Caller Thirteen

Refe Tuma

My mom took me to the park and stayed in her car to listen to the radio. The station was giving away a free cruise. She had to be caller thirteen to qualify, so she had to time it just right. She was always entering contests and signing up for sweepstakes, even though she never won anything.

I sat in a swing, letting my sneakers drag in the dirt. Most of the kids at the park were too little to play with, so I looked through the metal fence at the row of nice houses across the street. Sometimes the dads were out raking leaves or riding bikes with their kids. When my mom started screaming she made so much noise she could’ve been in the swing next to me. She was on the air with the deejay, starting and stopping like her phone was going out.

“You gotta turn off the radio,” I called. After a few minutes she jumped out of the car, swinging her hips and waving her hands.

“Thank you Je-sus,” she said.

The kids stopped their games to watch her and whisper. A dad from one of the nice houses peered through the fence, letting his hose make a puddle in the street.

“I deserve this,” my mom said. “I got this comin’ to me.”

When we got back home, my stomach was making gurgling sounds. I turned on the light in the kitchen and pulled a chair up to the fridge so I could reach the frozen dinners. My mom went to the couch to call everybody she knew.

“Lucky thirteen. Can you believe it? No, I ain’t won nothin’ yet—I qualified. Hell yes I’m qualified. With what I got to put up with?”

I could hear my uncle Reggie cussing at her for talking over the TV. Uncle Reggie’s retarded. I know I’m not supposed to say retarded, but that’s what he is. He sits in a wheelchair watching game shows and drools on his shirt. He cusses a lot, but my mom doesn’t make him stop because it’s hard to understand him anyway.

I was scared of Uncle Reggie when he first came to live with us. His fingers stuck together like claws and he was always reaching out like he was trying to grab me. I told my mom but she told me to stop making fun.

“You think I want him here?” she said.

“No ma’am,” I said, digging my toe into the carpet.

“That’s for damn sure. If I wasn’t the only one in the family with some compassion—” she leaned over and glared at the back of Reggie’s head through the doorway. “Now go give me some peace and leave your uncle Reggie alone.”

My mom stayed on her phone for a long time, but I didn’t care. I was good at making my own food. I liked to mix different kinds of frozen dinners together, like sweet corn from the fried chicken and mashed potatoes from the Salisbury steak. I put two trays in the microwave and watched them spin through the door. When it beeped, my mom called from the living room and told me to heat one up for her, too.


There was a girl I liked named Tisha. Everybody at school knew about it. I think she liked me, too. She had long eyelashes and straight hair that curled up at the bottom. Her dad paid for her to eat school breakfast in the cafeteria before class and sometimes she shared it with me. She always got chocolate milk.

“My mom might win a cruise,” I said. Our table was crowded that morning and our arms were pressed together so we were almost holding hands. I kept still so she wouldn’t move away.

“I went on a cruise once,” Tisha said. “I got to swim with dolphins.”

“Really?” I said. On her plate were two sausages, a pile of eggs, and an orange. I could smell the orange. My stomach rumbled.

“Will you get to go?” she said.

All my mom had been talking about was how she was finally going to get a break. She might’ve meant work and Uncle Reggie but I was pretty sure she meant me, too.

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“I hope you do,” Tisha said, and smiled.

I watched Tisha pick at her food. She said she wasn’t going to eat the sausages and I could have them. I ate them both and wished for more. The bell rang and Tisha took one last sip of her chocolate milk. I watched her lick the chocolate off her upper lip and played it over and over in my head until lunch.


My mom didn’t take me to the park that night because Dante came by. Dante was short and had a gold tooth and whenever he was over the house smelled like skunk. He hadn’t been around much lately, so I thought they split. When my mom told him about the contest he came right over.

My mom spent most of the night with her door closed, trying on swimsuits and showing them off for Dante like a fashion show. I could hear her giggling through my bedroom wall. Sometimes Dante laughed, too. They talked in low voices so I couldn’t figure out what they were saying, even with my ear pressed against the wall. I couldn’t concentrate on my homework, so I left.

The living room was dark except for the TV. Nobody had been in there except Reggie, and he wasn’t good with switches. The screen cast weird shadows across on the wall and the big vase in the corner, and over Reggie’s face. He tried to say something when I walked in but I pretended not to hear him. I turned on a lamp and sat on the far side of the couch.

He was watching a game show. It was near the end and the host was showing the contestant a bunch of doors. One of them had the grand prize behind it. The rest were rigged with traps that made a mess or did something gross to the contestant. Reggie was moaning now, and flapping his hands. I could see him squirming in his chair out of the corner of my eye. I looked over my shoulder towards my mom’s room, but she was still in there giggling with Dante.

On TV, the contestant looked back and forth between the three doors and bit her fingernails. Reggie started yelling cuss words at me, so I turned up the TV. The contestant put her hands together like she was praying and walked up to door number two. Her prayers didn’t work, because when she opened the door a cannon went off and covered her in green slime. Everybody in the audience groaned. The host said it was a tough break and put a towel around the lady’s shoulders. He asked the audience if they wanted to see the grand prize. As he opened door number three, the audience cheered like they hadn’t been disappointed a few seconds before.

Reggie stopped cussing and flapping his hands and got real still. A smell filled my nose and stuck in my throat. My mom’s room was quiet now, but I knew better than to call for her. Instead, I turned the TV up even louder and tried to ignore my uncle while he messed his pants.


Dante must have been even more excited about the cruise than my mom because he was around all week. The deejay was supposed to announce the winner on the Friday morning show, so Dante stayed the night. I had to sleep with my pillow over my ears because they were making noises. My mom made pancakes in the morning and poured orange juice and booze into champagne glasses.

Getting myself ready for school was easy, but that morning I couldn’t find my jacket. I asked my mom for help. She shushed me because she was trying to listen. I was tired and thought I was going to miss my bus, so I cried in the hallway where Dante wouldn’t hear me.

The big moment came. They played a drumroll that went on forever. My mom fanned her face with a paper plate. I got excited, too. I started praying with my hands together like the lady on TV, but I gave up. I couldn’t decide if I wanted her to win or lose.

When the deejay called my mom’s name she knocked over her chair with the backs of her knees and jumped around the kitchen. Dante’s eyes went wide and he sat there speechless, holding his hand over his mouth. I started laughing and looked over at Reggie but he didn’t know what was going on. I think he was stressed out because my mom was making so much noise.

The deejay put my mom on the air. She was crying and taking big, deep breaths. I shut off the radio for her this time so she wouldn’t have to remember.

“You don’t know what a blessing this is to me,” she said. “I work so hard. I’m a single mother and I got my handicap brother. This cruise is what I need. I’m finally getting something just for me.”

I watched my mom dance around the room. She came over and swung me around by my hands, crying and laughing. Dante watched from the table, clapping his hands and smiling so I could see his gold tooth. I didn’t hate him so much after that.

After a couple minutes of dancing, my mom noticed the clock on the wall and smacked her forehead. She told me I better hurry up or I’d miss my bus. She reached into her purse and pulled out a five dollar bill.

“Get yourself a school breakfast. Damn—I feel like a millionaire!”

She squeezed me tight and I squeezed back.

I walked to the bus stop, shivering without my jacket. I rubbed the five dollar bill between my fingers. I pictured the sausages, bacon, eggs, and biscuits. I was going to sit down next to Tisha with a tray full of food. She’d look at me and smile. We’d drink chocolate milk together until the bell rang and I’d feel like a millionaire, too.


Refe Tuma is a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominated writer whose stories have appeared in Literary Orphans, WhiskeyPaper, Bartleby Snopes, and elsewhere. His first book What the Dinosaurs Did Last Night will be published by Little, Brown this fall. He has written for the New York Times and various blogs, and serves as a contributing editor at Paper Darts. He goes by @Refeup on Twitter if you’d like to say hi.