Empty Signals

radio tower1

On the hill to the west there is a radio tower. The tower climbs over 2000 feet, scraping the sky with its pointed antenna. I don’t know what it broadcasts. Nobody does. There’s probably not any radio waves left to send, so it just sits there, pretending to have a purpose.

But the world’s gone quiet. The roads are empty, while the sky is freckled with stars at night, devoid of planes or satellites. Uncommon when we were kids, but completely expected now, is the vision of the haze of galactic batches of gas and dust and distant suns through the naked eye.

That’s how time changed for us. It wasn’t a sudden jump into a future of surprises. It was a slow slip, like watching water drain out of an old tub, winding and slowly pulled down, the gurgling slipping deeper in the pipes, further and further into history. That’s how the future happens, you know. Slowly. And then it’s just done.

We don’t know all of our history until it is written. The future isn’t even the gift of present yet. So what are you going to write about? This is something I say to Zeb quite a bit, but he just stares back at me, blankly, like he’s waiting for a punchline.

Anyway, that tower. It stands out, you know? All alone on that hill, the edge of the edge of the town. I’ve turned the dial on all the little radios in the village, and there’s nothing but static. And that’s if the radio works at all. Zeb, he says that the tower is aimed at the sky and that’s why we don’t hear it. He says it’s talking to the gods, and is telling them to pull the plug on us. To cut the cord that keeps us all alive and breathing on this planet of death.

This is dark for Zeb. Usually he is the one to smile and wink and tell me there’s a purpose to our waiting.

But there are no gods up there.

There’s nothing up there. No one. No one is listening, no one is watching, and no one controls the “cords”. We live and we breathe because that is what we do. After we’re done breathing, we go back to the nothing we were before this and that’s just the way it is. Like a light bulb switched off leaves you in darkness except you don’t continue to think, or play with ideas in your head, or daydream about how you should have said something to the girl next to you in high school, or how the boy who punched your friend would have suffered if you had chosen to raise your fists to fight back.

There’s none of that when we’re done, when our cord is pulled. There is just what was there before you. The ground, the air, the sky. We were in and out and aside from shifting a few rocks and flushing a few gallons, we’re just empty signals. That’s all we are to the world and the universe. We’re shouting out our waves of words and thoughts and meaningless meanderings and there’s nothing but static waiting for us.

I said all this to Zeb one evening, while we sat on the hill under the tower. It’s our favorite place to go and sit. We don’t talk most times, we just drink and sit and stare up that tower to the sky.

When I said all this to Zeb, he turned and looked at me and he said the tower looked lonely today. Said the tower was probably shouting, too, and since no one far away was likely to hear its signal, if I was correct, than he’d want to hear it for himself.

That’s why he started climbing.

And dammit, I didn’t want him to be alone up there. So I climbed, too.

There are two ladders, one on each side. But about halfway up my ladder was broken. Like someone had peeled away the bars, the handrails to help you up. They were broken, craggly, sticking out thirty feet over the hills and empty ground below. I looked down once, and the green grass was a blanket tightly pulled and tucked on the bed of the earth.

The Village was small, blocky, and no one was outside this particular day. Rules were becoming more lax, but people were also less motivated to wander. Or some had become too motivated and disappeared and no one cared enough to follow. What’s the point of rules when there’s no point at all?

I circled the tower, not carefully, just naturally. I’ve no problem with heights, with small footholds or deep falls. When you fall it’s quite freeing, and then you land and there is nothing so why bother worrying?

My feet are my feet, I can feel the metal on them and get a good footing and continue circling and climbing, I try not to worry where to step next. My foot knows where to go. That’s a funny thought, your feet knowing where to go. Like they have minds of their own. Thinking feet, now I know I’m off my rocker.

We continue to climb. The wind grows and I see Zeb’s long hair waving wildly around his head. He glances down at me at one point, I see his mouth moving but don’t hear his voice, just a howl of wind. He looks like he’s laughing. Smiling. Why would he do that? Why tell a joke if there’s no one around to hear it.

He keeps climbing and the cloud cover is wandering in. Only 2000 feet off the ground and there’s clouds. They’re low. There’s moisture on the ladder, on the metal, so I hold the rungs a little tighter. I’m not worried, not stressing bout the climb, but I’d rather stay close to what I know, and right now what I know is this ladder and this tower.

Then I reach up and feel bare skin, and Zeb’s foot. His raw, callused skin, shivering. He must be cold, and I have to admit that it is a bit chilly at this height, and the moisture being blown on our bodies is not helping. Still, I climb up and settle next to Zeb. Not a lot of room up here. We’ve reached the top, and when you look down all you see is the fog of clouds, and when you look up you see nothing but gray white clouds, puffy and ready to burst. We can barely see each other, and inches away from my nose is the top of the tower, the antenna, and Zeb’s smiling face.

I ask him what he’s smiling about, and he grips my head with one hand, puts his finger to his lips with the other. I’m about to ask what this is all about and then…

…And then I hear it. A low hum, but within that hum are words. I don’t understand them, but they are words. And they’re being sent into the sky. Maybe for help, maybe for something else.

I say this to Zeb, and I’m smiling when I say it. But he’s shaking his head. He is smiling and shaking his head, ready to argue and debate something, but I don’t know what and then…

…And then he points to the monitor. The green and red lights are bright and how could I have missed them before?

The light for TRANSMIT is green but the switch is OFF.


At night the sky shines brighter.

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