Mr. William

Fiction by Ali Pensky

Mr. William is coming over tonight. I’m making spaghetti, spicy meatballs, and garlic bread. I have a bottle of red wine, but I always mess up opening the bottle. I’m sure Mr. William won’t mind.

Mr. William says the hardwood floors are one of the most expensive things in the gallery. He’s the front desk attendant at the Smoky Mountain Art Gallery. It’s about a mile downhill from my apartment and another mile from the school where I work. I love Mr. William, I like writing stories, and I think talking to Mr. William helps my stories. He says I can write about him as long as I show him. He says he’s been waiting for someone to write about him for a long time.

 I clean the kids’ classrooms and their bathrooms and their hallways, and I love to say hi. But mostly I mop and spray and wipe and think up stories.

Mr. William worked in insurance for a couple decades, told me he made good money, and then when his oldest was finishing high school, he started at a record shop. Said he wanted his kids to see him do something worth talking about at night. He raised his sons in Virginia because that’s where his wife was from, but he’s from New Jersey. He and his wife always planned to retire to the Eastern Shore, but she passed away fifteen years ago and they didn’t get to retire together. They planned to go to a tiny town called Easton. About an hour from Annapolis, he said. He said it was rich in history too. I go into the supply closet at work and look it up before I forget. Turns out Easton is where Frederick Douglass was born. I grab a roll of toilet paper from the top shelf, put it in my backpack on the bottom shelf, and go back out into the hallway. The bulletin board right next to the supply closet has a bunch of paper glasses cut out and at the top it says, “put on your perspectacles.” It’s the sixth-grade hallway.

Mr. William thought moving to the Eastern Shore alone would be too sad, so he retired to The Smoky Mountains instead, where he and his wife had their first ever vacation.

The wood floors in the Smoky Mountain Gallery creak like the floors of my Aunt Eleanor and Uncle Ray’s old farm near Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. They were American Chestnut. We used to play bowling at the farm. We’d get a bunch of shit from the barn, broken old cable boxes, empty buckets, old pottery. We lined them up like bowling pins and kicked the stuff with a soccer ball till it broke, and when it broke, we went inside.

When Uncle Ray died, Aunt Eleanor sold the farm and I got to keep all the old keys, which Aunt Eleanor had put in a silver box. I buried them in the backyard at my parents’ house so I didn’t lose them, and when I’m close to dying, I swear to dig them up and take them to Uncle Ray so he can ride his tractor in heaven. He cheated on Aunt Eleanor a few times, but a few mistakes don’t stop anyone from getting to heaven. The whole gallery smells like wood, and it reminds me of the farm.

People around here know everything about everyone, so they think, which means people  know where Mr. William is originally from. He said people around here called him “that damn yankee” until they learned he grew up on a farm in New Jersey and has been roasting wood ducks since he was a boy. Me and Mr. William love to laugh about that. We can say a lot without speaking, and I don’t have many people like that.

The whole gallery is two, maybe three of my bedrooms put together. The exhibition that’s up now is called Intertwined. Mr. William says it’s decades worth of drawings, collages, sculptures, paintings, and films by the same artist. She’s from Nairobi and moved to New York in the 90’s. My favorite piece is watercolor and collage on paper. There are two naked figures loosely holding each other, both of them female bodies, big hips, and big boobs. It almost looks like constellations are painted onto their bodies. But their faces are wolves.

Mr. William told me the artist studied anthropology and art when she first moved to New York from Nairobi. Then he said he’s been to Nairobi because his wife used to travel there for work. I didn’t know that, but I did know he lived in Italy for six months after she died. He knows, has done, and says the most random things. Like it’s nothing.

He goes, “Yeah, when you first leave the airport it’s like Slumdog Millionaire. Have you seen that movie?” I told him I hadn’t. But he’s probably talking about Kibera. I don’t know if that’s how you pronounce it, I’ll ask Mr. William at dinner. Since he told me about Nairobi I’ve been doing research. Kibera is the third largest slum in the world. I don’t know if I’m supposed to use a different word than slum. I’ll google that too. Mr. William is brilliant and kind, but too old to be politically correct, so I won’t ask him.

Mr. William said, “The landscape changes fast. One minute people are selling couches outside of shacks and there’ll be a few random cattle in the city center trying to survive the drought, then you’re driving through Runda passing a bunch of mansions.”

“What did your wife do for work?” I ask him.

He readjusts his ball cap and throws his feet up on the desk. “Politics,” he said with a smirk.

Mr. William should be here any minute. I’m about to pop the bread in the oven and I timed everything just right, so the spaghetti and meatballs is finishing up now. I set the table properly of course, and I think I’ll save the wine for another time, maybe Mr. William is bringing some anyway.

Ali Pensky

Ali Pensky is a writer living in Boone, North Carolina. “Mr. William” is her first published story.