The Signal

By Albert Henry Tyson

I don’t know what time it was. It was late. In the wee small hours. I had fallen asleep in my chair, a not uncommon event. When Selena was ill with cancer in the hospital, I often slept in a chair beside her so I could be helpful. Now, it’s my congestion that forces me to do that sometimes. I had left the computer on, a software-defined radio application showing a waterfall of the short wave signals in the HF amateur radio bands. Narrow white patches of code fell from places in the spectrum showing Morse activity, the conversations of other radio operators spelled out in soft long and short tones. Selena and I both had our licenses, she VA3SYS and me VE3EXE.

Something managed to raise my attention from my half-doze, my eyes gradually bringing a fuzzy double image to focus. I could see the ghostly signal pattern that had just finished was right on top of where I had parked the filter. Below, there was the translated morse message, “VE3EXE VE3EXE VE3EXE this is VA3SYS. Meet me at the corner.”

That was why it had got my attention. This was a joke in poor taste, I thought. I acknowledged receipt and struggled out of my chair, joints stiff. Moving around would be a good idea. Outside and walking the sidewalk, I could see someone in the bus shelter at the lights. I didn’t need to wonder. The identity of the person inside the glass was unmistakable. I had come to know her quite well and I understood why she had been impersonating Selena’s callsign. It was never a social call. She came quickly out of the enclosure as I approached.

“Beautify evening, Al. I just thought it was time to check-in. Want to go for a walk?” Her voice was heavy with mellifluous overtones. Always the snappy dresser she had a taste for trench coats, fedoras and very tall boots. She carried the proper name, Love. It was her twin, Grief, with whom I was currently frequently associated. Without waiting for a reply, she began to slowly saunter along the sidewalk, away from the street lights.

Curious I fell in beside. “Well, Love, what has he gotten himself into tonight? Do I have to bail him out again? He really needs to put down the bottle.”

There was an uncharacteristic pause and I began to regret my caustic comment on her other half. “I would think by now you would know better than that,” and I heard the venom at the end of her sentence. But she managed to gather herself, “How long has it been since you last looked into the photo album?”

Her question brought flashbacks to the embers of grief, sitting on the wet sand of Long Beach with Cantor’s Infinite Album in my lap, doing penance to honour Selena, to remember our life together reconnecting with each in a never-ending sequence of memory. It had been a painful process and I immediately felt shame that I had, without meaning to, set it aside.

“I, uh, haven’t looked into it for a while,” I admitted.

“Why not?” was the sharp response.

“I’ve been working mostly on the novels. I know I promised Grief I would keep up the practice, but I did promise Selena I would finish the books. A promise made is a debt unpaid.”

I really didn’t want to argue with Love. She had been good to Selena and me for thirty glorious years. Love had stuck with us, regardless of difficulties or stresses. Love had stayed true.

“I know. You don’t have to explain yourself to me. But what about Grief? How have you been treating him?”

I felt a pang of annoyance. “Grief is hardly the sort that makes people feel obligated. Isn’t that right? If he’s not being verbally or physically abusive, then he is at least surly and damned inconvenient!”

“He has empathy for you and you know it!” Love reprimanded. “Don’t forget how concerned he was for Selena before he knew she was dead! And when you almost collapsed from pain in that attack outside the Chinese dumpling house, who was it that lifted you up and kept you secure?”

She was referring to an early memory soon after Selena had died. I think I had gone temporarily insane at the time, desperate to stop the pain by finding something to replace what I had lost. Admittedly a cheap and shoddy idea, but that’s insanity.

“You’re right, of course.” I felt myself sag inward with the admission of guilt. “I’ve been trying to cut him out. You know what he is like. Dissolution follows him everywhere. I was just getting so tired of being sad. Hell, he makes me almost suicidal at times. I was just protecting myself. Trying to stay away from him. He’s one scary dude!” Saying this brought his image to mind. Tall and muscular from the violence of grief attacks, he sported shockingly red hair and a jutting red beard. His eyes were deep-set under a heavy brow gathered together from worry, pain and loss. But his eyes … to look into those watery blue eyes was to see into the very depths of compassion. And he could be kind, very kind in time of need. There was just one requirement he had, one axiom which he would not brook. “He always insisted on my presence to feel and respond to Selena’s loss and honour her life with me. It’s that sometimes it was just too much, too severe.”

Then Love said something that Selena’s mother had said when she learned I was trying to date again. She said, “Are you going to forget Selena?” And I had the same visceral reaction. It was like a blow to my stomach and I remembered the last time I had met Grief. He was camped out in the damn rain on the bench beneath the spruce in the little parkette near our house. His sleeping bag had long since become a soggy mass, but he hardly noticed, drops of rain dripping from his hawk nose. That was just before he whisked me away to memories of our Long Beach adventure.

After Love had said this, it seemed to me there was something strained in her voice, like choking something back and I looked up but Love was gone. Instead, I was looking into that discomforting but familiar face, the red beard and the deep-set eyes, of Grief. He was smiling like a drill Sargent, not good. “Hello, Al. Did you miss me? How did you like that one? I got another memory here for you. There was one time you had carried Selena upstairs when she could no longer walk and after you got her ready for bed she told you rather plaintively that after she was gone if you found someone who could make you happy again, then she would be ok with that. You couldn’t even respond properly to her! Remember how you felt when you realized many months later that she understood your torture and was offering the only kindness she had left to give?”

My stomach flipped into nausea and I swallowed back acid. As I felt the familiar muscle pain locking up my larynx, I managed to angrily squeak out, “Damn you, Grief!” Even so, he steadied me so I didn’t fall, waiting with me until the grief attack had once more passed away.

Such are the days and nights I now lead, with Love and Grief real and part of the world.