Telephones from the 50s

Gary Soto - 1952-

Nisei, remember the party line?
How you shared the same line,
The same mornings,
The same problems—
My girl is sick, the check was mailed late,
The irrigation pump doesn’t work—
Two hundred for the man to come out.

Life on the nisei family farm… 
If Mrs. Oda lifted the black telephone
And another voice was there,
She set it back into the cradle,
Looked up at the clock,
Maybe folded baby clothes,
Maybe cut coupons from the newspaper,
Maybe ironed a shirt,
Maybe took a broom to the spiders
Near the ceiling.

(Water drip from the kitchen sink,
Tractor roar near the barn,
Dog barking just to bark,
Sunlight hot as an iron on the sill.
She looked at the telephone, looked and looked.)

Mrs. Oda smoothed the front
Of her dress—printed with chickens,
Little white fences, roses faded from the wash.
She could have cooked rice,
Chopped green onions and carrots,
Nappa if one was in the fridge.
Elbows on the kitchen table,
She could have examined her book
Of Green stamps.  

At a quarter to five
She lifted the receiver of the phone.
She called her sister-in-law on the next farm
To say that she had folded clothes,
Ironed and cut coupons,
Swiped the broom at spiders,
And saved the better part of the nappa.

Her sister-in-law would say,
“I did those very things—
Okazu’s for supper.
You could come over
But looks like you’re having the same.”

More by Gary Soto

Earth Day on the Bay

Curled like a genie’s lamp,
A track shoe from the 1970s among seaweed,
The race long over, the blue ribbons faded,
The trophies deep in pink insulation in the rafters.
Perhaps the former distant runner sits in his recliner.

The other shoe? Along this shore,
It could have ridden the waves back to Mother Korea,
Where it was molded from plastic,
Fitted with cloth, shoelaces poked through the eyelets,
Squeezed for inspection.

I remember that style of shoe.
Never owned a pair myself.
With my skinny legs I could go side-to-side like a crab,
But never run the distance with a number on my back,
Never the winner or runner up heaving at the end.

I bag that shoe, now litter, and nearly slip on the rocks.
Gulls scream above, a single kite goes crazy,
A cargo ship in the distance carrying more
Of the same.

On the News of Your Illness

The slivers run their course,
And the bad eye can now burn with accuracy.
The cough? What cough?
What stinging rubber band against your wrist?

The sneeze moves the leaves of the potted plant.
A dab of lotion solves the scaly hand. 
The knuckle accepts the rap,
The knee goes only so far
And walking is so overrated.
Heal yourself, daughter. Kisses help,
Handholding, snow caught in your hair.

Daughter, lovely daughter, be with us.
Let the thing inside you pass without warning.
Don’t be like the cloud, thin and sailing away,
The dark birds like commas,
Then ellipsis in the far distance,
An uncompleted life.

A Walk through the Cemetery

In memory of David Ruenzel, 1954–2014

I searched for twenty minutes
For my murdered friend’s grave,
A small, white marker,
# 356 it reads. He is not
This number, or any number,
And he is not earth,
But a memory
Of how he and I hiked
Through this Oakland cemetery—
What, six months before
He was shot? We stopped
At the Fred Korematsu stone,
Righteous man, stubborn
Behind bars for refusing
The Japanese-American internment in 1942—
Jail for him, in suit and tie, god dammit.
We righted flowers at his grave,
Bright with toy-like American flags,
And shaded our eyes to follow
The flight of the hawks above.
We left and walked up a slope
And visited a part of the cemetery
Where the Chinese are buried,
A division of races, a preference?
 
Now I’m at his grave marker—
The stone for him has yet to arrive.
His widow lives a mile up
In the Oakland Hills.
Here is truth: she has a telescope
Trained on his grave.
She pours coffee—she looks.
She does the vacuuming—she looks.
She comes home hugging bags
Of groceries—she looks.
Perhaps she is getting up
From the piano, an eye wincing
Behind the telescope.
If so, she would see me
Looking at marker #366—
This plot is available,
Purchasable, ready
For a down payment.
But the first installment
I must pay with my life.
What then? His widow
Will still keep the telescope
Trained on his grave,
Now and then swiveling
It to #366, his friend.
The buzzing bees would languidly
Pass the honey between us.