The Phone Call by
5
(6 Stories)

Prompted By Final Farewell

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At Elaine’s house in Cincinnati for Irving Fihk’s 90th birthday, 2010. Irv sitting across the room, brother Hugh Fink standing, and author, seated left.

The phone rang just once

The names that populated his stories brought his remembered world to life.Hugh E. Morgan walking along Broad Street in the 1920s...John Roth, forever known to his peers as “Skunky Roth,”... Jim Parva, an umpire...who alternated between a falsetto and bass voice in calling balls and strikes...

An oncologist had briefed my sister and her husband and me a few minutes before

And now we knew:

The bladder cancer was raging and spreading

Dad’s days would be few.

Months ago he had told Elaine, “My quality of life has been exceptional for 94 years.”

“I don’t want to extend my time

By acclimating to anything less.”

We had promised: No more hospitalizations. No more procedures.

There was no turning back.

But how to give him the news?

The phone rang just once.

He picked it up at his home.

Until Dad left for college

He lived above his parents’ shop in Newton Falls, Ohio.

From the time he was small

He got to help around the store

Unboxing galoshes

Sorting women’s slips onto shelves

Separating casual from dress slacks

Assisting customers to find the right shoe size

When he became an attorney with his own family

He had an office downtown–not downstairs

Helping him with his professional tasks

As he had helped his mother and father

Was not woven into our family tapestry

Except briefly when I was about ten

A client owned an apartment complex

Many tenants–a hundred or more, it seemed–were in arrears

There had been some legal action dad never bothered to disclose.

The rent checks for these units were now pouring into his office.

It was his responsibility to record and track the payments.

It was all paper-and-pencil

No computers yet, not even calculators

Make columns for the names of each renter

Fill in the payments made

Tally up the totals

He was a lawyer, not an accountant

Not a man who loved figures and math–but he knew I did.

It became my job to do the “posting.” Posting the payments received.

It only lasted a few weeks.

I loved it.

I never asked why we stopped.

Certain peculiarities required a high level of vigilance:

Herman E. Jackson was not the same as Herman W. Jackson.

Rose Carpenter used to be married to Bobby Carpenter but they were divorced. He remarried and then died, so now one unit was rented to Mrs. Rose Carpenter while the widow rented the original unit as Mrs. Bobby Carpenter.

And there were the special instructions about Jimmy Mayers.

From each phase of his life Dad collected anecdotes

The names that populated his stories brought his remembered world to life.

Hugh E. Morgan walking along Broad Street in the 1920s, urging one and all to “save your money and buy insurance!”’’

John Roth, forever known to his peers as “Skunky Roth,” even after he became a flying ace during World War II, due to the day he stunk up the elementary school classroom.

Jim Parva, an umpire from a visiting team who alternated between a falsetto and bass voice in calling balls and strikes at the town baseball field.

Willie Sing, a Northwestern University classmate who would catch up on his chemistry only to find he was falling behind in his physics.

There was Melvin, the bugler in Dad’s Army company who got discharged for being gay, and Sergeant Wheit, who asked “who here knows how to use a typewriter?” and then handed any private who volunteered a mop–to clean the latrines.

For weeks, the doctors had treated other maladies

Bladder cancer was an enemy they had identified. But they pegged it as slow-growing and marginal.

Suddenly it had taken center stage.

Without treatment, it would soon overwhelm him.

I volunteered to deliver the news

But how would I tell him?

The phone rang just once.

“Hello,” he said.

“Hi, Dad, it’s Dale.”  “And Dad, this is Elaine on another line. And Bob’s here too.”  “Hi, Irv this is Bob.”

“Oh, it’s nice to hear from all of you. Is something up?”

Bob was the one doctor in our extended family. He had credibility on medical topics.

“Irv, we have some information from speaking with the oncologist.”

Dad begins to complain about the damned catheter.

The catheter: one of those other maladies bedeviling and bewildering him for many weeks. Giving him pain when it was supposed to bring relief.

He recounts some details of the past few days. Details we already know.

No time to be circumspect. “Dad, we have something to tell you that’s much worse than the problems with the catheter.”

“Oh?”

“This time the doctor really doesn’t want you to start in on any serialized stories.”

Silence.

I had bombed with one of his own repeated jokes. After an annual checkup, he was fond of reporting, “The doctor said ‘everything’s fine,’ but he doesn’t advise me to start reading any serialized stories.”

In an earlier era, magazines cultivated readership by offering continuing stories. You had to stick around as a subscriber and find out what happens next. The only reason not to start a new one is if you won’t be around.

He had always joked about death. He liked to tell the story of a man who died in a brown suit, but his wife wanted him buried in a blue suit. He enjoyed relating a true incident about his first cousin Jack Schwartz. When his grown daughters requested Jack’s input into the planning of his funeral, he answered, “Surprise me.”

This man who made so many amusing references to death was not ready to be the subject of one of those jokes.

I should have known better. My brother Hugh is the professional comedian in the family, the one with the flawless comic timing. Mine was way off.

I went ahead and told him about the bladder cancer, and Bob elaborated further. Elaine let him know how bad we all felt that we had to give him this rotten news.

We let him know that the oncologist would be coming to speak to him about it later the same day. We offered words of love and support. But I was not quite finished.

“Dad?”

“Yes.”

“You can count on me to always remember that if a check comes in for Jimmy Mayers, I should post it to the account of Therogas Anderson.”

After a short pause, I hear him laugh. Not a nervous or confused laugh. A laugh of recognition. The names that populated his remembered world were important. And they would endure.

 

 

 

 

Profile photo of Dale Borman Fink Dale Borman Fink
Dale Borman Fink retired in 2020 from Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, MA, where he taught courses related to research methods, early childhood education, special education, and children’s literature. Prior to that he was involved in childcare, after-school care, and support for the families of children with disabilities. Among his books are Making a Place for Kids with Disabilities (2000) Control the Climate, Not the Children: Discipline in School Age Care (1995), and a children’s book, Mr. Silver and Mrs. Gold (1980). In 2018, he edited a volume of his father's recollections, called SHOPKEEPER'S SON.

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Characterizations: moving, well written

Comments

  1. Suzy says:

    Dale, this is a very touching story! I like the style you used, sort of a combo of poetry and prose. The first section, with short sentences, is poetic. Once you get into the instructions and anecdotes about his tenants, it becomes a more conventional story style. Then more lines of poetry, and then more prose. At least, that’s the way it seemed to me. Maybe it’s all poetry, with some very long lines. At any rate, I thought it was very effective. And I’m so sorry for your loss.

  2. Dale, I look forward to your wonderful stories. This one about your dad didn’t disappoint and the love shines right through.

    • Suzy, thanks for noticing and commenting on the format. I do consider it a “prose poem” but I’m aware that some parts of it seemed more prosaic and less poetic. It has felt very experimental all week long as I have worked to piece it together. It’s great to have Retrospect as a place to put forward in a form I am not entirely confident is working.

  3. Marian says:

    Dale, I admire this effort with a prose poem and it really is a great form to convey the grief and the smiles involved in losing your dad. I like how you move in time, and the wonderful names that add to the narrative. The form also lets me, as a reader, have a pause in the white space to reflect on what I’ve just read, which adds such richness and depth. Thanks for your “experiment.”

    • It means a lot to me to hear your insights about how the form and format and visual look of the writing influences your experience as a reader. I taught children’s literature (which, at the younger end, has a lot in common with poetry), and I always encouraged my students to look not only at the words but at the placement of the words on the page and at the white spaces. I’m so glad you were taking that all in with regard to my work. Thanks, Marian.

  4. John Shutkin says:

    This was an extraordinarily moving story. As Suzy noted, the prose/poetry style with short paragraphs (or was it stanzas?) was incredibly effective both in expressing thoughts succinctly and in moving the story along. “Prose poem” is the perfect term for what you have presented us with here.

    And your dad sounds like he was a helluva guy.

    • I’m not sure if poets would call the segments of my work “stanzas” or paragraphs but it’s more important to me that (at least some) readers can follow it and be moved by it. Thanks for the affirming words. And thanks for noticing what kind of a guy my dad was–I suspect my memories will include more about him as I write more.

  5. Betsy Pfau says:

    Dale, I applaud your effort to experiment with your style. I found it very effective, as you build to your climax, but share so many rich details of your father’s life in a staccato fashion, in short bursts of phrases; the tenants who owe money, the characters from the army.

    You write a memorial while keeping those memories alive and bring it back full circle at the end with your wonderful comment about remembering how to post money from Jimmy Meyers, then pause for your father’s reaction. We hang on that pause with you and are delighted that he laughed out loud. May his memory be a blessing.

    Please keep sharing your experiments with us. It is wonderful to have your voice added to our midst.

    • Just knowing that even one reader got so much from the final interchange about Jimmy Mayers, “hanging on that pause” as you state, makes the labor involved in creating this piece all worthwhile. Thanks so much for taking the time for such specific and affirming feedback about not only the ending but the other elements of the content and the format that you highlighted.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    I love the repetition of “the phone rang just once.” That’s so true for bad news. I loved the stories of the accounting and his (and your) remembered world. This is a loving tribute to your father and the importance of remembering people’s stories.

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