Phone Calls

by Hunter Braithwaite


Sometimes I work backwards to create premonitory dreams. I look for auguries. Clouds moving quickly or the eye contact of strangers. Omens help because they point to reason. Nothing is tougher than unreasonable loss.

The night the police came I might have been dreaming a banging noise. I think of crunching ice with my teeth, bits of broken ice sliding down my face until they melt. Then my teeth bite stones until they begin to break themselves. The noise brings me back to the real world, the one without symbols, and becomes the sound of a gloved knuckle rapping on our oak door. The doorbell rings too. I went downstairs–I remember the feeling of each one. The carpet mashing beneath my weight, and then springing up again.

“There’s been an accident.” My breath coagulated, began sticking to my lungs like thick mucus. I devoted most of my energy, my trembling 3am sentience to moving the air through my body. I invited the guests in. The officers, a patrolman that I didn’t recognize, and a chaplain told me what had happened.

The car carrying my nephew Riley had been navigated around a turn too sharply and, after a graceful spiral through the air, came to rest on a fire hydrant. The hydrant made its way through the passenger window and crushed his head and neck. A final indignity came when the shock of impact split the hydrant and filled the cabin with a tide of sewer water.

The water must have diluted the blood. A blush pond surrounding an upturned car. Broken glass looks like ice. Melting. Broken teeth. The glow of the streetlight.

Now how do you make sense of that?

My wife came down the stairs in her nightgown. She’s always been a heavy sleeper.

You don’t. It shakes you so deeply that you’ll never make sense of anything again.

The order of things gets mixed up here. The men said the body they found, head pushed in and dripping, belonged to Riley. It pains me now, but I was relieved that it wasn’t Jake, my boy, who was dead. I turned to Caroline and said that there had been an accident. Riley had been killed. I worry that my voice betrayed a deep sense of relief. I’m sure the police noticed. Caroline said there was a mistake. Walking downstairs she had passed Riley’s bedroom. He had left the light on and was asleep. She turned it off and came down to see what the commotion was. So there must be a mistake. I began to laugh.

The Chaplain produced Riley’s drivers license. But Riley was there in his bed. I ran to his room and punched him hard in the stomach. He’d loaned Jake his drivers license so he could buy beer for his idiot friends.

And so we had two bedrooms and one body.


We went to the police station, then the morgue. There we saw Jake. He had a series of hickies on his neck and shoulders, although the bruising might have been from the seat belt. I’ll believe hickies. His last night spent with a young girl—caught up, unable and unwilling to see anything else. These young kids, they don’t know.

The hydrant had crushed his face pretty much completely. My son was just an eggshell. Caroline couldn’t look at him like this; she turned into me and shook without noise. But I couldn’t stop looking.

It was the last time I’d see him when he wasn’t looking. The true glimpses of our babies happen with their guard down.

I remember the sonogram. His face looked like the moon in the sky. Something that will always be tethered to me; something with shadows I’ll never really understand. Lunar Maria, that’s the name of the shadows. Lunar Seas. If we had a girl, she would have been Maria. But we were given a boy, and his name was Jacob.

Over a decade later I walked in on him masturbating. He was before a mirror, admiring himself. I stood and watched him for longer than I should have. It’s unfair, I remember thinking, that parents shouldn’t be able to see their children grow in those ways. I was thinking about myself at his age. We looked exactly the same. He turned and saw me, kicked the door shut with his foot, and we never mentioned it. Not at dinner or anytime after.

Caroline and I signed the death certificate and drove home. Dawn, a paraplegic struggling up the road.


We live our lives like a toddler swinging his arms, trying to get someone’s attention. Then a jolt comes and the shoulder gives. It hangs stiff and loose, if that makes sense, like a tree limb coated in ice. Our arm dislocated, we shake in pain and yet marvel at our own fragility.

Blame helps for the time being.

To be clear, I’d never really cared for my nephew, but you have to compromise sometimes. Sharon drank. That was her occupation and her hobby rolled into one. If not for the broken furniture and the subpoenas, her life would have been one of contentment and satisfaction. But that’s just wishful thinking.

Sharon came and visited once. This was ’03. She looked bad. Her second DUI had her in jail for thirty days, with another ninety days suspended. Normal people look at the suspended time as a faint remembrance. The shaky morning after a nightmare. But for Sharon, who’d wake up drunk and covered in burns, that ninety was debit.

I felt like we were punished for wishing death on Riley. But I also felt that Riley bought his life with Jake’s death. I kicked him out of the house. Never heard from him again. Caroline never forgave me for this. She left too. My crackup followed, I’ll admit it.

I started sleeping in Jake’s bedroom. I looked at the pictures on his computer. I began to wear his clothing. I went through his phone and invented details for the text messages. One night I kept drinking until past midnight and then started calling numbers. There were some answers, girls mainly, whispering into the mouthpiece of their phone. They knew that Jake was gone, but in the darkness of their bedrooms, that didn’t matter. Sometimes I would weep. Other times, I’d shout until the line went dead.