Back on the Wagon

This year, I made the very rational decision to skip National Novel Writing Month, reasoning that I should focus on revising my current novel rather than writing a new one. So here’s how I spent the month of November:

  • Organized and attended photo shoots in both Los Angeles and San Francisco for work
  • Drove to Los Angeles to visit friends for Thanksgiving
  • Attended a cocktail party and celebrated a friend’s birthday
  • Visited the Academy of Sciences to check out the skulls exhibit
  • Recorded a new Perspective segment for my local public radio station
  • Slept in, walked the dog, went out for brunch, went out for dinner, etc.

You’ll notice one glaring omission: No writing. Not even a little bit. So in an effort to kick my butt back up onto the writing wagon, this week I’m posting a scene I’ve been working on from my novel-in-progress. Thanks for reading!

———–

Excerpt from Small Legends Part Two: Keith

Most Thursdays after work, I told Pam I was heading to the Phoenix for a beer with the guys. And most of the time I was. Except when I drove out to Alameda to Ol’ George’s Bar. My father’s old stomping grounds. I’d been thinking about the place ever since I’d found out Pam was pregnant.

The bar probably hadn’t changed a lick in 40 years, down to the torn-up vinyl covers on the bar stools and the sun-faded photos tacked up all along the back wall. It smelled like old liquor and ancient cigarette smoke. The regulars were mostly old time drunks who showed up every day at 5 o’clock and stumbled out every night around midnight, their faces and kidneys bloated and pocked with dark purple spots. They sat alone at the bar, one stool between them and the next guy, and stared up at whatever game was on the TV, the volume off, making a comment every now and again about a ref’s bad call or the team’s chance of making it to the playoffs. It wasn’t exactly social, but I suppose it was better than drinking alone.

I took the table by the jukebox.

“What can I get you?”

Ginny’d been tending bar at Ol’ George’s since my father’s day. Her teeth were crooked like a stray dog’s, and her skin was like dried meat but she smelled like flowers. She wore low-cut tops but her boobs hung down so far on her chest, it didn’t make much difference. She was old, sure, but more than that she was practically pickled by years of hard drinking and hard living. Just like my father would’ve looked, if he’d lived long enough to drink himself to death.

I’d picked him out in the old photos from the first. As much time as my father’d spent sitting on one of those bar stools, I’d never stepped foot inside of the place until I found out that I was going to be a father.

The kid hadn’t even come out yet and already I was finding ways to not go home. Just like my father, I supposed. The man had been dead for nearly 20 years but there he was up on the wall, whiskey in hand like I remembered him. Except he looked a damn sight happier than I’d ever seen him. Ginny’d caught me staring at a black and white photo of him and a light-haired woman in a nice dress. They were dancing some kind of waltz. I’d have thought they were in a ballroom instead of a bar except for the jukebox in the background and the cigarettes burning away in their hands.

“Good lord how the time does go,” Ginny said. She was smiling, the creases around her eyes and mouth digging in a little deeper, but she didn’t look too happy.

“That you?” I asked, nodding my head at the photo.

“I never turned down a dance with Harry,” she said. And then without missing a beat, “You look an awful lot like him.”

I started to ask how she knew who I was, but there was no point really. Looking at that photo was damn near like looking in a mirror.

So I said, “I didn’t know he danced.”

Turns out there were plenty of things I didn’t know about my father. Including the fact that he’d been sleeping with Ginny. Not that she said so, but it wasn’t too hard to figure out. As old as she was, her face still lit up when she talked about him.

“Your dad had a special way about picking horses,” she said, “nearly always placed out at the track and then he’d spend it all in one night buying drinks for the regulars. He wasn’t much interested in the money, just in the winning. Very generous man, he was. Such a shame to lose him so young. I won’t deny I cried for a good long time after I heard.” She glanced down at my hand. “You a married man, Keith?”

In my line of work, wearing a wedding ring is a downright safety hazard. I hadn’t worn a ring since my wedding day.

“No, Ma’am,” I said.

Right at that moment, I wanted it to be true. I wanted to walk away from all of it. The house, car payments, the responsibility. Pam. A baby coming along. I was 26 years old, a good fifteen years younger than my father’d been when he drove his car off the road. Was this how he’d felt?

“I’ll bet you’re a real heartbreaker,” Ginny said, winking at me. “Just like your dad.”

I finished my whiskey and said goodbye to Ginny. On my way out, I heard one of the old timers ask, “That Harry’s boy?”

Every Thursday, I’d head over to Ol’ George’s to drink with Ginny.

“Evening, Keith,” Ginny’d say, and bring me a whiskey. “What’ll it be tonight, a little Dean? A little Frank? You know your dad was always partial to the crooners.”

Some of the old timers remembered my father better than you’d expect after so many years and so many bottles of whiskey. They’d talk about the time Harry arm-wrestled a guy twice his size and won. The time Harry bet his whole paycheck on a pool game and won. I figured these stories were half true at best.

I told a few stories of my own. The time Harry slept out on the landing on our building because he was too drunk to find his keys. The time Harry took apart the blender to see how it worked, and then tried to put it back together when he was drunk, only to find half a dozen parts left over. The old timers had a good chuckle and bought me another whiskey.

“That sounds like Harry,” they’d say, grinning through their rotten teeth.

For a few hours, I was just a guy at the bar. Harry’s boy. Not exactly happy, but at ease. For a little while.

Every time I went to Ol’ George’s, I had a choice. I could take my father’s spot at the bar, like the liver-spotted old timers had, or finish my whiskey and go home.

I always went home. I went home and kissed my wife and rubbed her belly and pretended to be happy, so happy that there was a baby on the way.

But I always came back.

 

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