In strode Snaggletooth and with the exception of Malcolm the circle of regulars at The Empire Grille was now complete. He made himself comfortable in the empty seat next to Baron.
"Snag…. Hey buddy…Ya made it". Collectively came out of everyone's mouths'.
Tucker and Buster simply waved either a partially eaten drumette or mug of beer while still processing dinner.
They all sat in their perspective locations; BC at the far end of the bar in partial darkness still punishing himself for his latest faux' pas and nursing his fourth whiskey, then Snaggletooth, Baron and Les, together as usual. And finally at the opposite end sat Trucker and Buster, just now awakening from an aggressive bout of eating. The two pushed their plates away and stretched, burping repeatedly.
Snaggletooth was one of the most colorful of the group. Having been a street cop in Hell's kitchen most of his life, he had been drawn to Southern California after watching almost forty Rose Parades on television sitting together with his wife in their tiny, frigid Bronx apartment. Sometimes after looking out the window at the New York skyline in a deep freeze he would turn to his wife and vow that someday the two would experience the event in person.
One day he turned to tell her but she was gone.
A year later he found himself standing on the corner of Colorado and Lake Street in Pasadena on a warm winter's day watching the parade, alone and moribund. That night he ripped up his return ticket to New York and scattered the scraps of paper into the surf while walking along a strand of beach in Malibu. Re-married to a lusty redhead named Toni half his age he was also by far the happiest of the septuplets at the Empire.
Snaggletooth's nickname was not derived from any lack of dental hygiene but rather the many oral surgeries he had to endure correcting and adjusting teeth and jawbones due to repeated injuries sustained capturing and wrestling bad guys on the mean streets of New York. He was a cop, his father was a cop and his father's father was a cop. All three of his son's are cops. Born William Michael Lanigan, the nickname was bestowed because of the array of disjointed teeth hiding behind meaty lips and walnut shell eyebrows framed by a wild salt and pepper beard. Together with the chapped blush weathered cheeks it effectively rendered him the appearance of a cartoon character lion.
Waiting for his drink Snaggletooth looked over at Les and Baron.
"So, what are we discussing tonight?" he asked with genuine curiosity.
Baron looked over smiling. Les's stare remained affixed to the big picture window and the cars on the freeway and answered, "Baron just informed us he has ten years to live".
"Wow, ten years uh. You must already be in your eightys. How do you know this for sure?"
"I'll never tell," replied Baron, his eyes still twinkling.
"You know", said Les, still gazing out the window. "That if given the chance between choosing a fool and a saint, always pick the fool because a saint may not get you into heaven and there's always the chance a fool will."
It took a moment for the comments to flow.
"Pretty deep, Les."
"You can always count on Les."
Baron remained conspicuously silent but eventually added his comment.
"You know my friend. Sumtimes yor verds are indeed quite eloquent, but den sumtimes I don't know vat da hell you are talking about! Vat's dis, a choice between a fool un a saint? Vat is dat? Vat da hell?"
Robbie in the back room was the first to laugh. Trucker, always on the alert for wit and obviously listening joined in. Buster, not wanting to be excluded, laughed because Trucker did. Everyone else joined in until the laughter waned and ebbed into background noise.
"Ya gotta love 'em," Trucker commented.
Robbie reappeared and poured Baron another Chablis.
"On the house," he said smiling.
Other patrons, non-regulars, began filling empty seats. Malcolm appeared and took a seat next to Les.
Les looked at him and rolled his eyes.
"I could hear you guys clear out in the parking lot."
BC was first to respond.
"First it was God and Superman, then Napoleon with atom bombs, fools, saints, all kinda stuff."
"A B-52 BC. You keep sayin' atom bombs!" Buster again protested.
"Wow! Sounds like you guys covered a lot of ground," Malcolm commented.
Malcolm was the favorite. Clean cut and intelligent, he was the son they all wished they had except for Buster. Malcolm was a friend Buster always wished he had. Buster felt below Malcolm. Dropping out of high school at an early age Buster was unable to keep up with Malcolm's social skills. Malcolm overlooked this small detail.
"Hey Malcolm, lemmie see your driver's license," Robbie demanded, his hand extended, palm up.
Malcolm obliged, handing Robbie his wallet.
"What's going on guys?" Malcolm asked, looking at everyone.
"Says here your twenty two years old," said Robbie, giving Malcolm the stink eye.
"Well, if your twenty two, that means I was serving you when you were still a minor."
Malcolm smiled and blushed.
"Look you guys. It's hard for a college student to find a place that won't card you……...
Is there a problem?"
Malcolm studied Robbie's face. Robbie finally smiled and handed Malcolm back his wallet.
"No kid. More power to ya," said Robbie while fetching Malcolm a glass of beer.
"Here here!" someone else commented.
"I vas drinkin' ven I vas twelve," added Baron.
"And that was before cars!" Buster quipped.
"Ya, I think you are right!" Baron lightheartedly replied.
Malcolm finished putting his wallet in his back pocket and returned to his seat. Robbie brought him a beer and after placing it on the bar before Malcolm feigned a punch to his arm. Malcolm reciprocated with a fake block and pantomimed a return blow. Les looked over at Malcolm and raised his glass of cranberry juice.
"I hear there's going to be a 'sloggin' tonight? You up for it?" Les asked.
"You forget. I'm a college student", replied Malcolm.
"What do you mean?"
Putting down his beer after a long drink Malcolm answered.
"Most college students, my self included, consume large quantities of alcohol."
The two raised their glasses and toasted this less-than-admiral observation of the American educational system.
"Nervous?" Les asked under his breath.
Malcolm caught the others monitoring their conversation.
"Whatcha nervous for Malcolm?" Buster taunted.
Perennially honest, Malcolm looked down at his beer before answering.
"I'm worried about what nickname you guy's are gonna pick".
Everyone exchanged glances, smiling devilishly.
"Bookworm", BC suggested.
"Too easy", countered Snaggletooth. "Les, got anything?" he asked.
Les remained stoic. He was being entertained by the picture window. Deep in thought, he was privately wondering the odds of ever having met any of the occupants streaking past strapped inside the colorful flurry of automobiles filling his eyes.
"Earth to Les! Earth to Les! Come in, over", squawked Buster in an exaggerated microphone voice.
"What's that?" Les stammered.
"Snag wants to know if ya got any nicknames in mind for Malcolm."
Les turned to Snaggletooth.
"Haven't got any. Nothing comes to mind yet……Robbie, can I have another when you get a chance?" Les asked, raising his empty glass for Robbie to see.
"Sure. Alcohol this time?" Robbie asked, holding a bottle of Vodka to his waist.
"Was there any alcohol in that drink you just had?" Malcolm inquired.
Les shook his head no. Robbie placed another drink before him and snatched the empty glass away.
"Wait a second? Your nickname is Les Havedrinks, and there was no alcohol in that drink? Isn't that just a little oxy-moronic, or maybe even a little hypocritical?" Malcolm playfully inquired, winking at everyone.
"Not really", Les quickly replied, thinking on his feet. "Oxy-moronic would be that stalled delivery truck on the freeway out there with the words 'rapid delivery' stenciled across its' side. Now that's oxy-moronic".
"Damn Les…Wow! He's good…Brilliant!Touché!" collectively came from the group.
The group of regulars was fast becoming a source of entertainment for the other patrons seated randomly throughout the bar. With their backs to the other patrons the regulars were unaware they were on-stage. Robbie, facing the other patrons, was all too aware of this performance-taking place and ever cognizant of the fact that this show would encourage business by keeping the other patrons in their seats and thus possibly increasing the sales of alcohol.
Robbie began to take notice of two attractive, well dressed middle aged women becomingly increasingly enamored by Les and his seemingly loquaciousness rational.
Unbeknownst to everyone the two women were actively engaged in a hushed argument as to which one was to get to take Les home with them and engage in recreational sex.
"So, put it on mister plastic?" Robbie asked, surprising Les.
Les was slightly confused. Normally he kept a tab with Robbie until closing. All the regulars did that is, excepting for BC. With BC it was more a matter of creative financing.
(Why did he ask me that? Everyone has a tab), thought Les.
Everyone heard Robbie ask but nobody commented.
Les hesitantly produced his wallet and all watched Les hand Robbie one of his many credit cards. Robbie snatched the card and briefly took a moment to examine it.
"Hey, it's platinum!" he crowed for all to hear. "Normally they give ya a hunnered thousand dollar credit on these things!"
"Yea, I don't know…. Something like that…" Les stammered, still unsure of Robbie's bazaar behavior.
"It's the same card DiNero uses," taunted Robbie, swaggering away comically waving it in the air.
Intuitively, Les looked over his shoulder. At that moment his eyes met the two attractive women who had been secretly scheming over his fate. When the two smiled Les abruptly turned around in his seat, shocked and embarrassed. He could feel his ears burning. Others noticed. Les was mortified. He had just demonstrated a foible in his personality to his peers. Out of respect nobody commented. Yet. Surprisingly, Helen was the first.
"Here ya go, dear. Something for your ears," she said slyly, arriving with a glass of ice. No liquid, just ice.
"What's this? asked Les; fully aware of Helen's tease but hoping she wouldn't peruse it.
She tugged at his ear, smiled and left.
In the course of human evolution there has always been that one defining moment in a persons' life when time stands still and a fleeting facet of ones' psychological make-up is revealed to ones' peers.
That time is now. Les knew he had damage control to attend to and quickly. Amidst all the noise and conversation going on in the bar Les slowly rotated in his seat and faced the two attractive women. The two lowered their drinks and anticipated Les's next words.
"Pardon me ladies, and please excuse my bellicose friends. The fact is, beautiful women cause me to blush."
The room suddenly became still. Nobody moved, even Robbie froze, stopping the credit card paperwork.
"This is no excuse for my rude behavior. Please forgive me. Robbie?"
"Right here Les".
"Please serve these wonderfully beautiful ladies whatever they desire…….On me".
The two women raised their glasses to thank Les and he reciprocated with his own glass lifted in the air in a toast of human warmness. Turning, all eyes were admirably beaming at Les and all the glasses were raised, including those by non-regulars. Seizing the moment, Les lowered his glass and assumed a regal pose reciting a poem by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
"Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her. And if you can bounce high, bounce high for her too until she cry; high bouncing, gold hated lover, I need you!"
His passionate recital brought tears to some eyes.
Inexplicably, the background noise of the bar returned to Les's ears. Turning, the two women were gone. Les was confused. He turned back in his seat and noticed all the regulars and everyone else in the bar for that matter were going about their business of drinking and conversing as if nothing had happened. The thought of the two fiery bear cub women of Iraq unexpectedly entered his mind.
"You ok Les?" asked Malcolm
"Yea. Yea. Just deep in thought", he replied.
"You are one trippy dude Les", added Malcolm.
"You're too cute!" commented Helen in passing.
(What the hell just happened!) Thought Les. (Why didn't I stay in Iraq).
"Goddam Les. Try ta getcha laid and ya choke", chided Robbie, returning with the credit card. "Didn't charge ya. We'll settle up later……..Geeze Les, your worse than Buster".
Les was lost for words.
"Hey, I coulda had 'em bent over a Buick inna minute!" shouted Buster.
"Buster!" shouted Trucker. "You couldn't get laid if you were the one-eyed king in the land of the naked blind!"
All became still. Buster's feelings were hurt. There were a few nervous chuckles but they quickly subsided.
"Excuse me Robbie", said Les, vying for his attention.
"Would you float a little more Stoly's over this?" Les asked. Les now felt he needed something to bolster his composure.
"Pace yourself Les", Malcolm advised.
Robbie produced the bottle of vodka from the mirrored shelf behind him and topped the waiting glass off.
"Want the credit card?" Les sarcastically asked.
"Naw. You're good".
Robbie winked and smiled, putting the bottle back.