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Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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Long Distance

 

by Valerie Miner

 

               

 

 

“It’s probably nothing.  I shouldn’t bother you.”  On the tinny answering machine, Loretta’s voice sounds more frenzied than usual.  “What time is it in Boston, anyway?”

 

                I’m not a fan of telephones, and I always monitor calls.  I rarely answer unless it’s a return call.  Otherwise, it’s my nutty brother-in-law.  Or a campaign plea.  Or fundraisers from St. Cecilia’s School; god knows how they found me. 

 

                Sometimes it’s startling news.  If people live far away—distant realms like Emporia, Kansas, for instance—they call with good or bad news.  Really bad news.  Loretta’s never phoned before.

 

                “But your father,” the metallic voice continues, “he’s in the hospital with viral pneumonia.”

 

                Last night I dreamt he was dying.  I cried bitterly because we never had the chance to really talk, for any kind of honest intimacy.  Never in my childhood and never since then.  Anyway, in the dream he suddenly recovered.  Had I resurrected him?  Well, it was an improvement on my girlhood terrors of driving him away.  So Loretta’s words this morning make me feel weirdly psychic.  As an urban ecologist, I transit in scientific evidence, practical strategies, political tactics.  Rationality—not intuition—is my strength. 

 

                I pick up the receiver.  “Hello, Loretta,” I say breathlessly.  Am I gasping out of fear or because I have bronchitis or because I’m worried she’ll hang up too quickly?  Long distance calls are expensive on their budget phone plan, so she would never call spontaneously.  Dad is always complaining about the tiny pension.  This is the worst part of family; they confound your reaction to the smallest thing, like a ringing telephone.

 

                “Hello, Janet, is that you?  In person?”

 

                “Yes, I’m right here.  How is he?”              

 

                “I didn’t know I was getting through.  We don’t have an answer machine.  I guess by now most people do.  What a relief, talking to you for real.  Sorry, I’m such a hick.”

 

                “Don’t worry, Loretta,” I smile, as if Loretta can see my reassurance from Emporia.  I’m sure she’s smiling too.  After years of shunning my runaway father, I’m taking care of his wife—who even the world’s kindest person would label a ditz of the first order.  She calls herself my step-mother.

 

                I call her Loretta.  I don’t need a step-mother.  My own mother is very much alive despite what she still describes as the devastation of Dad’s desertion.  And how could anyone as relentlessly cheerful as Loretta be my mother?

 

                Damn telephone.  Family always reduces me two feet and thirty years.  Who would believe I’m a whiz at my job; I have a fabulous partner; I’ve worked in Tanzania and Brazil and Mississippi.  I have lots of loving friends.  Tony and I climbed Mount Rainier last summer.  My shrink says my family is crazier than some; not as bad as others.  He says I’m a survivor.  Right now with the hacking bronchial cough, I feel like a limp survivor.

 

***

 

                The sanest way to think about my parents now is as stage actors.  My charming, outrageous, inconstant father.  My loving, serious, ironic steadfast mother.  The only trouble is they’re performing in different plays at the same time.  My father stars in something by Martin McDonagh or J.M. Synge.  Mom is cast in Strindberg or Ibsen.  Possibly a servant in Chekov.  While I was growing up, I willed us all to be like the families on Happy Days, or The Brady Bunch, even if Dad was the prototype for Archie Bunker.

 

                Not only would Mom and Dad never appear on the same stage, I have a hard time remembering them in the same room.  To recall them together—eating dinner, presenting  Christmas gifts, taking long drives up the Coast—would be to summon absence—my mother’s silent longing and my father’s contrary, stifled discontent.  The only times I remember them truly happy were when friends came for cocktails.  They made jokes, laughed, sipped from pretty glasses with pastel umbrella toothpicks stuck into soused onions and olives.  After a little tippling, they were the old carefree Bob and Dot who larked around New York in the late fifties; the couple in the photo that  is still on Mom’s dresser.

   

***

 

                I unravel the long cord and move the phone from my desk over to the couch where I can stretch out and sip my eucalyptus-echinacea tea.

 

                “I’m very glad you phoned.”  It’s taken me years to be civil to Loretta—after she “stole” Dad—and I’m sure it will take the rest of my life to understand her.  Why would she want this fat, broken-down drunk who squandered his considerable beauty before they met?  I try to comprehend with an earnestness inherited from Mom’s side of the family.  “Tell me how Dad is doing.”

 

                Deep down, a small voice demands, “Is he coming or going?”  the question that has hovered since childhood.

 

                “Today he’s OK.  He had terrible bronchitis for a week, then insisted on getting out of bed and working in the garden.  You know how he dotes on those roses.  We’ve been having an awful wind lately.  One thing led to another and phhht, just like that, he couldn’t breathe.”

 

                I close my eyes, holding back my cough.  I have inherited Dad’s lungs, and my sister Sarah has his temperament.  This is a trade I’d make anytime.

 

                Tony ordered me to stay in bed all day.  But rest isn’t a big part of my repertoire.  So I’ve got the laptop here on the couch and the files scattered all over the coffee table.  The plan is to clear it up before she gets back from the office.  I’ll tuck myself back in the bed and my beloved will be content.

 

***

 

                I often wondered why Dad married Mom, who was pleasant looking, but no stunner and seven years older than he.  I want to think he liked her nerve, quick wit and rock solid character.  I imagine he was also looking for a mother.  But she was never enough.  Never able to compensate for the indignities he suffered in the merchant marines.  For his grievances about missed promotions.  He did savor her cooking as, increasingly, food and drink became the sources of his lust and solace.

 

                What did Mom want?  Most likely something simpler.  She probably expected a loving partnership in guiding children toward happy, moral lives.  She had those quaint ideas about the roles of husband, wife and parent.  Although she was a meticulous bookkeeper, she let him do the finances and the family went into bankruptcy.  He was the man of the house.  Even when we had to move to a small apartment.  And, of course, he kept leaving her—all of us—behind.  Up another gangplank and off to Pakistan or Argentina or Japan.  The handsome man she married was no homebody.  He was always coming and going.

 

                It’s hard to remember with forgiveness.  And impossible to look back steadily without it.

 

***

 

                “I called Dr. Cohen and they took him to the hospital right away.  They say his weight didn’t help any.  He’s up to 250 now.”

 

                The precise details anchor Loretta.  Perhaps she’s trying to calm me, too.  I can see her sitting in that pretty window seat looking out at Dad’s garden.  On my last visit, Dad showed me four types of tomatoes, but he was proudest of the heirloom roses, the Albas, Damasks, and the Centifolias.  Loretta had her own roses all over the house on her rather good canvases.  So odd to think of a sailor, retiring inland to potter in a garden.  My dad, retired King Odysseus. 

 

                “He’s feeling better than when he went to the hospital?”  I can’t just ask: what about it? Is he coming or going?

 

                I wait, sipping the tepid medicinal tea, distracted by swarms of emails jamming my inbox.

 

                “Oh, yes.  And he’s out of the oxygen tent.  The priest came to do the Anointing of the Sick.”

 

                Prayers for the Dying, we were taught at St. Cecilia’s.  Extreme Unction, the last sacrament.   Is Loretta mollifying me or is she, as a convert, confused?   Maybe they renovated the ritual when they added peace kisses to Mass and fast track annulments.  Being ex-Catholic is like having a life-long hangover.  You can’t quite remember or forget. 

 

                Her words tumble out: all I can hear is the Kansas twang.  Twenty years ago, she brought Dad home to Emporia as if he were a trophy.

 

                “What’s his condition now?”  I persist gently, trying to locate a common language, Serious? Critical? Fair?  Good?  Surely, these are standard categories.

 

                “Better and better,” she says.  “I don’t know why I’m calling.  Except he said you’d want to know.  And of course it’s nice to hear your voice.”

 

                “Do I need to fly out?”  Of course I will.  My bronchitis has to be better soon and if not, I can take double doses of the Mucinex.  I can probably meet the consortium deadline if I work flat out on the plane.   Tony will be so disappointed if I cancel our trip to the White Mountains.  I also have a tutoring session at the Escuela with Belen on Thursday.  Not to mention the big party for Yogi Anna’s birthday.

 

But, jeez, he might be dying.  I’ll fly out in a second because that’s what one does.  Because I love him.

 

                “Heaven’s no, don’t come.  To tell you the truth, that might scare the wits out of him.”

 

                “Have you talked with Sarah?”

 

                “No, he didn’t mention your older sister.  He just said to call Janet.”  Her voice is tense and I wonder if it’s because of the expense of the call.

 

                “When can I talk with him?”  I rush ahead.  “Do you think Dr. Cohen will accept my call?”

 

                “Oh, your dad can take calls himself, anytime after tomorrow.  And I’m sure the doctor will speak to any relative.”

 

                I’m not just any relative, I want to say.  I’ve known him 17 years longer than you.  I’m his daughter.  His Pink and Pretty.  Instead, I ask for numbers and promise, “I’ll phone  early tomorrow.  Now tell me, Loretta, how are you holding up under all this?”

 

                “Just fine, hon, thanks for asking.” Her voice is high and winding.  She reminds me of Mom on valium after Dad left.  The woman must be asking our proverbial family question, Is he coming or going?

 

***

 

Come and go, that’s what he did.  On colossal merchant ships, old victory vessels, then container liners.  I’m not sure which I recall more clearly—his absence or his presence.  When he was gone, it was as if he’d always been away.  We passed each week waiting for his return.  Letters arrived from Caracas.  Birthday calls from Yokohama.  Mom kept promising he’d be home soon. Always soon.

 

                Then suddenly, there he was at the front door, carrying wooden shoes from Rotterdam or Chrysanthemum tea from Korea.  He was always bringing home deals, like a bolt of Javan batik silk or a crate of Noritake china.  He bought a knock-off Webster’s Dictionary somewhere in Japan for $5.00, the size the libraries kept in reference rooms, he told us.  He was proud of that dictionary, made a table to display it in the living room, but never opened the book.

 

                Often I’d come home from school to find Mom on the couch reading the giant volume.  “It’s fascinating.  One word leads to another,” she said more than once.

 

***

 

                At six, Tony’s car sputters to a halt outside.  Quickly, I clear off my coffee table and jump into bed with a book.

 

                “Janet, I’m glad to see you’re obeying my instructions,” Tony kisses me on the forehead.  “Hmm, your fever seems to have gone down.”

 

                “Yes,” I murmur.  “I’m getting better by the minute.”

 

                “What’s the matter?  You sound blue.”  She sits on the bed and takes my hand.

 

                “Loretta called.”

 

                She raises her eyebrows.  “Your dad’s floozie?”

 

                I laugh, then cough. 

 

                “What’s up?”  She frowns.  “Is your dad OK?”

 

                “That’s it, I’m not sure.  He has pneumonia.  Loretta seems to think he’s getting better, but….”

 

                “I’m sorry.”  Tony squeezes my hand. 

 

                “I’m going to call Dad and the doctor tomorrow.  I should know more then.”

 

                “Good,” she says.  “I’ll put together some supper.”

 

                “Oh, I’m not all that hungry.”

 

“That’s not the point,” she shakes her curly head.   “I’ll be back in half an hour. Meanwhile, would you like some more tea?”

 

                “How about a double shot of whiskey.”

 

                “You don’t drink.”

 

                “Could start.”

 

                “I’ll take that as a yes about the tea.”

 

                Twenty minutes later, she appears with a tray and sets it before me.  She puts my cup on the side table, then raises hers. “Salud!”

 

                The tea is refreshing going down and the dinner smells terrific.

 

                “Will you fly out?”  She asks.

 

                “I think so.  It’s so hard to know.  But I think, yes, I will.”

 

***

 

In addition to all the souvenirs, Dad brought home a list of complaints.  About working two weeks straight without a break.  About a seventy-five pound rope dropping from an impossible height onto his back.  Damn, understaffed company.  The trip was murder.  He’d earned his leave.

 

                I think he found solace in that big red mock leather recliner.  He stretched before the Magnavox, drank beer from his Bavarian tankard and called us in to change TV channels.

 

                Did Mom want to talk with him?  To catch up?  Consult on finances?  Go into the bedroom together and close the door?  I remember she washed her hair more frequently when he was home.  And she baked deep dish apple pies and devil’s food cakes with fudge frosting.

 

                Dad did love to eat.  He would lie back on his red throne gobbling multi-layered sandwiches watching the Giants’ games.  Willie Mays was his man.

 

                Twenty-five years afterward, my girlhood friend Anita asked me if I remembered my father in the recliner wearing a t-shirt and boxer shorts.  Of course.  I still feel mortified by the dark hairs and the blackish red penis slipping out of his fly.  He wasn’t an exhibitionist.  His body wasn’t the kind you exhibited.  He simply wanted to be comfortable.  As he got fatter, clothes were constricting.  This was his home.  He paid for everything.  He didn’t care if I brought my friends over, but he was going to live the way he wanted in the palace he built, or at least re-paneled.

 

                He seemed content on leave.  Mom, I know, tried to be content.  She counted her blessings and told us to do the same.

 

                Dad did take time out from TV for fatherly tasks.  He constructed a dolls’ house out of midget logs.  He built a miniature speedway in the basement.  Sarah and I took turns being the red car and the green car.  After we went to bed, he spent hours down there.  I could hear the whoosh, whoosh as I lay beneath the sheets.  I could almost hear my mother turning the pages of her novel as she read alone in their bedroom next to mine.

 

                As abruptly as he arrived, he disappeared.  Although I knew something was missing, some crucial part of what constituted a family, I was surprised at how a certain weight lifted with his departures.  The house grew quieter and filled with fresh air.  It was easier to sleep at night.  My friends visited more often.

 

***

 

                “Dinner is served,” Tony calls from the kitchen.  “I’ll be right in with your tray.”

 

                How did I get so lucky?  “No, really, I think it would be good for me to get out of this damn bed and sit at the table.”  I pull on a robe and head to the kitchen table.

 

                “Salmon, asparagus, farro, salad.  Just what the doctor ordered.”

 

                I wonder if I should have called Dr. Cohen this afternoon.  I felt I needed some time to absorb the news, to plan my questions.

 

                “You’re being very kind to the invalid.”

 

                “Is this the same invalid who spent all day at the computer?”

 

                I blink. 

 

                She laughs, “You don’t have to be Sherlock to figure it out.  The dirty lunch plate on the coffee table.  The computer switched to email.  And I got your Facebook posting.”

 

                “Ooops.  Well, I was a little restless. But I promise I tanked up on herbal tea.”

 

                “I’ve been thinking about your dad, Janet.  I’d want to come with you.  Especially if he’s…”

 

               “Going,” I murmur.  “No, Tony, you should go on to the White Mountains with Kenny and Naomi as we planned.  No sense ruining your holiday.  And it could be a false alarm.”

 

                “I’ve already looked into tickets.  We can get a good deal if we book by tomorrow.”

 

                I don’t know what to say and even if I did, the tears flowing down my cheeks have rendered me mute.

 

***

 

                Despite Dad’s temper and attire and drinking, I missed him.  Mom and I made plans for his return.  At thirteen, five years older than me, Sarah “had a life of her own:” clubs, cheerleading, boys who vied to dance with her.

 

                I decided to write Dad a letter of my own.  I described my First Communion, the dotted Swiss dress, the white patent leather shoes, the lace veil, the lovely mass.  I told him about my pretty swimming teacher, Miss O’Brien and my favorite class—geography.   I told him that our dog Woody missed him.

 

                One month later, an envelope arrived addressed to me in his beautiful penmanship.  A lefty, he wrote with his right hand in perfect Palmer cursive because the Christian Brother teachers had tied his left hand behind his back.  Years later, Dr. Sarah, now an eminent psychology professor, declared that the tethered hand foreshadowed a lifelong struggle against authority.  Unaware of such complications, I simply treasured the script and his short reply.

 

                Eventually I had everything—the dream of a father, a tranquil home, my very own letters.  I knew this was as good as it would get, but I tried to look forward to his return as much as Mom did. 

 

***

 

                The hospital number is ringing.  I’m still debating about alerting Sarah.  She hasn’t talked to him since he “went off with that vamp from Podunk, Kansas, for god’s sake.”  Still, this could be an emergency.  Crucial enough to endure my sister’s second-hand wrath at Dad, which was matched only by his own rage at the many assholes who’d done him wrong over the decades.

 

                The operator tells me the doctor will be on in a moment.  She knows I’m calling long distance.  Do I mind waiting?

 

***

 

                Emporia, Kansas is a perfectly OK place.  People are very, very friendly. 

 

                The town has 13 sites on the National Register of Historic Places.  When I visited Dad last year—much to Sarah’s disdain—he drove me around to see the Old Emporia Library, Finney House, The Granada Theatre, Keebler-Stone House, the Kress Building, Soden’s Grove Bridge.

 

The first evening Loretta made a mac and cheese dinner, something our health conscious mother would deplore.  I ate as much as I could.  They both noticed. 

 

“Yeah, well,” said Dad, “Loretta isn’t the queen of fresh vegetables.  But this sure is tasty, isn’t it?”

 

The next night, she served a layered salad in which the major ingredient was mayonnaise.  I did my best to follow her commentary about morning soap operas, but didn’t have much to add to the conversation.

 

On the third morning, she decided to visit her sister in Wichita for a few days, “to give us a little time to ourselves.”  I was relieved by her graciousness, and I could tell Dad was too.

 

***

 

“Hello, Dr. Cohen speaking.”  The voice is brisk, New Yorkish.

 

                I wince, recalling Dad’s florid anti-Semitism and hope it doesn’t slip out when he’s sedated.

 

                “Hello, I’m Janet Morse.  Bob Morse’s daughter and I called…”

 

                “Yes, he’s doing better now.  It was touch and go for a while there.  Your dear father isn’t the world’s easiest patient.”

 

                “Yes,” I laugh, recalling how hard it was to keep him in bed after he totaled our car and broke his arms.  That was the year before he went off with Loretta.  We did our best to help him heal, but we all had the feeling he wouldn’t be sticking around for long.

 

                “You know, I find it difficult to treat your dad because he’s a good friend.”

 

                Are we talking about the same person?  My father?  The doctor is a friend of Dad’s?  Of my father who keeps one book in his house—the local telephone directory.  (He left Mom the dictionary).  A Jew friendly with the man who always spat out his distaste for “arrogant kikes, yids and hymies.”  I don’t understand.  But Dad was never a simple puzzle, and he does have a certain Gaelic charm.  It’s what Mom has been mourning for two decades.  It’s why I’m on the telephone when I should be resting.  Or at least meeting three important deadlines.

 

                “I see,” is all I can muster.

 

                “Your mother will tell you he’s had a hard time of it lately.”

 

                He thinks Loretta is my mother.  At first I’m offended.  Then pissed at my father for colluding in the charade.

 

                “I do expect him to pull through, OK, though.” He sounds genuinely concerned.

 

                “Do I need to fly in?”

 

                “No, no, it’s not that serious any more.  I mean, don’t you have things to do?”

 

                “Yes, of course,” I answer a little defensively.  “A lot of pressures at work.  Yesterday’s deadline.”

 

                “Right, he tells me you’re a university professor.”

 

                “No, that’s my sister Sarah.”

 

                “Oh, you’re the other daughter.”

 

                “Yes.”  I shrug it off.  Of course he would brag about Professor Sarah.  Even I do, sometimes.  And he’s never understood my research, wonders how consulting from home can be real work.

 

                “I wouldn’t worry.  He’ll be fine.  But stay in touch.  One never knows about this sort of thing.  Much as I’d like, for all of us, to be one hundred percent sure.”  

 

                Even the damn doctor doesn’t know if he’s coming or going.

 

***

                My school friends always asked when the renovations would be finished.  Dad loved to work with wood.  He’d start paneling a room and then get called back to sea.  Sarah’s bedroom was almost finished in knotty pine when he left for Tokyo.  I carefully selected a light ash, and he had paneled one of my walls before sailing to Sydney.  At least the gap in the dark walnut at the base of the dining room was concealed by the hulking serving table.  It never bothered him to leave things unfinished; he liked new projects.

 

                Mom explained to visitors he was completing the job, but even she lost hope after a while.  It was like living in one of those model renovation homes, where the walls exhibited samples of “before” and “after.”

 

                I picture him high on the ladder, calling Sarah to fetch a level or hammer. “God damn it, girl, can’t you move any faster than that?”

 

                Mom would call from the kitchen, “Bob, dear, watch your language, please.”        

 

                “Get some earplugs,” he yelled.  “The girl’s slower than turtles in the tropics.”

 

                Of course if he asked me, he’d have his tools in a flash.  But he asked Sarah, maybe because she was older.

 

                “Hush, hush,” Mom called out, although neither of her daughters was speaking.  “He doesn’t mean it; he just has a fiery temper,” she explained as she chopped garlic, onion and tomatoes for her famous cioppino.

 

The fish soup was my favorite.  I had an appetite, took after Dad that way.

 

                “He’s an excitable man,” Mom continued, mostly to herself.  “Never gets enough rest between voyages.”  Her mantra always ended, “Everything will be different when he gets a shore job.”

 

***

 

                At dinner I tell Tony that I got the airline ticket.  “It cost the earth.”

 

                “What about the deal I found?”

 

                “I checked and all the discount tickets were snapped up.  Who would imagine so many people traveled to Kansas?  I don’t mind the cost.  By the time I take the bus or the train, he could be gone.”

 

                Tony waits a beat.  “Or he could be back at the house watering his damn roses.”

 

                Tony has gradually lost patience with my devotion to Dad over the years. “Let me come.  I don’t think this is something you should do alone.  Besides, you’re not all that well, yourself.  You need someone to look after you.  You live too much in your head.” 

 

                “No, no, you go on that hike.  You’ve all been looking forward to it so much.  I’ll be fine.” 

 

“But you wanted to go to the mountains.  It was your bloody idea!”

 

I start to tear up.  “I have to do this.  I have to say good-bye.”

 

                “Oh, honey, I understand.  All the more reason to let me be with you.”

 

***

 

                The miraculous shore job never appeared.  So we waited, never taking summer vacations because he might call or come home unexpectedly.  Mom did long to see Aunt Teddy in Wyoming and Uncle Richard in Idaho.  She grew up in a close family, and each of her siblings visited us once a year while Dad was away.  Still Mom kept the home fires burning, the dutiful wife long after Penelope went out of fashion.

 

                Dad was proud he made it home for Christmas once a year.  We’d always get a giant blue spruce and hang delicate glass ornaments from Mom’s Czech grandparents.  After midnight mass, we’d drive home through the snowy streets admiring the holiday lights.  He brought exotic presents for his “ladies.”  One year we all got kimonos.  Another year, brilliant shawls from Argentina.  Mom gave him things he’d circled in the Sears’ Catalogue: a band saw; a double ratchet screwdriver.

 

                Usually he was called away in January.  Our bedrooms never did get the floor molding before the finances went south and we moved to the apartment.

 

***

 

                “Hello, Dad?  It’s Janet.”

 

                “Yeah.”  He sounds low, tired.

 

                Maybe they’re wrong.  Maybe Loretta and the doctor are stringing me along.  His voice is creaky.

 

                I’ve tanked up on pills to keep me from coughing.

 

                “How are you doing?

 

                “Oh, fine.  I’m on oxygen now, you know.  I lost ten pounds in the last couple of days.  It’s tough to breathe.  I’ve had fever, clammy skin, headaches, stiff joints…” he recites the symptoms as if they’re portentous accomplishments.

 

                “Are they taking care of you, all right?”

 

                “Oh, sure.  They’re filling me full of fluids.  They’ve installed a room humidifier.  I’ve got a great doc, a nice Jewboy from Brooklyn.”

 

                “Dad, please don’t talk like that.”

 

                “Like what?”

 

                “‘Jew Boy.’  It’s offensive.”

 

                “No way,” he declares in that voice of comic affront he often adopts when he know he’s got my goat.  “That’s what he is.  I don’t mind if he calls me an Irish Harpy.”

 

                “Let’s change the topic,” I suggest, grateful for an option not apparent in childhood.

 

                “Yeah.  Of course I’m getting better.  Looks like your old man is coming back.”

 

                I thought he would have the answer.

 

***

 

                We were driving north of Boston, Dad and I, to check on a ship.  He’d had the longed for shore job four years now.

 

                I sensed something strange.  I didn’t yet know her name was Loretta.

 

                “How’s school going?” he asked.

 

                Those days he understood me better than Mom.

 

                “I really want to go out for basketball,” I whined.  “Mom hates the idea.  Says I’ll get muscular.  I explained it would be good for my legs.  She told me to take up dancing!”

 

                Dad puffed on his Lucky Strike and peered out the window.  He smiled in a way that seemed to betray my mother.  I liked it anyhow; he was on my side.

 

                “Girls’ sports,” he coughed, then took another drag.  “About time you females got your cut of the pie.  Sounds fine to me.”

 

                “Then you’ll talk to her?”

 

                “Sure, hon.  You two just don’t get each other.  Lots of women have trouble communicating.”

 

                Women.  The color rose in my cheeks.

 

                “Naw, what she’s afraid of, it just ain’t possible with you.  You’re my Pink and Pretty, remember when I used to call you that?”

 

                I looked out at the grey trees, grey sky.  “Yes,” I nodded.  “When I was a little girl, you brought me back a pink satin comforter.”

 

                “Yeah, from Singapore.”

 

                “Hong Kong,” I corrected, without thinking.

 

                “Good memory.  Like your Dad’s.  I always said you took after me.”

 

                It was so smoky, I cracked the window for air.

 

                “Hey, whatchit, hon, that’s sleet out there.  God damn Massachusetts winters.  Someday we’re going to get a house in Florida with a swimming pool.”

 

***

 

                “And you,” he rasps.  “How are you doing?”

 

                I blink.  “Actually, well, it’s been a rough month here.”

 

                Silence on the other end.  Is he sailing off again?

 

                I persist.  “I’ve been pretty sick, bronchial stuff.  Actually, I’ve been down for two weeks.  I guess respiratory problems run in the family.  I mean I’m not as ill as you, but I feel rotten and….”

 

                “Well, you gotta take care.  We had terrible times out here.  Even the dog—Fiona—the girl, you know, she pulled two ligaments in her leg.  Cost $180.  Tell me, how does a dog pull a ligament?  At least you girls were smart.  Really took care of yourselves.  I never had to worry.  But Fiona, I tell you, she needs a guardian angel or something.”            

 

                I cough in spite of myself.  Turn away from the phone to muffle the sound.  He told me the story about Fiona last month.  I’m tongue tied.  “Oh, yes, sorry, you’ve always loved those dogs.”

 

                “Your mother and I might have stayed together if we had a dog.”

 

                What?

 

                “Loretta, to tell you the truth, doesn’t cook as well as your mother.  And she may not be the brightest bulb.  But we get along on the important things.  And for some reason she loves your old man.  That’s important, someone loving you.”

 

                “Yes. It is.”

 

                I feel he’s opening up.  He must know I love him.  I wait.

 

                He’s silent.

 

                “I miss you, Dad.  I got a great deal on a ticket to Kansas.  I’ll be there by noon on Friday.”

 

                “Oh, no.  Don’t bother yourself.  I’m fine.  Didn’t Cohen tell you?  Save your money.  I’ll be around for a while, don’t you worry.”

 

                I turn away from the phone, coughing.

 

                “Hey, I don’t want to burn up your wire.”  He sounds tired now.  Bored, maybe.

 

                “I love you, Dad.”

 

                “Me too, hon.  Oh, and when you talk with your big sister, Sarah, fill her in on the news about the old man, OK?”

 

                He coughs and laughs and coughs and the line goes dead.

 

                I start to redial, to say good-bye.

 

                Suddenly the room feels stuffy and over-heated.  Instead of calling back, I set the message machine and go for a walk.  The air is brisk with a tinge of autumn.  Two yellow leaves shimmy before me, dropping to the sidewalk.

 

                He’s not the father I’d choose—a cranky, bankrupt, racist philanderer.  But he’s the only one I’ll get.  I try to tell Sarah, “…love the one you’re with.”

 

                I’ll call him tomorrow and try to change his mind about the visit.

 

                I love him, with spunk and warts and everything.

 

I miss him.  I’ll always miss him.