Our New Telephone

by RUTH GORDON

1

“DAMN good magazine, McClure’s,” my father said one evening as he and my mother sat reading. He reached over and knocked the ashes out of his pipe into the Dresden china cuspidor that had been a bargain.

“I’m glad you got something to enjoy, Clinton. Lord knows you deserve it and I know if you say so it must be good because you don’t like to read just any old thing. You know I been thinking, Clinton, that everybody else has got one and we ought to have a telephone.”

“Wouldn’t have one if you gave it to me,” declared my father composedly and returned once more to McClure’s.

“Why, Clinton?” asked my mother. “What have you got against it?”

My father sat still as a statue for a moment and then gave a loud sneeze. “Get that cat off the register,” he demanded, blowing his nose with a groan. “Hot air coming up through cat fur’ll give me back my old malaria. Get him off of there. I ain’t goin’ to have him lying around warming up all his germs.”

“Here, Punk,” said my mother kindly, lifting him off the register and settling him on her lap. “Punk’s clean and healthy and hasn’t any germs, Clinton. Please try not to be against a telephone.”

“I ain’t against it,” said my father reasonably, “so long as we don’t have to have one.”

Punk stretched out across my mother’s lap with such drowsy abandon that he very nearly rolled off. “Sit quiet, Punk,” she counseled. “The kind of telephone we want, Clinton, won’t cost a thing except just one old nickel a day, and Ruth’s growing up, you know, into a young lady, and all the other girls have them, and it isn’t as if we wanted to make outgoing calls to cost us money or anything. It’s so the children — I mean the young people — can call up Ruth. So what we want is to get a coin-inthe-slot one that all you have to do is every day put a nickel in. Just one call a day is all the telephone company cares about, or of course two calls in one day and then skip tomorrow. And that way makes the bills be all paid, and you don’t even have to waste so much as a stamp doing it because the telephone company comes themselves to collect its nickels and all we have to do is to just be at home that day, and if you’re not, then they simply come another. And, Clinton, if you don’t want to, you don’t personally have to have a thing to do with it; it can just be Ruth’s and mine.”

“It can be Shem and Japeth’s,” said my father genially, “so long as I don’t have to pay for it. But the way it’ll turn out’ll be, it ain’t Shem and Japeth’s but mine. And that I ain’t goin’ to have, and don’t even put it in my name in the telephone book. I got no wish to call attention to myself.”

“We won’t use your name at all, Clinton. It can be in my name of Mrs. Clinton Jones and don’t you trouble about the money end of it because that part is certainly all right. I can always get it from somewheres.”

My father picked up his McClure’s Magazine and hitched his chair a little closer to our green-shaded gasolier. “I ain’t a wizard, either financial or fake, but I can tell you that the New England Telephone Company ain’t goin’ to care for that address for no source of its revenue. Tell me what good’s a cat anyway. What about throwin’ him away?”

My mother sighed and smoothed our cat’s fur affectionately. “Clinton, you just like to hear yourself talk like that, but you don’t fool even Punk. Punk likes you best of anyone, and well he might because you taught that cat just about every blessed thing he knows.”

My father looked over at Punk coldly. “Jump over,” he said and held up his foot. With perhaps just a little surreptitious assistance, Punk flopped down off my mother’s lap, and when he found himself close to my father’s foot, of his own free will he jumped over.

“There,” exclaimed my mother happily. “A little faith is a wonderful thing. That cat loves and trusts you, Clinton, and it doesn’t cost any more.”

“A little faith,” said my father judicially, “has to start with something a whole lot deeper than just a cat’s true love and trust. And o’ course the New England Telephone Company ain’t had the splendid advantage of seeing how a little cat shall lead ‘em, so when you get down to talkin’ finance you can’t give ‘em turnip blood as security, sayin’ it would be just as cheap for it to have some and for all you know, it really may.”

My mother looked at my father admiringly. “Oh, Clinton,” she sighed. “You’re a wonderful talker. I wish more people could hear you though I don’t know where you get your ideas from. How many people do we know that hasn’t got a telephone, and I don’t want Ruth to grow up feeling out of it. Why, I don’t want to be out of it myself. Just think how you’d have felt that day President Cleveland died if you couldn’t have called up Mrs. Litchfield to tell me to hang out our flag at half mast.”

“Well,” said my father plausibly, “how often do you think that occasion is likely to arise?”

“What was just a blessing, of course, was Eaton’s ice man happening by. Otherwise I could never in this world have got out on that piazza roof, let alone finding how I was going to get that flag pulled up the pole. Of course I had to buy that 25-cent piece of ice extra, that I didn’t want any more than a hen wants water, but with Ruth being named for Ruthie Cleveland, and the roof being so slanting, and you having telephoned, I just knew what had to be done had to be done, and so done it was.”

“That feller lashed them ropes to the halyards like he’d took lessons from Corticelii’s cat. Seemed like the only way to ever hope to get ‘em untied again was to just let ‘em rot off. I notice how people handle rope and strings is a lot of time pretty damn characteristic.”

“Well now, Clinton,” said my mother, gently reproving, “just because you happened to be a sailor doesn’t mean everyone can knot a rope right.”

My father favored her with a pitying glance. “People don’t happen to be sailors,” he said succinctly. “There’s quite a knack to it.”

2

When our telephone was installed, my father ignored it unless he thought we were talking too long, and then he told us briefly to quit. Once it rang at nine o’clock, after we had gone to bed, and as I came upstairs again my father called out to me, “What’s the matter? Is the house afire?”

“No,” I said, “it was Richard DeNormandie.”

“Oh,” he said, “is DeNormandie’s house afire? ”

“No, Papa, nobody’s house is afire,”I said feeling grown-up and important. “He just simply asked me to go to a dance.”

My father’s bed creaked as he rolled over. “I knew it must have been something vital,” he said. “Anything to prevent him askin’ you in the daytime, or don’t he get the power of speech before night?”

And then came the day when my father was troubled and used our telephone himself. There was word at the factory that Dan Weymouth, head of the shipping department, was going to retire on a pension, and it frightened my father, for he thought perhaps the retirement was compulsory, “Dan’s only been there a little longer than me, you know,” he reminded my mother. “Well, then, where’s the axe going to fall next?”

“It’s awful, Clinton,” agreed my mother, “but couldn’t you just try to eat supper.”

My father pushed back his chair from the dining-room table and stood up. “No,” he said, “I couldn’t. I’m too troubled. I don’t know what to think. See, if I knew Dan went and done it of his own free will, that would be all right. All right for Dan, I mean,”he added hastily, “because o’course if they asked me to go and do likewise, the only answer I got is to go over an’ lay down on the New York, New Haven, and Hartford railroad tracks.”

“Clinton!”

“O’ course, with Dan it ain’t so drastic. He owns his own house in Mather Street, and above that he’s already got his G. A.R. pension — for what, o’ course, no one seems to be clear. Far’s I can make out, someone looked cross-eyed at him, so he went and lay down in an army hospital an’ has been gettin’ paid for it ever since. So it’s just possible he could be quittin’ an’ glad to, but how’m I goin’ to know for certain, if someone don’t cough up some facts.”

“What about the others, Clinton? Are any more men leaving, too?”

“Not’s I know of. But see, now I ain’t sure of anything any more, because two hours ago I didn’t know nothin’ about Dan Weymouth neither.”

“Well, has anyone said anything to make you suspicious?”

“Where would I get time to be suspicious, standin’ on my feet all day?”

“Well, Clinton, it’s probably all your imagination, but if it’s goin’ to make you worry like this, won’t you please, just to make me happy, call up Dan on the telephone and see what he has to say.”

“Oh no,” said my father miserably, “I guess it ain’t as bad as all that”

“Think a minute, Clinton. Is your peace of mind worth a nickel? We can’t eat our dinner tonight. Won’t you even pay a nickel for that?”

My father looked moodily out the window. “What the hell consolation is it goin’ to be? If it’s good news it’ll still be good news tomorrow, and if it’s bad news, that ain’t consolin’, and we’re payin’ a nickel to get it quicker.” My father pulled down the window shade. “No wonder they make fortunes out of poor people. All right, I’ll telephone to him. You got to have money to have the heart to wait for bad news.”

My mother did not stop to hear anything further but hurried to the telephone book hanging beside our telephone in the entry between the cellar stairs and our kitchen door.

My father sat down in his reading chair and looked at the back of his hands. “There’s two things takes the gimp out of a man,” he said dejectedly. “One’s injustice and one is cancer.”

“Oh, cancer — don’t talk,” agreed my mother, ruffling the pages until she came to W. “Some people used to say it came from tomatoes, but I for one never thought it did. You know my grandmother Beal died of it, and the saying is it’s supposed to skip a generation. Well, right this minute I don’t know what state of mind I’d be in if it wasn’t for my Mental Science. I wish I could get you to try it, Clinton, even if you never got any further than to just read ‘Unity.’ Here’s Dan’s number, Clinton, just there in back of my thumb.”

My father took a nickel out of the Clark’s O. N. T. (Our New Thread) box, which stood by the phone for that purpose. He dropped it in the slot, listened to the little bell ring, and cleared his throat several times, so as to be ready. There was a click at the other end of the line and my father became as stiff as a ramrod. “Hello,” he said distinctly, “is that you, Dan?” He paused. “Yes, I thought it was, it sounds like you. This is Jones and I’m telephoning to you. Can you hear me, or do you want me to be louder?” Results were apparently satisfactory at Mr. Weymouth’s end and so my father continued, “I’m telephoning to you, Dan, about a matter that’s give me a whole lot of concern, and what I’d like to do is find out about it without in no wavs buttin’ in. It’s what’s goin’ on in the factory about you getting ready to leave.”

A short pause followed, while my father listened absorbedly. Suddenly his whole expression brightened. “Just repeat that, Dan,” he said eagerly, “so’s I can make sure I got it correct. You done it because you wanted to. They didn’t ask you to do it. In other words the whole idea came straight from your end.” Relief was in my father’s voice and face. “ Well, Dan, I’m glad to hear you say so. I’m damn glad to hear you say it. Fixed as I am, it’s a relief. Just one more thing: you can appreciate I ain’t askin’ you all this out of no idle curiosity and that’s all I had in my mind to say. So you can start to hang up now same as me. I been telephonin’ to you from Wollaston, so goodbye.”

“What, Clinton?” asked my mother.

My father took off his glasses, held them to the light, and polished them. When he spoke it sounded as though his voice was being meted out a little at a time. “Why,” he said carefully, “Dan give me to understand there weren’t no call to be alarmed. There hasn’t been no pressure brought to bear on him, no pressure whatsoever in any shape, form, or manner. The idea sprang only from himself.”

“Oh, isn’t that just a blessing!” exclaimed my mother jubilantly. “Dan’s a real lovely man. Oh, isn’t it lovely it’s all straightened out. I declare I love a telephone.”

“A telephone,” said my father learnedly, “is a very remarkable invention. I never said it wasn’t. I could hear Dan just now as clear, say, as if he was down in our cellar. As a scientific achievement it can’t be beat. Of course, what effect it’s going to have on the next generation’s powers of hearing, with all that clickin’ and bell ringin’, still remains to be seen. But anyway, whoever ain’t got their hearing eventually, I’m damn glad I got mine this evening, so’s I could hear Dan Weymouth say he wasn’t fired.”