Monday evening happy hour in notorious Happy Jack’s in Morro Bay and the usual crew along the bar—detached from the poolroom regulars and those scattered up front—and the topic of discussion is “El Niño,” the storm that pounded the area with a touch of disaster a few years back.
“No use stickin’ around here when El Niño hits,” states Eugene, a fisherman, “Cuz there ain’t gonna be no fishing. Might as well take a vacation—or go work at somethin’ else.”
“This El Niño’s supposed to be three times worse than the one in ’83,” claims Maggie, a 50ish woman with excess heft in her ass and bosom. “And IT damn near wiped us out.”
Chubby Estelle, Maggie’s fellow chain-smoker and best friend, says, “Don’t I remember! It rained 58 straight days, didn’t it?”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” says Ed Stone, who lives with Estelle and has been on the wagon for months due to almost dying of alcohol poisoning and sips soda with lime and gazes at the Keno screen even though he’s a broke gambling addict helping to pay rent collecting cans. “I believe it wiped out the Cayucos pier and damaged some piers up and down the coast. I believe Cayucos was flooded, if I remember.”
Maggie nods. “Main drag was closed off, businesses flooded out.”
“I might go to Florida, try and fish there,” Eugene muses, holding up his empty mug. “Maybe try the Keys.”
“The Keys is nothin’ but a buncha goddamn queers,” offers Rafe Monk, known as One-eyed Pitbull, who hunkers over his chain of numerous keys, cigarettes, ash tray, change from a hundred dollar-bill, and a Stoli driver in a bucket.
“You can’t escape El Niño in Flor-uh-duh,” says Estelle. “El Niño’s got the whole world by the balls.”
You got that right,” Maggie says sourly.
Estelle giggles, grins, holds up her empty shot glass. She’s already survived a bout with cancer and started breeding at around 14 back in some hollow in Kentucky. Her kids are institutional parasites.
“I’ll tell yah one thing,” says Eugene, a strapping, rumpled man with swollen, enflamed eyes. “Fishin’s all haywire. Water’s so damn warm the albacore are only a mile off shore. Half the fleet’s down from Oregon and Washington pullin’ ‘em out like minnows. Hell, they’re half jumpin’ into yer boat. All those tuna fisherman out in the middle of the Pacific, they’re scrapin’ to survive.”
“Whole world’s cock-eyed,” agrees Maggie, squashing out another butt. I light her a new one. She coughs. “Goddamn pollution and the ozone layer,” she mutters, and coughs.
Estelle nods gravely. “Global warmin’, they call it, love.”
Stone nods, too, filling out a Keno card. “We’re gettin’ our comeuppance, it seems. Maybe we destroyed the goose laid the golden egg. Bad karma after hoggin’ all the resources on the planet and attacking dirt-poor, third-world countries.”
“Awh bullshit,” grouses Monk, a shrimper. Lacking front teeth, his incisors are formidable and his one eye flashes like a laser in a thick, mash-nosed mug topped off by a watch cap. “All them little bastards been leeching off us for years. Fuck ‘em.”
“I’ll tell yah one thing about tuna,” says Eugene. “That is one gnarly fish. You pull one of ‘em up and he’ll look yah right in the eye and tell yah it ain’t gonna be no picnic, he’ll kick yer ass. I gotta lotta respect for that fish.”
“There ain’t gonna be many of the poor fishies left the way this El Niño is going,” laments Estelle.
“Water’s so warm,” nods Maggie. “It’s killin’ ‘em all off.”
“I feel sorry for them poor people live up north on the Russian River, the way THEY get flooded out every year, with just a little bitty rain. They might be run out to sea.”
“Serves “em right,” says Walt, a fisherman at the corner of the bar, hunched over a draft. “There’s just a bunch-a queers up there anyhow. All them Frisco fags got the AIDS. It’s God’s way at getting’ back at ‘em for doin’ things ass-backwards and spreadin’ disease to normal folks.”
Monk, on perhaps his third pack of non-filter Camels, spits tobacco shreds off his tongue, and nods. “I laugh my ass off every time those butt-stuffers get flooded out.”
“You catchin’ any fish lately, Walt?” asks Eugene.
“Hell no. Boat’s down. I’m just drinkin.’”
Sheila, around 30, and only a little jiggly and nubile and fair-skinned like a Botticeli painting, always broke and looking for a job but picky about taking one, says, “I remember El Niño. It rained so hard every day we got washed out of our house. We got evacuated and had to live with my aunt in Atascadero.” She makes a glum face. “Atascadero sucks.”
“I’ll tell yah one thing,” Eugene says, holding up his empty beer mug and glancing down at Walt. “There’s no rush like hookin’ onto a 30-pound tuna and fightin’ that sonofabitch. He’ll come right out of the water and half onto your boat and look you in the eyeball and tell yah it’s gonna be hell to pay. He’ll tear you apart.”
Walt grunts. “Yeh yeh.”
“Whyn’t yah come out with me and do some real work and make some real bank, Eugene? I’m about fed up to the gills with One-Trip Dick and Weasel Frazier and his so-called shot-off dick. Been lookin’ for both of ‘em for two days. I can’t pay ‘em more than half their wages or I won’t see ‘em for a week, they might end up in jail.”
“I’m doin’ okay down at Virgil’s, Rafe. Make decent tips baiting up the tourists. Plus, I score a woman time to time.”
“I hear El Niño’s bobbing on the equator and takes up a third of the world,” Maggie states. “It’s like this monster jellyfish of hot gas, just comin’ at us!”
“I bet we get washed out,” Sheila says, appearing personally aggrieved. She loves drama. She had a relationship with this maggot named Jerome who sat in with certain bands as some sort of guitarist and tried to get on here as a bartender before I sabotaged his chances with the owner. He dealt drugs, was one minute deeply in love with Sheila and the next being a playboy, so she broke up with him and paraded this dullard named Marvin in front of him, reportedly the first guy Sheila dated in ages with a real job. This dork never had a woman devour him like Sheila, and when Jerome got jealous and wooed her back, this dork went crazy, broke into the pad Sheila and Jerome shared and beat Jerome up and set his long precious curly hair on fire and disappeared from Morro Bay. The whole ordeal was on the local TV news, with Sheila putting on a good show of emotion. “I hope I don’t hafta move back to Atascadero. They only got two bars and thirty-five churches.”
I keep mixing drinks and pouring beer and pushing Keno cards and emptying ash trays and mopping down the bar. “And the waves!” spouts Estelle, gloomy. “They’ll be like…tidal waves.”
“Tsunamis,” Stone corrects.
“…They’ll wash all our itty bitty houses off the beach. If it flooded Cayucos in ’83, how’s it gonna be if it’s three times worse?”
“What I hear is it’s five to ten times worse,” Eugene says. “It’ll be so rough at sea, nobody’ll try and fish.”
“Who gives a shit,” Walt says. “Christ, I’ve survived worse. It’s only a goddamn storm.”
“We had three feet of water in our house,” Sheila is telling Estelle and Maggie, who sort of look after her, though Maggie, unlike Estelle, will not loan her money or buy her a drink or put her up for a night and castigates Estelle in private for doing so. Sheila, after more ups and downs with the maggot Jerome, actually married a Mexican immigrant who held three jobs and ran off with him to Las Vegas and came back a year later skinny as a rail and claiming she had a mysterious disease no doctor had ever heard of or cured. “Everything I owned was ruined or destroyed. I had to start all over.”
“I hope it’s not like what you see on TV when all them rivers overflow, like the Mississippi,” Estelle says. “All them doggies and kitties on rooftops and volunteers savin’ the poor, scared little things, and everybody’s house underwater and all their treasures ruined. That’s so sad.” Near tears, she holds up her empty shot glass, and I fill it with her usual—cinnamon Schnapps. I pat her hand. “Wouldn’t that be terrible if it happened to US? It always happens to THEM, but I don’t want it to happen to us, because we’re all friends and we LOVE each other.”
“Them goddamn queers up in Frisco gonna be scurryin’ like a pack of rats,” says Walt, managing his first corroded smile. “I got a good notion to go on up there and pick a few of ‘em off with my Remington. Damn El Niño’s probly gonna cost me huntin’ season anyhow. Shit.”
“I’ll tell yah another thing,” says Eugene. “You go up to Alaska and fish salmon, those big bastards’ll pull yer ass right on outta the goddamn boat! They’ll come right on outta the water and give you the evil eye like that goddamn man-eating monster in that movie, JAWS. I ain’t bullshittin’ about that.”
“Settle down for Chrissake,” Monk grouses out of the side of his mouth. “That goddamn movie was bullshit anyway.”
“Hollywood faggots don’t know doodly squat about the goddamn fishin’ industry,” Walt tells Monk. Before getting his own boat, Walt worked for Monk but couldn’t take it, joining a long list of deck hands who couldn’t deal with Rafe’s hard-bitten and tyrannical ways. He lifts his empty mug and scratches the ears of his majestic and powerful Chesapeake who is beloved on the waterfront and known to dive to the deepest of depths to fetch anything Walt desires. “Movies are bullshit anyway. I ain’t gone to one in thirty years.”
Monk motions to Sheila, who’s a few stools down. “Come on over here, doll.” Sheila raises off her stool and wiggles that tender ass and places her hands across her ample chest like a helpless little girl. He hands her a sawbuck. “Get me another pack of Camels and have one yourself.” She pecks him on the cheek, takes the bill and heads for the cigarette machine beside the video games. “Give her a shot and a beer,” Monk tells me. “And gimme a refill.” I mix his drink, pour out a shot of Jack and a beer for Sheila, and when she returns with his cigarettes, monk hands her another sawbuck. “Go play somethin’ on the juke, somethin’ to drown out the bullshit in this shit-hole.” He flashes his incisors. She bolts her shot like a longshoreman and heads to the juke.
While Sheila pumps the juke, an apparition materializes through the back door in the person of long, lanky, heavy-bearded Joe Farraday, in his usual pea coat and watch cap. Monk glances at him with venom, sips his drink, turns away as Farraday sidles up beside Walt, who motions me to give Farraday a beer. Farraday pets Hugo, the Chesapeake, who’s up on his hind legs licking his face, and flashes me a smile that’s more like a dog either sneering or growling before attacking. He has worked on and off for Monk for years, been fired at least twenty times, has actually fought Monk here in Happy Jack’s and on his boat.
After I serve Farraday, who shakes my hand and addresses me as “honey,” I wander down to Monk, who’s waved me over.
“Give the worthless rotten prick a shot of Jack,” he says, still not looking in his direction. “Think he’s been in jail. Probly the best accommodations he’s had in years.” He puffs his cigarette. “He’ll end up eating his own shit.”
I lean against the bar holding a shot of chilled vodka and watch Estelle and Sheila fairly swoon as they attached themselves to Farraday with huge, warm hugs. §
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.