Archive for July, 2021



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Frank drove home in a fog with the edge of anticipation ticking in his gut. His limbs were heavy. His mind was wasted and filled with things he hoped didn’t become clear until he was long gone from Zenith. Going into his little rental house for the last time was weird, only a single kitchen chair and a mattress on the living room floor, his footsteps echoing in the empty rooms of what had been his home for many years.

And now all the memories were coming back to haunt him and he knew he’d never get to sleep, the bare walls closing in on him one last time.

He sat in the chair and opened Waverly’s going away gift. On top was a little note. Figured you’d never be able to wait until you were on the road, Frank. Was I right? Best of luck and I hope these items make your journey a real trip.

Underneath a wadded up hunk of newspaper, Frank discovered a plastic pill vial with three large black capsules inside, the original label on the vial peeled off, Stay Awake Pills scratched on the cap with a ballpoint pen. There was also a cassette tape labeled Travelin’ Tunes, which Frank didn’t know how he’d play because Betty’s old Ford wagon didn’t have a tape player, two wrinkled, dog-eared paperbacks, On the Road by Jack Kerouac and The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler, and, Waverly being Waverly, a joint as big as your thumb. At the bottom of the box was a sheet of paper containing names, addresses and phone numbers, all from Phoenix, Arizona. At the top of the list Waverly had scrawled, “In case you wander south of Route 66, man, these old college friends of mine will show you a good time.”

Frank smiled to himself and was again hit with a surge of sentimentality and fondness for a past that he hadn’t liked that much in the first place. Fearing that he might sink into nostalgia and change his mind, he opened the pill vial, took out one of the black Dexedrine caps, went into the kitchen and put water in a plastic coffee cup and swallowed the capsule.

Hell, if he was lucky, he could be out of the state by the time the sun came up.    


(The Real End of Dive Bartender: Sibling Rivalry)


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enger 3


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The next few days went by slowly, Frank constantly looking over his shoulder or anticipating a phone call from the police. There were some nights that sleep didn’t come easy, but the cops never gave him so much as a sniff, the Zenith Police Department evidently overburdened by the massive onslaught of national media pouring into the Twin Ports to cover the Pillsbury murders, as the press was calling them.

One national tabloid ran the headline: Diabolical duo does dirty deeds to pharmaceutical heir, pays price.

Another: Down and dirty double team does in pharmaceutical tycoon.

Frank, taking a little something from Keith Waverly’s bag of tricks, had one of his own: Drug douchebag dies from dope dose. Demonic dames did it.

From what Frank could ascertain from the newspapers and the television news, the ZPD had pieced together a scenario remarkably close to what he’d hoped for. The cops theorizing that Richard Pillsbury somehow became aware that his new bride, the former Judy Bruton, and her twin sister, Lisa Semke—previously unknown to Pillsbury, the girls separated shortly after birth—had conspired to gain his affection, trust and matrimonial bond in order to carry out an elaborate masquerade designed to make him dependent on drugs and sex and thus create the opportunity for his eventual overdose death. His death in this manner would have cleared the way for the wife (Bruton) to inherit the massive Pillsbury fortune, as she was listed in Richard’s recently revised will as the principal heir, as well as a partner in Pillsbury Enterprises, the family corporation. And continuing, that Richard became so enraged and distraught upon his discovery, already emotionally unstable from intravenous drug use and sexual excess, that he killed both sisters and then fell into despondency, committing suicide by drug overdose and completing the sisters’ “destructive drug and death spiral,” the police department showing that it too, could alliterate.

Frank thought they had it just right enough.

Sitting at his kitchen table gazing out at the rain, he quickly switched gears to fantasize about California sunshine and California girls and California everything, not wanting to think about his approaching return to the Metro tonight. Jesus, it was going to feel weird. He could already see the looks on their faces, the lushes thinking they knew something about Frank Ford.

*   *   *

In his temporary return to the Metropole, Frank worked day shift, afternoon shift, late shift, Saturdays, Sundays, Wednesdays—whatever he could get. And three weeks in he asked Betty for two additional weeks because he needed more money to buy a car for his trip. Not only did Betty agree, but she also offered to sell him her ’71 Ford station wagon at a nice price, an offer Frank couldn’t refuse, a station wagon the perfect vehicle for hauling things out West.

Things had changed at the Metro. The Underground Lounge, the downstairs bar, was closed do to declining business, the DJ thing Betty introduced as a last-ditch effort to bring in customers having failed miserably. Now Tom Meagher was working upstairs and he and Frank were the only tenders on the payroll. Betty had fired Ron, the guy who replaced Frank, for beating up too many customers, and Sack, of course, had already been sacked.

Meagher and Frank ran the bar with just enough control to keep it tolerable and also profitable. Frank enjoyed the time but realized that a big part of his enjoyment came from knowing he’d soon be leaving.

Time moved along, and soon Frank’s final week at the Metro arrived. He was working the day shift on a Monday when Waverly walked in the bar at four in the afternoon, Keith smiling and looking fit and healthy. Frank had put in some time practicing positive thinking and visualization—even some yoga moves—in preparation for his future immersion in California culture, but as Waverly related the latest buzz on the street concerning the Pillsbury murders—what Keith referred to as The demise of Pills and his pussies—Frank was getting little jolts of fear in his gut. According to Waverly, the murmur currently making the rounds was that the cops had determined Pillsbury Manor to be abnormally clean of fingerprints, which had lead them to consider the possibility of an as yet unidentified fourth party involved in the murders. And although most everyone believed that fourth person was either Doughboy Loy or Artie Autry, the cops, Waverly said, were seeking input from the local barroom denizens, with a possible reward if any information led to an arrest of this unknown suspect.

This, of course, ramped up Frank’s anxiety level and got him back to walking on pins and needles—bed of nails—broken glass, you name it. The time wouldn’t go fast enough. He’d seen the cops in the bar a few times applying their manipulative, good-cop-bad-cop methods on the vulnerable types (those they had something on or snitches) but so far they hadn’t confronted him. But how long could it be?

He soldiered on and tried to stay busy. He had a rummage sale at his house. He took the stuff that didn’t sell to the dump and Goodwill. He had his newly acquired Ford Station wagon tuned up. He changed the oil. He paid the hospital bill for his concussion stay, the exorbitant amount eating at him, but mostly he just worked the bar and worried, the time dragging on slower than those last days of school before summer vacation when he was a kid. But he endured and persevered and finally his final day at the Metropole dawned.

His friends and loyal customers were throwing him a Bon Voyage party after close, and Betty had offered the use of the shuttered downstairs bar for the occasion. Betty saying it wasn’t a time to mourn but more a time to celebrate Frank’s contribution to the “Metropole family.”


Coming into the Underground for the party, Frank was surprised how many people showed up, even though a good third of them had only come for the free beer, Betty letting them drain the taps of the recently closed saloon as a gesture of gratitude for Frank’s years of service to the “Family.” Frank thought it was a backhanded gesture—the beer in the lines borderline stale—but about as good as you were going to get from Betty, the woman getting even tighter with the bucks the older she got.

One of those free-beer drinkers was Daniel Moran, who acted uncomfortable and nervous in Frank’s presence and couldn’t stop talking about the murders while giving Frank the evil eye. In spite of that, the party was fun. And surprisingly emotional. Somewhere around two a.m. Frank got hit with second thoughts and feelings of regret, because, shit, what guarantee was there he’d ever find a bunch like this, a group that genuinely liked and appreciated him? You just couldn’t predict the future. Who knew, California might be too crowded for his liking? He might be too impatient for driving in heavy traffic. He’d probably miss the changing of the seasons. And goddamnit, man, three different women came up to him at the party and got physical, touching and rubbing up against him and letting him know in not uncertain terms that he missed out on their bounty.

But it was too late for that kind of regret. It was just separation anxiety, as Nikki might say. And speaking of the blond, blue-eyed one, Frank had seen her on the street driving in her little red Honda, bringing to mind a line from an old Velvet Underground song.

What he had but couldn’t keep—linger on your pale blue eyes.

.And now he conceded that his heart was broken.

But what better treatment for a broken heart than California sunshine?

The going-away bash careened on until after three in the morning. Watching his old friends wander out, Frank had a lump in his throat and a tear in his eye. But at least the cops weren’t waiting out there for him. Then he was about to leave, thinking he wouldn’t sleep tonight with tomorrow’s drive on his mind, when Waverly called to him from the back office, Meagher and Keith the only partiers left in the building. Frank went back there and of course there were lines of coke on the desk and of course they offered him some. He declined. But then Waverly lit a bomber and passed it to him and he partook. It just seemed appropriate to break the law on his last day as part of the “Metropole family.” So he and Keith shared the joint, Meagher abstaining, and Waverly said the weed was just like they had out in Cali these days and Frank was sure lucky to be going there. As the joint hit the halfway mark, Frank felt a shroud drop over his head and the weight of the last few months come down on his shoulders. He was exhausted and anxious, excited and just a little bit scared, all at the same time. “I got a long day ahead of me, gentlemen,” he said, “ so I’m afraid I have to mosey. You guys have been great. It was a great party. But I gotta split before I sink into nostalgia and sentimentality and beg Betty for my job back.”

“No, you sure as hell don’t want to do that, Frank,” Meagher said with a big grin as he rose from behind the desk and extended his hand. Frank shook his hand and then turned to Waverly. Keith was holding out a shoebox wrapped in a piece of the comic section of the Sunday paper. Very colorful, even had a little red bow stuck on the top. “Got a little going away gift for you, Franko, as a token of my appreciation for all the fun you’ve let me in on. How dull my life’s gonna be without you around, man. But I wish you the best of luck wherever you land, and I must admit I’m a little jealous. Going somewhere that doesn’t have winter sounds pretty good to me. Drop me a line when you get settled and maybe I’ll come out and visit. And don’t open the box until your on the road, man, stuff in there will make your journey a little more enjoyable, I think. At least I hope. Really, man, I don’t have a fuckin’ clue.”

Frank took the box and felt compelled to give Keith a hug. And then found himself on the verge of tears, months of suppressed emotion seemingly ready to come slamming out of him at any moment. But he held it together and soon all three of the men were standing and grinning and Frank knew it was time. He turned away and walked out on his Metropole family for the last time.


On his way to the door, stumbling by the stage in a state of anticipatory excitement and sentimental longing, Frank glanced down at a couple stacks of albums the former record spinner had yet to haul out. On top of one of the stacks was a Led Zeppelin record, “Physical Graffiti,” lying loose and out of its cover. Frank glanced down at the label and saw his old companion and tormentor—the winged beast. There it was, the inspiration for his nightmare, the image of a naked human with large white wings— the logo for Swan Song Records. Only had one head though.

He couldn’t help but smile. So that’s where it came from. What drugs’ll do for you, eh?

(End of Dive Bartender: Sibling Rivalry)

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On Tuesday it was on the front page of the morning paper.

Pillsbury pharmaceutical heir, wife and mystery sister-in-law found dead in alleged murder-suicide scenario.

In a constant state of fearful anticipation waiting for this moment, Frank had learned firsthand the meaning of the phrase on pins and needles. But now, sitting at his kitchen table reading the News Tribune and eating corn flakes, he was feeling pretty damn good. Yeah, there was still the regret eating at him—but that went back to his initial involvement, Frank knowing that if he’d stayed away from Judy in the first place his nightmare would never have happened. But hell, things had turned out for the better and you could make a case for Frank Ford as somewhat of a hero. He hadn’t saved anybody but he had rid the world of two festering cancers. If it weren’t for Frank Ford, Judy and Lisa would still be out there spreading their insidious seeds upon the world.

Okay, that was a bit over the top. Suffice to say he wasn’t destroying himself with guilt. He was, however, worrying about Artie Autry and Doughboy Loy. Shit, how long could it be before the Zenith cops picked up on the pair’s association with Judy? And following that, how long before the two dirtbags flapped their gums about Frank fucking Ford and his own interactions with Judy Bruton? Not to mention Frank’s usage of a .38 caliber revolver, which, obviously, matched the caliber of the identified murder weapon from the front-page story.

He shot Autry’s goddamn earlobe off for Christ sake…

So now Frank was fast becoming adverse to the Zenith City. Always a tough place to make a buck, the economy was still mired in depression—or at least recession—without much optimism for the future of the rustbelt port city—so it seemed like a good time to leave.

Early the next morning Frank was at the kitchen table biting his nails—a newly acquired habit—when another shocking headline greeted him.

Body of Zenith man found near Enger Tower.

Biting faster now Frank anxiously read the story of Arthur John Autry’s body being discovered—throat cut from ear to ear— beneath some tree branches and other debris in the foliage surrounding Zenith’s historical bluestone tower.

Man, Doughboy Loy finally gave it to Artie. Fat man had to be long gone by now.

Two days later Frank was greeted with another world-rocking headline.

Overdose death linked to Zenith man’s murder, it said at the top of page one of the News Tribune.

Poor Maynard, Frank thought, reading the story. He could never get things right. Christ, they found him with the syringe still in his arm, the Doughboy never much for originality. Either Maynard got too excited after coming into possession of Autry’s drug stash and fired up too heavy a load, or he couldn’t deal with the guilt of slitting his old running mate’s throat and overdosed on purpose.

Frank’s money was on the former, but you never know.

The story went on to say that the police found Autry’s car keys in Loy’s jacket pocket, and Artie’s GTO was discovered parked a half block away from Loy’s rundown residence in Piedmont Heights.

Jesus, with those two drug-soaks dead and gone, it was hard to believe, but it looked like Frank was home free. At the very least, he had a little more breathing room.

And, yeah, sure, that kind of shit gets you thinking. Like maybe Ray-Ray was somewhere out there in the ether pulling the strings, the powers that be giving him one last shot at making things right.

If you believe in that kind of thing.

And even if you don’t, sometimes you wonder….

So right then and there he decided he was going to California. They had to need bartenders out there, didn’t they? Californiashit, manwhere it was happening, where it was going on. Had to be tons of good-looking women out there. Get to a nice quiet town on the coast somewhere and find a small, clean, well-lighted place where all the customers are tan and smiling, perfect white teeth glistening….

That sounded nice. And as guilty as he felt about leaving his mother with her grief, he knew Anne was always better with her. But he had to admit that he was also running away from telling Joan that he now believed Ray had committed suicide. He just couldn’t face that one. He’d have to write her a letter once he got settled and explain his conclusion, feeling strongly that his mother would never accept it, no matter how it was presented.

So it was settled, he was heading for the West Coast. But he needed money for the trip, so later that day he swallowed his pride and called Betty Brown. After he begged and pleaded with her to put him back on the payroll for a month, Betty showed her forgiving side and agreed, telling Frank he was the best bartender she’d ever had at the Metropole—and by the way, she’d just fired Doug Sackberger.

About goddamn time, Frank was thinking as the universe came through for him once again.

(To be continued)

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