This story is by Josh Normal and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I call my dad hoping he does not answer the call. The phone rings, rings, rings again, and ri—I say, “Hey hey,” to the phone.
“Y-Ye-Yeah.” The after-effects, the effects on his speech in particular, are so Gad damned hard to listen to. The stutter is twice as bad as it had been—getting him to talk would be twice the effort. Doc said working could make it worse, but I won’t tell him not to work. He hates, absolutely hates, being home ever since Mom.
“Happy Birthday,” I say to remind him what day it is.
He coughs, “Tha—“ coughs, “Th-thank you.”
“Are you…” louder, louder I think, “are you doing anything special?” He’s not, I can tell he’s not. By the groans, I know he’s laid back in his old recliner chair with no back support. Laid-up the whole day I’m sure, sunken into the dents he made in the cushions until I woke him up.
“No, no I d-d-don’t think s-so…”
Maybe, just maybe, I had gotten him something he might actually use this year; a new leather—well—faux-leather recliner. A new chair to replace his old chair—if he’ll give it up.
“Nothing special for the special day?”
“Been sl-sleeping sin-sin-ince I’as sick la-l-last night and d-didn’t s-s-sleep.”
“Well lunch, then, what’s for lunch?”
Two groans and then, “T-Tim and Eric, the t-two a’them are p-picking someth-ing up.”
He was supposed to be eating healthy, and that doesn’t sound healthy, or I assume it isn’t. “You have to have something green, even on your birthday,” I remind him. “J-just a-a s-salad, with l-lettuce’n the n-new kind’a l-lettuce and chic-ken I-I think,” he says
“Its your birthday Dad, so tell’m to get a birthday cake too.”
We both get quiet, and together we listen to the old country album he’d always played on repeat in the shop and count the seconds. I’m surprised he’d order a salad, but know he’s eating it in resignation, not getting his body back in working order—he doesn’t think of the world of possibilities in life, not the way I always have. But it’s another battle won, and I wonder now instead how long we’d been talking. The tacky clicking whir of some mechanic’s tool comes though the speaker of my phone, as well as the sound of my dad licking his chapped lips, just breathing, maybe also imagining what to do after this phone-call. Easy enough for him, drifting back off to sleep with twangy guitar and the machinations of his greasy shop in his ears, filling his dreams with scenes from his life.
My own mind could not fathom “next”, and the sounds reminded me of the easier times when we had the rest of his life to connect as father and son, or even just as two adult men talking about lives, and wives, and making the most of the time left. Now, maybe five years, or five days, or just five minutes might last of the world we live in together.
“I know I can’t get you to come here, so I’m gonna drive up there in a couple weeks,” I say.
“S-so long, to dr-dri-ive h-here from th-th-there.”
“So, so what? It’s your birthday, so I’ll come and take you out to Lorenzo’s or something.” Like we used to, I don’t say, when we had to sit in the shop after school and used brake tubing as swords to play in the lot across the street, and eat pizza without plates.
The conversation runs off the track again, and I think it must be time to get off the phone, let the old man take his nap and eat his birthday salad.
“There’s no-no p-p-point be-cause I’m alr-r-eady d-dead,” he says, in the same chair he’d had the stroke in, where I knew I left him.
“I know you know you did not die,” I reply, “you did not die!”
I cut off the stut-stut and continue, “You got the second chance, the second try so many dream about from six feet under. Do you want us to bury you now, sitting in that rotten old chair?” The words were out and with them out I could at least tell him everything, no matter what I could get back. “Did you see God, or did you see a light or something?”
“L-lots and l-l-ots’a lights. Simply, j-just s-simply b-beyond comp-rehension.”
More and more silence, and for longer. I’m being morbid, wondering if I was planning to bring him a new chair, or if I was bringing him a better casket. Maybe they could wrap him in the upholstery before burial, or create it with him, or maybe they could rest his urn on it in the corner of the shop and frame his retired smock.
“Sit and rest as long as you need pop, but don’t die sitting down again.”
I break another silence with another, “Happy Birthday,” and hope he still wants to talk after it all, but he just says thanks again, and “bye, b-bye.” We end the phone call, and I’m left thinking about the end.
In a couple weeks I’ll head up his way, and we’ll end up ordering in, and I’ll let him have a slice of pizza, and we’ll watch TV or listen to the radio in the shop. We’ll get through a year and I might get to wake him up with his next birthday call, or…
Maybe he’ll tell the guys to get a cake, and they’ll light candles after he eats his salad and he’ll get up, suck in some air, and something inside him will pop—he’ll blow out his candles with one last breath, and I won’t ever know his last, stuttering wish.