The Telegraph Operator
Where signal fires and semaphores have failed, a sphere of secret shells has shewn the way. Received, Prometheus; your sacrifice tersely noted, and its news will find its way to all the outposts soon.
The sweet smell of sap in the boards, rough-worked, still bleeding new, part of this temporary construct, thrown together quickly but with know-how to serve as the container for the electric fire. To house the terminus of the conduit. Into this new barrel he has brought old wine. A collection of right angles set amongst undulating hills and rills, pushing apart disorganized foliage.
The lines swoop in like vines, catenary, slung between artificial trees.
He has formality, a brocade; solemnity, a black ledger; history, a bleak scarred cheek.
He's not always able to keep awake, but the apparatus, the tongue of G-d, will chatter him back when he does slump in the chair, snores clogging his nose, collar tight at his throat, hat slipped heavy down over his forehead. Then it's boots on the floor and elbows at the desk, dragging sleeves through dust and inkspots as he transcribes, with the dull pencil stub, the divine and secret words.
I have the mornings to compose myself. A half hour or quarter hour to stare out the window, taking draws on a cup of coffee, listening to the day clearing its throat outside. Because soon enough the house and all its occupants awake and start their demands – physical, emotional, financial. At least one of the kids wants a ride to school, and the dog needs to go out again, and my girlfriend needs coffee and a specific sequence of gentle waking rituals.
And so after all the blunt pragmatic monosyllables have grown into full sentences and things have become more complex linguistically and psychologically, when the pitch has risen to a certain level and the clock has already pushed past the time I needed to leave, I am awkwardly hurriedly out the door, hoping I have everything I need for the day.
And then in the evening I come in the door to disorder and squalor and empty common spaces – everyone's off to their own rooms, leaving me to clean up before I can even put my keys and bags down. It is all the consequences of living alone, with none of the benefits.
Questions, then: where does he come from? Whom does he leave behind? How did he find his way to be installed in this particular room? When will his tenure end?
All irrelevant. Only the WHAT, the fact of his receptorship, bright as brass. The quivering digit, the solid fulcrum.
Mundane reports he writes by hand at the end of the day, ink to paper that will remain indefinitely. Preprinted forms, lined ledgers, to be shelved who knows where and forgotten, their information no less ephemeral than the tremulous taps, but static and cold.
Night he creaks in the canvas straps under the tick and betimes the apparatus awakens him. Tinned food and a small coal bin will get him through the winter, the only season where the physicality of the network comes into play – when the ductility of copper wire seems delicate, and not infinitely flexible. The chances are high. The record is good.
A scudding sky, clotted with clouds. Silvery runnels of rain on the glass sent from back East, whose fragile squares carefully made the journey in several months, cushioned by straw and rags against the rutted roads out from whatever depot they were deposited at. Months to make it, and upon their arrival the message GLASS ARR SAFE transmitted back to their sender at the speed of lightning striking a flagpole on a parade ground. Months out, an instant back. Three months plus one instant. This is the marvel he traffics in.
There is the occasional evening, when everyone has gone to bed and I have no evident chores grabbing my attention – flukish, but occasional – and I will get a few minutes to daydream, mind drifting here and there
until some previously-unnoticed water glass or errant towel comes into focus and it's back to housework, neatening up behind. I guess in former times they accomplished this – life, the getting on of everyday life, living – with the support of various staff, something I can't even imagine the mechanics of now, let alone the economics. But these were also days when people sat down to write letters, by hand, to communicate regularly, something I too did when I was younger, just before the digital age subsumed — everything.
The frustrations are many, and the rewards are — ...limited, contingent, studded with asterisks.
The thing to realize at some point, be that as an early sage or some late victim just awakening, is that none of us has the situation we idealize. Dreams are just that. If somehow enough... — what, time? money? ...resources, let's say, were to appear, I'd just piss them away most likely. It's possible that as I came to see they were large enough, wide enough, that I could open up enough to do the Good Work and have my Calling pull me along in its good and earnest momentum, in its rightness, its meetness, its importance and inexorability. Possible. One hopes one would be up to the challenge. Rise to the occasion. That all the aborted batting practices and half-assed games of catch would somehow pull together into grace and beauty in the pinch, under pressure, the do-or-die, the fantasy Moment when called upon. Easy hero narrative stuff. Every one of us is special.
So the plants grow larger, the dog gets older, the principal on the mortgage gets a tiny bit smaller, and the dust in the places you can't quite reach gets another layer thicker.
Winter and sundown come early to this place, owing to the mountains perhaps. Fine-top firs filter the light. Sage and sandy soil catch sunlight in a sieve. Cold nights with cold stars. Jackrabbit on the face of the moon. No curtains for the window-glass, alas. The air still clear for now but the train and the factory are coming and the people along with them and the slag heaps they will leave behind.
His duty is to his post but his secret delight is birdsong and the scent of piñon at midday.
The only music he has is what whips up out of the trees – branches sawing, raucous crows and sweet warblers in counterpoint. He has seen the dancehall band on Saturday night and heard parlor organs on Sunday afternoons – fidgeting, a china cup, aware of mudstreaks on his shoes – but society is not his milieu, not at this time. He must be content as information's amanuensis.
Some other place or time might have made demands on me to the point that life was just an endless push against death, against non-existence. – the kind of life that millions, billions, have lived for thousands of years. – with existence like that the mercy is not having to contemplate its meaning. I'm likely past my life's halfway point, with plenty of time to think about what I haven't done, what I haven't built – and in fact can never do or build at this late point.
The plants grow, imperceptibly, the dust collects nearly invisible, oils leach out of wood at an infinitesimal rate, bread stales, molds creep under cabinets, asphalt shingles dry and disintegrate. Microbes multiply madly, then cry out and perish, an entire generation starved to death.
The battens hold. The wind is up. The snow strikes the window like infinite sighs. The apparatus chatters as if cold.
The continuity holds. The coal stove warms the boards to glistening life. Wool socks dry on the floor nearby.
So I wrap up the day. Everyone off to their beds, the dishes loaded in the washer, chairs pushed in, crumbs swept, thermostat down. Pinpoints of colored lights from various corners of the house's galaxies – red from the television on standby, green from the chargers in several outlets, a small white pulse at the side of a laptop.
The house is grown quiet here at the end, and we go off to our sleep, far down the hall.
MDS Chill was born in 1967 in Ohio and has lived and worked all over the place, most recently in Philadelphia.