Night life in Happy Jack’s: A dog and fish story

by Dell Franklin

IMG_6070A packed Friday night, the band’s cranking, the fleet’s in, the crowd’s juiced just enough to release inhibitions but not yet stuporous or apeshit, a magical time for a bartender, and then this wolfish-looking guy in a hooded sweatshirt and knee-high rubber boots comes in with a pit bull and not just any pit bull. He’s a fisherman, no doubt, but I’ve never seen him in here before and right off my fellow emotional tyrant of a bartender, Jessi, is hysterical at the sight of his dog, both of them wedging into the crowd as those well-behaved dogs of several local fisherman perk up under the feet of their masters along the bar, between stools and under tables. Jessi, known to tongue-lash and punch out guys, quails like a terrified kitten.

My policy is to allow dogs in Happy Jack’s. Though the county has banned dogs in bars for health reasons, supposedly, it’s my contention the dogs owned by violent prone patrons of this particular bar work as a calming affect, like a tranquilizer, and, since all their dogs get along splendidly, it gives them a chance to compliment each other and brag about their dogs, all of them ideal companions on the high seas.

I ask Mel Sylliphant if he knows the guy dragging his pit bull toward the poolroom, freaking out all the women, of which there are plenty. But no, Mel, who’s from up north, has never seen this guy before.

“Look at the balls on that pit,” he says with awe and respect. “Those suckers are fuckin’ tennis balls!”

The dog is black with a spiked collar. The fisherman is built like a barrel and, after pulling down his hood, sports a watch cap, his beard is red in an angular hawk face encasing two fierce eyeballs surveying the crowd.

Jessi, vibrating with paranoia, jabs me. “Dell, we gotta get that dog outta here. Please, I’m scared!”

I go out from behind the bar. A path is cleared. A space is between the crowd and the fisherman and his pit bull, and when he spots me coming he grins, displaying two incisors and no front teeth. I stop before him while his dog eyes me with keen vigilance. The fucker could take off my calf with one chomp.

“Pal, I suggest you take your dog outside,” I say. “He’s freaking everybody out. Why don’t you tie him up somewhere and come back in for a drink. That’s all I ask.”

He peers around. “Folks got dogs in here. Spike ain’t gonna attack nobody ‘less they attack him.”

“No human or dog’s gonna attack your dog—they’re all scared of that monster.”

“That ain’t my fault. Spike goes where I go. I don’t like my dog bein’ discriminated against cuz he’s a pit. At the Bear Flag in Moss Landing, they let me bring Spike in alla time.”

“Well, this ain’t the Bear Flag.”

“What is this—a pussy bar? You head pussy?”

“All right, that’s enough outta you. If you’re gonna pull that shit, YOU’RE outta here.”

“What if I ain’t leavin’, boy?”

Boy? I’m 53 and he’s at least 15 years younger than me. “I can call the cops.”

“Ooooooo, I’m so scared. ‘Sides, they ain’t gonna do squat for bringin’ my dog in. So go on an’ call the motherfuckers.”

“That’s a last resort. I don’t want the cops in here. It’s your dog I’m concerned about.” I fold my arms. “I don’t know your dog. I KNOW the dogs in here. They’re not fighting dogs. They’re scared of your dog. That’s why they’re not out here sniffing. Fear leads to fights among dogs…”

“What’re you, a dog shrink?”

I sigh. “I don’t want a dog fight with this place packed. This is business, man. People’ll walk out of here or they won’t come in when they see your dog, and it’s my responsibility to keep this crowd and do a big business. This is a good night. Everybody’s having a great time. Your dog, even if he’s a peaceful dog, which I trust he is, is still a pit bull the size of a fucking mastiff, and he’s gonna run everybody out of here. It’s business, not personal. I got nothing against you or your dog. Okay?”

He stares at me, eyes empty. “I want a beer.’

“I know you do. I’ll gladly serve you a beer, but not until you get your dog out of here. Okay?”

“I don’t like bein’ away from my dog,” he explains. “The Bear Flag in Moss Landing, the Buena Vista in Eureka, LaRocca in ‘Frisco, they all let me bring Spike in. What’s wrong with this dive? I heard this was supposed to be a man’s bar, and Morro Bay was a tough town. Why are all these pussies afraid of Spike?”

I unfold my arms. “You want a beer, take Spike out.” I reach down and pet Spike’s massive cranium, for he’s gazing up at me with a benign, hopeful look, like he’s been through this before and wants no trouble. “Good boy,” I coo. “Look, I don’t wanna separate you from Spike, man. I can see you two are tight. It’s my opinion a dog like Spike is a far better companion than any woman. You can’t trust a woman like you can a magnificent specimen like Spike.”

He’s still gazing at me with those empty eyes. But I see a glimmer is registering. “Well…” he says.

“You see, the rest of these dogs, well, they’re just ordinary run-of-the-mill mutts. They’re not exceptional studs like Spike. With a dog like Spike, we have to make an exception. The other dogs are spooked by his superior physical gifts. Okay?”

“Well…okay,” he says, not happy. “But this dive, Happy Jack’s, I’m real disappointed. I heard this was a man’s bar. Looks to me like a bunch-a cake-eaters.”

“I gotta get back to work now. You go ahead and take Spike outside, guy, and come on in for that beer.”

I walk him out the front door and watch him continue bow-legged down the street half a block to his pick-up with camper shell. He deposits Spike inside and stands talking to him. He’s got Oregon plates. I return to the bar and Jessi heaves a sigh of relief and we catch up because she fell behind while I conversed with Spike’s master. We do a shot of Crown Royal.

Then he returns. And now he’s holding a fish skeleton about a foot and a half long, at least. This fish skeleton has immense jaws, like a barracuda. The sight of this skeleton is terrifying and women are squealing and edging away into the crush as the lunatic walks with the skeleton thrust out in front of him as if to pave his way. Christ! Again, Jessi is quailing.

“That dude’s crazy!” she cries. “Look at his eyes!”

Though fishermen in the bar are not even slightly aroused, they are also aware of being in the company of a madman, whose goddamn fish skeleton, with its soccer ball-size head and massive jaws, looks prehistoric, like it was manufactured in a Hollywood special effects studio for a horror movie where a blown up version of this fish skeleton prowls the earth and gobbles up a panicky stampede of humans.

And now, as a girl moves gingerly away from him, he thrusts the skeleton at her and she shrieks and flees, pushing through the throng toward the band area up front. Now the maniac is thrusting the fish and clacking its jaws at every woman in the vicinity and grinning, his incisors flaring, having a big time. The fishermen clustered in or near the poolroom seem amused, their dogs out of danger. Most of them have been to the Bear Flag and other dangerous dives in various ports, and so it’s I who must calm down Jessi and restore order in the bar.

I go out front, out of range of the fucking fish. “Hey, you gotta get that fucking thing outta here,” I tell him. “That is the most evil-looking specimen I’ve ever laid my eyes on, dude.”

“It ain’t like it’s alive, boy. It don’t bite. They let me bring it in the Bear Flag in Moss Landing and LaRocca in…”

I put up my hand. “I want that goddamn thing outta here, bub.”

“Yer getting’ huffy with me, boy. I don’t like that.”

“Yeh, well, tough shit. Every girl in here’s freaked out with you thrusting that ugly fish at ‘em.”

“Fuck ‘em. If they can’t take a little joke, tough titty.”

“I’m gonna ask you one more time—get that fucking ghastly fish outta here.”

“And if I don’t?” He regards me with utter disrespect. “What yah gonna do about it, boy?”

I step forward. I take a deep breath. “I’m gonna kill you.” I say it as quietly as possible in the din, without emotion. I do not mean to say this; it just comes out. I realize I mean it, too.

“You’re gonna…KILL me?”

I nod, staring into his eyes, which for the first time show some recognition of what is going on.

“That’s a pretty drastic reaction to my goddam fish,” he says. “Yer gonna kill me over a fish? A dead fish?”

I nod. “This bar is MY territory. I make the rules, and you’re in my territory breaking my rules. This bar is also my livelihood. You’re driving people out, fucking with my livelihood. Those are grounds to kill you. Men have killed over less. I will kill you right here and sleep like a baby, and my only regret will be making poor Spike an orphan. Go ahead, try me.”

My spiel is registering. “Jeezus, yer serious, ain’t yah?”

I’m still staring into his eyes, having moved closer, giving him the same look my bad-ass father gave any threatening person before kicking their ass, a look which in most cases paralyzed them if they had even a shred of sense and self-preservation.

“All right, all right.” He’s backing up. “Jeezus, and I heard this was a cool bar. Settle down, man.”

“Don’t tell me what to do, motherfucker, I’m ready to kill!”

“All right. I’m takin’ my fish back to my truck. It was just a joke. Don’t know why everybody’s uptight over a dead fish. Up in Alaska…”

“Get the fuck outta here. You’re eighty-sixed for life, motherfucker.”

“All right. Jeezus.” He leaves with his fish. People make a path. He doesn’t return, but a few minutes later, after I’ve shared another shot of CR with Jessi, somebody tells me to look out the window and when I do, there he is, across the street in front of Legends, along with a crowd of regulars out on the sidewalk, trying to get in with Spike, and the bartender, Lou, is in the doorway pleading with him and seeming to get nowhere, and in Legends, of course, no dogs are allowed, period. §

Dell Franklin writes from his home in Cayucos, Calif., where he shares his beach shack with the million-dollar view with Wilbur, a rescue dog. Dell is the founding publisher of The Rogue Voice and is currently working on a book about his dad who played professionally in the early days of baseball, The Ball Player’s Son.

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