Fiction

Love’s an Emergency, Too

IRVING GAYNOR NEIMAN March 15 1948
Fiction

Love’s an Emergency, Too

IRVING GAYNOR NEIMAN March 15 1948

Love’s an Emergency, Too

IRVING GAYNOR NEIMAN

THERE PROBABLY aren’t many private telephone companies left in these days of rapid progress, but the Fitchville exchange is one, and Mrs. Hatch owns it and runs it singlehanded along stem lines.

No calls are allowed after 9 p.m., when Mrs. Hatch retires, or between eleven Sunday mornings when Mrs. Hatch goes to church and six in the evening. An exception is made in the case of emergency calls, but Mrs. Hatch is seventy years old and feels that people with any consideration will have their emergencies during normal operating hours.

The water on the county road was three inches deep one Sunday in the spring when Mrs. Hatch shut down the switchboard and went off to church. She looked neat and sprightly in her Sunday best and the effect wasn’t at all spoiled by the rubber boots she wore. Floods aren’t a common thing in Fitchville, but now and again some town upstream will blast the ice out of the river without telling anyone about if and the rush of water flashes down on Fitchville, bringing more inconvenience than danger, as a rule.

“Let it. flood,” Mrs. Hatch said crisply, “and

it will soon be done with and no reason to fret and fume, as some will.” She spoke aloud, although she was quite alone, out of a habit she had formed from her long hours at the switchboard. A person can listen only so long and then a person has to talk. That’s what Mrs. Hatch did, always with her key closed, and she had found that it was a solace.

SHE STEPPED into the swirling brown water and walked steadfastly down the road. Her shoulders were slightly hunched from bending over her switchboard, but she gave the impression of walking very straight and firm nonetheless. A light-blue sedan swished down the county road and swept past her, depositing a fine brown spray on her bonnet.

“That city feller,” she said. “Like as not he’ll come down again to tell me how to run my business, the way he did yesterday. City know-it-all, I’d call him.” The light-blue sedan belonged to Walter Simms, from Toronto.

“City feller,” she said darkly. “ T can tell you how to run your business, Mrs. Hatch, because I ran the Canadian Army and I won the war.’ ”

The quotation was inexact, but it showed that Mr. Simms’ interview the day before had left a strong impression. What he had actually said was, “I served in the signal corps during the war, Mrs. Hatch, and there are one or two suggestions I might make for improving your service, which

had better improve soon or my life will be blasted.”

Mrs. Hatch had not deigned to reply but her granddaughter Sally answered for her.

“Stop picking on Grandma,” she said. “The regular residents of Fitchville consider the service quite satisfactory.”

“Satisfactory!” Mr. Simms said. He paced the floor excitedly and waved his arms. “You have to crank a handle before you can even speak to the operator and that is usually as far as you get.”

“Stop picking on Grandma,” Sally said.

“I’m not picking on Grandma,” Mr. Simms said coolly, “Grandma is picking on me. She is destroying my childhood romance and putting me out of business.”

Sally looked at him calmly. “Mr. Simms,” she said, “just what is your trouble?”

She was really not interested, but felt that he should be put in his place. She felt this partly because he was obviously an outsider and partly because he was a handsome young man with curly brown hair—the kind of a young man most young women want to put in his place for fear he might get vain and not notice the young woman herself. This was unlikely in Sally’s case, as she was as trim and nent a brunette as Fitchville or any other place has ever seen, but women are by nature conservative and cautious.

“It is a larger question than just my own troubles,” Walter said, “which will nevertheless

serve by way of illustration.” He held up his forefinger dramatically. “Item.”

“Item?” Sally said.

“Item. I am known to you as the new local representative of the Excelsior Farm Machinery Company, manufacturers of the Little Atom Milking Machine.”

“You are known,” Sally said.

“It is essential to my sales campaign in this area to sell Mr. Roy Bartlett, who is the biggest farmer around. Sell Mr. Bartlett and the rest of the farmers will fall in fine.” Walter spoke slowly, dropping each word carefully. “For the past two weeks I have been trying to get Mr. Barlett on the phone,” he said. “I have yet to make a connection.” Sally sighed and said, “Yep.” The sigh and the word were executed on the same indrawn breath, lending the expression a poignantly said note. Walter had come to recognize the sound as native to the region. “Grandma does have trouble with the Benton Falls Exchange. She and the Benton Falls operator aren’t speaking.”

“Oh, no !” Walter said. He turned on Mrs. Hatch, who turned her back and self-consciously plugged into the Number 7 line. “Madam, you are an outrage to modern rapid communication!”

“Rapid communication, indeed!” Mrs. Hatch muttered to herself. “Folks who want to talk to each other get to talk to each otner and that is the purpose of the telephone.”

You couldn’t tell Grandma anything about a flood or a romance — she directed them both from her switchboard

“Stop picking on Grandma,” Sally said. “Why don't you just drive over to Roy Bartlett’s place and talk to him?”

He looked at her with some pity. “I made my reputation as a salesman entirely by telephone. Busy men appreciate having you phone. It saves time. You don’t change a winning system, Miss

She smiled brightly. “Then, persevere, Mr. Simms,” she said. “I’m sure you’ll get your connection if you keep on trying.”

He stopped his feverish pacing and held up two fingers. “Item!” he said.

“Oh,” she said, “There’s more.”

“Miss Margery Mantón, my fiancée, has expected me to call her for three days. She is in Toronto. She probably thinks I have abandoned her.”

Sally said, “Yep,” with the same sad sigh. “Grandma hates talking to the Toronto operators. You can’t get a friendly word out of them.”

Walter looked about him with a wild expression.

“An anachronism!” he said.

“I beg your pardon?”

“An anachronism. The atom bomb and the hand crank, side by side.”

Sally looked at him with wonder and some regard. “Mr. Simms,” she said, “are you a fugitive?”

“A fugitive? From what, for heaven’s sake?”

“That was the next question. I was wondering

who is chasing you. In other words, what is the big rush?”

“The rush is not of my making,” Walter said, “This is an age of speed. The fact apparently has not penetrated to Fitchville.”

Sally sighed and said, “If you don’t like it here, why don’t you go back to Toronto? You can make the afternoon train with some of your native speed to burn.”

“There is no turning back,” Walter said. “There are no other vacant agencies. Besides, I’m going to make good here.”

Sally looked at; his curly brown hair and said, “Perhaps you will. My number is six ring two, if you ever pause long enough to think of it.”

THE LONG-DISTANCE line buzzed urgently at that moment. Mrs. Hatch settled herself firmly in her chair and plugged in. She waved her hand to the handset in the corner and said, “It’s for you, Mr. Simms. Toronto is calling.”

Walter lunged at the phone and said, “Hello? Yes. Yes. Margery? Darling, I . . . ” And there he stopped.

He listened attentively for a while, then motioned for a chair and sat down. He made several unsuccessful attempts to break in, but it was a full five minutes before he could say, “But darling, I tried to call you. It’s just (hat the local switchboard gets confused with calls that travel more than three miles.”

He listened again. Tlis face grow red. Ho finally said, “All right, darling. Yes, dear. Without fail. I’ll call you tomorrow afternoon. You know I love you, don’t; you?”

When he had hung up Sally said, “You are a fugit ive at t hat, aren’t you?”

Walter said, “My fiancée does not. believe that I couldn’t get a call through this company. She says my home office has been trying to call me all week, to find out why I haven’t sent in any orders.” “Why not; write them a letter?” Sally said.

Walter leaped to his feet, seized his hat and walked rapidly to the door.

“Good day, Miss Hatch,” he said.

“You’d better call me Sally,” she said. “Six ring two.”

He looked startled and said, “Good day, Sally.”

THE SERVICE at the Fitchville church was unusually short. Mrs. Hatch mentioned this to Mr. Foster, the minister. She agreed that his text from Genesis, concerning the original inundation, might well give folks something to think about, but felt that it was shameful that the congregation was so small.

“It took fifteen cubits of water to worry them in Noah’s time,” she told Mr. Foster sternly, “and I’ll bet there isn’t even a single cubit on the county road right now.”

Mrs. Hatch wasn’t at all sure how deep a cubit was, but the water had risen during the service and was fully a foot deep as she stepped into it from the church steps. She had barely started on her way home when she heard a roar behind her and was once more splashed from head to foot with muddy water as the same light-blue sedan went by her, throwing fan-shaped spray from its rear wheels. The car travelled only twenty feet past her when the engine coughed wetly and died.

When Mrs. Hatch carne alongside, Walter Simms leaned down and waved a finger at her. “Why aren’t you at your Cont’d on next page

switchboard?” he yelled. “The town is flooded.”

‘T know it is,” Mrs. Hatch said.

“I have tried to call you for the past half hour,” Walter said.

“Switchboard closes Sunday afternoons,” she said.

“But this is an emergency,” he shouted.

“Emergency my foot,” Mrs. Hatch said. “All folks want to do on the telephone is tell each other that there’s a flood going on and all a soul has to do is look out the window to see that.”

“But the rescue . . . the relief. . .” Walter found that he was short ot words.

“Speak up,” Mrs. Hatch said. “Can’t hear a word you’re saying.”

It was just then that Evergood Hawkes came down the middle of the road in his row-boat. Evergood got his boat out any time there was barely enough water to float it, ever since a flood years ago when folks in every house he stopped at offered him a bit ot hard cider in appreciation of his visit. He was waving his hands talking, in a merry way, indicating that he had already made a few stops.

“Boats!” Walter yelled. “We will need boats, Mrs. Hatch. You’d better call the nearest towns and . . .” Then for the first time he seemed to realize that Mrs. Hatch was standing in the flood waters. He opened his mouth to speak, pointed a stern finger, then closed his mouth again.

“Your place is at the switchboard, Mrs. Hatch,” he said severely. “No matter how high the waters go. That’s a tradition.”

“I got a tradition of closing up on Sunday afternoons,” she said. Her little blue eyes twinkled. “If you’ve got a mind to go rescuing people who know perfectly well how to take care ot themselves, though, you might look in on Sally. No menfolk around our house. Situation is probably desperate.”

“Of course,” Walter said. “I'll go at once. But don’t you think you should . .

“There isn’t a minute to lose,” Mrs. Hatch said. “I’m on my way home right now,”

Walter patted her on the hack. “Good,” he said. He turned and ran swiftly up the road, stumbling now and then at a deep place in the water. Mrs. Hatch stood and watched him go.

“Don’t know what they teach those young men in Toronto,” she said aloud. “City teaching-—poor fellow doesn’t even know enough to put on rubber boots when he’s out in a flood.”

Down the street Mrs. Ronald Russell, the veterinarian’s wife, was leaning out from a second-story window, screaming for help. She had a clear, powerful voice and it carried for quite some distance.

“The way that woman hollers,” Mrs. Hatch observed with some satisfaction, “she doesn’t have any need of a telephone now or any other time.”

She fixed her little hat more firmly on the smooth grey hair and started homeward through the rising water.

npFIE ADVANTAGE of Mrs. Hatch’s X home lay in the view. People driving through Fitchville had often remarked on it.

From the window of her front parlor, that was also the telephone office, Mrs. Hatch had an unusually comprehensive view (if life in Fitchville, as it moved down the county read. And Mrs. Hatch always kept a careful eye on life. By listening judiciously to her switchboard and keeping a sharp eye on the county road, she heard and saw just about everything that was worth observing in Fitchville.

When she returned from church Mrs. Hatch helped Sally carry up from the cellar the few items that would be spoiled by wetting, and attended to some chores. Then she settled down in the platform rocker beside the switchboard and gazed through the window with interest. The water was approaching the second riser of her front steps.

Around the bend from the direction of Bell’s store an improvised raft suddenly swung into view, poled along at top speed by a tall young man with a desperate air. Mrs. Hatch’s lined little face broke into a wide grin and she leaned forward eagerly. The raft, obviously put together in a hurry, was a workmanlike piece of carpentry. Mrs Hatch nodded her approval. There was some good in the young man, if he would only slow down long enough to let it come out.

“Sally!” she called. “Company!”

“I see him,” Sally said from upstairs. “Be right down.”

There was a bumping noise on the front steps as the raft; swung in for a landing. Walter Simms appeared in the living room archway, breathing hard.

“1 see you got here all right,” Mrs.

Hatch said. “Sit down a bit and rest yourself.”

Walter swallowed and said, “Mrs. Hatch, you can feel perfectly safe. I’ve come in time.”

“Good,” said Mrs. Hatch.

“Get your granddaughter.”

“She’s coming.”

“Good.” He strode across the room and scooped Mrs. Hatch out of her rocker. He was starting for the front with the old lady in his arms when Sally came down the stairs dressed in her good blue dress.

“Young man,” said Mrs. Hatch, “put me down.”

“Put Grandma down, Walter,” Sally said. “I’m glad you decided to stop by instead of phoning. The service is sometimes slow.”

Walter said, “Sally, hurry out to the raft and I will bring your grandmother.” “Put me down,” Mrs. Hatch said. “The young men of Fitchville,” said Sally, “usually don’t take Grandma along when they invite me out.” “You don't understand,”said Walter. “1 couldn’t go along in any case,” Mrs. Hatch said. “1 must stand by my switchboard, so you’d better put me down.”

Walter set her down and said, “T admire your courage, Mrs. Hatch.” “Thank you,” said Mrs. Hatch.

“Don’t you stay out late, Sally. You hardly know the young man.”

“Now see here . . .” said Walter.

“It’s perfectly proper to go boating in the middle of the day,” said Sally.

“Boating,” said Walter.

Mrs. Hatch sighed. “I knew you’d be set on it, Sally,” she said, “so I packed you a few sandwiches to take along. They’re in the hall.”

“That was sweet of you, Grandma,” Sally said.

“Ladies,” Walter said. His voice was pitched low but it had a desperate note in it. “I came to effect a rescue. 1 intend to do just that. Please stop this social chitchat and let’s get on with it.” He reached to pick Sally up in his arms.

“Now-, now,” Mrs. Hatch said sharply. “That w-ill be enough of that. If you can’t act nice, I won’t allow Sally to go out with you at all.”

Walter stopped short. He looked at Mrs. Hatch with an expression bordering on total dismay, then turned on his heel and walked out.

Sally said, “You shouldn’t have spoken to him sharply, Grandma. I think I like him.”

SHE FOLLOWED Walter out the front door and Mrs. Hatch leaned out her window to watch as Sally stepped carefully on the raft and settled herself at one end. She held the lunch box carefully in one hand.

Walter shoved off and the raft drifted into the shallow stream flowing down the county road. Fie leaned hard on the pole and began pushing the raft against the slow, swirling current.

“Easy does it,” Sally said. “Would you like a sandwich?”

Walter dug his pole into the dirt ot the county road without answering. He w-orked his way against the current with long firm thrusts and his breath came heavily.

“Miss Hatch,” he said, fitting in his words between thrusts of the pole. “This may seem . . . very funny to you . . . but it involves . . . the end of my career ... on all fronts.”

“I’m serry,” Sally said.

“My fiancee . . . expects my call this afternoon . . . and she may not understand ...”

“Why don’t you rest for a bit, Walter?” Sally said. “Then we can talk more easily.”

Walter gave her a chilling glance and continued his labors. “Mr. Roy Bartlett . . . has probably equipped his farm . . . with the products of our

rival concern.” He paused in his poling only long enough to say, “You and Grandma have effected my downfall, Miss Hatch.”

“I’m sorry,” Sally said. “Although you can’t really blame us for the flood.” As the raft labored past Bell’s general store, townspeople on the porch waved a friendly greeting and Sally waved back. Walter poled all the harder.

“Try a cold turkey sandwich,” Sally said. “They’re really very good.” “No, thank you,” Walter said. He watched her for a moment as she helped herself to a sandwich. It occurred to him, irrelevantly, that she made a remarkably fetching picture sitting on the front end of the raft with her legs tucked under her, munching on a sandwich.

Walter considered this discovery and found it pleasant. A high-pitched yell broke through his thoughts. It was Evergood Hawkes, standing in the bow of his rowboat, and waving with such wholehearted enthusiasm that he seemed in imminent danger of going overboard.

“How ya doin?’ ” Evergood yelled. “Fine,” said Walter. “You’d better stay clear with that rowboat.”

Evergood, who was a little hard ot hearing at the best of times, said, “Eh?” in a high-pitched tone that sent distant echoes stirring in the mountains. He plopped back into his seat, seized the oars, and dug toward the raft.

“Hey! Look out!” Walter said. The rowboat’s bow cut a neat path through the water on a direct line for the raft. Evergood naturally enough had his back turned and couldn’t see how close he was to collision.

Sally called, “Evergood! Stop!” Evergood turned around biit it was too late. The rowboat caught the raft amidships,. Walte? tteoppedi Yñs pote and grabbed the air violently for support. Finding none, he fell backward off the raft and into the water.

“Careful, there!” Evergood yelled. Walter sat in the water, which was about bathtub height, and made no reply. Water dripped from his hair and ran in chilly lines down his face.

“That,” he said, finally, “just about does it.”

Evergood backed off the raft, which bobbed easily on the surface. A man in hip boots waded over and lifted Walter to his feet. Walter retrieved his pole and stepped carefully back on the raft.

“Got wet, did you?” the man in hip boots said.

“Yes,” Walter said. “Wet.”

“Hello, there,” said Sally.

“Why, hello, Sally. Didn’t notice you in the confusion,” the man in hip boots said.

“Hello,” Walter muttered bitterly. He blinked the water out of his eyes. “Hello. Hello. Lovely day.”

“I’d like you to meet Mr. Walter Simms,” Sally said.

“Oh, is this Mr. Simms?” The man took hold of a corner of the raft. “Hold on a minute.”

“Delighted to meet you,” Walter said coldly. “Let loose of the raft.” “I’ve been checking into those milkers of yours,” the man said. “Any good, are they?”

“Wonderful,” Walter said. “Let loose.”

“Thought they looked pretty good. Might send me over a dozen when you get a chance and I’ll try them out.” Walter said, “A dozen?”

“I guess this is no time to bring up business, though. Have a nice time, you two.” He winked broadly at Walter and pushed the raft back into the current.

Walter said, “A dozen milkers? Is that what he said?”

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The raft, un pro pel led, drifted with the current, hack past the general store. The folks waved and Sally waved back.

“That was Roy Bartlett,” she said. “He’ll probably need more after a while.”

Walter put down his pole.

“Roy Bartlett,” he said softly.

“I mentioned to Roy that you were in town selling milkers,” Sally said. “Roy hates the telephone. He says he won’t buy anything from anybody until he can see him face to face. I guess he liked your face.”

The raft rocked gently as Walter let out a large sigh and sat down in the small puddle at his feet.

“I’ll have one of those turkey sandwiches now,” he said, “if you can spare one.”

Sally handed him a sandwich. He chewed it slowly, lost in thought.

“You know,” he said, “it was very sweet of you to talk to Mr. Bartlett about me.”

“Don’t mention it.”

“You’re really quite sweet in many ways,” Walter said. He seemed surprised at the discovery, but not displeased.

“Thank you.”

“Pretty, too. Very pretty.”

“I was wondering if you’d ever find time to notice,” Sally said.

“As a matter of fact, I’ve become quite fond of you, Sally,” Walter said warmly, “if all this doesn’t seem too fast for you.”

“Speed,” said Sally, “is not always out of place.”

Walter drew a deep, happy sigh. A great peace seemed to have descended on him. He didn’t even feel wet.

“Are those pickles?” he said. “Thank you.”

THE RAFT swung gently in the current, keeping pretty well to the centre of the county road. Walter finished his sandwich and his pickle in d r ea m y co n t e m p 1 a t i o n.

He looked at Sally and said, “There’s something . . . well, something calm and peaceful about you, Sally. It makes me feel wonderful.”

“That’s nice, Walter,” Sally said. “But . . .”

“I think I’ve fallen in love with you.” “Walter,” Sally said. “Aren’t you forget t i n g someth in g? ”

“Forgetting?” He st opped and a look of pain crept slowly over his damp features. “You mean . . .”

“Your fiancee.”

He sat still for a long moment. Then he drew in his breath in a long slow sigh and said, “Yep.” Saying it that way gave the word a sad, poignant note. Walter felt, that he’d never experienced a more poignantly sad moment.

“You’d better take me back now,” Sally said softly. “The water is going down.”

Walter picked up his pole and began to push the raft toward the telephone exchange.

Mrs. Hatch was on the front porch when the raft pulled up. It lodged firmly in the gravel walk, for the water had receded swiftly and no longer provided clearance for the raft. Walter and Sally sat quietly on the raft, each absorbed in their own unhappy thoughts.

“Thought you’d be back soon,” Mrs. Hatch said. “I held that call for you, Mr. Simms.”

“What call?”

“Fall in, did you?” asked Mrs. Hatch?

“What call, Mrs. Hatch?”

“From Toronto, of course. We handle all kinds of calls here, you know.”

Walter looked hopelessly at Sally, then walked into the living room and picked up the phone. He said, “Hello, Margery,” and that’s all he said for a long time.

Once he offered, “But, Margery . . .” which was as far as he got. But Mrs. Hatch noticed that he was grinning broadly as he said, finally, “I’m sorry, Margery. If you won’t let me explain, then 1 guess there’s no hope for it. Good-by.”

When he hung up Mrs. Hatch said, “Sally is still on the raft if you’re looking for her. You’re dripping on my rug.”

Walter reached out and kissed Mrs. Hatch, then dashed out to the raft to repeat the process, at greater length, with Sally. Mrs. Hatch sat down at her switchboard and prepared to resume service. The big clock on the wall showed five minutes to six.

“First Sunday afternoon call I’ve taken in twenty years,” she said softly to herself and shook her head, “but I guess I know an emergency when I see one.” ^