Al was busily serving drinks to the multitudes at The Last Resort when the four adventurers walked in. Simona had by this time completely recovered from her erotic experience with the glowing green ring. “In fact,” she had remarked to her companions on the way downtown, “it was just about the best sex I’ve ever had.” The guys just looked at her anxiously and Wanda enviously, but nobody said anything.
As they entered and made their way to the bar through the boisterous crowd, they were in an apprehensive mood. They didn’t know what to say to Al in light of recent developments, or what to expect from him. It was as if the camaraderie of the last few days had vanished, and Al was a stranger to them again.
Al, however, greeted them warmly as usual. “Rick, Wanda, Simona, how nice to see you all again! And who is that gentleman with you, Rick? I don’t believe I’ve made his acquaintance.”
Barry gaped at Al, his eyes wide in disbelief. “That’s the guy!” he stammered to the group. “The alien—my dead lover, Alan—whoever or whatever he is! I…think I’m gonna be sick!” He slumped down on a bar stool.
Al glared at his three friends with a stony look which stopped them in their tracks. As they stood there in a daze, Al jumped quickly up onto the bar and announced in a loud voice. “Ladies and gentlemen! Thank you very much for your patronage and good spirits! As a reward, for the next fifteen minutes drinks for everyone are on the house. All you have to do is select someone among you to come behind the bar and serve the drinks!”
This announcement was greeted by general applause and shouts of approval. There was some discussion among the people close to the bar, but in a little over a minute several of them pushed a rather reluctant young man up to Al.
“Well,” said Al. “It appears that you are the chosen one. What’s your name?”
“Uh, I’m Kevin,” replied the young man. “I’ve, uh, had a little bartending experience.”
“Excellent!” beamed Al. “Come around behind the bar and get started. These people are getting thirsty. I’ll be back in twenty minutes. By the way, I’ve locked the cash register, so don’t be getting any ideas. You four!” he commanded. “Come with me!”
As he led his four silent and unprotesting charges toward his room at the back of the bar, Kevin was soon deluged with a flood of people, all simultaneously demanding his immediate attention. “Give me a break!” he wailed. “I’ve only got two hands here.”
Al ushered the four companions into the room and closed the door, which diminished the raucous roar of the bar customers to a faintly audible buzz.
“All right,” he began in a brisk and authoritative voice. “Wanda and Simona, you sit on that cot. Rick on the crate. And you—what’s your name?”
“Barry,” answered that hapless individual in an expressionless voice.
“Barry,” repeated Al. “You stand right here and look at me!”
They all obeyed Al’s instructions in silent stupefaction.
“Now, Barry, since you’re the cause of all this trouble, tell me what it is you want!”
“I want my little dog, Zsa Zsa, back,” said Barry in a dull voice. “And I want to know if you’re really Alan or an alien or what. And I want my life and my peace of mind back.”
“That can be very easily done,” replied Al, holding Barry’s eyes with his own piercing stare. “If you will look at me carefully, you will see that I bear only a very superficial resemblance to your dead lover. And tonight is the first time you have seen me. You were upset when your dog ran away, and that is the cause of your overwrought state of mind. The rest you merely imagined. As for your dog, I fear we’ll have to replace her. Or, I should say, replicate her.”
As he said this, he rolled up the left sleeve of his shirt, exposing his arm to the elbow. Immediately his arm began to emit a golden glow, faintly at first, but then with dazzling brightness. Soon a bulge appeared at his elbow and swelled bigger and bigger until his arm looked like a glowing amoeba undergoing mitosis.
When the process was complete, his arm reassumed its normal shape and ceased to glow. But on the floor at his feet was what appeared to be a pure white toy poodle.
What am I doing in this form? said a voice inside Al’s head. It came from the poodle.
Listen carefully, Al thought in the same manner. Study this man’s mind—he pointed to Barry—and learn what you are to be. Since you are uppermost in his thoughts, it shouldn’t be difficult.
The dog looked intently for a moment at Barry who, during this time had stood still as a statue. I am his little dog, Zsa Zsa, it said silently to Al. I ran away from him but now I have returned. We love each other very much and I will never leave him and cause him pain again.
And with that, Zsa Zsa II leaped into Barry’s arms. He caught her automatically but continued to stare straight ahead uncomprehendingly.
“As for you other three,” said Al aloud, turning his attention to Rick, Wanda and Simona, who had not moved since Al had ordered them to sit, “I don’t want any bad feelings between me and my friends, and you are certainly my friends. So here is what happened.” He looked intently at each of them in turn. “You went out to the Park to investigate the mystery surrounding me. This is allowed. In fact, I rather like it. It makes me feel special. But nonetheless, this is what you will remember. You went to the Park, you found Barry wandering up and down, looking for his dog. You three searched the area and finally you, Rick, found Zsa Zsa taking shelter under some bushes, where she had miraculously survived the rainstorm of the previous night. You reunited her with Barry and then you all decided to come down here to celebrate Barry’s good fortune. In fact, all four of you are in an exceptionally happy, lighthearted and celebratory mood. You saw no glowing ring, nor did you hear Barry speak of his dead lover or radiant aliens. Do you all understand?”
They all nodded their heads dumbly.
Al looked at Barry’s watch. “Well,” he continued more cheerfully, “I see fifteen minutes have passed. Time to go and relieve Kevin. He must be going crazy by now.”
He led the four friends back into the main part of the bar. As Al had predicted, Kevin had indeed worked himself into a frenzy trying to keep up with the constant flow of requests for free drinks.
Al pointed to a just-vacated booth in the back. “Please take a seat over there,” he said, reassuming his polite bartender’s manner once again, “and be so good as to give me your drink orders. First one is on the house,” he added, “seeing as I’m in a good mood tonight.”
“Oh, Al,” said Wanda, back to being her old self—as indeed were the other three as well. “You always put me in a good mood.”
“Why, thank you, Wanda,” he replied. “The feeling is mutual, I assure you. Now, what can I get you all?”
“Just beers all around, I guess,” said Rick. “And put them on my tab. Or do you want something stronger, Barry? After all, you’ve been through quite a lot.”
“I think,” said Barry, squeezing Zsa Zsa, who didn’t seem to mind a bit, a little tighter, “that on this happy occasion I will break down and have the strawberry daiquiri special. That was my lover, Alan’s, favorite drink, and I sometimes have one when I feel particularly nostalgic. Did I mention Alan to any of you?”
“No, I don’t think so,” said Simona. The others shook their heads.
“Well, then, that’s three beers and one strawberry daiquiri. Be back in a jiffy!”
As Al strode briskly away, Barry said lightly, “you know that bartender—Al?—looks a little like Alan. Maybe that’s what made me think of him tonight.”
“What happened to him?” asked Rick. “Did you guys break up or what?”
“No,” said Barry sadly. “I could never leave Alan. But he left me, poor sweet guy. Died of AIDS in ’85. And he was only thirty-two. Ah, well, the past is the past and I’m just happy to have my little dog back, safe and sound. Isn’t that right, Zsa Zsa!” Zsa Zsa gave a little yip of agreement and snuggled closer into Barry’s arms. “I can’t thank you enough,” he continued, “for helping me find her.”
“No problem,” replied Simona. “We just got lucky. And it’s certainly lucky that she’s in such good shape.”
“Sometimes we’re just blessed,” said Barry, raising his eyes toward the heavens.
As this religious observation was being made, Al was behind the bar unlocking the cash drawer. To the flustered Kevin he said, “Thanks, I’ll take it from here. By the way, what’s your favorite drink?”
“Uh, scotch, I guess,” he replied. He was sweating profusely and gasping for breath.
“Here, then, take this with my compliments.” Al tossed him an unopened bottle of J&B. “Thanks for helping me out. Now, go tell everybody that the bar is open for cash business.”
The bewildered Kevin walked slowly away from the bar, cradling the bottle of J&B in his arms as if it were his firstborn.
“Let’s see,” said Al to himself, “that was three beers and one tonight’s special.”
After Al had served his friends their drinks and returned to the bar, he happened to notice that BJ had entered the bar yet again. He walked up to the bar like a man in a deep depression and, in an uncharacteristically quiet voice, ordered a Jameson’s on the rocks from Al. Then he sat down on an empty stool at the end of the bar and began nursing his drink with an air of weary sadness.
Al went over to him. “Mr. Duckworth,” he began humbly. “I’ve been looking all over for you.”
“I’m sorry, what’s that again?” mumbled BJ, as if noticing his surroundings for the first time.
“Mr. Duckworth, I’ve been thinking about what I told you a little while ago.” His voice took on a contrite tone. “I think I might have spoken too soon.”
“Eh?” inquired BJ.
“You know, what I said earlier. I may have been a bit premature in telling you I could run the bar by myself. The sin of pride, you know. In fact,” he continued, walking over toward the beer taps, “I’ve been having a little trouble with this line here.” He bent down and began looking at it intently. “There seems to be too much foam in the beer.”
BJ’s face brightened as he quickly came around behind the bar to where Al was squatting.
“Hell,” he said, “no big problem, just a simple adjustment to this valve here.” He made a few slight turns of the valve and then drew a glass of beer. “Seems to be working fine now,” he said, pride evident in his voice.
“You see, Mr. Duckworth, this is what I mean,” Al replied gratefully. “I don’t know how to do everything yet. I don’t have the experience. So, if maybe you could come in every other night or so and help me out for about an hour, you could teach me the finer points of the business and advise me if things go wrong.”
“Al,” BJ grinned, “you got a deal! In fact, why don’t I work for about an hour now and help you out?” He looked at the crowd of people who were waving money and empty glasses at them. “I’ll do the beers and the simple drinks, and you do the fancy mixed ones—you seem to have a flair for that.”
“Yes sir, Mr. Duckworth,” said Al politely as he began to blend daiquiris and margaritas.
About an hour later, Barry, who was working on his third strawberry daiquiri, was becoming slightly tipsy. “Ohh!” he groaned, putting his hands on his head. “I think I’m beginning to feel the effects of my anxiety about Zsa Zsa.” He tried to get to his feet, almost falling on the table in the process.
“I think Barry’s about had it,” Wanda whispered to Rick. “Be a good boy and drive him home.”
“What!” replied Rick in a loud whisper. “And leave you girls here all alone?”
“Go on,” Wanda hissed. “We’ll be fine and you can be back before midnight. There’s plenty of time yet before last call.” Simona nodded at this.
“OK, OK,” Rick grudgingly agreed. Then in a louder voice he said to Barry, “come on, man, I think you could use a little sleep. I’ve got my van parked right outside. I’ll drive you home. Where did you say you lived again?”
“Oh, fank you, fank you!” Barry embraced Rick drunkenly, almost pulling them both onto the seat beside Simona. “I live at Fulston and Funton. I mean Funtan and Fulsome.”
“Don’t worry,” said Rick, gently disengaging himself from a now-amorous Barry. “I know where that is. Fulton and Funston.” He led Barry toward the door, Zsa Zsa following at their heels.
“You’re the nishest guy I ever met,” Barry mumbled. “Take me home and do with me what you will.” He made a grandiose gesture with his arm, knocking two pint glasses off the bar as he did so.
As they shattered on the floor, Rick muttered, “Good thing they were empty. I better get this guy out of here. Come on, Barry,” he said in a louder voice, “time to sleep it off.” Then he led the unprotesting Barry out the door.
Simona, who had been watching this scene with Wanda and practically everyone else in the bar, said, “Good, now that the guys are finally gone, we can have a little girl talk.”
“Yes,” agreed Wanda dreamily. She was watching Al mix and serve drinks to the demanding crowd. His shirtsleeves were rolled up past his elbows and his muscular forearms commanded her attention. “Isn’t he just the cutest thing,” she sighed.
“Who, Al? Yeah, he’s a real hunk, all right. But speaking of cute things, take a look over there by the jukebox.”
Wanda looked and gasped, her face turning pale. “Oh, no!” she cried out. “Tell me it’s not Crazy George. I just know if he sees me he’s gonna hit on me again!” She ducked down and put her head on the table and covered it with her arms.
But it was too late. It was indeed Crazy George who now began walking over toward the booth where Simona and Wanda were sitting (or crouching now). He was dressed in the same biker’s outfit he had worn at their last encounter, but there was something different about him. A more tentative walk had replaced his customary swagger, and he approached their booth in a humble manner.
“Uh, Ms. Wanda,” he tapped her gently on the shoulder. “Um, I just, you know, wanted to apologize for the other night. I been thinkin’ it over, that an’ what Al said an’ all. I guess maybe I had one too many beers or somethin’.”
As he touched her she looked up, first in alarm and then relaxing as she began to understand what he was saying. By the time he had finished, she was smiling.
“It’s OK, George,” she told him. “No hard feelings. Apology accepted.”
“It’s just that I get kind of lonesome,” George persisted. “Let me buy you a beer and maybe have one dance with you. I promise I’ll behave myself.”
“Well, maybe,” replied Wanda. “But I get to pick the song. Give me a quarter.” She led George over to the jukebox and soon they were dancing to the classic strains of “The Last Time” by the Stones.
“That Wanda,” marveled Simona. “How does she do it?” As she watched Wanda and George dance, she noticed a tall man with thinning blonde hair standing just inside the entrance and looking around anxiously.
“Tim!” yelled Simona over the crowd. “Over here—in the back!”
Tim’s face brightened and he quickly made his way over to her booth and slid in beside her.
“Hi, Simona,” he said. “I was hoping I’d find you here. I dropped by The Madhouse looking for you and Marty said he thought you were all coming down here. I finished my lighting plot, and I just wanted to apologize for upsetting you last night. I guess I was a little hard on Al. I don’t really know the guy, but I hate the type that just moves in and takes over, know what I mean?”
“Sure, Tim, apology accepted.” She shook her finger at him. “Just don’t do it again! Al’s different somehow,” she continued thoughtfully. “You’d see that if you’d just get to know him a little.”
“Yeah, I suppose so. But look at this place,” he said, looking around. “Is it my imagination, or have the customers here finally gotten a little class? They sure dress better than the burned-out hippies and winos I usually see when I come in here. Look at that! Half of these guys are wearing suits and ties!” He stood up abruptly. “What are you drinking, Simona? I’ll get us a couple.”
“Well, I was drinking beer, but if you’re buying, I’ll have a Campari and soda.”
“Sure thing, I’ll be right back.” As he started toward the bar, Wanda, flushed from dancing, returned to the booth and sat down beside Simona. “Say, didn’t I just see Tim?” she asked.
“Yeah,” replied Simona, “and just last week he was telling me he wouldn’t be caught dead in a dive like this. Now he’s in love with it just because some dorks wearing three-piece suits hang out here. So, how was Crazy George? You guys ready to tie the knot yet?”
Wanda ignored her sarcasm. “Oh, he’s really changed. He’s acting nice for a change and he’s almost good-looking when he’s not trying to be so macho. I’d almost go out with him now.”
“Wanda!” exclaimed Simona in exasperation. “Sometimes I think you’d jump at anything with balls!”
“I said almost!” laughed Wanda, “but you can’t blame a girl for keeping her options open. Oh, look!” she exclaimed, pointing to a tall, red-haired woman standing over by the bar. “Isn’t she that newspaperwoman who was here last night?”
“Yeah, you’re right! Stuck-up bitch! Don’t get her attention or she’ll come over here and bore us all night with her ‘The Bay Area is my backyard’ shit!”
It was indeed Phyllis Dean standing at the bar, but boring Simona and Wanda was the last thing on her mind. She was busy telling Al about her big scoop. Al was reading a copy of the hot-off-the-press Bay Weekly. Of particular interest to both of them was the front-page story, luridly entitled “My Night of Terror With the Devil Cult”. It bore the modest byline: “By Phyllis Dean, Chief Investigative Reporter”.
Al was saying, “But what a marvelous story. And this is all true? I think my favorite part is where you compel one of the cult members to unchain you from the tree in return for sexual favors.”
“Yeah,” said Phyl proudly. “I was in a spot that called for courage and quick thinking. And you know how these cult guys are. So horny they’ll do anything to get laid. So this guy unchained me and I took off running and never looked back.”
“Another thing that interests me,” continued Al casually, “is this mention of some sort of glowing ring. Did you ever get close enough to find out what it was?”
“No, I just figured it was part of their ritual. You know, like the bonfire.”
“Yes,” he looked relieved. “That must be it. Well, I must congratulate you on escaping from a most harrowing situation and getting quite a story out of it, at that.”
“Thanks,” she replied warmly. “By the way, I’m meeting my publisher here. When he saw how well this issue was selling, he offered to take me out for a drink to celebrate, so naturally I invited him down here.” She gave Al a little pat on the hand. “I guess there’s a first time for everything. And just this morning he was yelling at me over the phone! Well, that’s how these high-pressure business types are, I guess. Maybe you’ve met my boss? Blair Brockman, he’s published the Weekly for over twenty years now. Still thinks he’s a young radical when he’s really just an old fart!” She lowered her voice and said confidentially, “he has the weirdest vendetta against PG&E, of all things!”
“PG and what?” replied Al, puzzled.
“Oh, I forgot, you’re new around here. Pacific Gas and Electric, our power utility. I can’t imagine what he’s got against them, but it must be personal.”
“I don’t believe I’ve met your Mr. Brockman. But then, like you say, I’m new around here.”
“Oh, there he is!” exclaimed Phyl, waving vigorously at a striking figure just entering the bar. He was wearing faded blue jeans and a sweatshirt bearing the proud insignia of the New College Journalism Department. Thrown over this casual attire was a Sam Spade-style trench coat. He was a large man with a full but neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard and short bristly hair to match.
He waved back and called out to Phyl in a deep, commanding voice. “Ah, Ms. Dean, there you are!”
“Mr. Brockman,” said Phyl when he had joined them at the bar. “I’d like you to meet Al, the new bartender here. He’s certainly made this a happening place almost overnight.”
“Al, eh?” queried Brockman, looking him up and down. “Ever been in LA? You look like a guy I knew that used to pal around with Rock Hudson in the old days.” He inspected Al more closely. “No, I guess not.” He stroked his beard thoughtfully. “This guy would have to be a lot older now. Anyway,” he looked around the bar at the throng of revelers, “you’ve really done wonders with this place. It used to be such a seedy little dive. What did you do, buy the other guy out?”
“Something like that,” murmured Al.
“Well, keep up the good work!” he said jovially. “God knows this part of town could use a good high-toned night club like this.” He turned to Phyl. “Ms. Dean, why don’t you write a little lifestyle story about this place for next week’s issue?”
“Mr. Brockman, sir!” she said, grinning with clenched teeth. “I’m the investigative reporter, remember?”
“Ah, yes,” he said distractedly. “That’s right. Well, we’ll put that new girl on it, what’s her name, Bimbo?”
“That’s Bambi, sir!”
“Ah, very well. Look, I think I see a booth opening up in the back. Oh, bartender, how about bringing us over a couple of your specials, what are they, strawberry daiquiris?”
“Right away, sir,” replied Al as Brockman and Phyl began to make their way through the crowd toward the booth.
Just then Rick came through the door and quickly rejoined Wanda and Simona. “Boy, is that guy kinky!” he exclaimed as he sat down beside them.
“How so?” inquired Simona with professional amusement.
“He wanted me to strip naked and whip him to the accompaniment of an old recording of ‘The Teddy Bears’ Picnic’.”
“That is kinky!” agreed Simona and Wanda, looking at each other in sympathy.
“You’re telling me!” said Rick. “Luckily he passed out before he could put the record on.”
“Was that before or after you stripped naked?” asked Wanda with a bored expression.
“Before, of course! You don’t think I’m that weird, do you?”
“It had occurred to me,” replied Wanda succinctly.
“Tim, over here!” yelled Simona, suddenly standing up and waving her arms. “Where the hell have you been for the last half hour?” she complained as he brought the drinks back to the booth.
“Sorry, honey,” he apologized, sliding into the booth beside her, “but I wanted to talk to some colleagues. You see those guys over there in the corner?” Simona nodded. “Well, the guy on the left knows Sam Shepard personally!”
“Well, la-di-da!” exclaimed Simona, patting him affectionately on the head. “Tell me all about it. Tomorrow.”
As the evening progressed, the talk became witty and wittier, the crowd drunk and drunker, and the young singles amorous and amorouser. By the time 1:45 rolled around, it seemed like Mardi Gras or Oktoberfest.
Al jumped up on the bar and rang the gong smartly with the felt hammer. A hush fell over the crowd. “Now that I’ve got your attention,” he said in a loud voice, “it’s time for CWI—the Cry of the Wounded Innkeeper—you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here!”
“Oh my God,” cried Wanda, “that time already? We completely forgot to ask Al to dinner.”
“There’s still time,” said Simona. “We’ll go ask him now. Rick, watch our stuff!”
“Yes, milady,” replied Rick with mock servility.
Wanda and Simona strode toward the bar. Al was busy washing glasses and throwing away empty bottles.
“Al…” began Wanda tentatively.
He turned and looked at her. “Yes, Wanda, what can I do for you? I’m afraid the bar is closed for the night.”
“No, that’s not it. Umm…”
“What Wanda is trying to say,” said Simona, coming to her rescue, “is that we want to invite you to dinner at our place. The Madhouse. So you can see where we live and meet our friends. Maybe make some new ones yourself.”
“Yes,” said Al at once. “I think I’d like that. Thank you very much.” A look of dismay crossed his face. “But when? I’m just starting out here at the bar. I can’t expect Mr. Duckworth to give me a night off after just a few days. I’m going to need some time to hire a relief bartender and train the person.”
“This would be totally whenever you can make it, Al,” said Wanda, recovering her voice. “Marty said any time is OK with him.”
“Well,” said Al thoughtfully, “Mr. Duckworth says that Monday is usually the slowest night of the week. So how about, uh, two weeks from Monday?”
“Sure, Al,” agreed Simona, mentally checking the calendar. “That would be on the nineteenth. So, it’s a date? About eight o’clock or so?”
“Eight it is,” Al replied. “And thank you, ladies, for thinking of me. After all, I’m a stranger in town.”
“Don’t mention it,” said Wanda, gazing at Al fondly.
They went back to the booth, collected Rick, and went outside. They were the last to leave.
When they had left, Al stood for a moment silently, hands on hips, surveying the wreckage. “Well,” he said to himself. “I think things went rather well tonight after a rather rough beginning. Now to clean up this place.”
When he had finished it was nearly three. As he entered his little room in the back, he heard a loud banging on his window.
With some irritation he opened the door to the alley and looked out. He was astonished to see Marjorie and a large crowd of shabbily-dressed men and women, all crowding around the back entrance to The Last Resort.
“Hi, Al,” grinned Marjorie, entering as he held the door open for her. As soon as she stepped inside, he quickly shut the door to discourage any further invasion.
“Marjorie!” he exclaimed in amazement. “What are all these people doing here at this time of night?”
“They’re your customers,” she replied calmly, rolling and lighting a cigarette. “Remember our deal. Between three and five in the morning you agreed to help the people who can’t get help elsewhere.”
“But there must be fifty or sixty of them out there,” he protested. “How can I possibly see to all of them in only two hours?”
“Good point,” she agreed. “Well, how many of them do you think you can do?”
Al thought for a moment. “Let’s see,” he said, making some quick calculations, “Maybe ten minutes for each…that’s six an hour, which makes twelve a night. And that’s my final offer!”
She grinned at him again and puffed on her cigarette contentedly. “OK, twelve it will be.” She motioned at Al to stay put and went back out the door. From inside he could hear her saying in a commanding voice, “All right, you people, form a straight line starting at this door and stretching down toward the end of the alley. And no shoving the cripples out of the way, neither! When everybody is in position, start counting off from the head of the line. One through twelve get to see him tonight. Thirteen through twenty-four, tomorrow night. Twenty-five through thirty-six the night after, and so on. And no cheating! Any disagreements or duplication of numbers and you both go to the back of the line. Anybody got a problem with that?”
The crowd murmured a grudging acceptance and then there was a prolonged shuffling of feet. Eventually, a more-or-less straight line was formed.
“Now, count off!” bellowed Marjorie.
“One, two, three…” the line began, each succeeding number sounding fainter and fainter. Presently a large number of people tramped away, muttering their disappointment. Marjorie rejoined Al inside his room as he prepared to face the twelve who remained.
She threw open the door once more. “Come in and introduce yourself to Al,” she told the lucky number one.
A largish man dressed in a greasy overcoat and worn-out running shoes entered the room, coughed alarmingly two or three times, and then spoke up hesitantly. “My name is Bob,” he said in a harsh whisper, “and I think I’ve got lung cancer.”
“Sit down over there, Bob,” sighed Al, “and we’ll see what we can do.”
He shuddered. It was going to be a long night.
And it was only his third night on earth.
Chapter 16 >>
© Cantara Christopher 2001, 2022