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FICTION
The Call Home
David DeFusco

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Jordan sat in the truck staring at the telephone booth trying to work up the courage to call him. It was close to game time. When she was home she didn’t dare say anything to him after the opening kickoff. She reached into a paper sleeve for a pack of Marlboros and peeled away the glassine wrap. As she tapped out a cigarette, she pictured him in his high-back chair chomping on a stubby cigar watching the Jets on their Magnavox, gripping a sweaty Pabst, his potbelly spilling over his unclasped belt and stretching the limits of his hapless tee shirt. She placed the cigarette between her lips, and reached into her parka for the matches. 

The cab was thick with heat and stale smoke. She cut the engine, dug into her parka for a dime, and walked to the booth at the edge of the parking lot. Before entering, she dropped the butt onto the pavement and mashed it with the toe of her clog. She dialed the number and leaned against the glass. Across the street, undressed trees huddled for warmth, dripping the previous week’s snow. She wrapped the cord around her pinky until the tip felt like it would pop.

“Yeah?” The voice on the other end was gruff. Her father always answered the phone as if callers were bill collectors. She listened to his lungs whistle as he labored to fill them. “Who’s there?”

She closed her eyes and pressed the phone against her ear. She felt guilty for running away, for being bored. At home, she knew what the next day would bring, and the day after that. But mostly it was because she carried a secret she couldn’t explain herself. Her identity was as formless as the gray mist rising off the street.

She had left one afternoon with the beat-up Ford pickup truck she bought with money made from slicing cold cuts at Marty Kanes deli. She shuttled between friends, hid out in basements and camped in the woods. A cardboard box beside her held few practical things: Doors albums, collections of Dickinson and Plath, a drawing pad, a shirt and an extra pair of jeans, a roach clip, a squirt gun her father had bought her at the beach when she was ten. She had a habit of scribbling verse on corners of white lined paper and kept them in her pocket. 

As she hung up the phone, his small breathless voice called out to her again. She opened the retractable door to the booth and leaned against it. The arrow of a big round thermometer above the door to the grocery store pointed to forty degrees. She thought of leaving, but returned to the phone. 

“Buddy, if this is some kind of joke—”

“Pop,” she deadpanned.

“Jordan! Was that you before?” He coughed sharply. She pulled away from the phone, startled. “Someone called and—.” 

“Probably a wrong number,” she said. She heard the commentator on his end announce that it was third down. “They winning?”

“Nah. Namath is playing like a girl,” he said, referring to the Jets quarterback who had shocked the sporting world that year by appearing in pantyhose ads.

“I just don’t want you to worry.”

“Not worry? We’re worried sick! Where are you? When are you coming home?”

“I’m staying at a friend’s,” she lied. 

“Are you all right? Are you eating?”

“Yep.” She pictured a half-eaten beef jerky and Marlboros on the front seat. At 5-5, 150 pounds, she felt she needed the cigarettes to keep her weight down. “I’m at a grocery store now.”

“Well, I want you to come home right this instant,” he wheezed. “I’d come get you right now if it weren’t for my damned lungs.” 

“You’ll be all right?” She knew he wouldn’t be.

“No cure for emphysema, but doc said I’d feel better if I quit the cancer sticks.”

She frowned at the phone. “Jesus, Pop.”

“Don’t worry, and what did we tell you about using the Lord’s name?”

“Oh please,” she mumbled.

“Speak up. The ears are as bad as the lungs.”

“Nothing, Pop. Didn’t say nothing.”

“Speaking of God,” he chuckled, “your mother is helping me quit.”

“How? By smoking yours?”

“I don’t know what it is between you two, but I wish it’d stop.”

Jordan remembered the Friday night she went to bed early. Friendless. She heard her mother’s footsteps. The light went on in the hallway. She waited for her mother to enter the room, to sit by her side. But the lights went off, the footsteps retreated. Jordan didn’t want to burden her father with the memory.

“Your mother says the only way she’ll be able to tolerate me is if she quits, too.” He laughed mischievously, his lungs crackling, as if he knew that no matter how difficult he was she’d stick it out.

Jordan unzipped her parka and pulled the door open a crack. “I’m afraid, Pop.”

“Of what?”

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“I’m no bumpkin, young lady. I worked on military aircraft.”

She was tired of his bluffing. He could build a killing machine, but wasn’t smart enough to quit smoking.

“You mean the ones that dropped napalm in Vietnam.” She pictured the Life magazine photograph of a Vietnamese girl running naked, her skin melting off her back after an American fighter jet strafed the street.

“Hey, hey, watch your mouth.” He coughed away from the phone. “You a hippie now?”

“C’mon, Pop, it was a mistake.”

“That work kept this country safe. And it gave you a nice upbringing.”

She watched the store’s proprietor, an old man, shovel a scrim of slush from the front door to a dumpster. He wore a pistol in a holster. He had eyed her suspiciously when she had walked through the aisle of junk food earlier. At the counter, he frowned at her over his wire rims when she asked for the Marlboros. 

Maybe it was because at sixteen she prematurely exhibited life’s insults, her big brown eyes weary from a vague sense of dread that she carried day to day, moment to moment. Maybe it was her sad clothes—the faded parka torn at the elbow, the bellbottoms frayed and muddy at the heel, or her flat, oily hair drooping over one eye that she repeatedly, unconsciously, cleared with the sweep of her hand. She had given him her last dollar. She had run out of friends. 

“Would you speak up?” her father growled. “Can’t hear a damn thing.” 

“I didn’t say nothing. Why’s the TV so loud?”

“It’s your mother.”

“Is she there?”

“No.” She heard him crack open a beer. “She’s upstairs making lunch. Hold on a sec.” The phone landed hard on the end table, the volume went down, then the crunch of vinyl as he sank into the couch. “Is that better? I had a friend that drank too much.” 

He had always referred to “a friend” when pointing out behaviors Jordan should avoid. She suspected he was talking about himself. 

“He thought if he moved to another place…” He struggled for air. “It would solve his problems. But it was him who needed changing. See where I’m going?”

She mindlessly dug for change in the coin return. “Sometimes a change in scenery makes what needs changing more clear.” 

“So what don’t I understand?” he asked.

“What?”

“Did your mother and me do something wrong?”

“No, just forget it, okay?” 

She never imagined her father not being there, had never questioned his authority, but his illness made him less imposing. She had grown out of his shadow. Still, she surprised herself at how easy the truth came. 

“I don’t feel like a girl.” She jabbed the phone with her finger. “There you go.”

“We always knew you were a tomboy. You never liked dresses or played with dolls.”

“Yeah, Pop, that’s true, but this is kind of different. Actually, totally different.”

“How?”

“I’m not sure how to explain it.”

“You don’t throw like a girl, neither. You got a good arm.”

“Right, right.” She smoothed the back of her head with her free hand. How to put it? “Um, how ‘bout I’m not interested in boys.”

There was a long pause, the rumble of his breath the only sign he was still there.

“Pop?”

“You’re a… Not sure what they call ‘em these days.” 

“Queer.” She questioned the wisdom of opening up to him. “No, I’m not.”

“I’ve seen them holding hands on TV after midnight when I can’t sleep,” he giggled. “It ain’t natural.” 

She drew a heart on the fogged-up glass door with her thumb. “Too bad. I like girls…”

“You like them, or you likethem?”

“Like I said, forget it, okay?”

“I’m confused.”

“Me, too.” She breathed on the heart and thumbed the initials of an imaginary lover inside it. “I likegirls. Just not asa girl.” She closed her eyes and shook her head. 

“You playing with your old man?” He laughed weakly, as if he didn’t get what he was laughing at. 

“No,” she said, staring at the fast-moving clouds as if they couldn’t get out of the way of an angry sun fast enough.

“Wait a minute. When I was in Germany, my buddies and me would go for a beer.” She heard the spritz of his inhaler and her father taking a deep, labored breath. He cleared his throat. “They call mugs steins. Like the Jewish name… But we really went for the girls.” His words seemed to blow through the phone on a rush of wind.

“Pop, really?” She drew a plus sign and her initials under her imaginary lover’s. She always fantasized about fooling around with a faceless girl. 

“Be patient, and listen. The worst thing about war is not the dying, but the boredom. Hours and hours of waiting for something to happen. You get lonely. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t cheat on your mother. Never have. I’m proud of that.”

“Okay, so?”

“My point is, these girls were dancers. They were beautiful all made up and dressed in frilly skirts. The guys had eyes as big as saucers. They would’ve proposed on the spot if they could. But here’s the kicker. These girls weren’t girls. They were cross something or others. Boy, I didn’t let the guys live it down.” 

“I’m nota transvestite!” She rolled her eyes. “Jesus Christ!”

“Jordan, please.”

She squeezed the handset. “Pop, please don’t hate me.”

“Sport, I fought in the Big One. I’ve seen stuff that’d curl your hair.”

She lost heart. “Um, I smoke grass.” She smudged out the heart.

“What? Marijuana? What does that have to do with—”

“Yup, I smoke it. All the time. Lots of it.”

“You shouldn’t smoke.” His voice was stern, but weary. “Why don’t you let your mother and me pick you up? You should be home. With us.”

She couldn’t go home and face their disapproval. “Maybe later, okay?”

“When then?”

“I don’t know. Say hi to Mom.”

“Wait! Jordan?” 

She hung up and trudged back to the truck. It had started to snow ever so lightly, as if the sky were apologizing for the imposition. She remembered a brief flirtation she had had with a girl in sophomore year. One day the other girl stopped paying attention. Jordan reached into her pocket and pulled out a scrap of paper. Dickinson.

I hide myself within my flower,
That wearing on your breast,
You, unsuspecting, wear me too—
And angels know the rest.

I hide myself within my flower,
That, fading from your vase,
You, unsuspecting, feel for me
Almost a loneliness.

She held the scrap in her lap. How could she be true to others when she couldn’t tell the people closest to her the truth about herself? She fished the squirt gun out of the box and stared at it, remembering the battles in the backyard, the squealing as her father turned the hose on her. The plunger moved slowly up the barrel as she pulled the trigger.

She put it in her pocket and went inside the store. 

END


David DeFusco has published the short stories 'Stemwinder's Ball' (The Quill), 'The Wedding' (Literary Heist), 'After the Love' (Halfway Down the Stairs) and 'The Date' (BLYNKT).