Beige Wall Telephone, 1960s


To you who have never known what it is to be tethered

     to the family’s one phone by a corkscrew cord

          filthied by idle fingers twisting it as we talked

and stretched by our efforts to sneak with the handset

away from the dining room where that cheap plastic box

     clung to the wall, my sister and I desperate

          to hide behind curtains or in a nearby room

and mumble dumb endearments to whichever lucky soul

we had a crush on that week: I won’t say how wonderful

     it felt to hear a call’s unexpected tremolo

          and rush to answer that sudden summons,

lifting the receiver’s heavy curve out of its metal hook,

or to dial seven numbers on a whirring analog wheel

     and hear a distant ringing pulse in the ear,

          knowing that actual bells trilled as a body

moved through space to deliver its hopeful Hello? –

no, it was awful, that phone, intended for businesses,

     brisk standing exchanges of information,

          not a home where its too-public anchoring

left adolescent siblings open to each other’s mockery

and the cocked ears of nosy parents straining to decode

     one side of conversations as we curled closer

          to the wall and whispered words downward

into the darkness that our huddling made, not pacing

like a barking dog chained to a stake in the backyard

     but trying our best to vanish, descending

          slow as a diver sipping words like oxygen

from a humming line whose other end kept us breathing.

— Michael McFee, From We Were Once Here,
Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2017

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