Over the River©
Averyell A. Kessler
Saturday Reprise – I posted this last year.
I saw it this morning, a dilapidated bait shop that once housed my father’s bootlegger of choice. I was surprised it’s still standing; but there it was, a leftover relic from Mississippi’s dry years. I’m not sure how one selected a bootlegger, but I’m certain the Michelin Guide wasn’t passing out stars or publishing reviews. Back fence gossip was the most likely source, as was as the bootleggers’ ability to deal with Miss Code of 1942, section 1010 known as the Black-Market Liquor Tax – the state’s nonsensical method of banning the sale of liquor but collecting taxes on it, nevertheless. As Will Rogers said, “I don’t make jokes, I just watch the government and report the facts.” What else is new?
I had an appointment in Brandon, so I took the old way, crossing the aged Pearl River bridge at South Jefferson Street and following a narrow road leading away from town. Still advertising itself as a bait shop, the bootlegger’s decaying outpost squats in the middle of an abandoned field of uncut grass and scruffy weeds. The interstate thunders overhead; freight trains with swaying box cars glide behind the building. To the side, a graveyard of rusted farm machinery and abandoned cars form a make-shift junk yard. But the bootlegger’s footprints remain. Remnants of gravel tire tracks snake behind the building where, as they say in casino talk, the action occured. In an instant, I’m back.
My friend, Martha and I are bouncing in the rear seat of our Chevy coupe. Earlier that day, we begged to accompany our fathers on a trip across the river because it sounded fun. We did not know that ‘across the river’ was code for visiting the bootlegger. Somehow, they let us ride along. Martha’s father, Gene, sits up front discussing his purchase and counting his cash. Gene is an Ole Miss man as well as a Navy vet; he knows the drill. Daddy is from Ohio and uninitiated in covert transactions, but he is eager to learn. Mama has already threatened my father with severe penalties if the cops zoom in and we are taken to jail.
“I can see the headlines now,” she cried. “Honest Christian men arrested in illegal liquor sting. Children caught up in massive crime sweep!”
“Nothing’s gonna happen,” Daddy answered.
“Here, take this,” she continued, shoving a blanket into Daddy’s hands. “If anything happens, hide the girls under this.”
“Don’t worry. Gene says it’s alright.”
“Better be,” she shouted. “Don’t let the girls out of the car!”
As we roar away from our house, I wonder if I should have brought a “get out of jail free” card from my Monopoly game.
Martha and I stifle giggles as Belhaven disappears and we plunge into downtown Jackson, then zip past the fairgrounds and cross the river into alien territory. It is Rankin County, land of poker chips, wailing jukeboxes, smokey roadhouses, and package stores, package being a handy euphemism for the devil’s brew. Suddenly, Daddy slams on the brakes and the Chevy jerks to a stop. The road ahead is clogged with thirsty Jacksonians on an identical Friday afternoon whiskey run. We crawl forward slowly, like determined snails. The afternoon sun is brutal; the car windows are rolled down. Martha and I are sweating bullets. Our sandals are moist, sticky tendrils of hair cling to our foreheads. Gene wipes his face with a pocket handkerchief as we swallow a miasma of fumes and dust. The car radio crackles out a simple message. “Turn your fans on high, folks! It’s heading to up to 98 in the shade!” Daddy snaps off the radio; the Chevy has no fan.
As we move ahead, I see a policeman standing in the middle of the road. He is directing a parade of cars creeping toward the bait shop’s circular driveway. For twenty long minutes, we inch closer. Martha and I use the wait time to plead for an ice cream cone on the way home. Our fathers are desperate, they give in. The temperature in the car peaks. Daddy’s ears are bright red. Gene’s pocket handkerchief is as wet as his face. There is no breeze, we are sitting inside an oven. Finally, the policeman waves us forward, and we fall into a long line of vehicles crawling towards the rear of the bait shop. Twenty minutes later, it’s our turn. The bootlegger leans out of an early version of the McDonald’s take-out window. He is unshaven, unwashed and missing critical front teeth. A brown fedora is pulled low over his forehead and we barely see his eyes. A double barrel shotgun hangs on the wall behind him.
“Hep ya?” he asks, smiling. For him, Friday afternoon equals a seafood jubilee in Mobile Bay. His cash drawer is brimming.
Gene orders a fifth of Jack Daniels and a pint of gin. Daddy asks for rye but it’s not on the bootlegger’s menu. He settles for Evan Williams. They both count out the cash, enough to cover the whiskey and black-market tax as well. (credit cards didn’t exist, no checks accepted). The bootlegger hands over a tightly packed brown paper sack filled with bounty. Daddy places it on the front seat and covers it with Mama’s blanket. As we pull away from the window, another patrolman helps us return to the main road.
The Chevy is heading back to Jackson now, rumbling towards the safety of leafy green Belhaven. Wind is whipping through the windows. Our sweaty foreheads are dry, no one has been arrested, and we are headed to Seale Lily’s fabulous ice cream parlor. We’ve escaped. Home free! Pass go and collect $200.
“Daddy,” I ask, leaning forward. “That man at the window kinda looked like our preacher. Was that him?”
“Not a chance, sweetheart,” he laughs. “Not a chance.”