23. Maurice

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Maurice Jones hustled down a flight of stairs, the hard soles of his work boots clanking on iron steps. He hurried through the darkened area leading to the furnaces. He stumbled over bricks, mud, shovels, lumps of coal, and railroad tracks. From time to time, he marveled at the torrents of sparks showering down from the black void above, lighting up the labyrinth of tracks and giant machinery rattling past overhead as if powered by some mysterious guiding force.

Maurice stepped into the pit, a half-acre square crater made bright as a morning wheat field by several brilliant globs of molten steel on the ground. Striding along, he gazed as a 200-ton furnace creaked forward, tilted with a grinding whine, and poured a glowing stream into a five-foot tall ladle, hanging from an electric crane. A dizzying burst of sparks shot out of the ladle, sailing quite a distance outside the pit. Maurice noticed several men near the pit area slapping at sparks that had landed on their clothes. As the ladle brimmed with molten fluid, the furnace tilted upright, and the glowing liquid sloshed and spilled from the ladle onto the floor, leaving more molten clumps – too hot to clean up yet.

Exiting the pit on the other side, Maurice spotted his pit gang several feet from the edge. But in the vague light, he only saw two of the five-man crew. Both white. Both sitting on wooden crates.

Maurice came up to Hans Schiller, a lean five-foot-ten German in loose corduroy pants and a blue collared shirt unbuttoned at the neck.

"You late," Hans said in a thick accent.

"Only five minutes," Maurice said, talking over all the mill noises. Then he looked around. "Hey, where Reggie and Malcolm?" he asked, emphasizing each word.

With so many immigrants at the mill, Maurice realized it was easier to get his point across by talking like them. By keeping his words simple, using short sentences, and talking slowly. Sometimes, he even found himself thinking the way they talked.

Hans exchanged a fleeting glance with his brother, Karl, who at six-foot-two had the physique of a circus strongman and the face of a humorless ogre, his gray t-shirt stretching against a thick chest and arms as wide as steel girders.

"Transfer," Hans said. "Boss take them."

"What?" Maurice said, shocked.

They were the closest thing to family to him. Brothers, really. Former Rooks – Reggie Blake, catcher, the man they called "The Vacuum Cleaner" because he sucked every ball into his mitt. And Malcolm Blair, the finest center fielder he ever had the privilege to call a teammate.

Reggie and Malcolm had come down to the mill with Maurice the day after the Rooks folded. Got hired together. On the first night of the first day at work, they filled their glasses at Tyson's Pub and swore they'd stick together. Watch each other's back. Now what?

"Where boss take them?" Maurice asked.

"Not know," Hans said, shrugging his angular shoulders.

Karl spouted something in German to his brother. Hans nodded with a laugh.

"Uh, English please!" Maurice said, irritated. He sent Karl a hard stare. "Do ... you ... know ... where ... they ... went?"

Karl shook his head. "All know is boss no happy."

Rolling his eyes, Maurice raised his hands in surprise. "Why boss no happy?"

Hans nodded, smiling. Or was it a smirk? "I think boss no like how you people always talk about silly game ... you know, the one you call baize-ball. He want to keep you three separate."

Maurice frowned. What Hans really meant to say was, boss no like how they always talk about black baseball. Actually, boss only liked talking about white baseball. And how whites were better than blacks. Boss was a big asshole.

Looking away, Maurice felt like his jaw was wired to a fuse box in his head, and a single fuse was the only thing keeping him from saying something he might regret.

Behind his back, the brothers chattered in German, and Maurice couldn't help but think they were talking about him.

Maurice stared at the murky darkness beyond the pit. He could make out blurry shadows of men trudging through the area. Chattering idly. He heard the metallic whirs and groans of heavy equipment in operation. And he heard someone shout, "Watch where you walkin', you dumb negro!" Followed by silence. Then came the snickering ... and without failure, the monkey sounds.

Maurice heard a loud pop between his ears. The fuse had blown! He shot a wild-eyed gaze at Hans as he fired off a fast-lipped rant. "First of all, it's pronounced baseball, not baize-ball. Second, the only reason we're here is because some a white player threw a ball that hit my friend in the head. That caused a riot that got blamed on our team and our club had to shut down. And third, my people are busting their asses working fourteen-hour night shifts so all you whites can work your ten."

Maurice's eyes went wide. For one tense moment, he wondered if the two Germans understood what he had just said, but their faces were blank as slates. Maurice felt relief wash over him, and his lips curved into a smart-alecky grin. "You got no idea what I just said, do you?"

But before Hans could say anything ...

A voice came from the darkness. "No, I'm sure they didn't."


Maurice felt a shiver run atop his shoulders despite the ninety-degree heat around them.

The Germans stood up. Karl folded his massive arms over a double-kegged chest.

Did he hear everything?

He emerged into the dim light rising from the pit, a commanding figure. Cruelty flickering in his icy blue eyes. Contempt etching the rigid features of his face. "But I heard it loud and clear."

Maurice took a half-step back.


Author's Note

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Author's Note

This depiction of the inside of a steel mill is historically accurate. Bottom Line: It was dark, hot, and smelly. I've been inside a steel mill before and I have a great respect for steel workers.

If you're enjoying this story, please consider leaving a comment or a vote. It helps me know if I'm delivering something that's worth reading. And if not, I'll make it right.

In the next chapter, Frank struggles with how to solve the conflict between blacks and whites at Union Steel.


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