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Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2005
“Look at that rain out there would you. Sheesh, I’m gonna have another beer. How about it, shipmate?” Chief Mo swiveled on his bar stool and cocked an eyebrow at me in the way he has done for years.

“Oh by all means, Chief,” I replied. “No sense in going out in this downpour. No sense whatsoever” and I rapped the longneck smartly on the bar top. “Three more lass, if you please.”

The third was for Stu, who was having a quiet little conversation with a sailor and sitting to my right. Rainy afternoons at the Watering Hole are just like rainy afternoons anywhere else, gray and clammy and when it happens to be mid-February, just short of depressing. It was eerily quiet at the Hole, the only activity was the craning of necks to watch a series of bad afternoon sports on the overhead TV set.

There must have been 20 of us in there, all male and largely an older construction crowd escaping the rain that had put the brakes on the afternoon. There was the occasional burst of laughter for the telling of the latest ribald humor or a poorly muffled belch from the Chief, but quiet nursing of beer was the order of the day.

Enter Billy Bob.

Despite the name, Billy is neither a hick nor a redneck. He is a large man, not yet stooped despite his years. And he happens to run a very successful trucking company and has more disposable cash than your average ATM.

“Hoo Lawd, it’s raining out there!” said Billy as he shook hands right and left. Only with Billy, it always comes out as Hoo Lawd! because he speaks with the bass and treble turned hard to the right, and the volume is always set to max.

He ambled to his stool expansively, it wasn’t his first Hooter Joint of the day, showing his usual grin and rubbed his hands together as if preparing for a feast. “Lawd whatever is the matter in here? Somebody die? Mercy, all I see is long faces with a beer sticking out of ‘em. Y’all put some music on or somethin’ will ya? Lawd!

We laughed, it’s hard not to laugh when Billy strolls in. He’s a salesman in the game of life and makes no secret of the very silliness necessary to make things right. Sure enough, he stopped by the jukebox before he sat down and within seconds, his Frank Sinatra poured out of the speakers like honey through the comb. Billy snapped his fingers to the tinny, muted trumpet.

“Some day . . .when I’m awfully low, when the world is slow . . . I will feel a glow just thinking of yooooouuuu . . .” he sang, painfully off key but with all manner of enthusiasm. “Lawd, that’s a good song for this hot dog stand today ain’t it boys?” and he laughed with us and finally eased his bulk onto a stool.

The bartender had his customary Lite and the napkin waiting for him and, giggling, chirped “Hiya Billy! I was hoping you’d come in and liven up this bunch of stiffs. Happy Valentine’s Day!”

“Hey there sweetheart what’s . . . Wait a second. Happy what?”

She kept smiling. “Happy Valentine’s Day!”

Billy stared at her, the smirk vanishing from his face. “Naw, naw it ain’t. Lawd you’re not bein’ serious with me here now. It ain’t Valentine’s Day now is it?”

The bartender folded her arms and regarded him as you might look at a small child out of bed past his bedtime. “Oh yes it is. Take a look at the calendar here” and she pointed to the large one with all the bar’s events scrawled into the box for each day, including the big red heart for the 14th. “What’s the matter Billy, you forget?”

“Oh no, oh my Lord,” Billy moaned with a big hand cradling his face, and his head began to shake to and fro. “Not again, Lawd not again this year.” Sinatra was winding up his number and beginning another as Billy lifted his eyes towards Stu and said, “I thought you were on top of this stuff. You never said a word about it to me.”

Now Stu is known for his pack ratting, his general carelessness about losing cell phones and car keys and for the overall sprawling largeness of his presence but for all that, he is our unofficial historian. He carries a small Day Planner in his hip pocket, meticulously recording upcoming dates and logging betting pools. It’s the invaluable resource most of us would never think to keep and Stu peeks at it several times a day, grunting “Wow only two more days until a full moon” or some other minutiae.

“Damn Billy, everybody knows the 14th is Valentine’s Day.”

Billy shifted uncomfortably on his stool. “Huh. That’s what my wife said to me last year. Word for word actually. ‘Damn, Billy . . .’ and she hardly ever cusses.” We’d all met his wife and universally thought she was a fine lady but to hear Billy tell it you’d think he lived with a regular she-bear.

He sighed. “Well, there ain’t no gettin’ around it. I’m toast, just like last year. It’s too late and I’m too tired to run to the jewelry store, and she don’t like candy much. And the damned florist is gonna be just nuts this time of day.”

Mo took a long swallow of beer. “Maybe not. I saw a lady sellin’ roses for twenty bucks a dozen just this afternoon. Right over there next to the gas station.”

Billy suddenly brightened. “You sure? Man that’s a helluva deal!” and he turned quickly, searching the room. “Hey Jason, get over here a minute would ya?”

Jason is a thin kid who works the backbar, swabs the floor and does odd jobs around the place part time. Billy grabbed him by the shoulder and began in earnest. “Now listen here. Run over there by the gas station and run down this woman sellin’ the flowers, get me a dozen red ones, ya hear?” and he thrust a fifty at Jason who was headed for the door until Stu nabbed him.

Stu said, “Hey, while you’re over there ya better get me a dozen,” and began to fumble in his wallet.

Lawd, don’t tell me you forgot too,” cried Billy Bob, with wide eyes. At the same time, a number of us were flagging at Jason before he could make it out the door, and shouted orders and cash money began to appear.

Billy held up a large hand for silence as Dean Martin began crooning on the jukebox. “Now wait just a minute. How many of you deadbeats haven’t done yer Valentine’s shoppin’ yet?”

There were 20 of us, and not a man in the place had. It was now 4:00 pm.

OH LAWD!“ Billy shouted. “Jason here, take this” and Billy shoveled a series of bills from a fist sized money clip. “Go get twenty dozen. These sad sacks in here, what is the world comin’ to. Mercy. Every last one of ‘em. Honey, you better get a round for this bunch on me ‘cause I’m just in shock here. Deadbeats . . . Lawd help me.”

I don’t think most of us were listening to him past the part where he asked for a round for this bunch and the bartender swung into action. She turned the jukebox up and somebody started feeding it dollars and the noise level from 20 beverages and those who drank them went from polite conversation to a shouted cacophony. And one round turned into three and Billy just shoved the credit card at the girl and told her to turn up Sinatra so he could hear him better, and the crowd got louder still.

Somewhere in the midst of the hooting and anecdotes Jason appeared, soaked and empty handed. “They ran out of flowers a couple hours ago Mr. Bob,” he said. “Sorry about that.”

By this time, and having had more than a few cocktails prior to the Hole, Billy was past the point of diplomacy. “The hell? Well just go around till you find somebody that has ‘em son. Here, grease the skids a little” and he thrust another wad of cash at the befuddled Jason. “Get goin’ now, I ain’t got all night to hang around up here.”

It was probably not 20 minutes but it might have been 2 hours for all I know, a real hoot at the Watering Hole tends to find wrinkles in time and you judge the number of minutes going by not by the clock, but by the number of empties piling up on the table or the bar. By the time Jason got back, a number of the boys were getting fond of saying “It’s a damn good thing I’ll have flowers to take home cause the wife is gonna bash me with a frying pan regardless.”

It will probably never be explained just where he got the flowers, or how much they really cost, or how he pulled it off in rush hour traffic, but it really was a sight to behold when Jason dumped dozens of fresh red roses on the pool table. Billy gathered with us and cackled happily, sniffing a single rose and plunking it with some ceremony in a near empty longneck. “And look, we don’t need no stinking vases do we lads?” to our roaring approval, as Tammy sang something about Standing by your Man in the background.

I managed to carefully make it home with my treasure and promptly dumped them into a large coffee can set tastefully on the kitchen counter. I didn’t need any stinking vases either, I reasoned. But I knew I was in borderline trouble if I didn’t get some dinner started after having so much fun all afternoon, Ally was due any minute, and I was progressing toward vapor lock.

I broiled up a couple of steaks, some stove top stuffing and a can of green beans and to this minute I couldn’t tell you how I managed it, but it was pretty tasty in the end. Ally didn’t have much to offer, other than pointedly getting a vase from its hiding place and transferring the roses. So I guess it all turned out all right.

But I can still see Billy standing outside the Watering Hole doorway, holding aloft a dozen roses in each hand and hollering to us as we left. “Lawd! Don’t y’all be doing this again come Easter, hear me?”

It may take me every bit that long to nurse my way back from Valentine’s Day.

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