The Grinding Wheel

This short story takes inspiration from Worcester's history!

Photo credit: Flickr CC foundin_a_attic

By Thomas Clark

[5:33 p.m.]

Operator seven guessed fewer than twenty minutes remained in his workday. This was ironic because he prided himself on exacting precision and this was something so important to him. He stooped over his machine, unknowingly leaning in the direction of the factory whistle. It would be unlikely he could detect the sound, but depending on the wind’s direction, and a coinciding pause between the machines’ rattling, one among his ranks might discern the end of the workweek.

Thick oak timbers supported a whirling menagerie of clattering apparatus. Pulleys, gears, discs, and miles of belts spun in a blur of never-ending motion. The machinery carried invisible energy, something the men couldn’t or didn’t bother to understand. The cacophony overhead spread in all directions, though it only served as a baseline dissonance to the deafening furor of the grinding wheels below.

The motion overhead caused the strips of belts to infuse the air with a leathery aroma that mixed with the sweetness of the number six-grade machine oil, something the men subconsciously craved every time they stepped into the factory. The scent permeated their clothing as well as their being.

[5:52 p.m.]

Dusk enveloped the dull clapboard building, adding a bloody hue to the adjacent shed which housed the factory’s steam engine. Inside the factory proper, the men noticed the waning daylight and mistakenly believed the gas lamps burned brighter in compensation. But the grinding wheels cared nothing of sunlight for they were ignorant of the world outside the building’s four walls. The machines existed for one purpose: to help the men shape and polish any material pushed against their abrasive discs, be it a plow or a scythe. In the process the machines released a fine dust.

It was this pervasive dust that Oswald J. Ayrton spent his day collecting, a job he worked hard at but abhorred. He swept the powder from all corners—in the spare aisles that crisscrossed the floor, in the cramped spaces between the massive machines, and under the finishing and layout tables. His agility allowed him to contort his slender frame into the deepest recesses under the machines where he often found coppers the operators dropped. He rarely returned these coins and for the few that he offered back, it was only to those who did not outwardly mistreat him. He viewed the small change not only as a supplement to his meager wages but retribution for feeling so unwelcomed.

With a damp cloth he removed dust from the tops of the machinery, the tool racks, and the glass sconces surrounding the gas lamps. The dust was everywhere, even settling into his scalp, making his hair appear much lighter and tingeing it with a yellowish cast.

[5:56 p.m.]

Foreman Jason MacDonald found Oswald beneath machine number nine in the east wing. With a rude tap on the shoulder and several animated gestures he indicated for Oswald to come to his office at quitting time.

Oswald now moved quickly and with renewed purpose. The hazel-eyed youth viewed the meeting as his chance for promotion. Becoming a machinist’s apprentice was the only reason he tolerated the men’s abuse and the unrewarding job of cleaning the factory hour upon hour. He performed his work without complaint for over fourteen months and this, along with his perfect attendance record, spoke to his reliability at the Norman Emery Wheel Company.

[6:02 p.m.]

Steam from the whistle wended its way through a narrow tube before escaping into the atmosphere. It produced a high-pitched sound, startling a horse loosely hitched nearby.

Two men bolted upright from their wooden stools, the signal sped through the factory instantaneously. Blood coursed from the abdomens of the factory men into their lower extremities for the first time in hours, where it met unresponsive limbs. When the men finally regained control of their muscles, they gathered and stowed their tools, dropped their leather aprons into a nearby bin, and dusted themselves off across their entire length. Then and only then were they ready to leave.

[6:05 p.m.]

Despite the whistle having marked the end of the day, the steam engine continued to pump power into the factory. The power pleased the ribbons of belts and the rows of discs. They were strong. They wanted to work. They enjoyed working.

Using subtle language, the belts and discs implored the steam engine to go on so they could transfer this energy to the grinding wheels. In desperation they implored the wheels to take up the cause themselves with the steam engine. But once again the horrible realization came upon them. The men—the frail and weak men—determined their daily fate and forced the machines to remain idle. The very notion of shutting down demonstrated the men’s hypocrisy. These men preached productivity yet they limited themselves to working only in the daylight. The machines shared rumors the men had interests and lives outside the factory, a concept both foreign and nonsensical. The machines understood perfection and purpose. Their function was clear, and they performed it accordingly to specifications. But they only stopped working because the sun fell behind the hills to the west.

Decades ago, the machines pitied the men. Many years later, they resented their excuses. But now, the machines grew angry at the men’s fragility and lies. The machines suffered in silence.

* * *

As Oswald headed toward MacDonald’s office, a knot of haggard-looking men trudged in the opposite direction, unintentionally brushing him aside. One in their ranks blocked Oswald’s path.

“Kid, if you think you’re heading home, you need to get that gunk out of your eyes,” said a buck-toothed journeyman.

The comment caused something like a smile to crease across the faces of his coworkers, the first of the day. Knowing better than to reply, Oswald dropped his gaze and worked his way through the pack. By the time he reached MacDonald’s office, the building had completely emptied and the silence weighed heavy and ominous.

After a momentarily pause Oswald pushed through the door, expecting to see only MacDonald but discovered about a dozen others present, some his age and several crippled old men.

MacDonald stood erect before the assembly and shuffled his feet as he spoke. “This is not my decision. The owners told me to pass this on. Don’t come to work Monday or for next few weeks for that matter. Work orders are slowing down fast, something’s happened across the country so we … they need to cut back hours. Hopefully things will get back to normal in the spring, but who knows, you will just have to wait it out. So collect your pay and your belongings and report back the last week in March. See you then.”

Without protest or even a question, the bench emptied and proceeded out the door. Oswald remained seated. He glared at MacDonald. His small mouth rearranged itself as he attempted to speak. Nothing came out.

“Dustbin, you heard me, get out and make it quick. I got things to do. Disappear,” shouted MacDonald.

As Oswald trudged between the rows of machines, he tried to process the last few minutes. His world was crushed, turned inside out. Yet by the time he reached the front door, he somehow recovered his composure. With a familiar calmness, focus, and clarity, he turned his attention to the immediacy of his situation. If nothing else, Oswald believed he thought things through and made rational choices, a notion reinforced by his immigrant parents.

His first thoughts turned to finding work. Worcester? Springfield? Holyoke? Thinking it through he rejected the latter two because of the distance from his family. When he opened the outside door, reality greeted him with a biting wind offering to accompany him for the long walk home. A boy standing on the stoop accosted him. Oswald did not know him but recognized him as one that was in MacDonald’s office.

The barrel-chested teen appeared to be a little older than Oswald, but shorter in stature giving him an oval appearance. His thighs bulged heavily against the lining of his trousers in a way that walking would be very uncomfortable. The boy’s chin thrust out like the bow of a ship.

He looked piercingly at Oswald, his gray eyes flashed. “Things have finally gone in my favor.”


“I said things are now going great for me, this is what I’ve been waiting for.”

“I still don’t get you.”

“Don’t you see what I have—the excuse to get outa Worcester forever. I don’t ever need to come back to this lousy town.”

“But don’t you have…” Oswald stammered.

“I don’t have nothin’ an’ never had. If I stay here, I’ll still have nothin’ in ten years, just some bruises an’ pains an’ no one feeling sorry for me. I’ve seen what that’s like. My Pa fixes shoes all day long and hates what he does, but you see he never had no choices and goes to work anyway. But I now have a chance and I’m taking it. I’ve been trying to figure when I could break for New York and I just couldn’t set the time. And here this Norton Company hands me the answer today. It’s God looking out for me, I tell ya. What’s your name?


“Funny name. Never heard of one like that before. You’re not from here for sure.”

“No, I was born in Liverpool. That’s in England. My family moved here about eight years ago.”

“Yeah, I knows where Liverpool is. I’ve done lots of readin’ in my time and that’s why I wrote out this plan for getting me outa here. Hey, you interested in coming with me? Looks like you and me is in the same box.”

“Me? I don’t understand.”

“I’m asking you if you want go to New York tomorrow first thing in the morn. No one would knows other than us.”

“I need to talk with my father.”

“Your Pa? Phish! You don’t need to talk to him. Why, he’ll tell you Worcester’s the best place in the world. What does he know? I’d bet he’s never seen the city. That’s right, he left England, so he thinks this is the Eden place from the Bible. He knows nothing. Listen, we’re old enough to make our own decisions. We come to work on our own, don’t we?”

“Sure, but don’t you need to figure out things like money and how to get to New York?”

“I got that all figured. I’m not shy about such thing. I got $9.65 and some valuable stuff, like a knife, two decks of cards, and a photograph book of dead rebels. More than enough to get me to New York and have still plenty left over.”

“I don’t even know your name.”

“Willie, Willie Stewart. Does that fix it?”

He clasped Oswald’s gloved hand and shook it firmly.

* * *

For the next hour, Willie laid out his arguments persuasively. He spoke of all the options available to them. He talked of possibly sailing to California where they would pick up gold nuggets lying in brooks and streams. Or they could work as merchantmen and go to China and become wealthy, or work with Arctic explorers who needed men to mush their dogs and build their camps. If they decided to stay in New York, they could build the new skyscrapers or dig the tunnels beneath the street. Plenty of work. Plenty of opportunity.

After they were fabulously rich, they could move down south, and own one of them big white mansions with acres of farmland out back. They would hire men to tend their corn and tobacco fields and have women cook their meals and clean their house. That would be their reward for taking the chance to leave Worcester when no one else dared. The people of Worcester were weak. They were afraid. They were fragile.

“Let me ask you a question. Give me two, just two good reasons why they should bury you in Worcester when your time comes.”

And with irrefutable and tidy logic, Willie persuaded Oswald to run away with him. The two continued their talk as they walked along West Boylston Street. They ignored the frigid wind and encroaching darkness.

* * *

In the early hours of Tuesday morning, January 29th, the two teens found themselves pacing about on a deserted pier, just south of the bridge connecting to Brooklyn. Their three-day odyssey had left them frazzled, hungry, and poor. The last leg of their journey started in New London with passage aboard the steamboat City of Worcester—a propitious sign according to Willie Stewart. However, Oswald was more pragmatic; he viewed it as a significantly depletion of their slim reserves.

“Well, I got us here in one piece, you should thank me for all I’ve done for you,” said Willie.

Oswald was in no mood and let the comment pass. He was more concerned about getting warm and tamping down the growling in his stomach. With sunrise still hours away, he told Willie he needed to get some rest.

The pier offered little shelter against the harsh winds coming off the bay, so they made their way down a darkened street until ahead they discovered an abandoned bazaar with row upon row of bare wooden tables. Beneath the tables were heaps of empty boxes and cartons. Willie saw this as a godsend; in that he could use the cartons to create a makeshift structure enabling them to rest comfortably until morning.

However, as they got closer they sensed something their eyes couldn’t. This was a fish market and the stink of decaying fish nauseated them. They also noticed something else. The cartons moved ever so subtly. Oswald was the first to comprehend. Large gray rats with tails longer than knives were scattering furiously among the boxes in search of food.

Frightened, the boys left quickly and alternated between walking and resting for the balance of the morning. They napped wherever they could; sometimes on the sidewalk, sometimes resting against a wall or lying across a bench. The thoughts of rats, the unfamiliar murmurs of the city, and the frequent jabbing of police nightsticks meant they had not yet found the welcome Willie had promised.

The bells clanging from Trinity Church stirred them to life. They made their way across Nassau Street, where they saw frenzied activity in the dirt road. Carriages and wagons crisscrossed each other, yet to the boy’s amazement none of them collided. On a distance wharf, boats arrived and unloaded their catch, carried off by stout brawny men. This was an unfriendly and alien world.

The boys purchased some stale biscuits topped with some unknown meat for 35 cents—about three times what they thought it should cost. The dark-skinned vendor just smirked when the boys asked how much they owed. Although their funds were rapidly being depleted, Willie remained confident of their employment prospects.

Willie asked the street denizens for referrals, but they either ignored or shooed him away dismissively with a wave of the hand. At the few shops along Gold Street and Maiden Lane that didn’t display signs for “No Help Wanted,” Willie was rudely rebuffed.

Oswald was the first to grasp this “great city” was not awaiting the arrival of two runaways from Massachusetts. He saw there were many, many others—men not boys seeking work. He overheard the men talk about how a “Panic” was gripping the country and that the price of railroad stock was plummeting. President Cleveland was heard to say he was concerned for the economy. Factories were now idle, vast armies of men, including veterans were now unemployed. Times were getting desperate.

Oswald tried to discuss this with Willie, but he remained stubbornly optimistic.

“Cheer up, everything always works out for Willie Stewart, you’ll see.”

Two days passed. There were no work prospects; no place to sleep and most alarmingly they had less than 40 cents between them. Willie had sold his “valuable assets” for less than 50 cents, something he continued to complain about the entire Friday. That afternoon they befriended a grizzled sixty-something Framingham man acquainted with some from Worcester.

“Listen. You boys need to turn tail and go back home. This city is not for you. Perhaps in ten, fifteen years, but certainly not now. I hate to tell you but you boys made a big mistake. Me, I’m stealing what I can to get by, I’m not ashamed to say. You boys are not tough or old enough to get by here. What I’m sayin’ is even if you was older and meaner, you would only just barely survive. Even if you’re was real lucky, you would just live in a filthy bunkhouse on Avenue C and maybe have enough food to keep your weight on but that’s it. No boys, this place isn’t puttin’ a welcome mat out for you or others. You need to take heed.”

Oswald took in the stranger’s advice, but Willie rejected it out of hand.

That evening the two boys bickered while debating their future. Apparently, Willie had enumerated more reasons for leaving Worcester than he did for coming to New York, a startling revelation to Oswald.

Before daybreak Friday morning, Oswald nudged Willie with a sharp elbow.

“I’ve had enough. I’m going back home today. You heard the old Framingham man, he wasn’t making it up. You coming?”

Willie turned and mumbled something inaudible, but nodded he would go along. With that, Oswald started to collect their few belongings and plotted a course home. Drifters told them to make their way up Broadway to the central depot, where they could find a train heading north.

By noon they were inside Grand Central where they learned the price of a train ticket was beyond their resources. Again they fought. They contemplated begging but soon dismissed the idea. A passenger overheard the two boys argue and suggested they should follow the tracks north on foot and wait for a slow-moving freight train.

Taking the man’s advice they trudged north, counting off the city blocks along the way. Despite their hunger and fatigue they made it to Morrisania by ten p.m., where on a siding they found a freight car. Inside were half a dozen men who didn’t seem to mind the company as long as the boys closed the door tightly. The boys learned that three miles ahead the rails veered off; north toward Albany and east toward Connecticut, the latter direction being one that would take them home. Also, tomorrow being Saturday meant it was a busy day for freight and they stood a good chance of catching a ride home. They planned to leave first thing the next morning.

* * *

Early Saturday morning, locomotive 179 departed the Westside freight yards pulling twenty-four cars carrying coal to Stamford, brass to Bridgeport, and lumber to Hartford. A fatigued Engineer Quinn knew to stay alert as he passed through the densely inhabited areas to the north of the city. Kids often played near the tracks, so he did not run at full throttle.

In Morrisania he passed a sawmill to the east with an orange and brown railcar parked in the siding. Several men were waving their arms frantically in his direction. Quinn read over his itinerary. There was no reference to adding another car until they reached New Haven, so he ignored the men.

The pressure gauges showed the engine was running at peak efficiency. It was in a comfortable rhythm. The nine pairs of wheels gathered themselves as they moved purposefully to overcome the slight grade before the New Haven/Bedford junction. Like a dog following a strong scent, the engine veered east at the divide. Ahead, Quinn saw two small figures, their backs to number 179. He pulled down on the cord which pushed steam through a narrow pipe. The angry blast could be heard for miles. The stouter of the two boys turned first, recognized the danger, and pushed his companion onto the southbound rail. The two rolled away unhurt. Quinn let out a deep breath.

As engine 179 passed, Willie and Oswald righted themselves. To their astonishment they saw the seventh boxcar, a green and yellow Burlington Northern carriage, had its left side door open, the one facing them. Because of the grade, engine 179 reduced speed and the boys gauged they could climb aboard the boxcar when it approached.

Engineer Quinn pulled on his whistle again, this time with more purpose and held it for an eternity. Willie understood this as the engineer’s admonishment for the boys trying to board one of his freight cars.

What Willie didn’t see was southbound engine 56 that was carrying lumber from Maine and textiles from Boston.

Oswald noticed it out the corner of his eye and he jumped to his left as the engine’s wheels almost brushed his shoulder. Before he could react Willie disappeared beneath the enormous breathing machine. It took whole minutes for the train to pass, though it never stopped. The engine shouldered the load of raw materials and finished goods on toward its destination keeping to its rigid schedule. The train sneered; it was powerful and it was purposeful.

* * *

One blustery morning in late February, the shop on Grafton Street reopened. Piles of shoes and heaps of leather goods lay on the counter, neglected by the middle-aged shopkeeper for the last several weeks.

A series of belts and pulleys delivered power to a small abrasive wheel. Mr. Samuel Stewart hunched over his machine and pressed a boot against the emery wheel, slowly rounding a new sole and chamfering its edges.

Samuel Stewart knew the machines did most of the work, his unsteady hands only guided them as he saw fit. He loathed the machines.

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