Preface

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Out of Chattanooga: “The Life and Times of Bessie Smith”

By Clifford Eberhardt

Chapter 23

Bessie opened the door to the caboose and went inside.  She had never ridden on a train before.  She had never been that daring before.  She did a lot of things that night she never done before.  And now, Bessie was inside the caboose of the ‘Louisville Express.’ 

She walked over to the only door inside the caboose.  This door led to the first of the two sleeping cars Ma and the rest of the performers were riding.  Bessie was ready to demand that Ma take her on as an act with the show, but she was also ready to beg too.  Bessie knew it would be a hard sell to convince Ma and the others to take her on as a performer with the show.  Since she was already on the train, she knew this was her last chance to make a good impression on Ma.

Standing in front of the door, Bessie held her breath and then turned the knob.  The door was locked from the other side.  Bessie twisted and turned the knob but the door did not respond.  Bessie waited at the door for a moment to see if she could see Ma or any of the other performers to get their attention. There was nobody to see.  Bessie walked away from the door, sat on the floor of the caboose, and thought about what to do next.

While sitting, Bessie's thoughts quickly turned to her brother Andrew.  She thought about how Andrew had been so helpful getting her through that night.  Now she started to miss him and her sisters and the little shack.  She imagined that Andrew was on his way back to Tannery Flats to tell Viola and the rest of the family that she found Ma and everything was all right.   Now, Bessie became frightened because for the first time in her life she was alone.  She was on her own.  More than ever, she knew she had to convince Ma and the others to take her to Louisville with them.

Suddenly, Bessie heard the door to the caboose open.  It was Jake.  He walked right passed Bessie to the back platform of the caboose.   Bessie could see from the way Jake staggered when he walked that he had been drinking. 

Then she heard him throwing up.  He had drunk too much of the moonshine Ma had bought in Chattanooga.  Jake was still gagging on his way back to join the others in the sleeping cars.  As he walked back through the caboose, Jake saw Bessie sitting on the floor looking up at him.

"Girl, what you doin' on this train?"

Bessie jumped to her feet, "Jake, I wanna go on the travelin' show with y’all... I wanna be a big star and sing the blues with y’all!"

Bessie then asked, "Jake, will Ma let me go with y’all?   You won’t let 'em send me back, will you Jake?"

"Bessie, I ain’t got nothin’ to do with it.  That’s up to Ma and Lonnie.  They gotta decide if you go back," Jake said, "let’s go see what Ma’s gonna say."

Jake took Bessie by the hand and led her into the sleeping car where Ma, Will and Cora Fisher were sitting at a small table drinking from the jug of moonshine.  They were making a second count of the money they made from the show in Chattanooga when Bessie walked behind Jake and Jake went unnoticed by Ma until he reached the table and then Bessie stepped from behind his back, Jake said, "Ma, look what I found."

"Gal, what you doin’ on this train?  How you get on this train?"  Ma shouted. "You gonna get us all locked up!"

"She was in the caboose when I found her.  Ma, she said her sister said she can go on the road with us."

"I don’t give a damn who said she can go.  She can’t go!  They can charge us with kidnapping and throw us under jail in this lil redneck town," Ma snapped. "We can’t take no 12 year old child on the road with us."

"Ma, you was only ten when you ran off to join a travelin' show... you remember," Will broke his silence. Challenging Ma was something he never did, but this time he did.

"That was different, man!  I didn’t have nowhere to go," Ma said to Will.

"I won’t be no trouble, Ma. Viola said I can go... I won’t be no trouble."

"I don’t see where we got no choice, Ma," Jake said, coming to Bessie’s defense.

"We do got a choice.  Cora, go get  yo'  husband ... he run this show.   Let him tell her no," Ma said.
Ma knew that Lonnie Fisher would never let a new act join the show without first talking to Moses Stokes, the owner of the show.

Cora got up from the table and went into the adjoining sleeping car.  In a few minutes she was back with Lonnie.  Bessie recognized Lonnie.  He was the same old man with the gray hair who she had met outside the little tent where she had paid the money to enter the singing contest.  Bessie remembered that Lonnie had said she could not win the contest against Ma.  Bessie’s eyes met Lonnie’s and he knew that Bessie recognized him.

"What she doin’ on this train?  Y’all know we can’t have no stowaway on this train... they’ll put us all in jail," Lonnie said, looking at everybody one-by-one and stopping at Jake.

"She got on this train by herself.  Nobody helped her," Jake said.

"I don’t give a damn, she gotta go!  We don’t need her, and we don’t need no trouble," Lonnie said.

"You said I ain’t gonna win no money in the singin’ contest, but I did.   You said I can’t sing no blues, but everybody said I can," Bessie spoke up for herself. "Mister, I won’t be no trouble; I work hard to pay my way.  I just can’t go back... I wanna join the show... please let me go with y’all, mister?   I won’t be no trouble."

"You all ready trouble," Lonnie said.

"Have a heart, Lonnie.   Give the kid a break.  She ain’t gonna be no trouble!" Jake appealed to Lonnie.

"Please mister, don't send me back.  I won't be no trouble.   I won't be no trouble," now Bessie was crying.

Lonnie was touched by Bessie's plea and looked at his wife Cora. She nodded her head in approval. Lonnie then looked at Will.  He nodded his head up and down.  Finally, Lonnie looked at Ma.  She had tears in her eyes and was nodding her head up and down in a quick motion.  Ma couldn't help but think back on the time when she, like Bessie, left home and joined a traveling tent show.  Bessie reminded Ma of herself as she continued to nod her head up and down.

Ma’s approval was obvious and on her confirmation to Lonnie, Bessie started to cry even more.  Then, she rushed over and gave Ma a big hug.  Bessie was so convincingly pitiful that she made it impossible for Lonnie to tell her no. 

Now, everybody was crying  — Ma, Will, Lonnie, Cora and even Jake.  Then, the train started slowing down to an unexpected stop.

 

 

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