Authors: John Grisham
The Rudy clan had been on the Point almost as long as the Malcos. Somewhere amidst the paperwork in the New Orleans Customs House,
not a common American name but more digestible than anything from Croatia.
Keith’s father, Jesse Rudy, was born in 1924, and like all the other kids, grew up around the canneries and shrimp boats. The day after his eighteenth birthday, he joined the navy and was sent to fight in the Pacific. Hundreds of boys from the Point were at war and the tight community offered countless prayers. Daily Mass was packed. Letters from the troops were read aloud to friends and discussed by their fathers over beers, and their mothers at knitting clubs. In November of 1943, the war came home when the Bonovich family got the knock on the door. Harry, a marine, had been killed at Guadalcanal, the first death for the Point, and only the fourth from Harrison County. The neighbors grieved and helped in a hundred ways, as the dark cloud of war hung even heavier. Two months later the second boy was killed.
Jesse served on a destroyer with the Pacific Fleet. He was wounded in October 1944, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, when his ship took a direct hit from a kamikaze dive bomber. He was pulled from the sea with severe burns over both legs. Two months later he arrived at the naval hospital in San Francisco where he was treated by good doctors and no shortage of pretty, young nurses.
A romance blossomed, and when he was discharged in the spring of 1945, he returned to the Coast with two fragile legs, a duffel with all of his assets, and a nineteen-year-old bride. Agnes
was a farm girl from Kansas who followed Jesse back home with great anxiety. She had never been to the Deep South and harbored all the usual stereotypes: shoeless sharecroppers, toothless hillbillies, Jim Crow cruelties, and so on, but she was madly in love with Jesse. They rented a house on the Point and went to work. Agnes was hired as a nurse at Keesler as Jesse hustled from one dead-end job to another. His physical limitations prevented him from even part-time work on a shrimp boat, much to his relief.
To her surprise, Agnes quickly embraced life on the Coast. She loved the tightness of the immigrant communities and was welcomed without reservation or bias. Her Anglo-Protestant background was brushed aside. After eighty years in the country, intermarrying amongst the ethnic groups was common and accepted. Agnes enjoyed the dances and parties, an occasional drink, and the large family gatherings. Life in rural Kansas had been much quieter, and drier.
In 1946, Congress provided funding for the GI Bill and thousands of young veterans could suddenly afford higher education. Jesse enrolled at a junior college and took every history course offered. His dream was to teach American history to high school students. His unspoken dream was to become a learned professor and lecture at a university.
Starting a family was not in the plans, but postwar America was proving to be a fertile land. Keith was born in April of 1948 at Keesler, where the veterans and their families received free medical services.
Twenty-eight days later, Hugh Malco was born on the same wing. Their families knew each other from the immigrant cliques on the Point, and their fathers were friendly, though not close.
Five months after Keith arrived, Jesse and Agnes surprised his family with the news that they were going away to study. Or, at least Jesse would study. The nearest four-year school was the state teachers college seventy-five miles north in Hattiesburg. They would be gone for a couple of years and then return. His would
be the first college degree in the Rudic/Rudy family, and his parents were rightfully proud. He and Agnes packed their belongings, along with Keith, into their 1938 Mercury and headed north on Highway 49. They rented a tiny student apartment on campus, and within two days Agnes had a job as a nurse with a group of doctors. They juggled her work schedule with his classes and managed to avoid paying babysitters for little Keith. Jesse took as many classes as possible and breezed through his studies.
In two years he was finished and they contemplated staying on and pursuing a master’s. However, the fertility issue was back. When Agnes realized she was pregnant with number two, they decided college was over and Jesse needed to start a career. They returned home and rented a house on the Point. When there were no openings in the history department at Biloxi High, Jesse scrambled to find a job teaching civics to ninth-graders in Gulfport. His first salary was $2,700 a year. Agnes went back to Keesler as a nurse but struggled with a difficult pregnancy and had to take leave.
Beverly was born in 1950. Jesse and Agnes agreed that two children were enough for a while and they became serious about family planning. He finally landed a job teaching history at Gulfport High and received a slight raise. Agnes worked part-time and, like most young postwar couples, they barely stayed above water and dreamed of better things. Despite their cautionary efforts, things somehow went awry and Agnes got pregnant for the third time. Laura arrived only fourteen months after Beverly, and overnight the house became far too small. But Jesse’s parents were only four doors down, and there were aunts and uncles practically across the street. When Agnes needed help or even an occasional break, she needed only to give a yell and someone was on the way. The mothers and grandmothers on the block took great pride in raising each other’s children.
A favorite topic, whispered between Jesse and Agnes in one of their rare quiet moments, was the notion of moving away from the Point. While the support was crucial and they appreciated it,
they also found it suffocating at times. Everyone knew their business. There was little privacy. If they skipped Sunday Mass for any reason, they could expect a regular parade of family and friends stopping by Sunday afternoon to see who was sick. If one of the kids had a fever, it became a life-and-death matter along the street. Privacy was one issue. Space was an even larger one. The house was cramped and would only become more so as their children grew. But any upgrade would be a challenge. With three small children underfoot, Agnes was unable to work, which was a blow because, when full-time, she earned more than Jesse. His salary was not yet $3,000 a year, and pay raises for schoolteachers were never a priority.
And so they dreamed. And, as difficult as it was, they tried to abstain from sexual relations as much as possible. A fourth child was out of the question.
He arrived anyway. On May 14, 1953, Timothy came home to a house full of well-wishers, most of whom were in quiet agreement that four was enough. The neighbors were tired of balloons and cake.
During his brief interlude as a college boy, albeit a married one, Jesse made only one significant friend. Felix Perry was also a history major who abruptly changed course after graduation and decided to become a lawyer. As an excellent student, he had no difficulty getting into law school at Ole Miss, and finished in three years at the top of his class. He landed a job with a nice firm in Jackson and was drawing an enviable salary.
He called ahead and said he was coming to Biloxi on business and how about dinner? With four kids under the age of five, Jesse could not even consider a night out, but Agnes insisted. “Just don’t come home drunk,” she said with a laugh.
“And when was the last time that happened?”
“Never. Get out of here.”
Single, away from home, and with cash in his pocket, Felix was looking for fun. They enjoyed gumbo, raw oysters, and grilled snapper at Mary Mahoney’s, with a bottle of French wine. Felix made it clear that the night was on him, said he’d bill it to a client. Jesse had never felt so indulged. But as the dinner progressed, Jesse became irritated with his old friend’s self-importance. Felix was earning good money, wearing impressive suits, driving a 1952 Ford, and his career was arching upward with no end in sight. He would be a partner in seven years, maybe eight, and that was like hitting the jackpot.
“Have you ever thought about the law?” he asked. “I mean, you can’t teach school forever, right?”
Dead right, but Jesse wasn’t ready to admit it. “I’ve thought about a lot of things lately,” he said. “But I love what I do.”
“That’s important, Jesse. Good for you, but I don’t know how they survive financially in this state. The pay is peanuts. Still the lowest in the nation, right?”
Indeed it was, but such an observation coming from Felix was unnecessary.
They spent half of dinner talking about associates and partners, lawsuits and trials, and for Jesse the conversation cut two ways. First, it was mildly irritating to be reminded that teaching school would always be a financial strain, especially for a male breadwinner with four kids at home. Second, the more they talked the more intrigued Jesse became with the idea of becoming a lawyer. Given that he was already thirty years old, it seemed an impossible challenge, but perhaps he was ready for one.
Felix paid the bill and they set off to find “trouble,” in his words. He was from a small, dry county (all eighty-two counties were still dry in 1954) and had only heard the legend of Biloxi vice. He wanted to drink, roll some dice, see some skin, and maybe rent a girl.
Like every kid from Biloxi, Jesse had grown up in a culture
and a town where some of the men enjoyed bad things—gambling, prostitutes, strippers, whiskey—all illegal but accepted nonetheless. As a young teenager, he had sneaked cigarettes in the pool halls and beers from certain bars, but once the novelty wore off he forgot about such prohibited activities. Every family had a story of a young man with gambling debts or a drinking problem, and every mother lectured her sons on the dangers lurking just across town. The night before Jesse left for boot camp and the war, he and some friends hit the bars hard and spent their last dollars on hired girls. Over breakfast the next morning, his mother said nothing about his late night. He was not the only soldier to say his farewells with a hangover. When he came home three years later, he brought a wife and his brief stint as a hell-raiser was over. Occasionally, once a month at most, he met some friends for a quick beer after work. His favorite bar was Malco’s Grocery, and he often saw Lance there mixing drinks.
He wasn’t sure what kind of “trouble” Felix was thinking of, but the safest place to lose cash was Jerry’s Truck Stop, a fixture on Highway 90, the main drag along the Coast. In years past, Jerry had actually sold diesel fuel and serviced rigs passing through. Then he added a bar behind his café and offered the cheapest drinks on the Coast. Truckers were delighted and spread the word throughout the region that you could have ice-cold beer with your eggs and sausage. Jerry expanded his bar and was counting his money until the sheriff informed him that drinking and driving were not compatible. There were some wrecks caused by intoxicated truckers; folks were dead. Jerry had a choice—diesel fuel or booze. He chose the latter, took out his pumps, converted his shop into a casino, and began servicing soldiers instead of long-haulers. The “Truck Stop” became the most famous lounge in Biloxi.
Felix paid the one-dollar cover charge and they went inside to the long, shiny bar. He was immediately slack-jawed at the sight of two lovely dancers shimmying around a pole with moves
he’d never seen. The club was loud, dark, and smoky, with colored lights sweeping the dance floor. They found a spot at the bar and were immediately accosted by two young ladies in heavy makeup, low-cut blouses, and short skirts.
“How about a drink, boys?” the first one asked as she squeezed between them and pressed boobs into Felix’s chest. The other one came on to Jesse, who knew the game.
“Sure,” Felix said, eager to spend some money. “What’ll it be?”
Jesse glanced at one of four bartenders who was ready to mix their drinks. Within seconds, two tall greenish cocktails arrived for the girls and two bourbons for the boys.
The friendly bartender eagerly agreed and said loudly, “Remember, every fourth drink is free.”
“Wow!” Felix practically yelled. So, to make the economics work, a fella would need at least eight drinks to call it a good night.
The green drinks were nothing but sugar water and each included a colorful plastic swizzle stick with a cherry on top. In due course, the girls would collect the swizzle sticks and hide them in a pocket. When the night was over and they settled up, they would be paid fifty cents per stick, nothing per hour. The more drinks they solicited, the more money they made. The locals knew the game and from somewhere the term “B-drinking” had evolved. The tourists and servicemen did not, and they kept ordering.
The girls were pretty and the younger the better. Because the money was good, and the opportunities for women in small towns were scarce, they headed to the Coast and a faster life. The stories were legion of farm girls who worked the clubs hard for a few years, saved their money, and returned home where no one knew what they’d been up to. They married their old boyfriends from high school and raised kids.
Felix was with Debbie, a real veteran who could spot a mark, though it didn’t take much in the way of intuition. Felix said to Jesse, “We’re gonna dance. Watch our drinks.”