Popular Demand - Chapter 1
Fresh from an ass chewing session at the hands of his boss, Wally Wannabe barged through the double doors, out of the bright sunlight and into the musty gloom of Swampy’s Saloon. He was in luck. With the exception of Bennie, the town drunk, and Goodtime Tony, the bartender, the joint was empty. Wally would be free to drink away his Friday morning, wallowing in his soup du jour: a bowl full of wrong turns and wasted opportunities.
Smack in the middle of downtown, Swampy’s is known as the first bar open in the morning and the last to close at night. Drinks are cheap and poured stiff as steel. An extra buck on the bar gets you the two-for-one special. The health department shuttered the kitchen in the early 70s. These days, food is the only thing not found on the menu at Swampy’s Saloon.
Through the years, the legendary joint has petried its own unique aroma, a combination of stale beer, cigarette smoke, and burned popcorn. Thick and pungent, the stench has twirled many a prospective customer at the door. For the bar’s regulars, the smell is just part of coming home.
Throughout the day, Swampy’s transforms like a chameleon on a kaleidoscope. Early mornings during the week bring in the working class faithful, stopping by to get a much-needed pop before heading off to their mundane eight- to-fives.
A mid-morning lull gives way to a standing-room-only lunchtime drinking crowd made up of hung-over late sleepers and construction workers buying beers two and three at a time. In the late afternoon, Tony’s regulars come by to catch his antics and enjoy his stand up commentary, covering everything from baseball to foul play.
At night, a band cranks up attracting the college crowd along with their fake IDs and raging hormones. In the wee hours, the joint fills up with local bartenders and waiters blowing their hard-earned tips on shots and IPAs, before pairing up and skulking home. On the weekends, Swampy’s is the place to hang out, watch sports, and make a bet or two under the table.
Wally allowed his eyes to adjust, nodded to Tony behind the bar, and hurried past Bennie, who was head- down, passed-out, and snoring, his cigarette still smoldering in the ashtray. At the far end of the bar sat “Wally’s office.” He dropped his satchel on the floor, hoisted his butt up on the stool, and waited for his double Dewar’s on the rocks to arrive. What a fucking day!
Wally worked for WTVC-TV Gainesville, Florida’s local ABC affiliate. He hosted the one-hour Wake Up With Wally Show, which aired on weekdays from six to seven. On that particular morning, marking Wally’s tenth anniversary with the station, he had been called to Justin Azzole’s office after bidding farewell to his guests, Polly and her talking parrots.
Azzole’s words were still ringing in Wally’s ears. “Shut the damn door and sit down, Wannabe, we need to talk!”
“Jesus, boss, not even hello? My tenth anniversary, and I just spent the last hour with five parrots squawking in my ear and shitting all over my jacket. Look at the fucking scratches on my arms. I should file a worker’s comp claim.”
Justin Azzole stared Wally into the seat. There had been a time when the two had gotten along. They had even gone hunting and fishing together. But, that was before Azzole’s daughter, Wannabe’s ex, had come home early from work one evening and found her husband entertaining two of Gainesville’s finest fillies for hire. It wasn’t the first time Wally’s zipper had fallen into the wrong hands.
The only reason Azzole had kept the “two-timing bastard” on this long was so Wally could make his child support payments. But, even that wouldn’t protect him now. Azzole’s daughter was about to remarry, an older man with money. Wally’s world was about to be yanked to a snap.
“Have you seen the latest ratings? Given the margin of error, is anyone watching your show? You’re all washed up, Wannabe! What happened to your spark, your on-scene segments, and those interviews? Christ, a few years ago you even had Coach Spurrier up early one morning.”
“That was taped the night before, boss.”
“Whatever! What I’m saying is you’ve had it. You’ve gone from mediocre to downright annoying. Everyone knows parrots can talk. No one wants to hear that crap while they choke down their Cheerios. Our sponsor is fed up. No sponsor, no show. Got it? On top of that, the newsboys are itching for your time slot. You’ve got ‘til the end of the month.”
“You’re all washed up.” Azzole’s words had Wally’s head spinning. He nursed his third drink and stared up at the muted TV. Washington politicians parading around in front of the camera, playing the blame game for the latest stalemate, willing to shut down the government to make a point, anything to get re-elected. What a fucking joke.
“I’m not voting for that bitch.” Bennie had come to and was on his feet.
“Jesus Christ, Bennie.” Wally jumped in his seat. “Why’d you sneak up like that? You about scared me off my stool. Get your ass back over there, and finish your nap!”
“Headed to the hole.” Bennie nodded toward the men’s room. “Just tellin’ ya, Wally, I’m not voting for that bitch. Been on that side since I’s a youngin’, bleeding heart and all, but I’d rather stay home than pull that lever. There’s something evil ‘bout her. Look at those eyes.” Bennie pointed up at the TV, his wrinkled hand shaking from a naptime lull of alcohol. “Says one thing, does another. She’s back in the White House and who knows what she’ll do. A woman who can’t keep her husband happy in the bedroom can’t be trusted. What side of the pancake does she butter up anyway?”
“Bennie, I’ve had a lousy day. The last thing I need is to sit here and talk politics with a drunk.” Wally motioned to Tony for another drink.
“I’m not trying to pick a fight with ya, Wally.” Bennie persisted, “I’m just trying to make a point. That woman is dangerous!”
Wally rubbed his eyes. “All women are dangerous, Bennie. Haven’t you learned that yet? Just look at my ex. She got all my money, turned my boys against me, and if that’s not enough, her dad just fired my ass.”
Tony arrived with Wally’s drink and a question for Bennie. “Okay, Bennie, I’ll play along. If you’re not voting for her, who you gonna to vote for, one of them crazy right- wingers? Now that’s scary. Not sure what’s in that tea of theirs.
“We could put another Bush in the box and see how long it takes for the weasel to pop out. Hey, how ‘bout that crazy assoh, there he is now. Look at him.” Tony pointed at the TV. “He must have a tanning bed next to his liquor cabinet. I’ve never seen the man when he wasn’t hung over or tearing up about something. So, Bennie, what I’m asking is, just who the hell you gonna vote for?”
Bennie seemed stumped. “Well, I guess I’ll . . . You know what? I think I’ll vote for you, Tony. I’ll just write your name on the ballot. If not you, then someone else from ‘round here. We got better folks right here in our own town. Better than what’s on that TV screen up there. That’s for sure! We should choose our own candidate, not be stuck with some force-fed money puppet.
“Take that fella, Frank Antser.” Bennie was fired up. “He was in here last week with his wife, Annie. They were celebrating his fiftieth. The man’s smart as a whip. Started up his own company, and made himself a millionaire. He’s traveled all over the world. He’s a family man, in church every Sunday. He’s got more charm than George Clooney. Christ, he even looks like George Clooney. He’d have the women eating out of his hand and standing in line to vote for him. He could make a difference. All he needs is exposure, a little luck and he’s on his way.”
Wally turned and stared deep into Bennie’s bloodshot eyes. “What did you just say, Bennie?”
“Jesus, Wally, you’re hard of listening. What I’m saying is, this Antser fella would make a fine president. He just needs a break, someone to believe in him.”
Wally’s eyes were popping, and his heart was pounding in his chest. He set his drink down, dug a twenty- dollar bill out of his pocket, and tossed it on the bar. “Sorry, fellas, I gotta run.” Wally picked up his satchel and double- timed it toward the door.
“Wait, Wally. Where you going? What’s your hurry?” Bennie reached for Wally’s drink and shouted out, “Was it something I said?”