BJ looked up at Al, who was still standing on the table. “Have you lost your mind?” he demanded. “What the hell are you doin’, closin’ up early, and on your first night at work, too?”
Al composed himself and climbed down off the table. “Mr. Duckworth,” he replied in a conciliatory tone, “I thought you were beginning to look a bit tired after the rigors of the night. And I must confess I am as well. And, since you yourself admit you’ve made ‘a ton of money’ tonight, I thought an early night wouldn’t hurt either of us.” He looked BJ squarely in the eye and continued. “If I’ve done anything wrong, I sincerely apologize. But I was merely thinking of your well-being.”
“Well,” said BJ, apparently somewhat mollified, “I guess there’s no harm done in closin’ early once in a while. But I sure hope we continue to get this kind of business.”
“You can count on it,” promised Al, putting his hand reassuringly on BJ’s shoulder. “Now, why don’t you let me clean up. I’ll get you a nice drink so you can relax.”
He made BJ a strong Jameson’s and soda and then returned to the booth where Tim, Simona, Wanda, and Phyl were still sitting, finishing their drinks. They were the last customers in the bar. “Sorry for the early night,” he told them. “But Mr. Duckworth’s feeling a little under the weather. I’m afraid he’s not as young as he used to be.”
“That’s all right.” Phyl said, getting up. “I’ve got to go anyway. Thanks for the drink, BJ,” she told him on her way out.
“Don’t mention it,” he replied. “Just see what you can do for us at that paper of yours.”
“I’ll get right on it,” she promised, then went out the door.
As Al started to leave the booth, Wanda laid a hand on his arm. “Don’t go yet,” she pleaded. “I’ve got something I need to talk to you about.”
“Another night, perhaps,” replied Al gently but firmly. “I promised Mr. Duckworth I’d clean up the bar by myself tonight.”
“Oh, OK, maybe tomorrow night then,” she sighed. To Simona she said, “I hope you guys don’t mind giving me a lift to The Madhouse, but it’s almost one-thirty and Rick hasn’t shown up yet. I guess he’s still talking to that guy about that big art project.”
“No problem. Plenty of room in my car.” Tim looked meaningfully at Simona, who made a face back at him. “It’s parked only a few blocks away. I’ll go get it, won’t be a minute.”
During the several hours they had been inside The Last Resort, however, the dark clouds that had been gathering all evening had suddenly burst into a torrent of rain. The balmy weather that had prevailed for the last few days was now just a memory, and a winterlike chill had descended upon the City.
Wanda and Simona stood shivering in the doorway waiting for Tim to bring the car around.
“Oh, that’s just perfect!” muttered Simona. “I paid seventy-eight bucks for this dress!”
“Don’t worry,” said Wanda bravely. “A little rain never hurt anyone.”
“Tell that to my clothes,” Simona retorted, hugging herself and hopping about uncomfortably in the cold and wet. “And where is Tim with that big stupid car of his? I’m getting soaked and I don’t like it!”
But by the time she had voiced this complaint, Tim pulled up in front of the door, jumped out of his car and opened the passenger door with a flourish. “Need a ride, ladies?” he asked gallantly.
Wanda and Simona piled into the car as if the devil himself were after them. While they both shook themselves like wet dogs, Tim expertly negotiated the rain-slicked streets and in a surprisingly short time they found themselves pulling up in front of The Madhouse.
“Well, Tim,” said Simona. “I guess this is where we part company for the night.”
“Yeah, just as well,” he agreed. “I’ve got to revise some lighting plots anyway before I get to sleep. Maybe this new show’s going to be a hit!”
“I won’t hold my breath,” she replied. “Just make sure you get paid up front this time, please?”
“All right, already,” grumbled Tim, restarting the engine. “Point taken.”
“By the way,” Simona continued. “You never told me your impression of Al. After all, that was what I dragged you down there for. I mean, I know The Last Resort isn’t exactly your scene.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” replied Tim thoughtfully. “Is it just me or was there a better class of people there tonight? Every time you take me down there, all I see is a bunch of old alkies down on their luck. But that crowd tonight struck me as, well, hipper and a lot better looking than usual.”
Simona whacked Tim with her rhinestone-encrusted handbag. “Al, you fool! We were talking about Al! Now tell me what you think of him and then you can go back to your lighting plots like a good little designer. Well?”
“Ow!” Tim rubbed his jaw and said in a hurt voice, “Give me a minute, I’m trying to think.” He scratched his head uncertainly. “Well,” he said finally, “it’s hard to say. He’s good-looking enough, that’s for sure. And he’s polite as hell. And he looks like he wouldn’t have any trouble holding his own in a tough crowd. But he seems sort of, you know, distant. So what makes him any different from all the other good-looking guys in this town? Aw, don’t tell me you’ve got some sort of crush on him!”
Suddenly Wanda burst into tears, jumped out of the car and ran quickly up the steps into the house.
“Now, what’s gotten into her?” wondered Simona. To Tim she replied, “No, you idiot, it’s not me, it’s Wanda. But thanks a lot. You’ve really been a big help.” She gave him a peck on the cheek and said, “Catch you later.” Then she jumped out of the car and ran after Wanda, entering the house by the side door and running up the stairs to the third floor as quickly as she could. By the time she got there, however, the door to Wanda’s room was closed.
“Wanda, what is it, what’s wrong?” she called out as she pounded on the door. “Come on, it’s Simona, let me in!”
“OK,” answered Wanda in a choked voice, gulping down her sobs. Simona entered the room and saw Wanda lying face down on her bed.
She went over and put her arms around Wanda, cooing, “Come on, tell Simona what’s wrong. Was it something I said?”
Wanda rolled over and wiped her face with her hand. “No, Simona, it isn’t your fault,” she sighed. “It’s just that I feel so helpless, that’s all. It’s just…it’s just that Al’s the most gorgeous man I’ve ever met in my entire life.” Simona offered her a tissue. She took it gratefully, blew her nose, brightened a bit, and continued. “Did I tell you that when Rick ‘n me picked him up in the park last night, he slept on my shoulder all the way downtown? It was so great, all dreamy and cozy with his head on my shoulder, I wished it could’ve gone on forever…and then everything changed. He got a job at The Last Resort and all of a sudden everybody noticed him, everyone was saying, ‘There’s something about Al, there’s something about Al…’ Then tonight I went there to be with him and tell him how I feel, and he spends the whole evening gabbing with that bossy reporter and you and the rest of the women there! You know how lousy I am with words! I just can’t seem to be able to talk to him and get his attention. It makes me feel really left out, you know? And now, on top of everything, Tim thinks you’re hot for Al. I just want to die!”
She turned over and started sobbing again. Simona, not knowing what else to do, began to massage her shoulders. “Oh, Wanda! In the first place I’m not what you’d call hot for Al. Although there was a moment,” she said dreamily, “when he kissed my hand—remember that?—and I felt all weird inside.”
“Uh-huh,” agreed Wanda, sitting up, “I know what you mean. Like when he had his head on my shoulder I felt, just for a minute, really, like, happy and really together and—oh, I don’t know what I mean. It’s just so confusing!”
Simona stood up. “Listen, I’ve got an idea! Let’s go downstairs and see if Marty’s still up. You know he stays up late a lot of times to work on the household accounts and meditate. If anybody can put any of this into perspective, it’s Marty.”
“Sounds good to me,” said Wanda, slowly hauling herself off the bed. “But don’t you want to change clothes or something? You’re awfully wet.”
“Yeah, you’re right. But I don’t want to waste any more time. It’s after two in the morning now and, even if Marty’s still up, he’ll be going to bed soon. Do you have a robe or something I can borrow?”
“Sure thing,” said Wanda. Then she started to giggle. “You can even borrow my Kermit the Frog slippers.”
“Thanks,” said Simona, hurriedly peeling off her wet dress and pulling on Wanda’s proffered nightgown while Wanda changed into a pair of oversized man’s pajamas. “All right, I guess we’re presentable. Let’s go down and see if the lights are on in the study.”
As luck would have it, Marty Mathews, master of The Madhouse and father confessor for the 30-plus members of that chaotic commune, was still wide awake in the little room he liked to call his “study”. It was littered with books and papers and contained a small fireplace at one end and a large desk at the other. Smack in the center of the room were a number of large pillows on which people could recline, if they so desired, during the infrequent house meetings which, in fact, practically no one attended. The residents of The Madhouse had little use for structure, and Marty—although he exhorted the Democratic Ideal at every opportunity—was just as glad that they didn’t. “It’s hard enough trying to run this place,” he often thought, “without a lot of misguided idealism getting in the way.”
As he sat at his desk, once again going over the facts and figures before him, he wondered, as he frequently did, how he had kept this place functioning for over twelve years. Always in the red, always one step ahead of the bill collectors—was that any way to live?
His musings were cut short by a tentative knock at the door.
“Who could be here at this hour?” he wondered. “Police looking for a runaway? Some friend or resident in trouble? At least bill collectors don’t work at two in the morning. All right, hold on, I’m coming,” he said aloud. “Who is it?”
“It’s Simona and Wanda, Marty. We need to talk to you.”
“OK, just a second.” He opened the door to find a red-eyed Wanda in oversized pajamas, and Simona in a strangely unsexy flannel nightgown and Muppet slippers standing in the hall.
“Ladies, what a surprise!” He held the door open and beckoned for them to come in. “What brings you down here at this time of night? Wanda, you’re not high on drugs again, are you?”
“No, no, nothing like that! At least everything’s OK in that department,” Simona reassured him. “But we’ve got a little problem we’d like your help with.”
“Well,” sighed Marty with an air of resignation. “I guess that’s what I’m here for. That and to pay the bills, of course. Which, incidentally, is looking more hopeless all the time. But a visit from two lovely females,” he looked at them with mock ardor, “in the wee small hours of the morning—now that’s what makes the job worthwhile.”
“Oh, Marty,” said Wanda with a laugh, “you always know the right thing to say.”
“So this problem—tell me all about it. No, wait!” He held up a hand, “Before you begin, what kind of problem is it?”
“I guess,” said Simona, unsuccessfully repressing a giggle, “you could call it a man problem.”
“Oh, brother,” sighed Marty. “This is going to take awhile. And at this time of night, too. Hey, I tell you what!” He brightened, hurried over to his desk, and began rummaging through the drawers. “What with the rain and all, why don’t we make a fire and light some candles. I’ll pop some popcorn, and we’ll have a regular slumber party. I see you girls are already dressed for it.”
Soon the fire and candles were giving off a reassuring glow as the girls lounged on the pillows, munching on salty greasy popcorn, and feeling more at ease than they’d been all night.
“So tell me, then, about this ‘man problem’ of yours,” prompted Marty, popping open a beer.
“OK,” began Simona. “His name is Al…”
When Phyllis Dean left The Last Resort, her thoughts were not on Al, but on the UFO article she had just read in the Clarion. Like Wanda and Simona, she had not expected the sudden torrent and, likewise, was not suitable attired. “Damn!” she said to herself. “I know it’s late. But rain or no rain, I’ve got to go out to the Park tonight. A good reporter never hesitates, but capitalizes on her opportunities. I can’t wait until tomorrow when all the evidence (if there is any) will probably be washed away. But I can’t go dressed like this. I’ve got to go home and change.”
And so, head held high as the rain lashed at her, she walked bravely and purposefully toward Mission Street where she quickly and expertly flagged down a cab. Within minutes she had arrived at her tiny walkup Tenderloin apartment (“Just temporary until I hit the big time,” she always said of her living quarters, although in truth she’d been living there the better part of five years.)
Once there, she divested herself of her wet clothes, briskly toweled herself down, smoothed back her damp hair, and changed into her “ninja journalist” outfit—a black vinyl jumpsuit with matching boots and a black leather biker’s cap. Then, arming herself with a flashlight and foreign-correspondent type waterproof shoulder bag containing one compact mirror, five hairpins, one change of socks, one reporter’s notebook (with pencil), one audio cassette recorder, and one camcorder, she ran down the stairs and hailed another cab.
“Ninth Avenue and Fulton, driver, and step on it!” she barked with an air of practiced authority. In seconds the taxi was speeding west on McAllister toward the Park.
“…and then when he touched my hand I felt so weird…”
“…and the way he looked when he saw that UFO headline…”
“I’m sure that somehow he fixed Rick’s van just with his mind!”
“…and the way he handled Crazy George…”
“…and he’s just so hunky!” the girls blurted out in unison.
For the first time in the forty-five minutes it had taken Simona and Wanda to tell Marty “The Story of Al” there was silence in the room. Outside the rain was still coming down heavily. Marty, who had quietly listened to the torrent of words, now got up and paced slowly over to the window. He looked at the rain outside for a long moment. Then he looked back at the girls.
“Well,” he said finally. “I guess there’s only one thing to do. Obviously, I’ve got to meet this guy of yours. But it’s got to be somewhere we can get him alone, so there won’t be any room for distractions or evasions.” He raised his fist decisively. “Ladies, your mission is to bring Al home for dinner!”
By the time Phyl got out of the cab across the street from Golden Gate Park and paid the driver, the rain was falling harder than ever. Still, without hesitation, she advanced toward the interior of the park, pointing her flashlight in front of her like a weapon against the dark. Soon the streetlights were behind her, and even with the flashlight she could see only three or four feet ahead.
And then, about a hundred yards in, she suddenly saw something that made her blink in disbelief. There, in the middle of a large meadow, was a faintly visible circle glowing with a phosphorescent green light. Stealthily she approached the circle, one hand swooping back and forth with the flashlight, the other deftly unzipping the bag over her shoulder and pulling out the camcorder.
So intent was Phyl on her big scoop that she never saw the black-gloved hand that suddenly reached out and grabbed her by the neck.
© Cantara Christopher 2001, 2022