From the Improvement Era, August 1925 –
Speaking of Telephones
By Fred McLaughlin
“North 3062, please.” I find that it pays to be courteous, even to telephone girls.
“Main three eleven.”
“The line is busy” – with accent on the antepenult.
It was during a coal shortage. No coal in town and every dealer “busy.”
“Number, please?” I rather liked the rich young voice.
“A moment; let me think. Would you mind telling me – to further the solution of a psychological problem – how the coal dealers can all be busy and still have no coal?”
She shifted her gum; I heard it. “Probably answering foolish questions.”
There! Could a reply be more complete?
“But, my dear,” said I, folding up my fifty years and stuffing them into a waistcoat pocket. “I feel the need for conversation.” She piqued my curiosity, while she aroused in me a spirit of banter; a thing at which, according to my colleagues of the faculty, I excel. “I fain would converse. Even to hear a coal baron say he is out would give me hope.”
“You fain would, would you?” she laughed. “Your voice sounds a little bald-headed to me.”
“Pray continue; you intrigue me.”
“And you wear glasses.”
“Of a surety – Proceed.” What more absorbing problem! Tomorrow I could tell this to my psychology class.
“You’re kinder thin; and your coat is too long.”
“Maybe you have a goatee!”
“Missed! I’ve cut it off. Ha!”
“Foiled! You’re ripe.”
“I say, Ramses, you’ve reached that age when they are just ripe enough to fa–” The tone of easy familiarity went out of her voice; I visualized a passing manager or overseer. “Operator?” It was a question, a plaint, and a command; a superficial film over a strong current of suppressed merriment. I gave the next number on the carbon list.
I presume she was a bit excited, for the connection she gave me, instead of putting me in touch with the coal man, projected me headlong into a terrible tragedy. There came first a little stuttering screech, exasperating and uncomfortable in the extreme to the ear, then a deep rasping voice, the harsh unmusical timbre of which I instantly hated.
“Hurry and get it over with! Not that – the gun! Quick!”
Then I heard a woman’s voice; wondrously sweet; low at first in earnest entreaty, then rising through the human scale from pleading and fear and grim despair to a prolonged shrill scream of pure animal terror.
“Oh, not that! Not that! Help!”
Unmistakable sounds of a struggle; of harsh breathing and heavy voices; of the cry of that poor unfortunate fighting for her life or her honor, or both. Beside myself, I yelled into the phone. I called for them to stop; I spoke of police and murder and help. Came the sound of a shot, of bitter curses, of the woman’s fearful scream: “Help! Help! Ah – George!”
Another shot; the noise of crashing glass and a medley of voices. Someone said, “Fix that phone!” Then silence.
There my wife found me, hanging over the dead instrument – shouting into it, gasping, trembling. Emergencies nearly always find me unprepared.
“What in the world, Allie?”
I replaced the receiver and thrust nervous fingers through my rapidly thinning hair. “Oh, dear, oh, dear!” I cried. “They’re killing her!”
“Who is killing who; and where?” Excitement often detracts from the perfection of one’s grammar.
“They are murdering a woman; I heard it, by chance, over the telephone, and – ”
“But where – where? Don’t you know where it was, Allie? Listen to me. You are unstrung. Don’t you – ?”
Of course – the number; I would call the number again. I would tell him I’d heard. I would threaten him. I grabbed the receiver and rattled the hook. “Hurry — hurry!” I breathed.
The fresh young voice, cool and sweet, came back to me. “Operator?”
“That number you just gave me – Give me it again – quick!”
“Search me,” she said, with calm indifference; “what number?”
“Don’t you remember? – The coal man, and – ”
“Well, if it isn’t old Ramses, the tooth, back again! What is it, old dear? Fall and split your infinitive?”
The efforts of the telephone company to educate its employees have been crowned with great success.
“I asked for a number; don’t you see? And you gave me one.”
“Sure; we have quite a supply. What’ll you have?”
“You gave me the wrong one,” I rushed on; “and I want it.”
“The number you asked for?”
“No! The wrong one,” I shouted, rapidly succumbing to my excitement; “I want the wrong one!”
“Oh, my Hat!” she gasped, reverting to type. “He wants the wrong one. Get that, Bellie?” An aside no doubt to some gum-destroying divinity sitting next to her. “He wants the wrong one. Can you beat it? – The company doesn’t permit us to give the wrong numbers, Ramses. What’s your particular desire? What do you want? What ails you?”
“Oh, tragedy – tragedy!” I half sobbed.
“What do you want for four dollars a month – Grand opera? Here you are!”
A great voice came over the wire. I felt nervous and a little diffident. I did not just know how to address a red-handed murderer. Should I be stern and threaten, or soft and gentle, leading him on to admissions. Should I pretend knowledge I did not possess, in order to frighten him, or –
“What is it?”
“I know you!” I cried, a little shrilly. “You – you – ”
“What kind?” he rasped.
“Kind? I’ll have the – ”
“Say, get a move on! How much?”
I considered. Was he trying to buy me off? I decided to be non-committal. “What?”
“How much coal, of course. What do you think this is – St. Elizabeth’s?” St. Elizabeth’s is a temporary abiding place for persons who believe everyone else is crazy.
“Coal? I don’t want any coal!” I slammed the receiver down. “She’s dead ere this. Oh, what shall I do? What shall I do?”
A woman, young and beautiful; young no doubt – from the voice – a woman has been murdered, just this minute. – And George, too, for I felt that plea to George had been for protection – perhaps George too had met his death. I bowed my head on my arms.
“The police, Allie,” suggested my wife, always practical; “maybe the police can help.”
Of course; I had forgotten the police. Hastily procuring my hat I hurried out to the curb, where our car stands of an afternoon. It is not a very fine car, nor a large one, for a psychology professor – though of inestimable value to the world – receives no great recompense for his services.
I have noticed an amazing thing about the temperament of our automobile, for when I am anxious to get somewhere quickly I find that it is singularly lacking in the spirit of cooperation. And the harder I cranked and the more excited I became, the less seemed to be its inclination to start.
A small boy paused to watch me. I have never been able to see anything funny in the spectacle of an elderly gentleman trying to start a reluctant motor car, but I suspected that in some manner beyond my comprehension I was affording him a species of amusement.
“Where’s the monkey, professor?” he asked.
“Monkey?” I spoke with all the dignity that a badly aching back permitted.
“Maybe you forgot to put in a new roll.” He seed anxious.
The genus boy is a difficult problem. I straightened up and, wiping the tears and perspiration from my eyes, spoke in the tone of voice which always commands respect for me in the class-room: “Is it your intention, young man, to insinuate that this is a hand-organ?”
“Ain’t it?” said he, chinning the door and studying the dash. “If it’s a naughtomobile you ought to turn the switch.”
I looked, and sure enough the key was pointing straight down. I didn’t know whether to kick him or kiss him. After careful searching of my pockets I discovered a dime, which he received with grateful appreciation.
Presently I was sailing swiftly down the half deserted street. So intent was I on reaching my destination and picturing to the chief the terrible scene of death that I failed to note a motorcycle policeman until he had drawn alongside and commanded me to stop. He took my name and number, and asked me in no pleasant tone where I thought I was going. When I assured him that I was on my way to the police station, he gave me a terrible look and told me not to get funny. Finally he let me go. Soon I was dashing up the stone steps of the station house, where I poured forth my story into the ear of a large heavy man sitting comfortably, but ungracefully, behind a huge oak desk. Somehow I disliked him; to me there is a sort of an uncouthness about a big man.
He took the cigar out of his mouth. The extreme deliberation of his movements irritated me.
“You don’t know the people,” said he ponderously, “nor where this took place?”
“Nor the phone number?” he continued.
“Not that either.”
“We’ll have to wait, professor. A report will no doubt come in.” I believe he thought I had dreamed the whole thing.
“But the telephone,” said I in desperation.
“Forty thousand phones in this town.” He put the black cigar back into his face. “You’ll hear from us; good day.”
So I drove home, dazed and despondent. I went to bed with a severe headache; my wife gave me a couple of aspirin tablets and put a cold cloth on my forehead.
The vivid picture remained with me. I felt as if I was having a horrid dream and couldn’t awake. Tomorrow I would hear; the papers would be full of it. Tomorrow would be too late; how could I live until tomorrow. The terror of that lurid thing, so clearly visualized to me, would craze me long before the morrow. I held my head in a perfect frenzy of agony, and prayed for sleep or forgetfulness.
Just before dinner time my boy – aged eleven – returned from the Academy, a show-house which makes a specialty of very mellow melodrama. His clear high voice, tense with excitement, came to me distinctly:
“Oh, boy, it was great!” he said. “They had her in the office of the railroad station – gonna kill her. They had tied George to the track. Train came along – O-o-o-oh! Wrong track – Wow! George got loose – Broke in the window – Shot ’em. Gee, it was some show!”
Then there floated up from below a delicious lilt of feminine laughter. My wife has the sweetest laugh in all the world.
It had never occurred to me that theatres might have telephones behind the scenes.
I wonder if the Chief of Police will look me up.
And I had told Monsieur Big Voice that I didn’t want any coal.