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Westwords, Chapter 7


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About 94,000 words First Serial Rights 1990 Lewis W. Heniford
 
 
 

August, 1943
 

One noon, Nora Nell, Beth and West sat rocking in the shade on his front porch to enjoy their iced tea and make plans for the evening.

“We’re drinking tonight,” said Beth.

West had not done any serious drinking for over two months, since his first encounter with Francis at Chapel Hill.
Nora Nell said, “Not me. Not tonight.”

“Why not?

I know that we can get a jug of scuppernong wine for two dollars.”

“You two go ahead. The Olds has a full tank, so I can take you wherever you want.  But I am going to get myself a date, and I want to know what’s going on.”

“That’s exactly what I don’t want to know,” Beth answered. “I shall get blasted and forget everything.”

“Then how do you know if you are having a good time?” asked Nora Nell.

“I know I’ve had a good time if I come home at night, throw my pants to the ceiling, and they stick there.”
 
 

After supper that August evening, West met Nora Nell  in her front driveway, and they got into the Olds without speaking.   Their smiling conspiracy needed no discussion.   Beth had a plan.

The Olds’ headlights wore masking on their top halves as a precaution. Wartime security experts had reported that lights along the Atlantic Coast could be spotted far out to sea and silhouettes of American ships disclosed. German submarines could use the shore lights to zero in on the ships and sink them.  Much marine traffic was using the Inland Waterway, which stretched just inside the coastline from Florida to Virginia. Still, other ships, especially larger ones, had to use the open sea. Blackout curtains covered the seaward windows of all buildings within twenty or so miles of the shoreline. And all highway traffic in that zone had to half-mask headlights.

Nora Nell expertly backed the car into the street and headed it eastward on the main street toward Beth’s home, just three blocks away.   She drove past Mrs. Robinson’s, Dr. Cox’s, the DeWitts’, the Soles’, the other Linders’, and the Nobles’.

Beth was in her front room playing the piano.   The Chopin etude hardly suggested that she had a jug of scuppernong on her mind. She had heard the Olds arrive, but she took the several minutes to conclude.

West wondered mildly whether to go to the front door for Beth.

“I never can cut that short,”  Beth would explain to people who had to wait for her to finish a piece on the piano. She loved such music despite a flippant pose designed to free herself from the eternity of studying with old Mrs. Norris, her teacher for ten years who disliked boogie woogie. The ancient lady was losing her student by forcing a choice between classical and popular music. She saw an outstanding potential for classical piano, more than her student cared about. Mrs. Norris had fretted in vain about discipline and dedication. The more she had pushed, the more her student had rebelled, until the lessons ended.

He was really about to go to the door for her when Beth ended her playing, noisily came out of the house, and bounced into the back seat of the Olds, full of verve and vitality.

She waited just long enough to be out of sight of her home, then lit the characteristic cigarette.   Already her addiction had led her to incorporate one-handed sections into her regular piano pieces. Which hand did not matter; her smoking was the two-fisted kind. An olive complexion helped partially to obscure the stains on her fingers from tobacco smoke, but they showed nonetheless. “I made all the arrangements,” Beth said after exhaling the first deep drag of smoke. She replaced the Lucky Strikes in her jacket pocket and produced a slip of paper which held a magic name, that of a genuine bootlegger. “Do you know where he lives?”
Nora Nell shook her head while keeping a sharp eye on the eastward road as she increased speed. She would check things out at the State Line, traveling by way of Finklea Crossroads and Green Sea toward Tabor City. The Olds had them out of Loris within a couple of minutes.

“I don’t know the name,” Nora Nell said.

“Well, neither do I,” responded Beth, “but I know the section he lives in.”
 
 

Just then, Nora Nell sighted a carload of Green Sea boys she knew. “Let’s play games,” she shouted as she sped past them in direct challenge. Well beyond the speed limit, the two automobiles raced side-by-side toward the  beach twenty-odd miles away. Nora Nell saw a glimmer of oncoming headlights.  She floorboarded the Olds.   It responded with quick superiority to the car beside her and pulled ahead, allowing her to ease smoothly into the proper traffic lane well before the approaching driver had to worry. By chance, the car westbound toward Loris also contained country boys, these from around Finklea.

With howls of recognition, the drivers of all three cars braked and backed up for a conference. They synchronized radios, turned the sound to top volume, and everyone got out, leaving the car doors wide open. The circle of cars, headlights aglow, formed an enclosed area the width of the two-lane highway in which everybody gathered.   Immediately, a jug of scuppernong went the rounds, ladies first. Nora Nell took the slightest drink. Beth took the biggest.

West unhesitatingly joined in. He took too much into his mouth because he was unused to drinking from a two-quart Mason jar. His tongue felt a searing then a sweetening. He had expected the temperature to be cool, like that of drinking water taken to sweating farmhands in the fields.  Instead, it was air warm. The progression of the liquid inside him was easy to follow. Then an aftershock traveled the whole route, mouth to belly.

The next drinker, the fellow who had offered the wine in the first place, gargled his swig and produced a loud belch afterward. He leaned toward West. “Who you with?”

“What do you mean?”

“The gals.  Which one is yours?”

West had immediately registered that everyone else was at least a year, most of them two or three years, even four, older than he was. To have everyone assume that he was dating made him think that the others took him for being older than thirteen. He tried to make his answer matter-of-fact. “Beth.”

“Which is that?”

“Her.”  He pointed.

“Well, well, well-well-well.” The good old country boy grinned, quite satisfied to focus on Nora Nell. “Does she?” He opened his lips wide, showing clenched teeth discolored by artesian water.  His tongue slipped slightly out and in, out and in through the teeth, and his eyes glowed.

West sensed any encouragement of this boy was unwise.

“Hey, West, these guys know where the bootlegger lives,” Beth called across the highway. She waved the paper with the address on it and skipped happy circles in beat with the music from the three radios, taking all attention unto herself, enough to cut short West’s response to the country boy. Beth locked both arms around his chest and looked to his face for agreement. “They can take us there.”

He felt a cold wave of relief.

Suddenly, surprisingly, Nora Nell inserted her arms into the embrace of West and Beth. “What do you think?” She was not addressing Beth; she was hugging and asking West.

With seven boys watching, he could hardly object. He heard himself saying, “You want to? Let’s do it.”
 
 

The new 1940 Olds followed the Green Sea boys’ 1939 Ford and the Finklea boys’ 1937 Chevrolet into the winding byways of swampy farmlands in the Sweet Home section of Horry County.

The automobiles sped carelessly over slight mires and crusted ruts. The advantage for the Olds was forewarning. The Ford and Chevy slipped, slid, bounced, and vaulted, showing the Olds where to correct for road problems. Despite her advantage of having the newest car, Nora Nell emerged definitely as the best of the three drivers. When the cars stopped for a conference, the Green Sea and Finklea boys talked admiringly of her skill and nerve.

The boy who had told Beth he knew the right location explained how to approach this bootlegger. Only one car could go to the house, and it preferably should have only one person in it. If more than one person were in the car, someone familiar to the bootlegger should be along. The driver had to honk just once, then twice, then once, and wait for someone to open the front door and come onto the front stoop. Then the driver had to get out of the car, walk only halfway toward the house, and identify himself. A short conversation would follow with no mention of wine or purpose for the visit. Idle chitchat or a request for directions to somewhere might be made. If the bootlegger came down off the stoop and approached the driver, then they could quietly and quickly deal. If that advance toward the driver did not happen, then a polite, speedy departure was wise. And a person had better know that a gun was being pointed at him from some nearby spot in the darkness throughout. Any blunder could cost the buyer more than money.

Beth asked, “Which of you going up to the house?” She glanced at the boys from Finklea.

None volunteered.

She looked to the boys from Green Sea.

The same.

The one who knew the location said, “I talked him down on the price by saying that we didn’t have no more money. If I went and told him now that I wanted to buy some more, he might suspicion I’d lied, and things could get hairy then. You can used the name I give him, though. It ain’t mine. It’s this guy’s over near Bayboro.”

“You gave him somebody else’s real name?” asked Beth.

“Just playing it safe, little gal. My daddy’s a preacherman who kind of frowns on his son’s fun and games. I said I’d show you where. That’s all I said I’d do. Well, you go straight ahead until you reach three mailboxes on the right, then take that next left turn for a quarter-mile. There’s only one house on that turn, and that’s it. We’ll wait right here if you want.”

“Where you all going after this?” asked Beth.

“State Line.”

“Well,” said Beth, “we’re meeting her date at Ocean Drive, so thanks, but you all don’t have to wait.”

The good old country boy flashed his artesian-stained grin and asked if anyone had some extra black market gasoline coupons for sale at a good price.

No one did.

The Olds drove on.

The Chevy and Ford turned around and left.
 
 

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