Editor’s Note: The following series of tales from behind the bar, “Happy Jacks Saloon: The Last Morro Bay Fisherman’s Dive,” to be posted bi-weekly includes the notes, thoughts, and opinions of an original American voice: author Dell Franklin. The following story was written in 1993.
By DELL FRANKLIN
Beer Can Bessie’s in the house. She only comes in on my shifts because she hates our three female bartenders and hates 98 percent of the crowd who drink in Happy Jack’s. Bessie is a formidable woman, the sister of four NFL lineman-sized brothers incapable of holding a civil conversation. Bessie is vituperative. She always sits at the first stool by the front swinging doors away from everybody, and vituperates our clientele.
I first met Bessie at the saloon in Cayucos, where I live. At one time, Bessie lived with a ponderous, ornery, beer-guzzling, animal-shooting, profane cowboy named Hog Simmons. He had a prodigious gut and the largest forearms in creation, and drove a dirt-encrusted pickup with an unfriendly cattle dog pacing in the bed. He wore the same sweat-stained outfit coated with dust days at a time and God knows why Bessie, a fastidious woman, a registered nurse, was with him. Then one day after tongue-lashing Hog, she smashed her beer can on his soiled salt-stained 10-gallon hat, knocked it off, squashed his beer can against his skull and stormed out.
I’d met her a year or so before she throttled Hog Simmons in front of everybody in the Cayucos Saloon. I’d only recently moved to Cayucos and sat down beside her on the only available stool up front, facing the long bar during a busy happy hour. Right off I felt the unfriendliness and animosity in the woman, and, before I could take my first sip of beer, she said, “Who the fuck are you, asshole?”
“I’m Franklin,” I told her. “Who are you?”
“None of your goddamn business. Who said you could sit down beside me and think yer hot shit, huh?”
“I don’t think I’m hot shit. And this is the only remaining stool in the bar. Besides, it’s a free country, last time I heard, so I can sit where I want.”
“Oh, so you’re a cocky little struttin’ peacock, huh?”
“I wouldn’t go that far.”
“You don’t look like much of a man to me. You look like a poor excuse for a man, from what I can see. You don’t look like you’ve done a real day’s work in your life. I bet you can’t catch a fish or ride a horse or skin a deer, can yah?”
“No.” I drank my beer.
“I thought so. A pussy. Not a hair on your ass.” She took out a cigarette. I grabbed a book of matches from a nearby basket and tried to light it, but she ignored my flame and lit her own with a Bic. “I bet you’re one of those lonely, selfish, slimy, begging, bachelors who can’t get a woman and can’t get laid, huh?”
“I’m not slimy.”
“Probably beat yer tiny little pud every night and cry yerself to sleep because women can’t stand you.”
I drank my beer.
“I can see why. You’re a pathetic excuse for a real man. I bet yer a faggot. You a faggot?”
“Not that I know of.”
“I say yer a faggot. What do you think about that?”
“I think you’re entitled to your opinion, lady, but you really don’t know me well enough to accuse me of being a homosexual. After all, you’ve just met me.”
“I can spot a faggot a mile off, in a second. One look at you and I know no woman’d have a thing to do with you, and you had no choice but to be a faggot even if you didn’t wanna be, but you wanna be. I know what I see, and yer a damn queer.”
“What proof do you have?” I drank my beer.
“I don’t need proof. I think you can’t get it up with women. Yer the most unmanly man in this squalid bar, and believe me, the competition for unmanliness is big. In fact, yer like a girl. Drink yer beer, little girl, ha ha ha.”
Everybody along the bar was watching, enjoying the vituperation I was absorbing. She didn’t let up. I decided to cease trying to defend myself or reason with her. It was a bad time for me anyway. I’d been fired from the cab company after accumulating too many speeding tickets and getting into a fender-bender, was indeed womanless after striking out with the few available women in town, had no real friends in town, and Bessie sensed my vulnerability and pounced on me like a hungry animal seeking fresh meat.
When she finally wore down and stood to go, I quickly jumped up, grabbed her coat off her stool and held it open for her. She was reluctant to slip into it, but what could she do, especially when I was smiling at her in a manner indicating my understanding of her soul and appreciation of her vituperative skills?
I waved the coat like a matador waving a cape in an inviting flourish, and she had no choice but to slip into it. I made sure she was very snug and bowed and said, “A pleasure to have made your acquaintance, madam. Hope to meet you again and continue our meaningful and enlightening conversation.”
She was momentarily at a loss. “Yeh, that’ll be the day, dog-dick,” she grumbled, and hurried out. Then, after she 86’d the Cayucos Saloon because they discontinued beer cans and Hog Simmons passed away, dying on his horse on the range of a heart attack due to eating meat every day of his life, morning, noon and night, she showed up at Happy Jacks’s and did a double-take at the sight of me behind the bar.
“You’re the gentleman helped me into my coat,” she said.
“I’m not much of a gentleman,” I assured her. “But I am capable of old-fashioned courtliness when I run across a worthy and exceptional lady.”
So now we’re pals. I’m her adopted bartender through attrition. She sits down, says, “I’ll have a can of Bud.”
“We only have bottles, unless you buy a six-pack or case-to-go from the cooler, but you can’t drink ‘em in here.”
“A shit-hole like this has bottles? I’m impressed. Go ahead, gimme a goddamn bottle of Bud!”
I get her a bottle. “Bess, you sure are a vituperative woman.”
“You KNOW I know what that word means, don’tcha?” When I nod, she says, “Most of the dumb-asses in this snake pit, and that includes the bitches, have no clue what vituperative means.”
“Well, since you have no peer as a vituperator, it makes sense you of all people would know what vituperative means.”
“What I like about you, sir, is you’re an intelligent man. I’ve known a few intelligent men, but they were wise-asses and punks. So I shit-canned ‘em. What I like about you, so far, is you’re just a friend and I don’t have to find out what a wise-ass punk you are, and shit-can you. What I don’t like about you is you work in this hell-hole of a dive that doesn’t have cans of Bud.”
She takes out a cigarette, lets me light it with our matches. She blows out some smoke, surveys the crowd, which is composed of many fishermen here in Morro Bay and their coteries. Bessie has a grating voice that carries. “Yah know,” she says, “in a sea of worthless dog-dicks and pathetic losers, a bunch-a latent macho homos, a crew of unemployable misfits, you don’t come off too badly. Don’t ever lose this job, cuz it’ll probably be your last.”
I lean toward her in a confidential manner, “Bessie,” I say. “You can vituperate me all you want. I got a thick hide, I was raised in a professional baseball player’s clubhouse, among wolves. But please, please stop vituperating my clientele. They’re the means to my survival and also, well, they’re extremely sensitive to criticism and personal affront.”
Ahh, one of my great pleasures is to watch Bessie laugh, and I mean really laugh, even if it is tinged with derision.