writing exercise #31

Prompt: Character walks into an unfamiliar bar. (I sort of cheated, I suppose.)

***

This time the place had been reborn as The Phoenix. Clever, Joey thought, given that the bar had gone through at least a dozen incarnations in as many years. Originally Bob’s, then Mary’s, then Frank’s. Pete had added Place to the name and Patricia, the next owner, had kept that part when she took the joint over. After Patty’s Place, things really changed. The Meeting Room had a dress code and doormen and died a quicker death than any of the others. From the remains of The Meeting Room sprang Ace’s, then Honey’s, then the Library, where the owners, an optimistic retired couple, passed out books with every whiskey neat. That was an idea Joey had appreciated. He still had four books from those days. Catcher in the Rye, Don’t Think of An Elephant, a Dolly Parton biography and a collection of short stories that included James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues. Joey had been enamored of that one, particularly the line, “Deep water and drowning were not the same thing.” Didn’t he know. But the Library’s regulars didn’t take kindly to reading and started ordering gin rather than be saddled with another book, a reaction that discouraged the owners tremendously. Last Joey heard, they’d fled to some part of Brooklyn where people were less suspicious of the written word.

From there, the bar turned into Ace’s 2, but the son of Ace had no more luck than his father and sold after six months. No one expected the ambitious agenda of the Seaview Bar & Grill to take root and everyone was right about that. The kids who opened Safe Haven thought the cute name would appeal to the younger crowd while paying homage to the town’s seafaring history, but they were wrong. Consensus among the college kids was too many oldies took up too many barstools while the veterans complained that the jukebox was too damn loud. The owners, college buddies themselves, argued about who should buy each other out first. The conflict grew until neither one ever showed up and the staff’s paychecks began to bounce. Joey hated each new opening, meeting all the optimistic new bartenders, cocktail waitresses and busboys, all so happy to have jobs, so sure that this time, this would be the miracle idea that would change all their fortunes forever.

Now The Phoenix.  Extremely optimistic, Joey thought. And also, didn’t the phoenix just keep burning up and being reborn? Wasn’t that the story of this place already? So did that make the name even more appropriate or were they failing to understand they’d condemned themselves to repeat the past.

He pushed open the door. The bar had been transformed. Again. The Safe Haven kids had plastered neon lights and beer-label mirrors on every square inch, hung framed bikini babes next to vintage photos of ships charging into the harbor and layered random sailing bits wherever they’d fit. Frat house meets boat house, Joey had privately thought. But this new version of his old place held none of that. The walls were bare, stripped back to the original wood and brick. The bar shone blonde, lacquered maple polished so slick Joey bet the bartender could slide a pint from one end to the other with only the slightest flick of the wrist.

The lighting behind the bar was bright, the lighting over the tables soft. Charlie Parker on the jukebox, Joey noted. Joey was the only customer so far.

“Welcome to the Phoenix,” the bartender said as he laid out a cocktail napkin. “What can I get for you?”

“Whiskey, neat,” Joey replied as he settled himself onto the same barstool he’d spent the last decade on. They’d refurbished the stools, he was pleased to note. Good. It’d been a while and his ass wasn’t getting any younger.

“Anything in particular?” the bartender asked.

“What do you recommend?” Joey tested.

The bartender narrowed his eyes, scanned Joey’s face. Joey felt himself being assessed. A sense of anxiety caught him by surprise. He was the veteran. What did he have to worry about? That the bartender would misread him and offer Joey some Jack Daniels thinking he was one of the illiterate men who’d never left the hills except to come here for his nightly does of Old Number 7?

“How do you feel about Redemption?” the bartender asked. “I’m a fan, myself.”

Joey grinned. “Sure, son. Serve it up.” The bartender grinned back, poured the drink, handed Joey the glass.

“I’m Seth.”

“Joey.” He stuck out his hand. They shook.

“You come here much?”

“Oh, only for about 12, 13 years.”

Seth  cocked an eyebrow. “You’ve seen it all, then?”

“Oh, I don’t know about all, but I’ve seen a fair amount.” Joey sipped the whiskey. Redemption. Not bad, he thought. Real nice, in fact.

“Any advice?”

“On the bar?” Joey asked. “Or on life?”

“Either,” Seth answered. “Although I’m particularly interested in the fate of the bar, seeing as I’m the owner.”

“Well,” Joey said, “people haven’t had much luck making something stick. But you knew that going in.”

“Sure,” Seth said. “But I’m what they call an optimist.”

“Well,” Joey said, “it looks good. It feels good. It sounds good. You’re off to a hell of a decent start.”

He sipped his whiskey.

“Thanks, Joey,” Seth said. “That means a lot to me. Tell you what. First drink is on the house.”

Joey raised his glass, nodded, and took another sip.

“So, what’s your story, Joey?”

Joey pondered how to answer that question. Did he start with his youth, maybe the part where Little League gave way to cross country through which Joey had ultimately earned himself a scholarship to Harvey Mudd. He’d been kicked out of school for failing to attend classes, mostly because he was too busy hanging out in Los Angeles where his interest in building engineering had shifted to sound engineering. Joey had some good riffs about bands throwing temper tantrums in the studio and an even better one in which a band had repeatedly insulted the club sound guy from the stage until an embarrassed girlfriend came over to apologize for her boyfriend being like, omigod, such an asshole. That wasn’t the best part, the best part was that the girlfriend had ended up leaving the club with Joey during the encore. They’d picked up some donuts, blueberry old-fashioneds and maple bars, then driven to the beach, huddled under blankets and talked till the sun came up, tequila sunrise tinting the oil rigs like some sort of Parisian paintings. She’d said that, at least. Joey had no idea what Parisian paintings meant, but the scene was beautiful. Just like her.

They’d stayed together six months before she split to return to her boyfriend. He’d left L.A. after that, made his way back north, finished his degree through online correspondence, got the engineering job that had seen him through all these bars, all these years.

“My story?” Joey finally answered. “Seth, I have a lot of stories.” He drained his glass.

Seth poured Joey another shot, then pulled down a glass for himself. “Cheers,” he said. “Here’s to always rising in the end.”

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