ALICIA WAS WAITING for her boyfriend to call. It was something she did a lot, in fact, but today was different. He had actually agreed to call her this morning. And it was her birthday. Right now Alicia didn’t know she was waiting – she was still dreaming while the grey day yawned outside. In her dream Alicia was sitting on a bench with a friend, translating. If she’d looked around her, Alicia would have seen that she was in a ferry terminal and the last call for the last ferry had passed. But she was not very observant and instead she and her friend were giggling over the translation. Salad was not really the same as cucumbers and a tomato, was it, Alicia’s friend laughed. And Alicia wrote down, “cucumbers and a tomato”. Just then the phone rang. Alicia was annoyed to say good-bye to her dream, and not a little startled.
“Hello,” she said in a creaky voice into her orange telephone.
“Crackle,” answered the phone. Then a man’s voice erupted, “This is the telephone repair service. What problems are you having with your telephone.” The line crackled some more and Alicia waited before answering.
“Oh. It seems that whenever I try calling out, I have trouble getting the party I want, and sometimes I have to dial three or four times.”
“Sounds like it might be your dial. We’ll send a man around today to check your set.”
“Okey. Thanks – oh, can he come before –” but the repairman had already gone. “O, well...” Alicia hung up. Her clock said 8:18. She slid back under her covers and began to wait in earnest; she knew her boyfriend wouldn’t be up before ten o’clock at least, on his day off, but she couldn’t help it. She lay there, staring at the ceiling and wriggling her toes. Maybe she should go back to slee–RRRING!
“Hello” she said, her voice a little less creaky this time.
“Good morning Ma’am, are you the lady of the house?”
“no” said Alicia very quietly, and listened while the voice at the other end extolled the virtues of the Mugwump Miracle Mop and insisted that she try one out this morning, free of charge, while the seller demonstrated it and waited for the ink to dry on her cheque for only 16.98!
“NO” shouted Alicia. “bitch!” hissed the voice as the line clicked dead. That is, Alicia wouldn’t have sworn in a court of law that she’d heard ‘bitch’, but she thought it sounded like it.
She lay back on her bed after opening the curtain a crack, and saw that the day was a uniform and damp grey. The clock said 8:31. She might as well sleep, Alicia thought, and snuggled under her blankets.
RRRICK-ing, RRRICK-ing went the phone, as though it had a toothpick stuck in its throat. Alicia sat up and listened to it one more time before lifting the receiver.
“O Miz, is dis de residence of Henery Lafallou? Ah’m lookin’ fo’ Mista Henery Lafallou. Is dis be de numba?” said a woman’s voice. In the background Alicia could hear a radio blaring–’dem belly full but me hongry’–. “No,” she said.
“Dis be six-seben-ze-ero–eaght-zero-wan-faive?”
“Yes it is. You’ve got the right numbers but the wrong number.” Alicia suppressed a snicker.
“Heeheeheeh” laughed the woman and, as if turning aside to a third person, repeated, “she say Ah gots de right numbas but de wrong numba.” Pause. “How dat be. Mista Henery Lafallou – he gib me dis numba.”
“There’s no Henry Lafalloo here,” Alicia replied, wishing the woman would hang up.
“Where he be den?” asked the woman.
“I don’t know. I don’t know any Henry Lafaloo, ma’am,” said Alicia patiently, with the patience of a very bored person. “Good-bye.”
“Good-bye,” said the woman cheerfully. Click. Alicia was about to set down her receiver but she heard the line ringing as though she had just dialed out. rrring...rrring. There was a click as if someone had picked up a receiver.
“You have dialed the wrong number. Please dial again. This is a message from the six-seven exchange.” The line went dead.
Alicia looked at her receiver perplexed, and hung it back up. Thank goodness the repairman was coming. Her clock said 8:43. At the window, she could see the neighbour’s cat sitting so she let it in.
“Time for our morning cuddle, eh Cecil?”
The cat trotted around Alicia’s legs, arching its back and purring. It sat on its haunches in front of her and looked up, a gaze of contented adoration in its eyes. Alicia bent to pick it up.
“You sappy little lap-cat, you.” She sat on the edge of her bed and stroked its back. The cat’s purring grew even louder. “My, aren’t we in a good mood?”
“Mrraaon,” replied the cat.
“Happy Birthday to me?” asked Alicia. “Why thank-you, Cecil.” 8:47. The grey sky hadn’t changed a bit. Alicia fidgeted on the bed, then decided to lie down again. The cat promptly curled up next to her on the pillow.
r-ing? r-ing? went the phone. Alicia waited for a second ring, but the phone was silent. ? She picked up the receiver.
“–eh mon, dat’s de trooth, y’know,” she heard a tiny voice saying. Another tiny voice answered.
“I don’t think you understand the situation. We need someone who can deliver the goods.”
“Lissen mon, det jiva, you give him one reefa, he don see de doa no mo’. He hopeless, mon. Det rock-an-roll shit, det no music for Jah folk.”
“– we’ve got – week – click –” the two small voices faded.
A loud buzz came on the line. Alicia pressed the reset button.
“Operator. Can I help you,” a voice called out flatly, a though it were addressing a wall.
“I’m trying to hang up,” said Alicia.
“Try again,” the operator sing-songed.
Alicia pressed the reset button. Silence. She pressed again. A busy signal began to bleat. She pressed again and counted to ten. “– the wrong number. Please dial again. This is a mess –” she slammed the receiver down and flung herself under the bedclothes, rolling up into a narrow wad and knocking a half-asleep Cecil off the bed. When she heard his loud thump and questioning “mrrp?”, Alicia poked her head out from under the pillow and apologized.
“Come here, Cece. I’m sorry I bumped ya.”
Cecil looked at her with unmitigated love and jumped back onto the bed, circled her head once, and curled up on the pillow once more. Alicia curled up too, and listened to the cat’s purring. How quickly it forgave and was willing to be content again. She could feel a little knot forming at the back of her diaphragm. Then again, maybe the cat was just stupid. She took a deep breath. 9:01.
RING. Alicia decided to ignore it.
It was too early to be her boyfriend anyway.
RING. What if he’d gotten up early for a change? She flipped over and grabbed the receiver. RI-. The knot twinged a little.
“Hello?” Her voice sounded breathless.
“What, are you in bed, young lady?” chided a voice she did not recognize. “Did you know that at this very moment a thousand heathen children are dying in the savage jungles of the Dark Continent and you are squandering your legacy of good health and Christian upbringing, not to mention – ” the voice broke off, the line crackled angrily – “light under a bush – ” the line went dead.
Alicia mumbled a curse and hung up. Was it a prank? Or the real McCoy? Some born-again Sunday recruiter? It reminded her of the missionary cards from elementary school that said: “Buy ______’s heathen soul for 25 cents” underneath the faded torso of a ragged Chinese child – no – they never did say it outright, but that was what they implied. And all the kids vied for who could buy the most little Chinese. You even got to ‘christen’ them with the name of your choice. She remembered Martha Bunsell calling one kid “Scarfoolie” ’cause it rimed with ‘coolie’.
Her mouth was beginning to taste sour. She thought of getting a glass of water. Maybe she should get up altogether and eat some breakfast. No. She pulled the blankets up again and rolled over. What time was it? She turned the sheet down from her nose and peered at the clock: 9:22.
Alicia groaned aloud and reached her arm out.
“hehehehehe” a voice giggled softly into her ear.
Alicia suddenly hiccupped –
“– hehehehe –”
– and began to laugh. She dropped the receiver to the floor and curled up into a little ball, tears welling in her lower lids and threatening to drip down onto her pillow. Cecil purred and moved closer but she kept laughing. The knot in her stomach felt like a big fist and she clutched her arms around her middle, rocking restlessly on the bed. Cecil nosed at her face inquisitively and licked at a salty trace on her right cheek. Alicia pushed him away, hiccuped once more and stopped. I can’t stand this anymore. She looked at the wall, then at the clock. 9:31. Another twenty-nine minutes....Maybe she could just call him herself, as usual. Maybe he wouldn’t mind – it was past nine-thirty already...
She leaned over and picked the receiver off the floor.
“–you can never hide – hehehehe –”
Alicia slammed the receiver down hard enough to crack it in two. She waited, trembling. Counted to ten. Lifted the receiver. An innocent-sounding dial tone greeted her ears.
Her fingers shook as she began to dial. Missed the third number – redialed; waited.
One ring. Two rings. Three. Would he answer? Four. Five. A click.
“The number you have dialed is no longer in service.”
“Alicia? Hello, Alicia? It’s your true love, haha. It’s me. Happy Birthday.”
Outside the sun was just poking its head through a fat grey cloud.