1-800-Your Boy

MY GIRLFRIEND, MARILYN, AND LAKE WERE DOWNstairs playing Mousetrap in the sun when the first call came. A woman, nervous, said to me, “I saw your boy in a dream. I just woke up. Give me a minute.” She swallowed something, a bubbling at the other end of the line, and smacked her lips. “I remember railroad tracks. And a tree with leaves, leaves just turning color. Red and . . . red and gold.”

“Pardon?” I said.

“Your boy. He was dressed in blue jeans. Blue jeans with a patch on his . . . left knee. A black, black T-shirt. He was in a dream. I saw him. Railroad tracks. A tree. I’ve probably been no help, no help”—she chuckled derisively—“at all.”

I ran down the three flights of stairs to the courtyard. Marilyn and Lake sat facing each other over a picnic table. Two redheads intent on the complex process of putting the game board together, they had come downstairs at just the right time to sit in the sun. With his coppery hair and light blue eyes, Lake looked like he belonged to Marilyn, but his mother, who also resembled Marilyn, lived an hour away.

Our new apartment was on the top floor of a four-story red-brick cube, from whose center had been hollowed a charmless little courtyard. Management provided two picnic tables, and a lawn that could be mowed in three passes. Now, late in the summer, sunlight found its way to the bottom of the box canyon for only minutes a day, and Marilyn and Lake had made a game of calculating the light’s arrival and the duration of its stay. Marilyn was confident enough to wear her swimsuit, a little two-piece that drew phantom wolf whistles from deep in the shadowy apartments.

“What is it?” Marilyn asked. She indicated with a dip of her shoulder that there was room for me on her bench, but it was Lake I wanted to sit beside. He was busy with a small green plastic man who stood poised to dive at one end of a teeter-totter. By tapping the opposite end, Lake propelled the man through the air and into a vat.

“Nothing’s wrong,” I said. “I wondered what you were doing. Can’t I take some sun with you?” Lake’s shoulders were smooth and solid beneath my hand. Lost in the game, he paid no attention to me.

“We’re glad to have you,” Marilyn said.

I could see the street through the tunnel from the courtyard. Doors opened off the tunnel: a door to the manager’s apartment, another to the laundry room, and a third door I’d never looked behind.

“I wish I could see you from the apartment,” I said, looking up, catching the sunlight in my eye.

“We’re fine,” Marilyn said. She rubbed her hand along my arm. The back of her hand was coated with freckles, as was most of the rest of her. Her freckles amazed me, some of the places I found them. Knowing that Lake was safe, that Marilyn was with him, made me antsy with love for them both—for Marilyn in a particular way, for Lake in the blind way that allowed him to pay me no heed, even as I scratched his back.

“Have you heard from Daisy?” I asked.

Lake’s head came up. “Mom?”

“Yeah.”

“Why would I hear from her?” Marilyn asked.

“I thought maybe she called. You forgot to tell me.”

Marilyn took back her hand. “I give you all your messages,” she said.

“I just haven’t heard from her. Usually I hear from her.”

“Mom?”

“Yes,”I said, dismayed by the longing in his voice.

That courtyard held sounds, moved them around, made them more than they were, so when I heard a phone ring, I had no idea where it was coming from.

“That’s ours,” Marilyn said.

“How do you know?” I asked, but believing her, rising.

“I recognize the sound and location,” she said, pointing to our window.

I was out of breath when I got to the door, and needed a while to get my key out, but the phone ringing in the apartment projected a patience, a willingness to ring for as long as necessary. A man this time said, “I want reward information before I say anything. And I’m not telling you anything for less than five hundred dollars. Is that clear? Now. . . what are you paying?”

“For what?” I asked.

“For your kid, you cheap dick,” he said. “Isn’t your kid worth five hundred dollars to you?”

“My—my son is sitting right in front of me,” I said, though I was nervous again out of sight of Lake. “I see him with my own two eyes.”

“You’re lying. / know where he is,” the man said. “You want him back, but you’re too cheap to offer a reward. Guys like you make me sick.”

By pressing my eye as dose to the kitchen window as possible, I could see Marilyn’s hair smouldering in the last of the sunlight. But I couldn’t see Lake. Marilyn was speaking matter-of-factly to someone. She gave no hint of being party to a kidnapping.

DAISY DID NOT WANT CUSTODY OF LAKE, AND THEN she did. By then the divorce was final and Lake was mine. She wanted to press the fight all over again in court, but she couldn’t afford a lawyer. She asked me to retain one for her, but I refused. With what I’m paid to teach junior high school science, I didn’t have money for a lawyer either. I feared that she might persuade one of her boyfriends to put up the money, and then I would be forced to hire a lawyer of my own.

She saw Lake every other week, and he spent two weekends a month with her. I dreaded those overnight visits. I didn’t trust Daisy. She went for the quick fix in their relationship, trying to win Lake’s love with nearly unlimited sugar and an absence of discipline. He returned to me moody and confused, a terror for two or three days afterward, such a pain in the ass that his teachers told me they could tell when he had spent the weekend with his mother.

Our routine for Daisy to drop Lake at school after his visit, and I would pick him up in the afternoon. Inevitably, because he was in a bad mood, because he knew he could score with it, he asked, “Where’s Mom?”

One Monday morning I was called out of class by a messenger who spoke of an emergency phone call, and I sprinted down the halls to the office. Lake’s school had phoned to report that Daisy had called. Lake was sick and wouldn’t be at school that day.

I dialed Daisy’s number and nobody answered. She was already in violation of her visitation terms: if Lake had to miss school after her weekend, she was required to bring him home at the time she would have dropped him off at school.

They got a sub for me, and I went home and phoned Daisy again. No answer.

“It’ll be all right,” Marilyn said. “She just forgot the rules. She probably wanted to play hooky with him.”

“She knows the rules.”

I was certain she had taken Lake away. She had gone on the run with him, emptying her bank account, packing the car, and vanishing into the landscape. She might have left the instant she took possession of him Friday, and called his school long distance to avoid suspicion for a little longer, to buy another day’s flight.

Marilyn urged me to wait, but I called the police. I was switched through a series of people; finally a patient man listened to my story, but he refused to do anything, even to take my name. What I was experiencing was so common, and my particular case so embryonic in development, that, he implied, I was being a bit of a sissy for calling so soon.

“She’s had him two days, nearly three days,” I said. “She could get anywhere in that time.”

“Our projections say you’ll have your boy back before sunset,” he said. “If you haven’t heard from her this time tomorrow, call us back.”

I called Daisy’s apartment every ten minutes. Marilyn fixed us lunch, coaxed me to eat, and promised, in that sincere and confident manner of hers, that I would get Lake back.

Daisy phoned early in the afternoon. She was crying. She had dropped Lake off at school.

“I was going to take him,” she said.

“I know. I’ve already called the police.”

“Oh, great!”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “They didn’t take any information. You aren’t wanted.”

I considered denying Daisy her weekend visitation rights, but decided against that. The fact that I had broken our agreement could someday be used against me in court. She never explained why she had not run away with Lake. Marilyn said that Daisy realized Lake loved me, that running away with Lake would wrench him for a second time out of the familiar comforts of his life. I believed that Daisy suddenly realized what an inconvenience kidnapping a little boy was and decided she couldn’t be bothered.

MARILYN SEEMED TO LOVE LAKE, SHE WAS ALWAYS eager to do things with him—to make golf-ball ice cubes, take him to the park, cook spaghetti, read him a book. I was a little annoyed that he accepted her attention as his due. He seemed to be fully aware that he was lovable, irresistible, to the adults in his life. I wanted Marilyn to love him. I wanted that more than I wanted him to love her. Or her me.

I told her about the two calls. We were in the kitchen drinking beer. Lake was asleep. Out the window the courtyard air hummed after an evening of radios, arguments, someone loudly making love somewhere, and conversations strung like clothesline looping from wall to wall.

“Wrong numbers,” Marilyn said confidently, anxious to clear the worry from my look. “Someone with a number similar to ours has a missing boy. Those two hit the wrong button.”

That was simple to understand and accept. Lake was sleeping soundly in his bed; his young boy’s throaty snore was like a machine running on the other side of the wall. My boy was not missing. That was someone else’s nightmare.

“That’s exactly what happened,” Marilyn said.

But I lay on my back after she was asleep and waited for the phone to ring, convinced the calls were coming to me out of the future, a nightmare of my own I had to look forward to. And a call did come, so early in the morning that I couldn’t read the clock even by window light.

“I had . . . another dream,” the woman said. “I’m frightened. I don’t want to keep dreaming. This time your boy is in a supermarket. He is standing in an aisle,” she said. She paused, and I imagined her trying to see the dream as clearly as she could. “He is in a supermarket aisle. Cookies and crackers on one side. Soups on the other side. He is hungry and he’s crying. Somebody is with him. If you could find a store with the aisles laid out like that—that might be a help to the police.”

Nearly in a whisper, I said, “Thank you—but I found my boy.”

“You did?”

“He came home today.”

“But my dreams—” she said. Then, in a clipped voice, she scolded me. “If you found him, take down your signs. Stop getting the rest of us all worked up.”

Marilyn scolded me too. “You’ve done a terrible thing! That woman isn’t dreaming about Lake. She’s dreaming about the missing boy. What if her dreams are real? Now she’ll pay no attention to them. She won’t try to make sense of them because she thinks the boy is safe.”

“But they were so vague,” I said. “A railroad track. A tree. A grocery store.”

Marilyn shook her head. “No. No, I took a class in dreams once. That woman was beginning to focus in. Each dream would get more specific. I think you should put an ad in the paper and try to reach her.”

She went outside with Lake when the sun was right. She was capable of holding a grudge, and her disapproval of me seemed to infect my son, who gave me a blank glare of disappointment the equal of Marilyn’s as they went out the door. I stayed at the kitchen table working on my checkbook, the bills, lesson plans for the coming semester. In a couple of weeks I would begin teaching in my fourth school district in four years. Funding dried up wherever I took a job, forcing the lopping off of the new guys. My lessons had an amorphous quality; they never seemed real until kids were in front of me.

I should have been downstairs playing with Lake and Marilyn, but I was waiting for the phone to ring. I wanted the dream woman to call back, convinced that her dreams were so vivid that my boy had to be still missing. I imagined her taking a nap in a dark, warm room, angry with herself for being sleepy in the middle of the day but stretching out under a crisp sheet, her hair moistening the instant she was asleep. A dream would then come to her, with signs, addresses, directions, and she would have no choice but to call. She wouldn’t sleep again until she had.

We took Lake to a carnival that evening, and he walked like a guard between us. The air had the panic of summer’s end. Looks of despair stretched the faces of every kid. We went on rides that were easy on our stomachs. I shot baskets. Lake threw darts at balloons. I was determined to win a lion for Marilyn, but the hoop I shot at was barely bigger around than the ball I shot. Lake punctured two balloons in three throws and selected a necklace of pink and green pop-beads, which Marilyn accepted with a kiss of gratitude. Almost at once she warmed up to me, too, taking my arm, pressing it against the side of her breast. She saw something in Lake’s sweetness that put me in a better light. I think she knew he loved her, and that made it safe for her to love me again. We stood together while he went for a ride on whirling teacups. I lost sight of him, found him, lost him again. I didn’t mention my uneasiness to Marilyn, fearful that it would remind her of the dream woman. But I was relieved when Lake came wobbling off the ride, his face green at the edges, his need for me at the moment absolute. While I steadied him, held his head, found him a cup of ice water, I was reasonably confident I would never lose him.

A WOMAN, NOT THE DREAM WOMAN, CALLED ON MONday. “I saw your boy at the planetarium,” she told me. “He was with a man and woman in their forties. He was buying a constellation globe.” I asked her what number she was calling, and the number she was calling was our number.

“But no boy is missing here,”I said.

“Why put up the signs?”

“We didn’t.”

“Somebody did.”

“Not us.”

“They’re all over the tollway,” she said. “Your boy’s face is everywhere.”

“Not my boy’s,” I said, stressing the point.

Marilyn had me go through the call again for her.

“They’re calling our number,” I said. “She was very adamant about that.”

“Could people go to the trouble of printing up posters, but in their grief not notice that the phone number was wrong?” Marilyn said, wondering.

“Could the printer take the money of grieving parents—and make a mistake like that?” I asked.

We went for a ride in the evening, the three of us in the front seat, Lake suspicious when his questions about our destination drew no definite answers. We simply got on the tollway, mixed into the traffic headed toward the city, and drove the eleven miles to the first toll plaza.

The posters were there: on the exact-change baskets and on the manned booths. They showed a boy with dark hair and dark eyes, an expression of pre-adolescent ennui at the prospect of being photographed, his grin a tad snide. Not a likable kid, was my first impression.

Above the picture was the thick black word MISSING, and beneath it the query HAVE YOU SEEN OUR SON? Beneath the picture was his name, DAVID A. RICHARDSON, and the simple plea, nearly a command, CALL 1-800-YOUR BOY. “They haven’t been dialing the 1-800,” Marilyn said excitedly.

“What?” Lake said. “Where’re we going?”

“YOUR BOY? That’s our number?” I tried to picture a telephone, to match letters and numbers.

Marilyn was faster. “Sure. Y is 9. O is 6. U is 8. That’s it! That’s our number!”

“YOUR BOY,” I said.

“Where are we going?” Lake asked.

“Into the city,” I said.

“You have to call that number,” Marilyn said. “They should know what we know.”

“What do we know?”

“About the woman with the dreams. About the couple at the planetarium.”

“And I should tell them that I told the dream woman their boy had been found?”

She reached across Lake and rested her hand on my thigh. “It was an honest mistake. But you must call.”

“How much credence do we give to the reports of people too stupid to dial an 800 number right?” I asked.

“You have to call,” she said.

We spent time in the city just walking, to tire out Lake. Both Marilyn and I were anxious to be home. After an hour we headed back. But before I could make the call, a call came to us.

A man told me, “He’s dead. I know just where, too. You’ll never see him again.”

“Give us proof,” I said.

“I don’t need proof. He’s gone for good.”

“What about the reward?”

“It’s too late for that. Your boy is dead.”

I hung up, which was probably a mistake, but I did not want to listen to him any longer. And he had our number. He was free to call us at any time with reports of my son’s death.

“He said the boy’s dead,” I told Marilyn.

“Call the number. They should know.”

I dialed the number and got a busy signal, and Marilyn put her hand on mine and said, “Don’t forget the 1-800.”

“I didn’t.”

“Try again.”

A man answered. His voice was chipper, enthusiastic.

“My name is Burt McKenzie,” he said. “I’m handling the phones for the Richardsons. Do you have any information about their son?”

I cleared my throat. I told him, “I don’t know. But I thought I should report some calls we’ve been getting.”

“We appreciate that. Do you mind if we tape-record this conversation?”

“No.”

“Good. Could you tell me your name, please?”

“My name is Phil. Our phone number is the same as your 800 number without the 1-800. We’ve been getting some calls from people who forget to dial the 1-800.”

Burt McKenzie laughed appreciatively. “People, huh? What did they say?”

“One guy asked for a reward. He wouldn’t tell me anything until he heard about the reward,” I said.

“We get that, too. Ignore him.”

“A woman said she saw your boy at the planetarium,” I said. “He was with a man and a woman in their forties.”

“The planetarium in the city?”

“I think so. She didn’t say.”

“We’ll check that out,” he said. “That might be a good place for some posters, come to think of it. Lots of parents go through there. Let me write that down. Plan-et-ar-ium. That’s a big help, Phil.”

“Thanks. And we got calls from a woman who said she saw your boy in a dream,” I said.

“A dream?”

“Two dreams, actually. One, he was by a railroad track. A tree was nearby, with its leaves changing color. The second one, he was in a grocery store. By the cookies and the soups.”

“Not much to go on,” Burt McKenzie said.

“I have to be honest, though. I didn’t want her calling anymore, so I told her we’d found your boy—my boy— the missing boy. I’m sorry.”

“Phil, don’t give it another thought,” he said. “Sure, we’d be interested in talking to her—but her locations are so general, I don’t know what help they could be.”

“My girlfriend thinks she was focusing in,” I said.

“Maybe,” Burt McKenzie said. “I’ve been running phones now for eight years, Phil, and I’ve talked to a hundred dreamers, at least. Not one has helped find a kid.”

“You do this for a living?” I asked.

“You got children?”

“A boy.”

“God forbid he ever disappears, 1-800-FONK GUY. With an F. Enough said about that, Phil. Do you have anything else for us today?”

“One last one. I’m sure it’s nothing.”

“Shoot.”

“Someone called today and said your boy was dead.”

Burt McKenzie paused and then said, “Cruel people, Phil. There’s a million of them. We get calls from a guy who pretends he’s connected to the investigation. He’s called four times to ask us to come down and identify the remains of a body that matches the description of David. He’s full of details. He gets off on describing the condition of the body.”

“Have any calls helped you?” I asked.

“Things have quieted down. We had a rush of calls after the posters went up on the tollwavs. Nothing of any use, though. People just like to talk, Phil. They like to know it’s not their kid.”

WE WERE EATING DINNER WHEN DAISY CAME TO the door. She stepped into the kitchen, blinking, a big purse hanging from her shoulder.

“You cut your hair,” Marilyn observed. “I like it. It brings out your eyes.”

“You think so?” Daisy said, primping.

“It’s great. Would you like some dinner? We have more than we can eat.”

“No, thanks. Really.”

“Have some, Mom,” Lake said.

Daisy allowed herself to be drawn into our family far enough to hook her bag over a chair and sit down. She let Marilyn pour her a cup of coffee but refused the offer of sugar and milk, though I knew she took both. She was standing her ground on small matters, picking those spots where she felt confident to resist. Her eyes never fell on me.

“Did you pack your swim trunks?” she asked Lake.

He didn’t know. In turning his head inquiringly to Marilyn, who had packed his suitcase, he wounded Daisy more deeply than I ever could.

“They’re packed,” Marilyn said gently, aware herself.

“Because we’re going to a hotel this weekend—and you’ll have lots of chances to swim,” Daisy said.

“Ooh. That sounds like such fun,” Marilyn said.

“Which hotel?” I asked.

Daisy fished in her cavernous bag and came out with a piece of paper. “The Holidome,” she said. “Here’s the phone number and the room number. We’re all checked in, Laker. A room on the pool.”

“Neat-o,” Marilyn said.

“We have a new number—speaking of numbers,” I said. I got a pencil from the drawer by the phone and wrote it down for her.

“We were getting some weird calls,” Marilyn explained.

“Breathers?” Daisy asked.

“Stuff like that.”

“I get about two a month. Just hang up on them.”

“These were pretty persistent,” Marilyn said. “It’s easier to change the number than worry every time the phone rings.”

“Were these dirty calls?” Daisy pressed, intrigued.

“I want to do this to you. I want to do that,” Marilyn said, looking at me, “You know.”

“And Lake answers the phone too,” I said.

Marilyn went with Lake into his room to get his suitcase. I heard him brush his teeth and use the toilet. Daisy and I did not speak to each other. Soon enough Marilyn and Lake were back.

“I’ll drop him at school Monday,” Daisy said.

“School’s still a week off. Bring him back here.”

“Sure,” Daisy said. “Ready, kid? The pool awaits.”

Lake passed out kisses in somber fashion; one for Marilyn on the cheek, one for me on the chin. He carried his own bag.

I listened to them descend the stairs, Daisy’s voice metallic with forced cheer. For an instant my heart went out to her: the pain of awkwardness she must fight through each time she had her son to herself.

Marilyn asked me a question, but I was concentrating on the sounds of their departure. They were in the courtyard now. Daisy’s voice came up breathless and more relaxed, the exertion of the climb down relieving some of her anxiety.

Marilyn repeated her question. “I said, does Lake know how to swim?”

I didn’t answer. Lake was speaking with more animation than I would have wished. His voice faded as they turned into the tunnel, and then he was gone. □