15. Willy's Big Plan

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Wednesday, March 6, 1918


Tyson's Pub was an odd little bar in the Black District. Inside, dark cherry wood walls were covered by a huge collection of Civil War mementos, including framed letters from Union soldiers, several tattered Union Army hats, a Springfield 1886 Trapdoor Carbine rifle, and even a near-life size painting of Ulysses S. Grant. But as Henry realized a long time ago, under all these decorations, Tyson's was just another run-of-the-mill saloon.

Every afternoon, the pub started to fill with patrons around four o'clock after all the factory workers finished their day shifts. Henry often thought the bar was a fitting reflection of the town. Whatever mood radiated throughout the community seemed to be reflected here. People came here to celebrate their blessings in the good times and forget their troubles in the bad.

Henry usually didn't come here during the baseball season. He liked to keep his body healthy and free of harmful substances. He supposed it didn't matter now. There were no practices to worry about. No games to prepare for. And with Negro teams folding everywhere, there might not even be any baseball ... ever again in his life.

Henry had been fortunate to land a spot on the Rooks. Not very many people could say they got paid every day to do what they loved most in the world. Very few people found a living in their passion. He had had that. He had had that blessing.

And now it was gone.

Henry knew he should just feel lucky for the time he had been able to devote to a career he treasured. He should look back on those times with gratitude. Maybe eventually he would. But right now, he just couldn't. All he could do, all he wanted to do, was mourn.

Henry told himself that getting a job at Union Steel would be prudent, and he knew that he should do it quickly. Many of the other players had probably already applied for a job cleaning up molten slag, unloading truckload after truckload of pig iron, or scraping the bellies of smoldering hot furnaces. Although Union Steel was the largest employer in town, it had finite resources. If he didn't hurry, there wouldn't be any jobs left.

But Henry just couldn't strike up the motivation. After fifteen years of playing baseball since the age of five, how could he transition into a life of menial labor? How would he ever get used to the monotony of a meaningless dead-end job.

Henry took a deep gulp of his frothy beer. He knew that he would need to get this all figured out soon. At least, if he wanted to pay his rent and have some money for food later this month. But tonight, all he wanted to do was forget it all. He wanted to drink until his head was so full of juice that there was no room for thought or worry.

Henry wanted to forget the uncertainty of his future. He glanced around, observing the other patrons over the rim of his beer mug. Their expressions displayed a veil of defeat. Eyes tired and bruised from lack of sleep. Shoulders hunched. Hands weathered from years of manual labor, lifting their drinks like listless machines. Uncertainty was everywhere.

Henry had no doubt he and Willy were the only patrons with any vitality in their faces or vigor in their bodies. Would giving up a life of baseball be akin to giving up on life itself? Perhaps he'd end up working alongside Maurice at Union Steel. Their hands would become thick and leathery. Their lungs clouded by black fumes. And their bodies would become weak and tired as they plodded around the mill, reminiscing fondly about their baseball days.

Henry gulped down the final dregs of his beer, trying to push aside these nagging thoughts.

Willy didn't drink at all, season or not. He didn't believe in alcohol or approve the way it affected a man's behavior. He hadn't come to drink away his feelings, but rather to commiserate with Henry and to be around people who shared similar sorrows.

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