Image: classic desk telephone, black, with dial, circa 1950.
My mother was an alcoholic and was for the most part silent in the house. I always kept the silence for I understood and felt adult sorrows, much as dogs sense the unhappiness of their owners. Silence is always the giveaway in tragedy.
But a weird and wonderful change came over my mother whenever she was on the telephone. It was fifties phone: black and made of bakelight, a proto-plastic of great density. It was heavy as a paving stone, squat as a porcupine. And like an animal it sat in its protected corner in a shadowy nest of paper scraps and broken pencils. Because the phone was stationary my mother stood in the corner of the kitchen with her back to the room and leaned into that small corner and talked in earnest.
That was when she laughed.
While much of her day was spent in furtive retreat, while she slept at midday with the curtains drawn, while she often scowled in her privacies, the gadget, the appliance, the domestic device, the horn offered her a district of hilarity. She swayed in the corner, elbows propped on the formica and laughed.
In her laughter she was living, active, open.
In her laughter she was breathing, gasping, even thirsty.
I didn’t listen to what she was actually saying.
I did hear names—knew she was talking about people. Doris, Anna, Sonya—the names were the governing order of the laughter.
I was busy whittling the points of pencils with a jackknife. Blind kid with knife working diligently in the adjoining room…and then a windstorm of laughter—high, musical laughter, ascendant, open, rushing forward…
She laughed then listened, laughed again.
The laughter was like soap on the floor.
It was like the light at the end of the garden.
When she put the receiver back in its cradle she went absolutely silent.
I wanted the telephone.
It was a vessel.
There were people below decks.
When I was alone I picked up the receiver. It was heavy as a hammer. I put it to my ear and heard the steady and flawless dial tone. It was like hearing a sound from beneath the house.
And I knew that if I waited a few moments the operator would speak.
She would tell me the time. Call me sweetie. Her voice, distilled from the darkness.
She was just a bit of the shy, unasked for sweetness of things.