The doorbell went bing-bong through the house when Dominic stabbed it with an index finger. He tried to peer around the shade drawn over the window of the front door, palm cupped over his eyes. He listened, stabbed the bell again, and waited, eyeing a pair of metallic “No Soliciting” signs on either side of the door.
The floorboards creaked, and a knobbly hand clawed the bottom of the shade. The spindle whirled, the shade snapped, and Mr. Strudwick squinted through the glass.
Dominic tried a neighborly smile. “Mr. Strudwick?”
The old man scratched his belly, worked his hands on a series of locks, and heaved the door open. “Who is that? What d’you want?”
“Good morning, Mr. Strudwick. I’m your neighbor. I live in the house next door?” He pointed at the overgrown hedges to his right.
The old man leaned his head out. “Nope. Can’t help you. I don’t know anything about those people next door.” He started to push the door closed.
“No! Mr. Strudwick, I live next door.”
“Well then what are you bothering me for? This is private property.”
“Look, I’m sorry I never introduced myself before. I’m Dominic.” He extended a hand. Mr. Strudwick looked at it, keeping his own hands jammed in the pockets of his bathrobe.
“Tom ‘n’ Dick?” he asked, puzzled.
“No, no! Dominic.”
“Well, do I call ya Tom or Dick?”
“It’s Dominic. Dominic McGary.”
“Tom ‘n’ Dick ‘n’ Harry? You’re kiddin’! Your mother name you that?” His face quivered with incredulity. “This some kinda prank?” He poked his head out, tortoise-fashion, looking for pranksters.
“No, no, no!” Dominic felt a surge of frustration. He enunciated, exaggerating the shape of every syllable with his mouth. “Do-mi-nic Mc-Ga-ry! Do-mi-nic Mc-Ga-ry! That’s me.” He pointed at himself in an attempt at sign language that made him feel ridiculous, then offered his hand again.
Mr. Strudwick’s mouth wobbled. He stuck out a clammy palm, nodding comprehension. “I see. Heh-heh. Sorry ’bout that. My hearing, you know. What can I do for ya, Tom?”
Dominic let out a breath, choosing his battles. Then he inhaled deeply to suppress his irritation and to project his voice more effectively. As he started to speak, he noticed a faint whistling inside the house. “I wanted to talk to you about—” The sound rose to a piercing squeal. “Uh, I think your kettle is boiling.”
Mr. Strudwick’s mouth opened and shut in consternation. “You wanted to talk about my kettle? I don’t see that’s any of your business!”
“No! I mean, I can hear it whistling right now.”
“Well why should I care what you can hear? This is private property.”
“But maybe you should turn it off.”
“Really! Thanks for the advice. I guess I’ll do what I want in my own home!” He pushed the door shut with surprising force.
“Dammit.” Dominic watched him shuffle away in his slippers. After a few seconds, the squealing stopped. He considered the doorbell, then opted for a strong cup of coffee and a shower.
Dressed for the office, he returned forty-five minutes later. The bing-bong echoed through the house. Dominic fiddled with the knot of his tie. After a moment, Mr. Strudwick appeared, still in his bathrobe and slippers, and opened the door.
“Hello, Mr. Strudwick! Sorry to bother you again.” Dominic spoke at the top of his voice. He tried to sound bright and friendly.
“Can’t you read, son?”
“Uh, yes, but—”
“Well then read the signs. They’re not just there for decoration. Whatever you’re sellin’, I don’t want any.”
“But I’m not a salesman. I’m your neighbor remember?”
“Another one! I already got an earful from the guy next door.”
“That’s me!” He pointed at himself. “I live on the other side of those hedges.” He pointed at the hedges.
“Oh yeah, I recognize you now.” The old man squinched up his face. “Your name again?”
“Domin— er…” Your mother name you that? “Tom. Call me Tom.”
“All right, Tom. I’m Abraham Percival Strudwick the Third.” They shook hands.
“Wow! Impressive name.”
“Esquire.” He drew a curlicue in the air.
“Really? You’re a lawyer?”
“Naw, just kiddin’. Always liked the sound of it though.”
“I see.” Dominic checked the time on his cell phone and composed his thoughts. “Well, ah, what should I call you?”
“Call me? Why? I’m standin’ right here! You kids and those cell phones, I swear—”
“No! I mean, what name do you prefer? Abraham?”
“Oh, that. Nah, call me Junior.”
“O-kay. Well, Junior, I just wanted to—”
“Actually, scratch that. I was just tryin’ it out. Sounds wrong coming from a pup like you. How old are ya, anyways?”
“Huh.” The old man chewed it over. “All right, thirty-two, you can call me Mr. Strudwick.”
“Fine.” Dominic pressed on. “Mr. Strudwick, I want to talk to you about the hedges over here. On the edge of my yard?”
“Yeah?” the old man said warily. “What’s there to talk about?”
“Well, they’ve become really overgrown. I’d like to have them trimmed. You see, I’m putting in a vegetable garden, and—”
“Well, I’m not payin’ for it!”
“Oh, you don’t have to! I’ll take care of it.”
“You’re gonna do it yourself? No way! I don’t want amateurs doing a hack job on those hedges!”
“No, no. You don’t understand. I want to hire professionals to do it.”
“Professionals, huh? Sounds expensive. What’s all this gonna cost me?”
“Nothing!” Dominic raised a hand to his breast and bowed his head slightly. “I will pay.”
“Oh. Yeah?” He looked at Dominic with interest. “How much you gonna pay me?”
“You? N-nothing. Look, all I need from you is permission to be on your property while they do the job.”
“Huh. Professionals, huh?”
“They really know what they’re doing, yes. The hedges will look great.”
“They got insurance?”
“They gotta have their own liability insurance or they could sue me if one of their guys gets hurt while they’re on my property.” The words ‘they could sue me’ made a vein pop out on his forehead.
Dominic blanched. “I think they do. But I can ask and make sure.”
“They’ll sue ya over any little thing they can dream up.”
Dominic looked down and mentally counted to five. His hands had assumed a white-knuckled expression of prayer, fingers knitted over palms pressed together. “Well, I guarantee that they will have their own insurance. Would that be OK?”
“And don’t use some outfit that hires illegals. I’m against that. Don’t want to hear anything but English spoken here. This is my property.” Mr. Strudwick lightly thumped his chest once with a fist, like an elderly baboon king.
“I understand. I’ll look into that as well.” Dominic’s teeth clenched.
“All right, so how much you gonna pay me for it?”
“No, no! Mr. Strudwick, I explained that. I’ll pay the, uh, fully insured, professional, American citizens who trim the hedges.”
“They can’t do it without coming onto my property, can they? They’re my hedges.”
“That’s true. That’s why I need your permission.”
“Well, why should I give my permission to any Tom, Dick, and Harry to come traipsing around on my property?”
The two men stared at each other, dumbstruck. Mr. Strudwick looked hard at Dominic as though searching for a half-triggered memory, and Dominic fought the absurd impulse to point at himself and exclaim That’s me! He felt a powerful urge to turn and walk away. Petulance radiated from the old man.
Dominic stood his ground. He sucked in a breath, looked his neighbor square in the face, and asked, “How much do you want for it?”
“Well, I, uh…” Mr. Strudwick scraped the stubble on his jaw with square fingernails and blinked.
Seeing his dazed expression, Dominic was suddenly calm. He fished around his coat’s inner pocket and produced his wallet. The old man’s eyes flew to it and stuck like darts. Dominic fingered the bills inside casually, enjoying the way the old crawdad’s head craned forward to get a better look.
He selected a bill and held it between two fingers. “How about ten dollars?”
Mr. Strudwick scowled. “Ten bucks? For all the trouble this is causin’ me? No way.” He swatted away the idea, eyes fixed on the wallet.
Dominic nodded, retracted the ten, and riffled through the billfold again. “Well, how about twenty?” he asked, waving the bill in a flourish to set before the rapt visage of Abraham Percival Strudwick the Third. Esquire, if he wants. He can call me Tom.
Mr Strudwick’s eyes required a jerk of his head to jump off the money onto Dominic’s face. “How much you got in there?”
He expected to see cunning in the old man’s features, but instead found a combination of genuine mirth and embarrassment, like he knew it was rude to ask the question but couldn’t help it. Disarmed, Dominic shifted his gaze to the “No Soliciting” sign behind the man’s head, faded and curled at the edges. He took in the dingy brown windows, the chipped paint on the wall, the rusted nipple of a doorbell. Staring into his wallet, he swallowed back a lump of pity for the guy, in his tattered robe, the light baby fringe of white hair over his paranoid skull. There was a hearing aid hooked to one ear that he hadn’t noticed. Was that there before? Dominic recovered himself with an effort and adopted a stern, parental tone.
“Now, Mr. Strudwick, the amount of money in my wallet is my business. It has no bearing on this negotiation.” The old man bristled. Dominic raised a palm. “I mean no disrespect.”
“You’re wavin’ all that cash around, I figure it’s a fair question.”
“I just wanted to show you that I’m good for it, so there’s no doubt about my credibility.”
Mr. Strudwick nodded sagely. “I see your point, Tom. I can appreciate that. Credibility.” He relaxed a notch, scratching the back of his head. “All right then, how ’bout thirty?”
“Yup. That’ll do.” His hand folded open like a carnivorous plant.
Dominic retrieved the same two bills and held them up, out of reach. “Just to be clear. I agree to pay you thirty dollars in cash, once you have upheld your end of the bargain. I want to have these hedges trimmed without any interference from you. Is that acceptable?” He hoped this would be the end of it. His throat felt sore from all the shouting.
Mr. Strudwick shifted his weight from one foot to the other and looked again at the hedges. “If you adhere to my conditions… and they do a decent job… and they clean up after themselves… and you give me… twenty-four-hours’ notice…” He ducked his head, tugging gently on an earlobe. “Yeah, o-kay.”
Dominic smiled. “That all sounds very reasonable.” He meant it. He offered his hand and they shook on it. “I’ll be in touch.”
Relieved, Dominic spun around and made for the front gate.
For a split second he considered pretending not to hear, but with an exertion of will he stopped and turned around. “Yes, Mr. Strudwick?”
“Guess we better put that in writing, huh?”
“I wrote out our agreement, to your exact specifications.” Dominic tried to sound dignified and professional. He was squatting on a footstool so low to the ground that his knees were practically up under his armpits, torquing his head to look up at the old man. After leading him into a dim room he called his “office”, Dominic’s host had insisted that he sit down, and this was the only object in the room not heaped with books and papers that could pass for a chair.
“Humph.” Seated on high in a sturdy wooden swivel chair before an immense desk, Mr. Strudwick scrubbed at his chin. “We’ll just see about that.” His eyebrows levitated over a pair of half-moon reading glasses and he reached under the green shade of his desk lamp. He tugged the chain.
“Arlg.” Dominic’s retinas were scorched by what felt like a 1000-watt bulb. He blindly offered up the paper document with one hand and covered his eyes with the other, blinking hard on the searing white blobs in his vision. The contract was snatched away, and Mr. Strudwick studied the lighted paper from above the green shade, oblivious.
“Hmmm… let’s see… agrees to allow workers onto his property… uh-huh… adheres to the following conditions… mmm-hmm… shall have liability insurance…”
The old man mumbled through each line of the document. Dominic kept his head averted, and the white blobs turned green and purple. He was looking at a thick stack of junk mail. All the envelopes had been opened and their contents loosely replaced. Free Prizes! gleamed in gold letters from the top of the pile. He smelled dusty mildew and pipe tobacco and wondered how long Mr. Strudwick had lived here by himself, reading all of his junk mail and organizing it into neat piles.
“… workers will be legally employed, English speaking… uh-huh… twenty-four-hours notice… that the work be of excellent quality…”
Using the folder as a visor, Dominic looked around him. The corona of lamplight around the desk shone on the wood floor and cast the room beyond into shadow. Scampering legs of a small rodent or a large insect scurried in the ceiling.
“All right, just what the hell is this?”
Dominic looked toward the outburst, then levered up off the stool and rested his hand on the back of the swivel chair. Looking over Mr. Strudwick’s shoulder, he guessed that the confusion was about his name. After some deliberation, he’d put his real name on the document, with (AKA Tom) in brackets. He pointed at the bottom of the contract.
“Is that what you mean? My name?”
Shiny marble irises swiveled up to Dominic’s face. They dared him to tell the truth.
A telephone erupted on the desk. The old man scooted forward and lifted the receiver.
“Hello?… Speaking. Who’s calling?”
Dominic palmed his forehead and checked the time. He’d been there for twenty minutes. A hearing aid whined with feedback.
“Internal Revenue Service? But I already paid my taxes!”
Dominic turned away and stretched his lower back.
“You made a mistake? Well I’m not payin’ for your mistake!… Oh, yeah? Wha… How much again? Three-thousand fifty-seven dollars!”
Dominic looked over sharply. Mr. Strudwick gripped the receiver with both hands. The expression of mirth and embarrassment was familiar. Dominic was suddenly uneasy, remembering the way he’d waggled money in the old guy’s face earlier.
“You gonna send me a check?” A smile twitched his face. “Oh, I see… right, you can do that now. Computers and such. Sure, I’ve got it right here. Hold on a minute would ya?” His voice was so ingratiating it was almost flirty.
Alarmed, Dominic leaned over the desk and stooped to look into the marbled irises. They gleamed with excitement and purpose.
The receiver set face-down, the old man pulled open the desk drawer a hand’s breadth to ferret out a checkbook. “I just have to finish this call, Tom. Important news from the IRS.”
“How do you know it’s the IRS?”
“What kinda question is that?” A gnarled hand flicked his annoyance. “This is a private conversation!” Hunched over the splayed checkbook, he busily went about locating the account number.
Dominic craned his head into Mr. Strudwick’s line of vision. “You really shouldn’t give your bank account information to people over the phone. Don’t you know that?”
The answer was an explosion of rage. “Don’t put your nose where it doesn’t belong!” Dominic flinched. “They made a mistake! Owe me a lotta money!” Spit flying, the old man reached defiantly for the phone.
“Sorry, but I can’t let you do this.” Dominic snatched up the receiver.
The old man’s sneer involved a lot of teeth and portended violence. “What do you know about it?” he growled.
“It’s fraud. They’ll take all your money. Haven’t you read about it in the paper?”
Mr. Strudwick continued to sneer, but the rage seemed to fizzle out of him.
“Think about it. The IRS? Calling to give you money?”
“Huh.” The sneer lost its jagged edge. “Does seem out of character, now you mention it.” He jutted his chin out thoughtfully and drooped his head.
Something caught in Dominic’s throat. “I could get you some articles about it, if you want.” He spoke gently to the shrunken figure in the chair.
“I read somethin’ about— identity?”
“Identity theft. Yeah, it’s like that.” Dominic swallowed. “You have to be very careful.”
“Three-thousand fifty-seven bucks.” The grief was palpable.
Dominic kept his eyes down. “I’m going to hang this up, OK? If you want, you can call the IRS and find out if it’s true.”
Mr. Strudwick nodded absently, fingering the papers on the desk. Dominic hung up the phone. The shadows sagged all around them.
Then the old man lifted the contract to the light and examined the bottom of the page. “Speakin’ of identity.” He cleared his throat and straightened up a little. “Just who is this Dominic McGary?”
Dominic opened his wallet and pointed at his driver’s license. “That’s me. See? I had to put my legal name on our agreement, of course.”
Color returned to the old man’s face. “Oh, yeah. Course.”
“But you can call me Tom.”
Heather Boyd is a native of Santa Barbara, California, where she runs an antiques restoration and gilding studio out of her home. In addition to writing fiction, she makes a variety of visual art. Her fiction can be seen in the upcoming issue of Spark: A Creative Anthology VI.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “CALL ME TOM”:
At Fabula Argentea we have a fondness for strong, character-based stories, and author Heather Boyd has delivered one. We chuckled all through it because she made the encounter feel authentic. We could imagine exactly this in real life. Many of the best stories also stretch beyond their boundaries. In “Call Me Tom” we know that the story of Dominick and Mr. Strudwick does not end here, that they have each made a new friend.