American Obsessive

My best friend’s life has been stripped to its essence. His living room is devoid of brash luxuries: no couches, no chairs. Twenty-eight years later, he’s still waiting for the right ones. His only photos are JPEGs on a computer. He likes to keep the walls pristine, freshly-painted Sherwin Williams Steamed Milk White every three years. I just don’t have the heart to sully such a perfect wall with nails.

Everything in his pantry bears the date of purchase in Sharpie. He’s given up cable TV for YouTube, mostly grocery hauls, middle aged women hoisting bags of frozen mango. He’s convinced the hardwood floors are creaking differently, so he asks me to walk back and forth as he listens.

He keeps the door shut to a third bedroom. Twice he’s shown me what he considers a failing—tall shelves containing more than four-hundred phones. Asimitel, Century, Crosley, Disney, Kingston, Regal, Strowger, Viking. Rotary phones, push-button phones, princess phones, a candlestick phone, a big button landline, a sleek slimline, a PacMan phone, a football phone, a Hot Lips landline.

He stands in the middle of the room. In the corner, four bins run length-wise, resembling a blue sarcophagus. His hand rests on a black Western Electric called the screamer, but there is no screaming. It’s quiet, this room filled with hundreds of phones. No voices other than our own. No rings, buzzes, rattles, clatters, hums.

My friend picks up the red handset of an Asimitel emergency phone and presses it to his cheek. There is no emergency. He sets the receiver back down. The sound of plastic settling into plastic, then nothing, then nothing all over again.

An earlier version of this poem appeared in East by Northeast, September 2020.

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