The Call Came
by Sharon Lax
He bought a second-hand Nova from a Cuban-Chinese
And dyed his hair in the bathroom of a Texaco.
With a pawnshop radio, quarter past four,
He left Waukegan at the slamming of the door.
– Tom Waits

She was eight when she first recognized the anticipation of the sting. She was pulling out wild chives, savouring their pulpy stems, when she heard a low buzzing.

All froze, even her thoughts, but the bee insisted on her shoulder. There was a moment while the insect rested; her senses were heightened, she was ready. But the bee hummed its way to the roses, her father's roses.

For a moment, she had seen into another world, a what-could-have-been: the vibration of wings, a sting narrowly missed, time as meter of film, spooled out and witnessed, the vibration of a call, a ringing, so clear looking back; a call, but no one is home.

She grew up in Waukegan, Illinois, one hour north of Chicago, just south of Wisconsin. Waukegan: a Potawatomi, Algonquin word meaning fort, changed in 1849 from Waukeegance, little fort, for reasons of civic pride. Waukegan, one of the oldest Illinois communities. In 1673, a Father Marquette visited this oldest French trading post, making his way down from Quebec, through Wisconsin, to convert the Algonquins to Christianity. In 1829, it was ceded by the Potawatomis to the white man.

Waukegan, site of the first audience motion picture show, in 1894, on a projector invented by local son Edward Amet. Waukegan, a place to spend the night, as Lincoln did; a place to grow up in, as Ray Bradbury did, as did his dreamy small-town characters; a place to be born and leave, as Jack Benny used to joke he did as soon as possible.

Waukegan, berthed by volatile Lake Michigan, which pulled many seasoned swimmers down into its undertow, and sometimes, from steel darkness, churned up waves so steep many unwary were swallowed from the shore.

General Motors built a factory there, its sludge so indiscriminate that Waukegan's was one of North America's most polluted harbours. When her brother's friend sent a sample to a nearby lab, they could not or would not identify its chemical composition.

To her, Waukegan was the night symphony of crickets, the capricious sparks of lightning bugs, the overwhelming perfume of the lilac bushes her father tended as a shepherd. At night, lantern light through burgundy blinds, she could hear the rumbling of the train along tracks that once had carried to stockyards in Chicago, meatpacking central. At night she listened to the train, and wondered what they were carrying on its cars.

All this she left. So did her father, although unlike the rest of her family, not as body and spirit united. Despite her parents' family ties in Toronto, despite such longing for return it was palpable, her father would never leave.

He never made a thorough separation from Canada, taking out American citizenship only in 1993, a year before he died, after thirty-odd years in the U.S. While his accent was thoroughly Yankee, his excited registry of the world punctuated with Americanisms, he never seemed split by a dual identity.

When she was four, living in Los Angeles, the family had packed into a brown 1960's Ford station wagon, left the smog city of angels. From a portable bed laid on the car's low-carpeted interior, she watched the mountains recede, the setting sun fading their savage beauty from orange to purple.

They rode across dry-throated desert, then western plains, to sprawling Illinois. She was leaving the warmth of sidewalks under bare feet, a dear friend who knew all the angles of the alley-how to find a box with kittens, how to procure chocolate from the neighbours. She was leaving a sun-pale apartment, a stallion riding-horse on creaking springs: "Don't take him!" They did, but returned him to her in Waukegan.

It was summer when her family arrived. They rented an apartment in a fading yellow brick building, where three boys became her friends. When one of the boys accidentally slammed a door on her thumb, she wasn't allowed out for a week, her mother said. A week became never as green leaves faded and they moved into the house that so thrilled her father; her first snow, leaping into feathery cold; later in winter, packing thick blocks into snow forts with her father.

The house, with its droopy-eyed windows, shaded, looked out over a quarter acre, where her father mowed, tended and planted rose bushes that carried her name.

Here was her world, the where and why of a child's life. It was tumble over stream, a grey plank bridge with a white wooden sign proclaiming Moose Jaw in black paint, an escape to the hilltop, vines ornamented with spring-green to summer-purple grapes that her father crushed, sugared and made into wine. There was a Macintosh and a pear tree. When the leaves of the pear tree wrinkled and crumbled, her father said its mate, somewhere unseen, had died. She created a mythology of roots under soil, desperately seeking a departed friend.

Many years later, she would return to that hill.

The call came, riding an indiscernible hesitation.

She was with an old college buddy on the threshold of his Boston apartment, a stopover on her way home from a wedding in Pennsylvania. He tumbled through the door to answer the phone. She caught her breath, exhausted.

A few days earlier, she had left Montreal to attend the wedding. Her husband, a cat and a Lhasa Apso had stayed behind.

In Philadelphia, she had stayed with one of the bridesmaids in lodgings saturated with an expected flurry of activity, last-minute worries, hustling for a scarf with less beige.

At the last minute, there was a holler, "OH NO!" then a clattering as everyone came running.

"What's going on?"


"You mean stockings."

"We'll get some on the way."

"But these go with the dress. And they were forty dollars! And the store is a specialty shop. I'm not even sure it's open." It was 5:30 on Saturday. The taking of vows and evening merrymaking weren't scheduled until Sunday.

"We'll handle it."

New stockings, a story during the nuptial meal about bride and groom meeting on a train, then she was actually on a train, with her Massachusetts friend, from Philadelphia to his place in Boston, feeling carried, borne, as if there were no sense for her to move her limbs.

She would be vacationing a couple days with her college friend, someone who had sprung into her life during a film course in university, in Boston. She remembers Conrad's Heart of Darkness exploding on the screen in Coppola's Apocalypse Now, and their teacher, speaking of film theory. He had a patch over an eye that he had injured on a skiing accident and once confided to her that he should have been on the slopes not with his colleague, a Shakespeare scholar, but with her father, a doctor.

On the Philadelphia–Boston line, she had thoughts of university, the density of emotions blanketed all that could be articulated. Yet, her undisclosed anxieties became the jagged shadows on opaque walls, on the forehead of her travelling companion, absorbed in a book on 19th-century Danish architecture. Then, the low timpani rhythm of the tracks began to draw her to sleep.

In Boston, she heard the exhaustion in her friend's "Hello" into the receiver.

Then, stillness. "Yes, she's here."

Her shoulders stiffened.

"It's your husband." The voice fell. "I think you need to come."


"Hi." Maybe she knew before she heard. Maybe there is much fiction in remembering.

She recalls emptiness in her husband's voice, the space left after crying.

"What is it?" She didn't want an answer, wished to return to Philadelphia, to the problem of a stocking.

"Your father. Your mother's been trying to reach you. She didn't have your number…"


"Your father. He…died."

She looked at her reflection in the wall-length mirror of her friend's apartment. She saw lips moving. There was an asking for words that would transform this craziness the world had become, return it to the land of fiction.

Her friend's apartment, such an unexpected place to be handed such unexpected news. Time, turning into a pocket watch, melting as in a Dali. Time, though insubstantial, substantiated by the metronomic precision of the clock's ticking.

And there had been a time, very real, when she could have spoken to him, without knowing it, could have said good-bye.

In Philadelphia, on the Saturday before the wedding, she had received word that her father had called her in Montreal. She hadn't been there to receive the call, the Friday evening of the weekend he died.

In a time when cellphones were a rarity, the couple with whom she was staying were heading an international film festival and had been given a cellphone with unlimited airtime. She was asked if she wouldn't like to call someone, anyone, said the woman with the run in her stocking, anyone, said the bridesmaid, and it's free.

She could think of no one at first. Then, it was instantaneous. "Montreal!"

"Hello," their roommate answered.

"Hi," she heard, then static.

"What's that?" she tried over the buzzing.

"I said, I thought I had lost the connection," the roommate laughed.

She asked to speak with her husband.

"He's not here."

"Oh." She paused. He's not?"

"No, he went out. Your father called though."

"But I thought my dad knew I was here."

"After I told him, he remembered. He wanted to thank you for the birthday hat you sent."

It was his birthday a couple of weeks ago, and she had sent him a Tilley Endurable expedition sun-hat: natural beige cotton, pockets on either side, and a secret panel stitched under the cap.

"He said he liked it very much," her roommate said. "He said to mention it to you; he didn't have your number, and I…"

"Don't worry," she interrupted.

"Yes, well, he was happy about the hat, said to tell you he tried it on, in front of the mirror, and it fit. Perfectly."

"Oh good."

Her thoughts tread their own path. "Where has he gone," she wondered of her husband. Until the goodbyes, she wondered.

"Hey," she called to the bridesmaid, "How do you disconnect this thing?"

"Press the button."

They were walking along a quiet lamp-lit street somewhere in Philadelphia. The iron-plated orange lights cast shadows, and she worried about absence. But whose absence?

She had missed her father's call, but in Boston her friend answered the call; in a moment forever, before a mirror and for a moment, she was part of something that couldn't be.

There was a half-note rest, then the plans rushed in. She'd book an airplane to Illinois, to her mother and brothers, and sister-in-law, who would drive them all up to Toronto, where her father's body would be buried. Where, at the funeral home, she would stumble into her husband's embrace.

After the plans, the telling of events began, played out from reel to reel on her journey from Boston to Illinois, to Toronto, back to Montreal, Quebec, the start of the path forged by Father Marquette down to her hometown.

On Friday afternoon, before he placed a call to Montreal, her father had visited a hospital fifteen minutes by car from Waukegan, in Zion, Illinois, where her mother worked as a pharmacist. Indigestion, they diagnosed.

On Sunday, her mother was debating whether to go to work; her father told her not to worry. Then, later, before heading off to a clinic, her father asked her brother not to call their mother. "She'll just worry."

Before they left, he sat on the porch, on an iron-lattice chair, running hands through their Samoyed's coat of snow.

This is her brother: a witness, when no others are left.

This is she: trying to tell the tale without injuring the facts.

Behind the doctor's desk, her brother said, the doctor's voice broke: "I'm afraid you have an aneurism."

"Dad was so white," her brother said. She imagines this blanching, an erasure.

He had known. He read electrocardiograms, had gone from tutelage under Charles Best in Toronto, to radioactive isotopes in NY to thoracic surgery in LA. It was work for Abbott Labs that brought him to Illinois and, later, the reading of the heart's rhythms that became his passion.

A helicopter was called.

"He wouldn't have made it otherwise," her mother said, then, "Just like Dad, while he was being wheeled into surgery, he was talking. The surgeon and he knew people in common at UCLA."

UCLA, where she was born, three days before her father's thirty-fifth birthday, a month before her mother's thirty-first.

"You know Dad," her mother said through tears, "Always talking. Up until the anaesthesia took effect, they said, he was talking."

The event weaves into remembering. On the threshold of death, do we know? Her brother insisted her father knew.

"He looked up from the stretcher," her brother said, "and told me, 'This is it.'"

This she knows: her father had a sixth sense. He would think of a friend with whom he hadn't spoken in years and the phone would ring. They never questioned it, this understanding of what was to come. Sometimes he'd retrieve someone's sentence, though no words had been spoken.

This man who had worked on ECG's, the melody of the heart mapped, this man could read minds, anticipate calls before they arrived.

From a van, to a train, into the skies to the red brick Waukegan house. In the morning before leaving for Toronto for the funeral, she was in the backyard drawing a child's cracked yellow swing towards her. It carried her weight. From here, she could see the iron swing-gate, muddied stream emptying into the golf course pond and rounded mowed hills. Her memory brush-stroked winter: the pond a rink, and she's skating with her father and brother, melting figure 8's with a sharpened blade.

Here, in Waukegan, in the backyard garden with its wild chives and a cement cherub peeing water, roses springing over lattice, twisting castle-like into the sky, she sat on chalk-white stones and took in perfume so pungent she could taste its sting. Her father loved roses.

As a child, in the backyard she'd made of her world a waukeegance, a little fort. Beyond the fantasy-sized weeping willow, rotting planks over a drying stream, to a narrow forest of birches and oaks, she made believe at being television host on a nature program. From the thick branches, she authoritatively stated that the wormed roads in wrinkled bark were the markings of some indigenous peoples. Only she didn't use the word indigenous.

She had buried her first goldfish there, a few butterflies, and was planning on burying an urn carrying the ashes of a black Lab. But the dog rested eternally on a shelf in the unfinished cellar, built in the 1950's as a bomb shelter. When tornados threatened, she had cowered there with a battery-operated radio, and the black lab named Deacon.

Here, in that cellar, her mother had done everything that can be done to clothes except wear them. She washed, dried, ironed, folded or suspended them on a line.

Here, her father had kept in tall metal filing cabinets all his papers from medical school, papers she allocated to cardboard boxes after his death.

A couple of months after the funeral, she again returned to Waukegan to help her mother pack.

In the backyard, she and her husband spoke with the gardener. As they talked, she followed the Lhasa Apso flying over the Moose Jaw bridge, over a stream whose waters evaporated in the heat of summer, revealing slimy rocks and goldfish her father and brothers had rescued, putting in an aquarium where the fish grew an enormous lustrous orange.

The sun was high, late August, and she looked around at everything that had surrounded her as a child.

The gardener was speaking of children. Under the clear sky, he spoke of losing his daughter to a son-in-law with a gun. The grandchildren were now with him and his wife, the son-in-law in prison.

"You know," said the gardener, looking toward the narrow forest where no one but she knew was a graveyard, "I forgave."

"How?" she asked, uncomfortable.

She looked over, caught in a kind of quiet in his eyes. "It was one night," he said, "I was out on the front stoop, thinking. Then it came to me. I remember my wife opening the screen door. She was worried. By the time she closed the door, I had forgiven him."

"Nothing's going to bring my daughter back. But this forgiving…I had do it to make her happy."

She tried to think of such forgiving, tried to think about what it means to leave something that no longer is, to pardon the agent of loss.

Her father, it could be said, would forgive anyone anything. After his career in electrocardiogram reading, he was constantly embroiled in some "cockamamie scheme" as he called it, cooked up by some medical inventor. An eternal optimist, he would always, with a show of hands, be elaborating on the entirely modern idea of something scientific that might change the face of medicine; he'd libretto on the nature of cells and the dark chambers of the body. He never hesitated, her father. He forgave, trusted, loved to talk.

Her father would drive her to high school when it was certain she was going to miss the train that left Waukegan's downtown port, bumble-bee headed south towards Chicago suburbs, overgrown grass, greying lean-tos: who could be inside, watching us rumbling by?

Then, as her father drove, the highway threading, they'd discuss. Or they'd remain silent, sometimes listening to Mort Saul on Chicago's morning radio. Then, when she arrived at the school lockers, embarrassment as the cute guy with braces teased her for the nth time, "Was that your dad speeding in?"

While in university in Boston, she'd anticipate their call, her father's chatting, her mother's murmuring sleepily.

To university, every year, he insisted on driving, with her mother and two brothers, through the inked August night, into day, the countryside changing from Illinois corn to Ohio amber flatness, and, with the luxury of time, over Pennsylvania mountains, to Boston.

Beyond those mountains, the evening he died, she was celebrating a union. In a hospital in Evanston, a city skirting Chicago, her mother, one brother and a sister-in-law, seven-months pregnant with a first grandchild, were in the waiting room. The nurse came out, "Things look very good."

"Why don't the two of you go home," her mother insisted.

Two hours later, the nurse and doctor were walking towards her, the look of passing in their eyes.

"What do mean, the look of passing?" she asked her mother. Then she realized: a call received.

In a Toronto funeral home, she said goodbye.

As they levied the crypt-like door to the room with her father's body, she noticed a man, shrouded in a prayer shawl, chanting.

"He's the Shomer, the watcher. His prayers accompany the spirit."

Her father, a spirit? Though he might find the Hebrew familiar, how comfortable would he be accompanied? Would he make a friend of such a stranger?

Her father's body was set out under fluorescents, on shining metal, draped with an aesthetic white sheet.

The next day, after the eulogy by a Rabbi who knew nothing of the man eulogized, in the hearse with her mother, two brothers, her uncle and aunt, she stared out at the procession of cars: so many friends.

Beyond the graveyard, a forest began. She caught a glimpse of fur, copper and flame-orange over gravel into forest shade.

"Fox!" she called. One of her brothers looked over her shoulder.

"This part they're keeping," someone said, meaning the forest. She was glad he'd have forest.

The fox, she counted as a sign, hand at the wheel from California to Illinois to Massachusetts, now back in Canada.

Every so often, her father put in a call: her daughter and son, twins, born a year after his death.

More recently, she heard the ringing, riding burnt-sugar vocals: "He left Waukegan…"

She heard it all the way up in Montreal, city of spiralling staircases, weaving-tide cyclists, French joual rolling down the Great Lakes to black waters, down to a Potawatomi city north of Chicago: the anticipation, the buzzing, the sting.

Call received, Dad.

After several years of negotiating what were often stormy seas, Sharon Lax now calls Montreal her home. A teacher and a poet, Lax has conquered her stage fright to read at Montreal venues. Her poetry, collected in a chapbook, "Dali," and published by her press, Andalusian Press, can be found at small bookstores around town. When her mind allows for adventuring, Lax engages in the craft of fiction.

Most important, Sharon Lax is the parent of two people who also love to write. And, of course, there are the requisite two cats.