Nancy and I lived in an area of Jackson, Mississippi known as “Belhaven,” an older neighborhood that had been developed in the 1920s. At one time it had been the place to live in Jackson, but had since been replaced after World War II by what was now known as East Jackson. If you asked anyone who lived in Belhaven to describe the area, they would probably refer to it as a quaint, well-established area of elegant old homes. Most everyone else called it that old rundown area behind Baptist Hospital. It depended on your perspective.
Tonight was our supper club meeting and we were going to Tico’s Steak House for dinner. But before dinner, Carl and Cathy Sides were taking us to Canton, their hometown just north of Jackson, to attend a pre-dinner cocktail party.
I came through the front door just as Nancy was leaving to go get our babysitter for the evening. I had better pause right here and try to explain exactly what a babysitter used to be. In the 1950s and ‘60s it was considered rude and thoughtless to bring small children into adult situations. For instance, you did not bring your toddler to see Splendor in the Grass. Bambi, yes. On the Waterfront, no. You did not bring a colicky infant to dinner at a nice restaurant. The soda fountain at Brent’s drugstore maybe, but not LeFluer’s. What you did was employ a local teenager to come to your home and tend to the little angels while the adults went out for the evening.
This person was referred to as a “babysitter” and the act of “babysitting” provided a much-welcomed source of teenage income. Every young couple had a secret list of babysitters, and the list was protected from your friends. There were many hard and fast rules governing our social set; you did not wear a colored shirt during the business day, ladies did not wear white shoes until summer, and if you had a little too much to drink, you didn’t barf in someone’s car. Good common sense stuff.
Our society was very tolerant and forgiving if you slipped up on most things such as adultery, teenage pregnancy, or alcohol abuse, but there was one transgression from which there was no redemption. If you stole your neighbor’s maid, yardman, or babysitter, there could never be a meaningful future relationship. Something like that could get you thrown out of the Junior League, bounced from a half-dozen bridge and garden clubs, and tossed from the country club. You were socially fried; you might as well have been a Yankee.
By the time Nancy had returned with our young lady of the evening, I had managed to shower, shave, and put on a pair of khakis, a blue button down cotton shirt, a navy blazer and black loafers – the standard weekend uniform. Carl and Cathy pulled into our driveway and we all started for Canton, our first stop of the evening.
Carl and Cathy were both born and raised in Canton. Carl had been an outstanding high school athlete and Cathy, a couple of years younger, had been Homecoming Queen and a yearbook beauty. Cathy’s father had been a prominent physician before his untimely death, and her mother, Bitsy, was at the very top of the Canton social register. Bitsy lived on the best street in one of a dozen large white Victorian homes on large, shaded lots. The widow ladies of a certain age who owned these homes were members of an ad hoc organization known as “The Canton Ladies.” Mrs. Bomart Devon was the titular head of this group, and it was her home to which we were heading. Mrs. Devon’s son, Beau, was a well-known figure on the Hamilton County scene. He had attended several institutions of higher learning on an on-again-off-again basis, but to no one’s knowledge had Beau ever received any sort of degree. This did not hamper Beau; he had never had a job and was not the least bit interested in getting one. What the Devons did have was over 20,000 acres of Black Belt cotton land that had passed down from Beau’s great-grandfather.
Beau always wore a white suit, a la Colonel Sanders, and drove a stable of sports cars. He oversaw the manufacture of the finest sour mash whiskey that ever was, and ran the only private race track for trotting sulkies in Mississippi, complete with illegal pari-mutuel betting and a large grandstand. On any Sunday afternoon during Beau’s racing season, several hundred well-dressed friends and acquaintances would fill the stands for a day of racing and a gourmet dinner on the grounds. Somehow all of this escaped the notice of the Hamilton County Sheriff or any other law enforcement agency.
It was the custom of “The Canton Ladies” to host a little soiree each Friday night, starting in the spring and ending on Labor Day. Tonight’s gala would be at Beau’s momma’s house, and there were several dozen cars and pickup trucks lining the street in front. There was no official guest list. Everyone just knew if they would be accepted or not. Cathy’s status as Bitsy Streel’s daughter and “Princess in waiting” assured that we would be welcomed. Carl had definitely married above his station.
Carl parked in Bitsy’s driveway several doors away, and we walked in the early summer twilight toward the sound of a tinkling piano and subdued laughter. We climbed the steps that lead to a large white verandah with rocking chairs and swings. Every seat was filled with what appeared to be the cast party for a Tennessee Williams play. Cathy knew everyone, Carl knew most of them and Nancy and I knew Bitsy. There would be no introductions made – you were on your own. It was assumed this was not your first party, and that you could meet and greet like a grown person.
Cathy and Carl disappeared into the house and Nancy and I spotted a henna-haired lady of indeterminate age nursing what appeared to be a tumbler of straight sour mash, while taking periodic drags on a smoking cigarette in a holder. She wore an orange and gold caftan, a purple turban, and was barefoot. She looked like a good prospect for an interesting conversation. I walked over and said,
“Good evening, Miss, I’m Tommy Larch and this is my wife, Nancy. We’re from Jackson and this is our first time at the Friday night party.”
The woman slowly turned in my direction and looked me up and down before saying, “I’m Esmeralda; I’m a gypsy. I can tell your fortune if you’d like.”
“Gosh, Esmeralda, we don’t get a lot of gypsies around here. Do you live in a wagon?”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, I’m not a real gypsy. Just on Fridays. The rest of time I live in the house across the street.”
“Is your name really Esmeralda?
“Just on Fridays; the rest of the time I’m Bertha Manning. My late husband, Charlie, was President of Canton Bank and Trust and now my son Chaz is in charge, but I own all the stock so they have to be nice to momma.”
“Are they nice to momma?’
“Very nice. Now exactly who are you?”
“Nobody in particular, we were invited by Bitsy Streel’s daughter, Cathy.”
“Oh, Cathy is such a beautiful girl. It’s a pity she made such a poor marriage. We try so hard to teach our girls that one may fall in love and have passionate affairs, but always marry for money. My Charlie was no great lover, but he was rich as Croesus and very indulgent where I was concerned. We were the perfect match.”
Nancy grinned and said, “Mrs. Manning, you seem to know everyone here, why don’t you tell us about some of them?”
“Oh, call me Bertha, my dear, and I would be delighted to fill you in on our little crowd – there are some quite interesting characters among us. For instance, see that old fool in the bib-overalls? That’s Jethro Cummins from Artesia. During the depression he ran a little country store over near Flora. He lived in the back and pinched every penny that came through the front door.
“He managed to save a couple of thousand dollars, and in 1933 he bought 10,000 acres of cut-over scrubland for twenty-five cents an acre from J.W. Raines, an old coot who owned everything in Flora. We all knew it must be worthless if J.W. was selling it. Well, in 1938 Standard Oil found the Tinsley Oil field, and most of it was under Jethro’s land. He still lives behind his store and he drives that old beat up pickup across the street, but he banks at our bank and I can tell you he’s got more money than God.”
“Is he married?” Nancy asked.
“No, he’s a life-long bachelor; I believe his only social contacts are our little parties.”
“I would have thought he would have been the perfect target for some young maiden with marrying for money on her mind.”
“Oh, my God, honey, everything has its limits. Jethro bathes on Fridays just before he comes to our dos, and puts on clean overalls and a fresh shirt. All of that will last him until this time next week. Besides, even if a girl could get by the odor, she would still be married to the tightest fist in Mississippi; Jethro is not a generous man. Rich as all hell, but a real skinflint.”
“I bet you could straighten him out Miss Bertha. You’d have him taking a daily shower and driving a Cadillac.”
“I probably could, my child; I certainly gave Charlie Manning all he could enjoy and some more. They will try to tell you that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but I can promise you that the key to men is about eight inches below their belt buckle. Take good care of that little thingy and you will have a long and successful marriage and an even better widowhood. I wouldn’t touch Jethro Cummins little thingy for twice his net worth.
“Why don’t you children go in and fix a drink. You also may want to visit the buffet table. This is a B.Y.O.B and potluck party, but there will be plenty of booze on the bar and the food can be pretty good; all of our maids do the cooking and bring the dishes over. While you’re at it, you can bring me another drink.
“I’ll be delighted to get you a drink, Miss Bertha, what can I fix for you?”
“If you’ll just pour about a half glass of Jack Daniel’s over a couple of ice cubes it would just be fine.”
“We’ll be back in a little bit,” I said and Nancy and I went in the front doorway. The foyer was a large area with gleaming heart-pine floors, elegant oriental rugs, and rich fabrics. The living room was to the right and was similarly decorated, with a baby grand piano in the far corner, at which a middle-aged man in a seersucker suit and thinning hair was skillfully playing cocktail lounge tunes.
To Be Continued…