February 24, 2010

Someone would have to pay dearly

The Advocate's Devil – Historical Flash Fiction

As published in The Erin Advocate

"This newspaper has to hit the street first thing Wednesday morning," said Wellington Hull. "Nobody goes home until it's done." The publisher of The Erin Advocate was a big fish in a very small pond, and tolerated no lollygagging.

"How long 'til we put this one to bed?" he said to Robert, the weasel who runs our new Linotype machine. To look at McNair, you'd wonder if he could even read, but he makes that machine fly, laying down six lines o' type per minute.

"Two hours, Mr. Hull, sooner if Ethan gets off his arse and fetches more type."

"Let the boy be. I'm going out. Auction's at one. Now get to work."

Hull bought the newspaper 16 years ago, two years after I was born. Here at the Advocate office above the Union Bank, at 128 Main, he also issues marriage licenses, runs his farm machinery auction business and takes pleasure in the influence he wields.

My name is Ethan Callaghan, born in County Cork but shipped to Erin; a papist in a village named for Ireland, but run by Protestants, mainly Scotsmen. A Roman Catholic church will never be built here in my lifetime. Not that I care. The meek take comfort in sermons and incense; I prefer mine straight from the bottle.

I'm what they call a devil – a printer's devil. A lowly apprentice. Hands blackened from mixing tubs of ink. Emptier of the Hell Box, filled with broken lead type for the furnace. Whipping boy if ads appear upside down. Mark Twain was a printer's devil, and I'm going to be a writer too, if I can escape this godforsaken place. Until then I'm just the Advocate's devil, trying to stay warm and well-fed.

Finally, Wednesday, Feb. 23, 1910 has been set, proofed and locked down for printing. Nothing too exciting. An obituary for old man Sutton, 89, a loyal Methodist. Township council met at the Grand Central Hotel in Hillsburgh and paid its bills, including $7.84 for gravel from Robert W. Tarswell, the sawmill operator and Mormon preacher from Cedar Valley. The cost of living is up. Elephants have run amuck in San Francisco. Egyptian premier Boutros Ghali was shot by a nationalist student.

On Page 2, another dreary chapter of "Maude De Vere; or, the New Mistress at Laurel Hill". Fiction has no place in a modern newspaper. Almost as offensive as our weekly bible lesson.

Back on schedule, McNair and the crew have slipped across the street for "lunch" at the Globe Hotel before starting the press run, leaving me alone to tend the shop. Ben Mundell walked in. "Yes, Mr. Mundell. No sir. Yes sir, I will tell him." Like Hull, he had the swagger of a wheeler-dealer. I thought of the mansion he had built for Dr. Gear.

My older brother Connor works among the flapping drive belts and whirling blades at Mundell's planing factory, down where the Credit turns. Maybe we could both get work swinging a hammer this summer. With so many fires, there was always building to be done.

Hull's daughter Ella came by with her friend Edna Campbell. Both were 16, and unable to finish a sentence without breaking into fits of giggling. Ella had a mischievous glint, but kept herself prim. Edna had a wild streak that was barely concealed. Like me, she was of a lower class – but unlike me, she was content with it.

I went down to the press, all set up with a sheet of paper up on the platen. I rolled some ink over the raised type on the flatbed. I wasn't supposed to touch it on my own, but I had seen the pressmen work it hundreds of times, and helped with preparation and cleanup. Just a few copies. Just a little fun on a boring day.

I turned the drive wheel and the paper flew down, was pressed against the type and whipped up again. One poor copy. A few more, as I fed paper and the rollers automatically laid fresh ink. Clackity-clack. Clackity-clack. Then a clunk and a low grinding.

The press was jammed, and the crew would be back soon. I tried to reverse it, to no avail. I put a crowbar to the gears, and they moved a bit. I reached with my right hand to lift the platen, while pressing the crowbar with the left, and suddenly the mechanism came free. Off balance, I stumbled towards the gears as the press finished its cycle. A lightning bolt of pain shot up my left arm.

Lying on the grimy floor, I saw my hand had turned from black to red. I was lucky. Only the baby finger was missing. Slipping into shock, I wasn't thinking about how reckless I had been. I felt only a rage against this place and the people who put me here. I comforted myself with a vow that someone would have to pay dearly for this. Then I slept.

* * *

Meanwhile, back in 2010...this has been an experiment in flash fiction, also known as the short, short story. It is a mix of real people like Hull, a real newspaper from exactly 100 years ago, imagined characters like Callaghan and events that might have been.