As the man in black paused in the retelling of his story, Jenny felt herself rise back up to the present. She had been sitting and listening for far too long, she suddenly realized. The bar was still as empty as always, but if her boss came out and spotted her lounging and listening to this story, she’d be in for an earful.
Next to her, Old Hillpaw also started as the young waitress rose up abruptly from her seat. “Figure I ought to wet your whistle, if you’re gonna keep going,” he commented to the man in black, who answered this with a slow nod.
The man in black didn’t say anything as the two members of his small audience left his table. He simply returned his attention back to the typewriter, once again slowly pecking out word after word.
His audience had returned, it seemed. Jenny was once again perching on the edge of her chair, sparrow-like, all the empty tables now glistening after a fresh wipe-down from her rag. Old Hillpaw was also slowly lowering himself into his own chair, taking pains not to spill the mug of frothy pale beer he held.
A similar mug had been placed in front of him, just outside the swing of his arms as he worked his typewriter, the man in black noted with a faint but undeniable note of satisfaction. He picked it up, taking a sip and letting the liquid splash across his tongue.
Once he had slaked his thirst, the man in black resumed telling his story. Despite her apprehension, Jenny couldn’t help but find herself drawn back in.
The bell was loud and insistent, ringing repeatedly. Even as she squirmed and turned on the thin, hard mattress, trying to pull the itchy blanket up to cover her ears, Danni couldn’t block out the noise.
Around her, voicing similar grunts and groans of displeasure, she could hear the men waking up and crawling out of their own cots. None of them wanted to leave the relative comfort of their bedding, but they all knew the punishment for being last.
As the sounds of activity grew louder, the bell still tolling, Danni finally pulled back the blanket with a hiss. Even at the early hour, the sunlight was streaming into the ramshackle building. It reflected off of the frost on the few remaining pieces of glass in the windows, and highlighted the motes of dust floating in the air.
The bell finally stopped ringing as Danni fumbled for her boots on the floor. It was replaced, however, with a voice no more pleasant. “Up and at ’em, you lazy lugs!” the foreman thundered, stomping into the barracks. “We got honest work for y’all – maybe the first honest work y’all have done in your lives!”
They all knew better than to rise to the bait in those barbed words. Danni tightened her frayed coat around her slim body, flexed her fingers in the ragged gloves to try and send some heat into her digits. Alabama might be the Deep South, but it was still bitingly cold in the mornings.
Once he had roused his reluctant charges from their beds, the foreman’s booming voice switched over to calling off the roles for the day. Danni kept her head down, focusing on stretching out her stiff limbs, one ear listening for her name.
There – roofing crew.
It was no surprise, she figured, that she ended up on the roof most of the time. Unlike most of the men around her, she was light and nimble on her feet, with a head for heights. Up in the rafters, balancing on those thin beams of wood, agility was just as important as strength.
Carl, a disagreeable little man with a face like a rat, sniggered at her as she fell into line for the breakfast slop. “Watch yer step, missy,” he called out to her. “Don’t wanna see yuh fall and break nothin’, need a big strong man to take care’ah yuh.”
“Let me know if you see one,” Danni shot back, and the rough laughter of the other workers turned on Carl. He flushed crimson, but shut his mouth with a click.
Just another day of long, grueling, back-breaking work. Most of the time, Danni didn’t let herself think too much. Thinking, she had learned, could very quickly get someone in trouble. Especially a girl like her.
But when she was standing up in the rafters of that day’s construction project, feeling the breezes rustling her fiery red hair, she couldn’t keep her mind quiet. Between hammering in nails, Danni would stare off at the horizon, watching the brilliant colors flare as the sun rose up from below the trees.
Sometimes, she could even catch a glimpse of what she imagined was light reflecting from the ocean, the Gulf.
She had never been anything but poor, and she knew that she’d never be anything more. But still, up above the ground, she could feel the yearning, so strong it was like a physical hook in her stomach, tugging her onward.