THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB
WHEN the telephone rings, I jump like a skittish horse. If I hear Jenny’s swift clip-clap across the kitchen floor, I wait, half-trembling, for her voice. Her first ‘Hello’ is courteous and non-committal. But how I hang upon her next phrase! If it comes still suave, I know my fate.
Must a moment, please, I’ll call her.’ I am hurrying to the door, but, oh, I am afraid! Somebody wants me to do something, or to be something, and I don’t leant to! I don’t want to! Childishly it goes over and over in my head, even while I lift the receiver.
But if Jenny’s second ‘Hello’ follows brisk and familiar, I sink back unscathed for the moment, and let the echoes of her sociability amuse me.
‘Sure! Yes, on your life I’ll come! Did you say we’d have hot dogs or pickled pigs’ feet? Good-night! — You don’t mean he had the nerve to ask you, after those words you and he passed at the whist last night! The big boob! ’ et cetera, et cetera.
If I were Jenny, I would not be afflicted by telephone terror. I would not suffer from the horrid conviction that I am all one great bare sensitive ear. That desperate instinctive ‘I don’t want to! I don’t want to! Leave me alone; oh, please leave me alone!’ would never leap to my lips, and I would never want to bang the receiver against the wall, wailing even to the kindest and clearest voice across the wire, ‘Oh, don’t ask me! Don’t tell me! Give me time to breathe! Give me time to live!’
Unfortunately I am not Jenny. I am neither so good, nor so useful, nor so human as she. She and her friends use the telephone simply as a splendid extension of their own tongues. They joke and jibe and scrap and soothe by wire. They are not self-conscious, not afraid. They have the right courage and simplicity to deal with such a furtive tyrant as the telephone. I have not. I let it bully me. I am its slave, and so I hate it and fear it.
But it is not all a preponderance of courage that makes Jenny’s pickledpigs’-feet conversations so much freer and gladder than mine. Jenny’s tongue enjoys itself. My tongue despises itself. It is bad to hear myself talk on any occasion. It is worse to talk into an empty black hole, without the comfort and guide of a responsive face before me. It is bad to adapt myself to new persons, to be what they expect me to be, to say what they expect me to say. It is worse to do it suddenly, unpreparedly: to jump, as it were, head-foremost, into not only one encounter of personality in an hour, but perhaps into one on top of another all day long, at the devilish telephone’s will. The sound of my voice at such times sickens me. I feel flat, strained, unreal. For I hate to talk; and the telephone has me at its mercy.
And I hate to decide quickly. It is fearful to learn, out of a clear sky, that I am asked to do something, or that somebody is suddenly in town, for whom I must devise a time and place of entertainment. The trouble is not so much that I am churlish, as that the form of attack frightens me. A letter bringing like news of an invitation or a visitor may be a delight. But the telephone in itself is ominous and confusing.
How can I tell at eleven in the morning whether I can spend the afternoon in even the most charming of motorrides? Such a decision involves readjustments unlimited, of Jenny and myself and all the world of the day. How can I greet cheerfully at first gasp the bland announcement, ‘I’m Rachel Rollins. I’m so glad you’re at home! We’re just here for the afternoon, and I wondered how we could manage to see you.’
I may be ever so glad to see Rachel; but, oh, if she would write to me, or ring my door-bell, not my telephone! A face-to-face encounter I have learned to manage, and even to find happy and heart-warming. But voice-to-voice, sudden, threatening, compelling, strikes terror to my soul.
And these are of the mildest and kindest demands of my tyrant. It asks me, instantly, to give money, time, work, sympathy, wisdom; to rearrange my whole plan of being, as it were, a dozen times a day. It makes no preambles and it respects no privacies.
Perhaps that irreverence for privacy is the telephone’s worst crime in my sight. Voices can intrude upon me whose owoers would never dream of crossing my threshold without an introduction or apology. I may be saving the baby from a kettle of scalding water, or saying a long good-bye to my best-beloved friend: the telephone does not care. If my prayers were as long as they should be, they would still offer no sanctuary against the persistent bell-burr.
It rings me out of bed, away from my meals, from adventures in dusty atticarchives and adventures in spiritual archives no less absorbing. If I ever try to write a poem, — for the moment an illusion of wings and glory, — I am well bumped to earth. ‘Indeed it would be such a help if you could give a cake to t he Men’s Club supper Thursday night! ’ Or, ‘Do you remember the recipe for that perfectly delicious piccalilly you made last, fall?’
If the poem survives three or four such onslaughts, I know at least that it is genuine, if not glorious.
If I were Jenny, I would not mind, though even she sighs at repeated attacks. But I am of those who still would like a wall about my yard and a stout gate at the entrance. Many and many might enter and be welcome; but they should give me a moment’s time to realize who they were, to adjust myself, to be what they require of me. They should not drag me, headlong and apprehensive, to unexplained encounters.
But this utopian defense is impossible. Of course I could not live without a telephone. For me it is the most beneficent but the most barren vehicle of necessity or convenience, and I must pay the penalty of its usefulness.
Perhaps the trouble is all with me. I suspect that I am sometimes almost neurasthenic in my fear of sudden attack upon my home and my being. Or, more shameful, I am a mere old fogy, bom a few generations late, all out of tune with telephones and automobiles and factory-cogs, and all too distrustful of the network of intimacy that has tangled the whole world together so ominously.
Being humble (in spots), I will blame myself thus for telephone terror. While the Jennies of my acquaintance go blithely on, planning whist-parties with pickled-pigs’-feet obligatos, and scolding and jollying each other, I shall hide from all save those who may read this and cannily lay to my door the unalterable fact that I jump and quiver whenever the bell rings, and that something in me cries out, no matter how I try to choke it, —
‘Oh, please don’t! Please don’t! Leave me alone! I don’t want to talk. I don’t want to decide. I want time to breathe, and live, and be myself instead of a hundred other people’s ideas of me. Please, please, please leave — me — alone! ’