“Rachel! I need a Dow run…pronto!” Maggie held the phone a few inches from her ear; face grimacing with each howl.
I raced into the kitchen. “The cats again?”
“This party line business is for the birds.” Maggie took a deep breath, “Ginny! Gin – ny!” She yelled into the phone.
I waited to see if there was any change but Mom shook her head. It always gave me the creeps to go to the Dow house; if you could call it that. It looked more like a tar paper shack surrounded by a junk yard and that was on a good day.
I picked my way through their mini hay field of a yard avoiding trash as I went. Knowing that a timid knock was useless, I pounded on the rickety door. It took several minutes before Virginia Dow opened it a crack. “Why Honey! Come in. Come in.” She opened the door further.
Looking around I saw magazines stacked here and there and dishes from the last week or two filled the sink and overflowed the kitchen. Ash trays cluttered with stubs were in various places around the room. A single bulb hanging from a light fixture dimly lit the space.
Mrs. Dow turned her back to me muttering something about a jar of candy. “Mrs. Dow!” I raised my voice to aid her hearing. “Your cats.” She looked up. “The phone.” I pointed towards the receiver that was dangling from a pile of newspapers. A cat sat nearby preening itself.
“What? Now those pesky cats! I’m sorry, dear.” She shuffled over and put the phone back on the hook for me. I knew my mother would have been listening to the whole conversation waiting to make her call.
“Thanks Mrs. Dow! I have to run. See you next time!” I bolted for the door.
This scenario happened many times over the years. Some days we could yell loud enough into the phone so Mr. Dow would hear us. He’d come on the phone, say, “Oh sorry,” and hang up immediately. That would be it. He was never much of a talker.
Having a party line was not always a bad thing. It provided hours of eavesdropping entertainment potential. ‘Course my mother brought me up better than that but there was a time or two where I held the phone a little longer than necessary; just to hear Mrs. Dow complain about how Mr. Dow was being lazy or how her daughter never visited.
While the party line was inconvenient on occasion, we found ways to work around it. Never did we think the shared line would become life changing. Never.
The day was a Monday and my mom needed to call the school to let them know I was sick.
“Just great!” she had said. “Ginny! Gin – ny!” Boy did my mom yell. “Those miserable cats. Just give me a BB gun and a few minutes, I swear.”
“Rachel,” she bent over my steaming forehead. “I have to go over to the Dow’s. I’ll be back in a few minutes, k?”
I groaned my understanding and rolled to face the wall. Nothing in the world could have made me care right then.
When my mother knocked on the Dow door, there was no reply. She didn’t know the rule of pounding but soon figured out it would be wise to go that route. Pounding on the door pushed it open a crack and two cats ran out between her legs. The smell of something burning hit her nose just moments before smoke reached her lungs.
“Ginny? Ginny, where are you?” Mom entered the house. Ginny was laying face down on the floor; the phone receiver in her hand.
Mom grabbed the pan from the stove and threw it out the door. The smoke trailed with it. Quickly she took the phone from Mrs. Dow’s hand and called 911.
An ambulance arrived within minutes and they whisked old Mrs. Dow away to the hospital. I slept through it all. My fever had made me delirious – never knew a thing until my mom told me later.
Turns out Mrs. Dow had suffered a heart attack. She tried to call for help but collapsed before having the chance. While at times it was annoying to share a line with our neighbors, it also brought us closer to each other, and in the end…saved Mrs. Dow’s life.
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