Chapter 11-Biloxi, Evening of 30 July 1922
Biloxi-30 July 1922
The still of the evening was broken as a light breeze blew through the open windows and into the bedroom. It was not enough to stir the newspaper on the foot of the bed, but it was enough to brush a cool, bristling tickle across the bare skin left uncovered by the thin cotton dress. Laying in the middle of the bed Molly Lee stretched out to maximize the cooling effect of the breeze. Her third bath since coming home had been more for removing the smell of the factory than relief from the heat but the slight dampness of her skin magnified the effect as she closed her eyes and savored the respite from the hot July day.
The bedroom was small, with not much more room than was needed for the bed, a dresser, and a chair situated at the foot of the bed that maximized the views, and the breezes, from the windows on the corner of the house. There were two windows on both walls that allowed a crosswind as well as an excellent view of both the street to the west and the backyard of the neighbor to the south.
Most days there was not even a point to the bath since the next day would only bring another brutal day in the crowded factory room with endless seafood constantly being paraded past the table at which she stood. But today had been different.
She had gone to work same as always, dressed in the same dingy, smelly smock and stained shoes that matched everyone else in the factory. But then she turned on the foreman. Gave him a piece of her mind, she talked of the tables, too high for some, too short for others; the cramped working conditions; the stale air, the fans that failed to work; and the miserable pay. The shocked foreman had stared incredulously while all around them Molly’s coworkers listened intently while trying not to be noticed. When she finished she threw the stained apron directly at his chest and stormed out confident that it was her last time walking out as an underpaid, under appreciated, lowly seafood worker. She may never darken the doorstep of that or any other seafood factory again but if she did it would not be as an employee.
The smell stayed. It always did. Through three hot baths and a thorough scrubbing, even washing her hair she could not escape the smell. She knew at the end of the season it remained at the docks, but during the shrimp season that stench swelled from the factories and docks to the houses and shops, invading and sticking to everything. It was worse if you worked in it as she had. It had always taken two weeks before it dissipated from her nose and disappeared from her body. She wanted to burn the clothes, as if that might help.
It was still too early to celebrate though. This afternoon she had wandered the streets of Biloxi always glancing to the south as if to see what was taking place on the waters of the Gulf. Slowly making her way past the People’s Bank she walked down Howard Avenue admiring the shop windows. Tomorrow.
Tomorrow would be different. Tomorrow she would be able to do more than window shop. A new dress, new shoes, perfume, maybe even a new purse, the list of things she planned to buy only continued to grow. Even as she lay here on the bed waiting for the details.
Ernest Desporte walked into the bedroom with a smile on his face and a sack in his hands. She turned to see him enter and scowled as she saw the oyster sack he carefully placed atop the dresser. “Today was a good day,” he said with a smile.
He left the door open as he moved to the foot of the bed near the chair to enjoy the breeze himself. Unbuttoning his shirt he started, “It went according to plan. We got the cargo, Diaz got most of it and took off to hide. Taconi and Baker put out a couple of caches, one to sell, two to be ‘found’ by the authorities. Webster got his part done, too. It’s all coming together, or falling apart if you’re the old man.”
Molly rolled onto her side and propped her head up on her hand, “So what’s next?”
Desporte took off his shirt and pulled his undershirt over his head before answering. “Well here’s the thing about double-crosses: you have to be careful because someone that double- crosses for you can also double-cross you. We’re going to break it open but if we’re not careful it’ll just slam back down tighter than it ever was.”
He sat down and took a quick look outside. The streets were empty, even the backyards were empty. Everyone had finished up their day and gone inside to rest for the next one. The crickets were loud and occasionally you could hear the rustle of tree leaves but the night had become quiet and still. “I don’t know if we can trust Diaz. He may be in contact with Dad. He could blow the whole lid off of it. Clarence still doesn’t like him but we need him. His brother got the main stash and is taking the biggest risk. He’s out there right now waiting, the timing is still critical.”
Molly brushed the hair off her neck toward the head of the bed, “But it’s paying off already, right?” She smiled seductively.
“Oh yeah,” he paused taking off his shoes to admire her, “It’s paying off. I got the first chunk of money today. We still have to pay off a couple people, but our payroll won’t match Dad’s. Overhead will go way down.” He gestured his head in the direction of the sack on the dresser. “A lot of that has to be paid out, but there’s some for us, too.
“I’m looking forward to being out from under his shadow. Knowing he could swoop in at any 2
time and demand I do something, or just his occasional touch that said, ‘I’m here and you don’t need to worry’ just rubs me wrong.” Desporte tossed his socks onto the shoes he had removed while talking. “Later tonight I have to go back. To keep the costs down we have to do more manual labor but the payoff is sweet.”
Sitting up abruptly she asked, “Why did you even come back if you have to work more?”
He smiled and stood as he undid his belt, “What’s the point of life if you can’t enjoy it a little every now and then?” As his pants fell down he walked around the bed and took her head in his hands. “Some things are more important than money,” he said before kissing her.
Laying back down on the bed his words matched her thoughts, life is good if life is worth living.
Desporte was gone by the time she woke up. The sun had not even gotten higher than the trees but it was light enough to see in the bedroom. She pulled the sheets tight around her and glanced up on the dresser. True to his word the sack was gone but she could see several bills beneath a small box. Sitting up she reached for them, not caring if her bare body could be seen by someone walking down the street. Sleeping naked always ran that risk but she was in the middle of so many bigger risks that one paled in comparison.
Just the same, she gathered the sheets around her and looked out the window toward the street. It was empty. She set the box down and counted the bills. Two hundred and fifty dollars, how long would it take her to earn that at her old job? A month and a half? Maybe if she picked until her fingers bled. She looked at her hands. They were roughened and callused. The nails were short and the cuticles were cracking. Her hands were used to being covered in wet muck and goo all day long. Now they were drying out, hardening, becoming unused compared to the ideal shrimp picker’s hands.
She opened the box. A gold ring with a sapphire set on top. Not a big stone, but a small piece that just said, “I love you” left by the man she loved. A small non-ostentatious ring. She slipped it onto her finger. Perfect fit. Now to go be ostentatious.
Bay St. Louis-30 July 1922
The rocking chair creaked against the porch floor planks but it could hardly be heard above the crickets and frogs. The house faced a narrow shell road that ran north and south but another hundred feet beyond that lay the Bay of St. Louis. The marshy grass there was the source of all the frogs, croaking their pleasure at the setting of the sun. Jenny Cuevas, rocking on the porch, kept her attention glued to the pier jutting out from the road into the bay and the waters south of it.
Behind her the door opened and Captain Woods appeared holding a tray with five glasses and a pitcher of sweet tea, the nectar of the South. He set it on a small table and poured two glasses handing one to Jenny.
She took a sip and put it on a small end table to her right. “How much longer do you think?” she asked.
Woods took his own glass and sat in the chair beside the table and took a long sip before answering, “The plan was sunset. If I know Clarence Webster, he is sailing the whole way, he hates using the motor. Sailing is a joyous, wonderful way to get around, but it’s best to not have anywhere to be at a particular time or it gets stressful.” He glanced south toward where the mouth of the bay met the Gulf. “It could be a minute, could be an hour. He’ll be here.”
Jenny ignored the tea and kept gazing intently at the bay. The sound of a train whistle came across the water and she turned her eyes north to the railroad bridge. The L&N train was just coming through Pass Christian and the bridge operator has just finished closing the swing bridge so it could pass over the bay and on towards New Orleans. “Where’d you put the money?” she asked.
“It’s safe, safer now then when you brought it. I still can’t believe you just put it in your bag. I locked it in a steamer trunk with all of Raymond’s things. You have the key,” Woods said in a soothing tone.
The train came into view on the bridge now, chugging along making more noise than before. It was still a soft whisper behind the crickets. “I carried it in my bag because I don’t trust the porters. When Ray gets here he’ll do the same.” She glanced back down the pier before watching the train again, “This isn’t a game or a temporary stop. It’s everything, our life savings and then some. It’s everything we’ll get from that wretched man and I was glad to be taking it out of his bank, too. Twenty years toiling and laboring for him. Ray’s earned every nickel.” The anger she had at the senior Desporte was clear.
Trying to change the conversation to a more cheery subject Woods asked, “Will you try to stay here? Picayune is a nice growing little town.”
“Hmmph,” she answered. “It’s certainly better than Poplarville, but I don’t like those Crosbys either. They may be worse than Desporte. It’s a nice place, but no that’s not for us either.”
“New Orleans then?”
Jenny took a sip of tea before answering, “No, we’ll stay there a few days while we outfit a little better. The household things we’re keeping have been sent there, could be on that train even,” she waved in the direction of the tracks. “But we have our heart set on getting far away here and Nawlins is still too close.” She paused before continuing, “I’m not sure Ray even wants anyone to know but Seattle, we’re heading west and north to live on the Puget Sound. I may be able to get Ray off the water but I can’t keep it far from it. We’ll probably leave the Buick at the train station.”
The train whistled again, it was slowing down to stop at the station after it finished crossing the bridge. “Back in my navy days I lived up there a while. Beautiful place, rains a lot, but beautiful. A good part of my first book was written there.”
Jenny looked at the condensation rolling down the side of the tea glass as it pooled on the table top. “I can take rain, but the humidity is getting to me,” she said.
A gentle laugh came from Woods, “Let me know how that works out for you.” Looking back south he noticed a sail. He stood and stared into the dying light of the day.
As he stood Jenny turned sharply to see what caught his attention. The sail grew bigger as the ship appeared. It was making good time on its way up the bay. She stood and started walking towards the shell road. Woods followed her out to the pier. “It may not be them, Jenny,” he called after her.
“But it may be,” she called back. “And if it is I want Ray to know how anxious I am.”
She had already crossed the shell road and started down the pier by the time Woods could see that it was the Ella. Webster was sailing her hard and fast but was going to have to swing wide to pull in along the pier. Woods had turned his catboat around and moored it on the right side to leave the deeper spot open for Webster’s sloop.
The Ella made its tack to starboard to start the swing and Woods could see it was not Webster at the helm, it was the lad, growing up and learning the ropes. Cuevas was at the bow waving as Jenny reached the end of the pier. She stood stoically watching as Eugene maneuvered the sloop around and came up to the pier.
Cuevas had already pulled in the foresail as Webster worked the mainsail. Eugene worked the wheel as the ship coasted the final few feet to the berth. As soon as it came even with the pier Cuevas jumped off and hugged Jenny. She was not the only one anxious to be together.
Woods tossed a line to Webster as they secured the boat. Eugene was darting around securing the sails and getting the ship ready for a muggy night. The baton was being passed from old to young and the future looked bright.