Inside my grandparents’ house, near the sunroom smelling of last year’s apples,
inside a nook in the front hallway sits the home’s only phone, a squat black model
with its receiver nested in the cradle. Number, circle, my fingertip loops the clickety arc
of the rotary dial. If I choose zero, a live human answers. If I heft the White Pages
from the shelf, open to my letter, skim down the list, I find my family
printed there in bold type. Across the hall a door opens to steep spaced steps
descending into the damp basement where a naked bulb casts shadows
on a washer, clothes lines pegged with wood pins, and cobwebby shelves
under the stairs where stacks of plates gather dust for decades after
my grandfather retires. These are American-made, nearly unbreakable
plates, traced around the edges with a burgundy border of dogwood flowers,
plates thick and wide enough to balance on a waiter’s furred forearm. A waiter who
serves the meat and three, cheap meals for office workers and department store shoppers
downtown looking for stockings, a girdle, a good winter coat. Meals my grandfather
tallies in his looping script. These hand written tickets from the Sanitary Lunch pay
for the teal Ford Falcon tucked into the small detached garage past grape vines and
fig trees just next to the victory garden, pay for his house of more than forty years
where my grandmother’s azaleas and hydrangeas bloom out front, grapefruit rinds rotting
underneath adding acid to the soil as they wither. My mother praises the flowers,
disparages my grandfather as That cheap Greek. The man who takes me to Shoney’s
for ice cream, slips twenties into my palm, makes me swear not to tell my dad.
Dad’s deep sighs after each call from that black phone. My grandmother, powdered
in a cloud of Coty, calling again, until those diner plates move to our more spacious basement.
And now, except as small jolts of electricity in my brain, none of this, none of them exist.