I used to take walks along a patch of scruffy waste ground a couple of blocks from my house in Indiana. It’s where the old RCA factory stood before the city tore it down. Back when I had a dog, I walked the dog there on the path that winds along the creek. The dog died, but I kept taking the same walk. Migrating geese stopped in the puddles, and hawks sometimes hunted from the tops of the utility poles. It wasn’t pretty, but it was a little scrap of nature.
That was where I found the phone booth one raw November day. It appeared on the far side of the creek, sprouting up like a mushroom overnight. The graffiti scribbled over the scratched windows and the dented blue door were straight out of the 1980s. Like something you’d see in the first Terminator movie, just before Arnold Schwarzenegger is beamed down naked onto the streets of Los Angeles in a crackle of sci-fi lightning.
It was strange enough that I had to check it out. I passed under the bare-branched sycamores where crows roosted, flocked together for warmth. Just beyond them, I found a narrow spot in the creek with a flat rock in the center and hopped across.
It seemed colder inside the booth than it did outside, even though I was blocked from the wind. Of course I didn’t have any coins. Still, I picked up the receiver and held it to my ear. There was no dial tone, just something in the silence on the other end, like a presence in a room or eyes secretly watching.
“Hello?” I whispered.
Outside, the crows clacked and clattered up in a circle. When they settled, I heard a voice answering on the other end. Small and faraway, but I recognized it instantly. Which was weird, because I didn’t know I remembered it.
“Dad?” I said. “What are you doing here? There? Wherever you are.”
My dad died in 1983, the summer I turned eight. What remained in my memory was more of an outline than a person, just a vague sense of his presence, the shape and weight and solidity of someone at the periphery.
“Talking to you,” he said.
“But where are you?”
“Where I’m supposed to be. Where are you?”
“I’m—” How was I supposed to answer this question? “In a field near my house in Indiana. I walk here most afternoons. I usually listen to an audiobook but today there was this phone booth and—”
“An audiobook. On my phone. Oh my god,” I said in a kind of excitement. “You wouldn’t believe how much everything has changed. You would love it now. We have computers. Everyone has computers. Even Mom has one…. Sort of.”
My dad loved Star Trek and science and space and technology. When he was in the Army, he wanted to be a pilot, but he had terrible eyesight like me and wasn’t allowed. In 1979, he bought a computer for Christmas. All I could remember about it was that you could play Pong on it. But my mom said he stayed up all night playing the chess game until he could beat it.
“Computers are everywhere — we carry them in our pockets. And the internet! If I were in China and you were at home, we could talk face-to-face, instantly, on our video phones. Like the Jetsons but smaller.”
“China? You can’t go to China.”
“But you can now. I have. Everyone can go to China.”
The receiver was heavy, cold in my hand. The cold seeped through the fabric of my gloves. The longer I held it, the colder it was. The cold was coming up from the metal floor of the phone booth too, through the soles of my shoes, wrapping around my toes and choking off the supply of blood.
But this was my dad. My dad who had been dead for thirty-five years. The last time I saw him, I was a little kid. I didn’t know what jokes he liked or what his favorite foods were or if we could have talked about books we’d read and did he really believe in all that Catholic stuff or did we just go to church because we were supposed to and would he have voted for Trump like everybody else in my hometown?
Instead, the question that came out of my mouth was, “Why now?” Because if he could do this, could just appear on the other end of the line, why had he waited so long?
“What was that?” His voice was fainter, scratchy. “I can’t hear you.”
“Is there something special about right now? Something I need to know?”
“Come back tomorrow,” he said.
And then the line was really dead. I was in a phone booth in the middle of a field connected to nothing. It was just me and a cold that went right through my bones.
The door jammed as I left, and I had to wrestle it open, prying at the metal until it gave way suddenly and I stumbled out into the now dark field.
When I got home, I hurried to the sink and ran warm water and stuck my hands under the flow. All of my fingers except the thumb on my right hand were a ghostly white up to the knuckle.
This wasn’t anything supernatural. I had recently been diagnosed with Raynaud’s syndrome, an immune disorder that caused the small blood vessels in my hands and feet to narrow, cutting off circulation to my fingers and toes. It meant that I could get chilblains and tissue damage, even at temperatures above freezing.
I could still go out in the cold. I just had to be careful and protect myself. Walk briskly and keep my heart rate up. Always take gloves when it was below sixty degrees. Wear thick-soled shoes and dry wool socks.
As the water ran over my hands that first day after finding the booth, the color started to come back, but unevenly. White blotches remained in the middle of my fingers. When they were mostly pink again and the numb, dead feeling was gone, I turned to my feet and peeled off my socks. Two toes already had permanent damage from walking on cold pavement in thin shoes before I knew to take better care. They were a morbid shade of purple and looked like they ought to have a toe-tag attached. I hiked my feet into the sink one at a time, balancing there until my toes came back to normal too.
By the next morning, I decided I must have dreamed the phone booth. But when I went for my walk, it was still there. A plastic shopping bag lay flattened against the door. There was no sign of the crows. Instead, a heron stood knee-deep in the creek, scanning the water. I crossed further down so I didn’t disturb it.
Inside the booth, the receiver was cold. Colder than yesterday.
“Hello?” I said.
When the voice answered, my recognition was just as strong. Still, I had to be sure.
I said, “What’s my nickname?”
There were only a few people who could answer that question. My mom, my brother, ex-boyfriends, and some relatives who were just as dead as my dad.
“Peaches,” he said. “Because they were your favorite. You ate so many when we spent the weekends with Dutch and Pauline that we thought you were going to turn orange.”
I had really loved those peaches. My grandparents had worked in a canning factory, and the cellar under their house was stocked with cans of sliced pears and peaches, jars of applesauce, and big cans of Hi-C fruit drink. The peaches were the same as what you could buy at the store, but they tasted different there at their hillside farm.
“Better now?” he asked.
“Yes. I had to know.”
“It’s okay. I expect you to be smart.”
Which I guess was true. My dad had always seemed proud of me, liked it when I learned to read and write before I went to school and then skipped a grade.
I’d been thinking about what little I knew since yesterday, piecing together flashes of disconnected memory. I remembered the plaid flannel shirts from Sears he wore on the weekends, riding his black Saddlebred gelding. Popping a can of Old Milwaukee after a hot summer day of hauling and stacking hay. Carrying me on his shoulders at the end of a long hike. But there was so much I didn’t know about him.
“Back when I was in college, my boyfriend Eric said you were watching over us when he was high and ran a red light at a busy intersection. He said you were protecting us and kept us alive. Kept the other cars from running into us.”
“You dated a boy who smoked marijuana?”
“Yes, but— Was it you?”
“I would keep you safe if I could. But I wasn’t there. He was just high.”
Which I had kind of always known. Because if my dad had been there, wouldn’t I have been the one to notice?
On the other side of the creek, a man rode by on a bicycle, head bent against the wind. No one had been watching over my dad the day he died. It was a Wednesday in July. My mom and brother and I had gone to the mall. Maybe for school clothes, maybe for an excuse to enjoy the air conditioning. Earlier that morning, Dad got into his yellow Chevy pickup with his thermos of coffee and went out to work on the site of a new house where the foundations had just been dug. He never came home. When we drove to the mall, we still thought we were a family. When we came home, the state police were waiting with the news.
“So, how did you die? Mom always said it wasn’t a heart attack, that the coroner was drunk and didn’t know what he was talking about.”
“It was a long time ago. I don’t remember.”
I jumped as something landed heavily on the roof of the phone booth. My breath had steamed up the scratched windows, and I rubbed them with my sleeve. Outside, the heron was gone, and crows stalked through the frosted grass. Whatever was on the roof was clawing at the metal. I banged on the ceiling.
More silence. Then a glob of shit landed on the glass in front of my face and slid down in a smear of white and yellow. Even through the closed doors, I could smell the rancid stink of fermented garbage.
I shook the phone. The line was dead.
I raced back to the house in a blur, aware as I reached our corner that I had stayed out too long. My fingers were so numb I had trouble with the lock on the front door. I raced upstairs to the bathroom sink where the hot water comes in faster and stood there dancing from foot to foot as I waited for the water to warm so I could plunge my hands in and bring them back to life.
The thing about Raynaud’s was, if you had it all your life, it was no big deal. It was inconvenient, sure, but it didn’t mean anything. Like a lot of immune stuff, doctors didn’t really know what caused it. But for those of us lucky enough to have been first diagnosed with Raynaud’s after the age of forty, it was a different beast. It brought a twenty percent increased risk of developing serious immune disorders in the next ten to fifteen years. Things like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and scleroderma — which I had never even heard of before I consulted Dr. Google. Scleroderma was as bad as it sounded: all of your organs thicken until they go rigid and stop working.
I developed Raynaud’s when I was forty-one. That was also when my blood glucose tanked, my heart started skipping beats and left me gasping while I was sitting still, and my stomach gave up on digesting most foods. I had scans and tests, and the doctors said it wasn’t cancer. I tried to tell myself that I worried too much, that it was probably nothing. But I was already three years older than my dad had been when he died.
The next day, I headed for the phone booth as soon as the pink light of dawn showed through the heavy clouds. A front was blowing from the west, and I jammed my gloved hands into my pockets and pressed against the fierce wind that was trying to turn my ears into shards of frozen glass. At least the cold cut the stench. The path and the grass were matted with crow shit, like hundreds of them had gorged on dumpsters and emptied their gizzards here in a midnight frenzy.
But only one crow was actually in evidence. The phone booth was the center of this spasm of filth, dripping with so much slime and stench that its blue metal was no longer visible. My eyes watered as I tried to find a way to open the door without getting covered in shit.
I gave up and grabbed the handle with my gloved fingers. Of course the door stuck and I had to use both hands. My gloves were a ruined, smeary mess by the time I forced it open. I dropped them on the floor in disgust and held the receiver with my bare hand. The fingers of my other hand turned white in front of my eyes.
“Did you know?” I asked. “Like, did you have any kind of warning?”
When he didn’t answer, I pushed on.
“We didn’t know,” I said. “We thought it was a normal morning. A normal day.”
The crow outside spun into the air, stretching its beak in a piercing caw.
“I’m sorry,” he said, but his voice was far away.
The wind was picking up, rattling through the corners of the stinking metal box. Something dark gathered on the horizon. I listened for the siren — this was tornado country after all, and I was standing in an open field with no shelter.
I spoke faster now, breathless and desperate. “But there must have been signs. Things that you can look back on now and see that you should have known.”
I pressed the receiver to my ear, listening hard for his voice on the other end. The wind roared against the phone booth, the metal creaking under the strain. As the first fat drops of rain began to fall, the crows swirled in the air by the hundreds, maybe thousands, blocking out the horizon and the trees beyond. Blocking anything my dad might have to say.
On the other side of the glass, a bird’s face appeared, its eye level with mine. Its head tilted and its beak opened in a mocking caw.
I slammed my bare hand against the glass and cold ricocheted up my arm. “Why did you even call?” I screamed into the air, into the receiver.
And just like that, sound dropped out of the world. The crows were still flying. I could see their wings beating, their mouths open as they wheeled and swarmed. But there was absolutely nothing to hear, as if a giant breath had been drawn in and held.
And inside that breath, I am six years old and we are camping in November. We have been out for a long hike, and I have dropped my mittens in the iced-over creek and have had to walk back to camp without them. I am crying, desperate and snot-faced, my fingers curled red and raw inside my jacket cuffs. My dad crouches down beside me and blows his warm breath into the cup of his giant hands holding mine. As the breath hits them, my small fingers sting. But he holds me tight and blows and blows. His breath is a whisper a fire a flame the wood stove at night a blanket the sun. He can thaw the deepest frost, he can make everything better, he is my Dad.
And then the breath released, and everything dissolved. The phone booth split at the seams, and the walls collapsed in a shower of black feathers. The birds rushed in, and the air smelled of pulverized rock and singed cotton. I clutched the receiver, trying to keep my balance. When I looked down, though, I saw that my hand now gripped the sleek black neck of a crow. Its wings flapped against my palm and I opened my fingers. It shimmered into a cascade of weightless feathers that unfurled into the air. There was nothing left.
I stumbled forward into the rain. There were no birds now, just flattened, wet feathers, sticking to the dead grass and plastered against the gray trunks of trees. The feathers piled deeper where the phone booth had stood, but even that would soon be gone. The rain was falling heavier now, washing the grass clean. My shoes were soaked through, and I walked to the edge of the creek, icy water squelching between my toes. The water was high and moving fast. A feather snagged in the crook of a broken branch and eddied in circles as I watched, until a raft of dead leaves pushed it out into the center of the current and carried it downstream.
I could no longer tell where the cold stopped and I began.