Al was so busy making and serving expensive tropical concoctions to the demanding throng of trendy customers that he failed to notice BJ walk through the door.
“Oh, hi Al, just thought I’d drop by to see how you were doin’,” he began and then his jaw dropped in astonishment. “Holy Mother of God!” he exclaimed. “Who are all these people? Where did my regular customers go? And why do all these drinks have little paper umbrellas in them?”
He looked around, his eyes glazed over, as if he had suddenly lost his grip on reality.
Al came around from behind the bar and put his hand on BJ’s shoulder. “Now, Mr. Duckworth,” he said soothingly. “You said the old crowd was beginning to depress you. Go and meet some of your new customers. And remember, we’re charging three-fifty a drink.”
“Three-fifty a drink?!” BJ spluttered. “And they pay it?”
“Sure,” he explained. “It seems these people feel that if something is not expensive it has no value. They consider themselves to be of value, so they live expensively. And besides, you’ll enjoy listening to some of them. They have the most interesting stories to tell.”
While Al was explaining the changes at The Last Resort to BJ, Simona was riding downtown with Tim in Tim’s gas-guzzling twenty year-old white Ford station wagon which she semi-affectionately called “The White Whale.”
“Tim,” mused Simona, ‘suppose this new guy is everything Wanda says he is. What’s he doing working for peanuts at a rundown dive like The Last Resort?”
“Patience, Simona.” Tim was hunched over the wheel, centering his attention on the hills and the traffic flow. “I guess we’ll find out pretty soon. Now shut up and let me concentrate. It’s not easy driving in this city. These little streets weren’t built for normal cars.”
“Normal cars!” snorted Simona. “The only normal thing about The White Whale is that it’s white. And in this town even being white’s not so normal. Why don’t you get rid of this antique and get a cute little Toyota pickup or something?”
Tim looked at her with exasperation. “I’ve told you over and over that I need this car for my theater work. Most of the places I work at just can’t afford to hire a truck to haul around lighting equipment and scenery all the time.”
“Yeah, Tim,” retorted Simona with a smirk. “Just like most of the places you work at can’t afford to hire a lighting designer either.”
“C’mon, Simona, lighten up!” urged Tim, looking hurt. “You know I’ve just had some bad luck lately, that’s all. I’ll get some good-paying jobs soon. You know I always do.”
“You’d better,” replied Simona a bit grimly. She turned and looked at him as if sizing him up. “You know, you’re good to look at, a halfway witty conversationalist, and reasonably OK in the sack, but I’m not sure how long I can continue to afford you. I mean, the work I do isn’t advertised in the paper (at least not the legitimate ones). I have to hustle just about as hard to find the work in the first place as to actually do it. Not to mention the fact that it can be dangerous out there for a delicate single girl such as myself…”
“Oh, come off it, Simona!” Tim replied with a laugh. “You know there’s nothing else you’d rather do. Hmm, I’m just picturing you now as an administrative assistant wearing your cute little dress-for-success suit…”
“Oh, yuck!” Simona stuck out her tongue at him. “I’d slug you if you weren’t driving!”
“We’re almost there,” said Tim with relief as he made a right off of Market Street onto First. “I’ll find a parking place and you go in and order the drinks. I’m curious to see what this guy looks like.”
While Tim and Simona were driving and arguing their way toward The Last Resort, in another part of town Rick and Wanda were doing much the same.
“I gotta hand it to you, Rick,” Wanda was remarking, “your van has never run this good before.”
“Yeah, it’s totally amazing,” he agreed. “I think Al has got some sort of a magic touch or something.”
“Speaking of magic touches,” she licked her lips. “I hope Al has some time tonight. I really want to get to know him better.”
“Just be careful, Wanda. How much do we really know about this guy anyway? I mean, I dig him too, but remember last night? Every time we tried to ask him something about himself, something happened or he’d change the subject.”
Wanda squeezed his arm. “Don’t worry, Rick, I’ll watch out. But I think I can take care of myself as many times as I’ve been hit on.”
“Yeah, like with Crazy George,” he reminded her.
“He’s an exception. Built like a gorilla with a brain to match and a libido the size of Texas. You don’t find that combination very often.”
“Luckily,” replied Rick. “Or I’d swear off of guys forever. Seriously though, I wish I could be with you and Al tonight, but I’ve got to see this guy about a sculpture he wants me to do. There could be some serious bread in this if I rap to him right. Give my regards to Al.”
“I sure will. I know how you feel about him. How we both feel about him. For me, it’s like he’s sort of a part of me I never knew was missing.”
“That’s it exactly, Wanda, you hit on it! He makes me feel excited and suspicious at the same time. And yet safe and secure, too. And sometimes I’m just flat out in awe of him. What the hell’s his secret anyway? And where did he come from?” By this time Rick was pulling up in front of The Last Resort’s entrance on First and Howard.
“Maybe some day he’ll give us all the answers,” replied Wanda, getting out of the van. “Look, I promise I’ll be careful. Pick me up right here by about one-thirty, OK, Rick? And good luck with your sculpture deal. Hope you make big bucks!” She waved to him as he drove off, and then she turned and went through the saloon doors.
“Wanda, my dear, how nice to see you again,” Al purred smoothly as she approached the bar.
“Ooh, Al, how cute you look!” squealed Wanda. “That little red bow tie is just too much!”
“You like it?” asked Al a bit vainly. “It was Mr. Duckworth’s idea. But I must admit I’ve become rather attached to it already. Now, what can I get you? We’re having a special tonight on blended margaritas. Only three-fifty.”
“Blended margaritas? Three-fifty? Is this The Last Resort or have I wandered into a Polk Street fern bar by mistake? Does BJ know about this? And what are all these trendy people doing here?”
“Slow down, Wanda,” laughed Al. “Mr. Duckworth does know about it. In fact he just found out. I think the upgrading of the clientele took him a bit by surprise. Now, what’ll it be for you?”
“Just a beer, I guess, Al,” she replied, looking around at the bar patrons in wonderment. “It’s going to take me some time to get used to all these changes. And Rick—he’ll shit in his pants when he sees this!”
Just then she heard a voice from the rear of the bar. “Wanda! I thought that was you. There’s plenty of room in our booth back here. Come join us!”
“Simona? And Tim?” she yelled to them over the crowd. “I’ll be there in just a minute!” She turned to Al. “When you get some time, come and meet some friends of mine. Back there.” She pointed to the booth in which Simona and Tim were sitting. “The girl lives with Rick and me at The Madhouse. The guy’s her boyfriend.”
“Certainly, Wanda,” replied Al. “By all means introduce me. I’m always eager to meet your friends.” He smiled at her warmly and handed her a beer. “Besides, anything to oblige a customer.”
Wanda melted, but managed to recover herself enough to pick up the beer and make her way through the crowd of people toward the booth in the back.
“Oh, Mr. Duckworth,” Al called to the other end of the bar. “I think I’ll take a little break now as long as you’re here. That is, if you can stop chatting up that redhead for a minute and take over here.”
“Huh? Oh yeah, sure, Al…be right there,” BJ looked a bit flustered as he rejoined Al behind the bar. “A fascinating woman—she’s an investigative journalist for The Bay Weekly. I’m trying to get her to do a piece on the bar, but she says she doesn’t write for the Lifestyle section. Maybe you can convince her, you’re good with women, and this place could use the publicity.”
“I’ll speak to her later, Mr. Duckworth. Right now, Wanda wants me to meet some of her friends.” Al took off his apron and went toward the rear booth where Tim, Simona and Wanda were sitting.
As he approached, Wanda stood up. “Al, may I present my good friend, Mr. Tim Stuckey, and his girlfriend and my Madhouse mate, the fabulous Ms. Simona Wing.”
“Charmed, I’m sure.” Al shook hands with Tim rather formally, then turned to Simona, gently took her hand and kissed it suavely.
As his lips touched her hand, Simona felt an electric tingling which started at her fingertips but moved rapidly up her arms to her shoulders. She felt as if liquid fire were coursing through her veins. She also felt more clear-headed and alive than she could remember feeling in a long time.
Within a second or two, Al had released her hand and was saying, “So, Ms. Wing, have you known Wanda long?”
“Oh, several years,” she replied, struggling to pull herself together, but outwardly not missing a beat. “And please—call me Simona—all my friends do.”
“I hope that will include me.” Al looked deep into her eyes.
“Oh, Al,” interrupted Wanda who had been watching with increasing discomfort. “Are you free after work tonight? There’s something I need to talk to you about.”
Before Al could answer her, BJ came strolling back to their booth with the tall redhead in tow.
“Mr. Duckworth!” exclaimed Al. “Who’s watching the bar?”
“Nobody!” retorted BJ. “But it’s still my bar and it’s not even midnight yet and we must have made a ton of money tonight. So, to hell with ‘em. Here’s someone I want you to meet, Al. This is Ms. Phyllis Dean. She’s the investigative journalist I told you about.”
“Pleased to meet you, Ms. Dean,” said Al, not offering her his hand.
“All my friends call me Phyl,” she said with a laugh. “BJ was telling me that you just started as bartender here last night. And I was talking to some people here and everybody said they didn’t know this place existed until tonight. So I was thinking, wow, what a coincidence. You show up and suddenly this is one of the happening night spots in town.” She looked Al up and down approvingly, “Well, I guess I can see at least part of the attraction.”
“I’m trying to get her to do a piece on The Last Resort for her paper,” broke in BJ, “but she says it’s not her department.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” explained Phyl. “I’m more of what you’d call a hard news kind of girl. This is more of an entertainment or lifestyle kind of story. Tell you what I could do, though.” She turned to BJ. “I could run it past our Nightlife editor. Let’s see, what’s the angle?” She tapped a front tooth thoughtfully with a long, black-painted fingernail. “I know!” She brightened. “Seedy bar becomes chic nightclub overnight. Interview with hunky bartender responsible. That’s you, Al,” she winked at him flirtatiously.
“Sounds terrific,” said BJ. “Why don’t you sit down here with Al and his friends and I’ll get you a drink on the house.”
As BJ ambled off toward the bar, Tim and Simona looked at each other in amazement. “I can’t believe what’s going on here,” Tim whispered in Simona’s ear. “What’s all this ‘hail the conquering hero’ stuff. He’s just a damn bartender.”
“Shut up, Tim!” Simona hissed, while managing at the same time to smile and nod at Al and Phyl. “So, Phyl,” she said in her best little-girl-from-the-Midwest voice, “you’re a reporter, huh? I’ll bet that’s really exciting, and glamorous too. You must meet some really interesting people when you’re out there tracking down that story. In fact, didn’t I read your article in the Noe Valley Gazette a few years ago about ‘101 Ways to Turn On Your Lover on Valentine’s Day’? I thought that was just so cute! Not to mention timely, and insightful too. I mean, who would have thought you could do so many things with whipped cream…”
“Actually,” Phyl responded with a forced grin, “I don’t work for that paper anymore and being assigned stupid articles like that is the main reason why.” She drew herself up proudly. “I work for The Bay Weekly now as their Chief Investigative Reporter-at-Large. I don’t make all that much money, but the work is great fun and very important too. Sometimes I feel like the whole Bay Area is my backyard.”
“So,” countered Simona, not letting her off the hook, ‘working on any big stories right now? Or is it too confidential to talk about?”
“Not too much happening at the moment,” said Phyl, pretending not to notice Simona’s tone. “But come to think of it, there was one interesting story in this morning’s Clarion, of all places. BJ!” she called back to the bar. “Where’s that drink you promised me?”
“Coming right up, Phyl,” BJ yelled back. “Just tryin’ to satisfy all these thirsty customers! Be with you in a minute!”
“You got today’s Clarion?”
“Bring it over here, will you?”
BJ returned with a margarita in one hand and the paper in the other. “I think it’s on page five,” she said as she took the Clarion from him and draped it across the table. “Right, here it is. Look at this headline.” She pointed to a half-column with a modest header that read:
UFO’S IN SAN FRANCISCO? STRANGE LIGHTS REPORTED OVER GOLDEN GATE PARK
“Isn’t that fascinating,” remarked Simona.
Al turned a bit pale, jumped up on the table and began to intone hurriedly, “CWI—Cry of the Wounded Innkeeper—Last call for alcohol—You Don’t Have to Go Home But You Can’t Stay Here—Drink up, everyone!”
Everyone was looking at him curiously, including BJ, for it was only one o’clock in the morning.
© Cantara Christopher 2001, 2022