There is an office without a switchboard in it, which the few people who visit consider to be a sin. Somewhere in the basement of the building is the IT department that does everything behind the scenes, and the voice-over people who do everything else. Nothing is what it used to be. Some days that’s bad. Most days it isn’t.
The office phone rings. It shouldn’t ring, since everything is automated. They stopped the old rotary phones from getting this number years ago, and I have a cell phone for personal calls. The phone is here because someone thought it appropriate. The problem of symbols is that they must be used. The thought feels almost alien, but I have lots of strange thoughts along at work. There’s just me in the office, so sometimes there has to be a lot of me to stop the boredom.
To counter the fear.
I pick up the phone. Terrible things happen when I don’t.
It is the boy. I know that before he even speaks. He is eleven, and I have no idea how I know this. He is cheerful. He almost always is. You can feel friendship and warmth when he speaks. If there was a geiger counter for it, he would be off the charts. The last time I tried not to answer the phone, everyone I met was sad with me for days without even knowing why. I’m terrified, but at the same time I feel safe.
“411. How can I assist you?”
“I have some information to give you,” he says proudly.
“That’s not how it works. This is a directory-assistance.” I try every time, but my truth isn’t his truth.
“I give lots of assistances,” he says happily. “I bet I’d give tons of assists if I played hockey because it’s not fair to hog all the goals and! today I ate six six whole hot dogs really fast, even for a Jay, and impressed lots of dogs so they did a helping for me and we found a kitten together and make the Sphinx not be sad-face at all you know!”
“I didn’t know.” I’ve checked the internet. Often. I don’t think he’s getting these stories from other sources. I don’t know if that helps at all.
“Uh huh! And now you do, so you can be extra-jaysome and all kinds of helpfulicious in helping people!”
I want to cry, but I don’t think he’s understand I think he’d be sad, and every instinct in me screams that it wouldn’t be wise. “Are you God?” I ask. I don’t mean to. It slips out.
“I’m Jay! And I’m not a god at all for all sorts of reasons. Some of them are even really good ones, and I’m kinda hury you forgot about me me –.”
“Cuz I called an hour ago about the –.”
“The town without a fire department because they employ fire elementals, yes. I’m not likely to forget that.”
“Oh, good, because that’s pretty important for people to know and – oh, I gotta go. Charlie says we’re going to have another adventure!”
“I don’t need to know about it,” I say, but I’m speaking to just a dial tone. No one else has ever called beside the boy. Whatever he is.
He doesn’t call back before it’s time for me to clock out. Sometimes it’s like that. Some phone calls are short, others last for almost an hour. He asks me about stuff I’d like to learn sometimes, saying that being information must be pretty lonely. I try not to respond to that. Sometimes he speaks wisdom, too, that makes up for what seems to be nonsense. And he’s so happy that I can’t – I think he’s saved my marriage, somehow. Just by making me feel larger than I am.
Our daughter insisted on getting a doberman last month. Jay’s mention of dogs makes it hard to forget that as I leave the office and turn on my cell phone. My wife has been trying to train it, the dog has failed four obedience schools – once leaving one instructor with stitches – and we’re running out of ideas. I have four texts on my phone from her about it, and arrive home to find she and Anna have left the dog outside. They’re hiding inside. From our dog.
Sometimes I think work is a way of hiding from life. I fear the phone calls. I need them. There’s something, something too important for words, and I walk up to the gate and put my hand on the latch. We named her Buttercup, or at least Anna did, and she growls fiercely upon seeing me, showing teeth. A teeth-face, like dogs do.
“Shouldn’t you be more jaysome?” The words slip out, as natural as anything I’ve said today.
And Buttercup pauses, and ceases to growl. She wags her tail, and doesn’t try and bite when I scratch behind her right ear. I open the back door, let her into the house, and Anna and Joan stare at me in an awe I’ve never seen before. Not directed at me. Buttercup curls up on her bed to gnaw on a toy, as content as any puppy that ever was.
“How did you do that?” my wife says.
“I work for 411,” I say. It’s an old joke between us, when people ask for trivia and I know it. “I informed Buttercup about something she’d forgot.”
And Joan asks Amy to call for pizza, and I say there are words that can calm even wild dogs, but it’s not safe to share them. Joan doesn’t ask questions. I don’t know what she sees in my face, but it’s enough that she doesn’t press me.
I almost want to use the word to see if Amy can improve her grades, but I don’t think I dare. I feel like I’m teetering on an abyss, and I have no desire to fall in. We have pizza, watch a movie. Joan and I have a late night, sometimes talking.
I come into work the next morning, and for once I’m waiting for the phone to ring. Because I have an adventure to tell Jay about, and I’m certain he’ll love hearing about it. Even as he tells me all of his.
For once, I’m not afraid.
I hope it lasts.