Tunde calls Elisa between ten and eleven o’clock at night, from his second job, the group home where he is paid to sleep on a living room sofa. He calls to sing the praise song to their son. That way, when Tunde’s mother visits the United States, the child will recognize the song and respond with the appropriate refrain.
At least that, he had said to Elisa when she left. At least let him have that.
He had hoped for obstinance from her. He’s an infant, or perhaps, Wait until he starts talking. Any argument. Any opener.
But Elisa had said, Of course.
Now she answers the phone and says, “We’re here.” That is his prompt to begin. If he says anything to her, she will hang up. He is a stubborn man, but he has learned this.
He sings carefully for his son’s sake, but it is difficult. He hears soft breath in the spaces beneath his voice. An image rises, vivid and immediate: the pale whorl of her ear, tender and expectant. Blood pounds in his temples.
On their last night together, they had walked home from a downtown theater at one in the morning. Fresh snow glittered along the black street. He’d worn the camel wool overcoat she especially liked. They had walked past blocks and blocks of cold, unlit neighborhoods to their apartment. Elisa had taken off his right glove and folded it into his coat pocket because otherwise, she said, she couldn’t hold his hand properly. She was only just starting to show. She had tucked her fingers into his hand, a gesture both dainty and proprietary.
The next day someone told her. But he has that night of perfect, unpunctured happiness.
It’s not real, she’d said when she left him. You were lying, so it wasn’t real.
What is more real than our baby? he’d demanded. What greater fact can there be?
His son, Tunde decides, is sleeping near the open phone line. That is the soft breath he hears. Probably she tucked the phone in the bassinette, and five states away, his voice is spilling into the air near the baby’s head. Probably she is not even in the room.
Tunde reminds himself that is a man of great endurance. As a youth, he spent weeks at every harvest walking across his father’s cocoa farms. He had run down game on foot, armed with only a cutlass and his prodigious stamina. Even these days, when his back aches from lifting the residents at the MMR homes where he works, he will walk home if he misses the bus. Hours and hours on dark roads. That is nothing. Only Elisa’s silence makes him falter.
Still, he sings. I have crossed so many things. I will cross this also.
It will not always be like this. Soon his son will be too big to be left alone with the phone. She will have to stay to keep him from grabbing. She will have to hear him sing.
He sings into a thousand miles of silence. He imagines Elisa curled on her side, their son tucked against the underswell of her breast. The phone in her hand.
Eyes closed, voice pitched low so as not to wake the residents in the group home, he sings. One day it will be her breath he hears, because she will be listening. And if he is very quick, he can tell her he loves her before the connection breaks. He will treasure that he has made her hear it, as a victory.
Marcela Fuentes’s work has been published in the Indiana Review, Vestal Review, Juked, and other journals. Her flash fiction is anthologized in Flash Fiction International by W.W. Norton, Dzanc’s Best of the Web, and New Stories from the Southwest. She teaches at Texas A&M University.