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.