April 1854
Richard Word, 30

by Brian Kiteley

I lie on the grass under the humming telegraph wires, half-listening to the stridulation of crickets along the Connecticut River north of town. It is possible to know what messages are being sent across these lines if you concentrate. I work at the Western Union telegraph office in Northampton. The messages most people send are very simple. We slowly get the hang of this new method of communicating our desires and needs. I rode my bicycle out here. We have large maps on the walls in the office. We send repairmen into the outlying country after thunderstorms, ice storms, and heavy snows. My wife says I hum, like my beloved telegraph wires. I don't notice. My wife is leaving me, returning to Holyoke and her mother. Her father died last month, which may be the stated fuel for my wife's departure, but the engine is the shock of her father's passing, the way her mother is treading life without him, and the fact that my wife is unable to conceive a child after seven years of marriage.

My hand rests against the pole. I hear: your order dozen rakes sent stop await next shipment wide brooms stop. This is Mr. Finley from the hardware store on Conz Street. He sends weekly messages like this to his brother in Greenfield. He could mail the same thoughts by paper, overland, at nearly the same speed, but he enjoys coming to our office and spending a couple of cents more. Miss Bresnahan halts her activity the moment he steps in the door, pretending to be working on something other than what she was doing (in order not to be distracted by the addition and multiplication). Mr. Finley never notices Miss Bresnahan. I am tempted to manufacture a message from his brother in Greenfield, as to the qualities of this plain but good-hearted woman on the other end of the wire. The line goes quiet. My wife is loading a buggy with her few belongings. We live in an apartment on Hawley Street, and soon we'll simply live apart. She does not take anything that does not belong to her. I wonder if she is tempted to send a telegram to her mother, warning of her imminent arrival. The line I'm lying under would not carry her thoughts. I could ride south along the Connecticut River to the Ox Bow, to hear her words on the Springfield trunk line. She can't know I am here. Why am I here? It is a lovely April day. I enjoy the quiet away from the crowds of Northampton.

Because it is not a Sunday, I am alone, except for the snowy owl in the red maple several yards off. The owl stares down at me, never closing her eyes, never taking them off me. The line comes alive again. I hear: come quick stop father near his end stop I cannot help him stop. It is possible I am fabricating out of whole cloth this ability to understand words on these wires. I lie on the grass, listening for written clues from the universe of my wife's continued existence.

Brian Kiteley is the author of Still Life With Insects; I Know Many Songs, But I Cannot Sing; The 3 A.M. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises That Transform Your Fiction; 4 A.M. Breakthrough: Unconventional Writing Exercises That Transform Your Fiction; and The River Gods. Website: http://mysite.du.edu/~bkiteley/.