29. The Offer

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"Henry Louis," Frank said, a hint of recognition in his voice.

Henry was sure they'd never met. "Yes sir," he said, trying not to sound nervous.

"I'm Frank –"

"– Bell," Henry finished.

Frank nodded, his lips a sliver of a smile. "Do you mind chatting for a minute?" He gestured at the red-cushioned seat across from him.

Henry slid into the booth opposite from Frank. He balled his hands up at his sides, tapping his foot lightly against the rutted linoleum floor.

"Listen Henry," Frank said, "What happened to you was an awful shame. Getting hit like that. The riot. And then the Rooks shutting down. A terrible string of events."

Henry leaned forward, rubbing his hands under the table. "Mr. Bell, why are you here to see me?"

"Henry, do you believe in fate?" Frank asked.

Henry tilted his head, not quite understanding. "Not really."

"Well, maybe you should," Frank said with a gleam in his eyes. "Because I'm here to make you an offer. To play for the Pioneers."

"What?" Henry felt his eyes go wide. "The Pioneers are a white team."

"That's what I hear," Frank said with a sly grin. "I'll pay you $400 a month." He leveled a serious gaze across the booth. "So what do you say?"

"Why me?" Henry asked in disbelief.

Frank mused for a moment. "Our starting shortstop is leaving for the war in a few weeks. We need the position filled, and you're the best player around."

Henry gave a wry smile. "So how's an all-white team going to like it when they get a black teammate?"

"They'll come around."

"What about the guy who gave me this?" Henry pointed to the purple bulge on the side of his head.

Frank drew in a breath. "I've already talked to Jake. And the rest of the players."

All his life, Henry had only known white folk who believed they were superior to blacks. They talked to you in condescending tones. And in their superiority, they held onto unspoken violent streaks that could be unleashed in the blink of a thought. Henry gazed at the man in front of him. Was Frank Bell really different? Or was he hiding something?

Frank continued. "I know you must be apprehensive about playing for a white team. Don't get me wrong. It won't be easy. Not all the boys will take to you right away. But once you start to help out the team, they'll come around. Besides, you'll get to play ball."

Henry considered that, shaking his head slowly. "I think I belong on a black field, not a white one." He waved his arm, gesturing at the group of black diners that filled the room. "I belong with my people."

"You belong on the baseball field!" Frank insisted. "You have the potential to be a great ball player. I want to put that potential back in the game."

Henry watched as several more people bustled into the diner. Someone was clanging pots in the kitchen, and Rudy yelled for the busboy to fetch him another box of grits.

The two men sat in silence for a long moment.

Finally Henry said, "Mr. Bell, thanks for the offer, but I think I should get to work."

Before Henry could get up, Frank raised his hand. "Before you go. Promise me you'll think about my offer before you make your final decision."

Henry wanted to say no. Instead, he said, "Sure, Mr. Bell." Then Henry slid out of the booth and just stood there, unsure what to say, feeling a child's awkwardness with his hands at his side.

"This will be the most important decision of your life," Frank said, a warm glow to his face.

"Why's that, Mr. Bell?"

Frank's eyes sparkled. "Because you could be the very first black Pioneer."

Moments later, Henry was busy, brooming the grit on the floor as Mr. Bell left Rudy's and ambled past the front window. Henry stopped and held the broom in a loose grip, his reflection in the glass staring back at him, and it seemed to shake its head as if Henry had just made the dumbest mistake of his life.

Henry swallowed and leaned the broom against a table before starting for the door.

"Where are you going?" Rudy asked, beefy arms folded over a beefy chest.

Henry gave Rudy a vague look. "I'm not sure."

Outside, Henry spotted Mr. Bell walking around a silver Rolls-Royce that looked like a shimmering diamond among a bevy of rusty tin cans. "Mr. Bell!"

Henry caught up to the man and looked him straight in those expectant, brown eyes. After a brief silence, he inhaled a deep breath. Henry couldn't believe he was going to do this.

"Mr. Bell, I accept your offer."


Author's Note

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Author's Note

Of course, we want Henry to take the offer!

If he does accept, it's going to take grit to survive and guts to turn the other cheek.

Needless to say, Henry will find himself in the fight of his life!

Until next week, take care!!

Thanks!

Tom

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