Unlike Ourselves

by | Feb 13, 2024 | CNF, Issue Thirty-Seven

The mouthpiece of our phone smelled just like Dad’s breath. Like raw meat starting to turn. I stood on a dining room chair, in the kitchen, on aching tiptoes. August sun flared though the window in slices. With one hand I held the handset to my face. With the other I twisted a length of slick, spiraled cord. I only knew two numbers: Our home number, and Mom’s work.

Mom picked up after only one ring. “Procops TV. This is Mel.”

She never caught on that it was me. Even after the affair was discovered and every smile, every wave, every errand she’d ever ran became suspect, Mom never thought to look backward, to wonder if she’d accidentally given something away. And she never knew I had a knack for voices. Even so young, I could manipulate my tone and my pitch, sound as unlike her son as I wanted. Especially on the phone.

I imagined my throat filled with gravel, pictured it pouring up from my chest. Not my  voice at all anymore, but something closer to Dad’s. I asked to speak to her boss. “Yeah, hi. Is Chuck there?”

 “Just a moment.”

I hung up before she got Chuck on the phone. Caller ID and Star 69 were still far-flung inventions so she couldn’t see who was calling and she couldn’t call me back. And I laughed. I laughed because I’d fooled her. I laughed so hard that I woke up Dad. In his too tight T-shirt, his sagging, white briefs. Passed out in a heap on the couch, marking yet another part of our home with his scent. He shouted because he was trying to sleep. He shouted and kept shouting, until I took my laughter outside into the cheery, afternoon sunlight.

The next time I called I pushed my voice through my nose. In helium tones I said, “Hello. Do you sell VCR’s?”

Mom recited a list. “Yes, ma’am. We have RCA, Sony, Magnavox, and I think, Emerson?”

 “Okay. Thank you!” I replied, my voice coming out as her voice. She was talking to herself the whole time, unaware. “Thank you!” Her ear filled with dial tone while the summer baked air held the weight of my laughter.

Dad refused to make scrambled eggs for breakfast, only fried. And he always bullet-proofed them in pepper. But we always ate what dad ate and we ate what dad cooked. I stabbed my fork through the yolk, watched it bleed orange. Watched dad barefoot in his underwear, slamming pans because everything he did made a noise. Dad said to eat, not to play with my food, but I was wishing it was Mom’s scrambled eggs on my plate and that Dad was the one who still had a work number to be memorized.

 “Hi, Mel.” Later that day on the phone. Mimicking another voice that I knew. “How’s it going?”

Whenever mom took me shopping for groceries, it was Ken’s checkout line we filed into. It was Ken who helped bag up our milk, our cereal, who carried our bags to the car, asking mom what she was up to that day, what she might be up to that weekend. “Hi, Mel. How’s it going?” No one but Ken called her “Mel.” His voice slightly feminine, not so far from my own.

 “Hi Mel.” I parroted. “How’s it going?”

 “Weeeell, hiiiii!” Mom answered. She stretched the vowels in her words like taffy. Then she whispered: “When did you get this number? Still want to see me this weekend?”

No answer from me, or the voice of the man Mom thought she was talking to. Only a click and a dial tone. And a sensation, a dark one, rising up through my chest. Like a mixture of anger and fear, though not either one, but some other oily, unrecognizable feeling that flourished between both of them.

Mom made hamburgers for dinner. Dad complained. She should have made steak. She should have known better. Dressed for another day spent nowhere but indoors, he showered his unwanted burgers in pepper. And complained. Mom listened, she nodded, said she was so very sorry. “I love you, “ she told Dad. “I’m sorry. I love you.” And that feeling again, sour and spreading. And a sense that, maybe, Mom could also do voices. That her words were only a clever sound she was making, to appear like someone Dad thought he would recognize.

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