I didn’t dare open my hand until I got back into my car. I straightened the white towel I kept on the seat to avoid contact with the burning hot vinyl upholstery. I gingerly placed my shorts-clad butt on the seat and turned over the engine so the AC would begin to make it bearable. When I was settled in and finally opened my hand, I was confused. The paper had seven numbers on it, printed hastily and poorly. Was that a five or a six? A one or a seven? Seven numbers. Probably a phone number then. But Gloria hadn’t provided an area code. I powered up my phone — a high school graduation gift from my adoptive parents — and googled the area codes for Phoenix. Could be 602, 480 or 623, presuming this number was a Phoenix phone number. I got out my spiral notebook from school and wrote down every possible version of the seven numbers. Then I wrote the three area codes. Twelve. There were twelve possible combinations of the number Gloria had scribbled. That would take some calling, but it was way better than the two hundred and some Michael Smiths I had yet to eliminate from my list. “Thank you, Gloria,” I whispered, though I wasn’t sure what she had given me. Was it my father’s last known phone number? And from when? It might well be a number he’d left behind long ago. It might be one more dead end.
I drove in the direction of Denny’s. I had plenty of time left before my shift started. I had my phone right here. No time like the present, I coached myself as I pulled into Denny’s melting asphalt lot and made for a parking spot that was partially shaded by a cluster of old palo verde trees. Faced with twelve numbers instead of potentially years of research to track him down, I was suddenly scared. What if he didn’t want to hear from me? Since he’d never tried to track me down all these years, that seemed a distinct possibility. What if he denied knowing how I was related to him? What if he told me to get lost? Did I want to go through with this even if rejection was my only reward?
Then again, I hadn’t tried to find him, either. When I was living with my adoptive parents, expressing interest in my biological father seemed a betrayal of all the Gordons had done for me. That’s partly why I told them that now that I was a legal adult, I’d make my own way in the world. I didn’t want to feel guilty, researching my real dad on their dime. It didn’t seem fair to them. But I had to know. I told them it would be good for me to live on my own, to have to earn my own money for school, be responsible for rent, for a car, all that adult stuff. They had been hurt, but they didn’t say no. I still called them every Sunday night. But I didn’t tell them about my diabetes sort-of diagnosis. I didn’t tell them that I hadn’t taken the health insurance policy the school had offered because I couldn’t afford it. I wouldn’t tell them about my visit to Gloria or the crumpled paper in my hand, either.
It took me a few minutes, but my eventual answer to myself was, yes, I would risk finding him despite my fears. I did want to know what else besides schizophrenia was lurking in my biology. But more than that, I wanted to know where I came from, exactly. How had my parents met? Had they loved one another? Had I been a wanted child or just an unfortunate accident? Was I like my father at all? Maybe secretly, I wanted to know if me and my dad might yet find a relationship at this late date. I had a good reason why I didn’t try to find him earlier. Maybe he had a good reason, too.
So, I started from the top. The first 623 number “was not in service” according to the computer voice on the other end of the line. The second rang and rang but no one picked up. I made a note to try that one again later. He might be at work somewhere. The third also resulted in that annoyingly harsh set of beeps before a computer voice said it was not in service. Then I tried 602 in front of the fourth number.
“Hello?” It sounded like a young woman on the other end of the phone. I could hear a baby wailing in the background.
“Uh, I’m trying to reach Michael Smith and I have reason to believe this is his number.”
“No, sorry honey, no one by that name lives here or ever did as far as I know. I’ve had this number for the whole three years we’ve been here. Sorry.” Then she hung up. That seemed definitive, so I crossed out that variation.
The next 602 number was answered in Spanish.
“¿Hola?” The man sounded old, too old to be my father.
“Hola, Señor.” I tried the Spanish I studied in high school.
“¿Michael Smith está en casa?”
I guess my accent was decent because the man on the other end went into a long-winded answer in Spanish. Given it was my native tongue, I should have understood it, but I only sort of did. I had buried the fact that it was my first language after being taken from my mama and placed with the Gordons, neither of whom spoke a word of it. As a child, I rejected everything that reminded me of Mama, including her language. It wasn’t until I was a junior in high school that I saw what a mistake it had been to neglect the Mexican side of me. Spanish was a useful language to know in this part of the country, it was my mother tongue, and I often got spoken to in Spanish despite my blue eyes. So, I took a couple of years at the very end of high school from a bored teacher who didn’t seem to like her job very much. But I did learn the basics, so I was able to sort of get what the old guy on the other end of the phone was saying. The gist of it was that he didn’t know anyone named Michael Smith.
“Muchas gracias, Señor. Perdón por molestarte.” I hoped that meant “sorry to bother you.”
One more variation to try in 602 area code. I punched in the number.
On the third ring, a woman with a Spanish accent answered the phone in English.
“Smith residence,” she said.
“Oh wow,” I stupidly said into the phone. Then I said, “May I speak to Michael Smith, please?” Was it really happening? This easily?
There was a hesitation on the other end of the line. “Just a moment, Miss,” the woman said. I heard her put the phone down and walk away. In the background, two women were talking but I couldn’t make out what they were saying. I heard another set of footsteps, wearing heels that clicked on a tile or marble floor, approach the phone.
“Hello?” It was another woman’s voice, one without a trace of a Spanish accent. “What do you mean by calling here with a question like that? How dare you! If you ever call this number again, I’m calling the police!” Then she slammed down the phone.
I had apparently found the right number.