short stories ~ literary fiction ~ social commentary
copyright © 1999 - 2013
“If I were insane, would I know it?”
I TOOK A DEEP breath in an attempt to contain my excitement as the brass bell perched over the door announced a customer. Okay. We have a busy shop. Just any customer does not excite me.
“Hi William,” I mistakenly greeted. “What can we do for you today?”
“Billy. Everyone calls me Billy.” He rested his palms on his hips, shoulders straight, head back, looking down on me. I felt dwarfed. I felt small, meaningless.
I have a picture of William in the same stance on page eighteen of my William scrapbook; however, William’s in a pirate outfit. Larry someone-or-other took the picture for the school newspaper at a play. The picture didn’t make the school paper. I snitched it from the newspaper morgue.
I matched his stance, looking up. “Well, William, I am not everyone.” I answered with as much arrogance I could.
He laughed, a wonderful laugh coming from deep within his chest, the laugh he reserves for the times he feels equaled. I’d rarely been this close to William. I could count the silver fillings in his back upper teeth. He’s a dirty blonde, but I bet you knew that already, his hair hanging down his square forehead just in his eyes. I’m not saying William’s a mesomorph, but he’d look natural with a football in his hand or a surfboard under his arm.
I have dozens of candid photographs from the beach in my William scrapbook.
He didn’t play football in high school. As the story’s told, he could have. He graduated in the top ten percent. At graduation, he received his diploma eight steps in front of me. In ninth grade, he copied off my history test. I let him. I don’t like or approve of cheaters.
Two colleges offered him scholarships but given his parents, Doug and Lisa, are well off in their own right and both dragging old money behind them, William didn’t take either offer, but chose a school of his own: his mother’s school. His father didn’t mind. His father hated college. I got loans in place but couldn’t get over the admission standards.
William did well in college, took a year off to tour Europe and was slated to take a middle management job in his father’s firm. His father’s birthday was coming up and William wanted something not only special but also unique. This quest brought him to Anna’s Gifts to stand in front of me.
“Do I even know you?” Puzzled amusement hung on his face.
I guess I shouldn’t have called him by name.
I’m not hard on the eye, but then I don’t stand out in a crowd or turn heads, which could have as much to do with my sordid background and attitude than anything else. If I dress carefully, the cut of my jib turns heads. Back in high school, I never dressed carefully, more concerned with grades and academic achievement than popularity. I wasn’t surprised William didn’t remember me. Most people at the five-year reunion got my name wrong, even reading my nametag.
I thought to say we went to school together. I thought to confess a crush, an infatuation going back before the womb. “What’s he like?” I asked instead.
“Who?” William’s been forever easily distracted.
He treated me to that cute roll of the eyes I remember so well. “Right, I’m not so sure. He has everything, you know. What do you get for a man that has everything?”
I wasn’t sure what to get just any man who had everything. I knew exactly what would impress Mr. Doug Howard. “How about an antique dagger?” I tried a matter-of-fact delivery. I’m sure I came across coy.
“Really?” He leaned toward me. “Dad collects swords and stuff!”
William seemed regal, mature and ever statuesque when he entered the shop, bigger than life. Now, I drew back and half-turned, his face coming down toward mine. I really didn’t want to know he had pizza with pepperoni for lunch. “Swords and stuff, huh?” I almost mocked him, stepping away, escaping, waving a hand toward a glass-topped display case.
“Well, like you know.”
I did and I didn’t know. I didn’t want William to be the kid I recalled from school, not that I didn’t think the kid back in school wasn’t cute, even adorable. That was then.
William had the mumps in third grade and the measles in fifth grade. Not to leave forth grade without a benchmark, toward Christmas, he broke his leg in three places sledding, which is why he chose not to play football. “At least sledding’s fun,” he was legend-ed to say.
Lisa Howard’s labor was long. William just didn’t want to come out. Finally, they took William by caesarian delivery. Hours would pass before the doctors and other healthcare workers would release a collective sigh, having lost Lisa, her heart stopped twice, on the table. They did a tubal ligation before Lisa left the hospital.
I wanted the original records for my scrapbook. I settled for photocopies, which were as hard to get as frank discussion from a man trolling bars after midnight.
In May one year, near his twelfth birthday, William asked why he didn’t have any brothers and sisters at which time he was told the dirty little tale in all its glory and morbid details. William blamed himself, which affected his attitude toward sex. When his long-time girlfriend, Ebbie Smith, in eleventh grade, accused William of getting her pregnant, I knew it couldn’t be true. I knew William carried an unreasonable fear of pregnancy.
As it turned out, I was right. William’s family had more money than the father’s.
Doug Howard is an Episcopalian. Lisa Howard was raised Methodist but converted. The family tithes to the Church. William’s been baptized and received his confirmation in the Episcopal Church. I have three pictures from his baptism.
Don’t ask me how. I won’t reveal any trade secrets.
I have six pictures from his confirmation, which I took myself, and three pictures from the pros, which I bought at a much-inflated price, I might add.
Sometimes I sneak in late to Sunday service and watch from the back pews as William takes Communion. I like to watch him rise and then shuffle in front of his mother and by any others in his pew. There’s a solemn dignity in the way he carries himself in church I’ve not seen anywhere else. The William I watch in church would never say: Swords and stuff. He would calmly edify concerning the collection of swords and other items, maybe listing a couple of examples.
William went through a rock and roll phase but returned to his first love: classical music. Although he likes Ravel: “Bolero rocks,” he says, I know he just says that because most people know the work. He likes pieces such as Wagner’s Ride of the Valkeryies and Bizet’s Carmen opera.
In my opinion, I think William spends much too much time trying to be popular instead of following his heart. For example, he loved the oboe and took lessons every Wednesday at 3:15 PM for two years. He gave up the instrument in seventh grade when Richard Myers told him only girls played the oboe.
Richard Myers was William’s best friend for most of William’s life. They had a falling out over Ebbie Smith’s pregnancy. It was a shame. When William vandalized the Hawkin’s drugstore, Ralph Hawkin, a friend of Ebbie Smith’s, had to go mouthing off to the whole school about something William didn’t even do, William just had to react. He got drunk, not that William drank all the time, which could’ve had something to do with the indiscretion, and tossed a trash can through the plate glass window of the Hawkin’s drug store. Thankfully, there were no witnesses, but the authorities were going to sit on William until William gave it up. They knew he did it.
Richard Myers confessed. He was a good friend to confess to something he didn’t do. I’ve thought, all things considered, William should just draw a line and forgive Richard. After all, if Ebbie’s willing to lay her pregnancy on William, it’s just as much her fault as it’s Richard’s. Even with the truth known, Doug Howard paid off Ebbie, handsomely. A sum of $10,000, cash money, which we might think a tidy little profit subtracting the cost of the abortion and even the few visits to the therapist. I thought Ebbie was good for William. That was the real cost of that episode.
I put the display case between us and lifted the glass. “This has the original case, too.” Dropping the glass, I offered the knife forward, cradled in both hands.
“I don’t know nothing ‘bout them,” he confessed. “Is this a good one?” He rested his fists on the glass, leaning forward. Again: the pizza. “You have nice eyes.”
I wanted to lean away. I held my ground. I was fully aware of which deodorant William favored, which I used myself sometimes, but smelling it on him was something different.
I didn’t know what to deal with first. I knew, as a college grad, he put on the bad grammar thinking to impress me. Besides, I’d heard him speak eloquently, when he wants to. I thought to correct him, then I thought to quiz him instead. Rather: “Yeah, I like my eyes too, they’re great when I want to walk across the room without tripping over something.”
I immediately realized my error when he assaulted me with his patented feigned laugh, forced, not unlike a donkey smacked hard with a 2x4 across the backside, the laugh he thought impressed people his age.
“I really like you!” he said much too excited and much too loud.
I was glad we were alone in the shop. I’d heard the laugh many times but never so up-close-and-personal, his mouth wide open, again, the upper silver fillings and the pizza lunch. “How about we get together sometime?”
“You know.” I ignored the invitation that teased my dreams for more than two decades “Maybe this dagger isn’t the thing, hmm?”
I lifted the glass cover, forcing William erect. “No.” I replaced the knife within its case on the bright green display cloth, slowly, so he’d follow with his eyes. “But then, what?” I asked, as if puzzled, moving my hand off the knife slightly to my right.
His eyes, behaving my direction, became alive like a child’s at the season’s first snowflake. “That! That’s perfect!”
“This?” I cupped the pocket watch. “This, yes, is a very nice piece. It’s over a hundred years old, gold, you know.” I closed and opened the watch’s cover producing a snap. “Keeps perfect time. The chain comes with it.” I unfurled the chain.
As I ran his credit card, he said to nobody: “I knew if I really tried, I’d find the perfect present! He’s wanted an antique pocket watch for-ever!”
I know. I wanted William to find the watch himself. I’d like to say when the owner of the shop bought the watch from the estate last month along with three cups and two dishes, I knew William would be by looking for the perfect present for his father’s birthday. I’d like to think, knowing Mr. Howard’s birthday was coming up, sending a mailer to William might have had something to do with it.
Funny, I thought, how things work out. As I tucked William’s signed receipt into my pocket, something new for my William scrapbook, William pulled the door open, the bell ringing twice. He paused and turned, maybe a rosé blush on his cheeks.
“Do you know me?” His voice lifted just a little to span the distance and climb on top the noise from the traffic without.
“No, William. Thanks for shopping Anna’s Gifts.”
He narrowed his eyes, weighting this and that. “Lunch sometime?”
“No, William, I don’t think so.”
With that, and the ring of the bell, he was gone.