Monthly Archives: May 2014

Night Life in Happy Jack’s: Beer Can Bessie

by Dell Franklin

Around 1993

Beer Can Bessie’s in the house. She only comes in on my shifts because she hates our three female bartenders and hates 98 percent of the crowd who drink in Happy Jack’s. Bessie is a formidable woman, the sister of four NFL lineman-sized brothers incapable of holding a civil conversation. Bessie is vituperative. She always sits at the first stool by the front swinging doors away from everybody and vituperates our clientele.

Before I could take my first sip of beer, she said, “Who the fuck are you, asshole?”

Before I could take my first sip of beer, she said, “Who the fuck are you, asshole?”

I first met Bessie at the saloon in Cayucos, where I live, and seven miles north of Morro Bay, where I work at Happy Jack’s. At one time Bessie lived with a ponderous, ornery, beer-guzzling, animal-shooting, profane cowboy named Hog Simmons, who had a prodigious gut and the largest forearms in creation and drove a dirt-encrusted pickup with an unfriendly cattle dog pacing in the bed. He wore the same sweat-stained outfit coated with dust days at a time and God knows why Bessie, a fastidious woman, a registered nurse, was with him, but then one day after tongue-lashing Hog she smashed her beer can on his soiled salt-stained 10-gallon hat and knocked it off and squashed his beer can against his skull and stormed out.

I’d met her a year or so before she throttled Hog Simmons in front of everybody in the Cayucos Tavern. I’d only recently moved to Cayucos and sat down beside her on the only available stool up front, facing the long bar during a busy happy hour, and right off felt the unfriendliness and animosity in the woman, and, before I could take my first sip of beer, she said, “Who the fuck are you, asshole?”

“I’m Dell,” I told her. “Who are you?”

“None of your goddamn business. Who said you could sit down beside me and think yer hot shit, huh?”

“I don’t think I’m hot shit. And this is the only remaining stool in the bar. Besides, it’s a free country, last time I heard, so I can sit where I want.”

“Oh, so you’re a cocky little struttin’ peacock, huh?”

“I wouldn’t go that far.”

“You don’t look like much of a man to me. You look like a poor excuse for a man, from what I can see. You don’t look like you’ve done a real day’s work in your life. I bet you can’t catch a fish or ride a horse or skin a deer, can yah?”

“No.” I drank my beer.

“I thought so. A pussy. Not a hair on your ass.” She took out a cigarette. I grabbed a book of matches from a nearby basket and tried to light her cigarette, but she ignored my flame and lit her own with a Bic. “I bet you’re one of those lonely selfish slimy begging bachelors who can’t get a woman and can’t get laid, huh?”


I decided to cease trying to defend myself or reason with her. It was a bad time for me anyway.

“I’m not slimy.”

“Probably beat yer tiny little pud every night and cry yerself to sleep because women can’t stand you.”

I drank my beer.

“I can see why. You’re a pathetic excuse for a real man. I bet yer a faggot. You a faggot?”

“Not that I know of.”

“I say yer a faggot. What do you think about that?”

“I think you’re entitled to your opinion, lady, but you really don’t know me well enough to accuse me of being a homosexual. After all, you’ve just met me.”

“I can spot a faggot a mile off, in a second. One look at you and I know no woman’d have a thing to do with you and you had no choice but to be a faggot even if you didn’t wanna be, but you wanna be, I know what I see, and yer a damn queer.”

“What proof do you have?” I drank my beer.

“I don’t need proof. I think you can’t get it up with women. Yer a dogdick. I say yer a penis-puffer. Yer the most unmanly man in this squalid bar, and believe me, the competiton for unmanliness is big. In fact, yer like a girl. Drink yer beer, little girl, ha ha ha.”

Everybody along the bar was watching, enjoying the vituperation I was absorbing. She didn’t let up. I decided to cease trying to defend myself or reason with her. It was a bad time for me anyway. I’d been fired from the cab company after accumulating too many speeding tickets and getting into a fender-bender, was indeed womanless after striking out with the few available women in town, had no real friends in town, and Bessie sensed my vulnerability and pounced on me like a hungry animal.

When she finally wore down and stood to go, I quickly jumped up, grabbed her coat off her stool and held it open for her. She was reluctant to slip into it, but what could she do, especially when I was smiling at her in a manner indicating my understanding of her soul and appreciation of her vituperative skills? I waved the coat like a matador waving a cape in an inviting flourish, and she had no choice but to slip into it. I made sure she was very snug and bowed and said, “A pleasure to have made your acquaintance, madam. Hope to meet you again and continue our meaningful conversation.”

She was momentarily at a loss. “Yeh, that’ll be the day, bozo,” she grumbled, and hurried out. Then, after she 86’d the Cayucos Tavern, because they discontinued beer cans and Hog Simmons passed away, dying on his horse on the range of a heart attack due to eating meat every day of his life, morning, noon and night, she showed up at Happy Jack’s and did a double-take at the sight of me behind the bar.

“You’re the gentleman helped me into my coat,” she said.

“I’m not much of a gentleman,” I assured her. “But I am capable of old-fashioned courtliness when I run across a worthy and exceptional lady.”

So now we’re pals. I’m her adopted bartender through attrition. She sits down, says, “I’ll have a can of Bud, Dell.”

“We only have bottles, unless you buy a six-pack or case to go from the cooler, but you can’t drink ‘em in here.”

“A shit-hole like this has bottles? I’m impressed. Go ahead, gimme a goddamn bottle of Bud!”

I get her a bottle. “Bess, you sure are a vituperative woman.”

“You KNOW I know what that word means, don’tcha?” When I nod, she says, “Most of the dumb-asses in this snake pit, and that includes the bitches, have no clue what vituperative means.”

“Well, since you have no peer as a vituperator, it makes sense you of all people would know what vituperative means.”

“What I like about you, Dell, is you’re an intelligent man. I’ve known a few intelligent men, but they were wise-asses and punks. So I shit-canned ‘em. What I like about you, so far, is yer just a friend and I don’t have to find out what a wise-ass punk you are and shit-can you. What I don’t like about you is you work in this hell-hole of a dive that doesn’t have cans of Bud.”

She takes out a cigarette, lets me light it with our matches. She blows out some smoke, surveys the crowd, which is composed of many fishermen here in Morro Bay and their coteries. Bessie has a grating voice that carries. “Yah know, Dell,” she says, “in a sea of worthless dogdicks and pathetic losers, a buncha latent macho homos, a crew of unemployable misfits, you don’t come off too badly. Don’t ever lose this job, cuz it’ll probably be your last.” §

Dell Franklin writes from his home in Cayucos, Calif., where he lives with his mate, Wilbur, a very needy chocolate lab he rescued from the animal shelter. He is the founding publisher of The Rogue Voice and is currently working on a book about his dad, The Ball Player’s Son.




I pick her up in the Fairlane and we go up on this hill overlookin’ town, by this old castle that is like a fort, back when folks lived off the land.

by Dell Franklin

Verona, Italy 1966

I figure somebody lookin’ after Paladin Johnson when they send his black ass to the 25th Army field hospital in Verona, Italy, the summer of l966, when troops is gettin’ bumped off by the bushel in ‘Nam.

I don’t know nothin’ about Italy. I only know my ghetto in Cleveland, Hough. I runnin’ in the streets, always in trouble, a mess for my momma to deal with, a bigger mess for my teachers to deal with, so finally they kick my ass out of school and judge tell me either I get my ass in the army or go to the slammer.

In the army, I bring with me some cocky street jive, wantin’ everybody know I’m a bad dude, but it ain’t long ‘fore them drill sergeants beat my ass down like I some kind of turkey, though I would never be a punk.

First time I get off post I just walk. It’s nothin’ like I picture in my head. So old, and crumbly, some places still broken up from bombs in the war. And the folks, these Italians, they like to sit around these cafes called TRATTORIAS and gabble and wave they hands, getting ’all riled, like everything a big deal.

Walkin’ through Verona nothin’ like walkin’ through white Cleveland, or downtown, where niggers all over the place and everybody look at you like you gon pull a job, snatch a purse, you know, bad news dude. In Verona, I one of the only black dudes walkin’ around, and Italians gawk at me like they curious, not scared, like they maybe wanna find out who I am and what I’m about.

Ain’t long before First Sergeant McCray got me trained all over the dispensary and put me in charge of the shot room, and that’s where I meet new trooper Thomas, we bros right off, he difficult, always scowlin’, actin’ bad, angry at white folks, readin’ Malcolm X. He bitch to McCray about honkies getting’ better duty and promotion, thinkin’ cuz McCray black he gonna give him a break, but Top don’t stand for no jive. Top treat me good, and he treat my white buds, Ruffner and DeSimone, good, too, cuz they stand-up and cool.

In fact, I got to know Maria DeRia, little lady work the post snack bar and bowlin’ alley, through these two honkies. When I go to the snack bar with Ruff and Dee for a burger, I got my eye on DeRia, workin’ behind the counter. She what you call pixie-cute, so tiny, not 5-foot-tall, older lady, maybe 30, but got her a fine little ass in that white uniform, and I always practice my Italian on DeRia, try and impress her, and I guess cuz I butcherin’ the language she think it funny, you know, cute, and she laugh, and give me extra fries with my burger, and when she smile and laugh them little lines around her eyes crinkle up and her whole face light up. She ain’t got perfect features, and she got a crooked tooth, but she beautiful and I know she sweet inside.

DeRia married, got her a 12-year-old girl. I find this out askin’ in my Italian. I don’t ever speak English to DeRia, though she speak some cuz she been workin’ this post snack bar 10 years.

Sometime Tom join me and Ruff and Dee at the bowlin’ alley, where they got dime beers. None of us bowl. Only four lanes. We go cuz DeRia workin’ at night. She give out bowlin’ shoes and sell beer and pop and snacks and make burgers. Only four stools at her little bar, and some time we all talkin’ to DeRia at the same time, butcherin’ Italian, teasin’ her, tellin’ her she sexy, and beautiful, I love you, caro mia, bella amore, and she laugh and tease back, she wear a nice skirt and sweater when she work the alley, and comb her short black hair and put on make-up, she know we like her a lot and all want her and we all bettin’ who gon sleep with her first, though ain’t no GI slept with this fine lady, so is the word on post. She a church woman. Catholic.

Well, one night I come in alone while everybody else working and bring her roses. DeRia look at these flowers, sniff them, hold them to her heart, and almost cry, and she say, “Johnson, you really love me, caro bello?”

“Si, Maria DeRia, mi bella.” I say. “Amore molto.” Then I make her laugh. She glowin’. I make her laugh again, and she still smellin’ them roses, and she look deep in me, and she say, “We make love tonight, Paladin. I like you very much. You are nicest American boy I know in all my time I work here.”

I go to the dispensary and get hold of Ruff and Dee, workin’ the graveyard, ask can I borrow the Ford Fairlane they own together and Dee flip me the keys. They don’t believe I got DeRia. I been in Verona a year and only been to two whores, both downtown. Ain’t no Italian chick goin’ out with me less I take the whole family along and they watchin’ like a hawk I don’t touch her.

So after DeRia close the alley she walk off post and I pick her up in the Fairlane and we go up on this hill overlookin’ town, by this old castle that is like a fort, back when folks lived off the land, and we got out two army blankets my two buds keep for such occasions, and DeRia and me make love. Man, she is a biddy thing, but all woman, and one hot kisser, she kiss me like no woman has, no tongue or anything like that, but just kissin’ and holdin’ and scratchin’ and bitin’ my lips, and when I inside her and kissin’ her pretty face she talkin’ to me, she yell AMORE, AMORE, oh, Paladin, AMORE, screamin’ that word when I come, and I know DeRia love me and I love her.

We start talkin’. She say her husband over 40 and fat, all he do is go to soccer games and argue soccer and drink espresso all day and vino at night and eat pasta in the little trattoria they own in their neighborhood. He too lazy work the trattoria. DeRia work days and nights on post and then she work the trattoria nights off while fatty drink and argue soccer, like this kind-a carryin’ on better than a woman.

Anyway, I drop DeRia off a block from home and I feelin’ so fine. I got my shot room where I boss. Topkick McCray in my corner. I get on with everybody, got two honkey friends like brothers. They slam my back and grinnin’ at me when I back after midnight, almost like family.

But Thomas, he angry, and scowlin’, sulkin’, say DeRia nothin’ but a white bitch, and we got at it, I pin his ass and wag a finger and he know I fuck him up, so he sag, and he angry with me, but that’s okay, cuz if he ain’t got nothin’ good to say, well, stay away.

Dee and Ruff, they let me borrow the Fairlane when I got nights off and DeRia sneak off, and we go to our hill and sip some vino from her bar and she cuddle right up to me, like she mine, and she is sweet, and so clean, and she love me and ain’t afraid to say so, she love me so much she cry every time after we make love, cuz she got to go home to old fatty, don’t touch her, don’t care about nothin’ but hangin’ out with his soccer buds.


So now I diggin’ Verona. It is beautiful. A river run through it, and there’s this old coliseum downtown been bombed in the war. Across from this big old wide street with all kind-a traffic, you can sit at a café or trattoria on the Piazza Bra, which is like a promenade, and look at the coliseum, and hear the opera on summer nights. Piazza Bra go for blocks and ain’t nothin’ on it but cafes and trattorias with tables and chairs outside, and folks crowded up in ‘em. Folks walkin’ up and down the Piazza Bra past the tables, like they frontin’ at a parade. Girls arm and arm, girls and moms arm and arm, old folks and young folks arm in arm, even men arm and arm, jabberin’, wavin’ they hands. Back and forth.

Sometime, when the weather nice in the evening, I walk back and forth, only black dude, they all watchin’, but I don’t care, I diggin’ the ALFRESCO VIDA, big time, lookin’ for an empty table, though I can’t afford one, and one evening, when I paradin’, I hear a voice I know callin’ out: “Hey you, heroic and knightly champion, get your ass over here!”

I look over and it’s Dee and Ruff drinkin’ vino. They know me so well they call me heroic and knightly champion, which mean Paladin, the reason momma name me so.

I sit down. They drinkin’ Bardolino red vino cuz they makin’ cash on the side sellin’ smokes and gas and oil and whatever they get their hands on to Italians on the black market. I am their guest. A stiff waiter, all proper and dressed, puts a glass in front of me and pours me some vino. I am a black dude with two honkies and ain’t nobody else like us here and ain’t nobody got a problem with us. We are tight and cool. We talk and carry on. We get another bottle and feel the buzz and decide to visit DeRia half a mile away at her trattoria in the poor part of town.

The trattoria jammed with soccer crazies screamin’ at each other and wavin’ at the TV. DeRia see us and she look unhappy and worried, shake her head, but we go on up and order Bordolino and she ignore us. We see her hubby, fat, bald, loud, need a shave. We leave and DeRia won’t look at us, so next night at the alley I bring her red roses and she cry and that night we go to our hill and make love and she tell me she love me so much it break her heart. I feel the same. I wonder if when I go home there will ever be another woman in my heart like DeRia. I don’t think so, cuz there ain’t no woman in America like these Italian women. When they love you there ain’t no maybe so and it run deep, they don’t care about your color or how much bread you make or how cool your threads are or what you drivin’ down the street, they don’t be frettin’ over circumstances, they just love your ass forever.

Couple months before my discharge I’m thinkin’ about DeRia. She is my true love but she ain’t leavin’ her husband and kid. She a Catholic. I can’t take her home and I can’t stay here cuz there’s nothin’ in Italy if I ain’t in the army. Dee go home and Ruff go home and they GIVE me the Fairlane, cuz it ain’t worth much and they can’t afford take across the ocean. So DeRia and me, we goin’ hot and heavy. She get a day off and I get a day off and we take the Fairlane out to Lake Garda and drive all around this beautiful romantic lake, hills and mountains and terraces with vineyards all around us, stop and have vino in little towns like Riva and Garda City and Sermione, sit outside at cafes on the lake, everybody nice to us, and we take a blanket on some hill above the lake and make love under the sun, and DeRia, she cry and tell me, “Paladin, caro mio, you so bello, you like a Michelangelo statue in Rome, mi vida.” She cryin’, and cryin’, cuz I got to go home to America, and when I think about leavin’ Verona, and my gig in the shot room, and my car, and Lake Garda, and DeRia, it bust up my heart, cuz there ain’t nothin’ go home to that I like in Hough but momma, and family, but that’s all, ain’t nothin’back there but trouble, but I got no choice.

What I gon do? I can stay in the army, but then I go to Nam and get my ass shot, and I ain’t stayin’ in the army anyhow, cuz you got to kiss too many asses and they own your ass, all they do is fuck with you, like Topkick McCray tell me.

Top and Doc Graves, they say I should go back to school and be a nurse. “Use the GI bill,’ says Graves. “You are a smart man, Paladin. Don’t sell yourself short.”

Week before I leave I got no duties and DeRia cryin’ all the time. She cry when she see me in the snack bar, she cry when I come in the bowlin’ alley, she got to leave work and go cry, won’t come back ‘til I’m gone. We make love the night before I leave and she cryin’, hug me so hard it hurt, tellin’ me her life was rotten before she met me and since we been lovers she happy all the time, and now she got to be unhappy again, and she think her life be lonely and sad from here on, like there nothin’ to look forward to anymore, just her fat old husband don’t touch her, and I feel so bad for DeRia, cuz there ain’t nothin’ I can say make her stop cryin’, and I’m cryin’, too, cuz I know what I feel for her ain’t gon happen again the way it happen with us. Oh, it will happen again, but it won’t be so perfect and funny and peaceful and deep like it is with DeRia, who I call my “poverina.” Poor little thing.

But I got to leave. Next day I’m gone. Everybody I know well gone home, just Thomas hangin’ around, got four months left, still grumblin’ and scowlin’ and bitchin’ about how he from South Philly and he a bad-ass. He carry my duffel bag and walk me to the bus take me to Milano for the airplane to America.

“My car is yours, good bud,” I tell him. “Y’all start smilin’ an’ get yo’ sorry ass some leg and sweet lovin’, good brother.”

“I do that now I got the pussy-mobile. Thank you, my man. Love.”

“Love you too.”

I take the lonely bus to Milano and I’m so sad. I already missin’ DeRia. I get to New York and then fly to Cleveland and go to the ghetto and it so strange, I wish I got me my DeRia. But I ain’t got no DeRia. I never will again. Italy is over for me. I get a job drivin’ an ambulance, pickin’ up the bleedin’ and broken folks, the dyin’ and the dead. I go to school nights and get my high school diploma and start nursin’ school, gon be a nurse, and do good, gon have a life, right here in Hough. It’s poorer, sadder, everybody angry, wantin’ burn the mothafucker down. I ain’t the same dude runnin’ in the streets, getting’ in trouble. I’m a man. Thank you, sergeant McCray, and all my cool buds I never forget, and thank you, Maria DeRia, I love you little thing, my poverina, ‘til they take me away. §

Dell Franklin worked many years as a bartender at Happy Jack’s in Morro Bay, once considered one of the roughest fishermen’s bars on the West Coast. He’s the founding publisher of The Rogue Voice, and author of The Ball Player’s Son.

Blind love

Together they tap the ground, safely passing sign posts and cement benches, the blind lovingly leading the blind, in perfect tender unison. Photo By Stacey Warde

Together they tap the ground, safely passing sign posts and cement benches, the blind lovingly leading the blind, in perfect tender unison. Photo By Stacey Warde

I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees. —Pablo Neruda

by Stacey Warde

At the Camarillo Amtrak station a young blind couple, walking arm-in-arm, slide the red tips of their seeing-eye canes along the platform next to the train.

The tips of their canes make a parallel search of the ground, tapping out the echoes of potential obstacles, swinging this way and that. Between the sliding sticks the pair are joined at their elbows.

I watch them from my vantage point above, through the window where I’m sitting on Train 777, or “Triple Seven,” as the conductor says in his announcements.

They have just stepped off the train heading north and west where the sun is beginning its low descent over the Pacific Ocean.

The setting sun casts an orange glow on their faces. Together they tap the ground, safely passing sign posts and cement benches, the blind lovingly leading the blind, in perfect tender unison.

I’ve never seen a blind couple as this making their way together. When I’ve observed the blind, often they have been alone, or accompanied by a service dog or friend whose vision is not impaired.

The pair turns tentatively toward the road, scouting the audibles, as a yellow cab slowly passes by, and they pause momentarily as if to hail the driver but another couple flags the car for themselves. How do they know that it is a cab? What bit of information causes them to turn at the same time to pursue what they cannot see?

They walk so closely and intimately that their bodies and minds seem as one. It’s a stunning scene. It’s touching. How did two blind intimates find each other? What brought them together? Did they meet in school? At a support group for the blind?

Their closeness, their intimate knowing and safety in being together unseats me, penetrates the armor I’ve worn to avoid the history and hurt of broken intimacies. An aching, bleeding feeling, as if something has begun to melt, washes through me, beginning inside of my chest.

My eyes well up with tears and, like the couple below, I put on a pair of dark sunglasses. I don’t want anyone to see my eyes. I don’t want anyone to know that I’m having a breakdown on the train. I want to avoid the appearance of a touched middle-aged man.

As Triple Seven pulls away from the platform, I watch the pair in a final desperate attempt to see what happens to them, and feel the cauldron of losses bubbling inside of me, streams of tears burning down my face.

Perhaps I’m romanticizing the idea of a blind love that isn’t blind at all but sees everything, knows everything, and moves in unison with the melodious voices of departing passengers, the low hum of cars in the distance, the passing of a cab, and the shared need to find a safe passage home.

Perhaps I’m a fool for thinking that such passage gains more from the company of another who is willing to share the risks and responsibilities of navigating through the darkness, guided by some other light that cannot be seen.

This coupling desire to be joined at the elbows and to walk in unison with another in a different kind of blind trust doesn’t go away easily, not even after one has passed his prime and love can seem so cruel and foolish.

“When does it stop?” I asked a friend once. “When do you stop wanting the company of a woman? When do you stop feeling like there needs to be another?”

“A great love poet,” he responded, “once said that it wasn’t until he was 70 that he realized the feminine no longer had power over him.”

It’s not merely the feminine, however, that haunts and wields power over me. Something more than charms and pleasure has broken through the walls of my resistance to love.

What moves me now is the formidable intimate knowing that is built on trust, the eagerness to hold space with another, even when there is darkness all around, the willingness to traverse obstacles despite the handicaps, to do with that one what spring does with the cherry trees.

The dark sunglasses do not hide my tears. I remove them to pat my cheeks dry with the sleeve of my jacket. Amtrak Triple Seven roars into the night and my view outside the window is blurred from blinding tears. §

Stacey Warde is publisher of The Rogue Voice



Al has unpaid tabs at bars and liquor stores all over Morro Bay, where Happy Jack’s is. Water color: Wheelhouse by Steve Santmyer:

by Dell Franklin

Around noon of a Saturday, Junkyard Al shows up in his rattling, rumbling, grease-smudged 20-year-old, four-door Buick bomber with wife and child to put in a water pump and radiator from the yard where he plies his trade, free of charge. Since Al is banned for life from every bar in the county but I allow him to drink in Happy Jack’s where I tend bar, he feels obligated to be my personal mechanic. He is also interested in reviving my non-operational ’76 Olds Cutlass and ’50 Chevy pick-up, which have collected dust in my driveway for over a year. I feel Al has his eye on both beasts. Al manages the largest junkyard in San Luis Obispo and takes advantage of every broke, desperate wretch who comes looking for a deal on parts. An ace mechanic, Al knows everything about every car ever manufactured in the world.

The fastest talker I’ve ever known, Al is wearing his usual filthy T-shirt, crusted Levi’s and boots. His coal-black hair is greasy and he needs a shave. He is stocky, with a gut at around 40. Having observed Al in Happy Jack’s, he seems to size everybody up as a potential enemy to fight or a schnook to scam. He cannot fight a lick. He incited a brawl in Happy Jack’s with some hopped-up young white supremists and was knocked semi-conscious with one punch and hid under a table while I took on three of them with a bar stool.

His heap is parked behind my ‘79 bumperless Chrysler Cordoba on the street. I’ve lived here on what can be determined in this beach burg of Cayucos’ Riviera for a couple years now and my neighbors across the street at the beach access, a retired dentist and retired CEO of a department store, and their wives, are not happy with my existence in one of the last one-bedroom beach cottages on the Riviera. The dentist, with his gray Marine hairdo, has accused me of single-handedly lowering real estate values and turning the neighborhood into a Third World trash heap.

Al peers at my crackerbox. “Swank pad, dude,” he observes. His wife, who resembles an overfed bullfrog, sits in the Buick with child. “How you afford this pad workin’ at the bar?”

“I know how to manage my finances, Al.” I leer at him, because Al has unpaid tabs at bars and liquor stores all over Morro Bay, where Happy Jack’s is, and Cayucos, and has currently moved to a rundown motel in San Luis Obispo on a weekly basis.

Al has his extensive tool collection out, along with a Styrofoam cooler, into which he reaches and takes out a beer, guzzling half of it down.

“Why you drinkin’ light beer, Al?” I ask. “That stuff’s for sorority girls in San Luis.”

Al ignores me and punches the back window of the Buick. “Go down to the beach, Sara, and take the kid!” he hollers.

They get out, hunched and glum. “Can I have some money for the store?” asks the wife, solicitous.

Al withdraws a crumpled greasy wad and hands her a ten and turns around to me. “What’s with the duct-tape on yer jalopies? You can plug those cancer holes real easy. I can do it for yah.”

“I prefer duct-tape, Al. If it disintegrates, I can always replace it with more duct-tape.”

He peers at me dubiously, knows that, among other deficiencies, I am a mechanical moron. “Whatever.” He swigs, watches his wife and kid tootle the few blocks to the little local market. He puts his beer down and withdraws a boom box from his trunk, slips in a tape, turns it on, and an explosion of shrieking, grating rock rents the quiet, golden afternoon. He places the boom box on the hood of his beast and goes to my Cordoba and yanks open the hood and peers in. “This thing’s pretty clean,” he remarks. “Compared to the outside.”

“I get it lubed every three thousand miles.”

“You can go four easy with synthetic oil.”

His music jangles my senses. The professors next door, who teach at the college in San Luis Obispo and are friendly with me because we have cats, peer over, for the violent sounds are ripping into their favorite—Mahler. Both play the piano. They appear pinched and drawn and frazzled at the discordance of Junkyard Al’s music. I ask Al to please turn it down. He gazes at me, disgruntled, but turns it down a notch or two. “Okay?” he asks, very sarcastic.

His hands are permanently grimed. Already there are two empty beer cans on my lawn. I take a seat on my sofa out front of the cottage and start the difficult LA Times Saturday crossword puzzle. Halfway through it—a real grind—the wife and kids return with a grocery bag of goodies and approach Al, whose head is deep in the well of my Cordoba. He withdraws his head like a turtle and yells at them to stop pestering him while he’s at work. He tramps angrily to the trunk of the Buick and tosses them a blanket, pail, shovel, beach ball, and orders them to the beach. They comply, straggling hangdog past the CEO and dentist, both clad in off-the-links golf apparel, and their wives on their terraces, and down the beach access stairway.

Al changes a tape. More shrieking calamity. “Mind if I turn it up?”

“I think not, Al.”

“Suit yerself. Wanna beer?”

“Nah, gotta go to work at five.

“So? Yer gonna get drunk back there anyway. What the fuck?”

Al’s got the radiator and water pump out. He is skilled. Often, his wife and child linger at the doorway of Happy Jack’s during Al’s drinking hours in the poolroom, the child restless, crying, the wife long-suffering. She will come in and beg him to leave, but Al will snap at her to cease fucking with his “reward for working all goddamn day to feed your stupid asses.” Al supposedly owned a junkyard in Modesto. But I never know if I should believe half of what Al says. For instance, he claims to be a decorated Vietnam vet, but he’s far too young, at least ten years younger than I. He claims to have lied his age and gone in at 15. Al carries a pistol on his ankle. He works really fast.

I finish the crossword. Takes me around an hour. There are six cans on the lawn. The wife and kid return, the kid gnawing on licorice. The kid’s always eating, face smeared. When the wife timidly approaches Al with some sort of question, he explodes, tells her to get the fuck out of his sight. “I told yah t’ go to the goddamn beach! I told yah t’ STAY on the goddamn beach til I’m done. Do I look like I’m done? Huh? Go back to the beach!” Al orders.

“But the sun burns us, daddy,” the kid whines.

Clearly annoyed, Al tramps to the Buick, opens the door, withdraws a ball cap with SLO JUNK on the crown and shoves it down over the kid’s ears. He tosses his wife a mangled straw hat and orders them to the beach, and they straggle across the street, the retirees now on their terraces and on the pathway, hands on hips, stern and miffed.

I sit back on my sofa. I’ve got a book, but Al’s antics make it impossible to concentrate. Al pops open another beer and returns to the Coredoba, muttering about the trials and tribulations of husbandry and fatherhood.

“Don’t fucking marry the bitches,” he warns me out of the side of his mouth as he goes wrenching in the engine well.

“Never have, never will, Al. Confirmed bachelor.”

“Don’t knock ‘em up, dude.”

“I’ll try not to, Al. So far, so good.”

“You got it knocked, man. Me, I got nothin’ but wall-to-wall grief with that squaw and that munchkin. Why you think I’m in hock up to my ass? I could be a cool swingin’ dick like you, man, if I didn’t hafta support ‘em.”

“Know what Somerset Maugham said, Al?”


“Somerset Maugham. Great English writer.”

“Never heard of him.”

“He said, ‘There’s no object more deserving of pity than the married bachelor.’ That’s my anthem, Al.”

“Dell, I got some hosing in my trunk. You need new hoses. Can’t be usin’ duct-tape on every fuckin’ thing, man. I’ll put ‘em in.”

Al continues working and drinking. I do a load of laundry. Come back out. Al’s wrapping things up. He’s drank a 12 pack. I ask if he wants a shot of Jack. Hell yes he does. We do a shot on the porch. Then: “Where the fuck’s my fuckin’ family? I tole ‘em I wanted ‘em fuckin’ back, goddammit!”

He starts across the street, swinging his shoulders and arms, springing up on his toes, legs splayed outward, head bobbing. The retirees back away as he stands at the top of the stairway, cups his hands to his mouth, and bellows, “GET YOUR GODDAM ASSES THE FUCK UP HERE NOW!” Then he starts back. The ex-Marine dentist barks something at him, as does the ex CEO, but Al, without dignifying their presence or lowering himself to their standards, says nothing, merely flips both of them a quick no-look double-barrel finger as he continues along the pathway and across the street.

The wife and kid tootle up and obediently climb into the back seat of the Buick. Al gets behind the wheel. It won’t start. Groans and groans. Al gets out and kicks the side of the car. I get up and start my Cordoba and pull it alongside the Buick, and Al’s out with the jumper cables, yelling at his wife to turn the fucking key to the engine, and she does, and it catches instantly. Al disengages the cables and tosses them in the trunk and slams the trunk hard and jumps in the Buick, waves to me and rumbles off, leaving a dark smoke plume in his wake.

Al’s absence leaves a mesmerizing silence. Birds chirp, my cats come out of hiding. I collect beer cans. With the exception of myself, I can’t think of a single person in Happy Jack’s who can stand Junkyard Al. §

Dell Franklin worked many years as a bartender at Happy Jack’s in Morro Bay, once considered one of the roughest fishermen’s bars on the West Coast. He’s the founding publisher of The Rogue Voice, and author of The Ball Player’s Son.