An Unclaimed Gift
The phone rang into the darkness for more than two weeks before I began to worry.
It was not uncommon for Jay to ignore my calls; he was in the business of distributing carefully measured bags of recreation, and the chirp of his phone never quit. The fact that I was calling from the other side of the country didn’t help. He wasn’t much of a talker, and from three time-zones away talk was all I had to offer. This meant that I had to be patient, which is to say, I had become well acquainted with his voice mail.
Talking to a recording was an annoyance I had come to accept, even appreciate. Being ignored was an affirmation of our long-standing friendship. He knew that it pissed me off, and I knew that he enjoyed pushing my buttons. When he did finally return my call, I peppered him with invectives. It was a toothless attack, though. I was always happy to hear from him and he returned the enthusiasm.
Saturday marked the first time I tried to reach him. The airwaves were frantic with scenes of March Madness. As I screamed at the scores, I imagined him doing the same. A team we both despised had been knocked out in the first round. I had money riding on them to lose and was sure that he did too. We had a lot to talk about.
The next day, I tried him twice. His voicemail picked up immediately, slamming the door in my face each time. I left a message saying that I was sending him a package and needed his new address. It was true, but also a ploy to get him to call me back. At 32, Jay loved presents like a third-grader. He always complained that one of the shortcomings of Jewish culture was that it didn’t take gift-giving seriously. Chanukah was a sham compared to the bounty of Christmas, he thought. And with no bar mitzvah to speak of, he had missed the religion’s only real payday.
This indictment, however, was a foil for an unshakable sense of being overlooked. Jay’s mother was a tall, stern lady still imprinted with the survivalist mentality of her immigrant parents. She loved Jay tremendously, but had decided after a searing divorce that her son, the youngest, would not be coddled. He would learn self-reliance the same time that he learned to ride a bike. By the time he was sixteen, the lesson had become a shell his mother couldn’t crack. She complained that he was too distant, stubborn and was suspicious that his father was providing secret counsel. When their year-long argument mutated into silence, Jay broke the impasse by saying good-bye.
With his family out of the picture, I took up the slack, feeding Jay random gifts. I was sure, then, that my message would snare his attention. On Monday, I made a trip to the post office and got his package ready to go. The only thing I needed was a phone call and an address.
For the next five days, the gift sat on the kitchen table untouched. By Sunday, it had become the nucleus of a mass of torn envelopes, magazines and miscellany from the week. Searching the pile for an over-due bill, the box reminded me just how much time had passed.
I squinted at the package trying to figure out what had gone wrong. Maybe I had missed his call. I went for the phone. There was no message, no 207 area-code in the log or any indication he had tried to reach me. It was time for an ultimatum: one more call, one more message…no mas.
The phone rings several times. “Answer motherfucker, you’re home watching the games.” I count the rings knowing that on the eighth one the voice mail will pick up. He answers.
“Jay, what’s going on man?”
“Nothing, I’m just getting back from Dominic’s house.”
“How’s he doing…how’s the shop…any word on Libby… the baby…she must be getting close?”
“The baby isn’t due for another month; I think the 22nd or so.”
“I see. How’s it going? I’ve been trying to get a hold of you for like a month. You’ve been a ghost.”
“It’s been an awful week.”
He doesn’t elaborate. It’s my job to crack the silence.
“What happened?” I ask, expecting a run-down of money problems and the latest installment of an on-again-off-again relationship.
“Fife is dead.”
The words are delivered as an accusation. Jay saw the world through a filter of distrust; he selected his friends carefully and had not opened the circle in years. He spoke of his bad luck so frequently that, despite a great deal of evidence to contrary, I had started to buy his pessimism. When it came to Fife, however, he never complained: Fife was an unfailing friend.
Chiseled from a slab of brindle granite, Fife was the largest pit-bull I had ever seen. His frame was an impossible equation: four parts muscle, one part bone, one part sinew. Sprawled on the couch, he reminded me of a lazy monarch; he ate with relish but never begged; snored obnoxiously; and with a heavy paw or stare, arranged bodies to his liking. When he yawned there was a patchwork of cheetah-like spots on the roof of his mouth. In a less friendly context, these markings said your fate was sealed. He was simply the archetype of fear.
Jay reveled in Fife’s power, his certainty. When he was old enough, he bred him with another large pit-bull. The result was an impressive litter of puppies. From the squirming mix, He selected a jet-black male and named him “Junior.” Father and son, with all parts intact, were then raised together; an unheard accomplishment for the breed. So loved were these dogs that Jay had them immortalized in ink across his chest. Giving the elder his due, Fife’s name came first and covered Jay’s heart.
“What happened,” I asked.
“He was sick and I kept hoping he would get better. It was about a week. I took him to the vet and that was it.”
He stopped, but I didn’t respond, sensing the thought was incomplete.
“I had to put him down,” Jay said, more to himself than to me.
“How old was he, man?”
“He was fifteen, almost sixteen.”
“That’s old for a dog,” I offered, regretting it immediately.
“They just leave you with him in this tiny room. They gave him a shot to stop his heart, they close the door and a few minutes later he stopped breathing. I wanted him to die at home, not there.”
“Damn man, I don’t know what to say…Fife had a hell-of-a-life… he lived like a pimp.”
“HE WAS A PIMP,” he countered.
“Yeah,” I said, laughing, “he was a dirty old man.”
“You know the worst thing about it,” Jay said, returning to a respectful tone, “the vet charged me $425 to have him cremated.”
“That sounds like a lot.”
“It was either that or have him in with a bunch of stray dogs that had to be put to sleep. It would have cost me $300 or so, but there was no way I was going to have one speck of those burnt-up strays in with Fife.”
“No fucking way, I would have done the same thing,” I said, not letting the image sink in.
I extend him an invitation.
“You know, man, you can always give me a call whenever you want.”
He doesn’t answer, he won’t call.
“I might be coming home sometime next month,” I say. “I’ll give you a ring when I know for sure.”
“Bye Jay, take care, all right.”
“I’ll get your address another time.”
He hangs up.
I lower the phone, his name flashes on the display; a second later it disappears.
“Good bye Fife.”
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED