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 snippet from the past was written in the 90s, years before the politically correct atmosphere of today.
By DELL FRANKLIN
Eugene has taken a week off from assisting sport fishermen and ladies at Virgil’s Landing down on the wharf because he has the gout. I guess he’s been in here all day, and now he’s chowing down on a chili cheese dog with massive heaps of onions and jalapenos that Estelle brought over after closing Big Bill’s hotdog stand across the street.
“You shouldn’t be eatin’ those hotdogs if you got the gout,” Maggie tells him, exhaling smoke. “Too much meat in your diet is the main reasons you get the gout.”
“Been eatin’ meat all my life,” Eugene explains between savory bites. “And I never got the gout before.”
Ed Stone, back from the Bay Area after taking care of and burying an old friend who died of AIDS, and lodging with Estelle, says, “You’ve been eating those hotdogs damn near every night for years, far as I can tell, Eugene. Maybe you oughta try changing your diet.”
“I eat Mexican from down the street time to time,” Eugene explains, wiping his mouth with a bar napkin. “I eat burgers, too.” He takes a voracious bite, chews, chili seeping from the side of his mouth.
“No wonder you got the gout,” Maggie huffs. “You’re lucky you’re alive, eatin’ all that greasy crap.”
“Well, if you’re gonna drink every night, you gotta have some grease to coat your stomach,” he explains. “I ain’t about t’ eat all that health food they got around these days.”
“You don’t need to eat health food, Eugene,” advises Big Bill himself, who, on weekends, takes a cart to an area just off the pier in Cayucos and sells his dogs, advertising on radio and doing a swift business. “Just eat a salad once in a while. My hotdogs are the healthiest hotdogs you can get. They’re as pure as Hebrew National.
“So, you don’t have to worry about getting the gout from my dogs. The reason you got the gout is those greasy burgers you get at McDonald’s. They’re made out-a horse meat is what I heard.” Big Bill puffs his cigarette.
He is massive, perhaps 300 beans, with a handlebar mustache and great sagging folds in his face. He was in the army 30 years and retired a master sergeant in the quartermaster corps. He’s been eating and drinking himself into a mountain of vanilla pudding ever since; and somehow remains active in the reserves out at the army base in San Luis Obispo.
Bill ducks into the bar during the day several times, against his wife’s wishes, and drinks a quickie bourbon 7 and tips fifty cents every other trip. He will come in here after closing his stand and never buy a round for the idiots who eat his fucking dogs, but he will allow Estelle, his best employee who works for minimum wage and tips, to buy him a drink and never return the favor.
“And those damn burritos you eat, well, Eugene, yah never know what those goddam wetbacks’ll put in ‘em,” Bill said. “They don’t give a damn if they poison you. So I know for a fact, you didn’t get the gout from my dogs.”
“There’s a chance the dogs, the horse meat burgers, and the poisoned burritos combined gave Eugene the gout,” Ed informs Big Bill. “I use only the purest ingredients in my dogs,” Bill maintains, a little truculent. “They’re government inspected, just like those kosher dogs from Hebrew National. I know what I got.”
“I’ve never seen Eugene eat anything but your dogs,” Maggie tells him, using her Zippo to relight. “I’ve never seen him eat a burger or a burrito, Bill.”
“I’ll eat a Big Mac, or I’ll go to the Mexican joint. I can get a beer there, and by God, they treat me good,” Eugene said. “Those Mexicans work their butts off and put out a good product. They don’t put anything in those carne asada burritos I wouldn’t put in.”
“You always get the Carne Asada?” Ed asks with interest.
“You might try the chili relleno, Eugene—just for a change of pace.”
Bill says, “I wouldn’t eat in that goddam joint if you paid me.”
Ed says to Eugene, “That meat theory is not necessarily accurate. Gout is caused by an excess of uric acid in your joints. It could be genetics. Did your mother or father have gout?”
“Hell, I dunno. I left home at 15. Never seen ‘em again. Joined the Merchant Seamans after I hitch-hiked to New Orleans from Oklahoma.”
“My Ed is so smart about health issues,” Estelle states proudly. She pushes her shot glass forward for a refill. After drinking Cinnamon Schnapps with her beers for years, she’s suddenly switched to Yukon Jack, which is more potent, not a good thing. I don’t know why she switched. It’s kind of like a cat who will dominate a position on a couch or bed for months, become terribly irritable if you try and move it, and then suddenly switch to a sun chair.
“I guess that’s why he damn near drank himself to death,” snipes Maggie, squashing out her cigarette into an ash tray. She coughs. “I know one thing, Eugene—drinkin’ all night every night sure as hell ain’t gonna cure your gout.”
Eugene raises himself slowly and limps gingerly toward the men’s room, pointing to his empty mug before leaving. When he’s well out of sight, Big Bill says, “I like Eugene, and he’s one of my best customers, but he ain’t got the sense he was born with. He says he was in the Merchant Marines, but I doubt it. He doesn’t have the discipline to serve.”
“Alcohol has little to do with the gout,” Ed tells Maggie
“Bullshit,” she retorts with conviction. “Ask any doctor.”
“My Ed studies medical manuals,” Estelle tells her. “He always has his nose in a book and knows about everything.”
“Did he go to medical school?” Maggie asks sharply.
“Now Maggie, you can know a lot about things like the gout even if you didn’t go to medical school.”
“Pshaw!” Maggie scoffs, flicking ashes. She coughs, almost gags.
“Well, I know one thing,” Bill says, pointing to his empty hi-ball glass. “He didn’t get the damn gout from my hotdogs.”
Sheila, who’s been strangely silent, possibly because she’s badly hungover from an all-nighter doing cocaine with the two Mexican immigrants who supply the local white tweakers, says, “I eat Bill’s dogs alla time and I never had the gout.”
“There you go,” Bill nods, sipping his drink, not satisfied with it because I give him the standard shot for being a cheap tipper. If I gave the sonofabitch consistently strong shots and went across the street for one of his dreadful hotdogs, he’d give me the standard fare. His wife’s worse. She’s too superior to work at the stand, has some kind of dick gig with the National Guard, never leaves a tip, hates Bill Clinton and looks like she’s never missed a meal and could chew her way through a brick wall.
“What the hell do you know about the gout?” Maggie asks Sheila.
Before Sheila can lie about having the gout, Eugene returns, cringing in pain with each step.
“I’ll tell yah one thing,” he says, settling on his stool beside Ed, gazing at the remains of his hotdog. “I been eatin’ hotdogs all over the country all my life, and I never had one near as good as Big Bill’s.”
“Thanks, Eugene,” Bill says, not pleased, I’m sure, with Estelle piling on extra cheese, chili, jalapenos and onions. “I try and do my best. The thirty years I served in the army, I always dreamed of one day getting out and having my own hotdog stand, because I love hotdogs; and I vowed, goddammit, when I did open my own stand I’d serve my customers the best, highest quality, healthiest hotdogs around.”
Bill, who flies the American flag from his hotdog stand, drains his drink, picks up his change and says goodbye to everybody before he’s squeezed into buying somebody a drink, and exits the back door, no doubt already in trouble with his reptile wife for not coming straight home after closing his hotdog stand from hell.
Eugene, after lighting a savory generic cigarette, says, “By God, even if I do have the gout and it’s about to kill me, no doctor’s tellin’ me I can’t eat Big Bill’s hotdogs.”
Meanwhile, Dirk and Sally Little, who have taken stools together on the other side of Eugene, are itching to get into the conversation after attending to their two teenage children, who hang out at the back door when not skateboarding or getting into mischief. Dirk and Sally, both of whom are skinny to the point of emaciation, are on disability, have been for years, rent a room in a former hotel down the road, and, as far as anybody in Happy Jack’s knows, have never held real jobs; though Dirk maintains he’s an ace mechanic and was a champion boxer in the navy, while Sally cleaned motel rooms. They are both authorities on how to milk all agencies of county, state and national government.
“Eugene,” says Dirk, who has a greaser hairdo and sideburns. “If you got the gout, you should soak your feet in hot water and Epsom salts.” He speaks with authority, and Sally backs him up with a meaningful nod. “I’ve had the gout. My Dad did, too.”
“Thanks, Dirk,” Eugene says. “I’ll do that.”
“I’m no expert, obviously,” says Ed. “But from what I’ve read, one should ice his toes if he has the gout—to ease the inflammation.”
“Just take some goddamn aspirin.” Maggie rasps.
“I’ll do both those things,” Eugene says. “Hey Dell, you got any aspirin back there?”
I hand him the bottle and begin filling mugs and glasses.
Dirk is frowning. “I wouldn’t ice those toes, Eugene.”
“No sir,” Sally agrees, shaking her head. Both these people know everything about everybody in this bar and constantly remind me of who to trust and who not to, as they are keenly vigilant of the treachery abounding on a nonstop basis. For instance, since I’m a night-shift guy, Dirk has taken me aside in furtive confidentiality and informed me Lizzie, our day bartender, is working Doug Bruce, our owner, for my more lucrative tipping shifts by bad-mouthing my performance.
“Well, I’m getting’ a bit confused by all this,” Eugene confesses. “Ed here, he’s never steered me down a wrong road, so I might just swallow six or seven aspirin here, and buy some more at the Dollar Store and then ice these toes when I get home.” He tosses down a handful of aspirin tablets and chases it with beer.
“Best thing to do is get drunk,” Estelle giggles.
“I wouldn’t advise that,” Ed says dryly, eyes on the Keno screen. “You might want to look into a more powerful pain killer and not ingest all that aspirin…it’s bad for your stomach, Eugene.”
“Get some Vicodin,” says Sheila, giddily.
“Whatta you know about it?” Maggie asks Sheila, who I’m pretty sure is waiting for the Mexicans to come in with their cocaine so she can swish her ass around in the pool room and cadge lines on the patio out back.
“I’ve had two abortions, a hysterectomy and gall stones, Maggie. I know about pain. Gall stones are more painful than having a baby, the nurse told me. They had to put me on morphine drip.”
“Pshaw!” Maggie scoffs. “I’ve had two kids. How many you had?”
Before she can answer, Eugene asks, “How was that morphine?”
Sheila grins. “Dreamy, baby.”
I enter the discussion: “I had kidney stones. They put me on a morphine drip. The nurse told me kidney stones were more painful than childbirth. It’s the worst pain I ever had.”
“If you have kidney stones,” Estelle says. “You should drink lotsa cranberry juice.”
“Not necessarily,” says Ed Stone. “Good old tap water’ll do.”
On the TV there’s a commercial displaying the agonizing turmoil in a human intestine; and when a product enters this intestine, everything calms down, and the face of a smiling and relieved person pops up, holding the product.
“Morro Bay water is full of arsenic,” Maggie snorts.
“When I had my knee operation,” Sheila explains, “they gave me Demerol.”
“Knee operation?” Maggie says, sour. She coughs. “What else happened to you, dearie? Abortions. Hysterectomy. My God. How’d you manage to hurt your knee—fucking?”
“That’s not funny, Maggie. I was go-go dancing in a strip club down in Hollywood when I was a runaway. You don’t know about me. I’ve been through physical and emotional hell.”
“You’ve been through hell? Try getting in a head-on collision with a drunken Mexican with no insurance, and they gotta put you back together in little pieces like Humpty Dumpty! When you can’t walk for a year and you’re on pain killers! Tell me! Good God!”
Beer Can Bessie signals for me from the opposite end of the bar up front. She seldom talks to anybody in here, is as cantankerous a woman as I’ve known, and an RN in the emergency room at a hospital in San Luis Obispo. When I bring her another beer, I gaze up at the TV screen where another commercial advertising sinus relief displays a head with a sinus passage through which arrows run, carrying a potion guaranteed to unclog a bunch of horrendous looking gunk plaguing a man who is looking miserable, and then suddenly relieved and thankful—a fine pedestrian actor.
“Eugene down there has the gout,” I tell Bessie. “You’re a member of the medical profession. Got any advice?”
“Eugene? Tell him to keep drinking and don’t stop ‘til he drops fucking dead.”
I gaze down at the crew. Maggie’s had about enough of Sheila trying to convince her she’s got a new, rare disease for which there is no known medical cure, and that she’s the first person in the country to catch it, which means she invented it; while Dirk’s off his stool and behind Eugene, trying to convince him to soak his toes in hot Epsom salts.
Ed shakes his head dubiously and checks the Keno screen. Estelle, smiling, lifts her shot glass for a refill. Hubie, who’s been very, very quiet after only two beers, begins his conversation with himself in the back-bar mirror.
Up on the TV, there’s a new commercial for alleviating arthritic pain. A couple around my age are suffering paralyzing agony. The country’s going to hell.