“How’s it going? Are you adjusting well?”
Gage took a bite of his hot wings before responding to his new boss’s question. He had been working at Octagon House for two weeks now, entering data, checking displays, and cleaning the floors and bathrooms. He didn’t particularly like the bathrooms part, but he was used to a rotating cleaning at the Jolt so it wasn’t anything new. He was slowly getting the hang of the complex computer system, mostly because of the amount of data that needed to be entered. Many of the fine art pieces were on loan from various patrons, and the smalltown museum needed to track and tag the art for insurance purposes. He’d even given a tour or two to a tourist group and a local children’s summer camp. He recognized some of the children from the library summer reading circle.
Since his disastrous date with Constance, well, more like a disastrous meeting since it wasn’t a a real date, Gage had been avoiding the library directly, though he still managed to get books out on loan by sending his cousin, Sam. Sure, it was the cowardly way, but Gage felt like it was best to give Constance the space she wanted. He had horrible luck with women this summer and he couldn’t take any more blows to his pride. Sam had been happy to oblige given he wanted to take placement tests for Northwestern University. He always needed fresh study materials.
Gage had also been dabbling in art during his off-time. Billy hadn’t been kidding about the terrible pay. Gage barely made enough to pay for food and essentials. However, he was learning quickly about sculpting and improving in his painting skills.
Billy was an interesting guy to work for and with, keeping to himself mostly. Gage had difficulty getting a read on the man. The man spent a long time in his dark room developing the most beautiful scenic shots of Riverview, and also had quite a portfolio of portraits also. Gage especially liked the black-and-white pictures of the various faces of Riverview residents. He also hoped that Billy would teach him more about photography.
“Fine, I think,” Gage replied. “I got all the newest pieces from the last three months tagged, and all the paperwork categorized and filed.”
“Great! Saves me time,” Billy replied. “I know that’s the boring part of the job, but it’s necessary.”
“Hey, man, I’m just glad to have a job,” Gage said gratefully. “It gets me out of the house.”
Billy didn’t say anything as he continued to pick at his chicken wings. He didn’t pry. Gage had picked up on that quickly. Probably because he doesn’t want me to pry, Gage surmised. Billy was a private man, and Gage decided to respect that. After all, he had his own secrets and past he didn’t particularly share with just anyone. Still, he was curious as he’d heard tidbits of gossip from visitors to the museum and around town.
While waiting for his cousin outside the grocery store, Gage had learned from Lucille Spenster that Billy’s mother was named Beverly and she had been a ballet dancer of some kind before succumbing to cancer.
Lucille’s sister, Nellie contradicted this story when he was in line at the drugstore and said the woman’s name was Bonnie and she died of S.I.V. because she was… and Nellie had leaned into whisper this fact, albeit loudly, “…an exotic dancer…”
Bennie Dean, Nellie’s boyfriend, was grilling hamburgers in the park one day and told Gage that he heard Billy didn’t know who his father was because his mom had been with several men at the same time. Bennie also said he used to deliver boxes of groceries to the shut-in’s house
The museum desk attendant, Rayne Kaminiski, would gossip about Billy when he wasn’t around. She told him all about how his new boss had his heart broken in college by a mystery girl. No one knew who she was, but Billy had come back to town and locked himself in his house for months before reemerging. Her son-in-law had mowed Billy’s lawn when it was so overgrown, and her daughter, Nadine would bring an occasional fish dinner over to him on Sundays. She said it was a shame because he was a “nice looking boy” and he should be “out enjoying his youth like normal young people.”
When Melvin Taft came to repair a computer problem at the Octagon House one day, he shared with Gage that he thought Billy was gay because he had been “suspiciously close” with his mentor, who was now deceased. Amy Foster, an elderly waitress at the diner, had also stated her suspicions when she warned Gage not to get too close to the “odd artist.”
Billy didn’t say much about himself. He mentioned studying abroad in Simpan for a semester to study calligraphy, ancient pottery, and simukiyo-e painting. He liked the country and culture so much that he came back for the following summer. He mentioned growing up in Simbrush. He mentioned needing to go to the pharmacy to fill a prescription. Other than that, most of what Gage knew about Billy was hearsay and observation.
Gage hadn’t heard Billy talk about a girlfriend or a boyfriend. He didn’t know how much of the gossip was true since he had heard such wide variations. He had observed Billy as meticulous. Every day at lunch, he’d come into the museum break room, open the refrigerator, and put exactly 3 sliced tomatoes and 8 pickled onions on his white cheese sandwich. The man always cleaned up after himself, and organized his art supplies by color, size, and type. He was always on time, though he didn’t seem to fault Gage when he was running a few minutes late. Or at least he never showed his frustrations. He also left for an hour about midday to go home to nap, although some days Gage would catch him asleep at his desk in the back.
After two weeks, Gage still didn’t really “know” his boss, and so a spontaneous lunch at the diner, Billy’s treat, surprised him. Billy asked what kind of food Gage liked best. Gage ordered a plate of hot wings – ghost pepper and habanero sauce for himself and a milder spicy barbecue for Billy. The man was just picking at his foods. Gage wondered why Billy would invite him to lunch if he didn’t like the food. He also seemed very uncomfortable outside, even though he had asked Gage where he would prefer to sit.
“Do you need anything from me?” Gage asked, wanting to break the awkward silence. “At the museum… that is.”
“Actually yes,” Billy took off his cap and wiped his forehead before replacing it. “I need to take care of something in Lucky Palms and I’ll be gone for a few weeks, though it might be a month. Can you handle the museum by yourself?”
Gage blinked in surprise. He was still a new employee, but as far as he could tell, there were only two other employees – a night guard and a desk attendant. He was flattered that Billy trusted him, but also curious about the man’s sudden departure.
“Are you sure?” he asked. “I mean, I’m still new. Won’t the town wonder why I’m in charge?”
“Rayna can’t work more than four hours a day, and I certainly can’t leave the night security man in charge,” Billy answered, taking a sip of water. “You do good work, and you’re familiar with the systems of the museum now. We’re a small town, so you won’t get many visitors and really just the regulars, and if you get any calls you don’t know how to answer from our patrons, you can forward the messages to my cell. Can you handle that?”
“Yeah, I can handle it,” he straightened up to appear taller. “What are you doing in the Palms?”
“Business. I might have a new patroness,” Billy said.
“Oh… what’s a patroness do?” Gage felt dumb for asking, but he was curious.
“I’d like to open my own studio,” Billy replied. “If I can get enough investors, I can do it.”
“Cool,” was all Gage could think to say. “Hey, if you’re out in the Palms, I’ve got a friend out there. You should meet her.”
Billy blanched, and Gage wondered if his boss was worried about being set up.
Gage waved his hands. “Purely a friend thing. Mutual artists and all. She’s into photography too, and she’s a writer.”
“Oh I see,” Billy said, his voice sounding wobbly like he was trying to balance on thin ice.
“She’s my best friend, actually,” Gage kept rambling since he didn’t know how else to fill the silence. “I have a picture here on my phone…” he pulled it out and showed the man a photo of them at their high school graduation. “Her name’s Kassiopeia… she goes by Kass… Fullbright’s the last name… and um… she’s traveling with her dad this summer.”
“That’s nice,” Billy lifted a chicken wing to his mouth and took a bite, sauce splashing across his chin and jawline.
“So while you’re there, you should look her up. I’m sure she’s the only Kassiopeia you’ll find in the Palms… well, really, anywhere because well…” Gage rubbed his head awkwardly. “It’s a unique name and all.”
“I might,” he nodded.
“Yeah, when you visit, you can have a friend then,” Gage continued to dig the proverbial hole beneath the picnic table. “Not that you need more friends… but I don’t know who you know out there so if you don’t mind, say hi for me.”
The tension stretched tightly between them again, and Gage half expected to be smacked in the face with a rubber band if either of them spoke again.
“Well, this has been fun,” Billy stood up. “I’m out. I’ll see you back at work. I’ve gotta run an errand first.”
Gage stood up from the table, wiping his mouth on a napkin, and wondered if he knew even less about his boss now than he did before. The man was a mystery.
- Simukiyo-e painting is a Simworld version of ukiyo-e woodblock prints and painting, a style native to Japan. Read more here.
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