“Father Calls,” a Haunted Passages short fiction by Andrew Bertaina

Two weeks after my father dies in a freak accident, a dramatic fall while trimming fruit trees in his yard, he calls me in a dream. When the phone rings, I’m outside, watching a cloud of mosquitoes do a balletic dance around my shin. I’m drinking bourbon on the rocks, and the glass is sweating tremendously, water droplets hang from my fingertips as dew from a spider’s web. My ex-girlfriend is inside, and she’s the one who takes the call. We’d split a couple of months prior to my father’s death, but somehow she’s there, pounding dough to shape into biscuits.

She pulls the sliding glass door of my childhood home open and calls out, Your dad’s on the phone.

My therapist is keenly interested in the detail of the dream taking place in my childhood home. The one we moved into after my father left. I can tell by the way she quickly uncrosses her leg that she wants to interrupt, to build a narrative bridge between the house of my childhood, from which my father was absent, and the dream in which he was now present. She rubbed her fingers together in an anticipatory way, starting to open the small folder where she’d sketched my family tree in spidery scrawl. For her, the narrative arc of my life was explained by the family system, an interlocked grid of failed relationships and loneliness. For me, the narrative arc of my life was as inexplicable as the flight path of a flock of birds making wild shapes in a blued sky.

The relationship with my therapist was embarrassing. One of the core aspects we tried to work on was my people pleasing. And yet, I often found myself working to please my therapist, providing her with tidbits of information like my aunt Midge’s daughter’s name, so she could fill out the ever-branching complexity of my family tree. It pleased her so. After a while, I made things up, claiming I remembered dates and relationships I didn’t, inventing immigration stories that never happened, children that had never been born had full backstories with childhood food allergies. People are so fucking neurotic sometimes. Especially me.

A hummingbird hovers by a long vine of sweet honeysuckle that climbs from the ground to cover the entire chimney. I marvel at the bell shaped blossoms, the iridescent wings of the hummingbird, the wind passing through my fingers, thin clouds on the horizon. Fucking miracle, life.

My father’s dead, I say as I walk inside. 

I know, she says. But I need to put these biscuits in the oven.

I don’t even like biscuits.

He doesn’t know that, she answers, holding her hand over the receiver.

In the dream, her words didn’t make sense. But I felt it was consistent, as before she left, our conversations didn’t make sense and ended in yelling matches about obscure television show actors and IMDb searches for verification purposes. It was amazing how love could turn into that.

My father’s voice sounds thinner than what I remembered from his life or perhaps we just had a bad connection.   

My dead father, as he was in life, is intently interested in the weather and the performance of the San Francisco Giants. He keeps asking after the score in Tuesday’s game and mixing in weather updates, the exact time the fog rolled in from the Pacific in grey sheets, covering the golden hills behind his apartment.

It really cooled things down, he says. I think they are throwing Baumgardner too much. I worry about his elbow. But can you blame them? He sounds worried.

And though I want to soothe him, to nod along to his idle chatter as I’d always done when he was alive, I find myself unwilling.

Instead of saying, yeah, they have to give Baumgardner a break or updating him on weather patterns, I say, I’d rather watch fucking paint dry than baseball and the fog always rolls in by one.

My dead father is silent, and I can tell he is disappointed or pretending he can’t hear me.

The smell of biscuits rises from the kitchen, and I want to cry. I want to talk to my father about the year that he left, about the way mother sat on her bed for hours in the depths of depression. The year I hadn’t yet learned to walk. I want to say, dad, your absence stings me, even to this day. Fuck. Why does it hurt so much to be alive? Why bother with sentience if this is the fucking result? I want to be a starfish instead, guts expelled, no pain.

My ex calls from the kitchen, the biscuits are ready. Do you think he’d want one?

I tell my dead father that I have to go.

He says okay, tells me to stay safe, starts to talk about the weather again.

Gotta go, I say. It’s breakfast time in the land of the living.

My therapist seems mildly interested in the dream, and I make an appointment for another fruitless visit in a month. As I drive down the avenues and byways lined by oak and maple, branches stretch out towards the sky like the dreams of my future self, unburdened now of her and of him, and I cry the sort of tears that no one does unless they are by themselves until my whole body is racked by sobs.

Before bed, I sit at the kitchen table as the streetlights flicker on. I remember a little league baseball game my father attended, and how I’d struck out five batters in a row with him there as wild clouds of gnats battered phosphorescent lights above. I wondered what he’d say when I saw him after the game, if he’d put his big mitt of a hand around my shoulder and tell me he was proud. Strangely, I can’t remember what he said, only the gnats bumping into the light.

Andrew Bertaina’s short story collection One Person Away From You (2021) won the Moon City Press Fiction Award (2020).  His work has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Witness Magazine, Redivider, Orion, and The Best American Poetry and notable at Best American Essays 2020. He has an MFA from American University in Washington, DC. 

Image: Gray Hunt

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