(I’m starting a Friday story series, but don’t have a catchy, alliterationable name for it yet.)
Lela’s American Cafe, Part 1
by David S. McWilliams
Let’s get one thing straight from the beginning: I didn’t mean to burn down Lela’s bar. It was an honest mistake, and you can’t hold a guy responsible for something he didn’t mean to do, right?
Lela didn’t see it that way, of course. But nobody got hurt too bad except for me, so I really don’t see what the big deal is.
I even got her a picture of Bogart and Bergman for her new place. It wasn’t autographed like the old one, sure, but it’s also not like Humphrey Bogart is doing a whole lot of signings these days. I put my own name on the back instead, and left her room to add her own. Just like Bogart and Bergman, right? It was a thoughtful gesture, or at least I thought so.
She disagreed. Strongly. Geez, and she wants to lecture me about civility.
Anyway. Maybe this would all make more sense if I backed up a bit.
My name’s Francis, and I’m a damn good photographer. You read the Times? You know that photo of the guy in Ferguson with the molotov cocktail? Yeah, that was me. The Libyan rebels with the homemade catapult? The ISIS executions? The big spread of the bulldozers in Zucotti Park a few years ago? All me.
I specialize in riots, war crimes, beheadings, drone strikes blowing up weddings, civilians getting gassed—all that happy stuff. Sometimes it gets tricky; the powers that be don’t exactly go around handing out press passes when they’re about to break international law, you know? Usually I fly in somewhere nearby, hoof it or hitchhike over the border, and work incognito.
Using a digital camera would make that a lot easier because I wouldn’t have to lug around a bunch of film . . . but it just doesn’t feel the same. Call me backward or stubborn, I don’t care. I just like the feel of the old stuff better.
And I never would’ve met Lela if I was using digital. This was back in—when was Georgia, again?—2008, right.
The Russians were really cranking up the propaganda machine and it was pretty clear that Georgia was on Putin’s shit list. I figured that the Russians were going to do some shady stuff, and my editor agreed. By late spring I was on the plane, but I couldn’t exactly land in Russia with an American passport and a bunch of camera equipment without picking up a tail. The plan was to fly through Morocco, land in Istanbul, rent a car, and drive as close as I could before walking the rest of the way in.
Cheap plane tickets are cheap plane tickets, though, and I got held up in Casablanca for a few days. There wasn’t much to do, and the war hadn’t started yet, so I did the only thing I could do: I crashed at a backpackers’ hostel and went out with a bunch of Australians to get hammered.
People always go all gooey when I tell them I was in “Casablanca.” They think it’s like the movie, all romantic. Let me straighten that out for you right now: it’s not. Casablanca’s a dump. A hot, sweaty, smelly, 8-million-strong, piece-of-shit dump. There’s a big mosque, a bunch of shipping containers, and a pathetic little strip of resorts on the beach that are usually empty. Going on vacation? Skip it. Trust me.
The thing is, people fall for the hype. No one had fallen for the hype worse than Lela.
Lela’s an American, like me, but she’s a romantic. She loves those old black and white movies, so a few years after school when she had the money saved up she moved out to Morocco and opened a bar. Can you guess what she named it?
“Rick’s American Cafe.” Not even shitting you.
She set it up just like the movie; she even bought a piano. I heard someone play it once. It sounded like a bunch of hammers in a canvas sack getting dragged behind a pickup truck. Thank god she didn’t hire a pianist.
It’s not the sort of place I usually check out when I’m working—I avoid tourist traps like the plague. But a bunch of the Aussies at the hostel wanted to go, and I tagged along out of some sort of morbid curiosity. A drink, is a drink, is a drink, right?
It turned out to be a pretty cool bar, actually. Good drinks, and pretty cheap. Nice ambiance. Good lighting. I would’ve shot in it, if I’d had the film to spare. Lela took some design classes when she was at Wells, I think.
So we proceeded to start getting shitty. Before long this chick came over. She was cute enough—probably a 6 or 7, I thought—and so we started talking. It turned out she was the owner, her name was Lela, and she was from the States. She got us a round on the house when she found out I was an American, so we kept chatting.
Lela asked me what I thought of the place, and I gave her my honest opinion: I thought it was pretty nice. Good lighting. She asked me if I’d seen the movie, and I said of course. She dragged me over to the bar and pointed to this tiny faded print of Humphrey Bogart in a frame over the taps. There was a signature in the corner; she said it was his.
Privately, I doubt that it was real, but hey—I wasn’t going to rain on her parade. Besides, I’d gotten a better look at her over by the bar, and was thinking that Lela was a solid 7. Maybe 10 pounds too heavy to be an 8. She has these great sleeve tattoos down each arm, and a real cute face. Shorter than I usually go for, but I kinda wanted to fuck her.
I was horny, and bored. Sue me.
So we kept talking about the movie, and I start talking about the cinematography (because let’s face it, there’s some great work in there even if the story is corny as hell). Lela asked me if I was a photographer. I played all modest and hinted at a little bit of my war work. She bit, hard, impressed with how much I “risked my life” to “make the world a better place.” Sure, sure, whatever. I pulled out my old standby story about the little boy and his mom in Iraq; by the time I got to the part with the grenade she was actually crying a little. You could practically hear her panties hit the floor.
Let’s get another thing straight before we go any further.
Yes, the thing with the kid in Iraq really happened. I did actually grab a live grenade with my bare hands and chuck it away from a little boy. What, am I going to let a kid get blown up by a grenade? I’m not a monster.
But before you go all teary-eyed on me, think for a minute about how grenades work. If I was close enough to pick it up and throw it, what do you think was going to happen to me when it went off? Forget the kid; I generally try and avoid getting myself blown up whenever possible.
True, maybe I took a few steps towards the kid when that grenade bounced over the wall instead of diving away. And maybe I happened to put my body in-between it and the kid. I won’t deny it.
But his mom said I practically jumped on the thing while pushing him to safety. She said I was a hero. My memory of the whole event is a little fuzzy, but I don’t really believe her. Nobody’s that stupid.
You’d never believe how many times that hand grenade has gotten me laid . . . and Lela bought it hook and sinker. After a little more small talk, we went upstairs and did it. I treated her real well, too, don’t worry about that. I always do, or at least try to.
I’m not just tooting my own horn here—this is relevant later. But we’ll get to that.
(part 2 here)