plumb line n (15c) 1 : a line (as a cord) that has at one end a weight (as a plumb bob) and is used esp. to determine verticality 2 : a vertical line : a line regarded as directed exactly toward the earth’s center of gravity
The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
By Billy Doniel
It was February ‘92 and rain fell hard. The wipers flapped across the windshield as I turned into the lot. Through the torrents in the distance the old man strained from his Cadillac and hobbled with his cane and umbrella toward the storied eastern entrance. I found a space near the door and watched as he made his way inside—a bustling spot on a lousy day. The deluge subsided momentarily and I took my chance. I came under the awning just as it started all over again. A flood from the roof splattered the asphalt beside me and swirled before it raced eastward down the lot toward the ocean. It was close but I made it and I was dry.
The sign on the entry read, “Tom’s Door.” Anticipation swept the room as the house musicians took their places, stage left. Stage right a splattered gray vessel caught the leakage from the ceiling and protected the mud on the floor beside it. Further right a loud smack from the gaming table split the laughter as the ball closed on a wicker pocket. A light cast shadows over stained green felt, back and forth, it swayed with the wind that gusted past the threshold.
The keyboard player flashed a wink and pressed a button and the loudspeakers blared a tune circa ’58. I remembered it: “The Stripper,” with David Rose and his orchestra. With pseudo-impromptu the old woman danced. Every eye in proximity watched as the octogenarian stumbled from the bar and spilled ashes into her drink. She closed her eyes and gyrated near the door. Her mind conjured an image, sultry and fresh, wrought by the spirits, dulled by her excess. Her skin was leather-tan. She was buxom with a blouse cut low, hard as her poison. She took her bow and faded back to the mire.
Across the horseshoe bar the old man sat like a statue and acknowledged the raven-haired barmaid and no other. One eye was blue, the other, a diseased milky-white. The blue eye watched; the other one dreamt. The barmaid smiled, a space between her teeth, and poured his Schlitz into a glass beside the bronze memorial plaque that bore his name. She turned with her gratuity toward her jar then her smile faded. There was something more. I could tell: something secret.
I walked to the center of the shoe, closest to the sea, and summoned the barmaid. I waited. Another old woman, older than the first, more refined than the first, caught my rib with an elbow. “I can beat that,” she nodded at the old stripper. At once we were encapsulated, she and I, alone in the crowd. As would a minstrel, she choreographed her song, like a hundred times before. She began:
“Mine hands on myself, vat is das here?” She touched her eye.” Das is mine eye blinker mine mama dear.” Her hand found her watered down Scotch. She sipped elegantly and sang again:
“Mine hands on myself, vat is das here?” She rubbed her belly. “Das is mine breadbasket mine mama dear.
“Eye blinker…breadbasket…niki, niki, niki, noo. Das vat I learned at da school.
“Mine hands on myself, vat is das here? Das is my troublemaker mine mama dear,” she burst into laughter, slapped her knee, and knocked back her drink like a sailor on liberty.
Back in Encinitas she’d been an artist, world renowned. Her paintings hung in hallowed halls from Carmel to the Louvre, and through her senility, in little shops on Tybee Island. She was a small woman, dainty and frail in her cocktail dress and beads. Her countenance was brazen and bold, though childlike in her way.
Over by a table stood a tall man with a Killians in his fist and a bedraggled gray mane about his head. He prowled the crowd like a leopard; his nasal twang and bodacious laughter took the room like a sour note. The old woman pointed her bent, arthritic middle finger at him with disdain.
“Have you seen that son of mine,” she whispered. “He’s a f####ing jerk you know. He’s always chasing after some other woman but he hasn’t got lucky since I could remember how to mix my oil paints,” she clasped my arm and shook me. “He waters down my drinks you know. He thinks he’s smart. He thinks I don’t know it, but I’m on to him,” she put a hand to her mouth and giggled. She pretended to be coy but I was on to her. She started again:
“I’m a one drink woman, two at the most, three I’m under the table, and four I’m under my host.”
Just then the tall man approached and said, “It’s time to go home Mother. You’re drunk.”
“How could I be drunk on nothing but watered-down Scotch, you jerk,” she turned her head in disgust.
“Coming Mother?” He offered his arm. She patted my hand, smiled, then kissed my cheek. She took his arm. I watched as they made their way across the room toward the exit. The old stripper flirted with the tall man. He flinched when his mother elbowed him hard in the ribs. Quietly they passed Tom’s door into the night.
It seems like ages ago. And it seems like only yesterday.
Billy Doniel is a published author and a gourmet cook. He and wife Veronica live on Tybee year round. You may contact Billy at firstname.lastname@example.org