You can talk to the dead on the pay phone in front of Seventh Street Market in West Oakland.
There is also a donut store where they sell burgers, and a check cashing store in the small strip mall, but everybody references the market when talking about the Phone. I didn't tell my Dad we were going to California so he could talk to his dead wife, my Mom, until we hit Olympia, Washington.
“That is the stupidest goddamn thing I have ever heard of! We are driving to Oakland to have a seance on a pay phone?” He said when I told him our actual destination. "I thought we were going to a baseball game!”
“Dad, come on, I want to do this. Please, come along and we’ll see how it goes. And then we’ll see your Mariners play the Oakland A’s.”
Although I always think of him as so much bigger than me, we were about the same size now, he had lost so much weight from stress over the past year. He spent all day on his recliner, alone, he even stopped working in his garden. My dad had nothing else to do, and no matter what he said, he has always loved car trips. He needed something to shake him up, and I knew speaking to Mom again would do it.
He looked over at me, “Don’t you have work? Did you lose your job again!” His face was turning red under his battered Seattle mariners cap.
“I had a difference of opinion with my Bruce.-” I started.
“-Let me guess, you were right, and he was wrong.”
“He was a sexist asshole who wouldn’t know Python if it was actually a snake and bit him.” I shouted at the windshield.” I write good code, and he just-” I glanced at my dad, he was shaking his head. “Yes, I was right, but he's the Boss, so-”
“-You always blame someone else, your school or your boss or me. Maybe, just maybe- it is you?"
“You just don't understand! I don’t need your advice!”
That ended our conversation, but I knew how to get him engaged.
I gave my Dad a map, my phone to look up yelp reviews, and the real destination. To make him work a little bit I gave him some parameters- only six hours of driving a day, restaurants had to be Mexican, Indian or Greek, and we had to fit in two tourist sites per day. Once I set it up that way, he was in. He had the map spread out and outlined our route. We could have kept going south till we hit the bottom of Argentina. He was in his element.
I remember when I was young going on road trips all the time. Or maybe I remember talking about the road trips. He would plan out detailed itineraries, with each day's miles, gas and restaurant stops picked out in advance. Pretty amazing as this was all pre-internet. Dad would go on and on about what motel we would stay at, what we were going to see when we got there, how long we would stay, every little bit. The funny part was he was usually so happy before we left, and then miserable on the trip. Because of course, life does not follow such pre-laid plans. I would need to make an unplanned bathroom stop or the restaurant is closed or the motel full. And then once one thing got off track, then the issues snowballed and as he would day, ‘why did I even plan at all!’
He understood anything mechanical, however he could not understand his daughter. I couldn’t be fixed like a fan motor. We have not really gotten along since high school. When I was little, I was the son he never had, throwing the ball, watching baseball together. But when I realized I preferred girls to boys, and made some poor choices, our relationship took a left turn. My Mom understood my need to rebel, but Dad never did.
He worked at Microsoft, in facilities, for my whole life. He retired last year to take care of Mom, and that is when things started going sideways. Her leukemia diagnosis gave him a reason to plan, to map out her recovery. When the cancer did not follow the plan and Mom passed last month, he got lost. I had to do something.
In Redding, California, my Dad picked a gas station several miles out of the way. He had identified it as the lowest cost gas for the next 100 miles. As we pulled into a line of cars waiting to enter the gas station my phone rang in my Dad's hand. He showed me the caller ID, it read ‘Rosie’.
Damn. I grabbed it to answer.
-”No, Rocko is fine at my place, he is used to it now-”
-”No, do not bring him back to your apartment!”
-”Rosie, I’ll be back in 2 days! That is kidnapping! He will be fine where he is!”
The phone call ended and I dropped it in the cup holder.
“It was Rosie.” I begin.” I didn’t tell you. We broke up. I moved out. Rosie is getting the apartment, and I am getting Rocko- except she just took him back”
“The cat?” my Dad said.
The line moved up and I eased toward an open gas pump.
“Rosie thinks the apartment and the cat go together, and really Rocko does too. But I don’t want to give in. Rosie is the reason we broke up! And, I don’t like living alone, so it is good to have Rocko there. We were together for three years- I don’t know if I can find someone again.” I pause to breathe out. “I feel lost, I need to map out my next step, I-”
“-Pop the hood” My Dad said as if we were not talking at all. He had opened the car door before the car had completely stopped.
He checked the oil, checked the belts, and looked at the tires.
I just watch him exasperated. He gets back in and looks at me,
“Did you put in the gas?”
“Dad, you don't listen!”
“Listen to what?”
“Dad, I was telling you about how I feel!”
“How you feel- about the cat?”
“Oh my goodness.” I got out to fill up the gas.
Leaving the gas station, I switched on the radio, loud. ‘Faith,’ by George Michael came on.
“'Because I gotta have faith, faith, faith…”
I was singing along, when all of a sudden, my Dad switched it off. “Do you hear that?”
“Dad, what the F- are you doing!” I switched the radio back on, louder.
My Dad switched it off again, “No listen! “
“You turned off the radio, what can I listen to!”
“The engine, the engine! Do you hear that? What kind of gas did you put in?”
There was a faint regular knocking sound coming from the engine.
“The cheapest, isn't that why we went to that random gas station?”
“87!?” My dad said, “you have to put in 89, or 91 for your car! The engine will knock.”
“What are you talking about ‘knocks’?” I asked.
“ You put in the wrong gas Gina, oh goodness, we are going to have to listen to this for 300 miles!”
I looked at my Dad and shook my head. “Well how about George Michael then,” and I turned the radio back on.
We got to West Oakland on Friday night and I smelled the San Francisco Bay. It reminded me of Lake Sammamish. It's not a good smell. My Dad had picked out a motel right across from the Port. This was the industrial part of Oakland and was had few houses, mostly factories and large buildings.
I went for a walk by myself that night. Amazing murals covered many of the buildings. One building was entirely painted sky blue with waving trees, mythical animals and tree-people dancing around it. I stopped in front of a huge mural, a fantastical map of the universe all flowing from the open heart of a man floating in rapture. Right in front of it was a burned out shell of a car.
If there was any place that could have a Phone to speak to the dead, it would be here. The sense of anticipation was building in me.
Early Saturday we got to Seventh Street Market, and Dad asked me to drive around the block one more time before we pulled into the small parking lot.
“Dad, it is a real thing. I heard about it on a podcast. ‘Mystical Dimensions’.” We were both staring at the words spray painted on the wall in smoky gray graffiti letters, ‘Speak to the Dead’. “The episode talked to people who had spoken on the phone to their loved ones who had died.” I was not explaining this well.
Inside of a plexiglass phone booth missing its doors, a dilapidated Pacific Bell payphone waited. I can't remember the last time I saw a pay phone.
“So, I guess that is it. Do you want to talk on the Phone?” I said without turning.
He didn’t answer. From the car we watched people go into the market, the donut shop and getting cash for their payday checks.
“Do you want a donut?”
“No." He just looked away.
Everything in my life was going sideways, Gina, gone. The job, gone. And it was a good job, about to go IPO. Until I lost my temper with Bruce. Damn, what am I doing? Dad might be right, it could be me. Mom used to listen to me, give me advice when I screwed up. I don’t know how to talk to my Dad. I want to have a connection to him again. I had hoped this road trip would be a chance to connect, but nothing had changed.
“Hey. I’ll go.” I got out of the car and walked up to the beat-up pay phone. A large portion of the bottom of the phone is missing. Was this a good idea? Maybe I was trying to escape my own problems. For the first time, the idea of a pay phone to talk to the dead seemed really dumb. This whole trip has been a bust, another well planned, poorly executed trips.
I pick up the receiver, and listen to the silence. Maybe I am supposed to speak first.
“Hello, Mom, I brought Dad…”
While I listened for a response, I looked inside the market and saw a profile of a woman who looked exactly like my mother. I looked at the receiver in shock and then looked inside again. The dusty phone booth blurred my view into the store.
A strong wind began to blow and I suddenly became aware of the feeling of the phone in my hand, the ground underneath me. The back of my neck buzzed, I had goosebumps on my arms. The wind swirled trash and leaves into a small dust devil just outside the booth.
She is at the cash register, I could only see her from the back. The way of she held her head, it was exactly how I remembered mom. Was this possible?
Suddenly I felt the loss of my Mom course through me, the bottom has been ripped out. She was the only one who I could talk to, who would listen to me. I desperately needed to see her again, to hold her hand like I did at the end when she couldn't get out of bed.
I saw her begin to leave and I turned to watch the front door. My heart grew with anticipation. A woman of about 30 walks out, her hair style exactly like my Mom had when I was young, but this woman is a stranger. She saw me starting, nodded and walked away. My heart was racing and I breathed. She was truly gone and the tears' blurred my vision.
“Mom, please help me know what to do with my life.” I hang up the receiver and get back in the car. Another 30 minutes went by and I brought it up again.
“Dad, do you want to try now?”
I see his hands clenched tighter.
“I miss Mom.” I said.
“I do too.”
We watched people from the neighborhood come and go, and then a minivan parked and an entire family got out. Asian, they are dressed differently than anyone we have seen yet, more corporate than streetwear. A man, a woman holding a baby, and a teenage girl walked up to look at the phone. The young girl looks back at her Mom, and then goes to the pay phone and picks up the receiver.
I get out of the car, and my Dad does too.
“Excuse me ma’am, are you here for the Phone?” My Dad asks the Mom.
The woman looks over and smiles.
“Yes, We drive down every couple months. Our son, Ayaka’s little brother, died of cancer last year. Today would have been Yoshi’s birthday, and...” She tears up, and looks down at her sleeping baby.
“My wife passed away last month.” Dad paused and looked around the parking lot. “Does Yoshi answer back?” Dad asked.
“It depends what you mean by ‘answer’.” The mom gave a soft smile, and then took Ayaka’s place at the phone, followed by the Dad.
Ayaka looked over at us, and then went back inside the phone booth and picked up the receiver.
““I am sorry for your loss.” The Mom says, as she put the baby in the car seat.
Ayaka hung up the phone and turned to my Dad.
“I asked Yoshi to go get your wife so you can talk to her.”
The family gets in the minivan and drove off.
Finally, my dad walked up to the phone booth. He reached out and picked up the receiver. After a few minutes I watched him begin to sob, his shoulders shaking.
He hung up the phone and got back in the car.
“Your Mom said you should come live with me, at least until you are back on your feet." He said. "You can even bring the cat.”
“She said that?”
My Dad looked at me and smiled, the first I had seen in a long time.
“I think we both need to figure out where we are going.”
“OK, Dad. Let’s go see a baseball game. You have the map, show us where we need to go.”
Mom answered after all.