Lisa Kim Harris
What ticked off Wilson most about his brother was his smile. Not a genuine show of internal glee but a gotcha. Wilson’s prior Whistler should have settled the score, but here was his younger brother Sherman, younger by a mere seven and a half minutes, grinning from behind The Time’s Business Section and lobbing their tit-for-tat back into Wilson’s court. He had barely caught his breath since smashing Sherman with last month’s sweep of Island County Fair's Crop Division. The Record’s article with the accompanying photo of his trophy, shaped as a Golden Delicious, commemorating his decade-long domination in the apple category, should have crushed Sherman. But his pearly whites said otherwise.
Wilson set the red porcelain mug on Road’s End Café’s Formica tabletop, licked his upper lip, and studied his twin’s photo. How could Sherman look so young? Where were the wrinkles, liver spots, and jowls? No doubt erased with a swipe of a mouse, again pandering to society’s notions of success. Wilson rested his beefy hands on his thighs and peered at his brother’s teeth; had to be capped.
Reggie burrowed his wet nose under Wilson’s right hand. He patted the Chesapeake Bay retriever’s broad head in a ‘that’s enough’ way. But the dog was having none of it and scratched at Wilson’s jeans.
Wilson shoed the webbed paw away. “Not now, Reg. In a minute. After I read this article.” A few inches from the dog’s nose was half of Wilson’s muffin. Reggie spied it, sniffed it, demanded it.
“Here you go.” Two tables over, Lottie scooted a muffin in between K.C. and her book. “It’s your fave. Blueberry.”
K.C. placed the paperback she had buried her nose in aside and pinched bits of the muffin with her forefinger and thumb. She held the bite up and showed the waitress. “No offense to your baking, but if I eat slow, it won’t go to my hips.” She popped the crumbs into her mouth.
By the lack of a double chin, Sherman either spent hours sipping a cup of low-fat consommé or had piles of moolah for liposuction and the knife. Wilson stroked his wattle. Sagging skin hadn’t sent him running to the plastic surgeon to look youthful. On the contrary, he had embraced his folds as a flip-off to upper-crust norms.
Lottie placed another muffin, this one folded into a red napkin, at Ruthanne’s usual table; the package looked small on the empty four-top.
K.C. pinched off more muffin crumbs. Raised her out-of-control eyebrows.
“Now, that’s sounds like a diet for me.” Lottie patted her ample thighs. “It so hard to stick to a program when I gotta test-taste everything.”
Lottie had been dieting or talking about dieting ever since he’d known her. Ten, eleven years. None of them had worked thus far.
At the counter, Larry held out his plate. “Don’t forget me, Sis.” His multicompartment tool belt stuffed with wire strippers, screwdrivers, needle-nose pliers, and rolls of white, blue, and green wire, was draped across the adjacent stool.
“Larry, I swear. I only got two hands. Haven’t you already snagged one when my back was turned?”
Larry’s gobbling had had the opposite effect. He was skinny as a rail.
“I don’t understand why you got the eat-anything-I-want genes,” Lottie said. “While I got the just-look-at-food-and-I-gain-weight gene.”
“Remember, Mom said she put on more weight when she carried you than me. That’s why.”
K.C. said, “Lottie, you got the brain genes. A better deal.”
Wilson chuckled. Reggie scratched at his knee. “In a minute Reg. I’m not done.”
Best to one-up Sherman before Cee-Cee learned what he was up to and wagged her finger at him. His wife did not understand their game. As an only child, Cee-Cee suffered from the delusional idea siblings loved each other unconditionally. Once he had shared his scrapbook with her, a recording of every Whistler played between him and Sherman over nearly eight decades. Instead of oohing and aahing at his bold moments, she couldn’t see past the faded photos and tattered pages of the broken-spine book. Said their game was silly. That he, both of them, should grow up.
Wilson smoothed the newspaper, his veiny hand stopping broadside of Sherman’s picture. Always a head shot. Always alone. Was Sherman happy?
Larry asked, “Anybody know when Ruthanne’s coming? She’s usually here by now.”
Wilson glanced at the empty table with its lonely muffin. Was she trimming her Braeburns? If so, how many trees had she completed? Was she one row ahead? Two? If an early frost struck, her trimmed apples would be spared. While his…
“If Ruthanne doesn’t come soon, can I have her muffin?”
“Oh my god, Larry. No.” Lottie said. “She’ll be along.”
It was too early in the season to panic over the quality of Ruthanne’s apple crop and whether or not she could unseat him come fair time. More pressing was the trouble at hand. What predictable accomplishment was his brother gloating about? Had Sherman orchestrated another take-over of a soulless financial corporation? Changed his Forbes’ ranking? Married for the third or was it fourth time to another silicon-enhanced, decades-younger bottle-blonde? Demonstrating again that he was a bigwig and black sheep. And Wilson was what? At a minimum, someone to snicker about at the country club because he colored outside the lines.
He scanned the article’s first paragraph.
How blasé. Sherman had bestowed their alma mater a cash gift. Whoopie-do. But wait, how much again? “Son-of-a-gun!” The largest donation in the school’s history, an institution where bequests containing long strings of zeros was common.
Reggie stuck his wet nose under Wilson’s hand.
“What’s happened?” Larry eased off the café’s counter stool and walked to Wilson’s table, where he set his cup next to Wilson’s newspaper stack. Coffee sloshed and dribbled over the mug's side.
“Careful.” Wilson slid Larry’s cup left. While spilling coffee on the Business Section was preferable, bringing home illegible papers would ruin afternoon tea with Cee-Cee. She would dwell instead on honey-dos: ridding Reggie’s fur of its seemingly permanent fishy odor, winterizing her roses, moving her easel to better light. Trimming the orchard would be sidelined. Wilson handed Larry the mug.
Larry clutched the mug to his chest and peered at The Times. “Hey, that’s you in the paper.” He reeled round, faced K.C. and Lottie. “Mr. Wilson’s in The Times.”
From behind the counter, Lottie paused in polishing the espresso machine’s chrome. K.C. stuffed the remainder of her muffin into her mouth.
Everyone stared at him.
Reggie barked, tail thumping against the black-and-white-tiled floor. Every third wag hit Wilson’s chair leg. Three pair of eyes stared at him, four if he counted Reggie’s—and he always counted Reggie—was three too many. Wilson grunted. How he hated being related to Sherman, let alone his twin. People would think he was just like Sherman: a bootlicking toady.
K.C. dug into her backpack and removed a reporter’s notebook. “You holding out on me, Mr. Wilson?” She pulled a pen embossed with Promise Record from the notebook’s stiff brown cover and clicked the pen’s top. “Got something good for the Notable Section? Some dirt? A tell-all tidbit with a revealing photo? Too bad nobody moons anymore. Those photos always sold papers.”
He had been ahead of his time streaking. His backside a beacon larger than a harvest moon, weaving through the Harvard-Yale football contest. Sherman had retaliated in the same newspaper several months later with a head shot photo announcing he’d been voted Mr. Stodgy as Senior Warden to the Freemason’s Grand Lodge of Massachusetts. Now, both accomplishments were antediluvian.
Wilson folded the Business Section. With the newspaper editor poised to misstate his words and Larry, Promise's only licensed electrician and its leading gossiper, raising his ears higher than Reggie’s, Wilson wasn’t going to make their jobs easy. No need for them to know about Sherman.
“A shirt-tale cousin gave money to Harvard.” Wilson deliberately pronounced the last word like the native Bostonian he was, to make light of the situation.
Larry peered, appeared to read the headline. Study the photo. “You’re related to Sherman Wilson? The Sherman Wilson?” He motioned to the photo with his mug. “I didn’t know you were blue blooded.”
“Distantly.” Three thousand one hundred miles.
“Oh come on, Larry.” K.C. swatted Larry’s shoulder with her notebook. “How else could he and his wife buy Old Adams’ place with all those beach rights if he wasn’t connected. Remember, we talked about it at the time.”
He and Cee-Cee bought the property out on Bush Point going on fifteen years ago. When would his sixty acres of heaven be called “The Wilson’s Place?” That was a drawback to Promise; the institutional memory of its inhabitants was deep, almost as deep as that of the Boston Brahmins. Everybody knew everything about everybody.
He’d scored moving to Promise, though. Only misfits retired to the backwater apple-growing rock then. But a lot had come since. Any day it would appear on one of those best-to-live-in lists and the place would be officially “in.” Sherman might even snap up a beach cottage.
Larry jabbed a finger at the newspaper article. “That picture looks a lot like you, Mr. Wilson. You sure he’s a distant relative?”
Lottie, holding a pot of steaming coffee, had come around to the counter. She stood next to her brother and studied the photo. “Weren’t all you blue bloods marrying first and second cousins not too long ago?”
“Like rabbits,” Wilson said.
“Lucky you don’t have hip dysplasia or something,” Larry said.
K.C. said, “More like hemophilia.”
“I think slippy-hips would be worse.” Larry rotated his pelvis. “Wouldn’t know which way you were going when you walked.”
“Make you a better dancer.” With one hand on her hip and an outstretched arm around an invisible partner, K.C. two-stepped, her clunking Chippewa boots graceful for once.
Wilson drained his mug and placed it on top of Sherman’s photo. His bladder pinged. Dang! He could not hold it like he used to.
That’s how the Whistlers started. He and Sherman at five or six. He dared Sherman to pee off the back porch to see who could shoot farthest, a nose-thumbing challenge. Both of them whistled as petals flew. Wilson had been the one to nickname their endeavor ‘shooting rabbits,’ in case Mater or Pater asked what they were up to. Saving Mater’s prized roses from vermin garnered praise, but urinating into the garden would have elicited ear-boxing. It was Sherman who took their competition off-porch, he was too much of a good boy to produce more than a drizzle.
Now, the university was planning to name a building after the dolt.
Wilson’s bladder knocked louder.
A photo of him pissing outdoors would show Sherman that Wilson always had been and still was the more talented of the two.
Wilson checked his watch: 10:20. If today was like all the others, and no reason it wouldn’t be, K.C. would say her goodbyes at 10:45. Taking into account she drove twice as fast as he, and the distance they traveled on the same road, he’d leave in fifteen. When K.C. arrived in her Citroen at the crossroads with Main, she would find him shooting rabbits.
Careful not to step on Reggie, Lottie hovered near Wilson’s shoulder. “Refill?” She held up the pot. "Last of the morning blend."
He covered the mug with his palm. The gold wedding band deeply embedded into his finger clanked against the cup’s side. “No time.” Would K.C. respectfully turn away when she spotted him dribbling ammo over blackberry, thistle, and grassy clumps? Or, be impressed enough to point the handy Canon she kept on her ancient car’s passenger seat at his performance?
Through the tops of his bifocals he looked up at Lottie. “I changed my mind. I’ll take a refill but make it a to-go.” More caffeine guaranteed more ammo.
Lottie raised her eyebrows. He never ordered a to-go.
Countering Sherman’s normalcy had been a cake-walk when he was younger. But now, with a twice-weekly rag for documentation, pushing the envelope was a challenge. He gathered his papers and buried the business section in the middle of the pile.
An outdoor piss might be too tame a follow-on to Sherman’s. Hard to see how giving away millions versus his amber cupful were par. Still, it would remind Sherman that Wilson had been the leader of their twosome from the start. What would Sherman do in retaliation? Sherman always acted quickly with a Whistler, and usually without thinking through consequences.
Once, worried he’d lose the race to produce the first grandchild after Wilson returned home with Cee-Cee, who he met in Laos during what Pater described as Wilson’s 'lost years'—a drive from London to Singapore in a Land Rover—Sherman slid a whopper solitaire onto that year’s Cotillion Queen’s left ring finger. Sherman’s storied engagement triggered newspaper photos, backslaps, talk of linking two families. A lavish wedding followed with more society-page write-ups. But Sherman’s scheme backfired. The debutante fled before issue, citing irreconcilable differences. And at Vanessa’s baptism, Sherman’s scowl of defeat was captured by the society page photographer.
On top of the newspaper stack Wilson placed the Record, his photo holding the apple trophy stared back. Cee-Cee was on his right and Ruthanne, with her red ribbon, on his left. Everyone smiled.
Reggie lumbered to his feet and pawed Wilson's leg, the retriever’s claws rasping against jeans, and looked at him with eyes like melted chocolate.
Sherman had forked over the money mighty fast to counter Wilson’s apple trophy. Only a few weeks had passed since the fair. The university would have accepted Sherman’s check lickety-split, but it wasn’t done with a phone call. No, there would have been luncheon with the university foundation, the president, details to work out, stock to sell, papers to sign, font for the new Sherman Wilson building plaque to choose. Donor cultivation took time; months not weeks. Sherman hadn’t lobed this Whistler in response to Wilson’s apple-prize article. Then to which Whistler?
Lottie handed him the cup. "Here you go.” She stared at him. "Everything alright?"
"Nothing could be better. Isn’t that right, Reg." He picked up the half-muffin and held it in midair. Nodded at the dog.
Reggie jumped, scooped the morsel from Wilson’s fingers, and swallowed before his paws touched down.
“Nice your ideas were acknowledged.” She pointed to his picture.
That had been the Whistler, not the Delicious Apple keepsake. ‘Theodore Wilson is honored for his contribution in preserving Promise Island’s heirloom apple genetics,’ the lead judge, a university extension agent, had been quoted in the Record as saying, ‘modernizing local horticulture techniques so our unique varieties are preserved for generations to come.’
Finally. After years of being told by other Promise growers that his GMO’d trees didn’t belong.
Reggie sat, licked his lips. Barked.
“All gone, Reg. No more.” Wilson wiped his palms passed each one another, like after shutting the door behind a departing relative who’d stayed beyond his expiration date.
Even if he could muster the gusto to impress K.C., a newspaper photo of him pissing in public could backfire. Sherman could think Wilson had gone round the bend, suffered with senility. Wilson folded into his chair. Shooting rabbits would not do. He would have to think of something else which would twist Sherman's privates.
K.C. hoisted her backpack. A red Swiss Army knife dangling from a silver carabiner fastened to a side-strap jangled. It was similar to the one he kept in his garden shed and never could find when he needed it. K.C. had the right idea: clip it someplace handy, like to his belt-loops. Not a girly accessory but K.C. was utilitarian. Didn’t bother with what others thought of her. He admired that about Promise. Folks hoed their own path, didn’t let what neighbors might say detour them.
A useful tool, that knife. Sample apple-flesh in the field, graft branches onto hardier rootstock, trim suckers. Cee-Cee could use a knife too. Good for deadheading roses, applying acrylics to canvas, flower arranging. He’d buy monogrammed pocket knives for their next anniversary. Buy Vanessa and the grandkids ones as well. A photo of them all wearing their knives clamped to their belts could be this year’s Christmas-card photo. Maybe K.C. would publish it in the Notables.
Ahh, the Whistler Sherman responded to by writing the whopper check. Last May’s group photo in the Record: the Promise Wilsons on the beach, with Vanessa and the grandkids, marking his and Cee-Cee’s golden anniversary. Fifty-years. Producing Mater and Pater’s only decedents. Proving his marriage to his Laos bride had been no mistake. Showing Sherman that taking the road less traveled made all the difference.
“Chasing after any stories K.C.?” Larry removed the bell-shaped top of the pastry display. “That we should know about?” he grabbed a muffin.
Lottie handed him a plate. Shook her head.
"If I told you, nobody would buy Saturday's Record and where would my mortgage payment be?"
Lottie walked around the counter, chalk in hand. “Come on K.C., it’s been slow without Ruthanne.”
Wilson checked his watch. 10:40. Best leave. The drive may offer clarity to a Whistler. He pushed back his chair.
Reggie heaved upright.
Wilson dug his billfold from his back pocket and calculated twenty percent, adding a five-spot to his figure. Lottie would need money to make up for the extras Larry ate without paying. He placed the bills underneath his red saucer.
Reggie, tail wagging, trotted to the door.
While bequeathing moolah was expected of an old geezer with no immediate heirs, Sherman’s act was laudable. This new Whistler must be comparable. A good deed. Like when he chained himself to a thousand-year-old sequoia to hold off a chain-saw-wielding lumberjack. His front-page photos in the San Francisco Chronicle had rallied the governor to pass legislation to spare the tree and others like it. Wilson had demurred when the governor suggested they name the new park in his honor. Name it for the tree he’d said. A selfless good deed, arrest record be dammed, to counter Sherman’s ribbon-cutting photo at Mass General’s new Wilson Foundation Cardiac Center. A blatantly selfish move that guaranteed Sherman access to excellent medical care.
First a hospital wing. Now a university building.
This new Whistler must scream.
Lottie stood back from the menu board, chalk in hand. ‘Luncheon Special’ was written at the top followed by ‘BLT with avocado and roasted red peppers; Tomato Soup with basil, side of garlic bread; chicken pot pie, side of...’
Wilson’s stomach rumbled. Best leave now. If Lottie finished the sentence with ‘…buttery mashed potatoes’ he’d stay for lunch, then go home for a nap. Leave crafting the Whistler for tomorrow.
But he had to see. Lottie’s mashed potatoes were the best. He could almost smell butter melting into the potatoes. He sat.
Reggie’s tail drooped.
Lottie added a heart above the ‘I’ in pie.
With a harrumph, Reggie lowered himself to the floor. His eyes bored into Wilson.
K.C. set the backpack onto the table, unclipped the jackknife, and opened a blade. She ran the shank under her thumbnail.
Wilson licked both lips.
Larry crossed his arms over his chest, stared at his sister.
With the tip of her red apron, Lottie polished the chalk board, removing smudges left from yesterday’s menu.
“Wouldn’t it be nice just to hang out,” K.C. said. “Not work. Not have to turn over rocks constantly so there’s something interesting in the Record?” She snapped the jackknife shut. “Lucky you, Mr. Wilson, being retired and all. You can spend the day puttering in your trees, having tea with your wife.”
Putter? He did not putter. He cultivated. He fertilized. He trimmed (or tried to). He was a horticulturalist and had a newspaper clipping to prove it. Puttering was for feeble men.
She snapped the knife onto the carabiner and swung the backpack over her shoulder. Lottie brushed her hands of chalk. Squatted on her heals, ready to finish the line.
Mashed potatoes. Mashed potatoes. Mashed potatoes. Had he really thought this? He had trees to trim. A Whistler to lob.
The door barely missed Reggie’s rump as Ruthanne burst inside. Brambles poked from her baggy sweater. Her red hair, typically pinned in a coil at the nape of her neck, had come undone and curls sprung like popped cushion springs. Her flouncy skirt was ripped in three places. Wearing muck boots smeared to her ankles in goo, she tracked dirt onto the tiles.
Wilson grunted. She had been trimming, and by the looks of her, not a row ahead but an entire orchard. Next year’s ribbons were in doubt.
“She’s gone. Ruby’s gone.” Ruthanne waved her arms. Bits of twigs, leaves, straw flew from her sweater, undone bun, and skirt, adding to the chalk and muck on the floor.
“You checked her stall, didn’t you, Hon?” Lottie pocketed the chalk in her apron.
Larry looked first at Wilson, then Lottie. “Llamas don’t wander, do they? They’re not like dogs when they go into heat?”
Wilson shook his head. “No. Not like dogs at all.”
Reggie’s nails click-clacked on the tile. He nuzzled Wilson’s hand. He petted the dog. There was no love between Reg and the llama.
“She’s gone! Gone!”
K.C. flipped open her notebook. “Ruthanne, you did check her stall?”
Ruthanne nodded. Blackberry leaves floated to the floor. “First thing. Then I searched her pasture. (Lottie reached behind the counter and grabbed the broom.) “Checked among the apple trees on the other side of the pond.” (Larry snagged another muffin.) “She has a sweet tooth. Although this time of year she’d be tipsy eating fermented ones off the ground.” (Was that her secret? Old apples as fertilizer?) “I called as I walked down our road...” She glanced at Wilson. Wilson shoved Reggie’s nose away. Enough with the slobber.) “…toward the beach.” (K.C. wrote.) “But she wasn’t near the water.” (Larry stuffed a third of the muffin into his mouth). “I followed the pasture fence thinking maybe she went over to your place, Mr. Wilson.” (How that nasty creature could spit.) “I called and called and called.” (Lottie swept debris into piles on either side of Ruthanne, brushed the broom over the tops of Ruthanne’s boots.). But she’s gone! Gone!” Ruthanne threw her hands into the air.
What a drama queen. The animal would be back by feeding time.
Lottie leaned the broom against Wilson’s table and guided Ruthanne to her regular spot while K.C. pulled out a chair. Larry downed the remainder of the muffin.
Ruthanne sat. She wrapped her arms around herself and hugged her sweater, knitted from Ruby’s hair.
K.C. snapped her notebook shut. “Send me a photo of her and I’ll make posters.”
Larry slid from his stool. “I’ll slap them on every signpost along my repair route.”
“I’ll offer a reward,” Lottie said. “Free lunch for a year.”
“If she’s not found by press time, I’ll run a front page story.” K.C. slipped the notebook into her pack.
Lottie rubbed Ruthanne’s back with her right hand. “If somebody finds Ruby between now and then, you can write about that, too.” With her left, she pulled brambles from Ruthanne’s sweater and stuffed the twigs into her apron’s pockets.
Wilson sipped from the to-go cup. There it was, his Whistler. He would find Ruby (how far could a llama wander on a one-town island?). Reunite lost pet with distraught owner. Hero material, there. Anybody could throw money around, but mend a broken heart? Sherman couldn’t touch such sky-high sentiment regardless of how many millions he donated.
He could see the front-page photo now. A groupshot of all involved. Him standing on one side of Ruby. Reggie at his side. Ruthanne on the other side of the llama. He holding Ruby steady so Ruthanne could kiss the animal’s muzzle. Lottie and Larry in the back. His blue button-down would contrast best with Ruby’s russet red. Where was that shirt? Cee-Cee would know. He’d ask her to find and iron it. Be ready for the photo-op.
“Gotta go.” K.C. swung the pack over her shoulder. “I’ve got my work cut out.” She ran her hand through her spiked hair. “Ruthanne, send me a photo ASAP.”
Ruthanne nodded. “I knew I could count on you guys.” She covered her face with her hands. Her shoulders shuddered.
Larry tightened his tool belt. “I should leave too.” From the coatrack standing next to the menu board he pulled free a charcoal-gray fleece jacket. “K.C., I’ll stop by your office and grab Ruby’s posters.”
“Come on, Boy.” Wilson gathered his papers and walked toward the front door. He’d stop off at Ruthanne’s, take Reg to Ruby’s stall so the dog could get a good sniff, then they’d set off to trail the llama.
Reggie pointed his muzzle vertical, flared his nostrils.
Diced chicken. Cooked carrots. Just crunchy celery. Diced Yukon gold potatoes. Flaky crust. Potpies.
Lottie removed the chalk from her apron and knelt. She wrote Mashed Potatoes on the board and circled the menu items with a huge heart.
Wilson stopped turning the door handle. Pot pies and buttery potatoes. He gripped the knob again. A Whistler called, a perfect one—a Whistler that would wipe the smirk off Sherman’s face once and for all.
The oven door creaked open. Lottie removed a tray of pies from the oven and placed them on a cooling rack. Wilson inhaled and shut his eyes as his hand fell away from the knob.
About the Author
Lisa K. Harris is a Pushcart Prize nominated author with more than 150 published essays, fiction, and popular press articles about growing-up, outdoor adventure, science, and coping with speed bumps. She also co-authored an environmental policy book (Krausman and Harris, Cumulative Effects, CRC Press, 2011). Her work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, Raleigh Review, Black Fox Literary Review, Highlights for Children, among others. Lisa lives in Tucson, with two daughters, four cats, nine desert tortoises, and a blind herding dog named Noel. When she is not writing or tending to her menagerie, Lisa works as a wildlife biologist. For a complete publication list, please see lisakharris.com.