Tom Moss lives in Chicago. He received a degree in Radio-TV from Southern Illinois University and has worked in radio for a number of years.
I knew it was my mother by the way the answering machine blinked. So when I came home late that night and saw it blinking that blink, my stomach sank. I took off my coat and opened the mail before I flipped the switch on the machine. It took a long time to rewind, and when it stopped, it clicked and the red light stayed on steady.
"Tony? Are you there? It's Mom. Pick up if you're there. Are you? Well, call when you get home."
She sounded casual, but like she was trying to sound like nothing was wrong. Plus, she never asks me to call; she always says she'll try again.
The next was a hang up. And the one after that.
Then: "Hi, Tony. Pick up. Are you there? Is your phone on? Well, give me a call. It's nothing important."
If someone says something's not important, then it is important, otherwise the issue of its importance would never come up.
"Tony, it's Mom. Just calling to see if you'd come home yet. It's eleven. Are you staying out tonight? Please call."
I turned off the machine and called her, and she answered before I heard a ring on my end.
"Mom, it's Tony. What's wrong with Dad?"
"How do you know something's wrong with Dad?"
"Is he ok?" There was a pause.
"Hang on a minute," she said. I heard muffled voices. She had put her palm over the receiver. "I want Dan to get on the other line." My brother was there after midnight and that wasn't normal.
"Hey, champ," he said. He's ten years older than me and still acts like he's giving me advice on how to know when it's OK to kiss a girl. "Out late tonight?"
"Well, Dad had a heart attack." A tingle went up my legs and through my intestines. When you always expect the worst to happen, it's surprising when it finally does.
"When?" I wanted to know the details first—when, where, who found him, what he was doing.
"Tonight after dinner. Mom had just finished washing the dishes. She was watching Wheel of Fortune on the kitchen TV, and he went in to sit in his chair and watch Hard Copy like always. Mom came in from the kitchen to ask him to dry, and he was lying there with his mouth open like he was trying to scream, moving a little, clutching his chest. Mom said she was scared to death."
"Jesus Christ," I said.
"She knew CPR from the Y. She got him breathing while the ambulance came. She saved his life."
"Where is he?"
"Here in town."
"Mom? Are you there?" I asked, but she had hung up. "How is she?"
"Basket case. She goes from talking low fat/low sodium meals to organizing insurance papers."
"So what do the doctors say?"
"Too soon to tell. They did a bypass, and he's responding well, but—"
"Who knows," I said.
He agreed. "Who knows."
"Well," I said. I wasn't looking forward to the ride home or missing work or calling and asking for the time off. "I'll be there tomorrow if you're sure I shouldn't come tonight."
"That's up to you," he said. That was Dan, telling me what I should do until I asked him, and then pretending I should be my own man.
"I'll get up early and be there by 8:00," I said.
"We'll be at the house."
"How are you? How're Martha and Emma?"
"Fine," he said. He chuckled a bit, as if his wife and child were not at issue, and shouldn't be.
"See you tomorrow. Call if anything happens."
"Sleep tight," he said.
"Tell Mom I love her."
"See you tomorrow."
We hung up and I pressed the button that turned on the ringer and took off my clothes and lay on the couch and turned on the TV with the Tribune spread across my chest. I fell asleep and dreamed about a girl I knew in high school.
I woke up at 7:00 a.m. on the couch with the TV on and the Tribune still spread across me. I had not moved an inch in the night, remarkable for me. Sometimes, certain women I see have to move to their sofas in the night because of the way I kick.
I called and left a message on my supervisor's voice mail to let him know I wasn't coming in. I mentioned my father's heart so I would be sure to get sympathy when I came back. Only then did I realize that my own father might die from this in the end.
Our lives passed before my eyes and I tried to make the pathetic images stop. I tried to see him as the good man, the honest, hard-working man I knew he was, but those things wouldn't come. Instead, I thought of the time he played football with me and some of the neighbor kids during half time on a Thanksgiving afternoon.
Everyone was laughing and jumping, throwing coats in a pile. Our cocker spaniel jumped at all of our legs. In the game we played, Dad kicked to us and we tried to get the ball past the goal line without him stopping us. There were no other rules.
We lined up at the far end of the yard and Dad took the football in one hand. I was proud. I felt the jealousy of all the other kids whose fathers were drunk for sure, and home asleep on their basement floors. But Dad lost sight of the dog, and on his first kick he caught her snout full force with his foot. The blow flipped her on her back. She was dazed for a second but then ran yelping in circles around the yard. She was wild. The kids ran home except for my best friend Johnny who helped me catch the dog and calm her down. She had bitten her tongue and blood dripped out her mouth and slicked her fur. She was shaking and we sat out in the yard holding her, my father standing over us not knowing what to do. When the dog stopped shaking, we went into the house, gave her a bath, and covered her with blankets.
I took the phone into the bathroom when I went to take a shower. I brushed my teeth and shaved and got dressed. I put on a black sweater and chinos like I was already in mourning. I made coffee and smoked a cigarette and did an inventory of all the work that would be waiting when I came back. I put enough clothes for three days in a paper bag and sat down to drink my coffee.
The phone rang. I jumped and coffee dripped down the sides of the cup and onto my pants. There was a pause after I said hello.
"Hello?" I said again. I was scared and angry and there were coffee stains on my pants.
"Is this Tony Mavers?" the voice said.
I knew it was the hospital. They had called me to tell me that my father had died. That he had died and asked for me, but I wasn't there. That he wanted them to reach me with a message, and this message would change my life. All of this I thought in the moment before the voice said, "I know this will be the craziest call you've ever gotten." "Who is this?" I asked.
"I'm sorry. My name is Louise Simpson. You don't know me. I'm a secretary downtown. I live on Lake Shore Drive, and I don't think I'm crazy. I don't do this everyday. But I had a dream."
I was so relieved it wasn't the hospital that I didn't hang up. I let her talk.
"This will sound strange, but I had a dream last night. I never dream, but this one was very vivid." She sounded sincere and reminded me of one of my aunts. "In my dream, I was fishing at a beautiful river in Montana with my husband who died in 1979. The mountains were snow capped and he was young and he didn't seem to notice that I was old. And I looked up and saw a plane writing in the sky. It reminded me of the Wizard of Oz. And it spelled out your name: Tony Mavers. It was very vivid. So I looked you up in the phone book. Do I know you?"
She told me where she worked and I told her where I worked. She asked if I was an artist and I said no.
"Because I do pottery at a gallery on the North Side."
"I don't think so," I told her.
"Well, I wouldn't have called except for the rest of the dream."
I got up and looked out the window. A car in front of my apartment had been broken into in the night. There was green window glass all over the street.
"When the plane was through writing your name, it flew overhead and the man inside waved. We waved back. Even my husband who never waved at anyone his entire life waved. Just then the engine stopped and the plane sputtered and began to fall. It crashed in the forest, and the waving man got out and staggered to the river. Do you have brown hair?" She asked.
"Yes," I said.
"Then the man stood for a minute, and just when my husband went to help him, he fell in, and turned into a trout and swam away."
There was silence. I didn't know what to say. "That's weird," I said at last.
"I don't know what it means, but I thought I should call you. You're the only Anthony Mavers in Chicago."
"My father had a heart attack last night."
"Really? I'm sorry."
"He'll be OK. How did your husband die, Louise?" I closed the blinds of my window and felt truly alone in my room. The walls closed in and the cordless phone crackled, and I leaned against the door frame.
"He left for donuts one morning and never came back," said Louise.
"I'm sorry," I said. "Thank you for calling."
"I don't believe all this mumbo jumbo, Tony. But I do believe there are things we don't understand."
We hung up and I turned off the ringer and put on my coat. I put a banana in my pocket and checked how much money I hada ten, a five and some singles. I decided it was enough; I only needed money for cigarettes.
When I left the apartment, I remembered another time with my father. The geese were flying, migrating. I think it was fall. We were driving home from somewhere—a football game because we had binoculars—and he pulled off the road and set me on the roof of the car. I watched the birds, flock after flock, flying over.
"Why do they fly in a V?" I asked my father.
"Because they're all following the leader. And if the leader gets tired, he falls back and someone else leads."
I remembered watching a single flock the whole time they crossed the sky hoping I would get to see the leader get tired and fall back. But he didn't get tired, and the whole flock flew across the sky, honking and flying for Mexico.