Dorothy Cannell: Big excitement two weeks ago. My husband Julian returned from playing bridge with a box under his arm along with the announcement that he’d made a purchase for me. I’d have preferred he’d walked it in on a leash as I’ve been wanting a puppy and my dog Teddy has indicated he wouldn’t mind, but unless it was the self-assembly sort of puppy that couldn’t be it. Still I waited with baited breath for the item to be produced and ended up quite pleased. I appreciate the need for utilitarian items except vacuum cleaners, irons and dishwashers requesting they be unloaded. Why can’t they think of themselves as cupboards?
My enthusiasm increased because I didn’t recognize the three silvery rectangles with charcoal buttons now ornamenting the kitchen counter, meaning I couldn’t possibly be expected to use them. Julian has bought male (or handywoman) oriented items for himself before pretended they were gifts for me. One Christmas I received a wall level. I thought it was an iron bar for defending myself in case of burglars. This quirk is his way of justifying the expenditure, and I’m willing to go along. In another life he must have been a monk, unwilling to get himself a second hair shirt for fear of breaching his vow of poverty. But I had it wrong this time.
“There you are,” he said, “what you asked for.”
“Really?” A thrill of dread went down my back. Was I having blackouts?
“An intercom system.”
“Ah!” No need to faint. I’d remembered.
When we’d visited our friends Margaret and Joe Maron in January we’d been impressed by their having an intercom system, allowing them to communicate from different parts of the house without sounding like lions roaring across the veldt. I write in the basement and as Julian and I often can’t hear what the other is saying even when ten feet apart the same room, let alone shouting up or down stairs. An intercom struck me as a brilliant idea. It would also solve the question of who could hold out longest before answering the phone. Usually I don’t mind the assumption it won’t be for him, but when I’m at the head down stage of a book, I hate to break the thread by to pick up, knowing nine times out of ten it’ll be a robotic voice asking: ‘Are you a senior citizen?’ Bringing on the urge to respond nastily: “Yes, I’m a hundred and seventeen, but don’t let it bother you I had to crawl out of my coffin to take this call.” Instead I’d realize you can’t crush a recorded message and replace the receiver struggling not to let my fictional murderer’s mind turn as spiteful as mine.
When driving back from North Carolina to Maine I outlined to Julian how an intercom system could work for us. From ten in the mornings until two in the afternoons he would be on phone duty. For the most part he’d explain I was working, take a message or say I’d ring back later. Only if it was important or he knew I’d want to talk to the person he’d buzz me. The rest of the time he’d be free to believe Alexander Bell had never existed. We agreed it was a good plan. I felt quite professional thinking about it, but once home forgot to do it. Hence, I was surprised on being presented with the purchase from Radio Shack.
I may be technologically deficient, but I understood that the system required two ‘stations’. One for his office and one for mine. Broadcast and receive. I could not understand the need for the third ‘station’.
“Came packaged that way,” Julian explained.
“Oh,” I said, “maybe we can give one away as a present!”
“For the person who has everything but a gimmick for talking to himself?” His point landed with a thunk.
“Mmm! Well, it’s always good to have a spare.”
He agreed. “Or,” his face brightened, “we could put it in the guest room so we can buzz at 7:00 am to say time to come down; breakfast is ready!”
I could understand the usefulness of this for unwanted guests, because they’d be unlikely to return. But we like the people who visit. It dawned on me, however, why Julian had remembered our decision to get an intercom when I hadn’t. Since shortly after our move to Maine he had worked two evenings a week as a desk clerk at a local motel, but this winter it closed for remodeling and won’t reopen until the spring. I knew he’d been pining, he loves the job, and here was the opportunity to again handle some functions of the ‘front desk.’
It took a while for me to get the hang of transmitting. In the trial test his voice would boom in on me without getting results. I knew I had to press the oval ‘talk’ button, but did not get that I had to hold it down when talking. This failure required a perusal of the instruction manual, a voicing of the dire possibility that the system was defective, before the problem (me) was discovered. My sister popped in later that day and was asked (not by me) if she would like a demonstration. Being a dear she agreed with enthusiasm. “He’s not as in love with it as he was with his new vacuum cleaner,” I told her later, “so this shouldn’t go on for more than three months.” What I didn’t admit was that I was already besotted with ‘Alfie,’ as I’d named my intercom desk mate. He made me feel so central to his existence and I couldn’t wait to get back and press his buttons. I’m hoping this is a one time fling, and I won’t find myself falling in love with a lawn tractor or snow thrower.