Ava, Lana, and Old Bob Campbell
by Wayne Turmel
Las Vegas, 2018
Bob Campbell was seventy-five by this point. He was never much of a BS artist, rarely spoke at all and never joined in the usual barfly banter and nonsense. So you can imagine my surprise when, out of the blue, the old guy ups and says, “I ever tell you about the time I had a three-way with Lana Turner and Ava Gardner?”
I’ll be honest; I only listen to about half of what my customers tell me. That old belief about bartenders being good listeners extends precisely as far as the tip jar, but a tidbit like that, I’d have remembered.
“Must have slipped your mind,” I said, continuing to cut up limes because Louise thinks banging the day manager means she doesn’t have to do her side work.
“Hand to God.” He held a callused palm up like I was swearing him in. Pulling a Camel out of a wrinkled pack, he tapped it three times on the bar and put it between his thick lips. A blinding orange flame illuminated his face and the three stools around him. He always had that old Zippo with the embossed Merchant Marine insignia set high as a welding torch. Bob took a long drag then let the smoke out like he didn’t ever want to let it go. We both watched it dissolve into the ceiling vent as he pulled his thoughts together.
I kept cutting fruit and cursing Louise. Tuesdays, it was usually the two of us at that time of the afternoon and I knew he’d talk when he was good and ready. My being about a third his age and a woman had him fumbling for the right words even though, of the two of us, I’m the one who swore like a sailor. I was a little surprised he’d raised the topic at all, but I guess I was more barkeep than a young lady at this point. “How come this is the first I’m hearing about it? If I was a guy, and I slept with two movie stars, I’d have it on my business card. Hi, I’m Bob and I banged Lana Turner, nice to meet ya.”
“And Ava Gardner, don’t forget,” he said, his cigarette drawing smoke pictures in the air.
“How could I? I thought she was hotter, anyway.” I kind of knew who she was, because Gramma always made me watch her “pictures” with her near the end.
The left corner of his mouth turned up. “Yup. Always did have a thing for brunettes. And older women.”
“Just my luck. So when did this magical night of passion occur?”
“Nineteen fifty-seven. May eleventh… no, twelfth maybe, ‘cause it was a week before my senior prom. Coachella Valley High. Go Arabs—course they changed the name a few years back cause you can’t say A-rab any more. Probably a good thing. You know I’m from there, right? Thermal? Near Indio. I just turned eighteen.” That was more information than I’d gleaned in the six months I’d known him.
Squinting helped me visualize what he looked like as a high school senior. He was an okay-looking old guy. The buzz cut probably hadn’t changed a bit since his sailor days. Had he been a greaser, all Brylcreem and pegged jeans? Or was he one of those lettermen-sweater jocks? I tried to imagine him in old Happy Days reruns. Under the crow’s feet, liver spots and wiry arms were clues to the kind of hunky, All-American kid he must have been.
Sixty years later he sported a beer gut that I’d helped create, and one visible tattoo—the Merchant Marine symbol, an eagle on top of what looked like a cop’s badge— in faded blue on his right bicep, barely visible against desert-tanned skin in the dim light of the cocktail lounge. He always teased me that I had twice as much ink as he did, which was true, and I’m not sure he approved. Not that it mattered to me what he liked or didn’t.
“Indio? How’d a desert rat like you wind up a sailor?”
He sniffed and gestured to his empty beer glass, then kept talking to my back as I pulled the tap and handed a full one back to him. “It’s all part of the same story.”
“On the house, but this better be good.”
“It is. So, I’m almost done with high school and got the world by the tail. Baseball scholarship—least a partial—waiting at USC, a pretty little girlfriend … looked like you a bit. Short and blonde only real dainty and ladylike. Kind of Sandra Dee, you know?” I nodded like I knew who that was and that my feelings weren’t a little wounded.
Grey eyes drifted over the bar in the direction of the TV as he continued. “I had a job at the filling station on One-Eleven. Right near the turnoff to Salton Sea. I was a gas jockey back when we had them… you know, pump the gas, wipe the windshield, fill the oil if they needed it. Had a brown uniform with my name on it and everything. Jerry the owner trusted me with the keys… the whole shebang.”
I pictured it in black and white, like one of Gramma’s movies. Some good looking extra with a rag in his pocket and perfectly white teeth asking, “Regular or ethyl?” Old Bob would’ve been pretty cute back then. No wonder he had a pretty, adorably skinny, girlfriend. Probably a cheerleader. Bitch.
“This one night it’s about six thirty cause the sun was still up. It’s hotter’n hell, been quiet all day. Nothing moving. When along comes this big-ass Lincoln convertible, going way too fast and sending up a big cloud of dust everywhere. It shoots past the station, then I hear brakes and it does a U-turn and pulls up to the pump. I jump out all spit and polish and swear to Christ, there’s two women in it.”
While he spoke, I did a quick search on my phone and called up pictures of two of the most gorgeous creatures I’d ever seen: a blond in a white fur and a brunette with killer eyebrows, holding a drink and looking like the best time in town. Go Bob. I leaned across the bar.
Coachella Valley, California, 1957
He noticed the car first—a ’56 Lincoln Premiere convertible, white with ivory interior and white wall tires. It was a beauty. It was only as he got closer and asked, “What can I do for you…” that his mouth dried up and he damn near tripped over his own feet.
Behind the wheel was an older woman in dark glasses, a bright red scarf covering her head to protect her from the wind. A checkered shirt was open to some impressive cleavage, baked a deep brown. The other passenger was a little smaller, about the same age and in a robin’s-egg blue kerchief, round dark glasses and frosted pink lipstick that seemed out of place in the desert. A man’s white shirt was tied at her waist, leaving a hand-span of gleaming alabaster skin. Like the smooth, flawless legs sticking out from dark blue shorts, it was beginning to blush pink from the Mojave’s sun and wind.
Between them on the bench seat lay a half-empty bottle of Johnny Walker.
The driver slid her sunglasses to the end of her nose, peering over them and taking inventory. She took just a bit too long to say, “Fill it up, kid. High-test. And check the water, if you would. Please.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” He fumbled for the hood release, nearly scorching his fingers, then sent the white sheet metal skyward as he checked the radiator cap. It was really them. The hood shielded him from the women’s gaze, but not the sound of their voices.
“Ma’am? Knows how to make a broad feel old doesn’t he?” The speaker had a southern accent, not really common in California so exotic as hell. It had to be the driver because the giggle that followed was definitely from the paler, smaller blonde.
“He is kinda cute though. Such a baby.”
“Honey, I would eat him up with a spoon.” The words were chased by a pop of the bottle’s cork and the unmistakable ahhh of whiskey having passed down a dry throat.
“Ava Lavinia, you are terrible. Besides you’re a damned liar. A hillbilly like you would just use your fingers and lick them clean.” The pair laughed fit to bust a gut. “And quit hogging the bottle.”
Cheeks burned and his heart raced as young Robert replaced the radiator cap and moved to the pump, trying to stand tall and not look like an idiot in front of the women whose identities were no longer in doubt. They’d both been on the cover of his sister’s movie magazines recently. One for her impending divorce from maybe the most famous man in the world, the other for dating a gangster.
He almost grabbed the regular pump handle out of habit—had he ever actually pumped premium in the two months he’d worked there? There wasn’t much call for it in the farm trucks and beat up Chevys that trekked up and down between here and Indio. But a machine like this one would take only the best. Out of his league, like everything else.
Surprisingly, his tongue still functioned and his voice didn’t crack. “Anything else I can do for you ladies today?” He said, wiping his hands over and over on the yellow rag.
The driver held a ten-spot casually between long, red-tipped fingers. “That’s it, hon. My you’re a big one, aren’t you? Football player?” Her hand squeezed his throwing arm as he took her money.
The gas jockey drew himself up a little taller and managed to control the gasp that desperately wanted to explode from his lungs. “Baseball. I’ve got a scholarship to Southern California in the fall.” Partial, whatever.
The blonde—Lana frigging Turner no less— smacked her friend on the arm. “Jeez, he’s still in high school for Christ’s sake. Exactly how old are you, honey?”
The response spewed out too quickly to seem cool. “Eighteen, Ma… I turned eighteen in March. I graduate next week.”
Thick, dark eyebrows arched over that flawless face. “Legal as a church wedding. In Spain, the ladies would be all over you, Sugar.” This earned her another smack on the arm from her friend.
“Again with Spain? Did you ever actually get any work done or did you just play with bullfighters? Honest to God…”
“Okay, just bring the change, Slugger.” Then Ava Gardner turned to her blonde companion. “And you could use yourself a bullfighter or two instead of those goons you date.”
Bob managed to keep the stupid grin from his face until he faced the garage. Over his shoulder, he heard braying laughter. He summoned enough blood from other regions to his brain to make the proper change and regained control of himself as he walked back.
The two women had their heads together, whispering like Alice and her girlfriends did when they thought the boys weren’t looking. Only no high school girls looked like these two. Bob feigned nonchalance as he handed the six bucks and change back to the brunette goddess behind the wheel.
“You ladies have a good night now.” He turned away, more than satisfied with the smile she gave him and the story he’d have to tell.
“Hey, kid. What’s fun to do around here?” Turning, he saw Ava Gardner leaning on one elbow over the door of the Lincoln, grinning at him. Robert approached the car.
Her companion sipped from the bottle and offered a simple, “Really, hon?” but said nothing else.
“Not much. I mean most people go into Palm Springs—”
“Kid, Palm Springs is the last fucking thing we need to see. What’s up that way?”
Normally he didn’t approve of women cursing, but falling from those lips it sounded like angels singing. He looked into the dust cloud that led to Indio. “Not much. There’s a couple of movie theaters in town. And some bars, but nothing nice enough for… ladies like yourselves.”
Miss Gardner snorted and offered the bottle—now two-thirds empty—to him. “Ladies, huh? Go ahead have a nip.”
Bob waved off the offer, but she kept those green eyes locked on him until he shrugged and took a small sip, managing not to gag. Her lips curled triumphantly.
“What time do you get off…” her eyes drifted to the name on his shirt, “… Robert?”
He didn’t need to read the sign on the door but looked anyway just to have something else to stare at. “Not for another two hours. We close at nine. Sometimes eight thirty if it’s quiet.”
“It can’t get much quieter than this, can it? Tell you what, close up now and we’ll give you a graduation present you’ll never forget.”
The pump jockey looked over to Lana Turner biting her lip and staring out the other side of the car like there was something to look at besides an old Joshua tree and the remains of a tireless flatbed truck. Her shoulders shook, stifling a laugh or something. She didn’t argue with her friend, though.
They had to be putting him on, and he felt that temper of his rising. “Sorry, I can’t. Dave’ll kill me.” Actually, Dave would probably understand. He had a couple of Mexican gals he saw regularly and wasn’t above changing the operating hours when certain needs arose.
Ava Gardner put a Winston to her lips and lit it. For a second the only sound was the click of the Cartier lighter and the slow intake of breath. “Slugger, you ever see what the bungalows at La Quinta look like?”
He refused one more time, then Lana Turner turned to him, winked, and shrugged sympathetically. Ava reached over and took her hand, giving it a squeeze.
“I have to lock up or he’ll kill me.”
They both let out a whoop and a chorus of “Attaboys” as he ran back to the office, fumbling for the keys.
Las Vegas, 2018
“Shut the front door,” I said.
Bob shrugged like I could believe him or not, it was no skin off his nose. He picked up his glass and swallowed until spiderwebs of foam were all that remained in the glass.
“And? What happened?” I couldn’t believe he’d leave me hanging like this. Louise, the day manager, and the limes were all forgotten.
He grinned and turned unnecessarily to blow the smoke away from me. “Pretty much what you think happened. A gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell. They paid a gardener from the hotel ten bucks to drive me back to the station and drop me off at like five thirty the next morning. Wasn’t no Uber back then. ‘Course, Dave fired me.”
Bob shook his head. “No, it wasn’t that he was that mad— like I said, he did it himself from time to time. He just didn’t believe me when I told him what happened. Called me a God-damned liar. Of course, he told all his drinking buddies my tall tale, and the story got around town pretty much overnight. Everyone was talking about it. Big joke to them, me making up something that ridiculous and all.”
Old Bob gazed over my head as he sucked that Camel down nearly to the filter. “Soon as Alice—that was my girlfriend—got wind of it, she broke up with me.”
I tried to put myself in her petite, shiny, Mary Janes. “Seriously? I’d have given you a hall pass on that one.”
Bob sniffed. “It was the fifties, kid. She was mostly pissed because her girlfriends were being all bitchy, saying if she’d put out I wouldn’t be chasing other women or making up such stories. Everyone was talking about us and teasing her and saying what a bullshit artist her boyfriend was. That’s what made her mad. She even offered to finally go all the way if I’d just stop telling people about… Can you believe that? It was God’s own truth, she just didn’t believe me. So we broke up. Well, she dumped me. Same difference.”
“So, what, you chucked it all and ran off to sea? Kind of random. I thought you had a baseball scholarship?”
Another cigarette slipped from the pack. The usual tap tap tap ritual ensued. “Oh, I did, but I wound up leaving town a little earlier than that. After that first day or two, I kept my mouth shut since nobody believed me anyway. But there I was no job, no girl—never even went to Prom because Alice wouldn’t go with me and I couldn’t get a date. Wasn’t like you could go stag back then. ‘Sides, they’d all just be talking behind my back the whole time.
“Small towns suck.” My own prom-lessness showed in my voice and he nodded sympathetically. I patted his arm. “You’re better off getting out. But why didn’t you play ball?”
“Couldn’t hit a curveball for shit, mostly. They threatened to pull my scholarship anyway. Turns out the coach heard from someone about my—uhhhh character issues—felt I wasn’t Trojan material. The real reason was I got run out of town.”
“Whom, come on kid,” he corrected my grammar like he always did. “By whom…”
Thermal, California 1957
Robert was in the middle of hoisting yet another flat of dates onto a truck when a gruff voice called out, “You Campbell?”
The guy asking was about six feet tall, two hundred, with a pushed-flat face and a suit a hundred bucks too expensive for his surroundings.
“Who’s asking?” The young man didn’t like the flat East Coast tone of this guy’s voice, and his tolerance for BS had pretty much reached its limit over the last few weeks. That the only work he could find was with the beaners loading dates onto trucks didn’t help his mood.
“Doesn’t matter. Look, word is you’ve been yapping off about you and a couple of ladies way out of your league. You know who I mean?”
“Yeah, so?” Robert hadn’t said a peep to anyone after losing his job at the garage. Besides, who was he going to tell in this god-forsaken place? He couldn’t speak Spanish for shit. That didn’t mean he had to let some stranger push him around.
“So, first of all, it ain’t nice to tell lies. Show some class. Secondly, these ladies have friends, and those friends don’t like people spreading stories, you know what I mean?”
An index finger the size of a bratwurst waved in front of Bob’s face. “Shut your pie-hole and listen, kid. Don’t say nothing. It never happened, you made it all up, and that’s an end to it. Got that?”
“Or what?” He already knew the answer but couldn’t help himself.
“Really.” Weeks of shame and anger started at his feet and rushed upwards, threatening to blow the top of his head off. Robert thrust both palms against the goon’s chest and pushed as hard as he could. He might as well have pushed against the trunk of a date palm.
The ugly guy’s thin lips twitched in what might have been a smile on a more handsome face. “Big mistake, kid.”
A blow to the solar plexus and a one-handed shove later, Bob looked up at the stranger from the dusty ground. Farmhands chattered in Spanish and pointed, but no one offered to help or even call a straw-boss. With the sun at his back, the figure towering over him was an ominous black shadow.
“The lady’s husband doesn’t want to hear any more of your crap. You say one more word to anyone, and I’ll come back and this won’t be so pleasant, understand?”
The younger man nodded as best as he could between shallow breaths. “Yeah, I got it.” He knew who the lady’s husband was. Everyone did. Their divorce had made all the papers. So did his choice of pals.
“Good. Gotta hand it to you though kid, you got balls. Between you, me, and the fencepost, just one of them broads is a handful.” He grinned and extended a conciliatory hand to the young man on the ground, but pride didn’t allow Bob to take him up on the offer. The goon shrugged, walked back to his Chrysler, and drove off in a cloud of dust, sand, and leaded exhaust.
Robert Campbell lay panting in the dirt, flat on his back and staring through watery eyes at a cloudless blue-white desert sky.
Las Vegas, 2018
“A week later I registered in San Pedro and hopped a freighter to Panama.” He pointed to the blue outline on his arm. “After a while decided to make it official and went to the Academy at King’s Point. Retired with my Chief’s ticket.”
A blinding flash of afternoon sun penetrated the room as a couple of middle-aged snowbirds waddled in and sat three stools down from the old sailor. I motioned for Bob to stay put, took their orders, and made sure they were properly situated before sliding back down the bar.
I drew another beer and wiped up a sticky ring before setting it down in front of him. “How many people have you told that to since then?”
He sipped his beer and avoided my eyes. “No one. Not a god-damned soul.”
“So why me?”
He grinned. “You going to rat me out?”
I shook my head. “Nah. Good story though. Shame it didn’t turn out better for you.”
Bob laughed loud enough to draw the disapproval of the couple down the bar. “Who the hell said that?”
About the author:
Wayne Turmel is the author of eight non-fiction books, three historical novels and a bunch of short stories that have appeared in Writer’s Digest, Dodging the Rain, Storgy, EFiction and more. You can learn more about him at www.WayneTurmel.com.