoosh behind Walter and a quick slice of cold air, which was strange, because the night he'd just come in from had been warm and balmy. He saw Willie tighten up, and he turned around to see that everyone in the place, even the hard-drinking cronies in the back, had somehow shifted straighter in their seats, and the whole room went silent, just for a second, as the door swung closed behind the person entering.
"My boss," said Willie, low, his mouth closing over the words, just as the bar's normal activity rose in volume around them.
The man, dressed in a caped coat even in the warm weather of July, paused on the threshold, as if acknowledging the silence and the attentiveness, and then dipped his head. Walter couldn't figure out if he knew he was doing it, but he saw it happen just the same. Saw the dark hair laced over the pale forehead, and the silver-headed cane, the dark suit, all in a glance. And then was speared by a pair of dark brown eyes. Only for a second, but in that time, his heart stopped, and then started again so quickly he thought he'd imagined it.
Willie's boss, Mr. Barnabas Collins of triangle table fame, smiled and strode toward them. Slipping off his coat and handing it and his cane to the bartender who appeared at his side at just that moment. Took the garment and cane away as Mr. Collins stepped right up to him. And smiled.
"Mr. Thompson, what a delight to meet you at last." Mr. Collins held out his hand and Walter took it and returned the strong shake, thinking that the other man might suffer from a circulatory problem. Which would explain the coat-wearing in warm weather. And the three-piece suit.
"Thank you, Mr. Collins, it's good to meet you, too. Thank you for inviting me up here."
"You are good to come so far on such short notice," Mr. Collins replied, the courtesy in his words well-oiled, but seeming sincere. "Willie," he said, his tone short, "you can get us a table now."
Which seemed odd to Walter since there wasn't a lack of tables, plenty to choose from. But Willie ducked his head and led the way to the table that held sway over the room, in the most prominent spot next to the postage-stamp size dance floor. Collins gestured for him to sit, and Walter did, smoothing his tie, thinking he might have just the one beer, and then Collins sat down and turned to Willie.
"Sit down, Willie," he said, "and join us."
There was a short pause while Willie and his boss looked at each other. Willie rubbed the back of his neck as he turned his eyes to the door.
"I thought I would get back to the Old House, you know, finish up clearing the back stairway and all?"
The expression that Barnabas directed at Willie was unreadable, and Walter made himself look away. Not his business, surely.
"And I thought," replied Barnabas putting an emphasis on the word, "that you might enjoy a break from your duties. And perhaps learn something from someone so skilled in the furniture industry."
Now where did that come from? Walter was no more skilled than Willie, perhaps even less so, if Willie's knowledge about the difference between Queen Anne and Chippendale was anything to go by. Walter felt something spark in the air between the two men.
Then Barnabas said, "You will sit down, Willie."
A long moment simmered in the air, and then Willie ducked his head and dropped his hands at his sides. Pulled out a chair and slid into it, the skin on his face going strangely grey.
"There, that's better." Collins smiled at them both and then gestured with one hand. The bartender was at their side before the air from his hand had even settled back down to the table. Walter refused to let his eyebrows fly up. The bartender took their order, Walter decided that one beer was okay, and he knew that he did not want to know the problems that Willie was having with his boss. Perhaps that was why Collins had invited him up here. Maybe Willie was more trouble than he was worth and Collins was looking for a new assistant to help him buy furniture. Or, at the very least, an additional assistant to take up the slack of issues that Willie seemed unwilling, or unable, to deal with. Being the personal assistant of a man like Barnabas Collins would indeed bring in a lot of money. Perhaps Lucy would consent to living along the north coast of Maine?
The jukebox started up another song just as their drinks came. A brandy for Mr. Collins, a beer for him, and Willie had ordered a coke. Had they come any faster, the drinks would have appeared by magic.
Collins picked up his glass, and tipped it at Walter. "A toast, young man, to your new position at Northbrook's."
Walter raised his beer, his attention on Collins, but saw Willie out of the corner of his eyes, pretending to participate in the toast. He certainly took a big gulp of his coke, as if he needed it, but he was looking only at the table, or maybe it was his hands. It was obvious, even to Walter, that Willie wished he were elsewhere.
"Thank you, Mr. Collins," said Walter, meaning it. "I really appreciate the opportunity. For new guys like me, a position like I got at Northbrook's doesn't have anywhere it can go."
"Well," said Collins, putting his brandy down, "Willie was so adamant that you were the man for me, to help me in my furniture acquisitions, why, I simply couldn't resist his description of you. A good man, he told me." This followed by a glance at Willie, who looked up, at last.
"Isn't that what you told me, Willie?"
A half-shrug, and then a nod. Ducking the question even as he acknowledged it. "Yeah, I guess I did."
"You know you did." Mr. Collins smiled, but it was a businesslike smile. Walter had seen others like it, at work, and at estate sales, when the other agent felt he had all the markers in his corner and knew that the furniture he had his eye on would soon be his. Willie shrugged again, and shifted in his seat, the slant of his shoulders saying plainly, at least to Walter, that he was simply going to pretend he wasn't there, and that the evening should proceed without him.
Walter took a slug of his beer. And wondered where the conversation was supposed to go next. If he was such a good man, as Willie had described him, shouldn't he come up with something interesting to talk about? He wasn't much at the patter, Merrill at the office was always telling him so. But didn't he come home with everything on his list, when they let him go to estate sales? Didn't he make good deals over the phone? He most certainly had! Maybe he wasn't any good with idle chatter, that was it.
He opened his mouth to, at the very least, attempt something, anything at all, to prove his worth in the conversation department, when Collins spoke up.
The other man had been gazing into his brandy glass, and then he lifted his head. "I'd be interested to find what you made of my present collection and how it could be rounded out. Perhaps we could arrange for you to visit the Collins estate. I'm sure a trained eye, such as yours, could take stock far better than any of the family could."
"Sure, Mr. Collins," said Walter, sitting up, ignoring the sudden shift Willie made in his chair. Collins had no idea how much Northbrook's would charge for a service like that, but maybe, given the number of times that Willie had indicated to him that money wasn't the option, it simply wasn't. The town was named after the man, after all. "Anything you want, anything at all. In fact, I was thinking I could start reviewing the Boston estate sales, you know, see what's coming up, and maybe place some orders for you over the phone."
"I think it would be more beneficial if you were to go in person," replied Barnabas, tipping his head in Walter's direction. "After all, it is travel that broadens a young man's mind, is it not?"
"To the Boston show, really?" That would be quite a coup, and with Collins ordering him to go, there could be nothing that Merrill could do about it.
"Indeed. I trust that this would be agreeable to your superiors?"
Collins must know that he had carte blanche at Northbrook's, but perhaps his ego demanded it be spelled out. He certainly seemed to be waiting, his dark eyes narrowing as he tipped his head back. A little smile playing around his mouth, as if in readiness for the compliments and adulation. Walter felt the tiny dryness in his throat grow larger and he took another swallow of his beer. Not wanting to dance the dance, but knowing that if he wanted to keep this spot, he might have to do a little of the old soft shoe every now and again. Starting with now.
"Sure, they told me, Walter, they told me, anything Mr. Collins wants, you just go ahead and do it. And if you need anything, you just phone it in, like if you need a wire or something, you just let us know." Walter smoothed the table and patted it as if it represented their stamp of approval. The cloth felt slick and damp under his fingers and he quickly wiped them on his pants. A bad move, though, he saw Collins' eyes tracking this motion, and he almost choked.
"When they found out that Willie worked for you," he said, quick to cover, "they told me to give the same treatment to him, too. Nothing but the best for the Collins family, they told me."
Now Mr. Collins' dark eyebrows rose, and then the eyes narrowed, and Walter saw Willie flash him a glance like heated blue steel. The air above the table almost seemed to ring with the clash. He couldn't figure out what he'd just said that was so volatile, but there it was.
He made himself laugh a little bit. "Of course, they were amazed and honored that you would go all that way to Portland, instead of using a local dealer. And puzzled too, why you would go so far, but they'll bend over backwards to keep your business, Mr. Collins. So you just tell me what you want, and I'll get it for you." He emphasized the word so that Collins would know that if it was Willie who had failed him in the past, it wouldn't be Walter doing it in the future.
"Ah, yes, Portland," replied Collins, his head going back. "Willie could tell you why we made the move to Portland, couldn't you, Willie." It was a request.
"It was the triangle table," said Willie, his voice low. He wasn't looking at his boss, but his face turned in that direction. "Mr. Collins wanted it, and it was part of one of your estate sales. That's why we went to Portland."
"Indeed, that is correct," said Collins. "Which after the initial confusion turned out to be an arrangement beneficial to all."
Collins was looking at Willie now, the angles of his face hard, and those eyes spinning to black. Perhaps it was the lights in the bar, but Walter could swear they were black. Willie was looking away from them. His body wasn't moving, but it seemed as if it wanted to. Away from that gaze, away from the table, out of the Blue Whale to slide into the darkness of a side street. And it occurred to Walter, for the first time, that Willie had, that night, arrived home empty handed, and would have had to report on his failure of the triangle table. If he'd gotten a look like that, it was no wonder he'd shown up like he had the next day, voice loud, shaken, demanding the table, and no questions about it. If his job were in jeopardy, as it constantly seemed to be, a look like that would be one that would haunt his dreams. Not that Walter cared, of course. If Willie had been in hot water over that damned table, Walter had almost gotten fired for it.
"I'm glad it worked out as well as it did," said Walter, in the stiff silence. "Sometimes it doesn't, you know."
Collins seemed to suddenly notice him there, and nodded as if Walter had been talking for quite some time, and that he'd been listening attentively all along.
"I am well aware of that, young Thompson," he said, pushing his brandy glass away from him on the table. Dismissive, suddenly, eyes casting about the room as if he, like Willie, wanted to be somewhere else. "Well, this has been a very informative visit. Let me give you something else, though." He reached into the inside of his jacket and pulled out a pen and a leather-covered book. Opening it, he placed it on the table. It looked like a checkbook, and Walter felt himself grow anxious. Either Collins would pay him for his time and dismiss him from future duties, or Collins would pay him for his time, and arrange another meeting. It could go either way.
"When you signed that contract, you were not awarded a signing bonus, which I believe is customary in these cases, is it not?"
Walter could hardly say that he had never heard of such a thing, since he'd been thinking it all the way up to Collinsport. "I don't know, Mr. Collins, maybe. But not at Northbrook's."
"Then we shall have to start a new tradition, then, shan't we." It wasn't a question. Collins was writing out the check with a fountain pen, signing it with a swirl at the end of his name and ripped out the check and handed it to Walter. It was for two thousand dollars, which would put him well on his way to getting married and starting a family. It was a fortune. He felt his eyes glaze, and the greed rise up.
"Why thank you, Mr. Collins, this is more than generous, I just don't know what--"
"The thanks are all on my end," Mr. Collins said, his voice smooth, his hands, even smoother, tucking away the pen and checkbook. He hadn't even written the amount in the check register, that's what that amount meant to him, it seemed. "And now, I have other business to attend to tonight. You will finish your drink, if it pleases you to do so, and then Willie will give you directions out of town. The one-way streets can be tricky at night, or so I'm told."
Dismissing them both with a small wave of his hand, Mr. Collins stood up.
"I will contact your office soon, young Mr. Thompson," he said, "for additional arrangements for the trip to the Boston show."
He seemed to tower over them, still sitting in their chairs, and just as the bartender came over with Mr. Collins' coat and cane, the room had that strange stillness once more. Just for a second or two, but definite, an acknowledgment that the most powerful man there was just about to make his exit.
When the door shut behind him, Walter lifted the check in his hands. He looked at Willie. "What will I do with it?" he asked.
"Keep it," said Willie, his tone short. "Or spend it. You earned it, or you will."
Of course he would keep it, and he would earn it. Lucy would be so amazed at his good fortune, and surely she would see the sense of having a job that paid so well? Fixing furniture was fine, on the weekends. In someone's garage. In his spare time. This, now, this check was proof of the abundance to come, if he just stuck with Northbrook's. If he could only keep Mr. Collins happy.
He took a swallow of beer, and then another one. Put the mug back on the table, and realized that Willie was standing once again.
Walter looked up at the other man, who was looking, again, at the door, which was shut. He seemed not to realize that there were a few patrons looking at him looking at the door, but Walter got the feeling that Willie hardly noticed. Or if he did, hardly cared.
"So, I guess I better be getting back," said Walter, standing himself. "Wouldn't want to run into a moose, I guess."
Now Willie looked at him, not a muscle in his face twitching at Walter's attempt at wit. The main highway was not renowned for having stray moose, and that's where the joke came in. But Willie just shrugged and Walter figured it was time to get going.
"I'll walk you out to your car," said Willie.
"No," said Walter in return, touching the edge of the still-cool mug on the table. Wishing he could take another sip, knowing with the long drive that it would not be a good idea. "I'll be okay."
"Mr. Collins asked me to," was Willie's reply, and Walter was forced to follow him out of the Blue Whale and into the summer night of the street. Smelling the creosote in the lumber of the docks, and the nasty undertone of low tide, close at hand. There were plenty of street lights out front, but these quickly faded from view as they headed down the little side street. He'd not realized it at the time, but had this been any other burg, his parking spot would have been slightly creepy, being in shaded darkness on a too-quiet street.
When Walter stopped in front of his little car, Willie stopped too. Looked up and down the street and then pointed toward the darker end of it.
"Go down this street. It's not a one-way, but the first intersection is. You go past it, two more blocks, and turn left. Another one-way, okay? You go left. Follow the signs that tell you you're going toward Ellsworth. Then there's a fork in the road. Take the right fork, not the left. Otherwise, it'll bring you right back here, 'cause it's a circle. You got that?"
Willie dropped his arm and finally looked at Walter. His eyes were hard and bright and Walter shifted back a bit, feeling it, but not understanding why he felt he wanted to get out of the way.
"You got it?"
"Yeah, I got it already," said Walter. "Straight three blocks, then go left. Follow the signs to Ellsworth and then at the fork, go right. Right?"
Willie seemed satisfied with that, and with a stiff wave of his hand, he was off, headed back to the Blue Whale, it seemed. Perhaps he meant to buy a mug of beer, something he'd obviously felt he couldn't have in front of his boss. Not that it mattered, Walter found that he didn't care if Willie drank himself under the table every night. He, Walter, was going home. And in the morning, he was going to start the next phase of his career, making lots of money. And someone else at Northbrook's would have to put up with Willie's odd visits. Walter was going to be on the road to Boston.
But alas not on the road out of Collinsport.
He could have sworn it was three blocks and left, then right at the fork. Or had it been left? The last thing he'd said to Willie was right and Willie had said yep, and Walter was sure that he was confirming that Willie should go left. Which is what he'd done. And followed the road through the dark trees, smelling the shift of salt grow fainter and then stronger, and found himself up a dark one-way street, with streetlights glowing only one street over.
Following it for a few blocks, he stopped only when he was sure he was almost exactly where he'd started out. On a quiet back street, a block of short steps from the Blue Whale. Except now he was one block closer to a streetlight, and there were a few more cars around.
"Damnit," he muttered, shutting the engine down. Driving at night in the dark in a strange place was for the birds. When he went to Boston, he'd hire a cab, that's what he'd do. None of this trying to figure it out and getting lost nonsense.
Sighing, he hooked his hands on the steering wheel, and peered out through the windshield. At least it was a warm night, with no sign of rain. Perhaps it had been the beer, which had muddled his head and confused him. He rolled down the windows all the way and let the breeze, still warm from the day, float in over him. He'd wait for the last of the beer to wear off and then he'd try again.
Leaning back in his seat, he heard footsteps, quick on the cobblestones that seemed the requirement for all old seaside towns, before he saw the flicker of a shadow. A man, walking fast, coming from the direction of the Blue Whale, obviously headed for his car, and Walter sat up when he realized it was Willie Loomis. Walking, in a hurry, and Walter's eyes shot in that direction, and recognized the white truck that Willie drove. Of course, the man would have to park somewhere. He must have had his beer and was now headed home.
Walter sat up and opened his mouth. Yeah, he'd say hello and Willie would come over and Walter would be chagrined and maybe cheer the guy up some, watching another guy mess up some perfectly good and simple directions.
Then he saw the stretch of black shadow that expanded next to the truck just as Willie reached out for the door handle. Suddenly, Barnabas Collins was standing there, coat tails swirling around him in a non-existent wind, grabbing Willie and slamming him up against the door of the truck. Walter could hear the thud of bone against metal even from where was sitting, a block away and across the street.
Then Collins said something. It was too far away to be very clear, but he was saying it to Willie and Willie was shaking his head. Looking right back at Collins, shaking his head no. Then Collins hit him, sending Willie rolling against the truck, stopped from his forward motion by the sideview mirror, it looked like.
"You will apologize at once!"
Walter heard that very clearly, for some reason, maybe a shift in the sea-filtered breeze that suddenly blew in through his windows. Though what Willie had done that needed apologizing for, Walter had no idea.
Willie was still shaking his head no, though Walter couldn't hear his reply, it was obvious that he meant to say no, raising his hand to his mouth, wiping it sideways.
Another backhanded slap and Willie was on the ground, Collins towering over him, not helping him up. Black like a stalking crow, Willie's legs having slipped between his and Walter felt a spark of something fearsome in his gut, the sudden image of Collins putting his heel to Willie's leg and breaking it. But this didn't happen. Collins barked something out, something that made Willie flatten himself to the cobbled-street, as if maybe he were trying to crawl under the truck, and then Walter could swear he heard Willie say something. Not what, but how, in a broken tone that scattered itself through the air.
And then, with a black flicker, Collins was gone. Leaving a swirl of dark air and a silence that was not even broken by the buzz of a summer's evening. Walter found he could barely catch his breath. Of course, the light was uneven, and he didn't know the streets like Collins did. The man didn't just disappear.
And Willie wasn't moving. Not at all. Walter put his hand on the door latch and hesitated. Saw Willie's bandaged hand come up, as if trying to reach for the handle of the passenger door, and then fall. This decided him. He opened the car door, pulling the keys with him as he went, and rushed across the cobblestones to the truck, his eyes skirting the darkness, looking for Collins, who surely couldn't be far. He might come back for another go at his dogsbody, and Walter didn't want to be caught off guard.
He stood for a moment, as Collins had stood, looking down at Willie. Then he lowered himself to his haunches, shifting to his knees, gingerly on the cobbles, and reached out. Willie lay tumbled, like a used rag somebody had thrown, spotted with oil, and in need of a good wash.
"Hey," he said, "Willie, you okay?"
He touched Willie on the shoulder, and gave a push. The way the other man lay there, it was like he'd been broken on the stones. Walter wondered if he should call an ambulance.
Then the chest hitched with a breath, and Willie's elbow came up to shove him off.
"Go away," he said, in a whisper.
"No," whispered Walter back. "I gotta make sure you're okay."
"'mokay," came the reply. "Just leave me alone."
"No," said Walter again. Willie was just as stubborn as Lucy, it seemed, even when shoved to the ground with a hard blow. He'd never seen a grown man struck down like that before. "I'm gonna help you up, okay? Make sure nothing's broken. Maybe take you to the hospital."
"No," said Willie again, with more force. It seemed to break him out of a vague haze, and he opened his eyes and half pushed himself up. His hair was whipped over his eyes, glittering in the darkness. A bruise shadowed half his face, but maybe that was the grease and dust from the road, because if it was a bruise, then Collins had almost bashed Willie's face in out of temper.
Walter pulled gently on Willie's elbow and helped him to a sitting position. Then grabbed him by both arms and helped him to his feet. Willie stood, sagging against the truck, his head, half resting on the hood of the cab, half resting on his shoulder. He seemed to be breathing in jags and half stops, and Walter thought again that Willie was crying. But when Willie lifted his head, mouth slightly open as if to say something, his face was dry. The only thing that marked it was a large, dark patch in the shape of a large rock. And obviously, in this light, not grease or dust.
"Does he beat on you like that a lot?" he asked, the impulse rushing ahead of his common sense or even politeness.
"What do you think?" Willie shot back.
This stopped him, his hands still resting on Willie's forearms as several memories trotted out, almost in front of his eyes. Willie stumbling into Northbrook's, on more than one occasion, looking like he'd been shoved in a barrel and tumbled down the hill. Bruises and sweat breaking out on his forehead, clothes stained with dust and what Walter realized now was blood. He remembered seeing it on Willie's shirtfront the one time, that it was a ketchup stain, thinking that Willie was just a slob not to have changed his clothes before coming into town. The unbuttoned cuffs of his shirt tangled over his raw wrists, and his trousers askew. Some portion of the trousers ripped, he was not sure which. He remembered seeing this, and distinctly now remembered looking away. Dismissing Willie as being merely untidy instead of having been the victim of slaps and cuffs and God knew what else. Walter also knew that Willie had been working for Collins for some time, which seemed strange under the circumstances. For who would stay in a situation like that?
"Then why do you work for him?"
"Why do you want to?" Again, Willie's response cut out at him like a flash of bright light from a darkened room. Then Walter remembered the temper that had flared in Mr. Collins' eyes, and had thought that looks like that must haunt Willie's dreams. They probably most certainly did.
"Because--" he began. Stopped, watching Willie tip the back of his wrist to the side of his face as if pressing flesh to flesh would make the ache go away. His face must hurt like hell as in the spitting glow of the streetlight, the side of Willie's temples began to shimmer with sweat.
He thought he could feel the press of the folded check in his pants pocket. The taste of beer on the edge of his tongue, and the soft memory of Lucy's hand on the back of his neck. Somehow, these weren't fitting oh so very well together, and he was startled as Willie jerked himself back from Walter's touch even as it faded, and he looked at Willie.
"Because," he said again. "I want to make a life for me and Lucy. A good one, where she can paint and study art and I won't have to be at the beck and call of someone like Merrill. You know?"
Willie shifted on his feet, clutching the door, seeming to scan the street without realizing he was doing it.
"Hey, Willie, you want to sit down?"
Willie nodded, and Walter backed up to open the door to the truck, his hand reaching out without purpose, but thinking that if Willie fell, he'd catch him. Willie slid into the cab, and closed the door halfway. Walter was in the way, that was obvious, but he didn't want to back up. Not just yet. Not before he found out what he needed to know.
"Is he, I mean…" His voice trailed off. Willie just looked at him through the half opened door, his hand on the latch as if he meant to close it at any second.
He tried again. "Does he always….?"
A little shift of the wind brought the smell of the tide, now starting to come in, reminding Walter how late it was. How long the drive back would be. How far away his life was from moments like this. Then Willie pulled the door of the cab shut, making Walter move out of the way. Making him feel suddenly cut off, but from what he did not know.
"Tell me, please," he said, wanting Willie to look at him. To see the truth in the other man's face.
Willie's hands were on the steering wheel now, though he made no move to turn on the ignition. Again he scanned the street, almost casually as if he already knew what he would not see. The breeze slid through the cab toward Walter, bringing with it the smell of Willie's sweat. From his neck and armpits and the band where his pants tightened across his hips. Dark with salt and dirt and old ash, like from an unused fireplace. It was that close-up smell you only got when you hugged someone, or bumped into them in a hot elevator. Or beat them to a standstill, just because you could.
"Willie," he said. Not begging. Hearing it in his voice anyway.
The other man's hands moved to the ignition. Turned the engine on, revved it a little bit. Pushing on the gas but not releasing the brake or pulling it out of park. Walter couldn't even hear the slap of the tide over the engine, and in a frantic move, he put his hands on the ledge of the open window. Surely Willie wouldn't drive off with his hands there, would he?
Then Willie opened his mouth, eyes flickering over his dashboard and the view of the street that he had through his windshield. "I can't tell you anything, okay? I can't and I won't. But." Now he looked out the driver's side window, tipping one shoulder down to release the parking brake, and putting the clutch into first. Sitting back, turning his head, just a fraction, in Walter's direction. "You remember that school?"
Walter nodded, feeling suddenly like he too should begin scanning the street. "Yeah," he said.
"That's where you should go," said Willie, and Walter felt the pop of the clutch as the truck began to pull slowly away. Walter couldn't quite drop his hands from the window, and then Willie looked right at him and said, "Far, far away from here. For Lucy's sake."
Now Walter had to drop his hands as the truck began to pull off. He wanted to ask about the money, what about the money, but he could only see the side of Willie's face. Now the back of his head through the curved back window of the truck cab. And the words did not come. Nor the reply that he felt Willie might have made, had the question been asked. Not worth it, Willie would have said.
Then he heard the gun of the engine and the truck barreled off through the back streets of Collinsport.
Leaving him wondering how he was supposed to, finally, get home.
But he got in the car, anyway, his stomach buzzing with something that felt like it might bite, locking all the doors from the inside and not waiting to start the engine until he did it. Then he buckled himself in, cranked the engine and went three blocks, turned left, followed the road, and then took the right fork at the Ellsworth sign. Once out of town, the darkness settling down like rough velvet, he knew he would make it home in three hours. The question was, what was he going to tell Lucy?
Lucy was up when he arrived. She was one of those night owls, and as his car pulled into the driveway of her parent's bayside home in Portland, the yellow paint of the siding flashed under his headlights. And then she was there, barefoot in the warmth of summer and nighttime, her dad's t-shirt and an old pair of shorts skimming over the length of leg and arm and dusky tan. He couldn't see this clearly in the shadow of the porch light, but as he stopped the engine and flew out of the car to take her in his arms, his hands, his own skin, could tell him just what it was he held so close to him.
"You were gone so long," she complained, pressing against his breastbone as they walked up to the front porch. "I made peach ice cream, but we ate it all."
He doubted that, she was only teasing. If they made one batch, they made two, and the second was always for him.
Climbing the stairs, careful of her bare feet next to his office-shod ones, feeling overdressed and dusty from the road, the gleam of her hair bright like flickering gold and silver all at once, and he felt the pounding of his heart, hard, through his arms and his legs, and his head. His chest, one big pound. Stopped on the next to the top step, letting her go one ahead of him so that they were level, indeed she a little taller, looking down at him, smiling, eyes shadowed a bit under the single light, but glinting. Looping her arms around his neck, and that press, fingers against his spine, just like always. Making him shiver.
He pulled her to him, burying his head in the curve of her neck.
"I love you," he said. Something pressing on the back of his eyes, feeling something precious in her tightening arms on the line of his shoulders. And her whispered response, so light it felt like a kiss on the top of his head.
"And I love you," he heard. Hands sweeping his hair back, as if he were a cat, fingers gently moving along his skull.
"Marry me," he said. Like he had a thousand times before.
"Of course," she said, as always. Brightly. Open. Joyful.
"I mean it," he said. Then he sat on the top step and pulled her to sit there with him. Almost wanting her to be in his lap with his arms around her, but knowing that this had to be a serious moment. Just one serious moment, and then everything afterwards could be as they liked it. Skin against skin, size to size, and her hands on him always, anywhere they wanted to go.
"I have something to ask you," he began. "And to tell you. Or, I guess I should tell you, and then ask you."
She scooted close. Walter could hear the tread of her father across the boards right inside the front door. But he was a good guy, the front porch light was full on, and he knew his daughter would come to no harm. Not while Walter was there. At least that's the impression Walter always got. He heard the door close most of the way, and the tread went away.
"So ask me," she said. Patting his leg. "Or tell me. Or whatever."
He smiled and kissed the side of her head. Lined his fingers up behind the bone of her bent knee.
It wasn't hard to tell her of his excitement at the prospect of working for a man as rich and powerful as Mr. Barnabas Collins. She already knew that. Or of his mild distaste of always having to meet up with Willie Loomis.
"Of course, you like him anyway," she commented.
And he had to nod that yes, he did. In a way.
But harder to tell her of the events of that night. Of Collins and his grand entrance, and Willie shifting in his seat. The looks between the two men, the awareness of everyone in the bar when Collins left. And the check.
"Two thousand dollars?" she asked, her voice rising only enough to let him know how unusual she found this. The amount impressed her not at all.
"It would be such a good start," he said, tired. She knew how important he thought this, there was no point in going into it again.
And then he had to tell her about what had happened afterward. About how Willie had come to be laying in the street. Her eyes were round, her hands stilled from stroking the back of his arm. Without motion, her face seemed to close up.
"And you couldn't stop them?"
"I didn't even know it was happening. Collins was there and then he was gone and then Willie was on the ground."
He'd left out the details of the large bruise, and that now he remembered that Willie's nose had begun to bleed, the large scratch on his neck. The stains under his armpits. The smell of beaten sweat. His breath began to hitch up.
"It was pretty bad, but Willie, you know, he--seemed to take it. Like he expected it."
He looked away now, at his car parked in the dark driveway, at the pea gravel that he couldn't even see the outlines of. "Yeah," he said. "Pretty terrible."
But not as terrible as the expression in Willie's face, his eyes full of a fog that he never seemed to be able to see out of.
He felt her looking at him. Waiting. Would wait forever, her knees bent, bare feet on the wooden step, her hands on his arm. Silver-gold hair sweeping over her tanned neck. Those round rose lips. And Willie's voice echoing in his head. For whose sake he should do it, and not really saying why.
There was a lot of money to be made, simply by being in Collins' vicinity. For a few moments that evening, in the Blue Whale, Walter had felt cloaked and included in that power, the heady sense of being behind the velvet rope. Collins was class and money and breeding. To be a part of that would take him up in the world, so he could look down and remember what it had been like to break a sweat while working.
He could not erase from his mind the picture of Willie, on the street, blood pumping into a newly made, fist-sized bruise. Shaking so hard that when Walter had finally helped him to stand, his legs could not quite hold him up. Rage hidden behind the shattered glass of his eyes. An opportunity there might be, but at the bottom of Collins' ladder of power was Willie's broken spirit and Walter found could not quite bring himself to step on Willie's body as he himself climbed up.
"Lucy," he said. Reached down with his free hand, and pulled out the check. "If I send this back, we can't cash it." Felt her tightening against him. "But heck, how'm I going to spend it in Vermont anyhow?"
Her shriek in his ear, and her body pressing against him, thumping him back against the painted boards of the porch. The front door flying open, and her covering him with kisses.
"Everything alright out here?" asked Lucy's dad. Still not worried. Not with her daughter tumbling over the resident lover of peach ice cream, kissing him. Laughing.
Doing the best I can Lucy.
Which seemed to be, at the moment, the very best thing.