The following is original fiction by Jeremy Glazer. Jeremy is a regular WLRN contributor.
Every year, on his birthday, for the last twenty-three years, Robert Simmons called the number.
But no one had ever answered before.
“Hello, Robert’s Western Wear,” the voice says, in mock cowboy accent dissolving into a cascade of giggles.
Robert’s chest gets tight. At first he thinks it’s hearing the name of a long-gone Miami store that provokes the feeling of slight unease. But then, he recognizes the voice. It is as unmistakable as it is impossible.
Robert had grown up with that number. Memorized it in kindergarten. The first part was easy—it was the same for all his neighbors in Shenandoah. This was back when the first three numbers still told which part of town was home. 445 was the Gables. 891, North Miami. 531 the Beach.
And you didn’t have to dial an area code. Now there’s a 305 or 786, or a 646 even though someone might be two blocks away. You never know where anyone is anymore. Numbers and people are free-floating. Back then, things were deeply rooted. Your phone number could place you. Like an accent.
Robert’s old number hadn’t been his for years. He’d gone to college, moved away, settled back, bought a house, had kids. He had lived a life, and those digits were a world away, except for the annual birthday calls.
His parents both died suddenly, within a year of each other, while Robert was away at college. Robert started to call his old number on that first birthday without them. He called in desperation more than anything else that first time. He was a senior. He didn’t know where he was going and he wanted his old, comfortable life back, if only for one phone call. Since then, the ritual of calling his parents on his birthday had become sacred.
While the word orphan felt silly at his age, the fact of no parents still made Robert feel like a child sometimes. Particularly on this day. It didn’t take a therapist to figure out why he kept calling that number. He wanted his parents to know who he had become.
Usually, he’d let it ring five or six times then hang up and go about his day. This time, there’s an answer.
“I said Robert’s Western Wearrrrrrrrrrrr,” and then Robert hears the phone drop. There’s some noise in the background, familiar voices, furniture being moved, cooking sounds.
It’s me, Robert thinks, and just as quickly, it can’t be me, that would be...
“Robert’s Western Wear. Wanna buy a cowboy hat, pardner? Lasssssssst chance.”
It’s unmistakable. That’s how he answered the phone for almost a year after his parents had driven him to that store. They went a few weeks before his sixth birthday to get a cowboy hat for the big party. He had just learned to read and was so excited to have his name on a sign somewhere.
Say something, Robert thinks to himself. Then he has an idea, remembering his 6th birthday party and who wasn’t there.
“Hey there, Robbie,” Robert says.
“Daddy! I knew you’d call for my birthday! Are you getting me more presents in New York?? Are you done with the work trip yet? Come home!”
“No, no. Not yet. I’ll be back soon with lots of presents.”
“OK. But no Jets stuff. I like the Dolphins. I know you like the Jets, but I hate them Dad.”
“OK, Robbie. OK.”
“We’re getting ready for the big party, Dad. We’re having puppets, and a piñata, and croquetas. Do you know what a piñata is, Dad? I was at Javier’s party last week and they had one and I wanted one and he speaks Spanish and Mom said I can have one even though I don’t speak Spanish but I decided I’m going to learn, because Aunt Sandy says everyone here is going to speak Spanish soon.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen a piñata.”
“Well… you bash it and bash it and then all this candy comes out. And croquetas look like little fat fingers but they’re really, really good and that’s why I want to learn Spanish, because there’s guavas too. Do you want to talk to Mom?”
“I want to talk to her more than anything in the world, Robbie.”
“Wait here,” little Robbie says, insistently.
Robert’s heart is pounding as he hears the background sounds, the preparations. He still knows that party from the super 8 movie he’s watched a hundred times and shown his own family—the fold-up tables in the backyard under the avocado tree, his mom in a white skirt, the Carvel cake, the piñata.
He hears steps coming up to the phone and feels his throat start to close. An impossible chance. That’s what he’s going to get for his birthday. He can tell his mom what he’s done, what they did. Just a few words is all he wants. Somehow he’ll make her believe. Somehow he’ll make her know.
He hears the phone being picked up. He breathes in, ready for the voice he hasn’t heard for decades.
“Mommie’s cooking. She says call back after the party.” And then, after a pause, little Robbie tells what must be one of his first lies. “Daddy, she told me to tell you not to get me any Jets stuff either.”
Robert laughs. But he’s crying now a little too.
“OK, Robbie” he says.
“I gotta go, Dad. I have to put on my cowboy shirt.”
“Wait, Robbie. Wait one second.”
He gathers himself.
“What Dad? I gotta gooooooooooooo.”
“Give your mother a big hug for me. And a kiss. Remember to always give your mother big hugs and kisses.”
He pauses. There’s so much more he wants to say, but all that comes out is
“And Robbie, stay away from girls named Stacy.”
“OOOOOOOOOOOOOOKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKK, Daddy.” little Robbie says. “Byyyyyyyyyyyyye!”
Robert waits until the phone is dead and sits absolutely still for almost a minute. Then, with a deep breath he stands up from the tree swing in his front yard and heads back toward the house. He pauses for a second, though, and looks, sees it all as his six-year-old self might have seen it.
It was something, wasn’t it? Two stories. His own avocado tree. A sportscar with New York Jets plates—in his dad’s honor. A wife, a couple of daughters. He’d made it.
Robert stands up a little straighter and then catches a glimpse through his bay window of a ladder inside. His wife is on top, and his oldest, Maria, stands at the bottom handing her mom something to hang. It looks like a balloon for a second, but then it becomes clear what they were putting up for Robert on this, his 45th birthday.
In his wife’s hands is a piñata.
The music in this piece is by another Miami native, guitarist Aaron Lebos. You can find out more about Aaron and his new project, Aaron Lebos Reality, here.