James W. Davidson, Jr. lives in South Carolina with his wife, two sons, mischievous canine daughter, and three cats. He majors in English and Philosophy at Winthrop University with aspirations of teaching and writing. James has work forthcoming in Gravel Magazine.

A Short Story

By James W. Davidson, Jr.

 

When the phone rang, my heart fluttered and sank at the recognition of the numbers on the caller-ID. Tennessee. My father’s number. The first time he called me. At least, I couldn’t remember another time when he called, except when returning my calls. Maybe he called when I was a child. I wouldn’t know. Mom answered the phone in those days. Since I reached manhood, he’s never called. All the times I’ve reached out, trying to create a relationship he long ago abandoned, he still hasn’t called of his own accord. Until now. The grin that stole my face was stretched wide by renewed hope overflowing from my soul.

“Hey,” I said. I wish I could have disguised my childish excitement.

“Hey, bud,” he replied. His deep voice always captivated me.

I grinned and pulled the sliding glass door open. The dogs darted out and down the wooden steps. My beagle howled at the first scent of a squirrel. I wondered how the smell of dead leaves layered on the ground didn’t arrest him. The scent intoxicated my nose as I leaned against the rail of the deck.

“Shut up, Briar!” I called with my left hand cupping the bottom of the cordless phone.

“Sorry. Damn dog barks so much the neighbors throw sticks at him when they think I’m not looking. I brought home a squirrel tail one day, and he’s been hunting them every since.”

“How you been?”

“Good. You?”

“Yeah, things are good. Dana’s kids are back in school.”

“I can’t believe it’s that time already.”

“I know, time flies. Before long they’ll be grown like you and your brother.”

“I’m starting school myself. At the community college. Just went to take a placement exam today.”

“Great. You’re a smart guy. You’ll do good,” he said. He coughed but not directly into the phone.

“Yeah, well, I can’t lay brick forever. Most of those guys don’t even have a plan for the future, or insur—Oh! I have good news. Guess what?”

“Look, bud, the reason I called is I need to see if you could do me a favor.”

“Sure,” I said. My free hand choked the top of the deck railing. “What’s up?”

“Well, I just went to the courthouse today, and they told me that your mother can stop back payments for child support if she goes to her courthouse and signs a form.”

My hand released the rail and balled into a mallet. I wanted to slam the damn thing through the treated lumber.

“Look. I don’t want to get in the middle of you two,” I said. My upper teeth scraped the patch of hair beneath my lower lip. After over twenty years of absence, after more than a year of my efforts to reconnect, after phone calls and visits only I initiated, his first call to me occurs from selfish motivation—figures.

“Son, you don’t need—“

“Don’t call me son.”

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I’ve told you before. I don’t want you to call me son. You surrendered that right when you disappeared for over twenty years.” My fist pounded the top of the rail like a gavel as I reprimanded him.

“That’s right. You did. Sorry. I was just saying you boys are grown men now.”

His confidence amazed me. He spoke with such assurance that I struggled to maintain the level of my rising anger.

“What does that have to do with anything?” I asked.

“Well, she doesn’t need the money anymore. You boys are on your own. She’s married to that guy—“

“Don.”

“Huh?”

“His name is Don,” I said. “But, I call him Dad.” A grin overtook my face as if biologically connected to my words. The compact, little word grenade must have peppered his soul with the shrapnel of guilt. I raked a few leaves off the deck with my boot.

“Oh, yeah. Don. I forgot,” he said. “But, he’s doing good. He brought you boys up good. Took care of you guys. So she doesn’t need the money. She’s got this Don guy to take care of her.”

He annihilated the enthusiasm I enjoyed from my jab. I stopped shoving the leaves through the rails.

“All she needs to do is go to the courthouse and sign a document saying the state doesn’t have to take the money from my check,” he continued.

“So, what d’you want? You want her number?” I asked. How would she respond if I provided her number to my father? What would happen if Don answered? Don convinced Mom to leave my wedding early after he realized my father appeared.

“Actually, I was hoping you’d call her for me, bud.”

“Don’t do that.”

“What?”

“That thing with your voice.”

“What thing?”

“That thing where you change your voice and appeal to me as if I’m your little boy.”

“C’mon. I’m not—“

“I’m a grown man now. I’m married. I understand how hard it is to make ends meet. You left us. You left my mom.”

“Son, I—“

“Don’t call me Son!” I chopped the top of the rail, and the impact felt like the lumber shattered the side of my hand.

“Sorry. Look, I’m not trying nothing with my voice. I just need that money more than your mom does, and I was hoping—“

“I can’t do that,” I said. My hand throbbed.

“Do what?”

“I can’t call my mom and ask her to do that.”

“Why not? You boys don’t need the money. She don’t need the money. I need the money! I got Dana’s kids to feed and school clothes to buy and bills to—”

“Damnit! You’re the one who ran off. You’re the one who didn’t pay child support. You’re the one who’s going to have to call her.”

I turned my hand over and studied it for injury. A slight, red tint surfaced where it impacted the rail. I opened and close my hand. No pain. The dogs sniffed the bottom of the same red oak. Sunlight flickered through the balding autumn branches. Briar howled every third or fourth sniff causing my terrier to flinch each time.

The silence lasted so long I said, “Hello?”

“Yeah, I’m here. I’ve just been thinking,” he said. His mouth sounded dry. The words choppy, not flowing naturally.

“Well?”

“Well, what?”

“Do you need her number?” I asked.

“No, I have it, but what I don’t unders—“

“You have to call her. I’m not getting in the middle of it.”

The phone clicked. I held the receiver to my ear for several minutes. Between the howls of Briar and the wind stripping dead leaves from the red oaks, which sounded like small sheets of tin foil landing on the deck, I couldn’t distinguish whether we experienced another long moment of thought or if my father had disconnected.

“Hello? Hello?”

My heart tapped my chest rapidly. I gripped the phone tight and imagined hurling it, hitting Briar in the mouth. Instead, I brought the device back to my face and screamed, “By the way, selfish asshole, you’re going to be a grandfather.”

Briar’s barking stopped. When I looked down at him, his head was cocked to the side. His long, droopy ears framed his worried face until he was confident that my yelling was not intended for him. I scanned the surrounding yards for onlookers. The chill leaching through my torso partially subsided when I realized my dogs and an audience of red oaks were the only living creatures that heard my angry reaction. Along with the realization came a sense of gratitude that my father interrupted my news. I pledged to never contact him again. My child would not experience the malady of a self-absorbed grandfather, nor the malady of a self-absorbed father. Many of the traits we inherit are hereditary. I can’t change that I look like him. I can’t change that I sound like him. But, I can change the way I love. We have such power over life: to not repeat diseases of the soul.

Briar returned to howling. Dying leaves continued sprinkling softly on the already covered ground in my backyard. A gentle, smooth breeze served the scent of nature preparing the landscape for winter. I inhaled deeply as if I could store the scent in my lungs for later indulgence. I dropped the phone on a table and strolled to the shed to retrieve a rake. The dogs charged up the hill to splatter me with affection.