Person to Person

Jake called from Heav­en again. When the phone start­ed ring­ing, I glanced at the call dis­play. As usu­al I didn’t rec­og­nize the num­ber. It’s always dif­fer­ent, and not always an actu­al num­ber as such. This time it had a low­er-case lamb­da in it. 2123-λ-some­thing or oth­er.

So I didn’t answer the phone. I just let it go to voice­mail. If it’s impor­tant, I told myself, they’ll leave a mes­sage.

And he did. Jake’s a good kid. Was a good kid. “Hey Dad, how’s things? I met up with Sam­mie today.” My first wife, whom Jake nev­er knew when he was alive. “We had cof­fee, took a walk. Had a nice long chat.” His voice was clear­er than ever, on the record­ing. They must’ve laid some more lines, I thought, or at least bet­ter ones. “She said she ran into Mom last month, over by Foma­l­haut. I think I’m going to head over that way next week. So, you know.”

He’d only just fin­ished talk­ing, I real­ized. If I’d answered the phone–if I hadn’t pre­tend­ed there was a risk of it being a tele­mar­keter or a poll­ster, lamb­da and all–I could’ve had a real con­ver­sa­tion with him. A two-way con­ver­sa­tion, a back-and-forth. A dia­logue.

If you’ve got any­thing to say to her–anything at all–let me know. OK?”

Sure, I thought, and then won­dered, like I always did, if he could hear me. Sit­ting in the com­put­er chair, the cord­less hand­set in front of me, the hands-free speak­er par­rot­ing his voice, lo-fi over the miles and the mil­len­nia. Bet­ter than the hol­low squawk of his first calls, his down-a-well voice, in those ear­ly days, over­whelmed by crash­ing sta­t­ic, the sound of dying stars and the light­house spins of quasars. Did I have to kneel for him to hear me think? Did I have to press my hands togeth­er? Or was intent enough?

No idea. I haven’t been to church since I bought his head­stone.

Well,” he said, after a pause, “I guess I’ll give you a call lat­er. Prob­a­bly week after next, all right?” Anoth­er pause, as though, some­how, I was eaves­drop­ping on his mes­sage. Then: “Love you, dad.” Anoth­er hes­i­ta­tion. He knew bet­ter than I did (at least he used to) how voice­mail works. He’d have heard me pick up, right? “Bye.”

I thumbed the SAVE but­ton, then sat hunched in the old black com­put­er chair with tears stream­ing down my face.

#

Jake’s calls weren’t the first to come from Heav­en, but he was one of the most con­sis­tent. I nev­er told the media about him, but some­one in my sup­port group must have blabbed, because in those ear­ly days they hound­ed me. I’d go out to get the mail and they’d be there, cam­eras stut­ter­ing, sound recorders shoved in my face. “Did Jacob call?” “What did he say?”

What did he say? Love you, Dad. What did they think he should be say­ing to me? To any­one? Jesus.

After a while the media stopped caring–scandals in Bol­ly­wood, NASCAR crash­es, the Tibetan earth­quake. You know.

My son called me to tell me he’d gone spelunk­ing on Mars and ice-skat­ing on a tiny spher­oid in the rings of Sat­urn; that he’d swum naked as a ghost in the red storm churn­ing at Jupiter’s midriff; that he’d met up with my first wife in a neb­u­la cast off from a T Tau­ri star in the Perseus arm.

Sam­mie. Two syl­la­bles freight­ed with so many emo­tions, so many mem­o­ries. Our first kiss, the blue of her eyes like a sky before a storm, the elec­tric thrill of hold­ing her hand. Our fum­bling first sex, and the infi­nite­ly bet­ter sec­ond time. The tubes that drained her body, the buzz of the hospice’s flu­o­res­cent bal­last, the mon­i­tors’ cease­less soft beeps. The last sun­rise, the one she nev­er saw, com­ing up after the machines and the mon­i­tors went silent at last.
#

Most of the church­es around here have fold­ed. Cor­pus Christi still has week­ly Mass, but when I’ve dri­ven by while the bells are ring­ing, the only bob­bing heads in the knot of faith­ful descend­ing the stairs that aren’t shock-white belong to the bald men. Friends of mine, now for­mer Bap­tists, say that you see the same things in the oth­er Chris­t­ian faiths.

As far as I can tell, the oth­er religions–the Mus­lims, the Hebrews, the Bud­dhists and the Baha’i, the Satanists and the atheists–they’re all ignor­ing the calls. Pre­tend­ing that it’s not hap­pen­ing. I won­der how many of them are secret­ly yearn­ing for phone calls from their own lost souls. I won­der how many of them might have received calls but told no one.

#

I knelt by my bed­side, on a stack of pil­lows because my knees are hard­ly young any­more. Jake, I said in the con­fines of my mind, good to hear from you. Say hi to your moth­er for me. Tell her I miss her and–here I hes­i­tat­ed–and I can’t wait to see her again.

In my life­time I’ve lost two wives and a son. Sam­mie in the hos­pi­tal, dying in a beige room in the no-smell of anti­sep­tic cleansers, and then, lat­er, Judy and Jake in a god-awful car wreck.

I knelt there, hands clasped, for a moment that drew out and out for­ev­er, try­ing to think what else I should say. Love you, son. Talk to you soon. Then, more from habit than any­thing else: Amen.

Next time, I swear to God, I’ll answer the phone.