Qualified Entry: Non-Fiction Category
By: Gary Winters
The San Diego sun dripped warm honey. I was getting ready to read the Declaration of Independence. Read it out loud and clear. Then eat hot dogs and baked beans and apple pie and kick back. Barbara handed me the phone.
“The next time I call collect you better accept the charges. This is an official call,” the voice said, and hung up. Barbara had answered the phone the first time and said no, she wouldn’t accept a collect call from Tijuana. A few minutes later the voice called back collect. This time Barbara accepted charges–I had told her it might have something to do with my daughter. She brought the phone to me in the tomato garden. Miguel said he was calling from a hospital in Tijuana and carefully gave me the name and address, twice, spelling it in English each time, showing off his polyglot skills on my money. There had been a terrible smashup on the highway: thirty-one victims, four of them dead. The woman who had my telephone number as her emergency contact was unconscious, and he, Miguel, was responsible for everyone. Sounded like he was in shock.
Yep, I figured, my daughter went to Baja every year with her two kids, sometimes with a husband, sometimes without one. I was already halfway there in my mind. I’d trolley to the border and then take a taxi to the hospital. I could be there in two or three hours. Easier than driving.
Miguel said he’d go find a translator, I should hold.
“Habla Español,” I said. A good idea. I speak Spanish. But he said he wasn’t sure about some words, whatever that meant, and left me holding for several minutes. The phone went dead.
It gave me time to think about my daughter. Her name is Tanis. I named her after a city at the mouth of the Nile, an ancient center of civilization ruled by the Hyksos. Her mother thought she was named after some trollop in a Sinclair Lewis novel. She lived in a feast of illusions. She was a former beauty queen who won the talent part of the Miss California contest with a scene from George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan.
Miguel called back, the second expensive international collect call.
Let me say here those country-to-country collect calls are not cheap. Miguel said the woman was conscious now and they were bringing her to the phone. I waited. The seconds ticked by in tense anticipation. The phone went dead.
My daughter’s mother and I were divorced. But I had always kept in touch, visiting and sometimes sleeping on the sofa. She picked up a Mexican man somewhere, doesn’t matter where. He didn’t speak much English. One night after drinking wine he stabbed her to death on the living room carpet with his knife. He then hanged himself in the carport, naked. My daughter was asleep in her bedroom the whole time until a cop woke her and bundled her out of the house. The police report said she had blood on her feet. I checked the house. The last vinyl record in the phonograph stack was Van Morrison singing Into the Mystic.
Seven years old, Tanis went from a maternal environment to a paternal lifestyle, just like that. I dressed her in jeans and T-shirts, the prevailing Berkeley dress code. She had all the street names memorized in a week. She climbed trees, walked to school holding her Yamaha guitar by the neck, and played songs for her girlfriends during recess. After school they’d descend like a band of marauding midgets on the coffee house I frequented, so they could swipe powdered chocolate off the steamed-milk foam on my cappuccino with their grubby little fingers.
But she couldn’t bring herself to call me Daddy without giving a little grunt first. To let me know it was an effort. One day she forgot to grunt first. She immediately realized what she’d done—-called me Daddy without grunting first-—so she grunted after she said Daddy. She looked out of the corner of her eye to see if I’d noticed. I didn’t worry about it. After all, I did invent a new psychotherapy before I was thirty. I integrated what I’d learned as an actor into the therapeutic process. The United States Office of Patents and Trademarks granted me ownership of DramaTherapy. Ten years later I let the National Association of Drama Therapy use it. It’s a matter of public record.
The third collect call came. “Names, names, Miguel.”
“I can’t tell you that.”
“¡NOMBRES! ¡NOMBRES!” I shouted in Spanish. Very slowly he gave me eleven names, about two names a minute, spelling each one out. I was patient, let him do it his way, Mexican time —- until the connection broke.
One of the strongest emotions I ever had was when I took a good look at my daughter and got the feeling -— not a thought, a tangible feeling–something that had its own existence inside me —- that there was no question I would give my life in a nanosecond to protect her from harm.
The phone rang. Miguel de Garcia de Garcia–he was happy to tell me his name–apologized for a broken plug on their telephone, the reason for the break in the connection. He said wait, they were bringing the woman to talk to me and-—you guessed it.
These broken phone links were like razor slashes. They bled in my gut like the relationship I’d had with my daughter over the years. I had been at a distinct disadvantage. Her mother had said she would cut me completely out of my daughter’s life. She destroyed photographs of us together, our marriage license, and who knows what else. Just because I understood her mental makeup didn’t make it any easier.
After the murder/suicide my daughter stayed with me for two years. When I knew she was all right I placed her with her grandparents. She was their first grandchild, their fifth child almost. They had raised four girls and her grandmother could teach her things I didn’t have a clue about. A grand piano and a fireplace adorned her spacious bedroom, with a redwood deck that looked out over Carmel Valley in central California. I arranged for her to share in the inheritance of the estate equally with the other daughters. That was a crucial break in our relationship. I knew that.
Call number five, collect. Miguel said, “They’re bringing her right now, any second…” We got cut off.
How could my daughter not blame me for the way things turned out. In her seven-year-old mind she must have wondered what things would be like if I hadn’t divorced her mother.
Who knows what she thought.
She did all right, ending up with a graduate degree in telecommunications office management from the University of Southern California. I congratulated her and said I didn’t know they gave a degree in telephone.
No response to that. But in a letter she called me a child pornographer.
When she turned eighteen I had sent her prepubescent nude photos taken of her when she was seven or eight. A lovely woman who worked at UC Berkeley photographed children at a studio in her home. I directed the shoot, posing Tanis sitting with legs crossed, her arm resting on the side of a dark wood love seat, staring straight into the lens; lying on the love seat with her knees bent, heels up and head propped on her hand, and a round upside down photo of the Mona Lisa behind her snugly fitted in the small of her back. Poses like that.
Years later, after saying the human body was the most beautiful thing in the world, I told Tanis that since she wanted to be an actress like her mother, I was going to enter the photos in a photography contest. I explained how Brooke Shields at the age of twelve got her start when she won a children’s beauty contest. The prize was to be photographed nude. That photograph by Gary Gross in 1983 was on display at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City September 2007 through January 9, 2008.
The photographs of Tanis are amazing. Simple perfection. No adornment needed. I put myself through graduate school at NYU selling my paintings in my own art gallery, so I should know. I’m also an award-winning photojournalist. My daughter made me promise to not enter the photos. She said, “If you wanted a photograph of me you should have gone to Sears like any other father.” Well, that’s where the train careened off the track. I don’t know anything about that kind of TV father. I consider those images of her the best work I’ve ever done in any medium.
Tanis said she wanted to be an artist. I tacked up twelve ornate astrological posters on the walls in our house in the Berkeley hills. Each one depicted a sun sign with arcane symbols. When she was an adult my daughter told me the posters were pictures of great orgies and giant penises. The only human figures in the entire set were a man and woman running straight forward holding hands, long hair flowing in the breeze, in solid black silhouette. Only the outline of their bodies was visible.
I took my daughter and her brother, Gary, to a family campground up in the mountains among the pine trees for a week. I was on staff as the counselor for teens in exchange for expenses for me and my family, including my girlfriend. One of my daughter’s friends, the only one Tanis ever said was smarter than she was, climbed in my lap as I sat talking with a group of parents. I had helped her learn to swim. She put her little eight-year-old arms around my neck and whispered in my ear, “You’re my real daddy.” Her father was a terrific guy, a cultured gentleman, so her statement was in no way excluding him.
Years later Tanis’s best friend, a Berkeley doctor’s daughter, who became a ski instructor at 18, said to her mother and me and several others that I was “her second father.”
I persuaded Tanis to join Mensa. I’m not sure why it took her so long to tell me she’d been accepted. My feeling was she always acted like her life was none of my business.
Another collect call. Up to six now. Miguel was excited, the woman was coming down the hall. If I would just hold on… I held for two or three minutes. Then the line buzzed in my ear. An hour had elapsed since the first call. I was raring to get going.
A man named Javier called from Tijuana and asked me to accept reversed charges. I said okay. But now I was determined to take command. I got tough–United States Marine Corps tough. “Where’s Miguel?” I snarled in my best take-charge captain of the championship softball team’s voice, the team that beat the John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier’s team once by sheer luck.
“He went home,” Javier said in a matter-of-fact tone.
He began to tell me about the situation in Tijuana. There had been a terrible traffic accident, see, lots of people were dead and injured, and -— you might be surprised —- we got cut off.
All of a sudden this bright idea dawned on me to call Tanis in Oregon. She answered on the third ring.