Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2021  Vol. 20  No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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At night, I hear my parents talking on the telephone about
who joined the choir, who gave up the ghost,
who breathed his last, who shuffled off her mortal coil.
They are talking on a party line where the voices of
the dead travel through barbed wire, farm to farm.
Sometimes we hear our dead neighbors breathe
or there’s the kind of silence on the line that lets us know
someone’s listening, so my parents are careful about what they say.
To talk about someone taking a long dirt nap in a narrow bed
would be very rude. Instead, they talk about how death is just
a snuffed candle at sunset, a horse without a rider that returns after dusk,
a rendezvous with a black dog who follows you home,
a light snowfall at nightfall, a blanket on their grave to warm their bones.
Some nights when they call me, all their old neighbors join in.
They say how Death is a seasonal worker who works off the clock,
a day laborer, on the night shift, following the way of all flesh,
or an old-fashioned reaper with an hourglass and scythe.
I haven’t seen my parents for almost twenty years,
so I picture my father on an ancient telephone, the first
one I remember, a wooden box on the wall. Two bells
for eyes, a mouthpiece for a nose. It’s like a death mask.
He leans into it to talk while in the next room my mother’s on the rotary.
She spins the numbers to send for me. Sometimes I hear the phone
ringing in the middle of the night. I answer it expecting the worst,
but it’s not for me. Instead, I overhear my parents tell how
someone else in their church “got the call from the Lord”
who didn’t put him on hold, or they’ve “turned up their toes,”
or they’ve “freed all their horses.” Though they walk through
the shadow of the valley, at least they’ve “gone on to a better
place,” my parents say, and all the whispering neighbors agree.
Sometimes I get angry. Sometimes I break into the conversation
to say how Death has visited so often it’s starting to feel like a cliché,
but my parents shush me, and then they joke how death is just the farm
we buy with the dust we bite, the bucket we kick, the maker we meet,
so I listen to them laugh and talk for as long as I can until
the anachronistic metaphor of the dial tone flat lines.  

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