Editor’s note: This episode of Dell Franklin’s “Night life in Happy Jack’s” is the first chapter of a book he’s written, titled “Bartender.”
by Dell Franklin
Sunday evening in Happy Jack’s Saloon in Morro Bay and they’ve been at it all day in the murky crumbling grotto, sharks and barracuda and minnows swarming in the cavernous dank dark tank. Some in this crowd have been up for days without sleep or nourishment and are engrossed in babbling conversations or playing pool in the area off the back door or jerking spasmodically at video games up front where horrific sounds of mayhem mingle with the reverberating beat and wailings from the jukebox at nonstop full volume—as requested by the riffraff.
I’m nipping. By 9 p.m., I’ve had my burrito from down the street and topshelf vodka makes everything copacetic. Earlier I’d had to deal with little Johnny at the urgency of even some of the most gnarly fisherman, because Johnny, no longer employable as a deckhand, was walking around bare-footed like a somnambulist, dreamy smile on his face, making small-talk with terrified barflies while a rod with a Dirty Harry barrel protruded loosely from his belt line, as if the baggy over-sized Hawaiian shirt could hide it!
Anybody who looks into Johnny’s eyes recognizes cornered animal darkness. “Please, get that crazy person outta here!” begged Mitzi, the former stripper gone a little chunky around the edges but still with the best walk in town. “He’s scarin’ the shit outta me, and I don’t scare easy.”
“Who do you think I am? Clint Eastwood? Take him to bed, Mitz.”
“You’re NOT funny, Dell! Look, everybody’s freaked!”
I eventually motioned Johnny over like an old pal. He came to the end of the bar where I leaned on the board that lifts so one can go in and out without ducking under. I offered my hand. His soft shake and stare unnerved me. We’d hardly talked before.
Johnny, how yah doin’, man? Everything cool with you?”
“Right on, I’m way cool…,” his voice far, far away.
“Look, I don’t want anybody fuckin’ with you, Johnny. I’m here to watch over you, bro’. I don’t want any asshole tryna take your piece away from you, man. That’s YOUR rod, man.”
“Thanks, man. I appreciate that.”
“So what I’d like to do, to be on the safe side, is I’d like to hide your rod in the safe in the office, you know, lock it up, and then you can have your drink and enjoy yourself without worrying about some asshole hasslin’ you over it, or callin’ the heat, bro’.”
Like a child, he asked, “You think it’s a good idea, bro’?”
“I do, Johnny.”
“Okay, bro’. You’re the boss. It is what it is.”
My arm around Johnny, I walked him into the office. He handed me his rod, which I carefully placed in the safe. “See, Johnny, now your piece is safe, bro’.”
Back in the bar, Johnny resumed his sleep-walking, slow-talking, directionless prowl and everything was fine. Somebody bought him a drink. I got very busy. Around 10 p.m., he was at the end of the bar.
“Bro’, I need my piece. I’m leavin’.”
“You got it, bro’.”
Happy Jack’s is the oldest bar in the county, has a reputation from Alaska to San Diego for its wild brawls, which over the years have involved knifings, bludgeon-bashing and shootings. And here I am, a fisherman’s bartender who hates fishing and fish, suffers chronic seasickness, fears water, and is allergic to drudge work, which they all know, but as long as I pour good drinks when they want them and manage to keep the peace when it counts, I am accepted grudgingly though, at this point, deservedly disrespected.
So this late crowd forges on, propelled by the powder. The fishermen have cash, and the sea hags yap continuously. Yet cropping up is a new paranoia: A couple from Fresno that nobody likes and seem inauthentic bikers. It’s the female spreading the panic, a glaring moll with an astounding pair of jugs and ass in tight jeans. Again, it’s Mitzi who’s at the bar.
“What’s with THAT dish?” she asks.
“She came up to me, and commented how everybody in here is either drunk out of their minds, zonked on downers, or buzzed to the max on coke or crank. When I shrugged, she asked ME what I was gonna do about it. I told her this was Happy Jack’s in Morro Bay, which meant we were unusual, and I was not the DEA, and she informed me she was a police officer from Fresno.”
“I asked if she was on duty. She warned me not to mess with her, even if she was off duty, because she’s still the law. I told her there were other bars in town. She just gave me a filthy look and walked off with her Miller Lite. Didn’t even leave a tip, but the husband in leather vest and chaps did.”
Mitzi peers at the lady cop as she chews on her man in the poolroom. “She’s too gorgeous to be a cop; unless she’s undercover as a hooker or porno queen. She’s really hard, Dell.”
“Maybe you can soften here up, ey, Mitz?” I leer.
Five minutes later, Mitzi engages her in conversation. Mitzi is in black heels, black jeans, black V-necked T-shirt, her jet-black hair curved like crow’s wings at her chin, highlighting her cheekbones.
The cop suddenly lashes out at her man and he throws up his hands and storms out of the poolroom and out of the bar and across the street to the Circle Inn, our competition and my former employer. The cop grits her teeth, steaming. Meanwhile, Mitzi catches my eye as she sort of leads the woman toward the area where I’d previously visited with Johnny and motions me over. When I arrive, the cop glowers at me. I stand before the two women drumming my fingers on the bar as the joint fills up as usual on Sunday nights with off-duty wait-people and bartenders from restaurants down on the embarcadero, three blocks away.
Mitzi whispers in the cop’s ear and she opens her purse and reluctantly tosses a twenty on the bar and Mitzi takes my hand and whispers in my ear, “Two Miller Lites and two shots of Goldschlager.”
I do as told while regulars along the 22 wobbly stools wave bills and hold up glasses to get my attention. I make change and, before the cop can snatch her money, Mitzi flips me two dollars and I cram it in my crowded snifter and move down the bar to wait on two young sweeties from the Sea Horse Bar & Grill, Tiffany and Kelly. Just old enough to drink, they are now cocktailing and adorable and make big-time tips and come here on Sunday nights to slum and be outraged as they become indoctrinated into the serious bar society in Morro Bay. I prepare their foofoo drinks and they smile and tip appropriately and I tread the boards and when I look down to the end of the bar Mitzi smiles impishly and waggles her index finger at me and points to the bottles and shot glasses and I do it again and, before the cop can snatch change from a new twenty, Mitzi flips me three dollars.
During a lull, I slip out from behind the bar to collect glasses and bottles piling up in the poolroom and on tables and ledges in the lounge area off the dance floor and band stage. I place them all on the bar for future disposal or washing and when I arrive at the end of the bar Mitzi and the cop are facing each other and Mitzi has her hand on her shoulder like a comforting sister and the shrew seems to be softening ever so slowly. When Mitzi points to the bottles and glasses I quickly fill the order and, this time the cop doesn’t try to snatch her money, and Mitzi flips me a sawbuck and puts a sympathetic hug on her before they turn back to the bar.
One of the diminutive Mexican immigrants in the poolroom catches my eye and nods at me and heads to the john, which is down the hall away from the poolroom and past the office. I wait a minute and join him pissing in twin commodes as he shoves two spoonfuls of coke under my nose. I snort hard, feeling the dust shoot up my nostril and down my throat. When I return to the bar, Mitzi has her hand on the cop’s ass and her middle finger riding up under her snatch.
Back behind the bar I down a double shot to even out the immediate rush and then wait on and schmooze with a couple off-duty harbor patrol guys and a fisherman named Homer Carp, and the next time I look up Mitzi and the cop are gone. Tiffany motions me over with a cutesy-cutesy smile she charms the old droolers in the Sea Horse with. “Can you please please watch our drinks, Mr. Super bartender, sir? We’re going to the little girls room.”
About two minutes later Tiffany and Kelly scurry up to the bar looking like they saw a ghost. Tiffany, hands on hips, stern as a schoolmarm, exclaims, “Do you know what’s going on in the lady’s room, sir?”
“No I don’t.”
“There’s two naked women in there, and that Mitzi, she’s on her knees eating the other woman’s pussy!”
I shrug. “Well, shit happens in Happy Jack’s.”
“Shit HAPPENS? That all you have to say? You CONDONE it?”
“Not necessarily, no, but nor do I disapprove,” I explain, pouring myself one more, lifting it in a mindless salute, and to what I do not know, and certainly not lesbian shenanigans in the head. With glee, I down it.
She glances at Carp and the harbor patrol boys, then back at me. “You don’t DIS-approve? What would you do if two men were in the men’s room and one was giving the other a blow job?”
“I’d throw their asses out!” I snarl. “Happy Jack’s is not a gay bar!”
“Oh, but it’s okay with women, right?” Very sassy.
“Look,” I say, trying to be reasonable. “Sex between two men is repulsive, and it spreads AIDS. But two women? I find that sensual and exotic and…titillating. It really turns me on.”
They slam down their drinks and storm out. They’ll be back another time.
Meanwhile, half an hour later, Mitzi and the cop, who looks like she’s been tranquilized with an ecstasy pill, are headed toward the front swinging doors, possibly to find a motel room, if I know Mitzi. The husband comes in later, asking around for his woman, but nobody gives him a straight answer. The last words to me from Mitzi, before they left, with a wink, were: “I own this bitch. I’m gonna make a real woman outta her.” §
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.