“Look,” warned Jim, “now don’t make a move! We are NOT going to answer the blame thing.”

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by Jim Frise, February 22, 1947.

“PAY NO ATTENTION!” commanded Jimmie Frise cheerfully.

The telephone continued to ring.

“Don’t answer!” repeated Jim firmly. “Ignore it!” And he relaxed luxuriously in his easy chair by the living room window.

The phone rang again, steadily, insistently.

“Is it somebody you are avoiding…?” I inquired.

“No, no,” said Jim airily. “But I’ve just been thinking about these darn telephones lately. Why should we always jump up, as if we were shot, every time the telephone rings?”

It continued to ring. I sat forward on the edge of my chair and looked out towards the hall where the telephone was.

“Now, now, relax,” chuckled Jim. “I know it’s hard. We’ve been trained for years to jump like jack rabbits every time that silly bell barks at us. But relax, relax.”

“Well,” I puzzled, leaning back in my chair, “aren’t you going to answer it sooner or later?”

“No,” replied Jim cheerily, crossing his legs. “I’m not. I’m simply not going to notice it. For once, I’m going to be a man, not a monkey.”

The telephone ceased ringing abruptly.

“There, you see!” cried Jim, delighted. “It was probably just somebody with nothing else to do. Probably somebody wanting one of the kids, anyway. And they’re all out.”

Suddenly, the phone started ringing again. I half rose from my chair.

“Look,” warned Jim, “now don’t make a move! This is a matter of principle. This is a struggle. We are NOT going to answer the blame thing.”

“How can we talk with that bell yelling at us?” I pleaded. “Answer it and get it over with…”

“Heh, heh, heh,” said Jim, languidly rising. “I’ll fix it.”

And he tore a corner off a magazine cover on the table and went out in the hall. I heard the bell go suddenly soft. Jim had plugged the bell with a squib of paper.

“There,” sighed Jim, returning and sagging back into his easy chair. “Now let her buzz. What were you saying, there, a few moments ago…?”

I couldn’t remember.

“You see?” expounded Jim. “The telephone interrupts a conversation. And now we can’t remember what we were talking about before the rude interruption. I tell you, the telephone has got to be put in its place. Here we are, a couple of decent, respectable citizens, quietly chatting in my living room, when all of a sudden, the phone rings. Some stranger, somebody maybe we never heard of before, wants to intrude on our privacy, our comfort. And what are we supposed to do? We’re supposed to leap obediently to our feet, drop whatever we are doing, forget what we are talking about – and rush over at the beck and call of some dope who wants to know if we would like to buy theatre tickets for some benefit concert….!”

Out in the hall, the muzzled phone buzzed, buzzed, buzzed.

“Determined person,” I muttered, “whoever it is.”

“Actually,” confessed Jim, “I’m just as uneasy as you are right now. The long training of the years has got me in its grip just the way it has you and everybody else in this city. In this country. In fact, in the whole world, wherever telephones are used. In China, probably.”

Buzz….Buzz…. Buzz.

“It’s instinctive in us,” went on Jim reflectively. “Instinct. Yet the telephone is not a half century old. In a half century, our very instincts have been tampered with. This goes to show you just how easily human instinct can be brought into subjection.”

The buzzing ceased abruptly.

“Have you no curiosity,” I demanded, “as to who that might have been? How do you know that wasn’t some important message from some member of your family? Maybe somebody is ill…”

“To tell you the truth,” admitted Jim, sitting a little anxiously, “I am a little curious. Now that I come to think of it, my wife said something about having supper with her down town tonight, and maybe‚Ķ”

Suddenly, the buzzing began again, dogged, tireless, measured. With all the infuriating dumbness of a newborn baby crying.

“Aw, answer it, Jim!” I commanded.

But Jimmie had instantly relaxed back in his easy chair by the window and started lazily to light a cigarette.

“I’ll be darned if I will,” he said, blowing a ring. No sir! The more I think of it, the more I am convinced that I’ve got hold of a pretty big moral problem here. The telephone my boy, that silly little squat black monster in my hall, represents something we have overlooked in our long struggle for freedom. Only a few centuries ago guys like you and me were at the beck and call of despots. In every country, in every town, there were despots who merely crooked their fingers at us, and we came running.”

The phone buzzed relentlessly.

“Then,” went on Jim defiantly, like one speaking in spite of hecklers, “then, as the struggle for human freedom and human dignity advanced, we got the despots under control. We got parliament. Then we got universal suffrage. Finally, we got the labor movement. Now you know how, only twenty or thirty years ago, in every factory and plant in the world, the superintendent or foreman could come yelling into the place and everyone quailed and quaked? Well, sir, what do superintendents do now? They tip-toe through the plant!”

The phone went right on heckling. Its sound seemed to grow.

“I’ll fix it!” cried Jim, leaping angrily to his feet.

And this time he did fix it. He stuffed paper in so that it didn’t ring at all.

“Ah…” he breathed, as he flung himself back in his chair. “Isn’t that heaven! Aren’t we fools to place ourselves at the mercy of a machine like that? As I was saying, we’ve succeeded by the most tremendous effort over centuries and centuries, in removing all despots from our midst. Yet, like fools, we adopt into our lives, into our most sacred strongholds of freedom — our homes! — this most despotic of all institutions. No longer is it the squire who can make us come jumping by the mere crook of his finger. No longer is it some haughty duke or count who can command our instant obedience. No. It is this little instrument. And by that instrument we are made the slaves, the serfs, of any blame fool who gets the notion that he wants our ear!”

“It is kind of ridiculous, when you come to think of it,” I admitted, my mind waiting for still further commands from the gagged machine out in the hall.

So we sat listening to the uneasy silence.

Jim was still lounging back in the attitude of calm. But I could tell by his face that a mounting curiosity and anxiety was consuming him. He was chewing the cigarette.

“After all, Jim,” I began, to ease the tension, “slavery or serfdom isn’t very far beneath our skins. The call of authority can still make most of us jump. When you come to think of it, about ninety-nine point nine percent of us have been serfs for millions of years. Mighty few of us are the descendants of dukes, counts or even superintendents.”

“Hmmmm,” mused Jim. “I wonder who that was?”

“The instinct to obey,” I pursued, “is much more widespread than the instinct to command.”

“I wonder,” said Jim, absently, sitting upright. I wonder if that could have been my wife?”

“Even a few centuries ago,” I enlightened, “when the ancestors of the vast majority of us were scuttling, scampering and cringing to the orders of some petty tyrant, that tyrant was equally at the beck and call of some larger tyrant…”

“I think,” said Jim, rising, “I’ll take that paper out of the phone bell now. After all, I have declared my independence. I’ve showed that darn telephone where it gets off…”

He hurried out to the hall and I heard him scratch the plug of paper out.

We both held our breath and listened.

No bell.

Jim appeared starkly in the living room door.

“WHO,” he demanded hotly, “do you suppose that could have been?”

“Probably your wife,” I suggested. “She’ll just think you haven’t got home from the office yet…”

“Well, if it had been my wife,” said Jim, anxiously coming and sitting on the edge of his easy chair, “she wouldn’t have rung and rung like that.”

“It isn’t ringing now,” I assured him.

“No, I wish it was,” said Jim hollowly, gazing into space. “I wonder if the kids are all right. I wonder if anything might have happened…”

“Now, now, relax,” I urged. “If it’s anything urgent, they’ll ring again.”

Jim jumped up and stood in the hall, looking at the telephone and waiting.

It didn’t ring.

“Hmmm,” he said, “I think I’ll just call a couple of stores where my wife said she was going to call…”

So he sat down and dialled three or four numbers, in rapid succession, to inquire if his wife had been in, the last little while.

“Look, Jim,” I advised, coming out to the hall, “I wouldn’t sit there using the phone like that. If anybody was trying to get you…”

“Yes, yes!” agreed Jim, leaping up. “You’re right!” And he came back and began to prowl up and down the living room. We both went to the window and looked out.

And there, coming down the street, was Mrs. McGuiness, Jim’s neighbor three doors north.

Mrs. McGuiness had her topcoat thrown over what appeared to be a wrapper. She had her goloshes on, unlatched.

And she was coming on the dead jump, her arms gesticulating, her eyes wild.

“Hey, Jim,” I exclaimed, “your neighbors are in trouble…”

“Say!” shouted Jim.

For Mrs. McGuiness was turning up Jim’s side drive, holding her face in her hands in an expression of horror.

As we raced for the front door, we heard Mrs. McGuiness thundering on the side door.

And when we reached the verandah, there stood Jimmie’s car, in the side drive, with thick black smoke billowing and rolling from under the hood, from under the car itself.

“Hey! Quick! Fire!” yelled Jim, wildly starting to run both forward and back at the same time.

“Get something…” he shouted. “Water!… the hose!…”

But in winter, the only place you can get water is in the kitchen. And the only thing handy to carry it in is the tea kettle. So Jim and I both carried the tea kettle out, in our first valiant effort.

So Jim and I both carried the tea kettle out, in our first valiant effort.

I should set you at ease at once by informing you that it was only the wiring that had caught fire. The generator, apparently, had started it, and the fire had smouldered and smoked up the wiring, licking around the oil on the block.

A few well directed slurps of water, some fistfuls of snow, an old bag that Jim snatched from his garage, soon had the matter in hand.

And there, panting against the side of the house, leaned Mrs. McGuiness still sobbing for breath. When we got the thing squelched, Jim went over to her and offered his hand.

“You saved me,” he said, “from losing my car. In another couple of minutes, and the whole thing would have blown up.”

“Yes,” gasped Mrs. McGuiness, wrapping her hastily donned clothes around her, “and set fire to your garage and maybe the house too!”

“How on earth,” inquired Jim, “did YOU spot the fire? Why, you’re three doors up!”

“Oh, don’t thank me,” said Mrs. Guiness. “Thank dear old Mrs. Crisp, directly across the road from you. She’s laid up with the quinsy. And she happened to look out the window and saw the smoke. She telephoned you immediately, but nobody answered…”

“Aaaaaahh!” said Jimmie.

“Ah-HAAAHH!” said I.

“The dear old soul,” went on Mrs. McGuiness, “swears she could see you sitting beside the front window. She swears she saw you get up to answer the phone. But she simply COULDN’T get your number. Then she tried all the neighbors but they were out, until she got ME!”

“Well, I must go and thank Mrs. Crisp,” said Jim abjectly.

“I came as fast as I could,” apologized Mrs. McGuiness, looking at the soggy mess of Jim’s car.

“A THOUSAND thanks!” cried Jim devoutly.

So we went in and Jim straightway called the garage that does his work.

But first, he held the receiver up fondly and looked it bung in the eye.

“Brother,” he said humbly “I apologize!”