Jessi, my fellow bartender, pulls me aside on a busy Friday night around 10, the band on a break. She points at the two men sitting on my end of the bar, up front. “Dell,” she says, stressing, “those guys gimme the creeps. They scare me.”
For a woman as blustery, foul-mouthed and often intimidating and confrontational as Jessie, she is easily spooked. Blond Amazon ex-nude stripper and biker moll from down south, her sensing of danger leads to immediate panic; one minute cloyingly needy, the next she has physically attacked men and women in this bar. I see her point with these two guys—the way they stare at women—but so far I have managed to build a sort of rapport with them, if that is possible.
“They’re from Crescent City, Jess,” I explain. “They’re commercial fishermen and loggers. They’re down here for the albacore run.”
“But all the boys are out fishin’,” she says. “Even my Bruce, with his bad back, he’s fishin’.” She stares at the men. She’s got a voice like a meat-grinder from booze, smokes and drugs. “Dell, they look like those apes they showed us in high school.”
“You mean, Neanderthals.”
“Yeh! Like…gorillas. They got weird, slitty eyes. They don’t look like other people. They don’t even look like Rafe Monk. I wish Rafe was here. Those guys give me the willies.”
Fact is, these two are giving a few folks up front a case of the heebie-jeebies. There are crude wooden booths adjacent the tables ringing the dance floor, and sitting in one closest to the door, directly behind the Neanderthals, are two slumming yuppie couples I’d guess are in their thirties. They sip foofoo drinks and left me two quarters instead of a dollar or two as tip, which immediately places them on my shit list.
The man who ordered the drinks has perm-frizzed hair and eyeglasses and keeps gazing over at me as if to get my attention as one of the thugs turns in their direction and says something to the table. Both men are around thirty-five, probably stand 5 feet 9 inches, and their squat, thick trunks hold block heads on no-neck shoulders. In Levi’s and tank-tops, heavily tattooed, their eyes possess a challenging surliness
The women in the booth are attractively presented and well endowed, and when I ask Jessi if she thinks their boobs are real, she says with decisive defiance, “They’re phony. Mine are real, baby. I’m thirty-six and my titties still stand tall and proud.” She grins at me. She wears a red skin-tight mini-skirt and halter top exposing cleavage. “Those high-end bitches think their shit don’t stink. They oughta be down on the embarcadero in the fancy joints. Let’s do a shot, honey.”
We do shots of Crown Royal, her preference. The thugs leer at me. I mosey over to them after mixing some drinks. One of them has short blond hair and blunt, snubbed features, while the other has long greasy black hair and could be part Indian. The blond says, “That’s yer wife, huh? You own this joint?”
“Nah, don’t own anything, pal.”
“She yer woman?”
“Nah. Just work together.”
“That’s some woman. Reminds me of the barmaid at the Bear Flag in Moss Landing.”
“I’ve heard that before.”
“Them two fags in the booth behind us, they mouth off t’ me one more time I’m gonna kick ass. Me and Shep, we don’t take no shit from no man.”
Shep adds, “Them bitches, they give us the come-on, man.”
I offer my hand to Jed, the blond, and then shake with Shep. Jessi, mixing highballs, watches. “Welcome to Morro Bay,” I say, my hand still feeling their crushing grips, which I matched. “Try and ignore those folks.”
I get busy. The frizzy-haired yuppie comes up for another round. Makes sure to wedge in at the middle of the bar, places his order. I fill it. He pays, leaving fifty cents. Then he leans forward, peers down the bar at my new friends, who are eyeing us, and says, “Those two sub-humans, you shouldn’t be serving them; they’re really too drunk. Isn’t there a policy on cutting people off these days?”
I fold my arms. “I have my own policy. This is Happy Jack’s.”
“The blond bozo, he flicked his tongue at my lady and grabbed his crotch. They’re bad news. You’re the bartender here. If this were my bar, I’d have those two out of here before they start big trouble. Don’t you have a bouncer?”
“No. Sometimes the fishermen help, but they’re all out to sea.”
“Well, I’m an attorney in San Luis Obispo, and my advice right now is to get the cops in here and get those two out of here for lewd behavior.” He hands me a business card from his wallet. “This is your responsibility. I’m holding you to that. Those two are beyond offensive. They’re downright…ghoulish.” He issues me a look of disappointment and takes his drinks back to his table.
The thugs, who’ve watched our conversation, motion me over. “What’d that faggot tell yah?” Jed asks.
I fold my arms. “He thinks you’re making a pass at his wife.”
Shep almost comes off his stool. “She done made a pass at US!”
“She give us the goo-goo eye,” Jed adds.
“She wants it,” Shep maintains. “Them girly boys ain’t givin’ her no play. They starvin’ for real men.”
Jed grins at me. “Where we come from, them punks be fucked over already.”
I place my palms wide apart on the bar and lean forward. “Look, best thing to do, if those babes really got the hots for you, is wait for them to make THEIR move. Right now you can’t be horning in on ‘em if they’re sitting with those stiffs.”
“We gotcha.” Jed says. “We don’t aim to make no trouble for YOU. We just wanna get laid, and if we can’t do that, we wanna get in a good fight.”
Shep grins. He’s missing two teeth on the side and his nose is dented. “We rather fuck than fight.”
They order another round. I mix it, bring it over. The band starts up. Now the lawyer comes to the middle of the bar. “You’ve lost control of your bar, mister. Those two apes are taking over, and you’re allowing it. They are blatantly sticking their tongues out and grabbing their crotches and making obscene comments to our girl friends. If YOU can’t get rid if them, I’LL call the cops.”
“You’ll sit your ass back down and do nothing of the sort,” I tell him. “You don’t tell me how to run my bar, motherfucker.”
“Oh that’s cool, calling me a ‘motherfucker.’ Lots of class. Look, anything happens to us with those bozos, we’ll sue this bar and you, especially.” He issues me a withering you’d better-believe-I-can fuck-up-your-life look, and adds. “You’re afraid to stand up to those apes and protect your clientele.” He walks back to the booth with his drinks.
Jessi is beside me. My hands are shaking. My stomach flip-flops and roils with heat. “Dell, I feel big trouble comin’, honey. Let’s do a shot.”
We do shots. Jed is now at the booth asking the girl with the lawyer to dance, I would guess. I quickly move past Jessi and out from behind the bar and push through the crowd to the booth, where Shep stands beside Jed as they have words with the lawyer and his friend while their women shrink in mortal fear. I get between them. Frizzy hair stands and starts in on me about taking charge.
“Sit the fuck down!” I roar at him.
He sits down.
“This is my bar! I’m bartender! You keep to your profession and shut your hole, mister, this is MY turf!” I turn to Jed and Shep. “Let’s go outside a minute, guys, we need to talk.”
“We ain’t got no beef with you,” Jed says.
“I know you don’t, Jed.”
The lawyer rises. “You’re kissin’ their asses,” he whines.
“Sit down, motherfucker! Now!”
He sits down.
I gently place my hands on the wrecking-ball shoulders of the two moolyaks and lead them toward the front door while the band roars on and the crowd of wild dancers parts. It is warm and balmy outside.
I stand before Jed and Shep on the sidewalk. “Look, guys, you gotta help me here. Those geeks are lawyers and they’re tryna get me in a position to sue me and my boss, who’s a Marine veteran of the Second World War.”
“We win’t got no beef with you, man,” Jed says. “Do we, Shep?”
“Fuck no, we ain’t got no beef with you.”
“But we got a beef with them punks,” says Jed.
“They’re not worth having a beef with,” I tell Jed.
“We’re gonna kick their asses and take their fuckin’ bitches, cuz they been fuckin’ with us.”
“We ain’t backin’ down from no man,” Shep adds.
“Look, as a favor, guys, I don’t want you fighting in my bar.”
They look at each other. They’re pretty wobbly. Jed grins at me. “But we drove alla way down here cuz we wanna get in a fight.”
“We come a long way to get in a fight in Happy Jack’s,” Shep explains.
“We been in fights in every fisherman’s bar on the coast, clear from Alaska, but we ain’t been in a fight in Happy Jack’s.”
“Look, if you get in a fight in my bar, you’ll end up in jail. I don’t wanna see you guys in jail. I consider you guests of mine to look out for.”
“We ‘preciate that,” Jed says. “But we don’t mind goin’ t’ jail. We been thrown in jail in every port on the coast.”
“Nobody fucks with us in jail,” Shep grins.
“Look,” I say, “there’s nobody in the bar worth fighting. Those lawyers, you can’t fight them—they’re sissies. You won’t get no satisfaction beating up sissies, will yah?”
“Well,” Jed says. “We got to fight somebody in there if them sissy boys won’t fight us.”
“But that’s all we got in the bar tonight. You guys came down at the very worst time to get in a fight. All the tough guys, they’re on the albacore run, won’t be back for a day or two.”
Jed and Shep look at each other. “Shit,” Jed says.
“Fuck,” Shep says.
“Look,” I say. “You guys, you look like you been at it for a long time. How long you been drinking?”
“We been drinkin’ for two days, since we left Moss Landing.” Jed says proudly.
“When’s the last time you ate?”
“Well, we didn’t have no breakfast, did we, Shep?”
“Nah, don’t think so. Just chips and stuff.”
“Well, dammit, guys, since there’s nobody worth a shit to fight in the goddamn bar, and you ain’t eaten all day, why don’t you go on down the street to the Fisherman’s Roost. Serve breakfast day and night. And you get a real steak and eggs, not a runty little thing. All the fisherman in town eat breakfast there before they go out in the morning. You go on down there and tell ‘em Jessi and Dell from Happy Jack’s sent you. They’ll give you the royal treatment.”
Jed glances at Shep. “Well, I’m starvin’, Shep.”
“Yeh, me, too. Best to eat, I guess.” He’s dispirited.
“You guys get a good meal in yah, come on back and see me. Look, around the corner from the diner’s the Anchor Motel; it’s real cheap and clean, get a good night’s sleep. You guys’ve put in a long day.”
They discuss the situation. I fold my arms. They nod. “Guess we’ll eat,” Jed says. “Thanks for the tip, bro’. We ain’t got no beef with you. You been real fair, and we ‘preciate it.”
“Far as I’m concerned, you’re my guest’s in Happy Jack’s, and I aim to look out for you, just like you’d do for me if I was in Crescent City and drank in your bar.”
“Any time you come to Crescent City, we got yer back, bro’.”
We shake hands all around and I watch them wobble down the sidewalk. I take a big breath, exhale. Re-entering the steaming cauldron, as I pass the first booth, frizzy hair stands.
“I don’t appreciate being insulted by you and cursed by you in front of our ladies,” he states, issuing me an official look of reprimand and possible threat.
“I just kept you and your friend from getting beaten to death.”
“That’s your job. You did a lousy job. I’m contacting the owner of this establishment and inform him of what an incompetent jerk you are, and I’m going to make it a point to get your job.”
I pound the table with my fist, shaking their drinks. The girls shrink back as the lawyer jumps. “You want my job, you piss-ant, take it! Get behind the bar! You wanna talk to my boss? He’s a combat vet from the Great War and I’m a vet and we stick together like fucking brothers. Now you get the fuck out of here! You and your trashy bitches are eighty-sixed.” I toss a bill on the table and grab their drinks and walk over and place them on the bar. Jessi grins at me as I shake a fist at the lawyer, who starts to protest. “Get the fuck out! You’re banned for life on the grounds you’re a weasel and a puke, now move OUT!” I’m waving my arms wildly, frothing at the mouth, and they rise, the women grabbing purses, and scurry out the front door.
I receive a standing ovation from the crowd and a toot from the band. Behind the bar, Jessi has two shots of Crown Royal waiting for us. Before we down them, still grinning, she high-fives me.§
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.