The Phone Call, David Appelbaum

Dale Champlin, Lady Back, Collage, 2021

The Phone Call*


A windstorm had taken the power down.
The upstairs phone rang and rang.
It didn’t stop when I picked it up.
The voice inside was my grandmother’s.
Don’t go, I want you should know.

Yingle. She was young again. Yingle,
these years I’ve been dead, shame left
me silent. Soft ring-tone tears
fell from the receiver’s mouth,
barely dammed by the breathing holes.

Tell me, is love such a good thing
when it comes home to crush you?
She sat on a squat Turkish ottoman,
assumed a posture of supplication.

A big-bead African necklace coiled
around her throat like a fat phone cord.
With a pearl cigarette holder she smoked
like a flapper girl in a Camels ad.

I forget what he would call himself,
second jazz trumpet from the local club.
Her gravel voice syncopated the vowels.
The devil he was when he held me.

Rain found its way back, thunder pealed.
She pressed my head to her silk blouse.
The scent, rose water and tobacco, calmed,
like the graininess of old leather.

These peccadilloes bite our ankles like fleas.
She hummed a lullaby in Russian.
They have a special warning
like those brown spots on your hands.

Horns wailed, I thought, in the downspout.
Whole cities crumbled in their wake.
My grandmother danced like a houri,
probably some version of the Charleston.

Yingle, she said, they come to stone me.
Her wheelchair was wide for the aisle.
You must help uphold my dignity.
You must swear witness to the truth.

Innocence holds no charm against evil.
My life is an unclean mess, tref.
Surely a heart’s desire extenuates.
The local library has the law journals.

She pressed two salty fingers to my lips.
Though an artist you still have brains.
With you, I have such hope, she said.
Es bricht mir fast das Herz.

Those years you spent happy in Berlin
as if no one else had their troubles.
I had boarders to take in.
Your father went on the warship.

The great hall of the Zurich Opera House,
they were performing Carmen in German.
The toreadors wore SS uniforms
and sang arias consistently off-key.

Was work so hard looking for you?
But forgive, each to his own mishegas.
The past you must repair, she was saying.
Sew it together, wax the stitches sealed.

Fringes of wig turned her face into a rose,
(maybe I was confused with her name)
before my mind could present a case,
the phone went dead, or the dream.

Not a thing she’d said stayed with me.

David Appelbaum

*Note: This poem first appeared in David Appelbaum’s collection of poetry, Portuguese Sailor Boy, The Black Spring Press Group (Eyewear Publishing), © 2020

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