I was in my tree when the backdoor squeaked open. Mom plucked her cigarette into the yard.
Her head followed my voice to the tree. Her eyes glistened. “Phone for you. It’s your, um, it’s your father honey.”
My mom wasn’t one to get caught with emotions. She was fond of telling me to suck it up, or get used to it, kiddo. But there was a hitch in her voice, too many blinks in her smile. She nodded again, as to say, yeah, it’s true.
I scrambled down the tree, bark scraping my legs before I leapt to the roots. I fell, caught myself, and rushed to the back patio where I stopped cold. Because, what in the world, now?
I’d never met my father. Well, I take it back, Mom said he used to live with us but I don’t remember the first thing about him. She told me once how he loved football, used to say I was going to be a great quarterback some day. It must’ve been ages ago, I was the smallest fifth grader in the school, easy. Kind of made me glad this was just going to be a phone conversation, that way I’d have some time to do some pull ups before we got reacquainted.
She motioned with her head. “It’s on the counter.”
I could tell she was torn. I knew she tried not to badmouth my father around me but if she was drinking wine with Mary next door or having a bad week at work, things just kind of slipped out of her mouth. It’s how come I knew my dad left on a whim and now he didn’t pay a lick of child support for me and Darla. Why I knew it wasn’t exactly easy paying bills and keeping the lights on all by yourself. In fact, it was a wonder my dad called this week, cause the phone had been off for almost a month until grandma straightened things out with AT&T.
“Go on,” she said again. “He wants to speak to you. But baby, just remember,” she started, then shook her head and turned away.
I stepped into our kitchen. The phone lay on the counter, my dad breathing into it from wherever he lived. Across town, maybe? A big city? Heck, maybe he was in the pros playing football himself. My head spun with possibilities. Maybe he’d decided to come home. I tried to imagine what he looked like. From the pictures, I knew he was tall, with dark hair like me. But I didn’t know if he had any scars or birthmarks, like the one Mom had on her elbow. I didn’t know if he would laugh at my knock-knock jokes, the way Mom threw her head back and grabbed her stomach. Heck, all my longing to meet him, I didn’t know the first thing about him except that he was my dad.
Another look out back, at Mom outside, taking a seat on the stoop. I guess she was giving me some privacy. My breaths were short and ragged. I don’t know what it was, but for some reason, it felt like the phone was a copperhead right then.
My dad belonged more in my dreams than in my hand. But this was it, my chance to prove I was worthy of his time. I could tell him how good I was at watching after my little sister, or climbing trees, how I was best in my class at long division. Yeah, I thought, reaching for the phone, he’d see what he was missing and be back in no time.
I picked up the phone. “Hey Dad.” It came out shaky.
Again, trying to find my voice. “Dad?”
It sounded so weird, saying the word out loud. I said it again. Again and again until the phone beeped and the operator told me that if I’d like to make a call, to please hang up and try again.
I let out a big breath. My limbs suddenly exhausted from the flush of excitement, from the mad dash of possibilities sprinting away from me.
The door slammed shut. Mom stood in the kitchen, her wet gaze falling from my face to the phone. Her throat moved with her swallow, then she snatched me in her arms, the phone falling to the floor, the operator telling me again to hang up and try again.