In July the heat and river humidity bear down on the town, pasting the
odor to the ground day and night regardless of breeze. Clare is thirty-six
weeks pregnant, so she has transferred from her forklift in the warehouse
stacking giant rolls of bleached paperboard. She is in the office handling
paperwork, sidling up to desktops and cabinets as best she can. She
worries about the smelly air her baby is getting through her umbilicus.
Inside the plant, the Number 3 machine is down. Number 3 is longer than a
city block. While it is down, mechanics and maintenance workers swarm over
it. Elijah climbs a ladder at the wet end where virgin craft pulp is
dumped into the machine's maw. Brown paper mud splats onto a wire screen
and is swept through the machine's heat and pressure and rollers,
forging a three-ply paperboard at the dry end 150 yards away where men
wait for it with blades and pneumatic lifts. Elijah climbs with his tools
into the spot called Hell. The metal ladder he mounts is slick with the
congealed scum of pulp fibers and steam. Brown dregs hang from the rungs.
One lightbulb glows, silhouetting the bits floating on the steam. Elijah
hunkers low to fit under the beams and pipes, also ugly with dangling pulp
drool. He squats beside a massive shaft and unhinges the coupling to
inspect the cogs. He spills kerosene over the bearings to degrease them,
then adds fresh grease. In July in this spot in the mill, you cannot wipe
the sweat from your brows fast enough. Elijah's drips fall on the
bearings under his slippery, glimmering fingers.
When he is finished and has cleaned his tools in the shop, his foreman
Elijah looks up. He says nothing.
"There's a meeting this afternoon at three o'clock at the chip-yard
trailer. I want you to go to it.
"I'm on til four.
"That's all right. I need you to go.
Elijah pours kerosene over his hands to dig the grease from his nails with
"They're forming a Diversity Committee. This is the first meeting.
Elijah draws in his lips.
The foreman leans his backside against the counter. He lifts a hand to
help conjure the point he wants to make.
"What, with you being married to Clare and all," he says, "I figured,
well . . .
The foreman brings his hand down on Elijah's damp back.
". . . you know, you might could shed some light, is all.
Elijah blinks at his hands and makes no answer. The foreman springs away
from the counter. He says over his shoulder, "We all got to get along.
At three o'clock, Clare is one of the twenty-five at the meeting. Elijah
enters the trailer. She drops her jaw comically at him in mock surprise.
She draws from him a head shake. He does not sit beside her.
Men and women, black and white, two Asians and one Hispanic, from
departments across the mill sit in four rows of folding chairs. Coffee and
doughnuts are on a card table. Most of the people from the machine floor
and the wood yard still wear their hard hats and safety glasses. The few
office workers fidget in their seats, especially the heavy women from
customer service and the suited men from management. Clare watches Elijah,
who has knit his hands in his lap and lowered his head. He has removed his
green hard hat and safety glasses and sits gathered to himself.
Excerpted from Scorched Earth by David L. Robbins.
by David L. Robbins. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of
Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be
reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the
A Man Called Intrepid author dies aged 89(Dec 03 2013) William Stevenson, a journalist and author who drew on his close ties with intelligence sources to write two best-selling books in the 1970s, A Man Called...