Three

Once, there were three of them. It was decades ago, when options for friendships were limited to other children on the block, and it didn’t matter much if you liked the other kids there or not. Their parents would gather on the porch each night, along with their other neighbors, and William, Terry, and Joshua would play tag, or hide-and-seek. Sometimes, when her parents weren’t fighting, Jessica from across the street would join them. The trio of boys called themselves The Three Musketeers, though none of them had read the book, or even seen a film based upon it. Terry had seen the book on his family’s shelves and was in awe of the titular swashbuckling heroes pictured on the cover. Upon presenting it to his friends, the decision to bestow the title upon themselves was unanimous. None of them realized that the Three Musketeers had a fourth companion, though Jessica knew, and secretly considered herself their d’Artagnan.

The boys grew apart, as children are wont to do. There was no particular event or moment where the friendship fell apart; it simply dissolved over time. As the trio got older, they built friendships based on bonds stronger than immediate location. By the time they’d entered high school, they only saw each other in passing and the occasional block party. Their parents convinced them to share a limo to prom their senior year of high school. None of them had achieved a level of popularity that would keep them from consorting with each other, and there was no animosity to make the ride awkward. All of them agreed it was a good night, and none of them had spoken since.

It was strange, then, for William and Joshua to receive a message seventeen years later that Terry had died and mentioned them in his will. Joshua had built a life in Seattle, where he’d gone to college and met his wife, Corinne. Together, they were raising a daughter, Danielle, and ran a successful, if small, restaurant. William still lived in the Chicago area. In fact, William had just moved in with his parents, who had retired to Lincolnwood several years prior. He’d taken a little too well to drinking, and found himself rebuilding his life at thirty-five: he was recently divorced, even more recently unemployed, and would be a regular at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for the foreseeable future.

The former friends’ eyes locked immediately as they filed into the mortuary where Terry’s funeral was being held. Even after all those years, a kinship remained. Each immediately felt guilty for not keeping in touch. William drove Joshua to Terry’s grave for the burial. The cemetery was large, and the area Terry was buried in unkempt. Though his grave had been cleaned and cleared, the tombstones around his were covered in layers of wet leaves.

After Terry’s burial, the remaining two musketeers caught up over a late lunch. William was proud of Joshua’s success as a restaurant owner, and more than a little jealous. He tried, and failed, to hide it. Joshua pretended not to notice, for the sake of his old friend’s damaged ego. For his part, he felt a tinge of guilt over William’s misfortunes. He knew the fault lied largely with William, but felt it just the same.

Terry, it turned out, hadn’t done much of anything after high school. He worked at an office supply store after dropping out of college, and rose to the position of assistant manager. Corporate policy regarding his lack of a degree prevented him from moving any higher in the company, though he knew the business backward and forward. He lived frugally in a studio apartment. He never married, and never had any children. By all accounts, Terry’s life had been uneventful until his tragic death: hit by a speeding car while helping a stranger change a tire on the side of the road. The driver who hit him had never been found.

*   *   *

Terry bequeathed to William and Joshua the key to a storage unit. Their curiosity was piqued even before they knew what had been left to them, so the pair drove immediately to the climate-controlled storage facility in Morton Grove. Joshua cautiously inserted the key into its matching padlock, and turned it. In the empty, sterile halls, he almost thought he could hear each tumbler spin, and the click of the lock was as clear as anything he’d ever heard in a movie. He removed the lock and opened the door to reveal a room not much larger than a walk-in closet.

White sheets covered everything in the room. The first sheet, when pulled, revealed a stack of boxes, the topmost of which contained art supplies: markers, pens, and various other implements. Joshua drew a posable figurine from it and played with it, while William moved to the next sheet-covered pile and drew away the cloth to reveal paintings of various sizes.

“Holy shit,” he said, leaving his mouth agape. “I think Terry made these.” He flipped through them. There was a regression in style and technique as he moved from the front of the stack to the back. As he moved through the pile, the dates on the back of each canvas moved further into the past, revealing in reverse chronological order the progression of Terry’s work. Their style always leaned toward realistic, with a brief stint in the middle seemingly inspired by Thomas Kinkade. Terry’s work was competent, though not particularly interesting or unique. For a moment, William hated himself for judging the work of his dead friend. None of the pieces on the floor were less than a decade old.

Upon seeing William’s discovery, Joshua placed the figure back into the box he’d taken it from and moved to another sheet. Behind it, various landscapes had been stacked against one another, with large sheets of butcher paper between them to keep the oil paint from each piece from seeping into another. “I guess Terry really liked to paint,” he noted. “He always did like drawing when we were kids.”

“We all liked drawing when we were kids,” William returned, “We were kids.” He paused for a moment, then moved to what looked like a tall shelf. Several sheets covered it, none of them large enough to protect it on their own. The shelves held more recent work, this time branching out into still life and portrait. William gasped as he discovered an entire shelf was dedicated to portraits of Jessica. He paged through them, freezing when he came upon one of her posing nude. “Uhh… There are a lot of Jess in here,” he said, as Joshua peered over his shoulder, mouth agape. “They look pretty recent, too. This one’s from last year.”

“I didn’t see her at the funeral,” Joshua returned, pulling another sheet from a smaller shelf. “Maybe we should look her up.” He flipped through a few paintings on the shelf, then suddenly stopped and stepped back. Tersely, he called William’s attention. “Will.”

William stopped paging through images of their childhood haunts to see what Joshua had found. It was a painting of the three boys as the Musketeers, rapiers held high. Their raiments were ill-fitting, as if they still had a long way to grow into them. “It’s us,” he said, shocked.

There were more paintings of the boys, and always dressed in oversized musketeer garb. Sometimes, they ran alongside one another, other times they fought. Some paintings featured Jessica as well. Her costume was shabbier than the others, but she always looked radiant despite this. “We really need to find her,” Joshua declared. They hurriedly covered the art back up, taking a few of the musketeer pieces with them. Terry had installed a large roll paper dispenser in one corner of his space; William and Joshua used it to wrap the three paintings carefully.

“I guess we start with her parents,” William said as the got into his car.

Joshua nodded in agreement. “Makes sense.” He started the car, carefully pulled out of their space, and headed back to their old neighborhood.

The drive to their childhood home in Portage Park was quick, but it felt like an eternity. With no idea how long the search would take, and every intention to complete it, both men were filled with anxiety. Jessica’s parents were never easy to deal with. They were drunk as often as not, and regularly fought outside their house late at night. On more than one occasion, other people on the block were roused from their slumber and witnessed their spectacular arguments. William’s father would joke that they should sell tickets to the show, and his mother would always rebuke him for his lack of tact.

Jessica’s childhood home was almost directly across the street from where Terry lived. His parents had sold their house long ago, and the people that bought it from them had moved out as well. It sat vacant now, as did several others on the block. The house Jessica grew up in still looked the same. It had been maintained, but was still painted the same colors. Cautiously, William knocked on the door. No one came to answer it. Joshua peered into the building, trying to discern anything beyond the curtains. “There’s a light on in there,” he noted.

William knocked again, this time more firmly.

“Someone’s coming,” Joshua said, quickly moving away from the window.

William heard someone fumbling with the various locks on the front door. It slowly opened, revealing neither of Jessica’s parents, but the woman in question herself. Her hair was unkempt, her eyes bloodshot, and her cheeks flushed. She didn’t look at the two men on her doorstep at first, until William was able to eek out faintly, “Jess?” 

Jessica looked up. Her eyes widened, then dropped. She raised her hand to her forehead. “Fuck, it was today, wasn’t it? God damn it.” Her lips contorted, but she quickly regained her composure. “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Come in.” She unlatched the screen door handle and walked back into the house. She collapsed on the couch.

Joshua opened the door for William, then followed him inside. The interior looked like it hadn’t been cleaned for several days. Empty cans of various store-brand sodas and light beer sat on a glass coffee table that stood in front of a blanket-covered couch. On the floor next to it were more than a few wadded up tissues. Cautiously, William ventured to ask, “Still living at home?”

“It’s my place, now. Dad died in a bike accident, and Mom kind of disappeared after that. I paid off the mortgage.” Jessica’s eyes flitted among the cans in front of her, and reached for one containing diet cola. “How was it?” She took a small sip, and placed it back among its brethren.

“Somber,” William said.

“Surprising,” Joshua added.

Jessica placed her drink back on the table. “I bet.”

William sat down opposite Jessica on the couch. “Did you know he would leave us in charge of the artwork?” 

“He talked about it, but I didn’t know he’d actually done it.”

“He was very talented.”

“You think I don’t know that?” Jessica pulled the blankets closer around her. “I’m sorry I wasn’t at his God damned funeral. I feel like such an asshole.”

“I didn’t know you two stayed in touch,” Joshua said, taking a seat in a recliner beside the crowded sofa. “Although, I guess there’s no way I could have known.”

“He missed you guys so much. He would never have stood in your way, you know. That’s just not how he was. But he missed you all the time, even after high school. He probably realized you were all drifting apart before anyone else.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

“Would it have changed anything?”

“Probably not.”

“Then don’t apologize. What’s done is done.” Jessica stood up, still wrapped up in her blanket. It trailed behind her like an extravagant wedding gown. She walked out of the living room, past a sparely-furnished dining room, and into her kitchen. She retrieved another can of pop from the fridge and returned to the front room. “He was the best out of all of us.”

“You loved him,” Joshua realized.

“Of course I did. Idiot. You think I would have posed for all those pictures if I didn’t?”

“Did he love you, too?”

Jessica shot him an angry glance. “You think I would have posed for all those pictures if he didn’t?”

“I suppose not. How long were you together?”

Jessica sat back down on her couch. “A few years. We’d talked about moving in together.” Jessica shook her head. “We broke up a few weeks ago. It was a stupid fight, and I was sure we’d patch things up soon. But then…” Jessica scrunched her eyelids, hoping in vain that they would stem the rush of tears fighting their way out. “I couldn’t see him. Not like that. Not after what I said to him.”

William changed the subject. “Did he ever sell anything?”

“No. He never felt it was good enough, until recently.”

“The Musketeers,” Joshua said, hoping to clarify his suspicion.

“Yeah.”

“They’re really good. But even the stuff before it has a certain charm.”

“Yeah.”

“So,” William interjected, hoping to move the conversation forward, “What do we do now?”

“Fuck if I know what you’re doing. I’m drowning my sorrows until I pass out, and hoping I can face returning to work tomorrow.”

“I’m in town for the rest of the week, if you need anything. I don’t know what I can do. But if you think of anything…” he trailed off. “Where do you work?”

“I handle billing for a small medical practice in Lakeview.”

“Can we take you to lunch?”

Jessica shrugged. “I get a lunch break. Don’t know if I’ll be up for eating.”

Joshua handed her his business card. “Call me twenty minutes before you take your break.” He stood, and put a hand on her shoulder. “I am so very sorry for your loss.”

Jessica put her hand over his for a moment and squeezed. “I’ll see you two out.”

William rose and walked beside Joshua. After they walked out the front door, Jessica locked it and turned off the lights. The soft glow of light disappeared from the curtains facing the street. The pair were silent as they walked to William’s car. After he started it, Joshua spoke.

“Did you ever read The Three Musketeers?”

“No.”

“At some point, I listened to an audiobook of it. Did you know there was a fourth?”

“I didn’t know there was a sequel.”

“No, I mean a fourth musketeer.”

“Really? That’s misleading as hell.”

“Well, it was actually about a kid who wanted to be a musketeer. And the three musketeers in the title, they’re his friends.”

William said nothing.

“I have an idea. I’ll fill you in tomorrow, if you’re willing to hear it. I’d like you to be a part of it.”

“I’ve got nothing going on.”

“Good. Well, not good. But…”

“I get what you meant. I’ve got a meeting tonight, do you mind if I drop you off at your hotel?”

“Works for me, man. I’ll be up early, so just call whenever you’re ready tomorrow. We should meet up before seeing Jess.”

*   *   *

Joshua woke up tired. Seattle being two time zones behind Chicago, his night of phone calls to various contacts ran later than he’d have liked. He also had to extend his stay another week in order to iron out the details of his plan. He was anxious to get home to his family, but he knew his business here was far from finished. He slept through William’s call, and it wasn’t until his old friend was knocking on the door to his room that he woke up.

“Sorry,” Joshua said, inviting his friend in with a sweep of his hand. “Have a seat.”

William entered the room and sat in one of the two chairs at Joshua’s small hotel desk. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah, yeah.” Joshua said, waving off William’s concern. “Just a later night than I expected. But I think we can do this.”

“Do what?”

“You need a job, right?”

“Yeah,” William replied, warily.

“I’ve got a job for you. It will keep you busy for at least a few weeks, if not a couple months. And you’ll need to commit to a week or two a year from now.”

“You haven’t told me what the job is.”

“I want you to be my assistant while I am here. And I want you to be my liaison when I am back in Seattle.”

William looked at Joshua quizzically. “You do realize I’m a fucking mess right now, right?”

“You won’t screw this up. Not only will I not let you, you’re not going to want to. I promise, I am not bad to work for. Even if I am, it won’t be for long.”

“I’m not saying no, Josh, but you need to tell me what it is I’m doing before I agree to it.”

Joshua smiled and leaned in. “You’re in. You’re so in.”

*   *   *

Joshua and William met up with Jessica outside the Lincoln Restaurant shortly after the lunch rush had died down. The diner looked as though it hadn’t been updated in several decades. Wood paneling lined the walls, and shelving near the ceiling was decorated with a smattering of knickknacks that were vaguely related to either Abraham Lincoln or the Civil War. At a table on the opposite end of the dining room sat a group of senior citizens who appeared to have been there since the restaurant first opened.

Beside the vestibule a hostess manned the restaurant’s register. “Table or booth?”

The three friends looked at each other for a moment, exchanging shrugs. “Whatever,” Jessica said.

The cashier stepped out from behind the counter, a bundle of menus under her arm. She led the trio to a small table in the middle of the room and handed each of them their menu as they sat down. “Someone will be with you shortly,” she said, and walked back to her station.

“Wow, I remember coming here as a kid,” Joshua mused as he flipped through the laminated pages of his menu. “They still serve everything.”

Jessica smirked. “Of course. It’s a neighborhood staple. I don’t think it’ll ever change.”

“And I assume Superdawg is still guarding the intersection at Nagle and Devon?”

“Oh, of course.”

“Man, all I need to do is hit the Choo-choo Cafe and Wolfy’s for the ultimate nostalgia trip.”

After a few quiet minutes of indecision, a waitress approached their table. She looked to be about as old as the group of seniors across the room. On a small tray she carried three glasses of water. In a gravelly voice, she said, “Hello.” She placed a glass in front of each of her customers, then withdrew three straws from her apron to place beside them. “Are you ready to order?”

“I’ll have the Custer Omelette,” Joshua said, handing her his menu.

“I’ll just have a side salad with vinaigrette,” Jessica said, “and a Diet Coke.”

“A Cheeseburger for me,” William concluded, taking Jessica’s menu and stacking it on his own. “Medium-well.”

The waitress took the menus from him. “Fries or fruit?”

“Oh, fries. Definitely.” He smiled.

“I’m still not hungry,” Jessica admitted. “I know I have to eat, but… I don’t know. The idea of food just doesn’t cross my mind. I think I had like two cans of ravioli between the time I heard what happened to Terry and today.”

“It’s understandable.”

Joshua nodded. “You’re trying.” Jessica said nothing, so he continued. “I want to do something for you. And for Terry.” He paused for a moment. “Maybe William, too.”

Jessica held up her hand. “Josh, you don’t have to. You don’t owe any of us anything.”

“I know, I know. But I want to. And I think you’ll like it.”

Jessica scrunched her face and shook her head. “Come on, Josh. What can you do? Open a gallery and show his art to the world? Be realistic.”

Joshua and William exchanged a look. “Well, kind of, yeah. I’ve booked an exhibit at a small place not far from here. I am being realistic, Jess. I spoke with my wife, with some art dealers I know back in Seattle, and my accountant. They are all behind me on this.”

“Jesus Christ. So, what, you blow into town and make a quick buck off my dead boyfriend?”

“Absolutely not. You will be getting a large cut of the profit. I won’t lie; I’m going into this hoping to make some money. But I also genuinely want to help. I don’t think you’re going to be set for life or anything. But I’m sure Terry would have loved to get his art out into the world, right?”

Jessica sighed. “Yeah. You’re not wrong. It just feels inappropriate to do this. Like, he’s dead. He worked so hard, and he won’t see anything for it.”

Jessica played with the straw in her water, shifting the ice back and forth. As she did so, the waitress returned with their food. She gave Jessica a glass of diet soda so large it dwarfed her head, then gave William’s cheeseburger to Joshua, and Joshua’s omelette to William. She made no attempt to correct the mistake. As she walked away from the table, the two men swapped their plates.

Before eating, William spoke. “It’s a tragedy, obviously,” he began. “But I don’t think Terry would prefer you hide his work away. If it’s good enough to share, and sell, wouldn’t he have wanted to do that while he was still alive?”

Jessica picked at her salad. “Yeah. It’s not that I disagree. I just feel bad.”

“You got dealt a shit hand, Jess, no doubt. But that doesn’t mean you can’t try to make the best of it. Right now, everything is raw. Everything to do with Terry is going to be abrasive.”

“Maybe. Do you think we could put off making this decision for a few months? I really need to think this over.”

“No,” Joshua said. “These things take time to pull together, and if you procrastinate you’ll miss your chance. I found a gallery that will show his work. They’ve got an opening in April. If we don’t reserve it soon, it will go to someone else.”

William raised his hands, signaling Joshua to stop. “I’m going to be the one taking care of this. Josh is taking care of the financial stuff, the business side. I’m doing logistics and promoting. I’ll be the feet on the ground here. You can work with me every step of the way, and stop me any time and tell me if something we do isn’t okay.”

Jessica took a sip from her gargantuan soda. “Do I even have a choice? He left that stuff to you two.”

“You’re right,” Joshua said. “This is our call. But we’d rather have you with us. It’s important to his legacy.”

Jessica sighed. “Fine. Whatever. Just… please don’t let this turn into a mockery of him.”

“I’ll shut it down myself before that happens,” Joshua promised.

*   *   *

When Joshua returned to Chicago for the show opening, he brought his family with him. He’d always wanted to take Corrine to a Leona’s buffet, and to show Danielle the parks he played in as a child. It was too cold for a comfortable stroll along the lake shore, but he and Corrine were able to catch a performance of Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind the night before the exhibition of Terry’s work.

Joshua and his family arrived at the gallery several hours before the exhibition would open. Jessica and William met them at the entrance. William wore a well-tailored suit with a modern cut, and Jessica a flattering black dress. “This must be Corrine,” she said, putting out her hand.

“Corey,” Corrine corrected. She brushed Jessica’s hand aside and went in for a hug. “It’s so nice to finally meet you.” She stepped back and placed a hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “This is Danielle.”

“Hello,” the little girl said shyly.

Jessica knelt down to meet the child at eye level. “Hi, Danielle. I’m an old friend of you’re Daddy’s.”

Danielle nodded. “He told me that. And that your boyfriend made the paintings, but he died.” She was quiet for a moment. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay, Danielle. It’s hard, but I’m working through it.” She stood up and addressed the group. “Are we ready?”

Joshua smiled. “All for one?”

William rolled his eyes. “Let’s save the speeches for when the crowd has had a few drinks,” he advised, holding the door for everyone else. “In the meantime, we’ve got a gift for you.”

The gallery presenting Terry’s work was not large, but made excellent use of its space. The best of his most recent works were placed at the storefront, so that they could be seen from outside the building by passersby. These paintings included two “Three Musketeers” images, all of them featuring Jessica. Each of the three interior walls was lined with paintings from a different series. To Joshua’s left were more of the Three Musketeers series, to his right were landscapes capturing both the city and nature. Along the back wall hung a still life series. Some of his larger pieces hung from the ceiling by thin wire rope. In the center of the room, ten of his works were available as limited edition prints. Four of them were from the Three Musketeers series, the remaining six split among still life and landscape.

“This is wonderful,” Corinne said, awestruck.

Danielle stopped and stared at a painting the featured a young Jessica holding a wooden sword to the throat of a defeated William. They were both mottled with dirt, and grinning madly. She smiled.

A sudden panic struck Joshua. He grabbed William’s arm. “You didn’t put up any of the… more revealing paintings, did you?” He glanced at his daughter.

Jessica laughed. “No,” she said. “Those will remain in my private collection.” She opened a door at the opposite end of the gallery. “Your present is in here.”

In the center of the back room, the originals for the four musketeer prints stood on easels.

“We’re each going to get one, and the last one will be sent to Terry’s parents,” Jessica explained. “Since this was your idea, you get first pick.”

Joshua brought his hand to his chin and pondered each piece. Each one featured all four of them. In the first, they stood in a line with their arms around each other, smiling. In the second, they played a game of hide-and-seek. The third featured them again in a line, this time with wooden swords raised high. The final image was the most elaborate: the children played a board game on the sidewalk as their families looked on from the porch of William’s home.

“It’s kind of Rockwell-esque,” Corinne commented.

“I think this one should go to his parents, if I might suggest it,” Joshua said, pointing to the piece with their families. “I’d like the one with our swords raised.”

“I told you he’d go for that one,” Jessica said to William, smiling. She turned to Joshua. “I wanted hide and seek. Will wanted the huddle. It looks like everything worked out perfectly.” She paused for a moment and looked into the distance, the memory of Terry striking her heart for a moment. “More or less.”

“One last thing, before the show begins,” William interjected. He produced a small serving tray with four wine glasses and a juice box. Three glasses were filled with red wine, the fourth with water. He handed the juice box to Danielle, and took the water for himself. After each of his friends took their wine, he placed the tray on a table and raised his glass. “To Terry,” he said.

“To Terry,” the group replied in unison.

Posted on October 5, 2013 and filed under Creative.