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 approaches.
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 a rag.
"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. Copyright 2002 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 publisher.
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