By Eliot Gregory
Jewel pulled her cloth coat closer around her and braced herself for the north Texas midnight wind. She carried her purse beneath her coat in case anybody got any ideas about trying to take it.
She had to walk two unlighted blocks to get to the Harbrick Company, a cotton gin that had hired her reluctantly, and only after her father had talked to the owner. It was a dull job but that might be for the best. She had not finished high school and she knew a lot of girls dropped out of school if the right man came along.
Under her breath, she said a quick prayer for Louise, “Lord, please watch over Louise while I am at work. Keep her safe and let her sleep.”
Louise was her 8-year-old daughter. Jewel had had to leave her that night in her apartment by herself. She had explained to Louise that she had to take whatever job was offered, even though it might not be ideal.
As always, she went over the rules with Louise before she left the house. “Keep the lights off, don’t answer the door no matter who it is. This door is opened only for me when I get back from work in the morning.”
As she rounded the corner of the Harbrick Company, she came upon two teenaged boys leaning against the brick wall.
“Hey baby, where you goin’ on such a cold dark night?”
Jewel’s pulse raced but she kept a steady pace and walked past them. In less than a minute, she was at her work station inside the company. She smiled at Gertrude who stood across from her. The bell whistled and the cotton bolls came down the conveyor belts. She and Gertrude were the first ones in line to grab cotton bolls and separate the cotton from the seeds.
She was glad she wasn’t the last worker on the line. The last workers were often yelled at by Mr. Fisk, the manager. She had never seen Mr. Fisk actually do anything. It was his job to stand at the end of the conveyer belt and see that no seeds were mixed in with the cotton that fell on to the next conveyer belt. It was a job he was born for. He stood with his arms crossed over his chest and a disappointed look on his face.
Even though it was cold outside, it got hot in the building. Workers were never allowed to turn on the air conditioner in the summer or the heater in the winter. Those decisions were made by the men who sat at big desks with their cowboy booted feet crossed on top of the desks leaning back in their easy chairs while smoking a cigar.
Jewel and Gertrude didn’t get to talk much because it was too loud. It wasn’t worth the effort. They each got a ten minute break every three hours. It was only long enough to go to the one restroom in the building, and there was always a line. Jewel often looked at her watch and weighed the time it would take her to get back to her work station. Mr. Fisk made checkmarks by the names of workers who were even a few seconds late getting back to their stations. She certainly did not want any checkmarks by her name.
She thought how, under different circumstances, she and Gertrude might be housewives visiting back and forth between houses, their children playing together, family barbecues on Sundays. It was best not to think of “what-ifs.” She was living in the real world where she had to leave her child alone at night to make a meager living for them.
She had been the envy of all the girls when she announced her engagement to Homer Martin. She was 16 when he pledged his undying love for her in the Baptist Church where she had grown up. Now she felt like crying when she thought of him. For her husband, there was always another party, always another woman. He heard distant music and couldn’t be tied down with a wife and daughter. Jewel never saw him as an enemy, but she did feel betrayed by him. He had loved her and made her feel happy, as if all her dreams were coming true.
She wondered if he ever thought about her or about Louise. He never sent his daughter any birthday cards or Christmas presents. She probably couldn’t even find him if she needed him. But then, she couldn’t imagine why she would ever need him. She didn’t know where he lived or if he was happy. She wanted to think that maybe he sometimes had a sad pensive moment when he thought about his own past, the family he made.
She felt sad when she thought of how quickly her charmed life had gone away when she married Homer. She felt so many possibilities in life, and then, like a dream it had all gone away. Being married wasn’t as much fun as she had thought it might be. Her father had worked as an accountant at the Bells Cotton Gin. He was a deacon in the Baptist Church there. He brought his paycheck home every Friday night and handed it to Momma. How was Jewel to know this was not the way of all men?
She couldn’t let her mind go off on these tangents. She had to just accept her life and focus on her work at the cotton gin. This was her life. She wouldn’t get another chance. Her efforts had to be for Louise. She was 25 years old and, as she tried to push away the past, her future telescoped before her and made her tired.
Sometimes when she was daydreaming as she picked at the cotton bolls, she would think that someday Homer would realize what he had given up. She liked to think that he would come crawling back to her and Louise and beg her forgiveness. But she wouldn’t take him back, not after all of this. She wasn’t seeking retribution and she didn’t want anything bad to happen to him, but she could never feel anything but sadness and betrayal when she thought of him.
Louise looked a lot like her dad, but Jewel didn’t hold it against her. That little girl was the reason Jewel got up in the morning, the reason she worked at this awful job, the reason she lived in the best apartment she could afford. When she had a day off from the cotton gin, she would usually sew a new outfit for Louise. She didn’t want her daughter to suffer or go without just because her father was a lout.
All of Jewel’s sisters had married much nicer men. It made her wonder how she could be so fooled? Poppa had not liked Homer, but her father wasn’t the kind to interfere if they loved each other. Momma had gone to bed for several days when Jewel quit school to marry Homer. Her mother didn’t handle things well. She could afford to not handle things well because her dad was there to pick up the slack. Jewel realized with stark clarity that she could not afford this luxury.
As she rifled through all her old memories and daydreams, one particular scenario played out in her mind and brought a smile to her face. In it, Homer was old and lying in a hospital bed. Jewel, being the kind good Christian woman that she was, would go to visit him and, from his bed he would cry and say, “Oh, Jewel, I’ve been such a fool! How could I have lived like this?” He would beg Jewel for one more chance, but without much emotion, Jewel would say, “I don’t think so, Homer.”
Eliot Gregory is a new contributor to Jet Planes and Coffee. We look forward to hearing more from him in the coming weeks and months.