Delphia walked slower as she made her way down the sidewalk arm and arm with her mother. Her mother’s limp made their progress slow, but they had set out early to give themselves enough time to get down the stairs and to the streetcar. They were headed to the docks to look for work. Mary kept her chin up as they neared a large group of people already waiting. Delphia’s shoulders slumped with dismay they had already been out of luck at their other attempts.
A heavy odor hung in the air and invaded Delphia’s senses. Mary took her hand and pulled her around the edges of the crowd. A bell rang, the door of the building opened and a manager stepped out with a clipboard. The group of people started shuffling past him through the doorway. Delphia and her mother went up to the manager.
“We heard that you are looking for more workers,” Mary said. The manager eyed them.
“And what makes you think you’re cut out for gutting fish?” the man scoffed. Mary stood up as straight as she could and stared him in the eye.
“My days of tilling soil and carrying loads might be over, but my hands are strong and I’m good with a blade,” she said forcefully as she held her hands out to prove they were dexterous.
“And her? She looks a bit green by the smell already,” the manager chuckled. Mary’s jaw was set and she didn’t back down.
“My daughter might be young, but she’s strong and I’ll wager she’s skinned more rabbits and cleaned more chickens than you ever have!” The man burst out laughing and looked Delphia up and down.
“That’s a bit of a waste. How about this, mother, I’ll give you a week at half wages to see how it works out.” He began to write on his clipboard. “What’s your name?”
“Mary Fitzgerald…but what about my daughter?” Mary grabbed Delphia’s arm. The man ripped off a scrap of paper and held it out.
“She’ll have better luck at this address and make sure you tell Frank Sicero that Ruben sent you.” Delphia nervously reached out and took the address. She stared at it.
“Well, do we have a deal?” Ruben asked. Mary gave her daughter a little shove.
“Go on now, girl,” she urged. “This is how we make our way.” Mary followed Ruben inside and left Delphia standing alone. She was on her own in a big coastal city and felt like a little bird in a snowstorm. She knew her mother would tell her to pray for strength as she had after every pitfall since her father left.
“Oh dear Lord,” she moaned as it was her own will that put one foot in front of the other. She back tracked to the city center and asked for directions once or twice until she ended up facing the sea. She stood on the edge of the boardwalk and watched the waves run up the beach. She turned around and looked up at the unlit marquee of a supper club.
“Leebell…Libelool?” Delphia tried to pronounce the name. She hoped she would not be asked to say it out loud as she walked in the front door. A woman dusting the woodwork was surprised to see her.
“We’re not open yet, Miss. Not for a while yet.”
“I’m here about a job. I’m supposed to see Frank Sicero,” Delphia said. The woman’s eyebrows rose even higher on her forehead.
“Oh,” she said, “Just a moment.” The woman scurried away into the back. Delphia peered through the doorway to the dining room. The ceiling was high and painted with gold filigree. There was a balcony at the back of the room across from the stage.
“Excuse me, Miss?” Delphia nearly jumped out of her skin as a man spoke. She turned on her heel to face a man in a white shirt and green waistcoat. She forced a smile.
“Mr. Sicero? I’m Delphia Fitzgerald. I was told you would have work for someone like me.” She walked boldly forward and held out her hand with hopes that it wasn’t visibly shaking. The man shook her hand politely.
“I’m afraid you’re mistaken. I’m Mort Jensen, the manager. Mr. Sicero is occupied at the moment. I handle the staffing for Libellule.”
So that’s how it’s pronounced, she thought. It rolled off the manager’s tongue so easily.
“I was sent by Ruben. He said to see Mr. Sicero,” Delphia explained. She started to worry the hem of her sleeve between her finger tips. Mort smiled politely and sighed.
“Why don’t you step in here and we’ll have a seat.” He waved her into the quiet dining room and pulled out one of the chairs for her. “What experience do you have with restaurants?”
“Oh, well…none…I can cook and clean…sew and wash,” Delphia gazed around the room as she tried to connect any part of the farm with the restaurant. Mort cut her off.
“Have you been in town long? I can’t quite place that accent. Where are you from?”
“I have an accent?” Delphia asked surprised. Then realized she had been asked a question herself. “Oh, um, we’re from Iowa.”
“Yes, my mother and I. We went to the docks to look for work. The manager, Ruben, said I’d have better luck here.” She kept fidgeting nervously with her sleeve. Mort asked her a few more questions about various things like penmanship and sums. He excused himself and disappeared into the back. Delphia took a deep breath and tried to stop her nervous shivering. Instead she focused her attention on some plaster cherubim.
Frank looked up as Mort sidled into his office.
“What is it? I’m busy,” he said.
“Your man down at the docks sent around another girl,” Mort said tentatively. “Mr. Sicero, I’m not in any position to tell you how to run your business, but I don’t think it’s wise sending cathouse recruits to a place like Libellule.” Frank fixed him with a stare.
“Noted, Mort.” He turned his attention back to the document he was reading. “So I take it there’s another girl downstairs.”
“Yes, but she’s not…” Mort searched for the right words. “You can’t turn this one out like that. Please, Mr. Sicero, she’s too green…” Frank tossed the paperwork down on the desktop.
“Sounds like you are trying to tell me how to run my business, Mort,” Frank said with an edge on his voice.
“No, no, I’m not, but…” Mort took a step back.
“But I’ll be making the decisions.” Frank stood up and button his suit coat. “Where is she?” Mort led him to the edge of the balcony and pointed down. Frank leaned over the railing to get a better look.
A young woman sat below, her eyes fixed on the stage and her hands folded in her lap. Her foot tapped nervously on the floor. She was poor. He could tell by the shoes. Her flat lace up boots had a patched toe, she wore a shapeless cotton dress and dingy cardigan and no makeup. Her brown hair was pulled back in a humble bun. She had no idea she was being watched as she stuck a hangnail in her mouth to work on. Mort muttered behind him.
“She has no idea what she was sent here for.” Frank shot him a look.
“Generally they don’t. You make them an offer, they turn ya down, then come crawling back when they get hungry enough.” Frank started for the stairs. “It’ll be the same here. If she doesn’t come back, then you have your way. She’s not a good time girl. What else do you want me to do?”
“I could use another waitress,” Mort replied hurriedly.
Frank stopped and planted his eyes on the manager.
“Yes, I’ll spend the afternoon teaching her. She’ll have the hang of it in a day or two,” Mort assured him.
“Does she have a better dress?” Frank asked.
“I doubt it, sir,” Mort answered. Frank chewed his lip as he thought about the situation. He would rather have a waitress with more experience, but if Mort really wanted to put the time in…
“Fine,” he pulled out a wad of cash and separated a few bucks. He handed them to Mort. “Get her a dress to work in and some shoes so she looks…presentable. You better hope she makes it through this weekend, otherwise it’s the alternative.” Frank swiftly returned to his office. Mort stood there with the cash in his hand and realized he had just made a wager with Frank Sicero. He hurried back downstairs to start the education of an Iowan farm girl.