Proud Lizzie [Flash Fiction]
Lina’s hard leather shoes rubbed her feet in all the wrong places but she winced away her pain as she trotted down the corridor, hands behind her back, fingers working deftly to fasten her apron strings. If she was late for shift again, Mr. Paul was gonna dock her pay. Maybe even give her the boot, if he was in a rotten mood.
“Hey, Lina!” Ruby’s head appeared from the open door of room twenty-six, followed by the rest of her ample frame. The maid’s uniform didn’t so much hug her curves as squeeze them into submission. She got by, though.
“What’s the deal, Ruby?”
The older woman smiled and patted her hair, frizzy mass of black curls tamed into a respectable bun. It was about the only part of Ruby that could be called respectable—least with a straight face.
“George was beatin’ his gums earlier ’bout a real sweet deal he heard of. Family up in Jackson—new money, George says—lookin’ for a nanny for a boy and a girl. You interested?”
“Course.” Lord, yes! “I ain’t gonna spend the rest of my life on my feet, bussin’ for ofays till my bunions are raw.”
Ruby’s dark faced wrinkled in distaste. “I’d take the bunions over pukin’ kids. But it’s your life. Talk to George tonight. You’re coming to the washroom, right?”
“Soon as my shift’s over.” Eight long hours from now. Maybe today, she’d smile extra wide and see if she could earn a tip or two.
A wicked smile stole across Ruby’s face. “Bet Zeke will be real glad to dance with you again.”
“Oh hush, you ol’ bird,” Lina admonished. Just because she’d danced with Zeke a few times didn’t mean he got the right to dance with her every time. Besides, people talked. And worse, they listened. Ruby took a real shine to spreading gossip, with no care for diamonds or coal.
Maybe there was no new-money family in Jackson lookin’ for a nanny. No diamonds waiting for Lina away from Lizzie. Just a load of bushwa and coal.
“I gotta go, Mr. Paul’s got it in for me,” she said.
Ruby gave a firm nod. “You ankle, girl. Wouldn’t wanna see you put off before Jackson.”
Lina made her shift on time—just. Mr. Paul gave her the stink-eye as she grabbed a tray and started doin’ the rounds. Some of the regulars she knew by heart. Mrs. McLoughlin, the face-stretcher from room thirty-three, ordered G&T and nothing else. A twenty-something socialite and her sixty year old sugar daddy were new aboard Lizzie; he ordered a brown plaid, and she wanted only cream soda.
The easy crowd flocked around the craps table, and Lina worked them for four hours straight. She moved amongst their pale faces and bright riches, unseen, just a tray that brought drinks and took green. Coal amongst diamonds.
Another four hours passed in the poker room, where dozens of straight-faced men stared silently at their hands and each other. The laughs and groans of the craps crowd died away, replaced by the intermittent clink of chips tossed into piles. The men here didn’t see Lina, either, but it would be her job and her hide if she put a drink down in the wrong place at the wrong time. She worked extra-careful and earned herself a tip from a big spender who cleaned out his table.
Lina clocked out and hurried along the length of Lizzie as fast as her aching feet would carry her. Even before she arrived at the washroom, the lively beat of jazz wound its way through the bowels of the boat and reached into her soul, pulling up the joy that she buried each time she donned her black and white cotton shackles.
She didn’t try to stop the smile which tore across her face. Couldn’t have stopped it, even if she wanted to. When she flung open the washroom door, a whole other world enveloped her. A world of Jacob and his jazzy trumpet, of men and women who danced in their uniforms because changing would take too long. Tonight she would dance until her bunions were raw, because the beat of the music was the river’s true soul, and nobody did soul better than the invisible staff of dreamers and gossips on the Elizabeth.
This flash fic was written for the Daily WordPress prompt, Sound. It was also inspired by the song ‘Proud Mary,’ first written and performed by Creedence Clearwater Revival, later covered by Tina Turner. It’s an excellent arrangement with amazing vocals… and you can listen to it right here and now!