Sunday, 18 December 2011

A War Of Her Own

A story of wartime passions on the World War II homefront as Bea Meade seeks to discover who she really is.
Chapter 2

It seemed like some towns came with their own gravity. Towns like Orange, located in the deepest southeast corner of the state of Texas. Cross the Sabine River, east, and a person stepped into Louisiana, Cajun country. Go just a few miles south, and they reached Texas’ northernmost Gulf of Mexico. The Sabine River ran right down through the middle of town, making Orange a prime spot for intercostal commerce. Grand Victorian-style homes lined the streets of town, and virgin pine, ancient oaks draped with Spanish moss, and bayous full of cypress and water tupelo trees made the town a living, breathing Shangri-La. The richest men who lived there, some of them carpetbaggers from Pennsylvania, bought up all the timberland for a pittance, and then made millions off of prime long-leaf yellow pine.

Working for them became the most coveted jobs in town, but most people were as poor as a mouse kicked out of church. The times demanded a stern code of conduct, and at least in public, were strict and exacting. All a man had to do was say the word “damn,” and folks fell out in horror.

Set back by The Great Depression, the aristocratic, proud people nearly starved to death. About the only thing the small town did during those years was make babies and scrounge for food. Those lucky enough to own land survived by growing their own crops, and the really lucky kept a milk cow for the wee ones. A couple of northern shipbuilders moved to town and established shipyards along the rivers, supplying a small number of destroyers to England, but not enough to keep the town alive.

Then, in December 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and all hell broke loose. Shipbuilders were awarded major contracts to build vast shipyards in Orange. Overnight,the yards hired anyone who walked through their gates—black and white, men and women, skilled and unskilled. News of the plentiful jobs spread fast. Barefoot, hungry, desperate people from the backwoods of Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Arkansas flooded a town soon stretched beyond its limits.

Almost overnight, the population exploded from 7,500, to well over 65,000. The question them became, where did all the people live? In thousands of hastily erected and cheaply built temporary housing erected atop river sand pumped in on mosquito-infested marshland. Work shifts buzzed and bustled around the clock, and at the launching of each new ship, the yard and the town went wild in celebration. Life was good again—but not for everyone.

Not for Bea Meade. She’d grown up in the Pentecostal church where she learned when a person fell from grace it likely came as the result of one stupid error in judgment. She didn’t know it could happen so slowly she might not even know she was falling until after she hit the ground. Her life changed directions so slowly the summer of ’43, that only later did she mark it as the start of her fall. She suspected it might not be, but since she didn’t have a clue when the fall started, she marked that time as the time—the day she licked her finger, ran it down a mental blackboard and said that’s the day the slide began. The day she learned to hate.

The day her husband, Hal, staggered in after midnight smelling of stale beer and piss, puked all over the bathroom then yelled at her to get up and clean the puke instead of laying there crying like she always did. She dragged herself to the bathroom and cleaned up the mess then dumped the foulsmelling rags into a kitchen sink full of hot soapy water and started scrubbing. Hal came in behind her, stuck his head in the icebox and pulled out another beer. “I don’t care what you say, I don’t cry every night,” Bea argued back. “Nah, but most nights you do.” He popped off the bottle top and swigged. “And don’t you think you’ve had enough of that stuff?”

“Listen to Miss Know It All,” he mocked, prancing around the kitchen like a show dog expecting to win first prize. “Lemme ask you this. How come you just lay there like a bump on a log when I touch you at night? There’s this woman at work, and she knows what a—” “She knows what? What a man wants?” “Forget it.” He finished off the beer, tossed it in the garbage, then found something else to argue about. “How come you’re not thankful for where we live? Thousands of people in this town still live in cardboard shacks, but you think you’re Miss Bitsy Rich, and live in one of them fancy houses down on Green Avenue. Well, I got news for you, honey, we ain’t never…” His slurred words trailed off and he turned and stumbled out of the room.

She slammed a rag against the rub board and scrubbed. Not stupid, she knew they’d chopped down thousands of cypress trees from the marsh and filled it with wet sand pumped in from the river bottom. Before the sand could even dry out they’d poured unreinforced concrete and expected it to serve double duty as streets and drainage. These ugly-as-Army barracks houses went up overnight. She tossed the rag into the other sink she’d filled with rinse water and proceeded to scrub another.

“Don’t tell me I’m not thankful,” she’d yelled back at him, sprawled on the couch in the other room. “I’m thankful I have a dry place to lay my head at night. That’s why we need to pay the rent on time. If you don’t bring your paycheck home, I can’t.”

She finished the laundry, dumped it in the clothes basket, and went to bed. Hal came in a few minutes later, still reeking of beer. When she turned her back, he slapped her ass and said, “Roll over.” She did, and hated every jab he shoved into her. Afterwards, he fell over and within minutes, snored. She turned out the light and cried. Most nights she cried, and always had. No one ever understood why.

The next morning she awakened with two consuming thoughts: the pail of dirty diapers in the bathroom and relief that another night had passed. She slipped the heart-shaped mother-of-pearl brooch—the only thing that ever brought her a semblance of comfort—from underneath her pillow, tucked it in the cigar box on her bureau and stumbled to the bathroom, fearful she might awaken Hal.

A couple of minutes later she watched the water swirl out of the toilet, marveling again at the miracle of indoor plumbing. The luxury made her feel rich for the first time in her life, and helped take her mind off the enemy, who everyone else believed to be Germany. For her, a deeper, more seditious adversary chewed at her insides.

She shoved the mass of thick, blonde hair off her face and stared at her reflection in the medicine cabinet mirror. “Just because you can’t sleep at night has nothing to do with the blessings you do have—like sweet Percy, sleeping in the next room.” After she washed and dried her face, she took her housecoat from the nail behind the door, slipped it on, and then tied the sash as she walked across the hall into the baby’s room.

Percy lay sprawled on his back, arms out to his sides. A tiny bubble rested on pink lips that curved into a smile. She eased the door shut and headed through the small living room sparsely furnished with discards from neighbors and friends.

A rocking chair sat at a right angle to the pale blue coffee-stained couch she’d shoved against double windows. Irritating spring-roll shades on the windows forever thwarted her attempt to keep them raised. Mismatched end tables on each side of the couch held not-to-be-outdone mismatched lamps. The spotlessly clean bare floors refused to shine, regardless of how much she scrubbed the unfinished wood. She gave the room a quick once-over and spied a rubber ducky on the floor. Her movement quick, but precise, she picked it up and tucked it into the pocket of her housecoat.

After checking the mousetraps and emptying out two of the little destructive devils she went to the kitchen sink and scrubbed her hands until they ached. Eager now to get Hal’s breakfast ready before Percy woke up and screamed for his, her first task, the one she dreaded even more than emptying mouse traps, was lighting the infernal oven on the small four-burner stove. She struck a match, turned on the gas and waited for the small explosion.

Even though she expected it, the blast made her jump back just like it did every time she lit the dang thing. She glanced behind her, hoping Hal hadn’t come in and laughed at her foolishness. She hated the way he made her feel like such a child. She lit the burner under a teakettle full of fresh water and while that heated, spooned coffee into the drip pot. The strong smell of the local brand gagged her, but Hal wouldn’t drink any other kind, and complained if she made it too weak. “Baby, it don’t take near as much water to make a pot of coffee,” he’d say, teasing. But she knew he meant business. 

By the time Hal ducked his auburn-colored head and walked into the kitchen, eggs were scrambled and hot buttermilk biscuits had been flipped over on a plate so they wouldn’t sweat. Mama hated thick, soggy-bottom biscuits. In her mind’s eye Bea saw Mama pinch off a small piece of the dough, pat it flat, place it in a pan of hot grease, and turn it over to coat top and bottom. The results were thin biscuits with crispy tops and bottoms and soft tender insides. Bea swore that’s why Hal asked her to marry him—for her mama’s biscuits—hoping one day Bea’s would be as good. Of course, Mama had cooked many a year by the time Bea came along, for she’d been Mama’s change-of-life baby. Good Lord, she hoped she didn’t have a baby at that age.

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