The Telephonist

Susan Yuzna
for David Foster

I had my order. Not of the choirs
of angels, but of the countries we called

in the stone dead heart of the night. Japan
was a young woman's voice, a cool river

through a thirsty land, sliding over my bone-
tired body like an icy, blue-green

wave. Australia was next--their perpetual
joking could keep me awake. I even

made history once: for eight years, a man
had been calling his brother in the bush.

He loved me, loved my voice, my flipping of
the switches in Oakland, California,

so that, at last, it worked. But usually
I was just too tired to care. My first

graveyard shift and I was much too tired
to give a shit when the businessmen yelled

about lines down in Manila again,
as if I could stop those typhoons, as if

I could make the old crones in Manila
love us, which they didn't, or be somewhat

helpful, which they weren't. Why don't you try
again in two weeks? I would say (the stock

response, a polite voice, then flip the switch,
cut him off, quick, before his swearing

poisons my ear). Too tired to care
about anything, not their business dealing,

not the drunken nostalgia for a whore
known during the war--he can't remember

her name, or the place where she worked, the 
street
it was on, but could I help him find her?

He's never forgotten . . . I grew so tired
of phones ringing for eight hours straight.

I wanted to pull my hair out, one thin
strand at a time. It was a newly

invented circle of hell, and if you
had been there, you just might understand

why that infamous hippie girl rose up,
out of her chair, yanked the earphones off, and 
climbed

onto a counter running the length of the room
beneath our long, black switchboard, then, 
crawling

from station to station, pulled each cord
from its black tunnel, breaking one connection

after another, like a series of
coitus interruptus all down the board,

before they stopped her, and led her away.
She must be on LSD, said a wife

from the Alameda military base. And she wears
no underwear, either, added another.

That was 1970, back when Oakland
Overseas was still manual, but the hatred

of a ringing phone is with me yet.
I will stand at the center of a room

and watch the damn thing ring its little head 
off,
and I will grin, quite stupidly, at its

helplessness. I will walk out the door, fill
my lungs with ice, head for the far-off peaks.

I will lose myself, become one small, dark 
stroke
in the white stillness of snow. I'm telling you

now, it was a brand new circle of hell,
but how could we know that, then? We had jobs,

the market was tight, and the union
won us cab rides home when we worked at night.

Reprinted with permission by the University of Akron Press. Copyright © 2000. All rights reserved.

Reprinted with permission by the University of Akron Press. Copyright © 2000. All rights reserved.

Susan Yuzna