When the last of the customers had been persuaded to leave, and BJ and Al had thoroughly swept, mopped and fumigated the bar with the assistance of Rick and Wanda, BJ slumped heavily on a barstool.
“Thanks for the help, friends,” he said with a tired smile. “These people get worse every day! I mean cigarette butts stuffed in the jukebox. Drinks spilled on the pool table. Not to mention the usual breakage. Sometimes I wonder why I bother.”
“Oh, c’mon, BJ.” Rick clapped him on the back. “What else would you do?”
“You’re right, as usual,” BJ sighed. “But at times like these I think about just chucking it in and backpacking across Europe like I always meant to do. While I’m still young enough, I mean.”
“Anyway, BJ,” spoke up Wanda, “now that you’ve got Al here to help you out I just know things are gonna be better.”
“I’m just not used to working nights anymore, I guess,” BJ mused. “During the three years Fast Eddie was here I got sort of spoiled. I should have caught on earlier. The place was always full, but I was struggling just to break even.”
“I could always send Bear and Crazy George after him,” offered Rick. “They always like a good excuse to kick some ass.”
“No, don’t bother,” he replied. “Though I must admit I’m tempted. Like you always say, Rick, ‘what goes around, comes around.’ No, there’s no use us getting our hands dirty with the likes of Fast Eddie.”
While the others were talking, Al was pacing around the bar, picking up a bottle here, an ashtray there, and looking at each item as if it were a piece of some elaborate jigsaw puzzle.
“Anyway, what’s done is done,” BJ concluded, “and I find I’m nearly done in. Al, why don’t you see your friends out and then come back and I’ll show you your room.”
Rick and Wanda said their goodbyes to BJ, and then they and Al quietly left the bar. As they walked outside into the street, a new moon was just beginning to rise over the Bay Bridge. The air was still warm and calm, a prelude to another hot Indian summer dawn. As they stopped to admire the moon, the silence was complete. Wanda shivered suddenly.
“Al,” she said softly, “I feel like I’m just getting to know you, and there’s so much I want to talk to you about. Can I come and see you tomorrow night?”
“Of course you can, Wanda, any time. But why don’t you bring Rick with you. He never received the answers to his questions, did you, Rick?”
“No,” admitted Rick. “But after the way you rescued Wanda, and seeing what BJ thinks of you already…well, you seem like an all-right dude to me.” He paused for a moment and then continued somewhat bashfully. “Um, Al, you don’t by any chance, uh, swing both ways, do you?”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Uh, you know, that’s when you like both guys and chicks. I can tell from the way Wanda acts that you go for chicks. She’s never wrong about that stuff. But I kinda wish you went for guys, too.”
“To tell the truth, I’m not sure,” admitted Al. “Where I come from one is not encouraged to think about these things, believe me, much less do anything about them. So this is all new to me. I must have time to sort things out.”
“Oh,” said Rick. “I get it! You must be, like, from the Midwest or someplace where everybody’s still in the closet!”
“Yes,” replied Al with relief. “That’s it, exactly. But if it turns out I like ‘guys’, you’ll be the first to know.”
Rick laughed out loud. “Al, you are one crazy dude! But it’s getting late, so me and Wanda have to split. Oh, just one more thing, Al?”
“Um, uh, do you think my van will start? I had to park it about six blocks away.”
“Yes, of course, Rick. Your van will be OK. It’s like you say, ‘whatever goes around comes around,’ right?”
“Right on, Al!” replied Rick enthusiastically.
Wanda stood up on tiptoes and kissed Al lightly on the cheek. “So long Al, baby. See you tomorrow night.”
As Rick and Wanda turned and walked away, Al raised his hand and waved at them tentatively. “To friendship,” he said softly. Then he went back to The Last Resort. As he entered the swinging saloon doors, he noticed BJ with his face down on the bar, snoring, a half-empty whiskey glass in his outstretched hand.
“Wake up, Mr. Duckworth,” said Al, gently shaking him by the shoulders. “Time for us to get some sleep.”
“Huh, wozzat?” snorted BJ, suddenly jerking his head up and spilling his drink in the process. He blinked once or twice and then said more lucidly, “Oh, Al, I must have dozed off for a moment. Let me show you where your room is.” He rather unsteadily poured himself another drink from the Jameson’s bottle on the bar.
Then he started to stand up, but Al put a hand on his shoulder. “I wonder,” Al said, gazing deeply into BJ’s eyes, “if we couldn’t have a nightcap first. I’ve not had a chance to get acquainted with you yet.”
“Why sure, Al, sure, if that’s what you want,” he replied, now unaccountably fully awake. “I like a man who likes to talk. No better qualification for a good bartender than a touch of the blarney. Why I remember when I first arrived in Seattle in ’68. Just a young feller I was too, must have been about your age. Well, I got a job tending bar at a basement saloon near the Greyhound station, and a terrible filthy hole in the ground it was too. What really impressed me then was that we got a lot of soldiers stopping in there traveling to Fort Lewis, the Army’s basic training camp for the region, on their way to Vietnam. That was at the height of the war, remember, and I can still recall those hundreds of young despairing faces, some of ‘em no older than eighteen. They were clearly not there to party, but I was able to talk to some of them, cheer ‘em up a bit by getting them interested for the time being in something outside their poor miserable lives and I could see they thanked me for it, though they didn’t have much to say…” He broke off suddenly and looked at Al, who was still looking at him intently and had not changed expression through his whole speech. “But I seem to be monopolizing the conversation,” he finished a bit sheepishly. “Why don’t you tell me a little about yourself, Al?”
“Another time, Mr. Duckworth, if you don’t mind,” replied Al. “It’s late. Drink up, and show me where I’m to sleep. But first, I have a question for you.”
“Ask me anything.”
“All right. Why is it that Rick and Wanda both seem to be attracted to me? I was under the impression that they lived together.”
“Why bless you, my boy, so they do, so they do,” chuckled BJ, draining his glass once more and then refilling it from the rapidly diminishing contents of the Jameson’s bottle. “They live together, all right, but not in the way you think. They’re just roommates at an artistic commune over on Page and Fillmore in the Lower Haight called The Madhouse. It’s run by a guy name of Marty Mathews, and they live there with a bunch of ‘arty’ types and their various boy- and girlfriends. Sexually speaking, it’s the type of place where ‘anything goes’, if you know what I mean. The only thing Rick and Wanda definitely have in common is that they both like men. Rick found Wanda living in a crack house about three years ago. He took an interest in her, said she reminded him of his kid sister or something. He got her cleaned up and off the drugs and then talked her into living with him so she’d have somebody around to keep her from yielding to temptation, at least in the beginning. But they must have gotten used to each other, ‘cause they’re still together, though Lord knows why, the way they bicker and fight with each other constantly, just like an old married couple. You know, you’ve heard ‘em.”
Al listened to BJ’s recitation thoughtfully. “But what am I to do, then,” he asked, “about their feelings for me? They’re both my friends. I don’t want to cause any problems between them.”
“Not to worry, Al.” BJ put his arm around Al’s shoulder. “They’re not possessive with each other, if that’s what you mean. Sure, Rick feels protective toward Wanda, but he’s never been bothered by any of her flings. I guess he feels that’s her business. Likewise, Wanda’s never had her feelings hurt by any of the hunky Castro guys makin’ eyes at Rick and ignoring her. Don’t be surprised,” he nudged Al in the ribs with his elbow, “if one or both of them doesn’t suggest a three-way before the week is out. After all, this is San Francisco, the sexual Disneyland of the West. But don’t feel pressured. You can be honest with them without worrying about bruised egos.”
“Thank you,” said Al with a sigh of relief. “That’s been preying on my mind for hours. Now I think I can sleep. Would you be so good as to…?”
“Of course, of course.” BJ rose hurriedly. “Where are my manners? It must be going on for four. Come this way.” He led Al toward the back of the bar, past the pool table and the jukebox, to a small curtained-off area in the corner. He parted the curtain to reveal a sort of improvised storeroom. Liquor boxes were stacked everywhere, including on top of the skeleton of an old rusted-out cast iron stove. BJ moved some boxes around to create a path through the disarray. “This used to be the kitchen,” he confided to Al, “back in the 60’s when they actually served food here. And right through that door over there is a little room where the cook used to sleep when he had to get up early to start the soup or whatever.” He went over and opened the door for Al, saying “Don’t worry, it locks from the inside so you can have your privacy. See,” he swept his hand over the room. “A comfy little cot, some old beer barrels for chairs, even a little wash basin. All the comforts of home! And out here, this other door opens onto the alley in back.” BJ unlocked the padlock and tried to push the door open. “Oof! Seems to be stuck. Give me a hand, Al.”
BJ and Al were pushing for all they were worth when suddenly, a shriek split the early morning calm and the door burst open, flinging them out into the alley.
“What do you mean disturbin’ an old lady’s slumber at this time o’ night?” came a shrill voice from a heap of clothes lying on the sidewalk. Slowly a figure emerged from the heap which they finally recognized as that of an old woman.
“A thousand pardons, dear lady,” apologized BJ. “I had no idea it was you. Why on earth were you camped out against the door?”
“Dogshit on my mattress again. Can’t abide dogshit,” said the old lady firmly.
“Al,” said BJ, taking the old woman’s hand. “Allow me to introduce you to this fascinating creature. This is Queen Mab (at least that’s what I call her, she won’t tell me her real name). Mab, my dear, this is Al. He’s going to be our new bartender.”
“What happened to the last one?” she snapped.
“He, er, didn’t work out,” admitted BJ.
“I told you.” Her self-satisfaction was evident. “His palm said he wasn’t to be trusted.”
“Queen Mab tells fortunes, Al,” returned BJ, eager to change the focus of this bizarre conversation.
“Let me see your hand, Al,” said Queen Mab imperiously.
Al obediently held out his hand and the old lady grasped it in hers. After a prolonged period of muttering and mumbling she looked up into Al’s face and gasped, “Oh, my lord. I had no idea it was you. Please forgive me.” She let go of his hand and sank to her knees.
“Arise, Queen Mab,” said Al, as if he were playing the King of England in a historical pageant. He took her hand, kissed it chivalrously, and pulled her slowly to her feet.
Silently she regarded Al with a look of wonder. Then she wandered blissfully down the alley.
BJ looked at Al suspiciously. “What was all that about?” he demanded.
“I was just humoring a crazy old lady,” replied Al. “No harm in that. Possibly she confused me with someone else. Her son, perhaps.”
“Perhaps,” BJ agreed grudgingly. “But Queen Mab is supposed to be psychic. Even if she is a little crazy, there must be some other reason she reacted to you like that.”
“I doubt it,” said Al with a yawn. He waved his hand dismissively. “Leave me now. I must sleep.”
“Whatever you say, Al,” said BJ with a shrug. “See you tomorrow.”
As Rick and Wanda got out of the van—miraculously, they’d found a parking space right in front of the Madhouse—they were surprised to see a Yellow Cab come screeching around the corner and make an abrupt stop directly across the street from them. An attractive young woman in her mid-20’s slid briskly out of the back seat, slammed the door shut and, proffering a handful of bills to the driver, told him grandly to “Keep the change, my good man.”
The cab sped away. She straightened the rabbit fur stole around her shoulders and took off her stiletto heels, inspecting the broken stump of one of them with some dismay. Her person was in disarray—makeup smudged, gaping holes in her black fishnets, buttons missing on her low-cut ruffled blouse, her skirt awry—but as she padded across the street in her stocking feet she waved her broken shoe in the direction of Rick and Wanda and called out cheerfully, “Hey, you two, I’m home!”
“Simona,” said Rick, “almost didn’t recognize you in your work clothes. So how’d the bachelor party go?”
“Don’t ask, don’t ask! Those frat boys—feh! Never again, like I always say. They paid me handsomely, but I barely escaped with my life! You’d think those guys had never seen an exotic dancer before. Ah, well, it’s a living, I suppose,” she finished with a grin. “So what’s up with you guys? Must be almost dawn. Just getting home?”
“Simona, I can’t wait to tell you what happened to us tonight,” said Wanda with excitement. “We found this really hunky guy…”
Fifteen minutes later she was still talking. “And I swear, when Al told Crazy George to get lost and he actually left, well, I thought I’d die! Boy, talk about chivalry in action.”
“But there’s something weird about Al,” put in Rick. “I’d bet my stash he’s not just an ordinary dude. I can pick up on his vibes. I didn’t hang out with the Maharishi in the 70’s for nothing, you know. This guy’s like on another spiritual plane or something.”
“Golly!” giggled Simona. “Sounds like he’s got you guys in his power already! I’ve gotta meet this guru of yours.”
“You could come down to the bar with me tomorrow night and scope him out,” suggested Wanda. “Tell me what you think. But remember, hands off! I saw him first.”
“You know me, kids,” said Simona. “Like that old radio show says, I love a mystery! I’ll get the goods on this guy, just you wait!”
© Cantara Christopher 2001, 2022