THE PHONE RINGS IN SEPTEMBER 1979 by Derek Maine

My father did not speak to me. He sat in his faded blue recliner, I remember that, and watched Star Trek on Saturday nights. Other times he watched golf or read Lawrence Block. Sometimes he would ask me to get him a beer or to stop running in the house, but he never spoke to me. 

I have a son now. He complains I talk too much. I’m constantly asking him about how he’s feeling. I know this is not totally healthy and my wife helps me notice this when I do it too often. But, son, my father did not speak to me. I sat in that house for 16 years with wood paneling and dark blinds drawn draining everything of light and watched him not speak to me. I heard him not speak to me. Of course, I felt him not speak to me. 

You are not allowed to read this until you are much older.

I looked for father figures everywhere. I stole. I cut. I lied. I cheated. I would take off all of my clothes and writhe around naked on the stage. The music was called Screamo. 9/11 hadn’t happened yet. It’s complicated. Your father was naked a lot, is what I’m trying to say. He was writhing around on the stage looking for something in the creases of the wood grain, his dick bleeding from the splinters.

Your grandfather is never allowed to read this.

Four years before I was born my father got a telephone call. It was his mom. He was newly married to my mom. Your grandmother. This is going to get complicated. We’re going to have to do this another way:

The phone rang one day in September of 1979. He went to pick up the phone. His mother was on the other line. “Can you swing by and pick up the mail for me? I don’t feel well.” He was annoyed. His mother had been not feeling well a lot lately and it seemed stupid to have to drive twenty-five minutes to get her mail when she could walk to it. He was 24 years old. Twenty-four. He was still a kid in so many ways. A kid with a new wife, but, still, a kid. He asked his wife if she wanted to grab some lunch and go for a ride. 

I jumped off a roof accidentally on purpose while I was holding a Bloody Mary. The tomato juice stained my clothes. I broke my ankle. I drove my car into a telephone pole going really, really fast and I did it completely on purpose because I was alone with my thoughts and my thoughts were saying bad things and I didn’t want to be alone anymore and I knew if I rammed my car into a telephone pole then a cop would have to come to the scene. This was before cell-phones. I did this twice.

They stopped for Chinese food before going to get the mail. He ordered Sesame Chicken, picked idly at the food, and complained about the errand. 

“We stopped for Chinese food.” Is that what he sat there thinking on a loop for all those years in the fading blue recliner? A son was born and then another and jobs came and jobs went and the entire time he sat, not speaking, his mind simmering in Sesame Chicken? We never had fucking Chinese food, I’ll tell you that.

He pulled into his mother’s driveway. I am not born yet but I am there too. I am in the backseat. He walks to the mailbox. You are not born yet but you are also there. You are in the backseat with me. 

I grew up in the south—specifically the suburbs of the south—in the 1980s and 1990s and the language of depression, trauma, and anxiety had not reached us yet. I didn’t know why my Dad didn’t speak to me. I convinced myself there was something wrong with me, something horrible he couldn’t bear to face and so he stewed in silence, silently wishing my existence away. 

The front door was locked, which was strange. He walked over to the side of the house, to the garage. He bent down, grabbed the handle, and pulled the door up. The carbon monoxide hit him immediately and he gasped for air. His mother was inside her car, dead, but she probably just looked asleep. I don’t know what she was wearing or if he had make-up on. I never asked and I never met her. 

If he had not stopped for Chinese food then she would not have had time to do it. She might have done it another time. It wasn’t her first time trying. But she would not have been able to do it that day. Or she would have been caught by her son and new daughter-in-law in the act of trying to do the thing. She might have wanted to get caught. That might be what she wanted. I don’t know. There wasn’t a note.

Pain is a time traveler. It is a constant, ever-present thing. 

So too, is love. My dad loved me, but he couldn’t speak to me. He was really sad. I love you. I talk too much. I’m really trying. My grandmother gave me her pain, her love, her red hair, her son who would not speak to me, and her story to tell, which is a gift and a burden, like all things. 

My dad is an old man now. We talk about Lawrence Block novels and Star Trek and golf. I don’t care about any of those things, but I like talking to my Dad. 

How are you feeling? You can tell me anything. You know that, right?


Derek Maine lives in North Carolina with his wife, two children, and dog (Gidget). They also feed an outdoor cat, Lily. Derek has stories published or forthcoming in Expat Press, The Tower Babel Notice Board, Misery Tourism, SCAB Magazine, and elsewhere. He is on twitter too much @derekmainereads.

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

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