Hold The Phone

rotary phone

Hold the Phone – Jcagney


There used to be one in every house
with its own end table or altar.

ours was a wire stand crammed
with phone books– the first internet.

if you remembered to clean it

you’d wipe it down like a baby –
its umbilical cord would braid itself
over all the stories & lies transmitted—

You’d have to stand on a chair

to let the long cord unkink

; the handset

a satellite spinning weightless
above the rug.

you could slow dial
if you didn’t want to talk
but had to.  you’d
listen to its metallic purr

watch the plastic wheel rotate

and as it rang
wondered what the house

or room

on the other end looked like.

ours would scream in the empty
living room and you’d run to it.
tell it from the kitchen

you were coming,
even as your footfalls

shook the plates on the wall.


momma could tell who was on the line
just by hearing it ring.
She’d say: Jesus!
before picking it up–
not because it was Him calling–
but rather she knew she was going to need Him
before she hung up.

Grandpa would call every day
& hold the phone.
You’d stand there and listen to him
breathe for a while.
You had to wait– even if you knew what he wanted

And what he wanted was

nothing.  Just nothing.

Where yo momma, he’d finally say
His mouth full of toothless m’s.
Momma would lean back on the couch,
his voice in her ear
and they’d exchange breaths for the longest time.

She’d sit like that for a while


her fingers turning solitaire tarot

on the coffee table.
Sometimes she’d be leaned back

on the couch and  I’d put my ear to her stomach
listening to what was going on in there

until she had to get up
and do this or finish that.

Call waiting used to be called Patience.

You let the phone ring & if no one picked up
you called right back, let it ring some more

Call forwarding was when someone would call
and it wasn’t for you.

You’d have to go to the yard
where she squatted over tomato plants
or you’d hang out the window above the driveway
or shout through the bathroom door: Phone!

Long distance only happened Sunday nights–
You shouted over the width of states.

The callers voice so far away they sounded other worldly.

You had to talk quick & with purpose–
remember your report card and ask about the dog–
because time was money tumbling from someone’s palm.

In school, I could talk for hours about nothing.
Or prank call.  I talked with a girl once

While slowly pouring water

Out of a gallon pitcher into the toilet.

It took the longest time before she asked:

What are you doing?!?

Oh, just standing here, I’d say.

Obscene calls don’t happen any more.
I miss them.

One day

my father caught one
and said: Hold on for a minute

Then passed the phone

to Uncle Jerry who just drove in from


He took the phone, listened
for a good while, frowned, then started cussing
till black flies tumbled from his mouth.

That was when hanging up on someone really meant something.




The photo appearing with this poem was taken two days ago.  It has a ring tone.

Reading it aloud, I like the poems tone, even as it annoys me for being so informal and folksy.   A workshop could make this more muscular.  To me, the line breaks are aligned to the poems speed.  It demands to be read with your hands in your pockets, thinking.

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