Beneath the Veil of Smoke and Ash
"Is Lukas going to die, Papa?”
Janos swallowed hard as he forced himself not to look away from his daughter. Sofie’s eyes were red and swollen, her dress caked in the dried blood of her little brother. The horrors of the day had followed them home.
“The doctors have done all they can for him,” Janos said as he touched Sofie’s shoulder. “It’s in God’s hands now.”
“Will Mama come with us to the hospital tomorrow? Lukas will want her there when he wakes up.”
Another wave of nausea hit Janos as he wiped a bead of sweat from his temple. Where was Karina? Her son was barely clinging to life, and she was nowhere to be found. He wasn’t sure whether to be worried or angered by her absence. “Of course, zlatíčko,” he stammered. “I know she’d want to be at your brother’s side.”
Suddenly, Janos heard urgent footsteps climbing the steps to the back porch. As he sprang to his feet to open the door, his sister, Anna, burst into the room, her face ashen.
“The police are coming,” she said breathlessly. “There’s been a murder in the Heights. They’re looking for the woman who works for Henry Archer.”
Janos gasped. “A murder?”
“Was it Mr. Archer?” Sofie clutched her chest.
“I don’t know. The neighbors are speaking to the detectives now. I didn’t hang around long enough to get the details.” Anna scanned the room. “Has Karina come home yet?”
Janos shook his head. “Still haven’t seen her since last night.”
Anna’s eyes grew wide.
And then it struck him. Janos stumbled backwards onto the kitchen table, gripping its edge for support. Lukas hadn’t been confused. He was telling the truth.
“I’m going back down the street to see what I can find out,” Anna said as she rushed toward the door. “Maybe I can stall the police.”
“Sofie,” Janos whispered to his daughter. “Go up to bed and stay there.”
“Yes, Papa,” she replied, her lip quivering.
“And one more thing . . . don’t tell anyone what Lukas saw at the train station this morning.”
ONE MONTH EARLIER
RIVERTON, MAY 27, 1910
Karina Kovac heard the harsh caw of a crow passing overhead as she began her walk to work. She looked up at the early morning sky and frowned. The gray cloud of soot greeted her as it did every morning. No matter the time of day or season, the eerie mass hung, thick and heavy, casting its dismal shadow over her, darkening her mood.
She imagined the town along the river had once been beautiful—before industry and progress had blanketed the valley in a veil of smoke. But the Riverton she knew was ugly and depressing. The buildings were covered in a dingy layer of grime, and the air was an assault on her senses. It was only slightly less suffocating than that of Pittsburgh, which was ten miles downstream. The steel capital of the world was famous for its perpetually dark sky, which often necessitated the use of street lamps during the day. Karina’s neighbors, most of them newly arrived from Eastern Europe, were unbothered by the smoky haze smothering the region. To them, it signaled opportunity and the promise of a better future. Jobs and prosperity.
Karina hated that gloomy sky, cursing it daily. It followed her everywhere, mocking her and laughing at her lack of success. She had failed to acquire the comfortable lifestyle she’d envisioned when she left Austria-Hungary over a decade earlier, and that sky wouldn’t let her forget it.
Karina had known it would take time for her and Janos to build a new life, but she’d never expected it to take so long. Working as a housekeeper in the town’s wealthiest neighborhood gave her a glimpse of what she and her family had not yet achieved. Her current employer owned every modern convenience she craved. Electricity. Indoor plumbing. A spacious kitchen with the latest Garland gas cookstove and McCray refrigerator. All had been installed in the mill manager’s new Foursquare home.
Karina stood in awe before the door of that refrigerator every morning, marveling at how fresh the food stayed. Her family’s ancient ice chest smelled of souring milk and had to be scrubbed constantly with Old Dutch Cleanser.
As Karina endured her daily coughing fit near the steel mill’s towering smokestacks, she heard a sharp whistle coming from a worker in the rail yard. She rolled her eyes. Though her housekeeper’s uniform was boring and drab, she still managed to attract unwanted attention. Perhaps her elaborate hairstyle had caught the man’s eye. She’d spent a ridiculous amount of time fussing with her hair that morning in the hopes that the executives coming from US Steel’s Pittsburgh offices would take notice of her. While she was grateful for the position in Henry Archer’s home, she longed to work at one of the grand estates in Shadyside or Squirrel Hill. What a relief it would be to get lost among an entire staff of servants.
Karina sighed as she thought of the first weeks in her employer’s home. She had wandered dreamily through the rooms, fingering the fine linens and switching the lights off and on, for fun. She’d soaked in the bathtub and napped beneath an expensive, snowy white Marseilles quilt. She thought she’d found the perfect escape from her dreary neighborhood and her job at the boarding house, but little did she know, the luxury of working in that home would come with a price.
A gust of wind suddenly hit Karina from behind and interrupted her brooding. She patted the mound of curls at the back of her head to make sure her garnet hair comb was still in place. She froze when her fingertips failed to locate it. Her heart pounding, she scanned the unpaved street and then shook her dress, hoping the comb would fall out of one of its folds. Where could it be? Her mind began to race.
Karina turned and rushed back down the street toward the shabby rows of homes erected by the steel company. Her eyes darted in every direction, hoping to find the only valuable piece of jewelry she owned. When she arrived home breathless, she burst through the front door and began searching the sitting room.
“Karina? I thought you’d left for work,” Janos said, peeking through the kitchen doorway.
“My hair comb is missing. I got the whole way to the mill before I realized it was gone. I retraced my steps, but can’t find it anywhere.” Karina inspected the floor and every nearby surface, her eyes welling with tears. “It’s the only thing I own of value.”
“Was it the comb with the tiny garnets?” Janos touched her on the shoulder, his face full of concern.
“Do I have another worth fretting over?” Karina glared at her husband as she brushed his hand away and hurried toward the staircase. “Maybe it’s in the bedroom,” she murmured.
“Mama!” Sofie shouted. “Did you bother to look in your brown pocketbook? That’s the one you came home with yesterday.”
Startled, Karina paused at the foot of the stairs as her ten-year-old daughter stomped out of the kitchen. “Shouldn’t you be in bed, Sofie? The sun’s barely up.”
“Where’s the pocketbook?” Janos asked his wife.
“It’s on the bookcase,” Karina said, dabbing her wet eyes with the sleeve of her dress. “But I’m sure I put the comb in my hair this morning. I know I did.”
“You need to calm down,” Janos said coolly as he picked up the worn pocketbook and peered inside. It took him just seconds to pull out the tortoise shell comb adorned with garnets.
Karina grabbed the hair comb and dashed toward the front door. “How could I forget?” she groaned, turning the doorknob.
“Wait,” Janos said. “Don’t you have something to say to Sofie?”
Karina sighed as she looked at her daughter for the first time that morning. “Thank you, honey. You were very helpful.”
Sofie ran to her mother and hugged her. “Good luck today, Mama. I know those important men from Pittsburgh will be impressed with your cooking.”
“Let’s hope so.”
“Is that why you’re so agitated this morning?” Janos asked.
“I guess,” Karina said, smoothing Sofie’s unruly hair. “I want to make a good impression today. Meeting these executives could lead to something . . . maybe a better position.”
Janos raised an eyebrow.
“I need to go. I’m running late. And, Sofie, please do something with your hair before you leave for school. You can’t go out in public with that mess on your head.” Her poor daughter’s thick blonde hair often looked like a bird’s nest when she woke in the morning.
Sofie nodded politely, despite the wounded look on her face.
“Maybe we could all go to the Radovics’ tonight to listen to Mihal play the accordion,” Janos said as Karina stepped onto the front porch. “An evening with friends will help you relax after such a big day at work.”
“The new Sears Roebuck catalog is out. Maybe another time,” Karina said, trying to disguise her guilt. She knew her family was tired of her excuses, but she did not enjoy socializing with the neighbors. Besides, she really did want to see the latest spring fashions.
As Karina hurried down the street toward the mill, she tucked her hair comb into her pocketbook, figuring there was no way to place it perfectly on her head without a mirror. And she dared not risk losing it on the street. Poverty had made her desperate. Her neighbors, too. They all clung fiercely to the few valuable items they owned, because they couldn’t afford to replace them.
When Karina finally reached Riverton Heights, she inhaled the cool morning air. The neighborhood sat high on the hill above town and escaped much of the smoke in the valley below. Fresh air was her reward for her twenty-minute climb uphill. The streets were lined with new Craftsman and Foursquare homes as well as some older Victorians. Graceful oak trees shaded the streets, and the sweet scent of pansies permeated the air.
Karina’s stomach quivered as she stepped onto Henry Archer’s front porch and unlocked the mahogany door. If one of the Pittsburgh executives failed to take notice of her, she planned to ask Henry for a raise. She had been working very long hours since she’d accepted the position with him six months earlier and had only received a slight increase in pay when her duties were expanded in March. Karina was certain she had proven her worth many times over in recent weeks, especially since her new responsibilities had little to do with keeping a house.
She closed the front door behind her and made her way to the kitchen at the back of the house. The sun was now up, but there were no sounds from upstairs to indicate Henry had risen. Not wanting to wake him, she quietly gathered ingredients for a pot roast from the refrigerator and pantry. As Karina washed vegetables in the farmhouse sink, she heard footsteps in the hall. She turned around to find Henry standing in the doorway of the kitchen with a smirk on his face.
“There’s no need to make lunch today,” he announced. “I got a call from Pittsburgh last night. The meeting has been cancelled.”
Karina gasped. “But I thought those men were coming to discuss your promotion.”
She tried to her hide her disappointment as she studied the face of her employer. She had never found him attractive. The college-educated bachelor was several inches shorter than her husband and lacked the brawn she was accustomed to seeing in the men around her neighborhood. He wore a permanent frown on his face, and his thin, charcoal-colored hair was receding. But today, he looked surprisingly pleasant, grinning like a school boy. How could he not be disappointed by their change in fortune?
“They were, but I’m no longer being considered for the position here in Riverton. I’m being transferred to headquarters in New York City.” Henry clapped his hands with excitement. “I’m going home.”
Paralyzed by the news, Karina stood motionless, trying to control the panic welling inside her. She leaned back against the porcelain sink for support, suddenly unable to breathe, her chest tightening.
Still grinning, Henry crossed the kitchen in three long strides. He grabbed Karina’s left breast and shoved his tongue into her mouth. His free hand moved greedily down the front of her dress. Even after three months of enduring his touch, Karina still had to remind herself not to recoil. But this morning, she was completely unaffected by Henry’s groping. Her singular focus was her uncertain future.
She gently pulled away from his eager kisses and took a deep breath. “When do you leave?”
“Not until the end of June. I need to train my replacement and tie up some loose ends at the mill. But I need you to start packing right away.”
Suddenly, memories of a run-down boarding house full of drunks flooded Karina’s mind. She flinched as a filthy immigrant squeezed her buttocks, the stench of his sweaty, unwashed body burning her nose. Shouts for more moonshine drowned out an old man’s complaint that the tripe was too chewy. A newcomer griped that someone had taken prostitutes into his room and soiled his mattress. He demanded that Karina clean the mess immediately. She groaned as she tried to shake the chaos from her head. I can’t go back.
A slight pinch transported Karina back to Henry’s kitchen. His teeth were on her earlobe.
“Shall we go into the bedroom to celebrate?” he whispered.
RIVERTON, MAY 27, 1910
Work in the mill makes a man old before his time. That was what the grown-ups in Sofie Kovac’s neighborhood always said. She thought of this tired expression as she studied the figure of a man hobbling across the courtyard behind her house. He was barely visible in the early morning fog, but seemed to be headed for the communal privy just steps from her back porch. He was a steelworker, like her father, but looked much older. He shuffled along slowly, clutching his knee with each labored step. Sofie crossed herself, praying her father wouldn’t suffer the same fate.
She refocused her attention from the window back to the bacon grease. It flowed, like liquid gold, from the cast iron frying pan into the Mason jar she struggled to keep steady on the kitchen counter. She had dropped Aunt Anna’s grease jar once before and watched the precious drippings from a week’s worth of meals slide between the cracks in the floorboards. She shuddered at the thought of repeating that mistake.
Aunt Anna had lectured her for days about the value of all those flavorings now resting permanently in the dirt beneath the kitchen floor. “Like tossing coins into the river,” her aunt had scolded.
Sofie held her breath and tightened her grip on the jar as the last few drops of grease plopped from the frying pan onto the hardening pile of sludge—the key ingredient in all her aunt’s recipes. The pan now empty, she let out a sigh of relief.
“Do you need some help, zlatíčko?” Papa asked, his footsteps growing louder as he neared the kitchen counter.
Sofie shook her head. “The bacon’s a little crispy. I left it on the stove too long. If Mama hadn’t distracted me—”
“You never told me why you’re making breakfast this morning instead of your aunt,” Papa said, changing the subject.
“I had a nightmare. I couldn’t get back to sleep, so I told Aunt Anna I’d do the cooking today.”
“You’re so thoughtful,” Papa said as he bent to kiss Sofie on the forehead. “Do you want to tell me about the nightmare? Sometimes it helps to talk about it.”
“No, not really.” Suddenly, a haunting image flashed before Sofie’s eyes. Her father’s lifeless body lay on the ground in front of a furnace, blistered and burnt. It was the same disturbing vision that appeared in her sleep every few weeks. Why was it now tormenting her in the light of day?
“So what’s for lunch?”
“Bacon sandwiches, leftover fried cabbage, and an apple,” Sofie said as she fidgeted with the items in her father’s beat-up tin lunch bucket. It was badly dented and covered in grime, but one of her favorite things. Seeing that bucket on the kitchen counter always made her happy. It was proof that her father was home safe from the mill.
Once Papa’s lunch was packed, Sofie filled two plates with eggs and bacon and placed them on the wobbly kitchen table. She sat down across from her father, who was extinguishing the oil lamp. He looked tired, his eyes still heavy with sleep. A ray of sunlight pouring through the kitchen window accentuated the gray in his freshly combed hair, making him look older.
Sofie stared at the tattered brown shirt her father wore. He’d ripped off its sleeves since his work in front of the furnace was so terribly hot. In fact, anytime Aunt Anna bought him a new shirt at the second-hand store, Papa promptly tore off the sleeves and gave them back to her for use as cleaning rags. How Sofie wished Papa could wear a suit to work every day. He’d be so much safer in an office job. She slammed her glass of water onto the table, startling herself.
“Are you all right?” Papa asked. “What’s got you so upset? The nightmare?”
Sofie nodded. “Mama, too,” she grumbled as she shoved a fork full of eggs into her mouth. She wasn’t even hungry. She was still angry about her mother’s lame excuse for not joining them at the neighbors’ that evening. The Sears Catalog? Sofie never understood why her mother spent so much time staring at clothing she couldn’t afford.
“I’m sorry your mother hurt your feelings.” Papa patted Sofie’s hand. “That happens too often.”
Sofie wondered whether Mama had hurt his feelings, too. She’d angrily brushed Papa’s hand away when he’d laid it on her shoulder. Mama always ignored his affections. Sofie couldn’t remember the last time she saw her parents share an embrace. They were so different from the other couples in the neighborhood. The Lithuanians across the street acted like they might never see each other again when the husband left for the mill each morning.
“Why don’t you tell me about your dream,” Papa said, stroking Sofie’s hair.
She laid down her fork and studied her father’s concerned face. She hated bothering him with her troubles. He had a fair amount of his own.
Sofie could no longer resist the urge to confide in her father. “It was the same one I always have—you’re at work in the mill, in front of your furnace. And there’s an accident . . .” Sofie’s eyes filled with tears. “It’s a little different every time, but the ending is always the same.” She began to cry.
Papa reached across the table and pulled Sofie into his arms. He rubbed her back as she buried her face in his chest. “You need to stop worrying about me. The mill is dangerous, but I’m careful. I have years of experience.”
“Will you please quit?” Sofie pleaded, looking up at her father. “Can’t you find a safer job?”
“I wish I could, but only the mills and mines will hire immigrants,” he said, shaking his head.
“But your English is perfect. Doesn’t that make a difference?”
“Don’t worry your pretty little head about me. You need to focus on school and getting into trouble with your friends,” Papa said with a wink. “Now finish your breakfast before it’s cold.”
Sofie trudged back to her chair, wiping her eyes with the hem of her dress and feeling no more at ease with her father’s work at the mill. As she nibbled on a piece of bacon, she forced her mind to switch gears. “How did Lukas end up on the floor again last night? I nearly tripped over him this morning. He was curled up in a ball near the door.”
“He can’t seem to lie still anymore. I put him back on the mattress and covered him with a blanket before I came downstairs.”
“I guess he doesn’t have enough space on the mattress with you anymore, Papa. He’s getting too big.”
Sofie watched as her father pushed the remains of his eggs around on his plate, scratching his graying temple. He looked up at his daughter and sighed.
“That’s not the problem. I fear your brother is becoming more like your mother. Restless. And in search of a better position.”
RIVERTON MAY 27, 1910
At the Riverton mill, Janos Kovac stood before an open-hearth furnace filled with molten steel heated to over 2500°F. He wiped his sweaty brow with his forearm as he held a heavy crowbar in his hands. A dull, persistent ache plagued his lower back, making his thirty-three-year-old body feel like it belonged to a much older man. The mill’s excessive heat, persistent noise, and stifling air filled with mineral dust and furnace exhaust were taking a terrible toll on his health. Janos had survived a decade of twelve-hour shifts, often seven days per week, but wondered how much more his body could endure. Massaging his lower back, he was sorry he had sacrificed his youth to the mill.
Janos thought about how naive he’d been when he arrived in America with his pregnant wife in the winter of 1900. Work at the mill was to be temporary, a means of survival until he became fluent in English. Once he achieved that goal, he would fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a writer or teacher.
Sadly, Janos had not expected that advancement would be next to impossible for an immigrant. While he mastered the English language within a year of his arrival in America— nearly unheard of for an immigrant—his linguistic talent did not liberate him from the mill. He couldn’t even manage to escape his position as a melter at one of the mill’s sixty open-hearth furnaces.
Janos tried not to lose hope, but was constantly reminded of his place in American society. Whether strolling through town or working at his furnace, native-born citizens ridiculed his nationality and accent. His foreignness was offensive to them. Frightening, even. After several failed interviews with newspapers and schools and no hopes of a promotion in sight, Janos’s hopes faded. Life in the mill provided him with a daily dose of seething reality. Blazing hot, fiery, glowing, molten steel would be his life’s work.
“Janos! Wake up! You tappin’ that furnace or not?” barked Patrick O’Boyle, the Irish crane operator whose job it was to maneuver a hundred-ton ladle of molten metal away from the furnace and over to the molds where the ingots were formed.
“Sorry, Pat. I was lost in thought.”
“Now’s not the time to be ponderin’,” muttered the crane operator. He spat a wad of chewing tobacco over his shoulder. The brown juice dribbled down the side of the crane.
As Janos prepared to knock the hole out in the furnace door, his thoughts turned to his conversation with Sofie at breakfast. He hadn’t realized his daughter was so deeply troubled by his work at the mill. He hoped she was simply going through another phase and that this most recent fear would pass as quickly as had her dread of spiders. He sighed, wondering if Sofie’s anxiety was something she might outgrow. It seemed to be worsening as of late.
But weighing more heavily on Janos’s mind than his nervous daughter was his capricious wife. In describing Lukas’s fitful sleep to Sofie, he had inadvertently stumbled upon an insightful truth about Karina. She is restless and in search of something better.
Janos felt a familiar ache and sense of unease. Karina’s unpredictable mood swings and long periods of sadness had been a strain on him for as long as he could remember. After the birth of Sofie and then Lukas, Karina had been especially melancholy. She’d seemed detached from her babies and showed little interest in them. It still puzzled Janos. He could not comprehend how a woman who had given birth to a healthy baby could feel anything but joy.
Janos often wished his wife would be more like the other Slovak women in the neighborhood—like the women he’d known all his life. His own mother and sister were such devoted wives and mothers. Family and faith were at the center of their lives. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of Karina. She was always indifferent when her children entered the room or when she begrudgingly attended mass at St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church. Her mind always seemed to be somewhere else. Janos had struggled for years to make his wife happy—or at least something short of miserable—but she was constantly out of his reach.
Fortunately, Karina’s mood had improved since she’d left the boarding house, and Janos was grateful. His wife took great pride in working for Mr. Archer, as positions in a house such as his were usually reserved for native-born Americans or Irish immigrants. Certainly not a Slovak. Janos suspected Karina’s beauty was the reason Mr. Archer had hired someone from the lowest class of immigrants. The man’s motivations made no difference to Janos as long as his wife was treated well and paid a fair wage.
Karina’s long-awaited escape from the boarding house should have put Janos’s mind at ease, but he could not shake the feeling that something was still amiss. He had fully expected his wife’s contentment with her new position to lead to more intimacy in their marriage. He’d always believed that the rift between them was a result of her bitterness about working at the boarding house. Janos had clearly been mistaken because Karina still wouldn’t let him touch her. She hadn’t in months.
“Kovac! Stop starin’ at that crowbar!” the crane operator yelled. “Tap the goddamned furnace already.”
Janos flinched. He’d almost forgotten where he was. He quickly raised his bar and knocked the hole out in the furnace door. He watched as glowing red fluid gushed from the door into the ladle waiting in the eight-foot-deep pit below the furnace. The heat was so intense that his already damp work shirt was soon drenched and clinging to his body. Sparks flew, singeing the hair on his arms. Janos imagined this was probably what hell looked like, glowing red flames all around. He half expected to see the devil crawl out of that raging pit.
Once the ladle was brimming with molten steel, Janos backed far away from the path it would take to the molds. “Ready, Pat?” he shouted.
The crane operator nodded his head and waved his arm. He began to lift the massive ladle out of the pit. Janos continually surveyed the ladle’s progress and scanned the area to make sure everyone was at a safe distance.
And then the unthinkable happened.
Just as the crane was about to swing toward the molds, Janos heard a loud crack. It was sharp and quick and reminded him of a firecracker his neighbor had set off the last 4th of July. He watched in terror as the ladle carrying a hundred tons of molten metal crashed to the ground. It exploded on impact, sending splatters of fiery liquid twenty-five feet in every direction. Janos’s blood ran cold as he witnessed a worker being struck by the blast.
Horrified, he ran to the far side of the furnace where Tomas Tomicek was lying on the ground, much of the left side of his body burnt beyond recognition. Janos fought the urge to retch. The scent of the man’s burning flesh was pungent, like meat frying in a pan.
Trembling and blinded by tears, Janos knelt beside his co-worker and grabbed his right hand, which had been untouched by the molten metal. Poor Tomas now looked like half a man. The skin on the left side of his face had been melted by the scorching steel, revealing his cheekbone and jawbone. The other side of his face remained completely intact, looking just as young and healthy as it had moments before. Tomas’s left arm, shoulder, and upper chest had also melted. The brown work shirt he’d been wearing had disintegrated, revealing a grisly mixture of flesh and blood. Janos had never seen a more gruesome accident at the mill. He knew there was no hope.
He leaned closer, positioning his face inches from Tomas’s. Praying to the Holy Spirit for guidance, Janos struggled to find the words that might comfort a dying man. Through quivering lips, he whispered in Slovak, “Lie still, Tomas. Stay calm.” He squeezed the man’s hand. “Your brother will be here soon.” Janos glanced up at the chaos surrounding him. Men ran frantically in every direction, desperate to find Tomas’s twin brother.
At the sound of a guttural moan, Janos turned his attention back to the young man. He was trembling now, coughing up blood. Tears streaming down his face, Janos tried to reassure him. “God is with you, Tomas. His healing hands are upon you. He is cradling you in his arms.”
Janos could no longer maintain his composure. He began to weep.
Suddenly, Pavol Tomicek appeared, panic-stricken, hands outstretched. “Tomas! Tomas!” he screamed. “No!”
Pavol reached his brother’s side and, seeing what was left of his charred and blistered body, dropped to his knees in violent sobs. He reached for his brother’s hand, but it was too late.
Janos had felt the dying man’s hand go limp in his own just seconds earlier. Tomas Tomicek was already gone.