Last night a boy knocked on my door. It was, indeed, a dark and stormy night, an insistent chilled rain driven by that Northeastern wind for which Boston is dubiously famous. And yes, as trite luck would have it, a dog did bark; my startled cock-a-poo, preciously named Popcorn in honor of his caramel color, yapped a frenzy and raced to the front door, no doubt hoping for a belly rub from a stranger. Lest you be fearful, I assure you that at no point in this story will you hear that either a door slammed or that a shot rang out.
It was well after nine, a time when suburban neighborhoods seldom entertain unexpected visitors. Cautioning my son to stay in the kitchen, as Matt typically followed Popcorn down the hall to open wide our door and great any and all, I walked briskly to the door and looked out the glass panel framing the left side of the door jamb.
A short man in a soaked dark hooded sweatshirt stood in the downpour, strands of dark hair emerging on his forehead and forming a Casear-like fringe pasted down with rain. He was leaning into the small overhang at our door, rising rapidly on his toes and just as quickly settling back on his heels. His pasty face, lit by our weak outside lights, glowed in suspicious contrast to both his clothing and the surrounding night.
“Yes, can I help you?” I yelled at my closed door. He could not hear me but tapped gently on the glass pane to his right, peering into my hallway and offering a polite and tentative wave. My door has no chain, something I regretted for the first time in the ten years we have lived here. I was not about to let anyone I did not know into my house, not with my husband away on business, not with a guard dog who would lick the hand of Caligula in exchange for a tummy job. I had to open my door slightly, just a couple of inches, stick the front part of my head into the opening, and ask again if I could be of help. No doubt, I thought, a hollow request as I had little intention of actually helping with anything.
I found myself looking through wet eyelids at a teen-aged boy of slight build and modest height. The spray of water in my face gave birth to the thought that this was a kid standing in the rain and if it were my son I would want some homeowner to listen to his story, open wide the door and give him shelter. I suppressed that thought, instead girding myself for an anticipated recitation of misfortune.
The boy started to talk, but with the rain, the wind and the dog I could not understand him. I yelled for my son to take the dog to the kitchen, turned back to the boy and, with misgiving, opened the door wider, absorbed the blast of cold wet air, waved him closer, yelled for him to speak up, meanwhile wedging the edge of my right foot up to the bottom of the door and aligning my body lightly against the door’s length in case I decided to push it shut quickly.
“Thanks, lady. I’m trying to find 1950 Beacon Street. It’s dark and I can’t find it. I gotta go help my sister. I been driving around for a long time. I need to get to my sister. I was texting with her and my phone went dead. Can I use your phone?”
I couldn’t see a car on the street. “Where’s your car if you’re driving around?”
“I parked down the block and got out so I could see the house numbers better. But I can’t find no 1950. I think I’m lost? And I need to get to my sister, so can I please use your cell phone?”
“No,” I said, too curtly I’m sure but it was already said. “I’m not comfortable with that, but if you give me her phone number I can call for you.”
“She lost her cell, she’s on a tablet. I can’t call, have ta text.”
Another convenient detail designed to get inside my house? Sounds like that to me. And who knows if he’s high on drugs, or whatever. I have experience with drugs, don’t ask how but I do. And I know two things for sure: on drugs everyone is unpredictable and everyone lies—all the time.
“So do you have a charger at least, I’ll give you my phone, just give it some juice for a couple of minutes and I’ll be able to text her and find her.” He held out a new model Apple, same model as mine, the rainwater immediately dripping off it in a continuous rivulet.
“I’ll wait out here,”he offered. I thought, “that’s for sure” as I took his phone and gently closed the door in his face.
Plugging the phone into the charger in the kitchen I saw it was in fact completely dead; this would take a few minutes.
“Why are you being so mean to him?” My son startled me with his question.
“Look, you have to let me take care of this. I am NOT being mean, you just can’t let a stranger into your house.”
Matt started at me skeptically.
“Not when YOU’RE here,” I added, to prove that I was doing this all for his protection so, get off my case and don’t confuse me because I feel bad enough already, and maybe (a thought out of left field) I should offer the kid a hot chocolate?
“Well,okay, but can’t we help him find the house he is looking for?”
Good idea. I picked up my own cell phone, scrolling to retrieve the addresses of my neighbors. One is at 1954, one is at 1948, there IS no number 1950. This has happened before. Our street runs through our suburb in a leafy sinuous path, then through another suburb, and emerges into the City where it is first lined with apartments, then skirts Fenway Park, the picks up trees again and meets its falsely bucolic terminus on the top of Beacon Hill near the Commons. We have had occasional deliveries arrive at our house, the wrong house, looking for our house number in the wrong town, when they should have been one suburb closer to Boston, or in Boston itself. I went back to the door, opened it slightly, focusing on ignoring the soaking wet kid’s clothing and pale dripping face.
“You sure of the number?”
“Did your sister say Newton? This street goes through Brookline and then Boston, maybe it’s a number not in Newton?”
“I’m in Newton? I dunno, she just gave me an address and I plugged it to my phone GPS.”
How the hell can he not even know what city he is in? “Where did you come from,” I ask. He names a suburb 45 minutes North; no wonder he is clueless. I was afraid I was starting to believe the kid, but was not ready to let him in my house. I doubted I’d ever be ready for that.
“Mom, his phone is charging,” Matt called from the kitchen.
“I’ll get your phone now,” I barked into the rain, as I ever so gently clicked the door shut again. Back the kitchen, unplugging the phone, hopeful that all of this was about to come to an end, I started as it rang in my hand. Without thinking, I slid my finger over the screen to connect with the call.
“Louis?” A woman’s voice.
“Are you the sister?” I asked.
A pause. “I’m Louis’ mother.” A confused momentary hesitation. Then, in shrillness near panic: “Who are you? Why are you answering Louis’ phone? Is my son okay? Put my son on the phone.” As I was about to reply, the call dropped.
In seconds, the phone rang again.
“Who the hell are you? Why did you hang up? Is my son alright? Where’s my son?”
“He’s outside my door,” I answered, realizing that this was not likely to be the most reassuring of replies, however accurate it might be.
“Who ARE you? What is your phone number, I want to call you back, give me your phone number.”
For some reason I did not want to do that; unidentified putative negative consequences, harassments, skipped through my mind.
“I’m not going to give you my phone number,” I said defiantly.
“Jesus, don’t hang up,” the mother screamed. “I don’t understand what is going on but you’re my only link to my son. Fagodzake, don’t hang up.”
“I’ll give you my cellphone number, how about that?” I offered, thinking as I said it, why would I do that, can’t you get an address from a cell number anyway, why does that feel safer, why do I really care anyway if she has my address, I’m not doing anything wrong, why is this moving so fast, why does it feel dangerous, it’s just about a kid on my front stoop in the rain.
There’s a kid on my front stoop standing in the rain and I’m debating with his hysterical mother on the kid’s cell phone. “Look, my phone number is 857-435-7983 and I’m going to give the phone to your son, just hold on.”
I found myself scampering down the hall, throwing the front door open wide, watching the kid jump back in surprise, thrusting his phone into his hand, reclosing the door to a crack. Through the crack, over the sound of the wind, I hear fragments, just fragments –“yeah I’m fine …relax she’s nice … fine …she’ll kill me if I tell you … drunk at some address … Newton … text her and come get her …. maybe Boston, I’ll figure it out….”
I am now feeling really badly about this. Here is this teen-ager on an errand of mercy to help his sister who, I guess, is drunk and has no phone and I have him catching pneumonia and he is drenched by a New England monsoon and I have scared his mother to death and why didn’t I at least let him stand out of the rain in my hallway?
There is a knock on the door, still slightly ajar. Louis’ face appears in the crack. “Thanks for all the help,” he says slowly, calmly over the wind. My mom thinks I need to go to Boston, that’s where she lives, I’ll put that in my GPS. Sorry. Thanks again.”
A wet hand is extended from a black soaking sleeve and I shake it perfunctorily, once up and once down. Then Louis is walking down the path and disappearing into the storm and all I can say to his retreating body, seemingly unheard, is “I’m sorry.”
Back in the kitchen, I sit at the table drained of energy. Popcorn sits down on my feet, his warm underside making me notice that my slippers are cold and little wet.
“So he’s okay, huh?” Asks Matt.
“Yes ,he’s okay.” I think, who knows, maybe his phone ran out of power again, it was only charging briefly, maybe I should have offered to drive him? I am sitting at the table, elbows close together and resting in a small space between Matt’s little piles of homework, about to re-explain why I didn’t let Louis into our house, when my own cellphone, still in a tense grip in my left hand, jangled and buzzed. I don’t usually pick up for unknown numbers, but I did this time.
“It’s Louis’ mother. I’m sorry I freaked out, Louis explained it to me. Thank you for helping my son.”
“Oh, well,” I said weakly, “don’t think anything of it.” And I thought to myself ,”why don’t you just leave all the thinking about it to me.”