SMOKE AND STEEL
A bar of steel–it is only
Smoke at the heart of it, smoke and the blood of a man
– Carl Sandburg
Vic the foreman put a crowbar in my hands. He gave another one to Sammy. “Frank Righetti. Sammy Broztek. Youns guys, over there. Axel.”
We stared at the foreman, then at the tools, then at each other. I wondered if Sammy understood Vic’s instructions any better than I did, if my face looked as vacant as his. Was I supposed to use this tool as an axle? Was I supposed to use it on an axle? At least I knew enough not to ask questions.
Awed by the rollers, ingots, slabs and vats, baffled by the sound of men hammering metal, flattening metal, scraping metal, scorching metal, we resembled a couple of gerbils just let out of a cage, or just into one. We inhaled fumes up close that for years we had only caught whiffs of when standing in the shadow of the mill. Anchored to the shop floor by ten pounds of safety shoes, neither of us dared move until a skinny, red-haired man approached us, carrying under his arm a welder’s helmet with the name AXEL stenciled across the brow. It took Axel only a minute to orient us to our task. After the overhead crane deposited a twenty-ton roll of metal on the shop floor, a maneuver that Crane Man accomplished with the delicacy of a waiter setting down a crystal goblet, Axel blazed into it with his acetylene torch. Cutting at head height, he seared through five or six blade-thin layers at a time, and the pieces below his incision fell to the ground on their own. Sammy and I used our pry bars to flip the upper layers over the top, producing a loud clang and a dark vibration each time the steel hit the floor. It felt like peeling an enormous metal onion. When Axel judged the task complete he signaled to Craney, who removed the finished coil and replaced it with another. Each exchange took long enough for Axel to switch off his torch, giving us a break from the noise and the heat. During one such interval Axel asked us, “Where youns from?”
“Boot.” Sammy and I answered in unison, inclining our heads uncertainly toward what we presumed to be the south. Having walked through fifteen acres of this windowless building since passing through the front gate of the tin mill, we had long since lost any sense of compass points.
“Youns play ball?” was his follow-up question.
“Yeah,” we said, again in synchrony. Despite standing a head taller than Sammy, I began to regard him as my mirror image. Axel nodded in a way that made me think we got the answer right. Then he waved Sammy and me aside as another metal spool descended into our midst.
Sometimes while awaiting a new coil Axel lifted his black metal mask with its narrow window of ruby glass and stuck an unfiltered Lucky Strike in his mouth. Then he ignited it with the blue flame of his torch. He performed this act with a flourish, and he smiled at the look of shock on our faces the first time he did it. He sneered a lot at Sammy and me, an expression I initially interpreted as contempt, as if he resented getting stuck with two new kids for helpers. Soon enough I recognized these facial contortions as merely his adaptation to the sparks that showered his face. Charred hairs flecked his cinnamon mustache, and his cheeks resembled a pair of cinder blocks, pallid surfaces pitted with black craters accumulated over years of torching coils taller than he was.
Axel smoked his cigs down to where I thought they would burn his fingers, but he acted immune to the heat. Or maybe he lived in harmony with it. He flicked the tiny butts toward a trashcan filled with wet sand, and he punctuated the rare successful shot with a downward flick of the wrist, like a basketball referee signaling “Two.” Then he flopped his mask back into position, sparked his torch to life, and ripped into another roll.
During our breaks I looked around, trying to comprehend the nature of our work. As best I could piece it together, the crane hooked defective coils in the massive C of its jaw and swung them through the sky fifty feet over the heads of the men working on the anneal line. Axel, Sammy, and I functioned as metallurgic beauticians, dissecting away dented and corroded strata until we got down to smooth, shiny metal, the raw material for tin cans. Then the crane swooped in again on silent rails and returned the cosmetically enhanced coils to the far side of the building. From a hundred yards away, our finished product resembled giant rolls of gray toilet paper. I imagined Goliath wiping his ass with tin plate.
We didn’t let up from eleven p.m. until three, when Axel pronounced it time for lunch and led us to the break room. At rough wooden tables we sat surrounded by posters illustrating the consequences about to befall a dumbass cartoon figure who grabs a live wire or slips on a puddle of oil or takes off his hard hat just as a wheelbarrow full of bricks dumps its contents from a catwalk overhead. The union had put up placards boasting of the benefits achieved in the last contract negotiation. On one of these posters someone had penciled, “Strike this summer!” which someone else had scratched out, triggering a series of assertions and rebuttals: “Strike.” “No strike.” “Strike.” “Commie.” “Asshole.” “Faggot.” A notice in the corner affirmed the union’s support for Nixon’s impeachment. I didn’t understand why the poster had a picture of a smiling Nixon, but I admired whoever carved out the eyes with a blunt object. It gave Nixon a zombie-like appearance even scarier than my brother’s posters portraying him with a Hitler mustache.
Sammy and I pulled our brown bags from our doorless lockers, cubicles fixed permanently open as a precaution against contraband–pot, stolen tools, whack magazines. My mother’s salami sandwich had a pleasant oiliness, the ambient heat leaching the meat’s essence into the bread, and the extract left an orange residue on my fingers. I resisted admitting to myself the sensation that my father had warned me about. Here in the mill, everything tastes like steel.
While we ate, Axel inquired further into the circumstances of our lives. “Youns here for keeps?”
For the first time all night, Sammy and I reacted independently. He nodded. I shrugged. I didn’t know if anything I did was for keeps.
Axel stared at me. I thought he might have been passing judgment on my noncommittal response to his question. Then he said, “You can take off your top in here.” It took a second to figure out he meant my hardhat. Both he and Sammy had already removed their lids, which wobbled upside down on the table beside them. The first warning they gave us at our safety meeting was never remove your hardhat between the time you punched in and the time you punched out. But because Axel said we could and because Sammy followed his lead, I did the same. The last thing I wanted to be was different.
The tawny base color of my hardhat had been embellished with irregular yellow crosshatches that created an impression of burlap. I hadn’t picked it out. A gnome-like figure working the equipment cage thrust it upon me when I went through pre-employment processing the week before, and it stood out as a newer design. Most of the older men wore solid yellow, green, or red hardhats. The younger guys tended toward custom paint jobs. Some went nuts with it, airbrushing their hats like you’d see on a van, with comic book warriors or voluptuous women wearing barely enough clothing not to be indecent. Other helmets bore a camouflage pattern, as if a buck might materialize from behind a blast furnace or out of a pickling tank. They let you do almost anything you wanted with your hardhat except paint it white. Only the bosses, foremen and higher, wore white. You could adjust the plastic webbing’s rear safety strap, even turn it around so you could wear the bill backwards. Axel had performed such a reversal, making it easier to mount his welder’s mask. Sammy had begun doing the same to his hat while we finished our lunch. I didn’t do anything with mine except put it back on when Axel declared it time to return to work.
That was how I spent my first shift, my first night of my first real job, Monday bleeding into Tuesday in the department called Continuous Anneal. In April I turned eighteen, making me barely old enough to be hired on at the mill. Hancock Steel. The largest industrial operation in West By God Virginia. The place where twelve thousand men worked, the place my grandfather worked until he died, the place my father and my Uncle Silvio and my cousins Ernie and Stevie worked. The place my brother Enzo once worked, during summers at least, but not anymore.
Adhering strictly to the employment department’s instructions, I waited until seven o’clock, pausing for an extra minute to be on the safe side before punching out. I took a moment to admire my brand new timecard. Under the IN column, 22:44. Under OUT, 7:01. I’d given away seventeen minutes of my life, but I’d get paid for eight solid hours. Eight times five eighty-five . . . plus the fifty-cent shift differential . . . eight times six thirty-five. Fifty dollars and eighty cents. Molto cavolo, as the old Guidos would say. Big cabbage. If I worked night shift continuously, almost certainly my fate, that meant two fifty-four a week. Over the next three months I could make three thousand bucks–a fortune–before returning to college. Maybe.
I wouldn’t be the first guy who started at the mill intending merely to score his tuition, only to find the lure of a thousand bucks a month irresistible. Who in the world makes a grand a month at age eighteen? Hell, how many grown-ups around here made that much bank outside the mill? Sure, doctors, like Enzo was going to be someday. Who else? Not teachers, certainly. Not the auto mechanics, not the farmers. The guys in the mines made pretty close, but they had to go underground. You had to be fucking crazy to go underground.
The sun crept over the hills as I drove our family’s old Plymouth Furious twelve miles down the Ohio River back home to Boot. I left the car in the driveway, warning myself to put it away before Dad got home. My dad, whose years of seniority had earned him a permanent place on the seven-to-three shift, would have passed me going in the other direction, but I hadn’t noticed him. I wondered if he had looked out for me, if he waved or hit the horn when he saw me drive by. As soon as I walked in the house, I could tell that Mom had gone out, probably having coffee with a neighbor, because otherwise Enzo would not have been smoking pot in the living room.
Enzo lay sprawled out on the plaid couch, his chubby frame only partly clad by a tie-dyed bathrobe that failed to cover his dick. An empty can of Iron City maintained a precarious balance on his stomach, jiggling whenever Enzo bellowed at the television. “Grapes of Wrath.” “Plutonium.” “Hypotenuse, you fucking moron.” He flicked his ashes into the can and blew smoke toward the window behind the TV, a Philco topped by rabbit ears, our family’s first color set. Dad had adorned the antenna with a crown of aluminum foil to improve the reception for Pirates games, but Enz wasn’t watching baseball. He had immersed himself a game show, and even in his stoned state, he called out the answers far more quickly and accurately than the contestants. His eyes remained glued to the tube until a commercial came on. Then he turned ever so slightly toward me, exhaled a puff of smoke, and said, “My baby brother. He’s a mill hog now.”
Enzo worked the mill for five summers. He applied for the first time the same day he hit the big one-eight, and, as was customary for applicants with relatives on the payroll, his paperwork found its way to the top of the stack in a hurry. The mill paid for Enzo’s four years of college and a big chunk of his first year of medical school. But even with his scholarship he needed loans to cover his tuition at Johns Hopkins, so I expected him to work the mill again this summer. They might have assigned us both to the tin mill, maybe even put both of us in Continuous Anneal. Enz and I could have teamed up as welder’s monkeys on the shift I just finished. But Enzo wasn’t having it.
I didn’t know what happened. A few weeks earlier when his classes ended and he returned to Boot, Dad gave him the application. A couple days later I noticed the form still sitting on his dresser, untouched. Dad bugged him to get his ass in gear, but Enzo never did fill it out. On Saturday Enzo disappeared for a couple of hours in the middle of the afternoon. When he got home, he told Mom he got a job. At the Dairy Queen.
Enzo must have hated the mill. Although he didn’t get the worst jobs–he never got stuck working the inferno of the open hearth or breathing the poisonous atmosphere of the coke plant–the mill’s smoke and grease and noise must have been a far cry from his microbiology lab. But I had a feeling it took more than the job’s dirt or its demands to make him settle for a crummy two-forty an hour jerking out artificial ice cream. I had a feeling that among the other guys . . . among the mill hogs . . . Enzo never fit in.
I didn’t respond to his crack, letting my sullen silence deliver the message. Mill hogs had the right to call themselves mill hogs, but Enzo didn’t, not anymore, and maybe he never did. That made me resent his put down, which I saw directed not just at me, but at Grandpa and Dad and Uncle Silvio and guys like Axel.
I clomped upstairs, eager to get out of my metatarsals, the steel-tipped clodhoppers with a shank of armor plate running from my toes all the way up the front of my ankle. They said with metatarsals on you could let a car could run over your feet, but I didn’t know anyone who tested that theory. My metatarsals were pale brown, pretty as butterscotch when I first put them on, but they had already acquired plenty of scuffs and oil marks, and I could see why most workers opted for black. I threw my clothes in the big gray plastic hamper in the bathroom, another first for me. Mom kept two hampers, one for regular laundry and one for mill clothes. Dad’s stuff had gone in there for twenty-five years.
After I showered I crawled under the sheets. Mom had prepared the room by pulling the shades and raising the windows to give me a bit of a breeze. Only Mom and Dad’s room had an air conditioner, something Dad had purchased with great reluctance, a major concession to Mom. He believed air conditioning made you soft. Although I tried to take a nap the previous afternoon to prepare for my midnight shift, I had been too keyed up to sleep. That meant I’d stayed up for almost twenty-four hours by the time my head hit the pillow. I conked out in seconds.
Waking up late in the afternoon left me unable to remember what day this was or what I was supposed to do. I checked the clock on my dresser. Damn. After five. Dad would have returned home more an hour ago, and I hadn’t put the car away. He’d chew my ass out for that. I went downstairs, prepared to face the music. It surprised me to find the kitchen empty, because we always ate between five and five-thirty. Then a gust of wind came through the rear window and filled my nostrils with the smell of burning beef. In the backyard Dad stood at the grill that he had built from a forty-gallon oil drum, cooking steaks over charcoal. In one hand he held a can of Iron City and in the other, a spray bottle that he used to douse the flares arising when the grease hit the coals.
Dad was a guy you’d describe as sawed-off. His big head sat on big shoulders, but the other parts looked abbreviated. He had a receding hairline that hadn’t budged in a long time, as if his forehead and his hair had battled to a draw. Mom liked to talk about how good Dad looked in the old days, which to me sounded as if she didn’t think he looked good anymore, but Dad never took it that way. Mom stood an inch taller than Dad, which probably explained why she always wore shoes with flat heels. For an Italian woman she had a fair complexion, an inheritance she attributed to her grandfather who came from up near Switzerland. She said he was a big man and that I got my size from him. Everyone tells that old joke about what’s the difference between an Italian grandmother and an elephant, the answer being ten pounds and a black dress, but I didn’t see Mom heading in that direction. I never heard Dad tell Mom she was good-looking, but I heard lots of other people say it, even my friends sometimes until I told them to shut the fuck up.
Dad said something over his shoulder to Mom, who nodded and came into the house. She smiled when she saw me at the sink, and she stood on her toes to kiss me. Her eyes were moist. “My baby. His first shift.”
“I forgot to put the car away. Dad’s gonna kill me.”
She laughed and hugged me. “Nobody’s killing anyone.” Then her tone turned serious. “I don’t want any fights at dinner tonight. No arguments about sports or Nixon, okay?”
“When do I ever argue about Nixon?”
“Oh.” She lowered her voice a to whisper even though no one could possibly overhear.
“And don’t talk about the strike.”
“I mean it, Frankie.”
“No lightning strikes. No Lucky Strikes. No strike three.
“No striking it rich.” I put up my hands, defending against the dishtowel she snapped at me. “Okay, okay. Want me to say anything to Enzo?”
She made this shuddering gesture she always used to convey frustration, amusement, exasperation. It made Dad smile when she did it. I guess it looked kind of cute in an old person way. “I already told him.”
We looked out back, watching as Dad made sure to properly incinerate the meat. He had a phobia about getting a disease from undercooked beef. Then he slapped the steaks onto a platter and strode though the back door holding them high in the air, proud as a hunter who caught and cooked a lion. He put down the plate and punched me on the arm. “Hey. Sleepin’ Beauty. How was the first day?”
I stretched and faked a yawn as if just arising. “Okay,” I said. “Helped a welder peel rotten metal off these giant coils.”
“Hah. Bad cold rolls. Pretty lucky for your first shift. There’s lots worse jobs in Continuous Anneal.” Dad loved jabbering about the mill the way some guys loved talking about sports. He had all the inside dope about what lines had quality problems and which foremen were the biggest assholes and when the new coke plant would open up. While Mom got a salad out of the refrigerator, Dad distributed the steaks. I noticed that he gave me the biggest one. “Maria,” he said to Mom. “Two brews for us mill hogs.”
She headed for the basement where we kept the old refrigerator, the one that held the really cold beer. Upon returning she said, “Frankie, call your brother.”
“Yeah,” said Dad. “Call the Dairy Queen.”
I shouted, “Enz,” but got no response. “ENZO. Come on. Dinner.”
“Let’s go ahead,” said Dad.
“No,” said Mom. “Frank. Go get him.”
I rose with a moan and shuffled into the living room. Enzo lay there, still in his bathrobe, still watching the tube. At first glance I couldn’t tell if he had budged since I saw him that morning, but I noticed his pot and papers no longer present, and the canister fan on the floor had long since evacuated the room of his smoke.
The summer before, when Enzo worked graveyard shift at the mill, he stayed awake after coming home to watch the Watergate hearings on TV. He followed them the way he used to follow the Pirates, each day talking about who was winning and who was falling behind. This summer, despite Nixon’s sinking deeper into the shit, Enzo tracked the events with less passion. He and Dad seldom argued about it anymore, having discovered new venues for their skirmishes.
“Dinner,” I said to him.
“Cronkite’s coming on,” he replied.
I walked between him and the set and pushed the power button off, interrupting the local weatherman’s warning of thundershowers tomorrow.
“Dinner,” I repeated, and I returned to the kitchen.
I sat at the table, waiting quietly with Mom and Dad. Enzo showed up moments later and took his seat. Only then did Dad place a steak on Enzo’s plate. And only then did we begin to eat. Aside from the occasional request for salt or more salad, the meal proceeded wordlessly. Usually, we talked a lot at dinner, the silence a clue that Mom had also warned Dad she wouldn’t tolerate any fighting this night.
After we finished and Mom had cleared the table, Dad asked about dessert.
“I didn’t make anything,” she said. “You bought ice cream, didn’t you?”
“Oh, yeah,” said Dad, slapping his forehead and dashing to the freezer. With disproportionate enthusiasm he extracted a metal tin of vanilla ice cream and brandished it before us while a cloud of cold vapor wrapped itself around his head.
Enzo bolted from the table before Dad had a chance to pry open the lid. “None for me.”
“Whatsa matter?” Dad asked. “You don’t like ice cream?
A few minutes later Enzo reappeared fully dressed. He took the keys to the Plymouth off the hook by the kitchen door. I didn’t say anything.
“Have it back by ten,” Dad hollered as the screen door slammed behind Enzo. “Your brother needs it.”
I remembered summers past when Dad shouted that at me.
Dad’s command stopped Enzo dead. He responded with his face pressing into the screen. “Dairy Queen doesn’t close until eleven. Then I have to clean and–”
“Ride a bike,” Dad said. “Your brother needs it. For Work.”
I could hear the capital W. Dad knew I could have gotten a ride with Sammy or a dozen other guys from Boot who worked graveyard, but his decision permitted no appeal. His words forged the distinction between work, without the capital letter, and Work, with one. Small w work included yard work, housework, homework you got at school, and working out at the gym, no matter how much iron you pumped. Making steel, even my paltry contribution to the process, counted as Work. I felt the mantle settle on my shoulders. I had become a mill hog. I had gone, capital W, to Work.
Flavian Mark Lupinetti, grew up in Weirton, West Virginia, where he worked in the steel mill like his father and grandfather before him. He is now a writer and cardiothoracic surgeon living in Oregon. His work has appeared in Barrelhouse, Bellevue Literary Review, Cutthroat, The Examined Life, Kestrel, and ZYZZYVA.