Thursday, April 26, 2018

At the Two Dot

I've been working on a coming of age story, a short story of about 15,000 words. The location is White Fish, Montana and during the course of my research, I stumbled on the actual City Council Meeting minutes of White Fish dating from around 1950 - 1956. When I read the July 1952 minutes (below) I was surprised at how many bars were in the town! The population was slightly over one thousand. I was inspired to include a bar in my narrative which I used as "wallpaper" for the real story about the undertaker, Mr. Robinson.

The narrator of the story is Chad, a precocious eleven-year-old boy who knows everyone in town because of his paper route.

July 1952. White Fish City Council Meeting
The Clerk next presented the following applications for City Beer and Liquor licenses: Cadillac Bar, Club Bar, Palm Bar, The Pastime Bar, Palace Bar, The Two Dot, The Great Northern Bar and The Town Pump Bar. The following applications were presented for Beer License only: Safeway Stores, Markus Grocery, and Snappy Service Store. The following applications were presented for Club Licenses:: V. F. W. Club, Logger's & Lumberjack's Club, B. O. F. Club, Railway Men's Club, Steel Rail Club, The Doghouse Club, The G. & N. Club and Flathead Benevolent Club. Evey moved, McDonnell seconded that a license is issued to all applicants as stated above. All voted "AYE".
~At The Two Dot~
Robinson’s Disgrace

Squirming in my chair, I rubbed my scar and waited for Robinson to hand over the money so I could leave. When sober, Robinson was nice and seemed to care and I guess it was hard for him to keep a distance from his grieving families. Once, when he was drunk and sad, he told me how relieved he was that Ricky survived polio. Drunk or sober, I could never guess how Robinson might be when I dropped by.
“When I remember that little casket I picked up for your friend, the Kolner kid, I still cry—the saddest funeral of my six years here in White Fish. Thank God I didn’t have to order one for Ricky.”
Robinson kept track of civic affairs and what he called “the tone of the town.” Everyone knew he’d served jail time in Missoula for drunk driving before he settled in White Fish. He said the experience made him more responsible, even when he was drunk. After he joined AA, he followed the twelve-step program which included admitting your mistakes and apologizing to people you’d hurt or damaged while drinking. I came into Kenneth’s once while Robinson was talking about his past. He told me about the twelve-steps and invited me to listen too.
“My family had enough of me and booted me out of their business. I looked around and figured I’d fit right in here in White Fish. Folks here seemed to understand that boozers like me aren’t all bad. I’d be fine and dry for weeks, once even for a year, and something would happen to start a binge, some trigger.”
“A year! That’s a long time,” I said. “Was that before you lived here?”
“Yeah,” Robinson said. “I was sure I had the booze beat then.” He laughed.  “I didn’t think the bars here would tempt me, but I didn’t realize there was one on every corner and if not a bar—then a club. How many bars do we need in a town of a thousand people? When you’re trying to ditch booze, it pops up everywhere!”
Kenneth sat on the edge of his desk, arms folded. I didn’t want to interrupt to ask for the money so I sat next to him and we both listened to Robinson.
“Last time, my binge started when I saw an ad for Seagram’s whiskey. My imagination raced to a bar stool in the Two Dot. In my mind, I pictured a glass of that coffin varnish in front of me. I could feel the weight of the heavy glass in my hand and the burning sensation you get in the throat when you swallow the hooch. My brain buzzed. I couldn’t think of anything else. Headed straight for the bottle—couldn’t stop myself.  Three days later, I woke up on my kitchen floor—three days, blacked out. What did I see when I woke up? Dead soldiers. Empty bottles: vodka, gin, whiskey, rum and a pint bottle of brandy. When I managed to stand up, I saw the rest: two windows and a lamp broken; the freezer door open; the phone off the hook. In my bed I found empty soup cans, a half-eaten can of Spam and sardines.”
“Sardines? In your bed?” I said. I could imagine the awful smell. Kenneth waved his hand in front of his face.
“Outside, my car was half-in, half-out of the garage with two flat tires. The house smelled like burnt wiring. Even though my brain was fried, I could smell myself—rotting meat, fermented fruit, and vomit. ‘Ah, I thought. This must be the famous bottom,’ I’m not going to list all the ridiculous things I discovered I did— but I apologized for days before I patched things up around town.” Robinson stopped talking and took a deep breath. Later, I learned he’d been around to everyone in town to tell them he was an alcoholic. I didn’t hear any of the worst stories. He told me he saved them for AA meetings.
“You don’t have to know the details about all those folks I hurt and let down, Chad. You know I’m an alcoholic and that’s enough, for now.”
But I did hear more about Robinson’s final drunken disaster, the one that led him to AA. Most of the legendary story came from Sam, the bartender and owner of the Two Dot. Even though I was underage and Sam could get into trouble by letting me stay, I’d play a few games of lightning cribbage with the regulars when I came by for the newspaper money. Good cribbage players hung out at The Two Dot, including Dad when he was alive.
“Sit down kid,” one of them would say. “Let’s play.”
Sam would put his beat-up cribbage board and a deck of greasy cards on the bar. It was usually the oldest guys, looking for a game. Sam had a beautiful old railroad timepiece he’d take out of his pocket and set the timer for two minutes. That was our maximum time for each turn. It was a slow pace for me—I could play a hand in thirty seconds—the time Dad gave me to figure out my discards.
Because I beat them at the game, the guys didn’t think of me as a regular kid. Chad, the kid disappeared and Chad, the cribbage player, replaced me. They didn’t bother to clean up their language or change the conversation on my account. I heard a lot in the Dot—fine points about when to curse what thing. Listening carefully, I learned the difference between horseshit and bullshit and that chickenshit is something else altogether.
It wasn’t the only place to drink in White Fish but something magnetic kept the eight bar stools full almost all day, every day. The other places downtown—The Cadillac Bar, Palm Bar and The Great Northern Bar had half the business. The Palm Bar had a funny sign outside with a changeable message, always good for a laugh.  The other day it said, “Soup of the Day—Whiskey,” but I never met the person with the sense of humor. I collected the newspaper money at those bars and left. I never hung around.
What was it about The Dot? Dad liked it—he said it was a man’s kind of place.
When I’d walk in the door, I knew from experience to breathe through my mouth and turn off my nose. The air in there was stale even though an old World War I veteran, Barry, mucked out the place every morning. Once, when I got there early, I watched while Sam was getting the bar organized. Pages from our newspaper, the White Fish Pilot, were in a pile next to him. He was standing on a step stool, rubbing Bon Ami cleanser on the back bar mirror.

“Sit down Chad. Just finishing up.” He wiped the milky cleanser off with crumpled pages of the paper.
He stepped down, pushed his wire-rimmed glasses back up his nose and had a look. Cocking his head right and left, he looked for missing spots. “Good enough for a galloping horse at midnight,” he said with a wink. Despite his efforts, the mirror looked the same—unsilvered in spots and streaked with bronze contrails. It would have taken a miracle to make it look clean. The two fluorescent bulbs attached to the mirror cast a dim light on the booze bottles and little on the customers. Sam smiled. “Romantic lighting,” he said. “Everything’s half-lit, just like my clientele.”
Every day Sam wore a white shirt and a red bow tie. His thin grey hair was side-combed over his bald head. Striped suspenders, ordered from the Sears catalog, held up his pants, baggy in the butt and loose around the waist. Sam would say he was made of chopsticks and guitar wire. “I started skinny and stayed skinny all my life,” he said.
“My gear’s a costume,” he told me. “The guys in here like a routine—they rely on me looking the same every day. The rest of their world may be shot to hell, but I’m here in my suspenders, the Two Dot’s open and the beer’s cold. It’s a safe haven for them.”
The only time Sam talked much was in the mornings before his customers began wandering in. That’s when he told me about Chicago, where he’d lived before he moved to White Fish. He’d been a high-wire ironworker.
“Worked on some of those skyscrapers and up that high, you watch your feet, every step. We didn’t have time for yakking.”
After he retired, his wife left him. “She told me there was too much me for our small house.” He moved to White Fish, where a few of his ironworker buddies lived and where he could manage to survive on half his pension, the other half going to Irene every month. Turned out he didn’t like having too little money and too much time on his hands. When the One Dot was almost destroyed by a kitchen fire, Sam borrowed money from his brother and bought the place from Mr. Graham, who said he’d just “had enough” and wanted to fish his old age away. At first, the regulars from the One Dot were wary of the reborn bar and the additional Dot, but they gradually warmed to Two Dots and Sam’s hospitality.
  As I watched, he dusted the clutter of bottles on the back shelf and arranged them in groups—whiskey on the left, and vodka on the right. With a flick of the bar towel, he shined the glasses, swiping them out fast. He’d shake the towel out after every swipe.
“Even the regulars like a sparkling clean glass,” he said, holding one up to the light for inspection.
While we talked, Barry pushed a big string mop back and forth over the cracked linoleum floor. “Jesus Murphy, you must have had a bunch of cowboys in here yesterday, eh Sam?” he said, wincing as he straightened up. He rinsed out the mop in a bucket full of bleachy water and pressed the dirty juice out with that squeegee attached to the rim. “Swabbing the deck,” Sam called it.

Barry went out the back door to change his bucket water. We could hear the black lab growl and bark at him in the alley and Barry shouting,”Get out of here, goddammit! Go home...go home.” When he came in he advised Sam to call the new dog catcher.
“That mean mutt probably belongs to someone. He’s got the wrong pig by the tail if he thinks he’s scared me, but he’s bad for business. Some guys going to wander out there, full as a tick, and get bit.” Barry returned to the mopping.
The Two Dot reeked of that floor-bleach soup first thing in the morning, but by noon the true native aroma of the place broke through and hung, like a cloud, over the bar. Eau de Two Dot was a combination smell of cigarette smoke, Montana sweat, Old Spice aftershave and denture adhesive.
If you dropped your nickel on the floor and missed the jukebox slot, when you bent over to get it, you’d get a big whiff of old barf. The smell seemed stuck to the jukebox legs and lodged around the back where Barry never bothered to swab and the barf dried up to dust. One thing about barf aroma—it doesn’t fade with time.
Barf smell or not, I loved the Rock-Ola jukebox with the changing colored lights. Barry liked it too and kept the chrome grills and fins polished. Sometimes he’d salute the juke as he walked by. “The Rock-ola people made a fine carbine for our boys during the war, Chad. When Uncle Sam called, they stopped making jukes and started making rifles. We all pulled together back then.”
Sam would give me a few nickels to play my favorites: BotchaMe, BotchaYou by Rosemary Clooney A7; Glow Worm by The Mills Brothers B28. I liked to watch the records drop onto the turntable and the automatic arm swing over and down into the groove to play. Before the customers came in Sam turned the bass control knob up to the maximum so the floor would vibrate and the glasses tinkle. Barry mopped in time to the rhythm. Sam, mouthed the words and swiped on the beat.
And the customers. Most of the gnarly guys on the bar stools loved to talk and tell stories. Some I remember had lost their teeth during the depression from lack of dental care. Sam told me their gums and jaw bones wore down after years of denture abrasion so the teeth were loose and uncomfortable. When they got drunk, they’d take out the ill-fitting zoobs and rest them on the bar. Sam would often find a set left on the back of the toilet in the men’s room. Everyone in our town called dentures, zoobs, even Mr. Lawson, the dentist.
Sam kept a bottle of denture adhesive, PolyGrip, behind the bar for an emergency glue-job. “Just as important as my olives and pickled onions,” he said. One day when I came to collect he offered me a maraschino cherry on a toothpick. That was the day he told me about Robinson’s last toot when he hit bottom in his bare-ass Valentine’s suit.
“The Moose Hall looked great for the dance decorated with paper streamers and with the mirrored ball your dad installed turning around and around on the ceiling,” said Sam.
“Before Dad put it up, that ball lived in our garage,” I said, “when the sun shone through the window, all the shiny squares lit up on it. I was sad and kind of mad when Dad took it away.”
“Well, it was a good thing for us your Dad got it installed. All the dancers were having a great time that night. Willie—you know, Mrs. Jenkins—was on door duty.”
I climbed onto the empty stool because it was going to be a long story. My legs still dangled. When I pointed my feet down, my toes just brushed the metal part where the stool was screwed into the floor. It wouldn’t be long before my feet hit the floor.
“She was counting the money at the check-in table when Robinson staggered in, shouting in a slurred voice, ‘Happy Valentine's day to you!!’ She stopped counting and turned around to greet him. Then she noticed his weird clothes.”
Toothless customer at the Two Dot.

Hunched over the bar, one of the toothless regulars chimed in.
“That crazy bastard was wearing a suit tied onto his arms and legs. It was just the front of a suit!” His words were wet and sloppy. Without his zoobs, there was too much spit in his mouth, so he sounded like Gabby Hayes.
“The suit had no back, you see, and when he whirled around, his hairy back and his shorts were on display. He fell down and just laid there in front of Willie. She got Cover, Mr. Chief-of-Police, and Dog Catcher, and two other guys to get him home screeching all the way in a voice that could worm a sheep. He’s lucky they didn’t take him to the new dog pound and throw him in.”
While Sam wiped the bar around the cribbage board—he was good at wiping while he talked—he added,
”Those guys rolled him in his front door. I guess he stayed there, passed out on the floor. A week later, after he sobered up, he came in here and told us he’d been wearing the Funeral Half-Suit.”
“What? What’s a half-suit?” I asked.
“It’s an old-fashioned thing, left over from the depression days. Robinson kept it at the mortuary for people who couldn’t afford to buy a proper suit for the dead person. It’s one step better than a sheet wrapping—what do they call it? A shroud? What a brick head! He announced he was joining AA and we wouldn’t be seeing him at the Two Dot any longer. We wished him good luck, but we're not giving away his stool at the bar just yet.”
I guessed I was supposed to laugh, but the story made me sad and sorry for Mr. Robinson. Afraid of making Sam or the others mad, I chuckled, took the newspaper money, slid off the stool and headed for the door. Wagon Train by Frankie Laine, C11 began playing as I left.
I didn’t understand. They were supposed to be Robinson’s friends, weren’t they? And they were mostly drunks themselves. What gave them the right to pick on Mr. Robinson?  
And why did I laugh when I didn’t want to?

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