Your Dad Is Calling Back


By Alex Jaros

          Wake up, it’s 9 a.m. No, no—you have nothing to do yet. Sleep some more. Most people would wake up, would have things to do. But not you, no, you’re a writer. Say that again. Writer. It sounds good. Keep sleeping. When your phone rings an hour later, push it away. Think, Do I know anyone who should be calling at this hour? Push it farther away.
          Have good dreams. Have bad dreams. Let them mingle with that half-awake feeling you have around 10 a.m., the one that makes you wonder if getting up to pee is really worth it. Think, this is something someone should write about. Peeing.
          When you can’t hold it any longer, get up. Walk to the bathroom. Have a nice long pee. Think about peeing while you’re peeing; think about peeing with an erection and how annoying that is, how you have to kind of hunch forward, while pushing it down, and how you always get more spray that way—the term “collateral damage” comes to mind. Think how much easier peeing would be if you owned a urinal. Picture yourself cleaning a urinal—is that easier or harder than a toilet? Wonder again why people don’t write about this more.
          Scroll through your phone with one hand while pushing down your erection with the other. Hunch a bit more. Spray a bit less. Everything’s screwed up and you pee all over the place anyway. The bathroom needed to be cleaned.
          Your father called three times. That’s what all the ringing was. Wonder if perhaps someone died—maybe your grandfather.
          Walk back to your room and turn on the computer. It’s 11:30 now. Check Facebook. There’s a link to one of those lists from Buzzfeed; you hate them but you click it anyway and spend ten minutes laughing about texts to the wrong number. Check Gmail. You have an email from your father. There is no email, just a single line in the subject field: “call me when u can.” He spells “you” with a single letter, that one dumb curve, all alone, making your father sound like an eleven-year-old girl writing notes in math class.
          Read it again. Open the email even though you know there’s nothing in it. Wonder again if your grandfather died and if he did, think about whether or not that would be enough to make you cry. He was pretty grouchy. Wonder when the last time you cried was.
          Debate not calling your father back. Debate ignoring three missed calls and a subject-line-only email; possibly a dead grandfather, too.
          Give in after you realize you have five minutes to kill while the coffee brews. (You went into the kitchen to make some coffee—not the shitty kind, either. You grind your own beans, you buy from local, micro-batch roasters. You taste notes of grapefruit and sweet pea and caramel.)
          Hope the call will only be five minutes. Debate it all over again between the second and third ring. For a moment, think about ditching the call. Persevere. Sigh in relief when you reach his voicemail. Hi, you’ve reached…CLICK. You tried, right?
          Someone you dated once is getting married, Facebook tells you. Begin to think about how that feels, how you—the phone rings, your dad is calling back. Answer it because thinking about feelings is harder than talking to your father.
          Hello?
          Helllooo. He says it like that, all drawn out. He says it like Jerry did on that Seinfeld episode, the one with the voice they use for Clare’s rumbly stomach. It’s that voice. Hell-lllooo.
          How’s it going?
          Same old, same old, he says. How’s school?
          Oh, great.
          He’s probably sitting at his desk now, in a chair, sorting through some pile of bolts or coins or doll heads. He collects objects when he walks through the city—a thing he does—and stores them in boxes or on shelves and uses them to make collages. To make art.
          This is your father.
          Have you been writing a lot? he asks.
          You’ve moved back into the kitchen to make your coffee. You have water boiling already (you did this when you got up to pee, remember?) so you grab a scale, measure the coffee, and pour the beans, which clink-clink-clink as they drop into the top of your grinder—burr, of course, with a drive chain that slows the speed so there’s no heat, no loss of flavor. This is important, you tell yourself. That’s why you paid so much for it.
          Tons, you lie. The city is full of material. (It’s not.)
          You know, I went to school for English back at Wesleyan. I always love reading your stuff. You should send me something. He says this like he hasn’t said it before.
          Yeah, I mean, I have some stuff I’m working on. It’s just rough right now, you know? Kind of still simmering.
          Simmering. Sounds writerly.
          Ah, he says, changing the subject. So. Do you have a few minutes?
          A dead grandfather flashes through your mind.
          Uh, sure, yeah, I’ve got a couple minutes. I can take a quick break from working.
          You look at the coffee. It’s just beginning to drip down through the organic/recycled/non-white-because-white-means-it-was-bleached coffee filter.
          Okay. I have some questions I need help with. I have a list.
          Admiral Ackbar, forever late, shouts in your head: “It’s a trap!”
          He’s got a goddamn list. A list! Who makes lists anymore?
          Alright, you say, the battle of Endor raging around you, Rebel ships falling by the second.
          Okay. Let me find it.
          Jesus, he has to search for it. He bothered to write a list and now he has to root around looking for it. Maybe it’s a list of questions he has for you about your dead grandfather. You hear him digging through papers. He would have gone straight for it, you think. He would have stated it like a simple fact, his voice measured, as if pointing out a wayward tag, or an undone fly. It appears your grandfather is more than likely still alive. Still grouchy.
          I just had it, he says.
          Maybe it’s something good. You wonder if questions—especially questions in list-form—are ever really good. You decide no. You hate questions.
          Ah, here we go. He has found it. There’s a pause.
          Oh, duh!
          He’s reading the list to himself.
          Dad, you say.
          Yeah, yeah. Okay, so the other day—(The other day? This list has been days in the making? You’re fucked.)—I pick up my phone, right, and well. Okay wait, there’s a camera in my phone. I can take pictures on it when I’m out walking.
          Dad, yeah, I know there are cameras in phones.
          His hands are sifting through a pile of small balls. There are a lot of stray balls out there in the world, dirty and covered in mud, laying in gutters and caught in storm drains. He’s separating them by material: plastic, glass, rubber. His hands are slow and careful; he sorts each one thoughtfully. It is a ritual, a thing you suspect gives him some feeling of control despite the overwhelming aimlessness of his life.
          Okay, okay, I was just making sure. So my camera, I like to use it when I’m out walking (if he were in a writing workshop you’d tell him he was being redundant) and I take pictures that I put on the computer. Well, you see, I came back and was putting some of my pictures on the computer. Oh, it has a small card thing that the pictures are on inside the phone that I put into the computer.
          Dad. What’s the question?
          Geez. So the pictures have the date on them now. Like, on-on the picture. That’s never happened before.
          The question?
          He sighs. How do I remove it?
          So there’s a time and date signature on the photos now?
          Yes. In white. (The color matters.)
          Well, you probably enabled a setting that puts that on each photograph.
          But I didn’t change anything. (He changes everything.)
          You probably did it on accident.
          I’m not so sure. (He’s sure.) So how do I fix it?
          There’s a pause.
          I have no idea.
          You don’t?
          We don’t have the same phone, Dad. It’s probably just under some tools setting—you just have to go in there and look around.
          I looked in the phone settings but it just lets me change the time and date of the phone— that kind of thing.
          No, not those settings. The settings for the camera.
          The camera has different settings?
          You think maybe your grandfather dying would have been easier than this. Simpler, at least.
          Just look around some more. Google it. (This is actually great advice. This is what you do when you have questions—when you want to know if twins really can absorb each other in the womb, when you’re freaking out about the sharp chest pain that you swear is a miniature heart attack, or when you need advice on how to remove decaying toenails. You always end up on Yahoo! Answers. Yes—one twin can consume the other, sucking away its nutrition and life-force, thus becoming stronger and more powerful. Yes—it probably is a miniature heart attack, they happen all the time! Use rubbing alcohol and needle-nose pliers. Bite down on a dowel rod.)
          Oh, okay.
          He thinks maybe he should have called your brother. He thinks maybe you’ve lost a step in the tech world. He says it like, Oh, okay, I know you have a lot on your plate, it’s okay if you don’t know how to fix my smart phone. (Your own phone is not smart.)
          So, here’s my next question, he says.
          He says a lot more than is necessary, just like before. He gives you the history of the history of his email account and he makes sure to tell you what Gmail is—twice. You remind him that you have Gmail, too. In the end, the question is something like: I used to have all these junk messages in my inbox. Where did they all go?
          Boom. Score. This one is easy. (You are almost excited.)
          They updated Gmail, you explain. There’s a tab in your inbox labeled “Promotions.” Everything is in there, I bet.
          He’s silent. He searches for the tab.
          AH! You’re right. Look at all these promotions!
          Jesus. At least he thinks you’re a genius again.
          This is when your father will ask you to help him with a third question. It will be a ridiculous, convoluted problem that you will have no hope of solving on the phone. Once, you tried to explain how to reformat a flash drive and ended up getting bogged down for ten minutes explaining what “right-click” meant. You kept repeating, It’s on the RIGHT side, Dad. And he kept clicking left. Always left. This will be that, but worse.
          This is when you will fight through it. When you will prevail. When you will help him. And then after, you will ask him about what he’s been doing for work; you will ask him how your grandfather is; you will ask him how Kathy is holding up after her mother’s death; you will ask him many things and you will remember how much like your father you are. The coffee will finish, but you will be talking with him about the new Woody Allen movie, and afterwards, you will remember that piece you wrote that you’ve been meaning to edit and you will ask him to take a look at it. He will say, Yeah, email it to me, and you will. And when he calls you back about it a few days from now, his insight will be surprising, his critiques accurate and helpful, and his praise reassuring.
          That is how it will go, if you want.
          But the coffee machine beeps, your five minutes are up, and you say, Dad, I’ve really got to work on this thing, sorry. Or, Dad, sorry, but my roommate needs something. And he will say, No problem, and hang up faster than you. This is when you find the creamer—from grass-fed, free-range cows—drink your single-origin coffee (see how that slightly roasted cocoa flavor rolls up on the back of your tongue) and stare at a blank Word document for a few hours before you decide it’s high time for a nap. This is what you do. This is your out; this is being a writer, you tell yourself.


Alex Jaros is currently an MFA candidate and a recipient of the Follett Fellowship at Columbia College Chicago, where he also teaches. He earned his BA in English from the University of Missouri in 2011. His work can be found in GoreyesqueEpic, and among varied zines littered across the Midwest.