Richard arrives in Memphis and immediately heads to Beale Street, an area of the city, he has heard, that is filled with “prostitutes and criminals,” but also with cheap places for rent. Richard finds a woman named Mrs. Moss in front of her house, which Richard assumes to be a brothel, but he is pleasantly surprised when she offers him a place to stay at reasonable rent. Mrs. Moss says that she lives in the house with her husband, a baker, and her daughter, Bess. Mrs. Moss appears kind to Richard, says that he can eat with the family, and also admits that Richard is permitted to drink on the premises, so long as he is courteous to the family. Richard cannot believe that Mrs. Moss is so kind to him.
Richard’s run of good luck appears to be continuing. Richard expects that life in Memphis will be difficult, filled with tortured encounters with the law, and perhaps a struggle even to find a place to sleep at night. Instead, Richard is rewarded with a good, cheap, safe place to stay, and although Mrs. Moss wants Richard to marry Bess, she eventually relents and leaves the two of them alone. Richard feels, for the first time, that his living situation is not fraught—that he is free to work and spend his time as he pleases.
Richard has dinner with Bess and Mrs. Moss that evening, and Mrs. Moss embarrasses her daughter by saying that Bess is of marriageable age, and that Richard would be a great husband to her. Richard, too, is flummoxed that Mrs. Moss is so willing, almost immediately, to offer her daughter to Richard in marriage. After dinner, Richard and Bess talk for a moment, and she shows him her schoolbooks (she is 17 but only in fifth grade); Richard goes up to his room that night, worried that he will be “trapped” by the Moss family, or that he will somehow be forced to marry Bess against his will.
Richard’s attitude toward books is in some sense diametrically opposed to Bess’s. For Bess, books are simply a means to an end—a thing one carries to class in order to become “educated,” even if one does not read or understand them. But for Richard, books are like a window onto a world he has only imagined before. Books quite literally inform Richard as to the life he will soon lead.
Richard goes out before bed that night and finds a job as a dishwasher for twelve dollars a week. Mrs. Moss is surprised and happy that Richard has already found work, and calls out to Bess, saying again that Richard is a fine man and a good one to marry. Richard is shocked again at Mrs. Moss’s forwardness regarding his and Bess’s possible relationship, as they have barely spoken. The next day, Richard tries to eat from a can of beans alone in his room, instead of at the dinner table with Mrs. Moss and Bess, but Mrs. Moss convinces Richard to have chicken with Bess, and afterward, Bess combs Richard’s hair, saying that she loves him, and that she would make a good wife. They kiss briefly, and Richard asks to take Bess up to his room, to see “how far” she’ll go with him. But then Richard stops their cuddling, after Bess says that her mother wouldn’t like Bess in Richard’s room. Richard tells Bess they ought to “get to know each other better” before planning a life together, and Bess goes off in a huff. Richard smokes silently, alone, and goes to bed.
Bess is looking for a husband, someone who can support her and upon whom she can depend. In some ways, this can be seen as just another way that society seeks to restrain Richard. Were he to marry Bess he would have to work to support the family he would soon have, and he would not be able to focus on books and writing and education. Richard, as is typical for him, refuses to be thus restricted. Though he does try to see if he can get sex without the restrictions of marriage, a typical thing for a young man to do but nonetheless not very considerate toward Bess and perhaps destructive to her reputation.
The next morning, Richard eats beans out of a can with his fingers and slips out of the house, avoiding Bess and Mrs. Moss at breakfast. Richard goes out and smokes a cigarette, watching the sun rise over the Mississippi. Another black young man comes up to him, telling Richard that he has found a barrel of liquor in the weeds, and that the two of them should sell it and split the profits. Richard, not believing his good luck, agrees, and they find a white man and lift it onto his truck—the white man then drives away, and the black young man goes off to “make change” to split the money with Richard. Richard then realizes that the young boy is never coming back—that he has simply used to Richard as an accomplice to bootlegging, while giving him none of the profits. Richard wonders if the white man, too, was in on the crime, and curses himself for being as naïve, that morning, as Bess was the previous night, asking Richard to marry her.
This episode, following as it does on the heels of Richard’s rebuff of Bess, shows quite clearly that Richard himself can still be tricked, and that city life in Memphis will not be so easy as the stay in Mrs. Moss’s house seems to suggest. Richard understands that there are those in the wider world who wish only to do him harm or to use him. But Richard also has a great deal of confidence in his ability to protect himself, to defend himself from those who wish to trick him. Here, because Richard has not encountered an alcohol bootlegger before, however, he is flummoxed as to this sequence of events, and must consider himself lucky that the police were not nearby to catch him in the act (as alcohol was illegal in the US at this time).