- Published: 15 April 2020
- ISBN: 9781784743482
- Imprint: Chatto & Windus
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 192
- RRP: $29.99
Redhead by the Side of the Road
Longlisted for the Booker Prize 2020
You have to wonder what goes through the mind of a man like Micah Mortimer. He lives alone; he keeps to himself; his routine is etched in stone. At seven fifteen every morning you see him set out on his run. Along about ten or ten thirty he slaps the magnetic TECH HERMIT sign onto the roof of his Kia. The times he leaves on his calls will vary, but not a day seems to go by without several clients requiring his services. Afternoons he can be spotted working around the apartment building; he moonlights as the super. He’ll be sweeping the walk or shaking out the mat or conferring with a plumber. Monday nights, before trash day, he hauls the garbage bins to the alley; Wednesday nights, the recycling bins. At ten p.m. or so the three squinty windows behind the foundation plantings go dark. (His apartment is in the basement. It is probably not very cheery.)
He’s a tall, bony man in his early forties with not-so-good posture—head lunging slightly forward, shoulders slightly hunched. Jet-black hair, but when he neglects to shave for a day his whiskers have started coming in gray. Blue eyes, heavy eyebrows, hollows in his cheeks. A clamped-looking mouth. Unvarying outfit of jeans and a T-shirt or a sweatshirt, depending on the season, with a partially-erased-looking brown leather jacket when it’s really cold. Scuffed brown round-toed shoes that seem humble, like a schoolboy’s shoes. Even his running shoes are plain old dirty-white sneakers—none of the fluorescent stripes and gel-filled soles and such that most runners favor—and his shorts are knee-length denim cutoffs.
He has a girlfriend, but they seem to lead fairly separate lives. You see her heading toward his back door now and then with a sack of takeout; you see them setting forth on a weekend morning in the Kia, minus the TECH HERMIT sign. He doesn’t appear to have male friends. He is cordial to the tenants but no more than that. They call out a greeting when they meet up with him and he nods amiably and raises a hand, often not troubling to speak. Nobody knows if he has family.
The apartment building’s in Govans—a small, three-story brick cube east of York Road in north Baltimore, with a lake-trout joint on the right and a used-clothing store on the left. Tiny parking lot out back. Tiny plot of grass in front. An incongruous front porch—just a concrete slab stoop, really—with a splintery wooden porch swing that nobody ever sits in, and a vertical row of doorbells next to the dingy white door.
Does he ever stop to consider his life? The meaning of it, the point? Does it trouble him to think that he will probably spend his next thirty or forty years this way? Nobody knows. And it’s almost certain nobody’s ever asked him.
On a Monday toward the end of October, he was still eating breakfast when his first call came in. Usually his morning went: a run, a shower, then breakfast, and then a little tidying up. He hated it when something interrupted the normal progression. He pulled his phone from his pocket and checked the screen: EMILY PRESCOTT. An old lady; he had dealt with her often enough that her name was in his directory. Old ladies had the easiest problems to fix but the greatest number of fractious questions. They always wanted to know why. “How come this happened?” they would ask. “Last night when I went to bed my computer was just fine and this morning it’s all kerblooey. But I didn’t do a thing to it! I was sound asleep!”
“Yeah, well, never mind, now I’ve got it fixed,” he would say.
“But why did it need fixing? What made it go wrong?”
“That’s not the kind of question you want to ask about a computer.”
On the other hand, old ladies were his bread and butter, plus this one lived nearby in Homeland. He pressed Talk and said, “Tech Hermit.”
“It’s Emily Prescott; remember me? I have a dire emergency.”
“Why, I can’t seem to get my computer to go anywhere at all! It just completely refuses! Won’t go to any websites! And yet I still have a Wi-Fi signal!”
“Did you try rebooting?” he asked.
“Turning it off and then on again, like I showed you?”
“Oh, yes. ‘Sending it for a time-out,’ I like to call that.” She gave a flutter of a laugh. “I did try, yes. It didn’t help.”
“Okay,” he said. “How’s about I come by around eleven.”
“But I wanted to get a present for my granddaughter’s birthday on Wednesday, and I need to order it early enough for the free two-day delivery.”
He stayed quiet.
“Well,” she said. She sighed. “All right: eleven. I’ll be waiting. You remember the address?”
He hung up and took another bite of toast.
His place was bigger than you might expect, given that it was in the basement. A single long, open space for the living room and the kitchen combined, and then two small, separate bedrooms and a bathroom. The ceiling was a decent height, and the floor was paved with not-too-shabby composition tiles in a streaky ivory color. A beige scatter rug lay in front of the couch. The minimal windows up close to the ceiling didn’t allow much of a view, but he could always tell if the sun was shining—which it was, today—and now that the trees had started to turn he could see a few dry leaves collecting around the roots of the azalea bushes. Later he might take a rake to those.
He finished the last of his coffee and then pushed back his chair and stood up and carried his dishes to the sink. He had a system: he set the dishes to soak while he wiped the table and countertop, put away the butter, ran his stick vacuum under his chair in case he’d dropped any crumbs. His actual vacuuming day was Friday, but he liked to keep on top of things betweentimes.
Monday was floor-mopping day—the kitchen floor and the bathroom. “Zee dreaded moppink,” he said as he ran hot water into a bucket. He often talked to himself as he worked, using one or another foreign accent. Right now it was German, or maybe Russian. “Zee moppink of zee floors.” He didn’t bother vacuuming the bathroom first, because there was no need; the floor was still pristine from last week. It was Micah’s personal theory that if you actually noticed the difference you made when you cleaned—the coffee table suddenly shiny, the rug suddenly lint-free—it meant you had waited too long to do it.
Micah prided himself on his housekeeping.
When he’d finished mopping he emptied his bucket down the sink in the laundry room. He propped his mop against the water heater. Then he went back into the apartment and tackled the living area, folding the afghan on the couch and tossing out a couple of beer cans and slapping the cushions into shape. His furnishings were sparse—just the couch and the coffee table and an ugly brown vinyl recliner chair. Everything had been here when he moved in; all he’d added was a metal utility shelf for his tech magazines and his manuals. Any other reading he did—mostly mysteries and biographies—he got from the free-book place and gave back when he had finished. Otherwise he’d have had to buy more shelving.
By now the kitchen floor had dried, and he returned to wash the breakfast dishes and wipe them and put them away. (Some might leave them to air-dry, but Micah hated the cluttered appearance of dishes sitting out in a draining rack.) Then he put on his glasses—rimless distance glasses for driving—and grabbed the car topper and his carryall and left through the back door.
His back door was at the rear of the building, at the bottom of a flight of concrete steps that led up to the parking lot. He paused after he’d climbed the steps to assess the weather: warmer now than when he had taken his run, and the breeze had died. He’d been right not to bother with his jacket. He clamped the TECH HERMIT sign onto his car and then slid in, started the engine, and raised a hand to Ed Allen, who was plodding toward his pickup with his lunchbox.
When Micah was behind the wheel he liked to pretend he was being evaluated by an all-seeing surveillance system. Traffic God, he called it. Traffic God was operated by a fleet of men in shirtsleeves and green visors who frequently commented to one another on the perfection of Micah’s driving. “Notice how he uses his turn signal even when no one’s behind him,” they would say. Micah always, always used his turn signal. He used it in his own parking lot, even. Accelerating, he dutifully pictured an egg beneath his gas pedal; braking, he glided to an almost undetectable stop. And whenever some other driver decided at the last minute that he needed to switch to Micah’s lane, you could count on Micah to slow down and turn his left palm upward in a courtly after-you gesture. “See that?” the guys at Traffic God would say to one another. “Fellow’s manners are impeccable.”
It eased the tedium some, at least.
He turned onto Tenleydale Road and parked alongside the curb. But just as he was reaching for his carryall, his cell phone rang. He pulled it from his pocket and raised his glasses to his forehead so he could check the screen. CASSIA SLADE. That was unusual. Cass was his woman friend (he refused to call anyone in her late thirties a “girlfriend”), but they didn’t usually speak at this hour. She should be at work now, knee-deep in fourth-graders. He punched Talk. “What’s up?” he asked.
“I’m going to be evicted.”
“Evicted from my apartment.” She had a low, steady voice that Micah approved of, but right now there was a telltale tightness to it.
“How can you be evicted?” he asked her. “It isn’t even your place.”
“No, but Nan came by this morning without telling me ahead,” she said. Nan was the actual renter. She lived now with her fiancé in a condo down near the harbor, but she had never given up her claim on the apartment, which Micah could understand even if Cass could not. (You don’t want to seal off all your exits.) “She just rang the doorbell, no warning,” Cass said, “so I didn’t have time to hide the cat.”
“Oh. The cat,” Micah said.
“I was hoping he wouldn’t show himself. I was blocking her view as best I could and hoping she wouldn’t want to come inside, but she said, ‘I just need to pick up my— what is that?’ and she was staring past me at Whiskers who was peeking out from the kitchen doorway big as life when ordinarily, you know Whiskers; he can’t abide a stranger. I tried to tell her I hadn’t planned on having a cat. I explained how I’d just found him in the window well out front. But Nan said, ‘You’re missing the point; you know I’m deathly allergic. One whiff of a room where a cat’s merely passed through a month ago,’ she said, ‘one little hair of a cat, left behind on a rug, and I just—oh, Lord, I can already feel my throat closing up!’ And then she backed out onto the landing and waved me off when I tried to follow. ‘Wait!’ I said, but ‘I’ll be in touch,’ she told me, and you know what that means.”
“No, I don’t know any such thing,” Micah said. “So, she’ll call you up tonight and ream you out and you will apologize and that’s that. Except you’ll have to get rid of Whiskers, I guess.”
“I can’t get rid of Whiskers! He’s just finally feeling at home here.”
Micah thought of Cass as basically a no-nonsense woman, so this cat business always baffled him. “Look,” he told her. “You’re way ahead of yourself. All she’s said so far is she will be in touch.”
“And where would I move to?” Cass asked.
“Nobody’s said a word about moving.”
“Not yet,” she told him.
“Well, wait till she does before you start packing, hear?”
“And it’s not so easy to find a place that allows pets,” Cass said, as if he hadn’t spoken. “What if I end up homeless?”
“Cass. There are hundreds of people with pets, living all over Baltimore. You’ll find another place, trust me.”
There was a silence. He could make out the voices of children at the other end of the line, but they had a faraway sound. She must be out on the playground; it must be recess time.
“Well, thanks for listening,” she said abruptly. She clicked off.
He stared at the screen a moment before he slid his glasses back down and tucked his phone away.
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