The Black Telephone

Everyone who knows me has heard me go on about my grandfather. A colonel under Patton, he retired at age 60 and spent the next 30 years of his life raising me and giving me more as a model and guide than I had any right to have. I picture him now in one of two places: the living room of his big Edwardian house in Norwich or the main room of the beach cottage where he and my grandmother spent the summers. After a morning at the beach, or before he set out for the day, he’d collapse into his chair in the center of the room, beachbottleglass lamp to his left, open door to the porch on his right, light and gull sounds coming through. He always had a book or a magazine beside him or on his lap (I still run across things all the time I wish I could send on to him, talk to him about; then there’s that arresting moment when I realize that he’s gone — nothing to do with that feeling, no place it goes), and beside the book or the magazine, and maybe a highball glass of iced tea with fresh mint floating on top of it, that black telephone. Of course I moved away from Connecticut when I was 17, and though I was back at the cottage at least a couple of times a summer (I can remember so perfectly how the place felt, drawers and doors hard to shut because they were swelled with the summer humidity, smell of must and sandalwood and the salt from the ocean, the low ceiling and the steep staircase and the deep darkness when night fell) the way I talked to him most often was through that black rotary phone. It had a satisfying heft to it, and it chimed when jostled.

When my friends Jeff and Maureen got married down that street from that cottage at Harkness Memorial State Park, a bunch of us stayed overnight at the cottage, which had been all but abandoned by then, my grandfather gone and my grandmother no longer making the trip in summer. We took the fallout pills that the Millstone nuclear plant had sent to all the nearby homes in the ’70s and sat around waiting for what turned out to be mostly iodine to have some effect. Meanwhile, Shafer took picture after picture of that phone. He seemed to connect with it, not just as a pleasingly shaped object but as something more, an symbol potent with duende. When we cleaned out the cottage two years later I put the phone aside to save for him. Last month I mailed it out to Houston as a housewarming present. So imagine my pleasure to find this poem on his blog tonight.

I miss you old man.

by Shafer Hall

If late at night there is a ringing
and it’s the Colonel, don’t be frightened.

Remember that the funny twists
of the heron’s neck are posture too.

Perhaps the hair on your cheeks
is bristling? But the Colonel was clean-shaven.

The Colonel’s prayers were more communication
than supplication; the old phone
is more of an appliance than a relic.

If the Colonel asks for a report, tell him
everyone’s fine; the rocky island in the bay
is white with birds.

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