Last Night a Boy Knocked

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?”

“Yeah, 1950.”

“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.”

A Conversation

“Well, would you say you have had a torrid past?”

“A what? Torrid? I guess I’m not quite sure what you are asking but, I think probably not. Just about in any way, actually?”

“You sound pensive, almost sad about that?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Well, do you think you would like to have a torrid future?”

“Huh. Why are you asking me that? You know, ‘torrid’ is such an open-ended word. It makes me uncomfortable, to tell you the truth. Are asking, like, in a sexual way? Is that what you are getting at?”

She drew in from her cigarette, slow and deep, and released the cloud between them, a momentary thick haze creating welcome disconnect. But then of course it was gone.

“You think I am propositioning you, is that what you think?” Delivered with a disarming, ‘what, me?’ smile. He looked down, in self-deprecation.

She did not accept the implicit dis-avowal. “This is a funny thing, you know,” she said. “Do you know what I miss right now?” she asked?

He drew on his pipe, leaned towards her but diverted his exhalation to the side. His knees came up, he was seated but on the balls of his feet as if expecting an epiphany, or at least a revelation of significant moment. “No, what do you miss right now?”

“I miss having met you on line.”

“Really? That’s not what I thought you’d say. Not that I had an idea of what you might say, but what you just said? I wouldn’t have guessed that a million years.”

Now she smiled. “Let me tell you why. If we met on line we would know something about each other. I would have a better idea where you are coming from. If we met on line and then this was our first meeting for real, I would know if you were serious, or if you were flip or funny or, well something else.”

“You mean, like if I were weird or something?”

“Not that, no. Because if you were weird we would not be meeting in person, even in a place like this. She tilted her head towards the woods behind their bench. “Not that this isn’t public and all, but it’s sort of– remote if you know what I mean.”

His brow knit in either interest or mock consternation, she could not tell which. That being her very point. “Go on,” he said.

“Well we met at Jill’s party. That should have been better than on-line, ya know?”

“Sure, I agree. People lie like a rug when they are typing an answer into a machine at 11 pm and no one can even edit it for fantasy, or stuff you make up, or your being a real creep.” There he was, she thought, deflecting the label from himself by invoking it with approbation.

“Not quite what I was saying. What I am saying,” [slight emphasis on the ‘am’] “is that you usually tell if someone is, maybe not lying which is important, but how they see themselves, or how they want you to see them. You get clues about their personality. You can usually check up on some of the facts which may be exaggerated or even made up, but if you feel creepy about the facts you just drop the whole thing, it’s easy. But you do learn something about how people think, where they’re coming from, if you spend a couple of weeks emailing, texting, ya know?”

“Well, let’s say you’re right. I actually think that you aren’t right usually, but I bet you are right some of the time, okay. So let’s say, instead of the great talk we had at Jill’s about the wine, the food, our jobs, Jill’s current asshole live-in – let’s say instead of actually talking to each other for what, an hour before we exchanged our phone numbers – you could have learned more about me after four weeks on line. Then you wouldn’t be surprised by what I just said. Okay, let’s talk about the fact we didn’t have the email thing, the text thing, we only had that in-person thing, right? So what about what I was saying that was so upsetting? You think I turned out to be a creep, or I’m just trying to hook up? Maybe I’m just not very good at second meetings, or first dates or whatever this is? Maybe I tried for a flowery word and got the wrong word? Or maybe you’re just nervous and misread what I said? You’d give me space if we were texting on our cells and I was fifteen miles away in the West city, so do I get another chance now, in person, when I was attracted enough to call you and invite you for a walk? It’s a beautiful day, right? I called and asked, right? Public place, right?”

He leaned back and squared his shoulders, proud of his rebuttal. The wronged man keeping control of his hurt. Telling it like it is.

She let the silence sit for a while, defusing the defense by not jumping forward to reassure. She was too smart for that, too assured to fall for the “wronged guy” gambit, she thought. She drew on her cigarette, then realized it was down to the filter and she stepped it out on the paving stone. The she smiled.

“What’s funny,” he asked with some diffidence.

“No, I was just thinking, no one smokes any more, unless it’s grass, and here we are, two people who happen to smoke.”.” She paused to give the irony a chance to sink in, and a chance to defuse the moment.

He glanced down at his burned-out pipe and tapped its bowl gently to empty it into the center of the path before them, which annoyed her for a reason she could not identify. They sat for a minute, perhaps more. She took a thin silver cigarette case from her fanny pack; she had debated with herself and decided carrying a purse to walk in the park was not the right touch; she was, after all, well into her thirties but still quite young, as these things go. She offered him a smoke which he took, and he reached into his pocket and offered her a light. The torch from his lighter made her tilt her head upward to avoid the heat of its long flame. She exhaled and smiled.

“In the old days, we would have said. ‘that’s a good sign, two on a match.’”

He went with it. “Yeah, guess so. No more matches,” he shrugged with a version of an affable grin. They sat and smoked.

“Can we start again,” he finally asked.

“Sure,” she said, mustering a smile, perhaps over-broad but no harm to it. She was a nice person, and not so certain but that she had not over-reacted. She thought, ‘it isn’t like he leaned over to me and the first thing out of his mouth was “let’s screw, whaddaya say?”

She smiled again.

‘Yesterday I was reading the New Yorker. Do you get the New Yorker?” He didn’t wait long enough to see her slight shake of her head. “SO there was this article about this ancient sect, in Iraq? They are persecuted by everyone, but some are in the States so the ones in the US, from all over, they organized and they do a march? On Washington?”

He paused for reaction. ‘He has that Millennial habit of turning statements into questions, she thought. She was careful about not doing that. She was careful not to use the word ‘like’ as a connective. She was careful in her spoken word. In fact, she realized, she was careful about just about everything, not that that related to the moment. Perhaps.

“No, no, I don’t know anything about that,” she said. “What are they called again?”

“The yatzics or something. Sorta like Yahtze, the game? Not that of course….”

“So what happened?”

He paused and laughed and looked straight at her. “I don’t know. I realized just now that I didn’t finish the article yet.” He looked down and shook his head slowly. “Shit, I did it again! I’m just not very good at this, am I?” He looked up again. “You must think I’m a moron who can’t talk without three glasses of wine in him at someone’s party….”

She felt now she should save him from the hole into which he had purposely jumped. The expected ritual, in person at least and as she understood it, was that when someone showed you their soft underbelly, when they in fact said to you “look at my soft stupid underbelly,” you were expected to jump in and say “oh not a problem” or “we all have our own soft underbellies” or even “oh now, I love how your underbelly is so soft, so human, let’s run with your soft underbelly, let me share it, embrace it, confess to you I have one or three of my own.”

“No, I’m interested,” she said. “Maybe you can read the rest of the article and email me how it all came out.”

No, no she thought, not enough. “Or,” her eyebrows up now with a slight coquette-ishness in her aspect and voice, “you can tell me all about it at our second date, and we could see if you are better the second time around.”

She knew she had played that moment expertly, according to Hoyle, but then was not sure she had wanted in fact to play another deal; ‘be careful what you wish for,’ she thought but did not say.

He stood. “Let’s take a walk,” he said, holding out his hand. Then, “if that’s okay. We can stay on the path around the park, no need to go into the deep dark woods,” he said with a self-deprecating lilt as he held his smile.

“Why don’t you just lead the way,” she said lightly.

“My pleasure,” he replied.

“Gotcha!,” he thought.

(April 2018)


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