The Birthday Call

A young woman receives belated birthday wishes from her aging father, who promises her a present. But when the package arrives, the gift isn’t what she was expecting.

Gift box on a wooden floor

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It was three weeks past her birthday when her dad called.

Dad — with the weathered hands and pale blue eyes.

Dad, who served her TV dinners on her visits.

Dad, whose love for language runs rippling through her veins.

He began the conversation with her mother.

“How’s her health?” he asked.

“She’s fine,” she said.

“And otherwise?” he asked, hungry for an update — a new boyfriend? a new job? Does she miss me?

“She’s the same,” she reassured him, then Mom was put to rest.

It’s strange how Mom’s become, she thought — in the years they’ve been apart — the ice breaker in these conversations. No matter where they end up, no matter where they go, they always start with Mom.

As was format, she then asked about Dad’s family. The phone call swung around upon its axis.

“So, tell me about Sissy,” she said. Sissy’s her half-sister.

“She’s driving,” Dad said.

“Really?” she said smiling, with Dad’s collie in the background.

“Life moves too fast,” he said, as the dog whined for attention.

“It does,” she said agreeing. Yes, it does.

Then for a moment she turned inward; the phone call lay suspended; pictures flashed before her eyes:

She was sitting in a tide pool … 5 or 6 years old … while the water coursed and crashed around her feet … while the seagulls screamed and foraged overhead … while Dad and Mom ran laughing on the beach …

These images dissolved. She was sitting in New York — with Dad and his dad at the kitchen table. The two conversed in Yiddish.

She could smell the crepes and bug spray, when the sound of Dad’s voice beckoned from the phone:

“I’ll be sending something to you for your birthday …”

The smell of the apartment slowly faded.

She struggled; she finally found her bearings.

“Please, Dad,” she said, remembering and bristling at the thought of the year he sent the hand-clipped coupons.

“Let’s make it simple. Just a book.”

In her mind she pictured Dad’s floor-to-ceiling library — as a child, that’s where she’d often be. With its playwrights on the corners and Ruskies on the sides, Flannery O’Connor owned the middle. She was sitting on Dad’s lap while he smoked his pipe and read. The tobacco smoke curled up to the ceiling.

“I’ll send you out a box,” he said. They’re back now in the present.

“No, Dad,” she said, “just one. Let’s make it easy.”

“Just one?” He hesitated.

The conversation paused. The collie had gone silent; in the background beat the mantel clock.

“I’ll bring it back the next time that I visit.”

Through the phone she heard the rhythm of his breathing.

“As a loan,” she reassured him.

And yet another pause … then finally his agreement.

The phone call then resumed its proper course.

There was talk of private schools and the cost of car insurance and the downside of today’s technology. They rattled on and on, fulfilling all the topics, then said goodnight and wished each other well.


Two weeks later. A box was at her door.

With hands and fingers shaking, she tore apart the package. Her heart was racing — pounding. She wondered what the book inside might be.

Was it fiction?

Was it mystery?

Was it history or sci-fi?

Was it one of Dad’s pet Southern Gothic writers?

But much to her surprise, inside the shredded box, she found not a yellowed page, or a dog-eared paperback, but instead a plug-in water sculpture. With rippling rocks and UL guarantee. Just like the one inside her dentist’s office. The water, they say, masks the sound of screaming.

“But where’s my book?’ she said, shaking out the box.

The book was nowhere to be found.

Then she recalled a gentle heartache with her dad — a heartache that she often overlooked: that Dad can be partaking in a cogent conversation and later not remember what was said …

With heavy heart, she tendered her acceptance.

She placed the water sculpture on a table near her bed. That night she filled its basin full of water.

As she dreamed her dreams that night, she was a girl of 5 or 6, in the summer with her parents up in Maine. The water spun and splashed as the gulls cried overhead. In the morning she’d forgotten about the book.

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