Monday, July 5, 2010

Teaser Tuesday

Lovely blog readers, I owe you photos and report from my trip to D.C. for ALA and I will do my best to get that up on Friday.

As I've mentioned before I'm going to be MIA for much of this summer because I'm working on two novels. One is my first adult novel, Women's Fiction, whatever you want to call it. (Since my books are categorized in both the YA and adult sections, I think I'm just going to give up on categorizing. I don't like labels anyway.) I call it my bartender book. All the crazy experiences working at the Beacon had to go somewhere. It has two narrators, thirty-nine-year-old career bartender, Ivy, and her eighteen-year-old daughter, Zoe, who is starting her first year of college.

The first 125 pages of this have been written and revised and are currently with my agent, who will determine (soon I hope!) if it is ready to go on submission.

Meanwhile I will be turning my attention to my YA Urban Fantasy novel, which deals with a grieving sister and incorporates bits of Greek Mythology. I am being more secretive about that one.

BUT since I am writing so much and blogging so little, I figure it can't hurt to do teasers every now and then.... Unless my agent decides to totally kill me for doing this. To try to discourage her from killing me, most of the teasers I post will be much shorter than this. This is the beginning of the first chapter of the bartender book. Ivy is the teller (Zoe is the next chapter, they alternate). It pays serious serious homage to the bar I work in, The Beacon. I stole a shit-ton of imagery from The Beacon (hopefully my boss won't mind, my pitch to him is that if the book sells well, maybe he will gain business from it) and you'll see I gave it a little shout-out to atone for that. Characters are not based on specific patrons, though of course I've had my influences, I've also been in enough to bars to be able to generalize and create characters from a variety of sources. (This is my convoluted way of saying I never intentionally model characters after real life people though sometimes I'll see a hint of someone in certain characters.)

Anyway, I hope you enjoy it. I struggled with it a lot and I'm sure there will be many more changes to come so that by the time the book (hopefully) reaches bookshelves, you may not even recognize this scene.

Enough disclaimers. Here it is. And I'll try to post a teaser from either Zoe's POV in this book or from the YA book next week, but probably not on Tuesday since I'll be out of town for my birthday.

“The Bar knows best.”

I heard those words shouted over the din on a daily basis.

On many occasions, I was the one calling them out.

They silenced unruly voices like the banging of a judge’s gavel. They were the final ruling, a summation of the points made by everyone. Take this advice, all of it, because as a collective, The Bar knows best.

Those words became my magical incantation, like the spells that my best friend Hanna and I had recited when we were fourteen and our world was ruled by an interest in the occult that matched the black velvet dresses we wore with fishnet tights and combat boots. We painted our faces white, lined our eyes with kohl and left red lipstick prints on the butts of our clove cigarettes and the glasses of stolen whiskey or wine that we drank from while doing tarot readings.

Unlike my amateur fortune-telling, “The Bar knows best” had never failed me. I’d been whispering it to myself—sometimes The Bar, sometimes the bar depending on where I was—for more than twenty years.

My bartending career began in August of 1988—roughly two weeks after my eighteenth birthday and two weeks before the beginning of my senior year of high school—at a bar that was actually named The Bar in the town that Hanna and I had christened ‘Nowhere’ in fifth grade.
We could tell that Nowhere was the only word for the place we’d had the misfortune to be born in. Not quite rural but way too far from a major city to be considered a suburb, Nowhere was a flat expanse of Midwestern land bordering a muddy river. The people who lived along that river had money, but the rest of us struggled to get by and it showed. Most houses had sagging porches, falling gutters, or were in dire need of some other repair. Too many of the storefronts stood vacant, their windows boarded up with graffiti-covered wood. The record store, the movie theater, and the best vintage clothing shop all closed while I was in high school. I didn’t believe there was an interesting place left in town until I went to work at The Bar.

Despite what its name implied The Bar wasn’t the only bar in Nowhere—a glut of them lined the riverfront six blocks west—but it had been the first, opening forty years before Prohibition.
Back then it was called The Beacon, a light in the darkness for the alcoholics in the neighboring dry county. It went through a dozen other names over the years, most of them Irish—O’Reillys, O’Learys, McShanahans. But in the sixties, the bustling downtown area that had sprung up around it moved west to the river and the owner let the building get so rundown that the name on the wooden sign outside became illegible. Everyone started calling it The Bar. Three different owners tried to give it three different names, but none of them stuck, so Howie Davidson—the guy who hired me—didn’t even bother. He listed it in the yellow pages as The Bar, making that name official.

A century’s worth of history hung on the nicotine-stained walls of The Bar, cloaking the fact that it hadn’t been repainted in decades. There were photos of Nowhere through the years; old sports memorabilia; framed newspaper articles declaring the end of Prohibition and of both of the World Wars; and portraits of historical figures and cultural icons—Lincoln, Napoleon, Charlie Chaplin, and a naked Marilyn Monroe. Old toys and hunting trophies lined the exposed heating ducts and the top of the back bar. Dusty model airplanes hung from the tin ceiling and a pair of mannequin legs dangled in front of the door to the men’s room—someone’s humorous solution to a leak. Instead of fixing it, they’d dressed the mannequin in a hula skirt and posed her to look like she’d fallen through the ceiling. When water dripped down, she appeared to be taking a piss.
Howie had the ceiling and the pipes repaired, but left the mannequin. He wanted to maintain the unique charm of the place and restore it to its former glory. But before he could do things like removing the avocado-green laminate that had been glued to the bar top in the seventies and refinishing the original wood, he needed to turn a profit.

I had only five customers on my first shift, all middle-aged men. Regulars. By the end of the day, I’d memorized faces, names, habits, and most importantly, their drinks of choice.

The scowler who drank Bud Light was Adam The Grouch; he already behaved like a crotchety old man even though he’d just turned fifty-one. Adam’s polar opposite, Mr. Stuart—a snowy-haired newspaperman in his late-forties with the kindest blue eyes that I’d ever seen—also drank Bud Light. Johnny Mac—a balding, thirty-four-year-old salesman whose slacks and button-down shirts were always perfectly pressed—was a Dewars-and-water guy. Though Johnny Mac smiled constantly, he was as soft-spoken as his childhood best friend, John B, was loud. It seemed like most of the regulars at The Bar were named John and thereby nicknamed things like J.J., Crazy John, John The Cop, Boston John, or called by their full name like Jon Killian. But the one you’d never forget was John B, a Budweiser-swilling carpenter with paint-splattered clothing, a thick brown mustache, and a belly laugh you could hear for miles.

These men stood in a cluster around what they referred to as “the baby bar”: a thin slab of varnished plywood supported by scraps of cast-iron drainpipe. The original bar was an old saloon classic made of mahogany with a metal rail along the bottom—built when men put a foot up and leaned instead of sitting on stools. Behind it, the matching back bar contained cabinets where the beer had originally been stored, cooled by dry ice; shelves for glassware and liquor bottles; and an antique mirror that ran the length of the bar. Together they looked regal—even with the half-naked mermaids carved into the wood at either end of the back bar. Then, at some point the baby bar had been unceremoniously tacked on to the bar top, extending it toward the kitchen. The regulars claimed it as their territory because it was farthest from the large windows at the front, which kept The Bar far too bright during the day.

Behind the baby bar, a large TV sat atop the beer cooler. A baseball game was in its sixth frustrating inning. All of the men’s necks were craned, eyes pulled to the screen like plants growing toward light. Every time the team screwed up, facial muscles twitched and shoulders slumped, but aside from angry muttering, no one really spoke until John B exclaimed, “We need to get rid of half the fuckin’ pitching staff!”

He punctuated his statement by launching his Bud bottle into the garbage can where it clanked loudly against the other empties. I leapt into action to get him a fresh beer and the shot of J├Ąger that always accompanied it.

Meanwhile the other men chimed in, their voices overlapping:

“All of the starters but Osmond suck and we’ve only got two or three decent guys in the bullpen.”

“It don’t help the pitching staff that no one can hit a ball.”

“Most of the team is past their prime. Trade ‘em all off for prospects.”

“No matter what we do, we’re going to stink like always.” (That was Adam The Grouch, of course.)

They continued shouting opinions until the bottom of a bottle thudded against the baby bar. A tall man with salt-and-pepper hair and dirty fingernails raised his Old Style and chanted, “Hear, hear! The Bar knows best.”

I recognized him from TV as Elijah Reed, Junior, owner of Reed Automotive Repair, a business that he’d inherited from his father. His commercials aired late at night, during the creature features that Hanna and I watched. Stoned, we would giggle at his filthy clothing and grease-stained hands. “Don’t you think he should shower before he films his commercials,” I’d say.

At The Bar, I learned that dirt was a badge of pride. Hardworking hands were difficult to get clean and no one worked harder than Reed—that was his Bar name because his old man, who’d also been a regular, was Elijah, and though Elijah had passed away in 1985, everyone still spoke as if they’d just had a drink with him yesterday.

As the other men toasted, Reed winked at me and said, “Right, Ivy?”

When he extended his Old Style toward me, I grinned and added my plastic bottle of Coke to the mix, chiming in with everyone else: “The Bar knows best.”


Carrie Clevenger said...

Nice. This looks like it's going to be an awesome read.

Katherine said...

SO atmospheric! Bars are fun to read about. (And write about.)

No Way said...

Cant wait for your new book STephanie!

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Thanks for all the encouraging comments, guys! It's still got a ways to go, but your enthusiasm really helps me keep the faith :)