260. Clear Day

At two o’clock,
It came across the wire:
Dash-dot-dash-dot-dash:
ATTENTION.
Dot-dot-dot-dot, dot
Dot-dash-dot, dot: HERE–
Next word, dot-dot, dash: IT–
And a pause.

The railroad
Did not pass by Riah’s home.
But at this junction,
North by ninety miles,
Was built a station,
Then a town.

And here he sat,
His hat, his watch, his pipe:
The station-master.
Ear bent to the receiver,
And his pencil in his hand.
He leaned with concentration,
Scribbling letters.
Dot-dot-dot.
He sat with pencil poised,
Awaiting more.

It never came. Or, rather,
When the first three words had
Faded, there were garbled
Dots that dwindled down to
None–as if
The sender’s hand
Had faltered in confusion–
Or he had abandoned,
Run….

The station-master glared
As if to bully the machine
To speak again.
He tapped out a message:
PLEASE REPEAT.
He waited,
Holding up his pocket watch,
And counting seconds.
Counting minutes.
PLEASE REPEAT.

It shouldn’t take
Much more than that, he judged.
Us station-masters,
We don’t waste our words.
Still, he frowned,
And sent another time:
PLEASE REPEAT.
UNCLEAR MESSAGE.
NOT RECEIVED.
I wish there was some
Back-up here, he thought:
Deserted, Sunday afternoon.
The shops all closed,
And no one on the street,
Since church was over….
They’re all home.
Safely home….

He glanced down at his watch.
Ten past the hour,
Two o’clock: let’s see,
At two, that would be Eli.
No, it’s Sunday.
Must be John–
We go way back.
We marched in France
Together, John’s as
Steady as a rock–
Why send that crazy message?
JOHN
YOU’RE SENDING?
JOHN?
For all at once,
It mattered who.

Of course!
The damn machine.
It might be busted.
We don’t think of that
No more, these days.
He smiled. Sure,
The gizmo’s haywire,
On the bum.
How’d that message run?
Dot-dot-dot….

I would feel it, though,
If it was broke.
His fingers touched the metal,
Cold and hard:
They’d tell me if it skipped,
Or had gone dead.
The message had come clear,
What there was of it,
No clicks, slurring,
Dot-dot–

He picked up the phone.
“Sarah? Ring Panhandle Station,
Up north. Put me through,
Right now.”
“Sure will.”
A crackling in his ear.
A hum, a buzz.
Her voice: “Silas? Strange.
It won’t go through.”

“What?”
He rubbed his watch:
“How can that be?”
“I don’t know.”
“Try again.”
Hum. Buzz.
“Can’t get through there,
Silas. Don’t know why.”
“I see. Well….I see.”
He drummed his fingers.
“Sarah–”
Pausing as he asked,
This might be silly–
“Sarah, could–
The lines be down?”
At Sarah’s end
A silence.
Then she thought out loud:
“Don’t you think they’d call us?
A tornado, or–unless
It came so quick. Or–
Could be static. But
It’s never been this thick.”

“Call the border station.”
“Sure thing.”
This time, though, he knew
Before she told him.
“Won’t go through.”
He took off his hat,
And wiped his head:
A damn hot office.
“Sarah–”
“Let me try Central station.
See if those Okies answer.”
He half-smiled.
Her voice, unbelieving:
“Can’t get through.”

Stymied now, they pondered.
“Let me try my Dallas office.
Hang up, Si.
I’ll ring you back.”
“Sure.” But at the click,
He felt cut off.
He stood by the window,
Jingling pocket change
And searching out the sky:
Sky and nothing, far
As eye can see.
A town out here, though
They tried not to think it,
So far off from other towns,
Same as alone.
The day was clear.
The first ring broke:
He seized the phone.
“Si”–she’d been reflecting–
“I can get you east,
Or south.
I can’t get north or west.
They don’t know why.”

Northwest!
Quick he scanned the mute
Horizon. Northwest
Might mean one
Thing….
“Si–reckon
We should phone a message
South? Farming towns
Down there, I could
Send word….”

What message? Silas thought.
It don’t make sense.
All he’d got through the wire–
Dot-dot-dot-dot, dot,
Dot-dash….

And then, as if a circuit
Touched, complete,
He knew John’s mind:
HERE IT COMES.

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