Chocolate Kisses Ch. 01bycalibeachgirl©
copyright @ calibeachgirl
All rights reserved 2011
Tuesday, December 8th, 1931
James Ewart drove north along the coastline to Albert Kinney's vanishing dream. Venice, built with such fanfare twenty-five years ago had become nothing more than the backwash of an oil field. In 1930, amid much enthusiasm, the Ohio Oil Company struck oil. While it boosted the local economy with new wealth, the physical degradation caused by the drilling just changed the nature of the area's problems.
The oil wells stretched along the seam from the duck-filled marshes of Ballona Creek north toward Santa Monica. As those monuments to gasoline neared Venice, though, the once sought-after beach houses became their companions and the oil-soaked neighborhood became known as the Negro District filled with dilapidated bungalows and abandoned buildings. While the number of colored people never numbered above a few hundred, they were all crowded into their own private slum.
Driving his gray '29 Chevrolet sedan down to the intersection, he couldn't help but notice the same woman standing there each morning. Ever since the October 'Crash' two years earlier, people were desperately looking for work and he knew it was almost impossible for even formerly middle-class colored women to find any work and they were reduced to working for whatever they could get.
In many cities and towns such as Venice, there were street corners known as 'slave markets.' The colored women would wait for wealthy white women to come by to choose from women desperately seeking domestic work.
The white women would get their domestic servants for the lowest amount they could get away with, knowing there would be always someone else willing to work for even less.
Economic slavery had returned to the United States and the women were expected to be on-call at all hours of the day and night.
This woman was different. Unlike the others he had seen, she was neatly dressed for Sunday church in a dark blue skirt and sweater. He noticed that she had not gotten her hair straightened and wore it in a natural frizz. So many colored women had tried to emulate the expectations and styles of their new employers and had their hair chemically straightened or ironed out.
Even through his momentary lust for the woman, he thought she was pretty. She was tall, slim but had wonderfully expressed curves, just like his wife. Her breasts beckoned to be touched and her waistline led his attention to her hips and, as he thought of it, an ass that so needed to be loved.
She was a dark milk chocolate contrast to Catherine. His wife, a tall, blue-eyed blond from Germany... he met her at the end of the great war in Europe when she helped him escape from the Kaiser's men after he was finally shot down on November 1st, 1918. They married two months later in a small French village church and he brought his sixteen-year-old pregnant bride back to Los Angeles.
He felt himself harden with the thought of stretching out sandwiched between her thighs and resting his head on her hair.
He desperately tried to put those thoughts out of his head and fought himself as he kept driving north.
Mixing of the races was not only frowned upon in small town America, it was downright illegal and even in California, far removed from the Civil War battlefields, the possibility of a white man romantically involved with a colored woman...
He didn't know exactly why, but he turned the car around, pulled over to the curb and got out. Walking up to her, almost timidly, he politely asked, "Excuse me, ma'am, are you looking for housework?" Was je doing the right thing for all the wrong reasons? This was probably a big mistake... but he had been obsessed his with her for the last week.
She was shocked a white man would even bother to talk to her, let alone speak in such a kind manner. 'What does he want?' she thought, 'it's usually miserable women that come here.'
She wasn'tt a cheap whore... but, they did need the money. She decided to listen to what he was selling, there was nothing better to do, after all.
"Yes, sir, I am. I can keep house, cook quite well and sew what you need repaired. I can read and write and know my mathematics." She saw no need to hide her skills nor act like an ill-educated, near illiterate girl from the South.
"My name is James Ewart. I live in El Segundo with a house... in a house, I mean. I could use a.... a housekeeper, that is, if you're, perhaps, interested?"
"Yes, sir, I truly am. When would you like me to start?"
"Right now, if that's all right with you..." He opened the passenger door to the car and wondered if she would actually come with him. He waited until she was comfortably seated before closing it, surprised that she actually accepted his spur of the moment offer, his heart suddenly pounding in his chest.
Somehow it never occurred to her he might be a rapist or murderer. Some white men did seem to think colored women were for their own personal use, illegally or otherwise. He didn't look the type to her but then, what did the type look like?
Standing there all that time, she saw him drive by each morning for the past week, watching her. He didn't seem dangerous but sometimes there were chances that had to be taken. She said a prayer to her Southern Baptist God.
He started the car and they headed back through the oil-soaked streets and then the coast road toward his home in the countryside farther south. She hadn't asked how much it paid and he didn't even ask her name. It was about as impersonal as it could get, almost like it would be to really whore herself out.
"I'm sorry; I didn't even ask your name. Please forgive me."
She was uncomfortable with how he was treating her. The expected social expectations weren't here. This white man was politely treating her as an equal, something she never expected in her life. But, then, she never had much to do with white men, anyway. All she ever heard is that they were the devil's own and just wanted colored women as servants and whores.
"My name is Bethany Rose... Bethany Rose Carrolton, sir."
"That is such a beautiful name, Bethany Rose." His thoughts seemed to scatter around her name, her figure and her seemingly educated manner. The young colored girl was starting to cloud his mind, obscuring thoughts of anything else.
He was confusing, so different from the few white men she'd talked to and he seemed much kinder than colored boys were. They seemed to take their frustrations out on whoever they were with.
'What is it he really wants?' The thought entered her head, again. 'Does he think that I would be... no, that couldn't be it?'
She was dressed nicely, not like some more desperate woman or one of what people said was of 'easy virtue. She glanced left to watch him as he drove the car. Whatever was going on in his mind, he was smiling.
She began to wonder if this had been a terrible mistake all along and began to pray to her Christian God who had forgotten her people for so many years.
Even so, she made no move to leave the car and sat quietly during the ride to his house, determined to see it through. Times were too hard to turn down any opportunity to put food on the table.
El Segundo, California
James Ewart's house
The large two-story house was magnificent, with a covered porch that ran three sides around and surrounded by a large well-kept lawn with flower gardens and fruit trees on the each side. The deep windbreak rows of eucalyptus trees acted as a barrier to the rest of the world and she felt there was no 'rest of the world' for anyone living here.
Even two years into what they were now calling the 'depression,' she could see that the house was well maintained with the smell of fresh paint even now filling the air.
Before she could open the door, he had quickly come around the car and did it for her, extending his hand as if in welcome. What white man would ever do that for a colored girl?
Bethany Rose was sure this was one of the strangest days in her life.
"Welcome to my home... please, please come in." He gently took her hand and for a moment she pretended she was a real lady, as good as any white woman. They went into the front room as she was still trying to take in the sight of the wide porch stretching in each direction around the house.
Instead of the expected dark, stuffy parlor with well-worn furniture, the room was bright and cheery and the furniture, if not new, was cared for, polished, and looked so comfortable she thought she had died and gone to heaven. Even so, she knew she would never get to sit there unless it was while he was gone.
"This is the front room... well, I guess you figured that out and through here is the dining room and there's the kitchen and the pantry and over there are my office and that's my library through there. If you ever want to read anything, just write down what you've taken so that I don't go crazy wondering where it went."
Once again, he took her hand and led her upstairs; she wondered if that was how a bride going to love her husband for the very first time would have felt.
"There are four bedrooms up here, each has its own bathroom and this one is mine and that one... oh, my God, I didn't even ask you if you were able to be a live-in... are you married? Will that be a problem?"
She looked at the bedroom he was showing her. It was almost as big as the small, rundown old house she had been living in with her sister and her three children and each day it was smaller and smaller and smaller.
Eliza's husband, that damn Henry... took off without even a goodbye, god damn shiftless fool, he was.
"No... not married... no boyfriend, either." Why did she ever say that? What had ever brought that on?
"That's great! Oh, I didn't mean it like that, I'm sorry. Will there be a problem staying here, then?"
The look on his face told the whole story to her. He wanted her, if not like that, at least in the house with him. This was an awfully large house for just a single man. From the look of it, though, someone had been living with him.
Another maid? Some female relative? This house has the look of a feminine touch but sometime in the past. The furniture looked untouched to her.
Bethany Rose looked at the room again. "No, Mr. Ewart, I can do that." There was no way, she decided, that she was going to lose this chance. Besides, the bedroom door probably had a lock on it, wouldn't it?
"Let's get something straight, right now, all right? I know that outside in public you may have to call me Mr. Ewart, but this is my house and inside you will call me James, Bethany Rose. Is that clear? James."
The conviction in his voice almost scared her until she realized what he was saying to her. Inside the house, he wanted her to be, if not his complete equal, at least some personal level above that of a servant. He seemed to be searching for something that might or might not be there.
She wasn't sure if she was at ease with that but refused to let this chance vanish like all her other dreams since that miserable October day when the country collapsed. There might never be another chance, she worried.
"Yes, sir... I mean, James. I can stay here but I have to let my sister know that I won't be coming home."
"Well, there's no sense in going all the way back into Venice for that. I'll just call... what's her nummmm... OK, that was stupid; she doesn't have a phone, does she?"
Bethany Rose could only shake her head. How simple it was for him to think that everyone had a phone to use. To her, that was a fundamental difference between the rich white folk and the poor colored folk... simple expectations.
What does he do for a living, anyway? she wondered. What am she getting herself into, this strange man with an odd manner about him, talking in such a way to her
She wondered if he was a gangster... a bootlegger. For some reason, that possibility uneasily excited her... the attraction of good girls for bad boys.
"What's her address?"
That's was a good question; it wasn't like there were any real house numbers down there.
"She lives out on Bagler Street, just past the Pacific Electric tracks."
"Good, just give me a second." He rang up the operator. "Hello, Jenny, it's James Ewart. Please get me the store, will you?"
He put his hand over the receiver and whispered, "I'm going to... Hello, Bill, it's Jim Ewart... fine, how about you? Look, I would like ten dollars worth of soup, flour and tinned meat sent over to Mrs. Henry Washington, at..." He looked at her again.
"Bagler Street, yes, that's right, in Venice, down by the tracks... yes, I know where it is... tell the boy to ask; give the boy a two dollar tip and I want a message put with it. Throw some soaps and stuff in there. You ready? All right... Bethany Rose is now working for me and won't be home. Expect groceries every Saturday from me. Yes, yes... yes, damn it, that's right."
He hung up the phone, muttering something about 'I ought to fire that stupid dumbass...'
"Sorry you had to hear that last part, Miss Bethany; I usually don't lose my temper like that. Remind me tomorrow... we're going to go to the house and make sure that everything was delivered."
She let her mouth hang open. The things she'd heard in her life made his little disagreement sound like a prayer at Sunday church... and he called her 'Miss Bethany.' He was a very strange man, indeed.
Ten dollars of food every week for Eliza! Now, she knew he would be expecting something at night, there was no way a white man... any man... would do what he just did without expecting something in return. That was just the way the world turned.
She looked for the door. Every colored girl over the age of ten knew what that was and some men would expect something for so much less.
She started to leave, slowly backing up. It still wasn't too late. It would be a long walk back into Venice and then to that little hovel called home but... at, least her pride would remain intact.
"It's getting on toward dinner. What would you like to eat?"
What did he say? What did she want to eat? She'd fallen down the rabbit hole.
"I have a couple of nice steaks, if that's all right and some potatoes, you could mash those and there's store-bought cake and ice cream."
Steak? She never had steak.
He once again took her by the hand and they went into kitchen. He seemed to like touching her. Each time, she experienced a sharp tingle that went from her hand to her... Even Deacon Jackson who thought he was courting her could never touch her like that.
Now that she considered it, Deacon Jackson was dried up old man twenty years her senior who though the sun didn't shine unless he was outside. Everyone expected her to marry him and raise his four children from his first wife who left him for another man three years earlier. It would have been a life worse than a white man's maid... a white man's bed partner.
This was the perfect escape from his attentions. She could just disappear and let him wonder what happened.
"If you cook and mash the spuds, I'll get the grill started out back. We can eat on the patio if you'd like, it's a nice day for December."
Leaving her standing there alone in the kitchen, James walked outside and began putting some kindling into the brick bar-be-que in the side yard.
"Well, might as well get to work and earn my thirty cents a day," she said to herself. She took off her sweater and after putting it on the back of one of the kitchen chairs, walked into the pantry looking for the potatoes.
There were a couple of aprons hanging there and taking the first one, she settled into becoming the cook. She found some onions and a garlic clove. Starting the water to boil, she sliced the onions and the garlic and put them in a skillet to caramelize with some butter she found in the refrigerator. Her family had always depended on either some ice or doing without.
For such a large pantry, there wasn't much food. Maybe, he ate at diners a lot. Maybe, he wasn't very hungry. There wasn't anyone else living with him. He doesn't seem to have much variety with what he did have, either. It was going to be difficult cooking for him if that was the way of things.
Opening the cupboards, she found the dishes and set the table for him. She, of course, would eat by herself in the servants' area. It had to be about here somewhere. If he had pointed it out, she must have missed it.
Putting her attention to the stove, she was startled by the sound of dishes on the table and the clatter of silverware. Turning, she saw him adding another place to the table. She had forgotten about eating outside.
"I didn't know you were having company. I should have asked." How could she have made such a mistake so quickly?
"Miss Bethany, this is for you. Where did you think you were going to eat?" His face was so innocent that whatever apprehension she had about staying with him disappeared in a flash.
Her face flushed with embarrassment. He had said they were going to eat and she wasn't even paying that much attention to what he said. Somehow, his presence was making her thinking muddied. Clearly the man had different expectations from the few others she had worked for. Horrid women with their sour faces who thought the days of slavery had returned.
"Yes, sir... James." What kind of white man was he?
He left the kitchen with the steaks. They were at least an inch thick and must have weighed a half-pound each. That was more meat than her sister could feed her children all month. Maybe, with the food he had delivered, they would be able to eat better.
"This ice cream was delicious. Thank you, sirrrr... James. I haven't had any since..."
"The 'Crash'?" He looked intently at her, looking deep into her dark eyes, letting him look deep into her soul. That tingle was back, this time moving through her heart.
She was taken aback by his attentiveness. No white man and very few colored men had ever paid her any attention at all, let alone in such an intimate personal manner... listening to her thoughts.
"Yes. I was in my second year at Bennett College..." Those few, almost impossible carefree months when she thought she could actually succeed in life.
"Yes, it's in North Carolina. I was studying biology; I wanted to be a nurse."
What was that supposed to mean? 'I see. Didn't he believe her? Why should he, she guessed. She probably wouldn't have believed it, either.
"Yes, don't you believe me?" Her voice was getting upset. If she lost the job, this glorious job, well, so be it. She couldn't work for someone who didn't believe her. She wasn't old enough to have a subservient attitude ingrained into her like her mother.
"Were you able to finish your second year?" He actually was listening to her. Unbelievable, she thought.
"No, the scholarship money disappeared and then that shiftless Henry... he's my sister's husband, he took off when he lost the Pullman job he had. I came home."
He amazed her again. He reached over and took her hand in his... vanilla ice cream covered in Hershey's chocolate syrup. His gentle touch calmed her temper and she felt ashamed. Not everyone, evidently, was the son of the devil. Was he bad boy enough for her good girl attraction? She was so confused.
"Well, we'll see what we can do about that one of these days. Would you like anything else, Miss Bethany Rose?" His voice was filled with a light, friendly laughter.
Bethany Rose was surprised. When he said her name like that it sounded like music to her.
"No, thank you. This was more than I've eaten in a week and I don't remember when I've had meat last, when we get some it goes to the children."
"How old are they?"