by Ella Gallego
It’s hard climbing out of bottles, at least that’s what Danny had always told her. Didn’t think she should be in the business of bootlegging, said she was “too young, too innocent” for this no good business of snakes and pigs. Good girl, Rosie, Danny would say just like her Papa–you’re a good girl and this ain’t no place for no Georgia rose like yourself. Rosie would glance at Danny boy sideways, eyebrow raised in annoyance. She rarely responded, and if she ever did, she would lift a ciggy to her mouth and demand “Light me” through clenched teeth.
That’s why she was so good at what she did. She was “too young, too innocent” and no one, especially the bulls, thought she was up to no good, with her dark, wide eyes and petite frame. No one knew what Rosie really did, not even her siblings and Mama; she told them that she worked as a waitress and she was paid ducky because the owners thought she was real pretty and good for business and brought in lots of men. Rosie didn’t dare tell them otherwise, knowing her Mama would never let her leave the house again. The truth would only jeopardize them.
“We should get a wiggle on, hmm?” Danny asked. Rosie didn’t look at him, kept her back to Danny as she heard the snap of a lighter followed by the crackle of the cigarette being drawn on. She didn’t respond and instead fingered the rough bedding material, listening to his lungs consume and expel the gray smoke.
“Don’t call me that. I heard you the first time,” she said. Rosie rolled away from him to place her feet on the cold hardwood. She picked up her dress and slid it over her naked form. His eyes rested on her back, heavy like hands.
“Easy there, Rosie doll. Didn’t mean no harm.”
Rosie placed her feet into her leather pumps and took out a carton of Camels. As she smacked the box into her palm, she finally glanced back at him. The ciggy drooped in between his fingers, smoke trailing languidly towards the ceiling. His other arm was pinned behind his head, face tilted in her direction. He looked like something out of an ad, a real sheik with his hair all oiled back and streaked with gray. Aged like fine wine, Danny would joke about himself and she would roll her eyes in response. In that moment, Rosie wanted to tell him that if this here gangster thing didn’t pan out he could always be a model for Camel or something but didn’t want it to go to his head. Instead, she lit her own stick and inhaled, savoring the smoke on her tongue.
“I can’t stay here tonight. I gotta go back home. I haven’t seen the ‘ol family in a while,” she said instead, after a beat of silence.
“The old man need you?”
Rosie stiffened. Took a drag from her cigarette. “That’s none of your beeswax.”
Danny didn’t stop. “You know you don’t need to be in this business for him, right? You can find better work–safer work–elsewhere, rose bud.”
“Doing what else? I was born for this stuff; giggle water runs in my veins,” she shot back and it made her think of her Papa and how he always used to say that to her when she was a kid. The bitter smell of hops and the mildew of old bricks always grabs Rosie and pulls her back into the stage wings of her memory. He would take her to work with him and carry her on his shoulders as he strolled through the large brewery. “Your great-grand pappy opened up this here brewery and passed it down through the generations. I fully intend to hand it to you, rose bud. All of this yours,” he would boast. From up top her perch, she could smell the spicy scent of Papa’s hair, slicked back with Brilliantine gel and sometimes hidden beneath a fedora. When he let her down from her throne, he would straighten the shoulders of his suit before grabbing her hand to march forward.
They lived in a grand plantation house, the columns white like sun-bleached bones. During the summer, her father and she would walk through the peach and hop orchards. Rosie remembers everything; how the humidity was akin to a second layer of clothes on her skin and the air heavy with dirt and sunlight and the taste of ripe fruit from their orchards. But most of all, she remembers his hands. How such square fingers cupped peaches and lifted hop strands, like they were handling fallen baby birds. “This land has been here since the first Whiteners settled in the U.S. of A. We’re a proud family, Rosie doll. We’re survivors. Don’t ever forget that. Our blood is nothing but survival and hooch.”
When women began to picket outside the brewery, and sometimes their home too, Rosie felt a heaviness growing in the pit of her stomach. The women, with their large signs and angry red lettering, made her heart flutter. The twisting didn’t go away, especially when she saw the grimace that had hardened on her father’s face, the way his hair did after applying gel into it. “We’re survivors,” Rosie would repeat, perhaps to comfort him, perhaps for validation. It never destroyed the growing seed of fear that grew in the darkness of her belly. By the time the brewery had closed and the house staff had been let go, the seed had matured enough into a young tree. Its limbs and feathery leaves reached into her veins and spread throughout her torso when she passed by Papa’s study and saw the glint of empty bottles winking devilishly at her from the slightly opened door.
Danny boy sighed and pulled himself out of the bed. The mattress springs creaked and he rubbed his face with his large hands. “Rosie, in time you’ll find out that we’re a lot more than our blood and bones,” he murmured.
As the man got dressed, brushing his hair back with a wooden comb, Rosie locked herself in the bathroom. She grasped the edge of the sink and stared into the vanity mirror, into her reflection’s eyes. They were smudged in kohl, her lips a startling wine red against her pale skin.
“These things need some color to them,” she whispered and pinched her cheeks repeatedly. Color bloomed in response.
Rosie grimaced. No matter how many layers of makeup she put on, no matter the varying shades of purples and reds and browns she painted on her lips, she still looked nothing more than a girl.
“Now see here, I need you to be as sweet as you can be today, Rosie. I know that’s tough and all what with you tryin’ so hard to be a bearcat but the man we’re gonna see is no man you wanna mess with. He’s not like the drugstore cowboys we deal with a lot,” Danny lectured.
Rosie tossed her ciggy to the street and ground the smoking paper underneath her heel as she waited for Danny to lock his door. He placed the key in his pocket before marching down the street with a suitcase in hand. His shoes clipped sharply against the pavement, his strides an even beat in comparison to the hurried pace of her shorter steps.
“I heard what Jesse said. He already talked to me, even though I know all about Billy, aka, Mr. Thompson. Mr. Thompson is the big cheese ‘round here; he owns not only a big sugar factory, but a steel mill as well. With that money, Mr. Thompson buys out abandoned buildings, where he runs underground operations, like this here blind pig.” Rosie patted the brick wall of a tall building they had stopped in front of. The windows barred sharp glass teeth at them. “Much like his speakeasy, Billy Thompson is a pig as well: real handsy. But that’s why I got you here, Danny boy. You’ll keep me safe,” she grinned, self-assured.
Danny closed his eyes and exhaled. “Can’t keep you safe with a tongue like that in your head,” he muttered under his breath.
Rosie’s smile stretched. She knocked confidently on the door but stumbled back a step as the door violently opened, but only just a crack. A blue eye stared out at them. “You got a password, doll?”
“I’m here to feed the blind tiger,” she responded.
The blue eye blinked before the door opened farther to reveal the eye belonged to a pair and the pair sat in a large, lumpy face and the face belonged to a man as large as Danny. “Come on in, kitten. I’ll let Mr. Thompson know you two arrived,” the guard said.
Danny and Rosie followed the guard into the building, squinting through the haze of cigarette smoke. The guard lumbered through the crowd of flappers in short beaded dresses, men in ties and felt fedoras, and feather bands before arriving to a locked door. He unlocked it and with a mighty heft, heaved it open, unleashing jazz music that spilled up from the descending staircase.
“Follow me,” the guard commanded.
The trio made their way down the stairs and entered into an even darker and murkier room. The men in the room turned to look up at the newcomers with mild interest. They were gathered in the darkness like a gang of stray cats in an alleyway. “Mr. Thompson, the bootleggers are here,” the guard remarked to a stout man.
The creature–Billy Thompson–swiveled around from the bar alongside with four other suited men. He was portly, a glass of whiskey miraculously held between his hooves. Beady eyes stared at her from behind glasses. “What’s a cute little doll like you doing in this business?”
“Dough,” Rosie replied. “Now, Mr. Thompson. You told my boss Jesse that you were in the market for new suppliers?”
Mr. Thompson gave a gruff bark of laughter that broke way into snorts. His folded pink pig ears flapped as his body shook with amusement. The ice tinkled sweetly in his glass as the other men echoed his laughter. “You hear that? This baby doll doesn’t have time for niceties. A little bearcat, eh? Ah, she’s all bark and no bite,” he laughed, eyeing her form.
“I can assure you I have more bite than I look,” she snapped back. Rosie felt Danny’s hand tighten around her arm.
“No, baby doll, you got someone else to bite for you. The big six behind yah. I’m not afraid of you,” he chuckled.
Danny’s body pressed against her back threateningly as he leaned forward.
“Now, now, don’t get your feathers all ruffled. Yes, I am in the market for new suppliers. The last ones I had got slammed by the bulls. Lucky for me, none of them squealed about their clients. So. I’m in the market for loyal suppliers. What do you got for me?”
Danny handed the suitcase to Rosie and she in turn placed the suitcase on the table. With a deep breath, she opened the case to unveil the bottles they had wrapped in newspaper as so to silence any noise they made.
“Best hooch in town,” she said.
“Pour me a glass, doll, and I’ll see if you’re not just telling me lines.”
Rosie poured the portly gangster multiple glasses of different juices. She watched him closely as his bristle-haired arm lifted and drank each, not uttering a word or revealing any expression all the while. When all the hooch had been drained, Mr. Thompson clapped his hoof happily against the tabletop, ears flickering. His beady eyes flashed brightly.
“Well, that was a pleasure, dollface. This juice will get people spifflicated! But, I’m not so certain that you won’t share the same fate as my last clients. How can someone so little like yourself avoid the coppers?”
“I’m little. The bulls never look at me twice. Why would they suspect anything from someone like me?”
“Well, you are being shadowed by Mr. Bimbo. He catches most of the eye.”
“Would you like to stop him randomly? He looks like someone you shouldn’t mess with. He’s nothing but a monster, ” Rosie answered. Which was the truth; cops had driven slowly down the street eyeing the two, yet they never questioned them. They feared Danny more so than suspected her.
Mr. Thompson thought for a moment before laughing loudly. “Your tasty hooch and sharp tongue won me over, doll. You got yourself a deal!”
Rosie released the breath she hadn’t known she had been holding. She quickly closed the case and handed the booze over to the gangster. He in turn slid a yellow manila package, with what she suspected was dough, across the bar.
“Enjoy your money,” Mr. Thompson mused over the top of another glass. His grin–full of crooked and dirty teeth– flashed in the dimness like the blade of a knife. “Now beat it.”
Danny and Rosie scrambled to gather themselves and left the speakeasy. They walked in silence back to Danny’s apartment; their footsteps ricocheted off the brick walls and empty alleys. The night air was cold as it slithered up her legs and into her skirt, violating the warmth of her body. She wished to wash the grime that she felt had settled on her skin; the smoke and greed and slime that always stained her clothes after leaving speakeasies and dealing with men like Mr. Thompson. When she came home from work, could her mother smell it on her coat? Did it leave a ring of dirt in the tub that was noticeable to her brothers?
Rosie swiveled her head towards Danny as he pinched the fabric of her coat arm to stop her. He stared at her with dark eyes. “You did swell tonight. Hit on all sixes.”
She shuffled her weight from foot to foot. Her fists pushed down the pockets of her wool coat like heavy stones. “Yeah. I know. Couldn’t have done it without you, though.”
Danny shrugged. “I think you hold your own just fine, bearcat. With or without me. Here.” Danny reached into his coat and pulled out the manila envelope. He split the wad of cash in half and pushed the green papers toward her. “A little something extra. I know times are hard.”
She didn’t say anything, afraid that he would have heard the tremble in her voice. Instead, Rosie pocketed the bills and gave a solemn nod. Cleared her throat.
“You sure you don’t want to come back upstairs with me?”
She nodded. “Yeah. I gotta get home. Be safe. I’ll see you soon. Don’t get into too much trouble.”
“I’ll try,” Danny laughed.
She watched him lope up the stairs of his apartment before turning and walking in the opposite direction. Rosie made her way slowly through the city before climbing up the steps of a small house. Her mother greeted her from the kitchen table where she sat and Rosie bent down to receive her nightly kiss on the cheek. Her two younger brothers noisily ate their dinner, squabbling, while her infant sister slept through the clamor in her high chair.
“Where’s Papa?” Rosie asked her mother.
“In the bedroom. Said he was tired. It’s been a long day for us all,” her mother sighed. Rosie kissed her mother’s forehead in response and walked towards the bedroom. Her heart pounded as she neared the bedroom door.
“Papa?” Rosie called.
He looked up from where he was sat on the bed and surged up towards her. His pale face gleamed with sweat. “Ah, Rosie. D-did you get what Papa asked you?”
She nodded her head, clamping her teeth together to keep them from chattering. She reached into her bag and pulled out a bottle full of clear liquid. “Stole that from the moonshine collection. Jesse had made extra, didn’t think he would suspect anything.”
Papa grabbed the bottle and held it as if it were a child. In that moment, Rosie remembered when she was thirteen and Prohibition passed in Georgia and shut down the breweries, shut down their way of life. So Papa picked them all up and moved them to wherever the booze flowed, which turned out to be New York where hundreds of thousands of speakeasies and blind pigs and his alcoholism flourished and the hooch in her blood burned and she constantly thought about how hard it was to climb out of the bottle.
Papa reached out with a hand and pet her hair. His fingers trailed down until her was cupping her chin the way he used to hold their peaches. Papa’s smile trembled at the edges, skin on his forehead shining.
“Good girl, Rose bud. You’re Papa’s doll.”