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Wednesday, December 08, 2004

"To Weep When I Am Glad" (a fiction excerpt)

I haven't done this in quite a while, but as a way to prod myself back into the regular practice of fiction (above and beyond the two hundred or so words of The Promised King, Book II that I've been wringing from the barely-damp washcloth that is my head), I'm going to offer a few samples in this space over the next couple of days. Here's the opening of a story I wrote about a mining town, a woman who owns a local bar, and the salesman who arrives one day selling beer that may or may not be magical.)

"To Weep When I Am Glad"


Rose Barnstone laid awake for a while, and when the bells of Old Presbyterian rang one o'clock, she shook the man beside her.

"Time to go, Enoch," she said.

Enoch Spencer grumbled and rolled over. "Maybe I should just tell Edna the truth," he said. "Save us all some trouble." Then he laughed.

"Yeah, you do that," Rose said. "And miss my company? I don't think so."

"Now, Rose," Enoch said as he got up and pulled on his shirt and pants. "Edna and I don't have what you and I have."

"Is that a fact?" Rose raised an eyebrow as she pulled on her faded men's shirt and overalls. "Well, it's a good thing we're doing things this way, because I would never marry a cheating miner like you."

He laughed at that as he finished pulling on his shoes. "See you tomorrow night," he said before leaving her room. Rose waited a few minutes and then went downstairs herself.

"Evenin', Miss Rose," Isaac said when she came into the bar. Isaac – "Big" Isaac to everyone else in town – was Rose's helper around the Lambert. "I figured you'd go to bed and finish all this tomorrow. I can close up."

"Couldn't sleep," Rose lied. "Feel like taking him home?" She gestured to the stool at the corner of the bar, where as usual for this time of night Old Mordecai Franks was asleep.

"Don' I always?" Isaac said as he walked over and gave Mordecai a shove. "Night's over, Mord. Time to go."

As always, it took about five minutes of prodding before Old Mordecai got up. "Fine, fine. Stop touchin' me. Jesus." Mordecai squinted at Isaac, as if seeing him for the first time. "Jesus, with you?"

"It's me every night, Mord. Come on."

"One more for the road, Rose? Least you can do before I go off with Blackie, here…" He didn't even wait for Rose to say no; he just grumbled all the way outside as Isaac followed. Same routine, every night.

Alone in the bar, Rose glanced at her reflection in the mirror behind the rows of whiskey bottles. Shaking her head at the woman in the mirror, a woman whose face had too many lines and whose nose was a bit too slightly crooked and whose shoulder-length hair had a bit too much gray mixed in with the brown for a woman of thirty years, she picked up a cloth and began the last cleanup of this night. Right about now Enoch would be sliding into bed with his wife while she was cleaning glasses.

***

Rose stifled a yawn as she finished dicing the potatoes and divided them between the two stew-pots. Then she rinsed off the knife and started cutting the leeks, yawned again, and slid the knife across her left index finger. She had said five words that no respectable woman would say before she noticed Isaac standing there.

"You okay, Miss Rose?"

"Hell, I'm fine," she said. "Just a little blood in the stew today."

Isaac grinned. "A cook shouldn't fear no blood in the pot. Gives the cookin' some character."

"Your momma had enough character for five counties," Rose said as she pumped some water and ran it over her bleeding finger. "Need something, Isaac?"

"Well, I was fixin' those eaves out front and a man came up. Drivin' a truck. He asked to talk to the owner, and I told him that's you, and he's waitin' at the bar."

"All right," she said. Isaac nodded and left. Rose tore a piece of cloth off a sheet she kept around in the kitchen for just this purpose and wrapped her finger in it, and then she went out front to see the salesman. There were more of them these days, passing through Corley's Crossing on their way to Pittsburgh or Philadelphia or Baltimore. Nobody came to Corley's Crossing except to go through it to someplace else.

This salesman was sitting on Mordecai's stool, with whatever he was selling in a wooden crate on the stool next to him. Rose pursed her lips as she looked at him. He didn't look like the other salesmen. For one thing he wore no tie – just a collarless shirt that he wore open at the top, like the one Rose wore except it was a damn sight cleaner, plain dark pants and worn shoes that looked like he'd never given a single thought to shining them. He wore no hat and he was reading a book. Rose cleared her throat and approached him from behind the bar. He looked up from his book and smiled.

"Hello! Are you the owner of this establishment?"

Establishment? That’s quite the word, Rose thought. He was handsome, in a way, with a prominent chin and sand-colored hair that was casually combed and – the most piercingly green eyes Rose had ever seen.

"Yes, I am," Rose said. "Welcome to the Lambert." She reminded herself to smile, and she blushed with embarrassment over her appearance – not that it was any different from usual, not that she hadn't talked to salesmen before dressed the same way, and not that he hadn't talked himself to barkeeps in old shirts and overalls before.

"I'll bet you don't get too many salesmen," he said, offering his hand. Rose took it, and his grip was strong. "This town is sure off the beaten track."

"We like it that way," Rose said.

"I'm sure. My name is Daniel. May I have yours?"

Daniel. Somehow it fit him, although Rose had no idea why or how.

"Rose. Rose Barnstone."

"Barnstone…that's a pretty name."

"I guess so," Rose said. "Can I help you?"

"I've been in a lot of towns like this," the man named Daniel said. "Places no one knows except the people who live there, people who never leave or if they do they come back before long. Places that the rest of the world doesn't know about, and you don't want them to know about it so you don't tell them."

Rose looked at him for a moment. What he said was true; nobody ever left Corley's Crossing except by dying, and nobody ever came there except by being born. She chuckled. "Daniel, you have the strangest sales pitch I've ever heard."

"That wasn't my sales pitch," Daniel said, holding Rose's gaze. She felt a bit strange, suddenly, and reached up with her hand to finger the top of her overalls bib. His gaze was strangely intense, and it made her feel…naked.

"What are you selling?" she finally asked.

He smiled, less intensely. "Beer," he said. "A brew that I think you and your customers will enjoy and appreciate – and it will bring in even more customers, I guarantee it." He pulled a brown-glass beer bottle from the crate on the stool beside him and handed it to Rose. There was no label on it, just a glass relief image on it of a cross topped by a triangle.

"I have plenty of beer," Rose said. "And the miners who come in here to drink tend to like whiskey more."

"That's because they haven't tried Old Prospero's," Daniel said. "Go on. Taste it."

"It's not even cold."

"With Old Prospero's, it won't matter. This is special stuff."

Rose gazed at Daniel for a minute, wondering if this was some kind of joke. Then she leaned over and pried the top off the bottle. It was surprisingly cold, which she chalked up to it being a fairly cool autumn day, and she poured some of the beer into a glass.

The first thing that struck her was the beer's color. The stuff she always served came two ways: so dark as to be almost black, or the yellow color of pale straw. This beer, though, was a deep gold or almost copper color, like an old coin or Father's old pocket watch, as it had looked when she'd polished it and buried it with him. In the light of the bar, fairly dim even though it was late morning, the beer almost seemed to glow. Of course, anything could look pretty. She lifted the glass to her nose and sniffed. It had that grain smell that all beer had, but this was different; the aroma was so fresh that it made Rose think of a wheat field on a warm summer day.

And then she sipped it.

Her mouth was filled at once with what felt like a hundred different flavors, every one of them in perfect balance with all the others. There was wheat, pure and clean. There was the cleansing taste of the freshest water, like snowmelt on a day in late winter. She tasted strawberries and cherries, apples and cinnamon, maple and honey. She closed her eyes as she swallowed, and as it went down a feeling of glowing warmth spread through her body, all the way down to her toes and all the way up to her scalp. The she opened her eyes again, and when she did it was as if all the furnishings in the bar had been restored to their original luster and all the windows thrown open to let in the spring's first sunlight. Rose took another sip, and as she did so she wondered if this was how the Lambert had looked on the day her father had first opened the doors. Even the air smelled better: the years of dust from the miners' bodies and smoke from their cigarettes and pipes were gone, replaced by the tangy aroma of the stew simmering in the kitchen and the pine of the bar.

She took another swallow, and then another. She wanted the feeling from the Old Prospero's to continue…and then the bottle was empty, before she even knew it.

"Oh my," she finally said.

Daniel grinned. "Do you like it?"

Rose looked at him. "It's amazing," she said.

"That it is," Daniel said. "I've seen longshoremen at the docks get drunk on Old Prospero's faster than the strongest whiskey. But it's a good drunk. You'll never have a fight in here while you're serving this."

Rose nodded. Fights didn't happen often in the Lambert, but they did happen.

"So," Daniel said, "is there a market for Old Prospero's in Corley's Crossing?"

Rose looked into Daniel's green eyes. He was smiling again.

"I think so," she said.

"Good!" He reached into his back pocket and took out a small pad and pencil. "Will six cases be enough? or should we make it eight?"

Rose was considering that very question when the front door swung open, and three women walked in. Rose went rigid at the sight of them. It was strange enough that women would come into the Lambert at all, let alone these three – but then, maybe it wasn't that strange. The woman in front, and the leader of this trio, was Edna Spencer. Enoch's wife.

They were dressed in the Sunday best, of course. Edna's floral-print dress was in perfect proportion, with its ankle-length skirt and lace collar and cuffs. Her tasteful, white hat bore a single yellow carnation. Her two friends – Alice Stewart and Mabel York, without whom Edna never went anywhere unless she was with Enoch – were dressed equally nicely, and each woman held a handbag with a strong, two-handed grip. Yes, they were the picture of "proper", or as close as could be found in Corley's Crossing.

"Hello, Edna," Rose said. She glanced at Daniel, who had reopened his book and was trying to look like he was reading.

"I don't recall that we are on a first-name basis, Miss Barnstone," Edna said in that accent that she had perfected over the years, ridding herself of that Appalachian twang for no apparent reason, since Edna never left Corley's Crossing. "I understand that you have been enjoying my husband's company for some time. I'm here to ask you to stop."

Rose shifted on her feet.

"He doesn't love you, Miss Barnstone. If he has been…enjoying you for hedonistic reasons, you should know that love has nothing to do with it."

Rose wondered if Edna had found out from Enoch or from someone else. Probably from someone else. Enoch did not have the guts to tell anyone on his own.

"You see, Miss Barnstone," Edna went on, "Enoch could never love a person like you."

Daniel gave a sigh that was barely audible. For some reason, Rose glanced down at the empty glass that had contained the Old Prospero's, before she'd consumed it. The feeling of light-headed warmth came rushing back all at once. She put her shoulders back and crossed her arms over her chest.

"It's funny, Edna," Rose said. "You've never been any farther from Corley's Crossing than New Sedgwick, and your brother's accent is the same as it's always been."

Edna opened her mouth, but said nothing. She hadn't expected anything like this.

Rose went on. "If Enoch suddenly decided last night that you can actually satisfy him, then good for you. I guess you've been practicing more than your accent."

Now Edna's cheeks went red, while her two partners acted appropriately shocked at the very idea.

Rose smiled sweetly, feeling lighter than air. "You should worry more about Enoch than about me, Edna. After all, there's a reason he came to me. Now, ladies, unless you want to buy a drink—"

Now Edna's eyes flashed in what for a proper lady passed for rage, and she spun on her heels and walked out without waiting for her friends. Edna was a teetotaler, and she had tried many times to make Enoch into one as well, but it had never taken. "Good day to you, Mrs. Spencer," Rose called after her, though she was well out of earshot by now. Then she laughed out loud.

Daniel smiled. "You were the picture of strength just now," he said.

"I can't believe it," she said. "Normally I'd have just kept nodding until she left." She put the empty glass under the bar. "I guess Enoch won't be coming around tonight."

"Do you love this man?" Daniel asked.

Rose stopped and stared at him. It was a strange question to receive from a beer salesman, and Daniel had a strange look in his eye.

"No," Rose said. "He's just a cheating miner."

"I know the kind," Daniel said. His voice sounded slightly angry now. "A rose is not a dandelion, and should not be treated as such." He shook his head then, and just like that the dark look was gone from his eye. "Eight cases of Old Prospero's, eh? I'll deliver it in three days. It has been a pleasure, Rose." He smiled again, but this smile was businesslike, perfunctory. It had none of the warmth from before.

"Thank you," Rose said as Daniel left the bar. She watched him stand on the step outside, gazing strangely into the distance. Then he made a single motion with his hand, as if brushing away a fly, before he descended the step and left entirely. For several minutes after that she stood there, absently running her cloth over the same section of the bar. She wondered if she had said something wrong, something that had offended him. She also waited for the last bit of the buzz from the Old Prospero's to fade.

"You OK, Miss Rose?"

"What? Oh, Isaac – I'm fine." Just a little tired….

"Good," Isaac said as he moved past her to get to the basement door and head down there to do…something or other. Rose suddenly remembered the stew she'd left cooking on the stove, and she ran to the kitchen. It was as she was adding herbs to the mixture that she heard the siren.

It was the gigantic siren from the coal mine, and it could be heard almost ten miles away, although it was only a mile and a half from Corley's Crossing, up on the side of Grant Mountain. The siren sounded twice a day, to mark the arrival of the miners in the morning and their quitting time at night. Rose glanced at the clock on her wall. The siren never sounded at two-thirty in the afternoon, except for one reason. Rose shivered. She knew well why the siren would sound during the day. It hadn't happened in almost a year, which was almost a record. She stopped stirring the stew and listened instead to the siren. Then Isaac came into the kitchen, and he too heard it.

"Lord have mercy," he said.

"Too late for that," Rose said with a sigh. "Help me get things ready, Isaac. Looks like we're having a wake here tonight."

"I wonder who it was," Isaac said.

Rose said nothing. She wasn't sure how, but she knew that it was Enoch Spencer at the bottom of the cave-in.

End of excerpt

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