Ma Bell’s

by Jonathan Lethem

Imaginary Oklahoma is an ongoing project in which some of today’s most important and influential writers combine with artists to provide a fictional take on this place we call home. Through a wide variety of voices, styles, and literary devices, these works prove that “Oklahoma” is much more than a place, it’s an idea.

Summer of 1976 I stayed with my cousin whose stepfather ran a restaurant called Ma Bell’s in Tulsa.

A telephone on every table and you called your order into the kitchen, nice gimmick at the time. The minimalist t-shirt had the name in a pleasing sans-serif, canary yellow on a blue tee. I recall the city only as sprawl, incomprehensible to my sense of urban compression. My cousin and I played golf in the horizontal blaze of a hundred-degree August afternoon, cowed after three holes. He was thirteen, I was fourteen. The next summer he visited me in New York City. I reciprocated for horizontal bafflement with the best verticality on offer. We visited the World Trade Center. Instead of taking the elevator to the tourist level at the top and paying for the view, we decided to sneak our way to the highest level we could through office corridors, to see how high a level we could attain and still get to a window for a view. I think we topped out somewhere in the eighties. It hadn’t hit me until writing that last sentence that Oklahoma and Manhattan are cousins- by-terrorism. Ma Bell’s is gone (broken up, I’m tempted to say) and so is his mom’s marriage, and a lot of other things, but my cousin remains my cousin and he still plays golf.

Reprinted in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 20. Oct. 15, 2013.