LOVE AND THE ART OF TELEGRAPHY • by Christopher Owen

I just turned fifty: the same age as my estranged father when he died. Such a thing gets a man to pondering the details of his life.

Such thoughts made me get busy, first by cleaning up my dingy old house. I’ve developed a bit of a friendship with my neighbor, Sally. She’s a single woman my age and has had me over for dinner a few times, and I felt I ought to eventually reciprocate. But first, cleaning up my middle-aged bachelor pad seemed in order.

During the cleanup I came across a box buried deep in my junk room. Inside it was Dad’s collection of vintage telegraph keys. Dad had been a telegrapher for the railroad in the fifties. Seeing these tarnished old brass instruments really brought me back. Dad had mounted them on a scrap of plywood, along with a light bulb and the sounder coils so that, if one wired in a battery, the keys would operate both the light and the sounder, which would make a clickity-clack sound each time the key was pressed. Such had delighted me as a child. I’d even learned a little Morse Code back then.

I couldn’t throw these out. They were one of the few things I still had to remind me of a father I’d hardly known. I’d been seven when Dad left, and twelve when I’d heard he died. Anyway, I had an idea. Sally’s grandson Ethan was staying with her for the summer. I was having trouble trying to relate to him. I never had any children of my own, so they remained a mystery to me. Perhaps Ethan might find some interest in these old keys.

***

The weekend came and with it another dinner invite from Sally. I joined her and Ethan late Saturday afternoon at her home and brought with me the box containing the telegraph setup. After dinner, I got out the box. “Say, Ethan. I’ve got something here you might be interested in.”

The boy smiled, perhaps thinking I’d brought him a present. I opened the box and took out the board — I’d earlier wired in a new battery. He got a confused look on his face, then said, “What is it?”

“It’s a telegraph set. My dad’s. Push that key there.”

He pressed the key. Nothing happened. He released and pressed a few more times. Nothing. “So what does it do?”

“Well, it’s what people used to send messages on before there were phones or computers. I thought I had it working again.”

“Oh, okay. Cool. Grandma, can I go play Xbox now?”

Sally frowned. “Don’t you want Sam to show you more about the telegraph?”

“Not really.”

“Oh, Ethan, fine. Go play your games.”

The boy got up and raced out of the dining room. .

“Sorry, Sam.”

“Oh, don’t be. It was silly of me to think he’d care about that old junk — even if it would’ve worked.”

“Well, we can have a little adult time now. Why don’t I open more wine?”

“Now you’re talking.”

Sally opened another bottle of the same red we’d had at dinner and we took two glasses and sat out on her back porch. Twilight was just setting in and an unseasonably mild August breeze cooled the air. I sipped my wine in silence.

Truth be told, I had a bit of crush on Sally. It was foolish — Sally was just being friendly and probably felt sorry for a loner like me. But I guess a fella can dream. When I was younger I had a great many romantic relationships — bold, passionate loves that seemed to come as easy as a spring rain shower. Most lasted about as long, I guess. I’d never really been able to commit to anyone, and there was always someone else on the horizon. Then I hit middle age and at some point, that horizon faded. Even cheap romance wasn’t easy anymore. The magic wasn’t there anymore.

Sally sat beside me, her hand just inches from mine. It would’ve been so easy to reach over and place my hand gently on hers, but I just didn’t know. Back in the day, there was a method to these things, an unspoken communication like nature’s own Morse Code of romance. I’d send out a signal, and I’d get a silent, tacit reply. Then I’d know it was okay to take a woman’s hand, or lean in for a kiss. I’d lost that ability. Or maybe it was still there, but no one sent signals my way anymore. The wire had gone dead.

“Sam, excuse me for a moment,” said Sally, interrupting my thoughts. She went inside and came back out with the telegraph board.

“What do you want with that old mess?” I asked.

She sat, placing the telegraph board between us. “I was just thinking. These things are actually sort of beautiful. I’ve always liked antiques and I think we could clean them up, polish the brass until it shines and mount them on a nice piece of stained oak. You’d have a nice little display to hang on your wall.”

“Well, maybe so.”

“Ethan’s going back home next week. I’ll have a lot more time then. It could be a little project I could help you with. And you could help me with things as well.”

“Yeah, what you got in mind?”

“Oh, mow my lawn, weed my garden, you know.”

“Um, well, sure.”

She smiled. “I’m kidding. I mean like go to the movies with me and maybe even go on a weekend getaway. If you would like to, that is.”

“I would.”

She leaned toward me, as if perhaps for a kiss, and as she did her knee bumped the telegraph key. Somehow, the bulb lit, and the sounder coil started clacking like mad, sending out random dots and dashes as if it had something important to say.

“Hey, it still has some life left in it,” she said.

“Well, I guess it does.”


Christopher Owen lives in Texas with his wife and two cats. His work has appeared at Daily Science Fiction, Every Day Fiction, Mirror Dance, Eleven Eleven Literary Journal, New Myths and other places. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and the Yale Summer Writers’ Conference.


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