Ever since the invention of the cell phone, there’s a shortage of old fashioned pay phones around the city. They disappeared, dinosaurs of an age when we were stuck to a makeshift plastic barrier, pretending we had privacy to make our calls out in the street. The very last one in my neighborhood was outside The Vanderbilt on Exeter Street, only a stone’s throw from the apartment I shared with five roommates. Few people know The Vanderbilt it used to be a high society meeting place, a hotel where rich people used to have dinner in their restaurant and stayed in their rooms. These days, folks around the neighborhood just call it a flophouse.
I used the last of my quarters to make my weekly call. Behind me, a car flew by blasting some teen pop idol who warbled about partying in the U-S-A.
The phone rang twice. As soon as someone picked up, I said, “Hi, Momma.”
On the other side of the line, Momma’s breath was wheezing. “How’d you know it was me?” she asked.
“Who else would answer this time of day?” I pulled a cigarette out of my pocket and lit it with my zippo. This was, sadly, my last one. “The nurse ain’t on until four, so unless you got some gentleman caller, it’s gotta be you.”
“Funny girl.” My momma took in a deep breath and out came one of her signature rattling coughs. “That a cigarette in your mouth, Beth-Ann?”
I frowned and pulled it out of my lips. “No, ma’am. Chewing on a pen.”
My momma started coughing again, but the noise was nearly drowned out by a passing truck. My frown deepened and I stuck one finger in my free ear so I could hear my mother.
“You’re taking up lying too?” she asked. Her breath had a bad wheeze too and a wet noise that I didn’t like.
“That sounds worse,” I said. I looked down at my scuffed tennis shoes. I’d stepped in a puddle yesterday that had stained the purple canvas brown; they matched the stains on my grey coat. I pulled my collar up against a cold breeze and looked across Exeter, through passing traffic, at Dixon Hill Park. The street was narrow enough for only one lane of cars, so I could get a great view of the old folks on their customary benches, the old men at their chess. After the call, I promised myself I’d go across and grab a dirty water dog across the park. Then I remembered my lack of quarters, or any other cash, and wondered if there was any ramen left back home.
“It’s not that bad,” Momma replied. “Only hurts when I breath too deep. The insurance got me my tanks for breathing coming tomorrow, finally, so won’t be long-”
Another truck went by and I jammed my finger deeper into my ear. The stuffy silence that greeted me drove away the truck and, for a second, even my mother’s voice. Instead all I heard was the thump of my own heart, loud and strong, and then a yawning growl from my stomach. I’d not eaten a solid meal since Friday; it was Tuesday. The growl in my stomach went on until it was the only noise I could hear, and as I thought back to the community college biology classes from years back about stomach acid and PH balances, I spotted the boy in the suit across the way.
He was in his early twenties and impeccably dressed in a black blazer, crisp blue jeans and the cleanest white t-shirt I’d ever seen. There was an old pageboy hat perched on top of long, thick black hair that fell around the collar of what looked like a shearling navy jacket. He stood out against leafless trees in the park, the rust-faded wrought iron fence, and the weather-beaten sign proclaiming that the park closed at sunset.
“-and Mrs. Dobbs will be by on Tuesday with the check she owes me for those piano lessons for her boy, Eddie,” Momma said. Her voice cut through my focus and the tha-thump of my heartbeat in my ears. I blinked; she must have been talking the whole time.
The boy had an egg carton in one hand and a sign in the other. He propped the sign up, dropped his hat next to it and climbed up on the carton. When he did, I got a good look at the
LEARN THE TRUTH, it said. TOGETHER WE CAN CHANGE THE WORLD!
“Oh Jesus,” I groaned.
“What?” Momma asked. “What’s wrong?”
The boy surveyed out over the cars and the street now below him, and began.
“This world,” the boy bellowed, “is not what you think it is!” His voice carried across the street, a strong stage voice that I was sure could be heard down the block.
“What’s that?” Momma asked. “Are you watching television?”
I snorted. “Something like that.”
“You have been deceived, friends!” the boy continued. A few passersby slowed on the far side of the street to stare. “You’re going by, going on your merry way to work or to your apartments today. But do you know that right now, your hard-earned money is going to fund organizations that are created to strip you dry! To fund programs meant to keep the world’s wealth out of YOUR hands and in the hands of the rich! People who live high above everything while you work long hours for less pay and less coverage than any generation before you!”
The boy waved his hands and his jacket sleeve pulled back. I got a look at the flash of a silver watch on his left wrist.
“They’ve been LYING to you all this time, friends!” he shouted. “And it’s time, I tell you, that we work together to call the men on Wall Street and their DC allies exactly what they are! They’re the new elite, our new nobleman land owners, and we’re the serfs, ladies and gentleman!” He threw both hands up then and shouted, “So I say DOWN with the lies! This new Versailles must end!”
I thought for a minute about going across the street. I thought about the last quarter in the machine, and that dirty water dog I wanted. I thought about his watch and the hat on the ground, and how much tanks of air cost an old woman. I thought about going across that traffic and punching that boy with his perfect black hair in the face.
My mother’s cough rattled in my left ear. “Sounds boring, whatever you’re watching. Change it, will you? That conspiracy stuff will rot your brain. You’re way too smart for that.”
A laugh barked out of me. Before I could stop myself, I asked, “If I’m so smart, Momma, how come we’re in the mess we are?”
“Down with the aristocrats!” the boy across the street shouted.
Two states away, my mother took a drag off her oxygen and laughed.
“Oh sweetie,” she replied, “I gave you birth. I never once said this shit was going to be fair.”