Person to Person
Published in Daily Science Fiction in May, 2015
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. 212–3‑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.