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The Unstoppable Jennie Justo: Episode Four

Episode Four: The First Arrest ©

Knit one, purl two, knit one, purl two. I’m working on a baby sweater for Pepe’s youngest, born while I’ve been in jail. I want to have it done by the time the train arrives home in Madison.

I’m wrung out. Knitting’s mindless, soothing. It requires no effort, my fingers know what they’re doing. Spending six months in jail should have given me lots of time to think, but everything in the joint was so new and threatening. It’s taken all my energy to stay ahead of the prison matron, the male guards, and the gangs inside.

My thoughts echo what the Matron said this morning after I was processed to be released, ‘A chance to start a new life’. I shake my head at that one. Starting a new life was what put me behind bars in the first place.

* * * *

Like a lot of speakeasies, our place was a family business in the basement of our home. At the start of Prohibition, Mama and Papa hadn’t let opportunity pass them by—a bit of paper wasn’t going to stop them from pouring the best darn beer and whiskey for their customers.

After Papa’s murder, it took a lot of talking to convince Mama to let me try my hand at running the joint. It ran contrary to her notion of what a girl should be doing. But the business was in my blood. More so than my brothers; much more.

Dom, Pepe, and Joe ran a small time bootlegging operation; all my hooch was bought at the family discount price. The boys drank most of their profit or spent it on fast dames and even faster cars.

Before I was sent up, business had been booming. I could stand behind the bar and look out over a line of customers three deep. Good looking college boys, all waving money and shouting to get my attention. Those boys were full of sass. I loved it.

There was even a special guy, the local football hero, Art. He played on the University’s baseball team, too. Rumor had it he’d be called up to the big show at the end of the school year. Might have been pro-football. Maybe it was both? He’d started coming around a lot, getting my heart all twitterpated. I always made sure to give Art one of my extra-special smiles.

Our ‘speak’ was beyond popular for all the college kids. Dames included; smart, spunky dames with minds of their own. My biggest regret was that I never got a chance to go to school and be one of those kinds of girls.

But I had the business. Gosh, I loved running a speakeasy. Even though I was just seventeen. The original place, with some changes, was mine, and so was the one around the corner. The business, my business, meant the world to me. I never got stuck in regret about school for too long, especially when I heard the band playing a great tune, especially when I couldn’t even see the band through a crowd of dancers and the haze of cigarette smoke. Another hopping night at Jennie’s.

Sure there were some close calls—a young gal like me, running two joints. One night, Maddie, a pal who helped out behind the bar, started filling drink orders. I took a moment to catch my breath and headed outside for a smoke. I didn’t get many breaks on busy nights, but I really needed that ciggy.

I went up to the kitchen, then stepped onto the front porch.

I was enjoying my break and my cigarette (damn coffin nails), and watched more college kids head around back to join the others downstairs. Finals were just over and everybody seemed to need to bust out and cut a rug.

I was savoring the break when a guy in a trench coat and felt fedora came up to me and flipped open his wallet to reveal a badge.

“Ah, Mike. Put that away. I know it’s you. You here for your shut-eye money? I’ve got the envelope downstairs behind the bar. Just ask Maddie for it. And pour yourself a drink while you’re there.” I waved him off with my cigarette. “I’ll be down in a sec, as soon as I finish this.”

“Jennie, I’d love to stay and have a drink, but I’m on the clock tonight, darlin’,” he said. “The captain’s on a bit of a crackdown. Our quota is down and he says it makes the mayor look bad. We’re supposed to round up all the people in the beer flats and basement ‘speaks’ and brings them in. He’s got a big press conference tomorrow so he can do a bit of crowing.”

“No way, Mike. I pay good money for you to look the other way. Have for the past year. Is this your way of asking for a bigger take?”

“No, I mean it. I’m going to have to padlock the place and bring you in.”

“But you can’t do that, Mike. I’ve got every student on campus downstairs blowing off some steam. This will wreck my business if you close things up.”

Using what, at seventeen, I thought was my best advantage, I stood up and snuggled into his chest. And a manly one it was, too. I whispered in his ear. “Why don’t you put me last on your list? There’s gotta be lots of places you can go first? Come back after midnight, and I’ll have the joint cleared up and I’ll be good to go. That way, nobody’s kid gets embarrassed for being at a speakeasy, and I get to fill the cash drawer a bit longer.”

I leaned in closer and nibbled Mike’s ear. “I’m willing to share the difference, just between you and me, Mikey. You wouldn’t need to split it with the rest of the boys.”

Mike sighed. With me snuggled close and the promise of a bit of extra moolah closer, he was a happy copper. “Okay doll, you got yourself a deal. I’ll see you around midnight and then we’ll take a run down to the station.”

I hurried downstairs and told Maddie to start pouring doubles. We’d call it an end-of-term special. We had a lot of business to do in the next few hours.

The next morning, I sat in front of the judge, having spent the night in jail with other bar owners. The courtroom was packed with people and reporters.

When my turn came, I gave the judge my best movie star smile, and wept into the lace hankie I’d brought.

The men in my life always seemed to loom large. First Papa, then my brothers, the cops, the bootleggers, my lawyer, and now this judge. Men, rarely helpful, usually a pain in the arse. What’s a girl gotta’ do to get ahead?

“I’m only seventeen, sir. And my Papa’s gone. It’s just me and Mama. I’m so very sorry, sir. I won’t do it again.” I peeked over the edge of the hankie and batted my eyelashes. Tears produced, I offered a timid, trembling smile. He returned the favor: a small fine and an ultimatum to change my ways.

I had no problem with that. I’d learned my lesson. I’d change my ways and give Mike a bigger cut. There was no way I was going to miss out on the Back to School specials we’d planned for after the break.

If you’ve missed an episode, you can get them here…

Episode One

Episode Two

Episode Three