At the Empire Grille
By M. E. Riddle
It's a curious notion.
Most of us are never really quite cognizant of when memories are being made. This includes that oxy-moronic time of day simply referred to as 'happy hour', when the drinks are half price and the brain is slowly anesthetized into the belief that its' shell is either prettier or more handsome than it actually is. After a few drinks the brain is slowly seduced into the belief that it is in fact 'happy', an overrated state of mind lasting for maybe a few precious hours.
This phenomenon occurs daily inside places with clever names like the "Dew Drop In" or "The Well." Some cater to younger crowds, some older. There are places that attract members of a certain sexual persuasion while others have special themes such as a western motif or automobiles with half a '55 Chevy jutting out from a wall.
Inside sit off-duty civil servants, executives and their secretaries, postal employees, construction workers and always the token lovers communicating in the ancient doublespeak of procreation.
These people are happily languishing in darkened, air condition rooms recounting experiences or feelings either recently or from the past, some true, most not, the whole while the mechanics of the mouths' are greased and well lubricated by alcohol.
Alcohol, that demon elixir concocted by all accounts serendipitously by most civilizations at approximately the same moment in history thousands of years ago with history giving credit to monks simply attempting to make a refreshing drink out of their bountiful grape harvest.
This pleasant discovery spawned a cottage industry that to this day is the direct result of the creation of drinking establishments such as the aforementioned.
The Empire Bar and Grille is one of those places.
Nestled between a grove of Eucalyptus trees and a major freeway in Riverside, California, in the very heart of what is called "The Inland Empire", (hence the name), The Empire Grille earned its' distinction as being one of the oldest historically standing structures in the area. In a former life over a hundred years ago it was a house of prostitution catering to the needs of wayward ranchers and migrant farm workers drawn to the area lured by the promise of riches picking fruit, raising cattle and occasionally finding gold.
Throughout the course of both wars it served as a vacant, ownerless, door less, windowless squatters' home for anyone of poverty seeking a place of refuge to meet and live with other lost souls unable or unwilling to blend into any one particular strata of society.
During the baby boom or boon (depending on your outlook) the two foot thick adobe walls were festooned with dry wall and paint, electrical wiring and plumbing including mirrors and framed pictures transforming it into a restaurant and bar by a man named Robert French who just six years prior was a seventeen year old kid storming the beach at Normandy.
In time it was reduced to an ad-hock quasi-meeting place for veterans and retirees to drink and once again fight the good fight.
Apparently when what few surviving veterans of that infamous time in history passed on there seem to be a significant decrease in patronage as well.
Eventually it was reduced to a location where Robert French simply drank his way to the grave, which he dutifully did with great enthusiasm recounting his stories of bravery to anyone willing to listen.
The throne was finally relinquished to his son Robbie and his wife Helen. The first item of business was to change the name of the restaurant originally called "DeeDay"; sophomoric play on words originally bestowed some twenty years prior by Robert senior to The Empire Grille. It was Helen's idea. The change was made in the hopes of being more conducive in attracting the younger beatnik crowd who seem to lack a location other than the East coast to ply their craft, whatever that may have been.
In time the beatnik's evolved or devolved (depending on your outlook) into hippies who in turn graduated from college earning degrees in capitalism eventually returning to the Empire Grille dressed in business suits with loosened ties and plenty of money for drinks.
Les Habdank is one of those graduates.
"Don't have any Stolys, Les. Will Absolute due?" Inquired Robbie.
The two exchanged smiles.
During the first year of business Robbie and Helen were unsure if the restaurant was going to survive being that they were so far off the beaten path and so isolated from the city proper.
Their luck dramatically changed when the two witnessed the construction of a twelve lane modern freeway built no closer than a hundred feet from the entrance to the restaurant but there it was, off-ramp and all, framed as the center piece in an enormous picture window Robert had installed in commemoration of the project which to this day remains a focal point of conversation when there is nothing to watch on the many televisions in constant operation in every corner throughout the bar.
Les is one of the patrons who prefer watching the freeway to that of television, always choosing the same well-worn seat directly across from the enormous picture window located at the very center of the bar.
"Didja hear. We're gonna have a 'sloggin' tonight!" Robbie whispered excitedly, even though it was only the two of them in the bar.
"Who is it?" Les whispered back, imitating Robbie's feigned seriousness.
"Malcolm!" Les shot back. "Geese, is he even old enough to drink?"
Robbie thought for a second. "I dunno. Remind me to check".
Robbie left Les alone and returned to his sundry tasks of wiping glasses clean, placing them on display and stocking shelves with bottles of liquor and filling hidden compartments behind the bar with buckets of ice and doing whatever was required to service the fifty or so thirsty patrons expected to show later that night.
Les Habdank was quite possibly the most affable old soul in the entire universe. Never married, his life up until ten years prior was devoted to Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, capitalizing on the many decades of the raping of the planet in the quest for crude oil.
Having traveled the world many times over and lived as many lives Les was tired. He was also painfully lonely but was in denial of this fact. Only the other regulars in the bar were aware of his obvious condition. In a recent epiphany he resigned himself to the fact that his final days on this planet would be spent alone and having no appreciable romantic prospects in the immediate future had concluded his final days would be spent at the Empire Grille on one particular seat he kept clean and polished with his rear end.
At the moment he was staring blindly out the big picture window at cars streaking past, his mind back in Northern Iraq romping with two hairy patchouli scented sisters, girls really, trying to squeeze their breasts as the three wrestled directly on the Saharan sand under a trillion prickly stars. A small smile appeared across his lips as he lifted his glass to toast the memory of the two.
A few of the regulars began to trickle in.
Helen was late and rushed past without a word.
Next was BC, or Bone Crusher, who quietly entered and proceeded to make himself comfortable at his usual location in the darkness at the far end of the bar where he could observe the others with impunity.
The two rose and met each other halfway exchanging handshakes before returning to their respective seats.
Les feared BC. BC admired Les. Because of this there was a shared mutual respect between the two.
Everyone, all the regulars that is, have nicknames.
Les Habdank is Polish. His full nickname is Les Havedrinks. Robbie and Helen refuse to have nicknames. Then there's BC, the Red Baron or simply Baron, Snaggletooth, Trucker and finally Buster, his full nickname being Buster Hymen, a wanna-be gigolo who has as much luck with the ladies as a trout.
There have been other regulars who have come and gone but these are the real stars, the mainstays, the regulars, to wit; Empire's extended family.
The rule is simple. Nicknames have to be earned. They cannot be picked by the recipient or freely given. The name must be decided upon by committee, that is to say, everyone who already has a nickname has a vote. The nickname must have its' origins in a history of the person or from a unique situation, like the time Alvin Farnsworth a.k.a. BC was entering the restroom at the exact same moment Robbie was exiting. The unexpected door opening fractured Robbie's arm at the wrist as he was reaching for the door handle hence the nickname BC.
It's funny now. It wasn't funny then. There's nothing worse than a one-armed, grumpy bartender. There's more. The nickname cannot be initiated until the candidate is "slogged". That is to say, he or she must consume an entire bottle, approximately thirty two ounces, of a clear European liqueur that is actually quite delicious containing bits of actual gold flakes suspended throughout a thick sugary syrup.
He or she may share as much of the drink with the others as they like but the incentive for not doing so is the expense, which the nicknamee must, absorbed which is about thirty dollars. Taking into account the extreme sweetness and thick viscosity of the beverage and the copious amount of alcohol contained therein usually results in the person getting ill or passing out. When this happens the others are allowed to gleefully finish the beverage of initiation.
Les is one of the fortunate ones having a natural occurring nickname that closely matches his own but he harbors a deep, personal secret.
He has never been "slogged". He couldn't accomplish this Pyrrhic victory even if he tried. The man rarely has more than three drinks in a night. He likes to keep his mettle about him allowing his observational powers of the human condition to remain unaffected by overindulgence.
In addition to being an accomplished and successful Mechanical Engineer Les is also in his words, "a keeper of the language", i.e., a writer. He is, again in his own words, "a writer trapped in an engineers' body". It is his intention to someday transpose the notes and perceptions he continually scribbles onto Empire napkins of the antics inside the place and put them to text eventually getting it published in book form. He remains undetected by first sketching out a "new design" in the event anyone looks over to see what he is up to. It has happened in the past so to date anyone catching him scribbling is reminded of Les and his "new designs". He always keeps some simple yet complicated sketch as the cover sheet to his writings that he can quickly drop and cover the notes. There have been many close calls in the past but he is now certain the others accept his alibi. Les is convinced that if the others knew the truth it would greatly impact his relationship with them in a negative way. He would also lose the luxury of spontaneity.
Trucker and Buster arrive at their usual time of a quarter to five after unloading supplies of food and spirits at the Empire's delivery dock. The two would then stroll through the empty restaurant to the bar where Robbie would feed but not water them for free. The drinks must be purchased. There were times maybe a free beer on a hot day but no free drinks. Their presence would always precede them. The bar opened at four but the restaurant didn't until five. Upon entering from the back the stillness of the empty restaurant would be always be shattered by they're constant bantering.
The two were inseparable. Both were truck drivers as well as bachelors for life. The Empire Grille had a way of breeding and nurturing this type of lifestyle. After being "slogged" it seemed people could no longer leave at will. The bar had a way of capturing your soul and holding it for ransom, the extorted payment made in the form of perennial loneliness.
Trucker was the driver and the serious one. Buster was giddy and thick. Trucker got the women. Buster heard the stories.
"Les! Hey, Les ill know", Buster, shouted, interrupting the silence.
"We gottan argument, maybe you can help".
Buster climbed into the seat next to an uncomfortable Les. Les didn't appreciate his space being violated without permission and tried not to show it.
"Ok, ok, here it is".
Before speaking Buster slyly looked over at his friend Trucker who purposely looked away.
"Here's what?" Les dryly asked teasing, knowing full well 'it' was going to be in the form of a silly question which was usually the case between these two who spent way too much time together inside the confines of a truck, like the last time when the two argued about the outcome of Napoleon having a B-52.
"Ok, ok, here it is". Buster caught his breath before continuing. "What would happen if God and Superman got inna fight?"
Les feigned contemplation before attempting to answer this nonsensical question. Buster watches his every move. Les took a sip from his drink.
"What are we talking about here, Buster, existential being or anthropomorphic deity?"
The roar of Robbie's laughter erupted from the back room. Robbie had always considered himself the barometer of humor. He let everyone know the degree of laughter by his bellowing howl. The louder it was, the funnier the wit.
Buster took a long drink from his glass keeping an intense stare on Les the whole while. Finally swallowing he responded. "I don't quite follow ya Les".
More howling from Robbie filled the bar and restaurant.
"Let it go Buster", Trucker dryly advised without looking, preoccupied with the array of hors-d'oeuveries being offered. "Helen, is this meat?" he asked matter-of-factly over his shoulder.
"No Trucker, its plastic……….You know, fake meat. Just the way mom made it!" she responded on the fly. Still harried, she ran past carrying plates into the restaurant.
"Got that right", Trucker mumbled, lifting a hefty portion onto his plate.
"What's that!" Helen called out from another room.
"Nuttin' dear", Trucker mumbled.
Les finally caved and addressed Buster.
"That's a pretty dumb question Buster", he commented to the freeway traffic racing by. Buster looked as well thinking that was the origin of Les's inspiration then resumed the stare back at Les.
Les could see Buster out the corner of his eye.
"What!" Les jokingly barked, turning to face Buster. After a moment of staring Buster finally spoke.
"Les, how come youse so smart?"
Robbie erupted again.
Trucker passed by with a plate of nachos and made his way back to the comfort of his usual chair. He glanced over before eating, slowly shaking his head from side to side.
"Look Buster," opened Les in an attempt to explain himself after observing what seemed genuine sincerity pasted across Buster's face. "Your question, its like, well, it's like asking would if God and Satan got a divorce?"
Les's mind suddenly took off.
"That is to say, would if the creator and the prince of darkness refused to engage in the battle of good verses evil anymore. Would all the churches and nudie bars close up shop? Would the world over populate itself or die off? Would it put an end to country western music?"
"Country western! Whattya mean?" Buster interrupted.
"Well, would the guy's woman be true? Sure. Return home? Who knows? Would he find his pick-up truck? His dog? Who cares? Would he have to do somebody wrong for doing him wrong? Probably. Basically, the poor sod would have to publicly lament these things in song and do you know why Buster?"
"I dunno Les", Buster softly whispered. "Ya lost me again".
This time there was no laughter. Les realized he had been slowly raising his voice. His point, whatever it may have been, had become lost in the rant.
Trucker continued eating in silence slowly moving his head from side to side.
Buster slid across empty bar seats and joined his friend and his nachos. Buster kept his head low, his smile subdued.
"Ya know", commented BC. "All God's gotta do is break out the Kryptonite and………"
"Thank you Einstein!" crowed Trucker.
Now there were two hurt feelings. Les knew when to quit. He understood a very long time ago not to argue with idiots. First they'll drag you down with stupidity then beat you with experience.
"Another one Les?" Robbie asked in passing, giving Les the 'eye'.
"Yea. This time just straight cranberry juice with a little ice."
As he watched him pour Les's mind drifted back to the two hairy girl cubs on that starry, starry night in Northern Iraq. He remembered how strangely rare the color of their eyes were, unexpected for their race. Their mother had them as well; almond shaped cobalt blue windows to the soul gathered from a lineage of diamond chromosomes scattered across the steppes of Southern Russia. Collected and compressed for tens of thousands of years, they were cast from God's gambling hand like dice onto the baccarat hardpan of the Middle East.
He remembered how the Sultan had offered them to him as wives. He could only imagine how they would have fared at the Empire. Instead of Vodka and cranberry juice it would have been yogurt floating in goat's milk. The thought made him cringe.
"Where ya at, Les?"
Realizing he had been daydreaming Les quickly returned to the Empire. There was a tall glass of cranberry juice with ice on a napkin before him. He made a promise right then and there to stop punishing himself for the memory of that night. Robbie reappeared, taking a break from his duties.
"Man, you were far away Les. Where were ya?"
Les took a drink from his cranberry juice. "It was long ago and far away".
Behind Les strode in Baron. He gave Les a warm shoulder hug from behind and made himself comfortable in his usual chair next to Les.
"I hear ve gun ta have a sloggin' tonight, ya?"
Les yawned ostentatiously, an indication he'd prefer discussing world events or some other heady topic with Baron instead of trivial barroom joviality.
"That's what Robbie was saying", Les replied, hoping Robbie would interject with an explanation of the evenings cadre but this was not the case. Robbie flew past carrying towels without answering.
Baron, not unlike Les, was also a world traveler. A pink man with sandy white hair, Baron fought against Briton piloting a Messerschmitt BF-109 hence the nickname. He personally delights in the name Baron although in a different time his mere presence at the Empire would have summoned authorities with just the act of opening of his mouth and speaking.
"Un who is it, if ya dunt mind telling me, ya?"
"Robbie said its Malcolm", replied Les, hoping again Robbie would do the explaining as he carefully placed a tiny glass of vintage Chablis before Baron. Again he did not. Robbie simply nodded, smiled, and then scurried off again.
"Thank you sir", Baron said to Robbie's back and carefully raised the tiny glass into the air before taking a small sip.
"So, tell me my friend. Vat shall we discuss today?" Baron asked.
Les brightened. This was what he desired. Intellectual banter. Before Les could answer BC, already on his third whiskey, interrupted the budding conversation.
"We was wonderin' who would win, God or Superman, er, the devil, er somthin'. I dunno. I forgot".
Baron raised a pair of sandy eyebrows and looked over to Les for an explanation. Les shrugged. Buster looked away grinning, slowly moving his head from side to side. He was now fully aware of the ludicrousness of the original question but at the same time mildly offended anyone took it so serious. The question was originally intended as segue to humor that went awry.
"Umm, vell, let's see, uh? Uuberman un God, Ya?"
Baron nudged Les. Les looked at him and rolled his eyes.
"Vell, dat reminds me of ven someone asked vat if Napoleon had un atom bomb, ya?"
"It was a B-52", Buster corrected.
"He certainly would not have had any trouble at Waterloo, uh?" quipped Les, nudging Baron back. The two exchanged smiles.
"Or, or, it's like asking what if all women were born with a third breast!" added BC excitedly.
The statement caught everyone off guard. A moment of awkward silence ensued before chuckles started cascading into raucous laughter. BC slumped down in his seat and looked away dejected. Over the years BC had earned the title of comic relief specialist of the group although he would choose to differ.
"So my friend", Baron began to say but waited for Les's full attention to finish.
Les turned and faced him. Vapors of Chablis preceded Baron's words.
"I've gut somesing ta tell ya…"
(Oh great), thought Les. (Another one of those 'I've got something to tell you' assertions. Wonder where he's going with this one…)
Les was disappointed. He had been secretly hoping for discussions on some esoteric subject matter, such as the outcome of World War Two had Hitler prevailed or something equally provocative. Apparently this was not going to be.
Baron paused a moment looking down at his Chablis. His brow was low. When he looked up Les noticed his eyes were pink and his hands were trembling.
(Oh jeeze, he gonna cry), thought Les.
Baron had always been an emotional man. Les had grown accustomed to his frequent mood swings, especially after a few Chablis, but this time was different. Baron hadn't even finished his first glass yet.
"I'm dying my friend."
The words slapped Les in the face. His jaw dropped. For an instant he realized his own mortality and yet at the same time realized Baron was engaged in aerial dogfights over the skies of England while he was still a boy in blue jeans going up in Bakersfield.
"What is it?" asked Les, his words barely audible.
Baron raised his glass and took another tiny sip.
"It's ven ya don't think anymore. Its ven ya don't look around un see za wurl spinning, vend da life inside ya veeches fur da sky………."
"I know what death is Baron. What I'm asking is, what is the nature of your ailment? What's wrong with you?"
Baron took another sip but decided to quaff the entire glass. He continued to glean every last molecule of Chablis using a vacuum technique. Les watched in detached fascination and waited for Baron to finish. Robbie was at the ready with the bottle and filled the glass just as Baron softly placed it on the coaster. Robbie looked upset. Apparently he had been listening to the conversation. When he left to tend to other customers he gave Les a stern look and Les nodded back in understanding. None of the others were aware of what had just transpired.
"Tha doctor said I was dying."
"Did he say how long you had to live?" Les softly asked.
"About ten years".
"Bloody hell!" shouted Robbie from the back room.
"Baron, you old coot!" Protested Les.
Baron sat giggling uncontrollably, enjoying the moment. That was his way. If he wasn't impressing you with brilliance, he was baffling you with bull scat. He simply loved shock value, whether it is sincere or mordant. In any event he knew he was to pay for that one later that night. Nobody ever forgot statements made at the Empire Grille. That's all they had. Words and alcohol.