September 8, 1900
Five Thousand Lives Blotted Out
The headlines say it all. Death, destruction, and desolation is everywhere on Galveston Island. The papers don’t mention the survivors.
THE CHECKERBOARD, sequel to THE CANARY, continues the story of Myra Gallaway, her new husband CB, and Black Jack and his new wife, Marguerite, the ‘red-headed colored gal.’ The men showed that, against all odds, a mixed ship sails well. The wives band together in the house in LaPorte to prove the same to their new neighborhood. All seems to go as expected until that crazy gypsy, Lulah Marie, shows up and practically sets the house on fire.
Myra’s eldest, Junior, is in serious trouble and his rebellion landed him in jail on Galveston Island. His only hope for redemption lies in a very unusual punishment. The boy is forced to sail with the man he hates, his step father, CB Ledbetter. This voyage will either make or break Myra’s family. After all, what do you do with a drunken sailor? Only time will tell.
Chapter 1 preview
Five Thousand Lives Blotted Out
The headlines said it all. Death, destruction, and desolation was everywhere on Galveston Island. The newspapers tell about the rescuers. Nothing is mentioned about the survivors.
September 8, 1900
Red Head in the Hotel
Bein’ a red headed colored gal had its advantages, and disadvantages. The white folks liked you more and the colored didn’t. Marguerite Black wasn’t black. She wasn’t yellow. Truth be told, she was red. Some say she looked exotic. She just called herself a red headed colored gal. She got the whole mess from her Cajun mama, Celestine, who she called Maman, and that discardin’ runnin’ red rat. She thanked the Virgin Mother every Sunday at Mass that she wasn’t born a red headed colored fella. Their treatment was a whole different story.
She worked for the fish man, delivering baskets of oysters, drum, and snapper to the back doors of taverns. Marguerite sometimes helped her maman cook in the Tremont Hotel’s kitchen when banquets were held. They were serving that fateful day when the hurricane hit, and were saved by the pure strength of the building. The flood washed through the lower floors, but the fourth one was spared. Only the beautiful windows were gone. After it was over, the word spread through the employees that a woman lay bloated under a mule carcass, blocking the front door. The guests were sent out on the back loading docks into the alley to find their own way through that hell that was Galveston Island. Now the staff waited. Marguerite and Celestine sat together on a cot in the far back corner.
The hotel manager, Mr. Eugene Brown, called all of the workers together in that banquet room, the grand hall turned survivor camp, with now empty cots lined in soldier rows. He climbed the steps to the speaker’s platform. Except for his front desk staff and his chef, all the faces he saw were colored. It was then that he realized that the Tremont was not done saving lives.
“Oh, my wonderful, hardworking people, you have served and saved so many. I thank you.” He spread his arms wide like a preacher with his flock, his voice rising toward the amen. “Our beautiful city has been destroyed. Most of the houses are timber.” Weeping wails began amongst the maids and butlers at the realization of their own homes’ destruction. And their families, oh dear God, their families. Mr. Brown continued. “Go out from here and find your people. Our hotel stands. Bring them here to be sheltered. Carry back what food you can. We will survive.”
Most senior butler, Mister Charles, a stately man far past seventy, moved through the crowd to the dais. As he approached Mr. Brown, the sea of folks parted. Straight as a rod, he climbed the steps. His brown cheeks were smeared with toil and tears.
“Suh,” he started. “Suh, I speak for us all when I say ‘thank you.’ May I say somethin’ more?” The manager nodded, his own tears starting. Mister Charles turned square to his fellow workers, raising his not-so-white gloved hands palm up in supplication. “My family’s been gone a long time now. I’m sure my house be flat. I will stay. Is there anyone else who won’t be walkin’ out the door?” Some in the crowd nodded. “If you others are comin’ back, we will prepare a place for you and also for yo’ kin.” He turned to Mr. Brown. “Is that acceptable?”
Mr. Brown could only nod, eyes streaming.
Celestine murmured. Marguerite, squeezing her maman’s hand, stood. No one waited for them in that two room shanty they called The Place. Neither ever felt it was home. The daughter spoke. “We stay, nothin’s out there for us.”
Stepping beside Mister Charles, an ashen-faced Mr. Brown spoke. “There is nothing out there for me, either. My friends, you have worked all these many hours. The cots are now empty. If you are staying, please find rest.” Turning to his head man, he whispered, “I don’t think I have the strength for this. Help me, please.”
Mister Charles put his arm around his boss’s waist and the two walked through the crowd as though two pals who were on a stroll. No one noticed the senior holding the junior. Once the door to the back office by the kitchen was closed, Eugene Brown crumpled into his seat. The butler stood, waiting. After a finger wave permission, Mister Charles sat in one of the brown leather club chairs facing the desk, leaned back, and immediately fell asleep with his gloves still on.
The two snored through the afternoon, each dreaming their own horrifying dream as they both saw the woman under the dead mule. Mr. Brown dreamed the carcass turned into Satan. The Evil One pulled out a covered table complete with silver and china, and invited Eugene to dine on the exposed thigh of the woman. He did, with a side of mint jelly. It was spicy. Mister Charles dreamed he climbed on the mule’s rotting back. The duo rose into the sky, soaring over the island, taking in the sights of the destruction. They swooped low over the lost roof of the First Missionary Baptist Church on Avenue L. Just then the carcass split, dripping black rot and dropping Charles into the waiting arms of his long deceased Pastor-Preacher, Reverend Campbell. The holy man held him close as the lost lamb cried. Neither dreamer woke.
Marguerite and her maman took cots side by side. Disregarding the rows, they pushed their beds together for the closeness. Holding her daughter’s hand, Celestine spoke, “Mon petit, sleep. I am so tired. My heart flutters.” She took a breath. “I need rest. We will cook for them later.”
Falling asleep was easy. The maids, kitchen girls, forty-eight hours sopping the rain that blew through all the great halls broken windows. With the help of the stranded guests, sheets, blankets, towels and such were brought from the rooms below to fight the filthy water. Soaking wet, they were returned to the third floor, wrung out, and spread in the rooms over water ruined beds in a futile attempt to dry them. Those saturated linens were very heavy and everyone was exhausted.
Waking several hours later, Marguerite rolled to her side, noticing the blanket had slipped from her mother. She stood yawning and stretched, moving her shoulders and neck to loosen the tightness. Others were stirring, too. They seemed to know what was coming.
“Maman, let me cover you.” She pulled her mother’s covers up to her neck and kissed her cheek. “I will go to the kitchen and start gettin’ ready for Mister Chef. I will fetch you soon.” Though she breathed, Celestine slept the sleep of a dead woman. Marguerite lightly stroked her mother’s hair and headed to the back kitchen, crossing herself as she walked.
I be only a fish gal, but I got arms. Mother Mary, fill them with strength. Amen.
Other kitchen staff followed. Chef gathered everyone in the pantry. “Folks, I have not been down to the main kitchen. Do I have anyone willing to see what’s in the mud and bring us what is useable?” Several serving girls nodded. “Good. We need whatever you can find.” Turning to the others, he lowered his voice. “For some unknown reason, our plumbing still works, but I don’t know for how long. I need strong help to fill every container we can spare for drinking, dishwashing, and toilets.” Two waiters stepped forward. “Gentlemen, you are most important. I don’t know if we will need the water, but I do know it will never go to waste. Thank you.”
“Mister Chef?” Marguerite spoke up from the back of the group.
“Will we have enough food to serve?”
Chef lowered his voice to almost a whisper. “I don’t know, but this is what I plan. All meals will be plated just like a banquet. Everyone will be dining in style.” He turned to the servers. “We will use the luncheon china. You will use the small spoons to fill those plates. We will eat, but we will eat less.”
The crowd murmured their approval.
“Now what do you want?” A bit of impatience showed in his tone.
“Oh, Miss Girl, thanks to all of you.” He smiled. “Let us praise God for our safety and the bounty that will be found in the mud.”
Marguerite crossed herself as she walked back into the hall to check her mother. Maman lay still with her mouth open. Marguerite screamed.
Celestine Black was buried the next day at St. Mary’s Cathedral. Setting on high ground, it was one of the few remaining Roman Catholic cemeteries. Not one word was said about her being colored, as this was the home of the first Negro Catholic School in Texas. Everyone from the hotel who could be spared became part of the cortege. Mr. Brown and Mister Charles supported Miss Marguerite in the walk, holding her arms like family. Many caskets filled the sanctuary. After the funeral mass, Marguerite kissed her maman’s casket. Réquiem ætérnam dona ea. Celestine was laid to rest in a row of fresh graves with only a wooden cross to mark each site. For the very first time in her life, Marguerite was alone.
“Come, child, let’s go home.” Mr. Brown took her arm and led her away. Mister Charles walked behind as though on guard. Waiting for the mourners was coffee, sandwiches, and weak milk punch for toasting. Marguerite drank several cups, asking for extra brandy. She was soon asleep next to her mother’s empty bed. When she woke, the cot was gone, moved to the space by the big smashed window. There it waited for someone in need.
MISSUS ANNIE’S POUND CAKE
Adapted from a 1700’s recipe
1 pound sugar (about 2 cups)
1 pound butter
1 pound flour (about 4 cups)
1 pound eggs (10-12 depending on size)
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon mace (Annie used nutmeg when she didn’t have mace)
Preheat oven 325 degrees. Butter and flour your pan. Annie used a tube pan because the cake had a nice crust all around and was easier to serve. Sift together flour, salt, and mace and set aside. Cream butter and sugar until well mixed. Slowly add dry ingredients, making sure everything is stirred in. Pour into the pan and bake 1 hour 15 minutes. Then check if center is done with a tester. Depending on your pan and your oven, you may need to bake 15 minutes or more until tester is clean.
HOT WATER CORNBREAD
Adapted from Smith family recipe
Hot Water Cornbread
1 tablespoon lard (Cookie used bacon grease)
¾ cup boiling water
1 cup corn meal
1 teaspoon salt
Mix all ingredients until you can tell it’s right. Heat more bacon grease in large skillet until medium hot, not smoking. Gently drop a heaping spoonful of cornmeal mix in hot grease and flatten with back of spoon. Do a few more. Cook until they are brown on eht bottom and then flip. Take out of grease when that side is brown. Drain and serve hot. Keep making more. Be sure to eat one yourself, because there won't be any left when you are done.
Adapted from an old family recipe
3 cups water
1 cup grits
1 teaspoon salt
Get your water boiling hard. Add salt. Keep the boil. Slowly stir grits into the water, keeping the water moving. When all the grits are in the boil, start whippin’ the mix. Don’t stop. Whip ‘til your fork don’t move. You’re done. Mash in lots of butter.
ARABEL GAITHER’S PECAN PIE
Adapted from Amelia Hofferberth Flory’s family recipe
1 cup dark syrup (Arabel used molasses)
½ cup sugar
1 tablespoon flour
1 teaspoon vanilla
¼ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon melted butter
1 ½ cups pecan pieces
Mix and pour in an unbaked pie shell. Bake at 325 degrees for at least an hour until set.
BOOK CLUB GUIDELINES
1. In this book, two families, one colored and one white, live under the same roof in the fancy house in LaPorte, TX. This home was payment for man smuggling, signaled by a very special checker game played by CB and Jack before the hurricane. Discuss the other images of checkers presented in the story. For example: racial mixing; the checkerboard in the store; the signal flag.
2. The Checkerboard is two stories in one. Southern Texas in 1901 is not racially integrated. Marguerite must take the role of house help even though she and Myra are dear friends. Why would Missus Annie and Mister Carlton come to a reception for colored people? How do Marguerite and Jack feel about the party? Discuss racial tensions aboard the Sallie Lou and the world they live in. How does this change throughout this voyage?
3. We see life on land in LaPorte and Galveston Island and we see life at sea. How is the shared household beneficial or difficult for the women? What do you think would happen if CB and Jack had to leave the Sallie Lou after the captain dies? Would the household remain intact?
4. Junior Gallaway’s anger toward his mother’s husband causes him to get into trouble. He is sent away from home and eventually banished to sea. Do you think the adults in his life handled the problem correctly? What would you have done differently?
5, Junior Gallaway's anger toward his mother's husband causes him to get into trouble. He is sent way from home and eventually banished to sea. Do you think the adults in his life handled the problem correctly? What would you have done differently?
As The Checkerboard comed to an end, there are characters with unfinished business. Who are you curious about and what would you like to see happen in their lives?