Curiosity

By Hailey Denevere

This blog post was the winning entry for our creative writing contest. The contest focused on the 100th anniversary of the National Prohibition Act, which was ratified in January 1919, and entries had to incorporate ephemera from the Winterthur Library. 

Hearing footsteps, Jimmy quickly slid in the back door of Noah’s speakeasy and locked it behind him. Cautiously eyeing the bags he carried, Elenor asked, “What’s that?”

“It’s the shine,” He flippantly answered.

A worried look washed over Elenor’s face. “That’s not the usual stuff. What happened?”

Sheet music for “Prohibition Blues” 1919 (Col. 240, 14×27.31)

Jimmy’s response was muffled by the sound of Noah’s favorite record, Prohibition Blues.

Taking his usual place behind the bar, Jimmy filled glasses for regulars and dodged his boss’s perturbed glances. Noah finally approached him clearly annoyed, “You’re late!”

Interior of a bar, 1914 (Col. 182, 98×30.14)

“I ran into a snag,” Jimmy retorted.

“This cat Bugsy is coming tonight. I need him to see that our joint is the bee’s knees. I’m very interested in doing business with him.”

“Got it,” Jimmy said twirling a teacup around his finger before filling it with a cocktail.

“Mr. Bugsy, Jimmy will see to all your needs,” Noah graciously offered, doing his best to make a good impression.

“I hear you’re alright kid,” Bugsy grinned. “How long have you been a bar keep?”

“Just a few weeks,” Jimmy said, obviously intimidated by Bugsy’s imposing stature and holstered revolver.

“Let’s see what ya got,” Bugsy laughed flipping his teacup upright. “These teacups make smart cover if anyone on the beat shows up, but I heard your boss is in good with the brass around here.”

“I don’t know what sort of deals my boss has worked out, but lots of cops stop by here on their way home from the station.”

“That’s a pretty good deal kid,” Bugsy grinned.

“What will it be?” Jimmy asked.

“Strongest you’ve got,” Bugsy challenged.

Jimmy reached under the bar and grabbed one of the new bags. With the paper still neatly wrapped around the bottle, he generously filled the cup. Bugsy took a swig and sighed loudly.

“Your boss wasn’t kiddin’…you do have some good shine.”

Noah circled back to his honored guest. “What do you think Mr. Bugsy?”

Bugsy lowered his voice and turned away from Jimmy, speaking to Noah privately, “It’s strong, but I can make stronger at a better price than Sal’s giving you.” Jimmy cleaned the bar in a feeble attempt to hide his eavesdropping. Bugsy raised a brow at him and Noah harshly whispered, “Scram kid.”

Jimmy made an excuse to go to the store room and breathed a sigh of relief when the door shut safely behind him. Elenor cautiously approached him and whispered, “Jimmy, what did you end up getting? Sal doesn’t use bottles like that, and Noah said to go to Sal’s and then head straight here.”

“I got a tip from another bar keep Ellie. Guy said he uses alcohol from the hardware store. I checked it out and he’s right. Double the proof for half the price.”

“Tell me you didn’t!” Elenor gasped in horror.

“No one has to know Ellie. If I keep getting it there, I can pocket the change to help out with ma’s bills.”

“Jimmy it’s tainted,” Elenor flatly stated. “The government puts poison in it, so people don’t drink it.”

“Impossible,” Jimmy dismissed. “They wouldn’t do that. It would be all over the papers if they did.”

“They do Jimmy!” Elenor screamed shaking him. “My uncle died that way. I watched him.”

The color drained from Jimmy’s face. “I just served it to that guy Bugsy that Noah wanted to impress.”

Elenor stared blankly at Jimmy. “What now?” she asked. Before Jimmy could respond, they heard a thud in the next room. They raced out to the bar to find Bugsy lying motionless on the floor.

Lantern slide, ca. 1880-1900 (Col. 229, 83×34.88)

Elenor cried, “Call the cops!”

“No!” Shouted Noah. He turned toward his staff and calmly added, “They’d shut us down. I’ll make a personal call. Jimmy. make the announcement.”

“Attention everyone,” he announced. “I’m sorry, but we’re closing now.”

As the final guests were leaving, two officers slipped in the back door. They stood over Bugsy and quietly spoke to Noah before approaching Jimmy. Elenor rested a hand on Jimmy’s shoulder to steady his shaking.

“Just tell the truth…it’ll be okay.” she assured him.

Looking Jimmy from head to toe, one of the officers asked, “What happened?”

Elenor blurted out, “It was an honest mistake! He had no idea!” Sobbing she added, “He wanted to help his ma pay the bills. She’s been struggling since his old man bit the big one.”

Jimmy glanced at his scuffed shoes, gathering his courage and sheepishly admitted, “It was an accident. I tried to save a few bucks by buying industrial alcohol instead of our usual shine. I didn’t realize it was tainted. I served it to this guy, since I thought it was the strongest stuff in the house, and Noah said he trying to make a business deal with him.”

“A business deal?” one of the officers asked curiously raising an eyebrow at Noah.

“That’s Bugsy O’Shea…he’s been selling shine on Sal’s turf for weeks,” the other added, glaring at Noah skeptically. “Wait here, I have a quick call to make.”

“We’re going to need you to come down to the station to answer a few questions after all,” the first officer said, roughly handcuffing Noah. “Run along home Jimmy. You seem like a good kid who made an honest mistake. Don’t let an accident like this happen ever again.”

When he reached his house, Jimmy walked over to his father’s easy chair and collapsed. His mother handed him a cup of tea and sat beside him.

 “Jimmy, your uncle Sal called and told me what a good job you did getting rid of that cat he asked you to take care of…the one that kept stealing all his meat. He said he’d like to hire you at his butcher shop…that you may be an even better problem solver than your pops was.”

“That’s great ma,” Jimmy smiled. “It seems like things are finally looking up. I told you I had a plan.”


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