Just as Rose is really starting to panic, Billie surfaces.
“Rose Collins, we are never doing that again,” she says, and Rose laughs; she knows it’s not really funny, but she can’t help it.
“Well, I think it worked.” She scans the river bank and the edge of the bridge. “Don’t see headlights, in any case. That means we lost Curtis.”
“And the truck. How’re we gonna get to New York now, never mind make our way when we get there?”
“Well, first, we’re gonna get out of the river,” Rose says, suiting action to words and starting to swim to the bank. “We can hitchhike, or... sneak onto a train, don’t people do that? One way or another, we’ll get there. And once we do, you still got your poetry. I bet some people in New York have heard of it, or your publisher. Besides that, Curtis’s still didn’t run itself – I’m sure there are people making booze in New York. There are people making booze everywhere these days.”
Even though she started moving later, Billie hauls herself onto dry land first. “First, no way have you ever hopped a train before, or hitchhiked for that matter. Not when your brother barely let you out of his sight to go to school. Second, I wish I could believe it’ll be that easy, but it ain’t gonna be. How many times do I need to say that before you see it?”
Rose sighs, and shivers, and wishes she hadn’t thought crashing the truck was a good idea (until she remembers the look on Curtis’s face, and the fact that the bridge was out anyway). “It don’t have to be easy. Not as long as we got each other.”
Billie shakes her head, but she’s smiling.
They have to hop a train, in the end. There’s no such thing as a driver who’ll give a ride to both a white girl and a colored girl, Rose won’t get in a car without Billie, and Billie wouldn’t let her go alone anyway. Rose is a lot of wonderful things, but she’s too damn trusting for her own good.
The freight car is humid and smells terrible; Rose complains about every bump, and by the time they get to New York they’re both starving (but Billie hadn’t dared suggest they hop off sooner – who knew when the next train might show up, or if they’d get caught out).
“Now what?” Rose says, once they find their way out of the back of the rail yard.
Billie shrugs. “Gotta be a soup kitchen around here somewhere. I just hope they don’t try to split us up.”
To her credit, Rose doesn’t ask why someone might split them up. When they do find a soup kitchen, Billie takes heart in the fact that the line has both white and colored people in it; here, at least, they seem to know everyone’s poor for a change.
They’re stuck sleeping in parks and subway stations for the first week. Rose hates it, but she tries not to complain – it’d do about as much good as telling Curtis things were tough ever did.
But after five days of no home to call their own and no ideas on how to get money, something between them snaps, and the next thing Rose knows, Billie’s storming out of the soup kitchen. Well, fine. If that’s how she feels she can just... go do whatever she thinks is going to work, then. Rose will be fine. She’s got skills she can use.
Except she’s not fine, and it hasn’t even been ten minutes before she’s out looking for Billie. First she finds five dollars in the gutter; next, she finds the sort of blacked-out door that can only be a speakeasy. If she knows Billie at all, she’s in there.
Rose slips in behind someone who’s got the password. It reminds her of Doc’s, a little, except she’s not the only white person here and there’s a few pairs of girls dancing together. She never could have dreamed that even in a place like this, it’d be safe.
Sure enough, Billie’s at the bar, and it looks like she’s about to pick a fight with the lady serving drinks. Rose gets there just in time to hear the bartender say, “Look, it ain’t personal, but if you can’t pay for a drink you can’t stay.”
“We got money,” Rose says before Billie can get into the argument, setting the (slightly soggy) five on the counter. “Enough for a drink or two, I’m sure.”
The bartender eyes the five, then Rose, then Billie. “All right then,” she says, “pick your poison.”
They order; after the bartender leaves, Rose says, “I’m sorry. I just – this isn’t exactly an easy thing to get used to.”
Billie sighs. “I know, I know. I’m sorry too. I forget sometimes you didn’t have as hard a time of it before now. We – we’re still good, right?”
“I was gonna ask you that. But I still love you.” She’d normally never say that with this many people around, but the girls dancing together give Rose a boost of confidence that’s still with her when the bartender comes back with their drinks. That must be why she takes one whiff of her drink, sets it back down, and says, “Don’t even bother, Billie. Hey, you know your supplier personally?”
The bartender, halfway through shaking up someone else’s drink, pauses and frowns. “Can’t say that I do. The owner’s brother-in-law got arrested a few months back, so we’ve had to make do with whoever’ll deliver to us. Why do you ask?”
“Because this smells awful, probably tastes worse, and I bet your supplier don’t care if it poisons people. It’s bad business to let your customers die.”
“You don’t have to tell me that, but what can you do about it?”
Rose grins. “My brother taught me how to make booze. Help me get equipment and either cut me in or give us a place to stay and I’ll cover it.”
The bartender eyes Rose for what feels like an eternity, then nods. “Stick around when we chase everyone out. I’ll have a word with Alice.”
Billie can’t believe Rose did that. And there ain’t no way they’ll give her a place to live as well. No one’s going to rent to both a white girl and a colored girl, not even in a colored part of the city; she’s been burned by life too many times to expect different.
But then the speakeasy clears out for the night, and the owner turns out to be a colored woman; she takes one look at Billie and Rose and says, “If the two of you are sticking together, I ain’t gettin’ in the way of that. You’ll get enough hell from other people.”
She and Rose get to talking, and Billie lets them. The supply side of a speakeasy isn’t her strong point; she’d do all right with being the talent, if they wanted a poet, and maybe with telling them whether someone’s worth having back.
Probably she’ll end up cleaning rooms somewhere again. She was really hoping to get away from that, but even if the owner can give them free room and board (and it sounds like she can – catch is the apartment’s directly above the speakeasy, but it’s better than another damn park bench), they’re gonna need money to get by with everyone else.
Still, they have a place to start, and that’s better than nothing.