At 2:30 one fine October afternoon I ripped the telephone out of the wall. Minna said, “Evan, you have ripped the telephone out of the wall.”
I looked at her. Minna is seven years old and looks like a Lithuanian edition of Alice in Wonderland, all blond and big-eyed, and it is generally a pleasure to look at her. Now, though, something in my glance told her that coexistence was temporarily impossible.
“I think I shall go to the park,” she said carefully. “With Mikey.”
“Mikey is in school.”
“He stayed home today, Evan. It is a Jewish holiday.”
Mikey, né Miguel, belonged to no church in particular and was thus free to become an ex-officio member of whatever religious group was staying home from school on any given day. I said something caustic about Mikey and the many paths to divine enlightenment. Minna asked if we had any stale bread, and I told her I couldn’t be expected to keep track of that sort of thing, that kitchen inventories were her problem. She reappeared with three slices of bread for the pigeons. They didn’t look especially stale.
“Good afternoon,” she said in Lithuanian. “I forgive you for the intemperance of your mood, and trust you will be better suited to discourse upon my return.”
She ducked out the door before I could chuck a shoe at her. Minna always speaks Lithuanian when she does her queen shtik. She has the right, after all. As the sole surviving descendant of Mindaugas, the first and only king of independent Lithuania, she is unquestionably a royal person. She has vowed to make me her prime minister upon the restoration of the Lithuanian monarchy, and I keep her promise in a drawer with my Czarist bonds and Confederate money.
So I sighed heavily, and Minna went off to poison the pigeons in the park, and I sighed again and got a screwdriver and opened up the little telephone thing on the wall and put the phone together again. There’s much to be said for venting one’s anger upon inanimate objects, especially when they are so readily repaired.
It took perhaps ten minutes to rewire the telephone, just a fraction of the time the little black monster had already cost me that day. It had been ringing intermittently since five in the morning. Since I do not sleep, friends and enemies feel free to call me at all hours, and this was one of those days when they had been doing precisely that.
I was devoting the day to working on a thesis on color symbolism in the nature poems of William Wordsworth, and if you think that sounds slightly dull you don’t know the half of it. It was not at all the sort of thesis topic I would have selected, but for unknowable reasons it was precisely the sort of thesis topic Karen Dietrich had selected. Miss Dietrich was a school-teacher in Suffolk County who would receive a raise in pay if she earned a master’s degree. I in turn would receive $1000 for furnishing Miss Dietrich with an acceptable thesis, said thesis to run approximately twenty thousand words, making my words worth a nickel apiece, color symbolism notwithstanding.
Anyway, I had to finish the damned thing, and the phone kept ringing. For a while I gave Minna the job of answering it, a task she does rather well most of the time. This wasn’t one of those times. Minna is fluent in Lithuanian, Lettish, English, Spanish, and French, can struggle through in German and Armenian, picked up shreds of Irish last summer in Dublin, and knows occasional obscenities in perhaps half a dozen other tongues. So all morning long the phone kept ringing and Minna kept answering it and various clowns kept coming at her in Polish and Serbo-Croat and Italian and other languages outside her ken.
Until ultimately I ripped the damn thing out of the wall and Minna fled to cooler climes. And when the clime in my apartment cooled somewhat, I repaired the telephone. As you now know.
It was one of the major mistakes of my life.
For almost an hour the phone remained stoically silent. I probed Wordsworth and pounded my typewriter while the silent phone lulled me into a false sense of security. Then it rang and I answered it and a voice I did not recognize said, “Mr. Tanner? Mr. Evan Tanner?”
I said, “Yes.”
“You don’t know me, Mr. Tanner.”
“But I have to talk to you.”
“My name is Miriam Horowitz.”
“How do you do, Miss Horowitz.”
“It’s Mrs. Horowitz. Mrs. Benjamin Horowitz.”
“How do you do, Mrs. Horowitz.”
“Benjamin, he should rest in peace. I am a widow.”
“I’m very worry.”
“Oh, it’ll be eight years in February. What am I saying? Nine years. Nine years in February. Never sick a day, a hard worker, a good husband, he comes home tired from the office, like a candle he drops dead. It was his heart.”
I changed ears so that Mrs. Horowitz could talk into the other one. She had fallen silent. I decided she needed prompting. “I’m Evan Tanner,” I said.
“You called me, Mrs. Horowitz. I don’t want to, uh, be brusque with you, uh, but-”
“I’m calling you about my daughter.”
I’m calling you about my daughter. There are bachelors in their middle thirties who can hear those words without erupting in panic, but they generally wear pink silk shorts and subscribe to physical culture magazines. I felt a well nigh irresistible urge to hang up the phone.
“My daughter Deborah. She’s in trouble.”
My daughter Deborah. She’s in trouble.
I hung up the phone.
Deborah Horowitz is pregnant, I thought. Deborah Horowitz is pregnant, and her idiot of a mother has decided that Evan Michael Tanner is personally responsible for this state of affairs, and is presently measuring him for a son-in-law suit. Or a paternity suit.
I stood up and began pacing the floor. Now how in God’s name, I wondered, had Deborah Horowitz managed to get pregnant? Why didn’t she take her pills? What was the matter with her? And-
Wait a minute.
I didn’t know anyone named Deborah Horowitz.
The phone rang. I picked it up, and Mrs. Horowitz’s voice was saying something about our having been disconnected. I broke in to tell her that there was some sort of mistake, that I didn’t even know her daughter.
“You’re Evan Tanner?”