Home > Love in the Present Tense(7)

Love in the Present Tense(7)
Catherine Ryan Hyde

Then he told me a lot more stuff.

After I got off the phone I looked up and Cahill was staring at me. “What was all that about?”

“Oh, that kid next door.”

“There’s a kid next door?”

“I didn’t know it either until just now.”

“How’d he get your private number?”

“I read it off to him while we were talking just now. We were talking out his window. I had him dial it right then while I was reading it off to him. Then I taught him how to hit redial.”

Cahill just stared at me for a minute. He was even younger than me, and I was only twenty-five at the time. He had one of those haircuts shaved on the sides but long on top. That morning he had this mean cowlick near the back. He was definitely having a bad hair day. “Why?” he said.

“Shit, I don’t know, Cahill. Why not? He’s over there all by himself. Dialing up total strangers. If he’s going to talk to a total stranger, I figured it should be me.”

Cahill had a big mental filing cabinet of my eccentricity and unreasonableness. I watched him silently file this new evidence away.

Ten o’clock that night the phone rattled me out of sleep. I don’t usually go to bed nearly so early but I’d gotten only two hours the night before. It’s a long story.

My first thought and my fondest wish was Barb, but I halfway expected it to be Leonard. If it had been, it would have been call number five for that first day. It was a girl. A young girl. Not Leonard young, but young. Teenage.

“Who is this?” she said.

“No,” I said. “No, that won’t cut it. You called me. You tell me who you are.” I hate it when people do that. Doesn’t anybody know phone etiquette anymore?

“Why’s my son been calling this number? I hit the redial, see who he’s been calling. Who the hell are you?”

“I live right next door,” I said. My voice softened a little. I couldn’t help it. It was kind of touching. It was what I wanted. Some proof this kid had a real momma lion on patrol for him. I told her, “If you were in the back room and my blinds were open we’d be watching each other make this call.” I was in my loft, upstairs. The whole downstairs had pretty much become the business.

“Why’s he been calling you?”

“Because I gave him this number. He was calling total strangers.”

“He still is,” she said. “You’re a total stranger. To me.” Her voice hadn’t softened yet.

“My name is Mitch,” I said. “Sometimes people call me Doc, though.”

“Why? You a doctor?”

“No. It’s just a joke. My initials are M.D.” No response. “It’s a joke.”

“I don’t get that joke.”

I sat up in bed. Reached over to pull up the blinds, but I reached over so far I almost fell off the bed. But I got the blinds up. I wanted to see her. She sounded so young. Maybe fifteen or sixteen. Maybe she was a lot older but just had a little-girl voice. I wanted to see who I was talking to. But all I saw was a glow behind white curtains. “You know,” I said. “That woman you rent from…I know you think she looks in on him while you’re gone. But she doesn’t.”

I waited a long time, but the line just went quiet. Then I heard a little sound. Might have been a sigh, or she might have been crying. I couldn’t tell.

“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” she said. “I gotta work.”

“What’s your name?” Leonard had told me but I couldn’t remember.

Barb always said I’m born to pick up strays. But Barb was not there. Then again, when was Barb ever there? If she had been available I might have told her that she should come around more often. Maybe I wouldn’t need the strays. She wasn’t around to hear that pointed complaint, though, which was the point.

“Pearl.”

“Pearl what?”

“Pearl none of your business. Pearl’s all you need to know.”

“Why don’t you try dropping him here while you’re gone?”

“Oh, sure. With you. Great. How do I know you don’t molest little boys?”

“Because…I don’t.”

“Good answer,” she said. “You should run for politics.”

“Look, I’m not the only one here,” I said. “There are four of us, minimum. All day. We’re working here. Doing software and Web design and stuff like that. He’s not going to be alone with anybody. He’s safer here, believe me. He’s going to fall right out that window one of these days.”

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