As Phyl walked slowly back down Fulton toward the Haight, the sun was just beginning to rise above the treetops. She was still trying to clear her head of the weird and terrifying events of the previous night. While part of her mind was remembering the strange voice in her head and the glowing image of Satan, another part of her was already writing and rewriting her big scoop.
She was so engrossed in her thoughts that she failed to pay any attention to where she was until she had automatically crossed Stanyan and turned on to Haight Street. By then the sun was almost fully risen. “Oh my God,” she thought to herself. “What time is it anyway?” She checked her watch. “After seven! Jesus, Brockman’s gonna bust a gut! It’s been over five hours since I called him about my big scoop. Deadline was an hour ago. Shit! I’ll be lucky if I don’t get my ass canned! Where the hell’s a pay phone?”
She quickly found one outside the huge McDonald’s on the corner of Haight and Stanyan. She fumbled through her pockets for the correct change, then speedily punched in the number of the editorial office of The Bay Weekly.
On the first ring a voice answered. “Bay Weekly, Sanders, Assistant Editor, speaking.”
“Lyle, is that you?” cried Phyl. “Listen closely! I don’t have much time. This is Phyl. I’ve got that story and I’m coming in. Is Brockman really pissed?”
“Phyl!” exclaimed Lyle, the relief evident in his voice. “I’m so glad to hear from you! Are you all right? I was getting really worried…”
Brockman, who had been pacing the room in a frustrated frenzy, quickly grabbed the phone from Lyle and yelled, “Dean, is that you? You got exactly five seconds to explain why you missed deadline or, so help me, you’ll be back to writing reviews for the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival!”
“Don’t worry, Chief, I’ve got the story! Hold the presses or stop the deadline or whatever you guys do. I’m bringing it in. All I need is thirty minutes to get it written. It’s already in my head.”
“You better get in here quick,” snarled Brockman. “I can only hold off for another hour starting ten minutes ago. And don’t call me Chief! This better be the UFO story of the century!”
“Right, sir, except it, er, sort of isn’t a UFO story after all.”
“What!” exploded Brockman. “Then what are you wasting my time for? What the hell kind of story is it?”
“You’re gonna love this, Chief,” replied Phyl with obvious relish. “How’s this for a lead? ‘My Night of Terror with the Devil Cult—A True Story’. By Phyllis Dean, Investigative Reporter.”
And without waiting for a response, she hung up the phone. Within two minutes she was in a cab, speeding toward the office of The Bay Weekly.
At about three that same afternoon, Al was just waking up, still groggy from his exertions of the previous night and early morning. He rose unsteadily from his cot and went over to the little wash basin in the corner of his back room at The Last Resort, splashed some cold water on his face, and blinked several times in a disoriented manner. “If that was a typical night on earth,” he thought as he dried himself off, “I will definitely have to make some changes around here. Oh, well,” he said philosophically to the overflowing trashcans outside his window, “today is another day. What is this, the second or the third?” he mused. “I’m beginning to lose track.”
By four o’clock he had awakened sufficiently to be in a more cheerful mood, thanks to a cup of black coffee, which he found he liked, and a makeshift cold shower, which he found he didn’t. Dressing himself in his bartender’s costume, including the little red bow tie which Wanda thought was so cute, Al went out the back door into the alley and around to the front to unlock the security gate and open The Last Resort for another day.
As he came around the corner he was surprised to see a line of about six or seven men, patiently waiting for the bar to open. He recognized Louie, Shorty and most of the others as BJ’s regular customers from yesterday. What surprised him most, however, was that they were all clean-shaven and wearing neatly pressed shirts and pants of a singularly spotless nature, quite opposed to their unshaven slovenliness of the previous day. They looked more like a group of job applicants than alcoholics waiting for a drink.
“Well, gentlemen,” said Al, unlocking the gate. “A bargain is a bargain. Come in and sit down and I’ll take your drink orders in a minute.”
“Uh, Al,” said Louie tentatively, “don’t you want to hear what we did last night?”
“All in good time,” replied Al. They walked into the bar and sat down on their respective stools in an orderly manner, politely calling out in turn to Al their various alcoholic requirements. He busied himself in pouring the requisite number of shots and beers and then continued in a serious manner, “I already know the two most important things: One, none of you took another drink last night or today and two, you all spent last night and today doing things that you haven’t done in years. I do wish, however, to hear all your stories individually, and you may relate them to me one at a time in turn after your first drink. But first, is there anyone to whom what I just said does not apply? Anyone whom our little, ah, experiment displeased?” He looked at each man one by one, daring him to reply.
Finally Shorty broke the silence. “Gosh, no, Al,” he said respectfully. “Fact is, we all talked it over while we was waitin’ outside and damned if we all didn’t do just about the same sort of things. You’re right in what you said, too, that none of us has had a drink since we left here last night, and it ain’t for want o’ opportunities, neither. Ain’t that right, boys?”
General murmurs of accord came from the group as they quickly and gratefully downed their shots and gulped at their beers.
“So, who wants to go first?” prompted Al. “You, Louie? Or Shorty?” He called the names of each of the men in the order in which they sat at the bar. “Sammy? Norman? Lefty? Swifty?”
“How about me?” said a defiant voice from the very end of the bar. It belonged to a short skinny man with long flowing white hair and a beard to match. His eyes were bright and lively, however, giving him an unusually youthful appearance for a man his age.
“I beg your pardon, sir,” replied Al politely. “I didn’t see you come in. In fact, I don’t think I’ve met you before. Were you here last night?”
“No, I wasn’t!” snapped the little man. “I been out o’ town. But the boys here all know me. Don’t you, boys?” he said with a scowl.
“Sure, Mick,” agreed Louie nervously. “We’ve all of us knowed him for years, Al, so give him a beer on me.” He turned to Al with a pleading look in his eyes and lowered his voice to a whisper. “Mick don’t know about our little, ah, arrangement.”
“Damn right I don’t,” growled Mick. He grabbed the beer that Al had set in front of him and finished half of it in a gulp. He looked at each of them in turn and shook his head in disbelief. “What have you done to these boys? They all looks like they been con-verted by the Starvation Army. Does Duckworth know about this?”
“Yes and no,” said Al diplomatically. “We both agreed that the well-being of these fine gentlemen here,” he swept his hand up and down the bar, “was beyond any mere commercial considerations. And these gentlemen all agreed with us. Didn’t you, men?” He looked at each one as if for confirmation.
“Sure, Al,” answered Shorty, right on cue. “We thought it over and over and decided we was spendin’ too much time in here getting drunk when we should be getting on with our lives, as they say in the magazines.”
Mick gave them all a look of astonishment. “I don’t believe it!” he said with mock pity. “This here new bartender’s broke your spirit. He wouldn’t be getting away with this if Fast Eddie was here. Now there’s a man who’s good to his customers. Fill up your glasses as quick as you could empty ‘em and every third drink on the house. Why I recollect the time… Hey!” He stopped short and looked at Al suspiciously. “Where is Fast Eddie, anyway? Comin’ in later as usual, I hope?”
“Uh, I believe,” began Al delicately, “that Mr. Duckworth discharged him.”
“No!” cried Mick. “Eddie was one o’ the best! Now what’d he go and do that for?”
“I think, perhaps, that it would be better if Mr. Duckworth told you himself. He’ll probably be in soon. In the meantime, however,” Al gave Mick a meaningful look, straight in the eye, “I’d like to make a bargain with you.”
“A bargain! That’s more like it!” exclaimed Mick, now placated. “Buy me another beer and let’s discuss it like gentlemen.” He paused and searched in the pockets of his army surplus khakis and finally produced an ancient briar pipe which he immediately began stuffing with coarse, black, foul-smelling tobacco. Reaching into his shirt pocket, he withdrew a kitchen match of the strike-anywhere variety and applied it to the sole of his shoe in the time-honored manner. He then passed the flame over the tobacco and began puffing away very loudly. When the pipe was drawing to his satisfaction, he took a large gulp of his second beer, leaned back on his stool and sighed contentedly. “Go on,” he encouraged Al. “I’m all ears.”
“Well, it’s like this. Every day at four o’clock we have what we call ‘Attitude Adjustment Hour’. Each member gets two drinks for the price of one and leaves at six o’clock, promising not to return until four o’clock the next day or to touch another drop of liquor in the meantime. Now if you were to join our little club,” he leaned over close to Mick and spoke in a confidential manner, “since you seem to be a special friend of all the gentlemen in our club, I tell you what I’m going to do, Mick.” He looked intently into Mick’s piercing black eyes. “For you, both drinks will be free! Every day!” He leaned back and smiled broadly. “Now, what do you think of that?”
Mick’s eyes widened. He blinked once or twice, as if he were just waking up. “That sounds real good to me, Al,” he replied with enthusiasm. “And I think this is a mighty fine thing you’re a’doin’ for all of us as well. To your health, Al!” Mick raised his glass dramatically and motioned to the others to do likewise, which they quickly did. As they all drained their glasses, Al made a slight bow to the group and then, as if embarrassed by their attention, began to vigorously polish the bar.
At The Madhouse, meanwhile, Marty Mathews was presiding over an emergency strategy meeting in the first-floor dining room. Around a long formal dining table were gathered several of his senior and most trusted housemates. They were senior because they had lived there the longest, in some cases upwards of six months. They were trusted because they occasionally paid their rent and, for the most part, caused a minimum of trouble.
“All right, all right, settle down,” Marty called out to the group when they had all taken their seats and their talking and giggling to each other had somewhat decreased in volume. “I think most of you know why I called this meeting. After I explain its purpose, outline our objectives, and mention various possible strategies, I’ll summarize briefly, and then those of you who are directly involved can have the floor.”
“Get on with it, Marty!” exclaimed an impatient voice from the end of the table. “It always takes you ten minutes to say what any normal person could in three. I’ve got a tarot reading to do at five and it’s after four now.”
“OK, Violet, keep your shirt on! I’ll be as brief and concise as possible. I know how important these readings are to you.”
“You better believe it, Marty, it’s the way I pay the rent around here,” she replied, rejecting his attempt at appeasement.
“So,” said Marty, trying again. “As I was saying before this highly unnecessary interruption…”
“Cut to the chase, Marty!” interrupted Wanda, who was sitting between Rick and Simona, “or we’ll be here all day!” She stamped her foot impatiently for emphasis. This prompted a general foot stomping among the members of the meeting, who seemed eager to show solidarity for one of their own.
“All right, that’s it, I give up!” Marty threw up his hands in mock exasperation. “You tell it, Wanda, or you, Simona. Anybody but me, it seems!”
“OK, I will,” said Simona, rising from her seat and taking charge. “Here’s the situation. Wanda, Rick and I met this really mysterious—but hunky—guy a couple of days ago. Rick helped get him a job as bartender at The Last Resort downtown.”
“Oh, yeah,” interrupted a beefy black guy from the other side of the table. He was dressed in denim and leather and wearing the colors of a local motorcycle club. “I know that place. Friends of mine get thrown out of there all the time.”
“Shut up, Bear,” said Simona kindly. “We’ll get to your barroom stories later, time permitting. Anyway, the three of us think there’s something really intriguing and different about the guy. So we asked Marty what should we do, and Marty said we should get him to come here for dinner. Isn’t that right, Marty?” She turned to him and smiled sweetly.
“Oh, so now I’m allowed to speak?” asked Marty sarcastically.
“Just say yes, Marty!”
“Yes,” obeyed Marty, making a zipping motion over his lips.
“Good man,” she said approvingly. “Now, here’s the deal. We don’t want a repeat of what happened last time we invited someone here for dinner. You guys remember? When that little girl upstairs, you know, the poet—what’s her name, Marty?”
Marty reached into his pocket and took out his handy, up-to-date Madhouse roster and consulted it. “Uh, Fawn—Fawn Zelinsky,” he replied. “That dinner party was about three months ago, right after she moved in.”
“Anyhow,” continued Simona, “you remember she came to us and said ‘I think I’m falling in love!’ You know, in that soulful, poetic way of hers, and begged us to invite her prospective fella to dinner?”
“I remember it well,” agreed Violet. “How were we to know that her great love was an investment broker from Orinda—with politics to the right of Reagan?”
“He was kind of cute, though…” began Wanda.
“I remember it better,” broke in Marty. “We made the mistake of inviting everyone in the house to attend. So naturally, the worst elements showed up ‘cause they’re always the hungriest. After they’d drunk about a bottle and a half of Night Train, Red and Peacock started a food fight with the dinner rolls and unfortunately it escalated from there. I was cleaning dried mashed potatoes off the walls for weeks.”
“Yeah,” put in Rick, “and when he saw the wine stains on his tan Armani suit, Fawn’s guy turned three shades of purple and ran out of the room. Fawn never heard from him again. She says he even changed his phone number. She didn’t speak to any of us for weeks.”
“Good thing we didn’t offer him a joint,” remarked Bear.
“So,” summed up Simona, “since we don’t want to make that mistake again, I propose that this time we make it a closed dinner. Admittance by invitation only. We’ll only invite about ten or twelve of our most sedate, coherent and presentable denizens. Marty will make up the list.”
“Right, Simona, good idea,” Marty agreed. “And you and Wanda invite this bartender—his name is Al, by the way—and let me know as soon as possible what day and time is good for him. I think this time we’ll have roast pork and baked potatoes,” he mused. “They’re not as hard to clean up.”
© Cantara Christopher 2001, 2022