Fate of the Telegraph Operator

Dean could not believe at first the words he was transmitting at his station. He read it again. His eyebrows raised almost into his hairline, so excited was he with the realization of what he was reading overcoming him. The message was vague, yes, but it had an odd enough specificity that he could read between the lines.

He read it one more time before looking around his work station. All around, his fellow telegraph transmitters were hard at work, tapping away with their heads bowed. Perhaps it was nothing more than just a vague message, and he was reading into it. But this message was far more than just the usual transmission. Day in and day out he would send messages of the daily variety; families notifying they could not make the holiday, doctors ordering prescriptions from pharmaceutical companies, and messages about the state horse races.

But this, this had to be a message from the Chicago mob.

He’d marveled for several minutes, Ethan suddenly realized. He should probably transmit this message, lest the sender begin to think something had gone wrong in the delay. Bowing his head and returning to his station, he began to link the message to the correct recipient address.

Ethan put the message through then returned to his flurry of usual telegraphs. A handful had piled up on him in his momentary break. Hunkering down, the operator began to plug those through, hopeful that this was not him getting overexcited about nothing.

But then another message came through that made him pause for a second moment. He double checked, and it was from the same transmitter which he had sent the first message. Another message, this one of equal vagueness, dripping of something sinister and suspicious. Ethan stared at the code of all of it for a moment, dumbfounded at what he was reading. Excitement coursed through him that he had to control, he knew. Giving a deep inhale through the nose and an even exhale, he put the message through, his mind whirling as he went back to work.

Why would the mob be using public communication? he wondered later in the day. No more other messages had come to his station, all of the usual flurry of everyday messages suddenly back in his “to be transmitted box”. Perhaps someone other operator in the telegraph station had received the reply and transmitted it along. Yet Ethan could not help thinking about the message, and it’s sudden relevance. The mob were still on the hush side of things, avoiding the police. They owned noone, yet. So why risk their activities on a public channel, where anyone could see the message?

Excitement of what he was doing ran through his brain all through the shift, enough that his co-workers certainly noticed his cheery mood once he entered the break room.

“This job is not that glamorous,” Daniel, an operator twenty years his senior said as he noticed Ethan practically bouncing in his seat. The younger telegraph operator had been strumming his fingers on the table as he munched on a sandwich, much to Daniel’s annoyance. He nodded towards Ethan’s hands. “Keep your fingers going like that, and you’ll punch a hundred extra stops in the messages/you’ll be churning out the New Testament by quitting time. The boss will have you for all the wasted transmitting power.”

What, did you have a fabulous Sunday at mass and are transmitting the entire new Testament to all your recipients?”

“Just feel as though I’m finally moving today,” Ethan lied. “Been getting transmissions out a whole minute faster than I usually do.” Realizing what he was doing, he pulled his hand from the table and ate his sandwich with both hands. “Dan, have you ever transmitted any exciting messages?”

“Exciting?” the older operator asked. His eyes narrowed, confused at the younger worker’s question. “Boy, if there were anything exciting to send a message about, people would go down the street running and yelling it, all Paul Revere-like and such. Nothing exciting happens in this job.”

Ethan nodded, and asked no further.

***

The workday was usually the most mundane and mind numbing thing he could think of, but it paid the bills. Ethan did it so he could pay bills. Work made him leave every day with very little joy but the relief in being done. There were so many of the same message sent out every day, so boring and so repetitive. Lovers sending frivolous letters, families corresponding, all of the private and public sectors trying to communicate orders, it was all the same. Life could not be that boring, he thought to himself when he looked at it all in perspective in his bed, late at night. It almost depressed him that these messages, each of them almost becoming generic, seemed to never end, as if there were no individuality in society and that they were all just copies, filling out the same roles to keep the big wheels moving.

Over the next week, Ethan had found a few more messages coming through his station. He marveled over each of them for a few moments, before continuing on with his work. They fascinated him. The mob was such a small factor of society, their operations so unlike anything that he could comprehend to the every day movement of life. As he read the papers and watched the headlines, Ethan watched the glorious day to day notoriety of the mob and the gangsters, avoiding society’s laws and clean cutness of the age.

He began to write them down, keeping a few transmitting cards off to the side of his pile. Messages would come through a receptor, and then punched into a card. The card then had to be translated to another, so the message could go through another wire to the recipient. Each card he had was to be punched, and then vibrated through a dial, which would send the message to the next station. Cards were turned in at the end of the day to the recycling room, where they would be recycled and returned sometime later, the paper as good as new, as if it had never been punched. Ethan kept a few cards here and there, hoping to avoid suspicions, as he chronicled the fascinating messages that he had come through his station.

He hid the cards sometimes, when the managers patrolled the floors to make sure operators were on task. Ethan would hide these notecards of his sometimes at the bottom of the pile, or in his pant pockets or jacket. The pile inconsistency would drive his manager nuts sometimes— not that messages came in on a regular basis, but they sometimes did not like Ethan very much.

“McCallister! What are you doing?” asked the manager one day. Ethan looked up, the color running from his face. He was caught, a writing utensil and card in hand, his message transmitter still.

“M-m-making— a note—,” Ethan stammered.

“A personal note? On company paper?” The manager asked. Ethan neither nodded or shook his head, his neck paralyzed with fear. A few telegraph operators looked up, partly to see what the commotion was, partly to see where the manager was and that he was not at their work station yet.

“My office. Now.”

***

The anger the manager showed on the floor was gone, and Ethan was suddenly cold as he stepped into the office at the end of the telegram station.

As Ethan stepped into the manager’s office, he never realized how loud the telegraph floor was. The persistent tip tapping of operators on their devices, a low level hum as the wires and transmitters received and put forth their messages, it all seemed to be in the back of their minds as they worked. No operator, let alone Ethan, realized how much bustling the floor actually had.

Until they were in a silence like this one. The manager’s office was a large one, basically a loft overlooking the factory floor that he, Daniel and all of the others worked in. The office was lined with filing cabinets of various paperwork the manager had to himself file. The place was decorated with furniture— from little couches to ottomans to even a great cherry wood desk, one of the finest desks Ethan had ever seen.

And yet the place was still spacious. There were practically miles between some of the lounging couches, to the guest chairs in front of the desk, and even what seemed another city block between that and the desk. Ethan noted this as he now sat in one of the guest chairs, his manager sitting on this side of the edge of his desk, his gaze piercing into Ethan’s.

“Do you know why you are here, son?” the manager asked.

“Mr. Williams, if it is about the parchment, I am terribly sorry,” Ethan burst. “My family was low on papers to write our grocery lists on. You can dock it from my pay, please, actually, I insist—“

“I know you don’t take me for a fool,” said Mr. Williams, pulling a card out from under his bottom. Ethan’s fast spilling lie stopped, as he saw his own familiar handwriting on the card, even from so far away. “So we can stop just right there, Mr. Mcallister. Now, as you know, or maybe I need to remind you, there are some clauses in your contract as a telegraph operator. Clauses about confidentiality.”

Ethan was suddenly quiet, all of the air he had a moment ago vanished into the thinning air. He nodded. He was silent, but there was a hope that maybe this would just be it for the lecture?

“We get a variety of clients and messages through our telegraph system,” Mr. Williams continued. He walked around Ethan’s chair to look out the window, giving a long gaze at the hundreds of telegraph operators working on the floor below. “And these clients trust our services to get their messages from themselves to their intended readers, and no one else. Correct?”

He came around to meet Ethan’s gaze once more. Ethan nodded again.

“Most of our message we transmit are mundane, yes,” Mr. Williams said. “But sometimes, there happens to be a one in a hundred thousand type of message, that gets exciting. Is worthy of some gossip.”

Have you told anyone at home about the messages you have been transmitting?

“No, Mr. Williams, no sir,” Ethan burst, finally relieved to say something. I simply am fascinated by them, and look them over in my own privacy. I read the papers, and it is intriguing to see—“

“There is a line though, Mr. McCallister,” Mr. Williams set him off. “We are simply those ferrying the messages on. We are not the police, the government. It is not our job to take note of what we see. We are simply those who are able to transmit messages, to help those with urgencies take advantage of technology. We do not take part in the conversations we may glean on. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, Mr. Williams.”

“Ethan, you are a brilliant young man,” Mr. Williams said, coming back around to sit on the edge of his desk. “You could have a promising career here. But if you do more than the job, you are breaking my confidence, and the confidence of my customers. Do see that this never happens again.”

***

No. No. No. 

Ethan looked over the addressed he had just punched in. There had to be a mistake. He was looking for a mistake, or that he’d mistaken. But no. That was the correct recipient address.

He stopped working, and looked long and hard at the transmitter at his workstation. That wasn’t the right address. That was not the right address. He’d typed everything in right, except for that last coordinate.

His finger had slipped, and the message had gone to the wrong recipient.

These were not the types of messages that could go to the wrong recipients, Ethan knew. They were in the strictest confidence. If anyone else saw that message other than the intended recipient, and got wind of it, there would be a lot of trouble. For the mob. For the sender. And most of all, for him.

What was he to do? He could not pull the message. The telegram had already been sent. It could not be pulled back. Could he send the message again, this time to the right recipient? Yes. He had to do that. The message Mr. Falconi’s agent sent had to get there.

He put the message in again, this time taking extra mind to typing the correct coordinates to the recipient. He stared hard at the number he punched in, worry rushing through his mind. He could not mess it up. The more people this message recieved, the worse it would get. This time, the coordinates were right, and Ethan transmitted the message.

There. It was done. Hopefully, the first one had gone to someone who would think nothing of it. Some old lady in Englewood or something with the forgetful mind, and the message would end up in the trash.

The rest of the shift went without incident, but Ethan continued to recite the Rosary all the while.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost, youngin,” someone said to Ethan as they stood in line for the clock out. Ethan blinked, surprised at the co-worker’s comment. Was the worry on his face that obvious?

“Just… a stressful day,” Ethan said.

“Well, go home and rest.”

I fully intend to, thought Ethan, wanting nothing more than to be in his bedroom, far away from contact of any kind

***

“This makes no sense,” Al Falconi said. “How was Robert aware of that?”

The two men in front of him stared blankly, giving no answer. He repeated his question again.

“My boys,” he began, “How was Robert aware of this deal? Noone was ever supposed to tell him he would be cut out of the pay. Now I have several dead members of my gang, and no explanation. I would like an explanation.”

“It was not us, boss,” they said. “Our lips have been tight.”

“Well, it was someone,” Mr. Falconi said, laying his hand on the desk. “Before any more damage comes from this deal, I want to know who is responsible for the leak. Find them, and break them for what they did.”

The boys left, and Mr. Falconi reclined in his chair, bringing down his anger. Where could the message have gone wrong? This bothered him, like a fly at the meat factory. An insect of a problem, which could escalate into something bigger beneath the surface. Something more could be rotting. But if the insect were taken care of, there might be more problems underneath. Still, the insect had to get be gotten rid of. This falling out of boys in his ranks could be ironed out, but only if he could find the insect that was bugging him about it.

Suddenly it dawned on him. An insect. He opened his eyes. He suddenly knew how the message had gotten into the wrong hands.

“Boys, come back,” he motioned through the door. The henchmen brought his boys back into the room, who were more concerned than when they left.

“I need you to take a trip into the city for me,” Mr. Falconi said.

***

It had been several weeks since the incident, and Ethan’s worry had almost subsided. Sure, he was uneasy at times, but he felt more confident since that slip up. Every message was being sent to the right recipient, and nothing had come from it. Maybe God had answered his prayers, and kept the message out of anyone else’s hands.

He felt great, until he was walking home one night. The dark was coming quicker, and he was worried about getting home for dinner on time. But there was something else. His uneasiness seemed to be growing as he walked the streets home.

Ethan realized the streets he walked on were a little quieter tonight.

He looked back, and his uneasiness grew. Two people were about half a block behind him. Several other telegraph operators lived down this way from work. But these men’s overcoats looked far from the coats someone at the operating factory would wear.

Ethan looked forward, as a car motioned for him to cross. He paced across the cobblestone, picking up his pace just a little.

He’d gotten almost to his house. A block away. When suddenly he felt hands grab him by his underarms. Ethan suddenly was slammed against the wall of the building, emitting a loud shout at the impact on his back.

“I don’t have any money,” he begged. He slumped  “Please….”

“You’re a telegraph operator for Williams, aren’t you?” one of the men asked.

“Ye-yes,” Ethan groaned. “Please, I barely have enough to pay for my family…”

“What’s your name, son?” the second man asked.

“Ethan—“

“McCallister, isn’t it,” the first man finished. Ethan’s eyes grew in horror. Before the words could even form on his lips, he was hauled to his feet. They knew who he was, and he had a terrifying idea of who they were.

“Please, no, please, it was a mistake!” he begged.

“Boy is smart, to the point,” said the second man. “Good, so are we. Listen kid, your mistake, it’s caused a little riling up. So unfortunately, we are going to have to rile you up a bit.” They began to kick him with their boots, sending the young man curling into a ball. No one else walked the block, nor would have dared to help against the larger men.

They picked him up. Ethan whimpered. There was definitely a broken rib here or there.

“Listen, you seem like a careful fellow. But you can’t slip up. You gotta be more careful. So here is a little reminder of how do be more careful.”

And with that, they laid him out on the street, sprawled out. The first man held down his torso and arms. The second man went to his head, and very carefully, stomped on each hand until he heard something crack.

Satisfied that the message was sent, they abandoned the telegraph operator, writhing in pain, and his worry and fear getting the best of him. ns-monogram1

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