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Neumann's Journey Part V: Neumann’s phone call

Neumann opened a little case and carefully produced a quarter. The coin was secured with electrical tape to a tangle of nylon thread, which Neumann ran between his fingers, pausing every now and then to pick apart the knots. He pressed his thumb against the tape to ensure its adhesion, and let the coin dangle before his eyes, tugging it gently to reassure himself that it would hold.

Neumann had long considered it a matter of the utmost injustice to demand payment for something that would otherwise go unused, or worse, be discarded as waste; and far from feeling the slightest remorse for resisting such efforts, he took a peculiar pleasure in circumventing their means of enforcement.

He couldn't in all honesty take credit for the originality of his method, but he could swear to the unfailing use he had made of it since witnessing an older boy employ it on a vending machine as a child. Of course, the boy had committed theft and despite the admiration Neumann felt for his ingenuity, he stood there in the feverish hope that the lad would be tackled by police and beaten soundly for his crime. To this day, whenever he let the coin swing from its thread he felt a flame of indignation fire his cheeks, and wondered if, by some long and tortuous path of fate, the young boy was ever made to pay for his delinquency.

Neumann let the receiver dangle from its cord and carefully fed the coin into the slot. There was a time, now lost in the mythology of his youth, when he could simply flick the money in with a casual gesture and tug it back before it was caught in the apparatus. He shook his head fondly at the memory. How many times he could do it in a row. How many! For a breathless instant he doubted the machine could ever defeat him; then the smile faded and there was a moment of panic as the realization took hold: if it were never to defeat him he’d forever be denied his victory; thwarted by his own irresistible power, he’d be compelled to stand there in a sweltering phone booth as people lined up and knocked on the door and peered through the glass to see if he was still feeding coins into that slot and flicking them out again in endless repetition. Would it be possible even to keep his count under those conditions? He felt a heavy weight shift in his bowels, and then at his fingertips an improbable snag as the coin was snatched from its thread. He put the handset in its cradle and retrieved his money, gladly retiring with a record that doubtless stood unchallenged to this very day.

He was out of practice now and had to hang up and reattach the coin a dozen times before he was finally free to dial his number, and then it rang till Neumann’s ear grew damp and numb before someone condescended to pick up the receiver.

And still, even then, he was greeted only with a sullen silence. Neumann was well aware that someone was on the line as he could hear the other periodically clearing his throat, but he wouldn’t speak and Neumann, for his part, refused to be baited into initiating the conversation. At last he observed to himself that the other party might have benefited from a lesson in telephone etiquette.
“I beg your pardon?” came the indignant reply. The voice was unfamiliar, with an accent Neumann could only barely decipher, though he was gratified to hear the other speak at all.
“I beg your pardon?” he mimicked, a tiny smile curling the ends of his lips.
“Did you just tell me I could use a lesson in telephone etiquette?”
Neumann shook his head in feigned protest. “No, no. I don’t think so. How could I have known you were on the line?”
I heard you say it,” the man complained.
“I was speaking to myself.”
“Well what do you want?” he demanded angrily.
Neumann thought for a moment. “Who are you?”
The other seemed taken aback by the question. “Don’t you know? You called me.”
“I did, yes,” Neumann agreed. “And did you finally answer the phone?”
“I heard you speak.” The man insisted.
Neumann gave a sniff. “I wasn’t loud. You must have been fairly close when it happened.”
The other took a moment to make some sense of this, then asked again, “So what do you want?”
“I want to speak to someone at this number.”
The man let out a a quick burst of mocking laughter. “Is that all?”
“I want some answers.”
“Answers?” he scoffed. “I’m afraid you must have the wrong number.”
Now it was Neumann’s turn to pause. It hadn’t occurred to him that he might have misdialed. “What number is this?” he asked with growing unease.
“Don’t you know?” the man responded slyly. “You called me.”
“I called for Mr. St. Pierre,” he corrected. “I’ve no idea who you are.”
“What business do you have with Mr. St. Pierre?”
“I already told you; I want answers.”
“Well, Mr. St. Pierre is not in the business of providing answers. You must have the wrong number.”

With that, Neumann was astonished to discover, the man ended the conversation. He slammed the phone down in a pique of frustration, then immediately reached into his change case and pulled out his quarter. Such was his agitation that even when the coin was snatched from its line, he went on and dialled, picking out each button like a personal enemy before smashing it with the tip of his finger. When his call was answered, almost immediately, by a delicate cough, Neumann demanded to speak with Mr. St. Pierre.
“Speaking,” the voice replied with unexpected civility.
Neumann narrowed his eyes. “This is Neumann. Speaking. Are you Mr. St. Pierre?”
“You were expecting someone else?”
Neumann decided to get to the point. “You owe me a quarter.”
“I owe you a what?”
“A quarter.”
“A quarter?” He repeated, as though unfamiliar with the term. “A quarter of what?”
The question caught Neumann by surprise. “What do you mean a ‘a quarter of what’? A quarter.”
“A quarter of a quarter, you say?”
“A quarter of—It’s twenty-five cents, I’m saying!”
“But a quarter of twenty-five cents is only—”
“—twenty-five cents you owe me!”
“Actually, it’s only six and a quarter—”
“—It’s twenty-five cents!”
“—Twenty-five cents!”
The other end went quiet for a moment. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”
There was more. But Neumann was content to begin with the money. “Let’s talk about the money first.”
“Well, if you insist on it, how—”
“—Twenty-five cents!”
“—can I refuse? How soon would you need it?”
Neumann nodded in satisfaction; the man had gotten the message. “P-D-Q,” he warned, punching the letters out like buttons on a telephone.
“Yes, well, it’s yours whenever you want it… each of those twenty-five cents—”
“—And you’re bringing it tonight?”
“Bringing it?” The man chuckled softly. “Indeed. What a question.”
“Then put it in the mail.”
“If you insist.” Then he added, as an aside, “You are aware, of course, that postage—”
Neumann’s voice went up a pitch. “And you—”
“—won’t even dignify that with an answer.”
Neumann was stung by the realization that he had been outmanoeuvred. “Fine,” he conceded through gritted teeth, “then I’ll pick it up myself. Just tell me how to find you.”
“You have a pencil?”
The smile reappeared at the ends of his lips. “Of course I do.” Then a crafty look crept into his eyes as he tore down the despicable poster of some go-go dancing telephone prostitute.
“—Yes, yes. Go on.”

Neumann turned a corner and was suddenly aware of a disturbance issuing from a nearby block of apartments. His first instinct was to turn and head away from the scene, but he was slowed by the idea that a fleeing criminal might have the same inclination—and he was anxious neither to encounter one nor, indeed, to be mistaken for one by an over-zealous officer of the peace. His moment of hesitation passed, however, as he spied the beacon of a cruiser flashing in the adjacent lot. Neumann lowered his head and hurried to the safety of its flickering glow.

As he neared one of the buildings he was accosted by a dreadful caterwaul, this time from a unit above him. An angry resident of one of the upper floors was delivering a profanity-laced demand for silence, and threatening to call in the police to enforce it. The disgruntled tenant was evidently unaware that her neighbour’s predicament had evolved well beyond the point where quiet might reasonably be expected, as the source of the most anguished cries was a man swinging by his arms from a balcony on the seventh floor.

“Why?” the man shrieked, and Neumann was suddenly aware that he was holding a kitchen knife. “Why won’t you just let me die?” He sobbed and cursed and moaning bitterly, repeated at intervals, “I just want to die...”

Neumann marvelled at the courage of the two officers holding him fast by the elbows. But he could well understand the man’s confusion. By all rights they should have flung him from the balcony themselves—or turned that knife around and driven it back into his spleen. Why they’d risk their own lives to keep the man from achieving his wish was as profound a mystery to Neumann as any he’d ever pondered. Did it really matter that no one serious about death would find himself locked in the arms of police at that pivotal moment?

“I just want to die” he insisted again, but Neumann was far from persuaded. He winced as the man ran the blade along his exposed chest, but this merely confirmed his suspicion that he was witnessing a performance: if it were blood the man wanted, his neck would have been a more certain bet—and the wrist of a would-be rescuer the greatest guarantee of all.

Neumann had a hard time following the ensuing conversation, but it seemed the man was embroiled in an argument over whether he would even die in a fall from such a height. Neumann thought it a fair question—one for which he wouldn’t presume to know the answer—but he grew ever more doubtful that it would be put to the test.

As expected, the knife was eventually wrestled his grip, and the man was hauled, with no unnecessary forbearance, back over the railing, where he flailed about in a renewed show of defiance, and it took a knee to the back—and then a punitive shoe to the head—before he was finally divested of his will to resist. Order was restored at last, and the man was cuffed and dragged sobbing into the living room. As he was lost to view, Neumann could hear him barking to his wife inside: “Don’t sign any complaint. Don’t sign any complaint.”

Another officer came from around the corner to Neumann’s right. He had a radio strapped to his chest and a flashlight trained to the ground. As he made his way across the parking lot, he twisted his neck to speak into the mouthpiece. Between bursts of static and unintelligible chatter he reported recovery of the knife—and a running shoe, and a box-cutter the man had used in a failed attempt to slash his wrists. Neumann shook his head. He would have called for the officer’s attention immediately, but he held his tongue, curious to know if the other would add anything more incriminating to the collection. With Neumann watching, however, he seemed content to catalogue the items found, carefully bagging and labelling each for future reference: kitchen knife, bloody shoe, box-cutter.

Neumann called out to him at last. “Your attention, officer—”

The man was in conversation with an assistant, but he turned his head at Neumann’s call, then raised his arm and pointed in Neumann’s direction. For a moment, Neumann thought the other was pointing behind him, in answer to a question he hadn’t yet articulated. He’d seen it all before, and wondered if it meant his destination was in the opposite direction, perhaps into that very tenement where those vulgar histrionics had been on display.

The officer, however, quickly handed the evidence to his assistant and lumbered over to explain. He was bigger than Neumann first supposed, and younger, with a broad, flat face and hands that looked to have been trained on a tobacco farm. Neumann wondered why those hands had been put to no better use than scavenging for refuse in an abandoned lot—and he would have taken the opportunity to demand an answer if the other hadn’t interrupted his thoughts. “You a witness?” he enquired.

Expecting answers not questions, Neumann was briefly caught off balance. “Witness?” he stammered.

“Witness,” the man repeated, emphasising the wit. “You speak English?”

Neumann was briefly tempted to take the bait, to feign an inability to speak or see, in hopes of avoiding interrogation. He didn’t think the other would remember that he had already addressed him, not five minutes earlier, but as he doubted his ability to conjure up a foreign accent, let alone a convincing vocabulary, he was forced to abandon the idea altogether. Besides, he had questions of his own that needed asking.

“I am looking for this address,” he explained, pointing to the final item on his list of directions. The officer followed his finger and scribbled the information in his notepad. Then he paused and leaned his head to one side, apparently to get a better look at the harlot pictured on the back. Neumann suddenly regretted displaying the list and quickly returned it to his pocket.
“Were you a witness to the crime, Mr…?”
The officer stepped closer. “Sir, are you having trouble understanding me?”
Neumann leaned so far back to avoid the man’s expansive paunch that he almost lost his footing. “I’m just looking—”
“—That’s not what I asked you, sir. Have you been drinking this evening?”
“Drinking?” Neumann gasped. “Look here—” He took another step back and reached for the list in his pocket.
“—Sir…” The man’s voice rose alarmingly and Neumann was aware that his thick fingers had drifted toward the holster at his side. Uncertain whether his interests were better served by pleading his case or presenting his empty palms for inspection, Neumann remained perfectly motionless.

He wanted to tell the man exactly what he had witnessed: two intrepid servants of the pubic risking their lives in the line of duty, while a third was out collecting trash and harassing the citizenry. Instead, he offered a helpless shrug and simply pleaded ignorance. “I don’t know anything,” he muttered. “I didn’t see anything. I’m lost.”

Neumann was sure the man would find some pretext to continue the interrogation, but to his enormous relief the officer merely glanced into his notebook before flipping it shut, then nodded toward the building across the street. “Good luck finding a seat.”


Go on to Neumann's Journey Part VI

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