by Darryl Halbrooks
“When was the last time you talked to your dad?” Jennifer asks.
“I don’t know, maybe five years. Something like that.”
“I know you don’t want to, but maybe you should call.”
“I’ve seen grown men pull their own heads off rather than talk to Dad.”
She ignores my oft-used Monty Python line.
“He’s in the vulnerable population you know.”
“As far as I know he’s not in a nursing home.”
“I know but he’s in his seventies.”
“I wouldn’t worry. He’s not like your parents. For one thing he never interacts with anybody and for another thing, if the virus latched onto him it would probably drop dead.”
“Viruses aren’t alive.”
“I’m not sure he is.”
“You should call.”
“I called the last time. The phone works both ways. Besides, who knows what his number is? Every time he gets pissed off about something he throws it against the wall and has Harvey or Brad or whoever his current lackey happens to be, run out to Wal-Mart and buy him a new burner phone, which always comes with a new number. He’d never go to the trouble of transferring his number like a normal person.”
“He didn’t want to talk to me the last time I called,” I tell her, “any more than he wanted to talk to me when I was growing up in his very house under his very nose. My sister and I weren’t to bother him from 9 to 6 in the afternoon and he was always too tired at night after he came up from his studio. Later, Carrie had dance lessons or I had basketball practice or we eventually cultivated our own friends and so we never really got to know him. Not that he gave a shit. We got into the habit of not talking to him and he didn’t have anything to do with us.”
“Here,” Jennifer says, “try one of these numbers.”
She hands me a beat-up looking booklet she calls her ‘paper calendar.’ It’s an outdated object she insists on carrying while the rest of the world has long since moved on. Each December I’m required to buy her a new one so it will be ready to go the moment the Rose Bowl kicks off, not that she cares about the Rose Bowl but it’s one of the ways I mark time.
They have to be just so, these paper calendars. They can’t be too wide or too short or too thick. Seven inches tall and three and one half inches wide with a magnetic clasp on the side. They can’t be blank on the inside like journals. They must have horizontal lines one quarter of one inch apart have the day of the month on each page. They’re impossible to find in stores, even in specialty “paper” stores. They’re also getting harder and harder to find on Ebay.
After searching for days and paying in pounds rather than dollars—plus shipping—because they only seem to be in favor on the other side of the pond rather than here in the colonies, a new one arrives at our doorstep. I fear that soon she’ll be out of luck.
“Why don’t you try a more modern way of keeping appointments and phone numbers?” I say. “You’re such a throwback.”
“That’s just like … your opinion, man,” she says, doing her pathetic imitation of my own terrific imitation of Jeff Labowski.
She can never remember her passwords or usernames and sees no reason she should have to. When I offer to look for them in a document I keep in the cloud, she turns on her heel and begins leafing though these yearly calendars or sorting though scraps of paper she keeps on her ridiculously disorganized desk, weighed down by a glass globe which, when turned upside down and back, causes snow to float lazily over Lake Louise.
But I digress.
I take the proffered calendar and start dialing numbers.
I usually get something along the lines of—this number is no longer in service or—the person you are attempting to reach has not set up his or her voicemail. Sometimes someone answers—Randy Powers or Mikayla Jefferson—most likely the next person to be assigned his old number, someone who did bother to set up his or her voicemail.
At last I hear: I’m working. Leave a message.
It’s him. I hang up.
“Why didn’t you leave a message?”
“Who leaves messages?”
“Well … send a text.”
“Are you kidding? Do you think my dad is going to pay for a texting plan? I’ll try again later.”
I go back to binge-watching Breaking Bad. Since the quarantine that’s the kind of thing we do.
People who used to go to parties or football games or NASCAR races or Philharmonic concerts, settle for old TV dramas or re-runs of the ’92 Duke-Kentucky game. Some are not so lucky. We still have money coming in but a few of our neighbors, people who never gave a second thought to leasing a Mercedes or buying a Lexus—now line up for hours, gloved and masked inside their vehicles as similarly gloved and masked strangers, toss donated food into their open hatches. Meanwhile, their unpaid loans tick away like time bombs under their asses.
Jennifer visits her friends on something called Zoom, a program I helped her set up. I filed the username and password away in the cloud.
Since this started, I’ve cleaned the garage, cut the lawn so many times it’s beginning to remind me of the golf course, painted the entire interior of our house, tore down and rebuilt our deck, bondoed and painted the rust spots in my old van, re-sealed the concrete floor of our basement and would love to take a sledgehammer to the old tiles in our shower but Jennifer has drawn the line at destroying our house.
When Jennifer comes to check on me again I’m watching my new favorite Governor give his daily rundown on the number of cases and body count.
“How can you watch this stuff all the time? Why don’t you come help Catherine and me with the puzzle?”
Catherine was booted out of her dorm, right after Spring Break, when the virus took hold in earnest.
“Maybe later. I want to watch the governor.”
“He’s not even your governor.”
“I know but I learn things about life from him. Besides, I already know what Seurat’s La Grande Jatte is going to look like once you get it put back together.”
His state is the epicenter. The first part of his presentation is always an update on hospitalizations, new cases, the amount of lifesaving equipment or hospital beds he is short on and in most cases a lament about the lack of help he is getting from Washington.
His craggy face is almost ugly, but the nation, in large part, seems to be falling in love with him. We all ask the same question: why can’t this guy be president?
At some point he launches into one of his stories, which is why I tune in. His slow, deliberate articulation and accent, reminds me of Michael Corleone. It’s usually about what we can gain by the togetherness provided by this lockdown. (I really should help with the puzzle.) Today it’s about his family’s Sunday dinners.
“We always have our Sunday dinner at around two in the afternoon.”
Dinner ends with a soft (a.)
Dinna, aftanoon, dawg, dauwta.
“We always called it dinna even though it was in the aftanoon. So… I throw in my meatballs and they cook for a lawng time. My dauwta is home from college. Everybody’s dauwta is home from college,” he says with a theatrical shrug. “She brings the boyfriend. We all keep six feet apawt. She and the boyfriend push the meatballs around the plate. They don’t eat them but that’s ok. I like the boyfriend. I don’t really like the boyfriend but a fatha has to say he likes the boyfriend because if he says he doesn’t like the boyfriend there will be BRS … Boyfriend Rebellion Syndrome. She doesn’t like him eitha but she wants me to think she does so it’s now going to take yea’s to get rid of him. So my advice: always like the boyfriend.”
How can anyone argue with wisdom like that?
After watching two more, less entertaining governors, Jennifer is back for more phone call prodding.
“Have you tried again?” she asks.
“Is your Zoom meeting over?”
“Yeah, Helen had a tele-medicine meeting and Cynthia had to go work at the food bank.”
I press the pause button on Breaking Bad.
“Are you ok?” she asks. She squeezes my arm.
“It hasn’t really sunk in yet. It doesn’t seem so final when you can’t go to a visitation or the funeral. On the other hand there’s no closure.”
“Try to call him again. It’s three hours earlier there. Maybe he’s not in his studio yet.”
“Aw, alright. It’s just that … I’m afraid he’ll actually answer.”
“What if he’s not even there? What if he’s gone into the hospital himself? You really need to find out.”
After three rings it’s the machine again.
I’m working. Leave a message.
Over the next two hours I try three more times.
“Goddammit,” the raspy old voice says after the fourth attempt and over the two thousand miles of air and five or six years of space-time between us. “This better be important.”
“Dad? It’s Jeremy.”
A silent couple of seconds passes.
“Jeremy,” I say again. “Your son.”
“How are you?”
“I mean with the virus and all, are you staying away from people and wearing your mask and gloves?”
After another pause he says, “Yes. I’m working. Nothing changes. I never see people and I always wear my mask and gloves. This shit is poisonous you know.”
I know he’s not referring to the virus but the resins, solvents and fine abrasives he stirs up in producing his large scale, colorful sculptures.
“So are you happy?” he says. “Are you relieved? Because I really need to get back to work. I’ve got a show coming up.”
“You always have a show coming up,” I say. “Where is it? When is it?”
“Really, Dad? Chicago? There are no galleries open in Chicago. If this show is soon it’s surely been cancelled or postponed, so what’s the rush?”
“There will be shows again. This is my job. I need to get back to it. You have a job, I suppose. Don’t you do your job?”
I’m sure he doesn’t remember that I teach, or what it is that I teach or that no schools are open or that Jennifer is a travel agent and no one is going anywhere.
“Do you remember what I do?”
“I make porn films.”
There’s a brief pause.
“Oh. Well … I guess there’s good money in that. I …”
“Dad … I don’t make porn films.”
“Then why did you say you make porn films? Excuse me a sec.”
I can hear footsteps in an empty sounding space and then a loud motor starts up.
“Sorry, my air compressor kicked on,” he says when he returns to the phone. “I didn’t quite hear what you were saying.”
“I was saying Jennifer is fine. Thanks for asking. So is Catherine.”
“Catherine, your granddaughter.”
“Oh, yes. Well, that’s good.”
“I don’t think you’ve seen Catherine in what … about ten years.”
“When she was little, yeah. Not anymore. She’s a junior at IU. Of course she had to leave school. They kicked everybody out of the dorm, you know, when they shut all the schools down.”
“Yeah, she’s studying to be an anarchist.”
“Is that right? Hang on a sec.”
There’s a clunk as he puts the phone down on something hard. The compressor shuts off and I can hear him stomp across the echoey wooden floor in the steel-toed work boots he always wears. There’s a metallic tap tap tap and then the rasping sound of a belt sander or angle grinder. The compressor kicks on again.
When he picks the phone up he says, “Well, tell her I said good luck.”
“You mean Catherine? Good luck with her anarchy? I sure will, Dad. Say, have you talked to Carrie lately?”
“Your daughter, my little sister, Carrie? Cause if you have, she didn’t mention it. Of course she’s had a tough time of it herself. It may have slipped her mind. I guess you knew she was in rehab?”
“Bad knee?” he asks. “Bad back?”
“Drugs, Dad. She’s had a pretty rough time with opioids. She’s on the mend now we think. She’s been home about two weeks. They had to let all the inmates or patients, whatever they call them, out. The virus risk in close quarters like that is too high.”
“I guess you knew about her kid, Kayla.”
“Yeah, the state took her away, Kayla I mean. She’s in a foster home now but Carrie is hoping to get her back once she’s shown that she’s been clean for at least three months.”
“I see. Ok then. Well, listen, I really need to get back to work.”
“Sure, Dad. Well, you take care of yourself.”
“We will too. Thanks for your concern. I’ll tell Jennifer and Catherine that you send your love.”
“All right then,” he says.
“Oh, and Dad, I almost forgot … Sandy died.”
“Yeah, Dad. Sandy. Your ex wife. Our Mom. Catherine’s grandmother. She’s dead, Dad.”
“She was in that assisted living place after her stroke. You remember.”
“It was the virus. It went really fast. We couldn’t even visit her. No funeral either. There’s going to be a memorial service sometime after this is all over. The lockdown I mean. I’ll let you know. Maybe you can come, I mean if you don’t have a show that interferes.”
I hear the compressor kick on again and the phone goes dead.
Jennifer comes into the study. The phone is still in my hand and I’m staring absently at the trilobite fossil we bought last year in a little shop in a town with an unpronounceable name on the northernmost peninsula of Iceland.
“Do you remember the woman’s name? The one we bought this from?”
“I can’t remember or pronounce any names from that place,” she says. “Somebody’s Dottir.”
“That’s right, Gutmansdottir, or something like that.”
I run my fingers over the trilobite’s now stone shell.
“Well,” she says, “how is he? Staying safe?”
“He’s fine. Same old Daddy. As he says, ‘nothing changes.’”
Darryl Halbrooks’ stories have appeared in The New Delta Review, Madison Review, Map Literary, Verdad, Mount Hope, The Progenitor, The Chaffin Journal and many more. His visual art has been has been exhibited widely in the US and abroad and is represented in many private, public and corporate collections.