I was working as a printer’s devil for old man MacPherson, me, an Irish boy of only sixteen, but it was good pay, through my hands became black as night as I sorted the cast metal type in the hellbox and put ’em back in the job case. I’d gotten used to the noise, but in order to kill the monotony, Grady Owens, the chief printer, set up a radio so we could listen to music and the news, though he had to turn the volume up pretty high.
I figured I’d do my hitch at MacPherson’s, learn my way around the trade, then move up to something more substantial. Occasionally, he’d have me move heavy reams of newsprint, but I didn’t mind. Gave me a chance to wash my hands, then have a smoke with the other boys and men on the dock before putting my back into it. Even the older Joes respected me on account of my bouts at Clancy’s on the weekends. Clancy says I’ve got potential, box like the devil, which is another reason they call me that name.
I’ve always been big for my age, which causes Ma fits because she keeps having to let the hem out of my trouser legs.
For a long while, I didn’t have a clue that what I was hearing on the radio was different than everyone else. While they were listening to “Cow Cow Blues,” “A Gay Caballero,” and “Sonny Boy,” I was hearing nothing but the news. That wouldn’t be too unusual, but I’d get all kinds of news, from different days, and weeks, and months, all in the same hour.
When I heard that Lucky Lindy got the Medal of Honor for flying across the Atlantic, and a report that some airship named Italia crashed at the North Pole, I got suspicious, cause Lindy got that award a month ago, and the news said Italia was supposed to crash a month from now.
On a hunch, I asked Ice Box Billy (because his hands were always freezing) what was on the radio right then. He looked at me like I was nuts, but I told him I had a head cold, and I couldn’t hear so well.
He said the news was on, which eased my mind some, that is, until he said some bum tried to blow up Mussolini with a bomb in Naples or Milan or someplace like that (he never could figure out foreign countries too much – found out later it was Milan).
So I asks him when that was supposed to have happened, and he tells me yesterday the 12th. Just my luck today’s Friday the 13th, but that means only I can hear a different sort of radio.
I keep that to myself so the rest of the fellas don’t hijack me and toss me in the loony bin. While turning all this over in my head, I must have slowed down, because Mr. Owens barks at me and says I should be sorting more hastily, as if saying things real fancy would make everyone forget he grew up in the Kitchen same as the rest of us.
Yeah, we’re all human, but some of them is more “humaner” than others, if you get what I mean.
Anyway, I keep listening to the news (after getting more “hastily”), and hear that next month, there’s another bombing, this time against the Italian consulate or whatever, in Buenos Aires (I swear, the Italians have the worst luck).
By the by, come late next June, a Swede aeroplane rescues those Italians, or what’s left of them, from that North Pole crash, and get this. Next October Glenn Miller marries Helen Burder right here in New York. What about that, huh? Talk about causing some havoc among all those other dames who’d just about die to even touch Miller’s hand or “bone.” Bet they’ll be lining up to belt down hemlock when they hear this.
Must have been less than an hour before quitting time when I heard a story that almost made me mess my shorts. Some guy named Albert Fish was done away with by electric chair in Sing Sing, but that wouldn’t happen until January 16, 1936, almost eight years from now. Then I hear the son of a bitch got his for kidnapping and killing a 10-year-old little girl name of Grace Budd on June 3, 1928.
God damn. That’s less than two months from now. I stop sorting and get closer to the radio. I’ve gotta know more.
“Hey, devil. Get back to work.” Mr. Owen’s pretty nice, but he don’t like no loafers. I look up at him, and whatever expression he sees on my face makes him back off. He sidled up to me, making his face look softer. Put a hand on my shoulder and asked, “You not feeling right, boy?”
Me? What can I say? I feel like an empty husk, like the hyphen between “dead” and “meat.” I’m the only one in the world who knows that Grace Budd is going to die and get, I can barely even think it, eaten up by that bastard Fish. I don’t even doubt it, like maybe I’m going crazy. I just know everything I’m hearing is the Gospel truth, like it’s coming from the mouth of God Hisself.
I do the counting in my head and figure I’ve got just over seven weeks to do something about what I heard. I’ve got to listen hard, learn all I can, and hope and pray to God that the radio will give me what I need to know, and not just more dumb news about Italians. And if God won’t help me find Mr. Albert Fish, then I’ll find the bum myself and introduce him to the devil.
Then it’s quitting time, and when I turn my face back to the radio, all I hear is static.
I wrote this for Bonus Wordle “The Letter H,” hosted at Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie. The idea is to use at least 10 of the 12 words listed in the “Wordle” in a poem, short story, or other creative work. I used all 12.
The words are:
I started by looking up Hellbox and then Printer’s Devil. Since they’re archaic terms, I had to zero in on some sort of time frame. Turns out that among other notable individuals, former President Lyndon B. Johnson worked as a printer’s devil in his youth.
Johnson was born in 1908, so add twenty years and you get 1928. I scrolled up and down the list of relevant events for that year to get the various news items my nameless teenage “devil” mysteriously hears on the radio (the first commercial radio station in New York was established in 1920).
Oh, “bone” means “trombone,” not something else. That was Glenn Miller’s musical instrument.
Albert Fish was a monster, and you can click the link to find out just how bad a human being he was.