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Bandit's Cantina Episode 97: Clay's Christmas

Blessings Come in Strange Packages

by K.Randall Ball with illustrations by Jon Towle and George Fleming

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There was a rush of excitement for Xmas. All the kids involved in the parade came over in the afternoon to gather with local bikers, truckers, longshoremen and single mothers. Bandit made a big deal out of the day for everyone including his staff. The Chinaman enjoyed cooking for the crowd and Mandy, Margaret helped the crew baking cookies.

Tina and Sheila took on decorating the massive tree Marko and Frankie scored at a dying Christmas tree lot. Lots in LA weren’t doing well with the lockdowns and prices soaring. Then BLM gangs of toughs threw Molotov cocktails into their incendiary lot and vandalized it. Christmas 2021 took a hit as gangs looted stores and homeless parked on the streets and waited for needles.

The port of Los Angeles, a disaster with waiting ships stacked from San Diego, over 120 miles away, struggled with over-regulated truckers, who don’t know where to dump empty containers. Over restricted, hard-working truckers couldn’t enter the port to carry goods to market, thus messing with the entire country.

The Cantina bustled and Bandit kept the holiday tunes blasting while he stared at his budget sheet. It didn’t look good. The positive cash flow from the Sturgis Rally dwindled. He knew his time in Los Angeles waned and 2022 would be a turning point.

He put on a smiling Xmas face and walked down the stairs to the dining room. Kids and bikers filled the joint. Most huddled together over their presents mask free. Brothers discussed bike modifications and upcoming projects. Marko came out from behind bar and nudged Bandit.

“Looking good?” Marko said and then steered Bandit’s gaze to Clay, his thinning head of sandy-blonde hair resting against the polish bar top.


Clay was a too-regular. He started drinking early and didn’t stop. His poison Corona beers held him in place between piss and smoke breaks.

“He’s not looking good,” Marko said.

For as long as Bandit owned the Cantina, 17 years, Clay was a regular. Originally from rural Alabama, Clay started coming after work at the shipyards, drowning his sorrows in a few Coronas. His wife left him for his brother and took his shit, including his home of 10 years. He moved all his tools into a storage locker and bought a 30 ft. Catalina sloop and navigated it into the nearby Pacific Yacht Landing Marina.

Skinny as a rail, he had long straight flowing hair generally pulled into a ponytail, but occasionally he wound it into a man-bun and stuck chopsticks through it to keep it in place. He worked with fiberglass and nasty chemicals at the Naval shipyard, and smoked hand rolled cigarettes. He did everything to excess and never stopped.

Before long he started getting sick, liver disease, lost his job and ended up on the disability payroll. A friendly, helpful sort he wanted to assist folks and started to rebuild outboard motors and handled dinghy repairs. His sloop listed in its slip, with over a half dozen ailing outboards jerry-rigged to the feeble railing. Inflatable dinghies in various stages of disrepair were going flat, while jammed around his sailboat. Some, hanging out so long they grew bottom moss and barnacles.

Bandit watched his declining progress from afar, while Marko chatted with him occasionally in the Cantina and Margaret got the brunt of his misery daily. She noted his declining teeth and the smoke stains on his mustache, but mostly the yellow tint in his eyes.

Always trying to be helpful and upbeat his marina customers grew then faded away as his drinking passed from high priced brews to the cheapest shit in the store. Then he shifted to gallon, plastic bottles of Clan McGregor scotch.

But at the Cantina he needed his Coronas, which he bought and then tried to mooch off others to keep the beers coming.


Margaret at first chatted with Clay, but his conversation always drifted to his ex, Nicky and his hands started to shake. Margaret couldn’t handle his teared-up, drifting conversation and she tried to respect him but kept moving around the bar taking care of other customers. Unfortunately, the lockdowns left the Cantina with one regular customer, Clay.

“If the Man spots this party,” Marko said. “We might get busted.”

Bandit stopped thinking about Clay for a second and shifted to the festive gathering in the dining room. Margaret came to his side and hugged him. “Isn’t this wonderful,” she said looking at the crowd gathered in the dining room full of festive lights, rich Mexican-food smells, and holiday music.

Bandit looked at Marko. “Fuck the Man,” he said. “They defunded the police. Who are they going to send, the National guard on Christmas? I don’t think so. Let’s see if Clay is alive and move him.”

Clay tried to augment his income and cover his slip rent by repairing flats on dock carts, tightening screws and handles. It helped. He dumpster dove for heavy duty doc extension cords. Usually the 130 buck marine extension cords were fine, but the plugs were crushed or damaged. For a few bucks, if he had any, he could fix a cord and trade it for booze.

As Bandit and Marko approached the skinny bastard cemented to a leather top barstool, Bandit thought about all the rules that never seemed to work with alcoholism. It dragged folks down to the lowest levels of their lives and often destroyed families and their health. He thought about the deadly enabling business and Margaret’s son, who was going to prison. His life was toast all over mom’s enabling, but he would never utter a word to Margaret. She was all heart and soul.

Marko and Bandit lifted Clay by his smelly armpits. “Are you alive,” Bandit said.

“Did Nicky come?” Clay slurred. “She said she would.”

She never did.

“He’s alive,” Marko said.

“Hey brother,” Bandit said. “We’ve got the Cantina full of kids and folks having a good time. We need to get you out of here.”

Clay slipping fast was hanging with the wrong crew, other alcoholics who taunted him and got him in trouble, like the time there was a sale on moonshine at the Wilmington Food for Less. The restriction called for a maximin of three 25-ounce tins of the cheap hooch. He bought three but his gang of drunks wanted more. They recruited a rare clean and sober sailor, Jason, to drive them in Clay’s car which was full of empties and had retired tags. One of the other drunks push crap aside to squeeze into the back seat and promptly popped open a beer. “You shouldn’t do that,” Jason said.

Clay gave them the cash and they stumbled into the market drunk as sailors, natch. They gathered up the clattering tins of white lightening and stumbled into a counter display knocking over cases of carefully stacked goods.

The group was briskly escorted to the door and kicked out. A bunch of ugly, disorderly white guys in a mostly Hispanic grocery store filled with families looking for a financial break to feed their kids. Generally, the store was packed with obesity luring goods, chips and candy.

The drunks stumbled into the banged-up Toyota compact from the ‘70s empty handed and Clay went ballistic, grabbed the money and decided the store staff wouldn’t recognize him. It had been less that 45 minutes from his last encounter. He stumbled and swayed across the pitted asphalt parking lot to the automatic door, which he attempted to push open, when they automatically opened, and he fell face first to the slick linoleum floor in front of lines of departing customers, kids and startled checkers.

Best he could, he regained his footing and composure and headed for the liquor aisle, where he gathered three more tins of evil and headed toward the checkout line. Drunk he grappled for his wallet. At even 60 something, I.D. was required to purchase alcohol.

He dropped his wallet, scattered his shit, dropped a tin of hooch and when he stood up a large obese Hispanic security guard hovered above him sneering. “Sorry sir,” the young man said. “You’ve bought your limit. Forced out Clay returned to the car where his pals were already enjoying the 100 proof ever-clear with a peach twist.

Bandit refocused on the current Clay, reaching the bottom of his life’s journey, forced by his alcoholism.

“But she’ll be here,” Clay muttered and looked up at Bandit. The sorrow in his face was as deep as the LA Harbor main channel. The whites of his eyes were piss yellow.

“We will watch for her,” Bandit said. “You need some rest and some water.” He grabbed a bottle of water from behind the bar. “Can we drive you to your boat?”

“My Toyota blew up,” Clay sunk and almost fell to the tiled deck, but Marko and Bandit hauled him to his feet.

“We have a cot in the shop,” Marko said.

“Let’s get you a nap,” Bandit said. “Drink that water and freshen up.”

“Yes sir,” Clay said, struggled to open the cap on the bottle and Marko helped. He almost gagged at the taste of fresh water. “Can I have a beer?”

“After you nap,” Bandit said and noticed his hand shaking. “Get him out of here.”

“If you don’t do something about this,” Bandit said to Clay. “You’re toast.”

Clay took another sip of water and tried to stand as if he was trying to pull himself together. Marko led him out of the bar and into the back to the shop where the bikes were parked, and Marko had his apartment.

Clay sat on the edge of the cot fatigued, as if he would never get up again. He pulled a small, tattered leather pouch from his vest and started to roll a cigarette. “Would you like one?” he said to Marko.

If he had considered the question before he asked, he would have known Marko never smoked and never will.

“You can’t smoke in here,” Marko said ignoring the question. He pointed at the No Smoking tin sign in the shop. “There are gas tanks in here.”

Clay nodded dejected and put his papers and strong Canadian tobacco in the leather pouch and zipped it up. “Sure,” he said and laid down on the pillow Marko supplied.

Marko tossed an old army blanket over the gaunt form and turned out the light. “I’ll come back to check on you.” Marko said. “Get some rest.”

Marko returned to the dining room where the joint was alive with hearty festivities. Margaret wrapped her shapely and fit body around Bandit and the crowd was having pure fun as if the ugly world of burning cities, homelessness, crime and drug addiction outside didn’t exist. Sheila brought Marko a small eggnog and whispered in his ear, “Want some Holiday cheer later?”

“Why not,” Marko said, kissed her and took a sip of the eggnog. “Hmmm, makes everything warm and sweet.”

The kids brought their presents from home and were playing and sharing them with other kids. Jose and Maria, the Chinaman’s illegal galley crew came out of the kitchen with more munchies and their helpful kids Juan and Christina followed to open their presents.

Bandit couldn’t afford Christmas presents for the staff, but he kept paying them. He did step up for the galley kids. The other kids helped as they unwrapped their presents and Juan ran outside with a couple of boys to try out his new skateboard. A couple of brothers rode up on their performance Dynas and were invited inside.

“We're not legally open,” Bandit said. “The chow is on the house.” The Chinaman and the girls organized a massive spread of fresh guacamole, chips, Verde and rojo salsas, taquitos, tacos, enchiladas, salad and a large vat of green pozole soup. The smells were amazing, as the two brothers took off their helmets and gear and Mandy took care to hang and store their stuff.

They grabbed a couple of snorts of eggnog and some plates and then headed for the chow line. Suddenly Juan burst in the front door. “Bandit, fire.”

Bandit turned toward Marko, “Check the shop and Clay.” Bandit followed the kid outside to the back of the Cantina. Smoke billowed out from one of the roll-up doors. He grabbed the clicker from his leather vest pocket and pushed the button.

Bandit grabbed the wooden end of Clay’s cot and pulled him out into the fresh air. “Margaret, call 911.”

A crowd gathered as Bandit pulled Clay off the burning cot and moved him away from the smoke as Marko used a fire extinguisher to put out the burning pillow and blanket.

Bandit pumped the smoke out of clay’s lungs and Mandy gave him CPR. He didn’t wait long after Marko left him to roll a stout cigarette then promptly fell asleep on the cot. He wasn’t burnt badly but struggled breathing as an ambulance arrived and he was moved to a gurney by a good looking EMT, who carefully strapped Clay down and put an oxygen mask over his face.

Bandit nudged Marko and stepped forward as the two EMTs prepared to move Clay inside the ambulance. The cute 5’5” EMT turned to Bandit. Here name plate was engraved, “Nicky.”

“What’s his name,” Nicky inquired, pen and clipboard in hand.

“It's Clay,” Bandit said. “He smokes and has a drinking issue.”

“Thanks,” Nicky said. “We will take him to Harbor General.”

“Do me a favor,” Bandit said. “Introduce yourself to Clay.”

She turned and approached Clay on the gurney. “Clay,” Nicky said. “I’m Nicky and we will take good care of you.”

Quick, Join the Cantina and support the crew. Click on the image.
Quick, Join the Cantina and support the crew. Click on the image.

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