Tuesday, December 19, 2017
“Classy broad. A real lady.”
Ladybug said that, nodding toward the television over the bar. No sound, but the image on the screen was Melania Trump – a world-class eye magnet.
“You know the best argument for President Trump? He can hang onto a woman like that.” She gave that observation some thought. “Now that would really get me fired!”
And, yeah, I know: Uncle Willie in a bar? It happens. I go where the action is, after all. And it would be hard to endure more action than The Dive On Inn can stir up on a Tuesday afternoon: Me and Scarlet, my acoustic guitar, on a little riser, Ladybug at a pub table – my entire audience – and one bored bartender. It’s a strip-mall taproom, west-facing for the cheaper rent, and tiny shafts of light pierce the gloom where the painted-over windows have been chipped or scratched. And when you can spare attention to marvel at the dust fibers floating in the sunrays – that’s when you know you’re in the midst of the maelstrom.
There’s backstory here, but it’s boring, so I’ll make it quick: I got thrown out of Walmart the other week for selling guitars too well, and one of the young scruffians who saw me there and knows me from the choo choo train at the Arrowhead Mall leaned on his grandpa to give me a job in his bar in Youngtown. This I don’t need and didn’t really want, but I don’t have it in me to disappoint a kid who’s gone all Dickens at Christmas.
I was there to learn the ropes, to prepare for the weekend throngs – sometimes even approaching double-digits – so I figured I should do something that looked like rope-learning. Accordingly, I said, “Fired?”
“Fired,” she agreed. “Thirteen years. Can you believe that?”
I couldn’t frankly. Ladybug’s a fireplug – in every way you can imagine. Short and chunky, but she’s still got a waist. Big hair and a big voice and a big personality – the fireplug in every business that manages to hang onto a client from one deal to the next. You know her well. She’s your first phone call when things go wrong. Her name is “Bev” or “Sal” or “Dot” – and she calls absolutely everyone “Hun.” She knows what went wrong, how to fix it – and she’s on it right now. That girl.
“Bucking fitches…” She grinned despite herself. “My grandmother taught me that trick. She said it was more ladylike.”
I smiled, too. “My mother’s father spent half his life inquiring about Sam Hill.”
She mock-growled “What the Sam Hill?!” and I think I heard her grandpa, too.
I’m sure this thing I do – this Willie game – I’m sure it looks easy to you. That’s because it is. I can’t imagine why nobody else does it.
I said, “So? Tell me what happened.”
She shrugged and grimaced, mocking the universe maybe. “What can I say? I said the wrong thing around the wrong people. Of all the foolish things a person can do at work, I did the most foolish thing of all: I made a joke to a friend where other women could hear it.”
I had been softly strumming John Hiatt’s Take It Down – slow and mournful – and just then I knew why.
“You ready? Here’s the joke: ‘What’s the best argument against women in the workplace? Women in the workplace.’ Real knee-slapper, huh? It wasn’t even a joke, just a gripe. One of the shiny girls – you know the kind I mean, recruited straight out of college for their cunning stunts? – one of the lacquered princesses had screwed up, and I had to fix it. Bitcher quitching, my granny would say, quit your bellyachin’. I should have listened to her better.”
I answered nothing to that, but the guitar spoke for me well enough.
“‘Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home.’ She used to say that, too. ‘Your house is on fire. Your children will burn.’ I was forty years old before I really understood what she was saying – and by then it was too late to do me much good. But that’s who got me today, The Ladybug Mafia.” She laughed. “Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home. Your ovaries are blazing and your biscuits are burned.”
I said, “Now that’s a joke.”
“Pretty girls get dated. Spunky girls get funny. How can a girl know for sure which she is? She’ll figure it out by Friday night. If know how to play At Seventeen, it happens that I know all the words.”
She was laughing at her own pain, but she was good at making it funny.
“Why is this bar so empty on a Tuesday afternoon? Because all the ladybug barflies are pretending to have jobs, instead of hanging around here, where they belong. They still wouldn’t be home with their kids, but at least they’d be making their trouble where trouble is meant to be made.”
She gestured with her head. “See, over there in the corner? That’s where the Divorce Counselor should be, the latest slitch to ditch her husband, here to console her friends about the marriages they’re neglecting, so their kids can meet hers, someday soon, in the barren hallways of Family Court.”
If she were a man, I think she might have spit just then, to cleanse her mind. “There in the middle is Miz Men Are Pigs, and she confirms that by fud-mucking a different pig every night. Sprinkled around would be a few older broads like me, but I can’t even imagine where to put all the manicured minxes and their nerd-girl thralls. I guess they’re supposed to be preying on each other from the Junior League, instead.”
I didn’t quarrel. Some days you can, and some days you shouldn’t.
“But now all those women are down at the office, instead, along with women who are working because that’s the only way the fridge gets refilled and others who just want to do a job, just like a man. I like that last bunch best.”
I grinned. “Me, too.”
“When a woman has to work or when she wants to work, she’s going to shut up and get to work. But if you’re there to get the attention your father never gave you, or if you need to compete with him – or if you’re shopping for his replica to stick on top of your wedding cake – you’re trouble, and you’re trouble for everybody.”
I gave that a moment to season. “Is it possible you’ll be less strident about this tomorrow?”
She smirked. “I’ve been watching this my whole life, thirteen years from one company. In a bar, ladybug barflies can only ruin each other’s lives. But put them in an office or on a factory floor and in no time everyone is divorced, everyone is sleeping around – and everyone is miserable, all the time. And one-by-one, everyone who matters at work, everyone you actually like working with – those people are fired or retired or they move on. But the pretty, shiny red ladybugs are there to stay.”
I shook my head. “Until they turn on each other.”
Ladybug grinned. “You’ve seen this movie before.”
I shrugged. “Social status is earned by merit or seized by predation. When the predators have devoured the easy prey, they turn on each other. It’s the politics of pecking orders. Normally things aren’t this spastic.”
“It’s a shitty deal all around. Word travels fast, and I had two job offers on the way home, but how am I not just walking into the same trap? Another set of golden hand-cuffs – now with a sterling silver mouth plug. But it’s that much worse for any one of those college girls. By the time the ladybug barflies get through with her, she’s wrecked. Then she’s let go. And now she has a résumé that’s all bullshit except for one bad work reference. Do you suppose she’ll be able to make enough as a barrista to pay down her student loan debt? And what did being a part of that one big happy corporate family mean to her on the day she was escorted off the property?”
Her eyes were moist, but her mouth was scornful. “Name a woman you admire,” she said. “Someone everyone would know.”
“Would know? Or should know? I pick Yael, either way. You know the story? Victorious enemy general shows up at her home, demands milk to drink, then takes a nap. While he’s sleeping, she pounds a tent stake into his skull – snatching victory from defeat, freedom instead of slavery for her whole clan. She’s a wife, she’s a mother, and yet she can think and act like a man when the moment requires it. That’s what I like about Melania Trump. I think she could do that. I think she could put a tent stake right up Vladimir Putin’s nose, and I admire that composure – even if it’s all in my imagination.”
She said, “I’ll drink to that,” but I don’t think she’s much of a drinker. One sweaty cocktail glass, and it was still two-thirds full.
I threw my chin at her. “Your turn.”
“I like Sigyn. She stands by her man.”
“Loki’s wife? From Norse mythology? I’ve heard too many Sigyn stories. Every random Hilde or Elsa gets turned into Sigyn when the story migrates to the next town. Everyone knows Sigyn’s name, after all.”
“I mean their marriage. Loki is bound to the rocks like Prometheus, with a snake dripping venom on his skin. Sigyn holds a bowl to collect the venom, to keep it from burning Loki. You can hear it as a marriage of prisoners or one of partners. I like it that she stands by her man. I like it that his pain is their pain, endured together, as much as it can be. ‘’Til death do us part?’ They are married forever, until Ragnarok, until they are born anew together, to be married to each other forever again. How much more married can any woman be?”
I smiled at that. She had answered a question I hadn’t wanted to ask. “So how’s Loki going to take today’s news?”
“He’ll be all right. I’ll bake a pie when I get home, and he’ll call it a fair trade. Christmas is a good time to have time off, anyway.”
“His, from his first marriage, but grandchildren aren’t fussy that way. If you’ve got attention for them, they’ve got time for you.”
Somewhere in there, I’m not sure when, I had switched songs. I was strumming Wagon Wheel, a song I can literally play in my sleep.
She laughed, saying, “Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home! Your career is in ashes and your Christmas goose is cooked. I’d make a good sob story on the TV news – if I could just keep a straight face.”
“I’m impressed with how you’re taking this.”
She shrugged. “Hat shippens, you know? This has been coming for years – not just for me but for anyone who won’t bow to The Ladybug Mafia. And I find it liberating to be fired for being right. Me and Sigyn and Yael and Melania. Not girl power but lady power – the power to make your grandkids giggle and your husband smile. The Ladybug Mafia vows to have it all – from behind the counter at Starbucks. A lady is content to have what she’s got – once she’s gotten it right.”
Ladybug – the ex-ladybug – was all squared away to go home, and she wished a “Merry Christmas” to me and to Mike, that chatty guy behind the bar. I had my loco engineer’s hat on, and I tipped it to her as she left. Her husband’s a lucky guy: That girl can do anything – including bake a flaky pie crust, I’ll bet.
Just don’t call her on the telephone like you used to, when your work is all botched up. There is absolutely no place in a progressive business environment for a woman who can make or get a joke – or hang onto a client.