After his eventful first three days, life on earth for Al became more or less routine. Afternoons from four to six would find him presiding over his Attitude Adjustment Hour Club, which seemed to be gaining members at an alarming rate. Louie, Shorty and the rest of the original group were now hard-working, or at least sober, citizens, who felt compelled to tell their old drinking buddies about Al and their new start in life. The effect was that in less than two weeks the original group of seven had grown to about fifty or more, causing Al to resort to granting admittance to the new members of the club by invitation only.
At 6:00 he would close The Last Resort for the usual two hours and spend the time in transforming it into the trendy nightclub so well loved by the fashionable frequenters of the hip SOMA scene. As the bar inevitably prospered, he began to make changes and additions to the basic bar menu. He bought cases of decent red and white wines at wholesale cost and sold them by the glass at vintage prices to his discerning customers.
One night after Al had been working at the bar for about a week, Rick dropped in for his usual couple of beers. Al led him around to the back corner of the bar and proudly showed him six gleaming new beer taps which had been installed that same day.
“Look, Rick,” he said, pointing out each tap in turn. “We now feature Guinness, Bass, Harp, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Redhook ESB, and last but not least, your favorite—Full Sail Amber!”
Rick looked at the taps in astonishment. “Far out, Al!” he exclaimed. “But I don’t know if I can afford it,” he sighed. “I always get the Bud pints for one seventy-five. These must run about three bucks each.”
Al put his hand on Rick’s shoulder. “You were my first friend in San Francisco,” he reflected. “You gave me your clothes and got me this job and a place to live. So, for you it’s always Happy Hour—one seventy-five for any pint in the bar.”
“All riiight!” Rick was impressed. “What are you waiting for?” He dug two crumpled dollar bills out of his jeans. “A pint of the Full Sail Amber, if you please, bartender!”
“Coming right up, sir.” He placed the pint on the bar in front of Rick and then whispered to him confidentially, “I’ve been looking at your bar tab. Rather sizeable, wouldn’t you say?”
Rick blushed and stared down at the bar. “That’s between me and BJ,” he said defensively.
“But don’t you think it would improve your relationship with him if you were to pay it off?” Al persisted.
“Yeah, but how?” asked Rick, spreading his hands out in a gesture of hopelessness. “You saw the figures.” He took a swallow of his beer and licked his lips with pleasure. “Look, Al, there’s only two ways a guy like me can make any money without dealin’ or slavin’ for the man. One is the small check I get every month.” It was his turn to whisper to Al confidentially. “I tell Wanda and everybody it’s an unemployment check, but really it’s, well, it’s sort of my allowance.” There was an embarrassed silence.
“Go on,” prompted Al. “But I’m not sure I understand this concept of ‘allowance’.”
“It’s from my family back in Iowa,” Rick replied, still whispering. “They’re rich, and I guess they’re sort of ashamed of me, ‘cause I’ve never ‘amounted to anything’. So they send me money and I promise to stay out here which is what I want to do anyway. I try to take as little as possible from them, just enough to pay Marty some rent once in a while and to support me and Wanda so we don’t starve to death.”
“I see,” said Al thoughtfully. “But if they can afford it, I don’t understand why this is a problem for you. You say they are ‘ashamed’ of you. Is this because you are not rich or successful?”
“Yeah, I suppose so, in a way,” Rick replied honestly. “But it’s more complicated than that.”
“Then let me ask you this. Would they be any less ashamed of you if they didn’t send you money?”
“Hmm,” Rick drank some more beer and thought it over. “I dunno. Maybe.”
Al didn’t pursue this line of questioning. Instead he asked, “You mentioned a second way that you can make money. May I inquire what it is?”
“Well, everybody says I’m a pretty good sculptor. I’m working on a deal right now with some guy in Walnut Creek. He already bought one of my pieces that I never thought I’d sell and now we’re talking about maybe another half-dozen. We’re still negotiating on the fee.”
Al thought in silence for a moment. Then he went over to the tap, drew another pint of Full Sail, and set it in front of Rick. “Don’t worry,” Al told him. “This one’s on the house. So you’re a pretty good sculptor, are you? Do you like doing it?”
“Sure, I guess so,” he shrugged. “But it’s a whole lot more fun when I’m getting paid for it. And without a high-powered reputation, I’m competing with a whole lot of people out there. So opportunities like this guy in Walnut Creek don’t come along every day. Most of my stuff I just sell for a few bucks, beer money, whatever.”
“I just might have an idea,” said Al, leaning over to whisper to Rick yet again. “I know you like to do your abstract avant-garde pieces, but tell me—can you do natural-looking busts of ordinary people in ordinary plaster?”
“Sure,” Rick shrugged again. “That’s the easiest thing there is. Hell, I could do it from a bad Polaroid. But there’s no call for that sort of thing these days.”
“How much,” asked Al, still whispering, “would it cost you to make such a bust?”
“Oh, I dunno, maybe only twenty-five dollars, maybe as much as fifty. But what are you getting at, Al?” Rick frowned, suddenly suspicious. “And what’s all this got to do with my bar tab?”
“Trust me,” Al replied with great sincerity. He resumed his normal voice and began carefully polishing the bar. “I think I know the answer to your little problem. Come back tomorrow night about nine o’clock. Oh, and wear your best ‘artistic’ clothes. We’re going to have some fun.”
“Hey, thanks man,” Rick finished his beer and scratched his head. “But I don’t know for what…”
Al came out from behind the bar and put his arm around Rick’s shoulder in a fatherly manner. “Don’t worry about it, Rick. Just show up and I’ll do the rest.”
Then he watched as Rick walked out of The Last Resort with a very puzzled look on his face.
* * *
The rest of Al’s days were just as routine. At two in the morning he would close the bar, clean it and repair or replace the damage (for even young fashionable customers could be rowdy at times). At three he would go back to his little room in the rear of The Last Resort and take a deep breath, fling open the door that faced the alley—the domain of Marjorie, “Queen Mab”, and her army of street people. There would always be more of the sick and wounded than he could handle, but he pressed on night after night, seeing and helping as many as he could.
One early morning at about five o’clock, just as he was showing the last person out the door, he looked over at Marjorie, who had been sitting in the corner smoking and watching contentedly. “I don’t know,” he said hopelessly. “They just keep coming. Where do they come from? And how can there be so many of them?” He slumped down on his cot dejectedly.
“Look, Al,” said Marjorie gently. “Regardless of our deal, word about what you do is bound to get out. If each of these people tell only one other, their ranks are going to swell, even without anybody advertising the matter.”
“Yes, but sometimes it seems like a waste of time. Ten or fifteen poor, frightened, lonely people every night that we can help—when there must be hundreds, even thousands out there that we can’t—what good does that do?”
“Don’t think of it like that,” she replied encouragingly. “It’s like my daddy used to tell me. ‘Think of what you are doing, not of what you’re not doing.”
“I guess you’re right. But every day—counsel the winos, serve the drinks, clean the bar, heal the sick…”
“Maybe what you need is some time off,” broke in Marjorie. “One day a week when you can do anything you want. Sort of get your head together, like the young people used to say.”
“I think maybe you’re right, Marjorie,” said Al, brightening. “But what I really need is a relief bartender. I told Mr. Duckworth I’d find one, but I just haven’t had the time. And I have a dinner to go to next week.”
“I know someone who’d be just perfect for the job,” she mused. “You remember that little girl, Suzie? The one you healed your first night? The one with that tumor?”
“Headache,” corrected Al.
“Tumor!” she insisted firmly.
“Oh, have it your way!” He threw his hands up in defeat. “I guess there’s no use pretending to you after so many nights of this!” He pointed out the window to the few homeless people still milling about the alley.
“Never mind that now,” she told him. “But the fact is, Suzie has been looking for a job. Now that she’s got her health back, she’s in a much better frame of mind. But it’s tough for her. She lives on the street, has no clean clothes, not even a phone where a prospective employer can get in touch with her. And she adores you!” She stubbed out her cigarette and grinned slyly at Al. “She talks about you all the time, says you saved her life. She’d do anything for you. Why not give her a try?”
Al thought for a minute. “Sure, why not?” he said finally. “She’s young, probably quite attractive under all that grime, and good-natured. Sure, bring her around at about four tomorrow afternoon, and I’ll begin her training. I’ll pay her a reasonable sum out of my own tip money (I still don’t know what to do with it all). I’ll find her a decent place to live, get her some presentable clothes…” He was pacing around the room, quickly working out the details.
“Sure, ‘Professor Higgins’,” chuckled Marjorie. “I’ll bring her around tomorrow. But you get some sleep now. You must be exhausted.”
“Marjorie,” Al yawned suddenly. “I think I will do just that.”
Chapter 18 >>
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