48. Birmingham

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Supper was a disaster.

Oh, it had started out fine. As soon as Albert wandered back into the house, Henry gave those yellow roses to Sarah, and she thanked him more than once, a huge smile beaming like a bright crescent moon against cocoa-brown cheeks. She filled an empty milk bottle with water, dropped in the bouquet, and placed the makeshift vase at the center of the kitchen table.

Then Sarah proceeded to whip up a fine meal, filling the house with the aroma of chicken, garlic, and onions sizzling in a greased cast iron pan. All the while, she chatted up a storm, mostly about cars and how being a mechanic was interesting work ... most of the time. She also pointed out that Albert used to play baseball in Birmingham, but he retired suddenly for reasons she didn't really know, and that piqued Henry's interest.

Henry enjoyed listening to her stories as he helped, trying not to get in the way too much. He laid a blue-and-white checkered tablecloth over the kitchen table before setting it with a hodgepodge assortment of forks, knives, and ceramic mugs. Then he set down plates of fried chicken, sautéed collard greens, baked potatoes, and fresh brown bread.

As soon as they settled down to eat, things started to go south with Albert giving Henry the third degree about his lack of ambition – "You're not planning to play baseball forever, are you?" – then questioning his reasoning after the Rooks folded – "Why didn't you find another Negro team?" – and finally taking aim at him for joining the Pioneers – "You think it's okay to play on a white team?"

Sarah rolled her eyes, stabbing a fork into a chunk of potato and sliding it around her plate. "Uncle Albert, that's a silly question. Of course it's okay."

Uncle Albert furrowed his brow and held up a hand. "The boy can answer for himself."

Henry leaned back in his chair. He had withstood Albert's interrogation, never once lashing back. It didn't take a doctor to see the man was in some kind of hurt. Not the physical kind. But the kind that festers on the inside after someone loses something important.

Henry had learned a good bit about Albert from his questions. He was a pitcher. Henry didn't need Sarah to tell him that. You could tell from the way he stared at you. Henry had seen that glare over the mound a million times. Those intense eyes. Shooting fire at you like you were going down swinging no matter what.

Albert was pitching questions like fastballs. Truth is, he wasn't on the attack. The man was building up a wall, hoping Henry would retreat. But why?

For now, Henry would play along. "After the Rooks shut down, I didn't think I had much of a career in the Negro leagues. Black teams were folding up like chairs at a picnic after the food's gone. I don't make as much as the white players, but my pay is decent. It's more than I would make working at the steel mill or at the diner. To answer your question, I'm fine playing on a white team."

Albert gave a dubious look. "Yeah, well some things are worth more than money." He took a sip of water from his mug, on it the picture of a 1913 Chevrolet.

"I really don't think Henry's doing it for the money." Sarah sent Henry a shaky smile.

Henry smiled back at her. "Sarah's right." Then he met Albert's frown. "It's not about the money. So why do you think it's wrong for me to play on a white team?"

"Simple," Albert said. "Blacks and whites don't belong together."

Henry felt a jolt as recollection set in. In their first meeting, he'd told Dale that blacks and whites don't mix. With the constant verbal and physical abuses from the white players, Henry had floated the idea of leaving the Pioneers and finding a Negro team. But the notion of quitting on Mr. Bell and Coach Taylor, well, that just didn't sit right with him. "Maybe blacks and whites need to learn to work together."

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