My father is watching in amazement as my phone rings but I don’t pick it up.
“You’re not going to answer that?” he asks, incredulous.
“No,” I say.
He’s seventy-one, reading the Times, wearing a black sweat suit and sipping from a triple nonfat latte he bought at a coffee shop nearby.
Periodically when he’s in town staying with us, my father has answered my cell phone for me. He’ll see it ringing and he’ll immediately tap the Answer button, then awkwardly press the smooth black object to his face.
“Hello?!” he’ll say loudly.
It’s an oddly intrusive act. There’s a privacy to one’s phone, something uniquely personal to the way you’ve set your ring tone, your background colors, your phone’s case, the callers’ names as you’ve typed them into your address book.
My father senses none of this. He just thinks someone needs to answer the phone.
My father’s father killed a woman. My dad would tell me this story when my brother and I were very young, six and eight years old, the three of us having dinner at a Denny’s near the airport, my dad in town for the weekend.
“That house we lived in,” he would tell us, “had walls as thin as paper. You could have put your hand through those walls just by leaning against them.”
He’d pull a last drag from his cigarette. He’d light another.
“Your mother’s the better parent,” he would tell us. “There’s no question there.”
My dad answers his own phone at all times of the day and night. He answers if he’s asleep, at the dinner table, in a coffee shop, in the bathroom, while driving or out for a run.
I’m not at all clear why he does this. Retired for nearly fifteen years now, he has few if any pressing issues with which to deal. Most of his calls seem to involve the scheduling of a yoga class or just a friendly hello.
Today he is staring at my cell phone as it continues to ring. “Are you even going to check who’s calling?” he asks.
I’m sitting on the other side of the room, reading another section of the paper. I say very calmly, “Nope.”
In my earliest memory of my father, he is yelling at a stewardess. “I waited for you,” he’s telling her loudly as he stands in the aisle, leaning over my brother to help cut the food on my tray. “Now you can just wait a minute for me!”
That most of the people on the airplane are watching him means nothing to my father.
He was different then. Chain-smoking, nearly obese, he was prone to outbursts like that with waiters, clerks in a store, stewardesses, the attendant at the front desk of a hotel.
Over time, that stopped.
You forget that your parents were young. That my father, on that plane, was barely in his thirties.
Recently divorced. Living away from his sons. Chasing the kind of work and career that no one in his family had ever done. A superintendent of schools at a very young age. A doctorate when many in his family hadn’t finished high school.
He grew up on welfare. His own father was a violent and abusive and mostly absent man.
I’d be angry too.
My father stands now, walking toward my still ringing phone. “Well, I’m going to see who it is,” he says. He looks at the screen. “Jim Rogers!” he says loudly. “Is it important that you speak to Jim Rogers?”
I shake my head. I don’t look up. “Not at all.”
He’s still staring toward the phone. Watching it as if each ring were the final breath of a dying animal, an animal who I have prevented him from saving.
Finally, the ringing stops. I’m trying, once more, to focus on what I’m reading.
My father still stands next to my phone. Glancing from it to me. Eventually, he says loudly, “Who is Jim Rogers that he’s important enough to know your own personal mobile telephone number, but he’s not important enough that you’ll take his call?”
“He’s my insurance agent,” I say.
“What if there’s a problem with your policy?” he says, sitting down again in his chair.
I shrug. “I hadn’t thought about that. But I suppose if there is a problem, it’ll still be a problem whenever I do talk to him. The problem can wait, is what I’m saying.”
My dad shakes his head. Incredulous.
These days I come home to find my father doing a headstand in my living room, the kids gathered around him trying to do headstands of their own. Grandpa is in better shape than most anyone I know. He does yoga, skis, and jogs.
He is a favorite in the house, happy to drive the kids anywhere they want to go, happy to play board games as many times as they ask, happy to show them that an old guy can do a headstand.
Amazed at the natural flexibility of the children at this age, my father continually encourages the kids to twist into this or that shape, a contortion that represents, for him, an as yet unattainable yoga move but that for the kids is simply a matter of sitting, bending, done.
He also taught the kids how to make fart noises with their armpits. This means that I’ll sometimes find the kids and Grandpa in the living room bending themselves into unexpectedly abnormal positions as they try to make the loudest fart noises possible.
He usually visits for four or five days.
The phone clicks. My dad stands up again. “What was that?” he asks.
I pause. Wondering if I should lie. I decide I won’t. “He must have left a message.”
My dad looks from the phone to me. From me to the phone. “So are you going to at least check his message?”
I shake my head. “Not right now.”
This leaves my father speechless. He picks up his newspaper. Goes back to the chair. It’s a full five minutes before he says, “Why do you even have a phone if you don’t answer it and you don’t check your messages?”
I can’t turn to look at him. “I will check the message,” I say. “Just not right now.”
“Isn’t that a little self-centered?” he asks. “I mean, you’re basically saying your time is dramatically more important than his.”
“No, I’m not. I’m just saying that this time, right now, isn’t a good time to talk. That’s all I’m saying.”
“But what are you doing right now that makes your time so important?”
I turn to him now. I say, “I’m sharing some special time with my father.”
When my brother and I were kids, my father told us stories about how his dad abused his wife, returning periodically to my father’s welfare-supported home and sometimes, my dad said, he could hear his dad raping his mother in her room.
My dad and his many brothers and sisters grew up in that chaos, his mother taking in laundry to make money, which embarrassed my dad deeply, his house full of other people’s drying and folded clothes. His shame at being poor, at having to hitchhike to high school and wear hand-me-down clothes and live in a house far too small for six kids and their mother, all that scarred him, making him focus on college, a career, becoming financially secure.
My father is not a drunk. Not on welfare. Not abusive. He cares very much about me and my brother and our children.
“It’s the worst decision I’ve ever made,” he tells me. “Living away from you and your brother. I just don’t know what I was thinking.”
He’ll say that sort of thing as we stand in line at a coffee shop. As we get out of the car to pick the kids up from school. There’s not a lot of discussion. There’s no outpouring of emotion from him or me. No deep discussion. No tears or strife.
What would I do but nod?
My father is loudly folding then refolding the pages of his newspaper. He’s rolling his eyes and sighing heavily.
Finally I give in and engage in the debate. “If I answered every single call when it came in,” I say, “I’d lose what little control of my life that I already pretend to have. There are messages—by phone, email, text, the printed word—coming at me all day, every day. I have to push some of them aside. I have to pace myself given all that incoming information.”
He’s nodding now. “Okay,” he says. “Okay. I’m just an old guy. I’m retired. It wasn’t like this when I worked. I hear you. Fair enough.”
He’s digging into another section of the Times.
I turn back to what I’m reading.
Dad never talked to his father as an adult. Some of his siblings tracked him down and made an uneasy peace with him. He was an old and cranky person, I hear through my uncles. But Dad never tracked him down, never wanted to see him or make peace with him. When my brother and I were kids and we’d ask about our grandpa, dad would say he never knew him, didn’t know where he was. “He could be that guy sitting at the table right there.”
Another ten minutes have passed. My dad says suddenly, “So wait—are you saying that you sometimes ignore my calls too?”
My father is relentless.
But now the kids are all crashing downstairs. Dad puts down his paper. Goes to the kitchen table and eats breakfast with them, asking each of them about school and sports and play practice and band.
It’s the fray of the morning, kids stuffing books and homework and snacks into their bags. My dad watches, standing near me now, waiting to walk them all to school.
“It’s amazing to see this,” he says. “You know, I never did this with you and your brother. I don’t want to miss it again.”
I’m still standing there in the kitchen when, a few minutes later, he walks out the front door with the kids. People say I look like him. I don’t know. Know only that there’s a man in a sweat suit carrying a half-empty latte as he walks slowly down the sidewalk with my kids, his grandkids, a vision neither he nor I find familiar but that both of us, unspoken now, want to continue.
Eric Barnes is author of the novels Something Pretty, Something Beautiful and Shimmer, plus short stories in publications including Prairie Schooner and Best American Mystery Stories, as well as publisher of three newspapers covering business and politics. He has been previously featured in TLR issues The Lives of Saints and Invisible Cities.
“Headstands” was originally published in “Do You Love Me?” (TLR, Spring 2015)