I hear sympathy, irritation, hope, different stages of grief into the woman’s voice each time the recording plays: “The person you are trying to reach has a voice mailbox that has not been set up yet.” It’s the sixth time I’ve called Michael in two days. Now I’m walking to the day report center downtown to talk to his counselor.
Although he’s twenty-six, I’m still paying for my son’s phone plan. And, look, I get it. He needs a phone to check in with rehab. He needs it to get a job. A family plan is a good deal, and it makes sense to combine the bill if he’s living in the basement. I’m trying to be a compassionate father here.
I’m good at rationalizing. I’m good at giving second and third chances. I’m not perfect – for one, I’m not the most patient guy – but I’m forgiving and I’m trying to right this ship. He’s my kid.
But if I’m paying for his phone, I want him to answer when I call. He needs to set up his goddamned voice mailbox. How are employers supposed to reach him?
I call again and this time the recording sounds like the woman is lying to my face. Covering for Michael, lying to me through a shit-eating grin like a junkie blocking the doorway of a flophouse and I know he’s behind her, passed out somewhere just out of sight. “The person you are trying to reach has a voice,” she starts.
“I don’t want to hear it,” I mutter and cut her off. I keep my eyes on my phone in case the flimflammers taking up space under the bus stop awning think I’m talking to them. I’m not trying to start anything. I’m just one more stranger having a bad day, okay. I catch a glimpse of my scowl in the phone-screen and try to work my cheeks up into a more pleasant expression. I’m good at controlling what I can control, finding healthy coping mechanisms. My self-awareness is one of the only things keeping me from being in their shoes right now. I’ve been close, believe you me. There are things you can’t always tell about a person just passing them on the street. That’s why kindness is my default. No judgement.
At the corner I check my phone again. Maybe I missed a notification in the traffic noise. My texts lay like breadcrumbs in the message thread. I scroll up to his last response and it’s older than I thought – a surly “k,” sent a week ago. That was when he was over at the Kroger and I was reminding him to pick up his medication on the way home. He was tooling around town on his bike, which is never a good idea for a kid with a drug problem. But he didn’t need his Dad reminding him about his meds then. He was still doing well. That was the story. After that “k” the messages go one-sided: “Hey, did you make it?” I cast another crumb. “Did you check in with your counselor?”
I cross the street to the block with the police station, day report, and blood testing center. These services are conveniently located together for a reason, and the people who mill around in the shade outside are having days at least as bad as mine. They’re all somebody’s kid, somebody’s mother or father. They might be flimflammers, but if they’re on this block, they’re trying to keep their heads above water. I respect that and I know how they feel. We’re all just trying to keep our boats from capsizing.
I’m a compassionate person. But you know what, I’m also not stupid. It’s better not to make eye contact with folks down on their luck. There’s just too much need out here in the world and I have to conserve my energy for what I can change.
I call Michael one more time and count the rings. “The person you are trying to reach—” the recording begins again. I save her the trouble of finishing.
Edie Meade is a writer, artist, and mother of four in Huntington, West Virginia. She is passionate about literacy and collects books like they’re going out of style. Say hi on Twitter @ediemeade or https://ediemeade.com/.