William Michaelian

Poems, Notes, and Drawings

Whatever the Odds

The telephone was big enough and heavy enough that it could have been used to bludgeon an intruder. We had no intruders. We locked our doors only at night, or when we were away, by pressing the little button in the center of the knob; during the day, my father left the key in the pickup parked in the graveled driveway in front of the house. The telephone was in the kitchen. It sat on a little legless desk that was attached to the wall. That’s where the bills were kept. A stool sat under the desk. It was painted whatever color the kitchen happened to be. A pencil sharpener was fastened to the edge of the desk, its handle turned by my brothers and me thousands and thousands of times. I didn’t like the telephone. Its intrusive bell shot through me and sounded like an alarm. In the drawer next to it, my father kept the checkbook, his wallet, wedding ring, wristwatch, and a pack of cigarettes. He put on his ring every time he went somewhere. His wristwatch, an old Hamilton we still have, and which still works, he wore only for occasions. Otherwise, he carried a plain one-dollar pocket watch. Gold in color, the Hamilton looked striking against his dark skin. He had to remove it carefully, so the links in the band wouldn’t pull the hair on his arm. The kitchen was by far the most important part of the house. There were four windows: a pair with cranks over the sink, looking out over the porch, facing south toward the road in front; and two adjacent to the table, one facing east, the other south. Every few years, my mother would decorate them with new curtains. The windows were left open when the weather was warm, which, in the San Joaquin Valley, was most of the year. They had screens with sturdy wood frames. The kitchen walls were painted with lead-based paint. Once a year or so, my parents would make up a soapy mixture and sponge the walls clean of dust and grime. We had a gas stove. I remember visitors and my father smoking at the table. My father smoked cigarettes until around 1964, when, coughing early one morning while standing on the ditch bank, he threw his pack into the mossy, green water instead of lighting his first cigarette of the day. Then he switched to cigars. A few years later, when he was found to have a benign tumor in his throat that had to be removed, he quit smoking altogether. My mother smoked very little, a cigarette here and there just to be thoughtful or sociable. She didn’t have to quit, because she never really started. In a sense I smoked all along, because the house was full of smoke. I loved the smell, and I loved to watch people smoke, but I never became a dedicated smoker myself. And so, after a bit of foolish smoking in my teenaged years and early adulthood, and an occasional puff later on, I didn’t have to quit either. That makes me one of the lucky ones, even though I’ve been lucky all along, especially when it seemed luck wasn’t going my way. Cigarettes, cigars, and a daily supply of fresh-baked cookies. Cheerful voices and plenty of good food. And occasionally the telephone would ring, and I’d jump out of my sweaty, tanned skin. Within two seconds, we’d all know who was on the other end. Whatever the odds, it was always a friend.


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Categories: Daybook

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