Short Fiction

Code

He had to be there at 8:00 sharp.  If he came too early, the old man wouldn’t even get started.  If he got there too late, they would do a little, but the old man wouldn’t really get going before visiting hours were over.

There was just something about the old man’s mind that demanded to hear the first click of his heel on the worn tile floor at precisely 8:00.  Tonight, he was right on time.

The old man sat in his wheelchair, in front of the same battered folding table they used every night, with the same blanket draped over his lap.  He didn’t move his head, look up or twitch a single muscle.  Could he even hear the footsteps?

Walking towards the table, he nodded at one of the caretakers, who were all dressed in white shirts, pants and shoes and all had a constant look of being half worn out and in need of sleep.  “How is he tonight?”

The caretaker managed a weary grin as he picked up the debris of a forgotten puzzle scattered on one of the tables.  “He’s rarin’ to go.”

Too many of the tables were that way – scattered with the remains of some forgotten activity because the person whose attention they were supposed to hold had suddenly grown tired and needed to be wheeled back to a bedroom to sleep.  The scrapes of chairs and table legs always shown in the floor, too.  It wasn’t that they didn’t care.  It was simply that there weren’t enough of them to tend to a building full of people who could, at any moment, simply stop breathing.  But the place was clean and, honestly, he had long before realized that its inhabitants didn’t care much about scuffs on the floor or streaks of dirt on the outsides of window panes looking out on the sun-bleached desert.  For the most part, they didn’t even look.

He dragged a plastic chair up to the table and sat down across from the old man staring at the table, mesmerized by the minute swirls ground into the plastic from years of scrubbing.

He had to sit there for a while, waiting for the opening line of their nightly song.  Sometimes it was only a few minutes.  Once, it had been a full half hour.  But the old man always started the same way.  He lifted his head, showed a sagging scowl dripping from his face and said with a half growl, “Who are you?”

Then, he would smile back at the old man and say, as gently as he could, “I’m just a friend.”

“Hmmph.  I don’t have any friends.  They’re all dead.”  Then the old man would look back at the table.

And that’s as far as it would get except for the next thing he would say to the old man – the one thing that, after all the years, still lit some fuse deep inside where he still remembered what it was to be one of the living.

“I hear you teach code.”

The old man was like a creaking automaton at first, as if worn belts and squeaking wheels started turning in side as his hand started to tap the table with a slow, steady rhythm.  Thump.  Thump.  Thump.

“Like this,” the old man said.  “Not too fast.”  He jutted his chin out and said, “Go on, try it.”

He started tapping the table with the palm of his hand, syncing with the old man’s rhythm which was as steady as a ticking clock.

Then the old man held his palm to the table for a half second, slapped it with a light tap and then held it down again for another half second.

He grunted without looking up.  “K”  He lightly slapped out the rhythm again and said, “Dah dit dah.”

They did this together, five times.  Then old man looked up.  He could see something far behind the old man’s eyes then, the first glimmer.  The first dawn of hope.  He knew it would never arrive.  But it would come close.

The man switched to a new pattern, holding his palm flat for a half second twice in succession. “M,” he grunted.  “Dah dah.”

And they did that five times.  Then the old man switched between them in various patterns and told him to call out the letters as he rapped them out against the table, all the while chanting the code along with each beat.  “Dah dah.  Dah dit dah.  Dah dit dah.  Dah dah.”

Dutifully, he repeated the letters as the old man rapped them out against the table.  He had begun his nightly session of learning Morse code according to the Farnsworth cycle.  “M K K M.”

“Good,” the old man grunted, a trail of breath squeezing out behind the word as his enthusiasm started to grind to life.

After a half hour, the old man was sweating and he pulled the blanket off his lap.  He started moving in ways that made him seem younger.  He gyrated his head.  He spoke more quickly.  He started gesturing with his free hand.  Eventually, he was squirming in his seat and occasionally shook a foot.  Ten years fell away.  Fifteen.  Twenty.

And then the almost-bright eyes of a man who might have known him looked across the table.  As he did most nights, the old man said, “You know, I don’t make very many friends here.  What did you say your name was?”

The word always caught in his throat because hope flew out ahead of him, unbridled, unwilling to give up, always torturing him with its insipid innocence.  “Hank.”  But hope did float out over the table and he never did try to stop it.  Even though he knew better.

Just as he did every night, the old man nodded and smiled and repeated his name. “Hank.”  Then he leaned forward a little and said, “Not a name you hear much these days.”

But the old man did not remember.

The old man started drumming the table again, a little faster now, adding in more letters.  As he chanted out dits and dahs, he started telling the stories.  How the first telegraph operators could recognize each other by their particular rhythms, how they had light and heavy strokes.  Then he talked about Marconi and the wireless and how amplitude modulation worked and how frequency modulation was different and even how Enigma might have worked, but he wasn’t sure.

The same stories, from a mind that was, for a little while, as sharp as it had been since the days before…

At precisely 10:30, the old man stopped drumming the table.  His eyes receded.  His feet stilled.  His chin slumped to his chest and he clutched at the blanket with gnarled hands, dragging it back over his lap.

A final grunt.  “Nice meeting you…”  And then he fell asleep.

A caretaker wheeled him away and pushed him towards a dark hallway lined with bedrooms.  It didn’t matter which caretaker it was, they always paused and said, “It is so nice of you to do this for him.  Most everybody here doesn’t have anybody like that.”  He smiled wanly at the caretaker and sat alone at the table for a while before standing up and heading for the door.

People asked him why he did it.  They always arched a brow and sucked in a sympathetic breath before saying something like, “I could never do that.”

And maybe they couldn’t, but he explained it anyway.  It was a place where nobody had anything left to say and nobody was there to listen anyway.

But if he arrived at exactly 8:00, his father would wake up for two and half hours and talk again, live again, be a man again.

And if you love somebody, aren’t you supposed to listen?

 

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