My posts recently have been way too morose. Time for a little light reading – like, say, a chapter from my book, Soul Searching? Maybe it’ll make you want to buy it by clicking here…
The lights of Lee’s Place glowed warm and welcoming through the late afternoon drizzle as Tara drove past. On a whim, she swung into the half-filled parking lot. She’d treat herself to a cold beer to celebrate her big decision. Besides, after spending the afternoon with Deirdre’s ghost, she wasn’t excited about facing another evening alone.
The building was long and low, tucked into a thick grove of coastal pines. The cedar siding had weathered to a light gray, and colorful neon signs in the windows advertised microbrews and Coronas. A wide deck extended to the left, where picnic tables and benches clustered beneath bright red umbrellas. Whiskey barrels sat at regular intervals across the front of the building; were they filled with gaudy blossoms in the summer, or trash?
The sign by the road read Lee’s Place. But a hand-carved plaque over the door warned, Abandon hope, all ye who enter here. She recognized the quote by Dante. Whoever Lee was, he – or she – must have a sense of humor.
Tara studied the tavern, wondering if high-backed barstools spun at a gleaming bar; if the tables held red candles or vases filled with simple sprigs of lavender; if the lighting was bright or cozy.
Then she laughed at herself. The place was probably full of drunks, reeked of stale beer and cigarette smoke, and served pork hocks and pickled eggs. She parked her truck and walked across the parking lot.
To enter Lee’s Place, one must first navigate Lee’s Door. If Tara had asked in town, they would have warned her about the front door.
Warned her that it didn’t have a handle.
She tried pushing on the massive wooden door with her good hand. Forcing her ragged fingernails into invisible crevices. Even uttering magic words, but none of the usual ones worked.
Finally, she backed away from the building. To hell with it. She didn’t need the stupid beer anyway. As she turned to leave, the door suddenly swung toward her and a rotund man stepped out of the building.
“Trying to get in?” he asked.
“No, selling Avon. Ding, dong.” Stupid questions brought out Tara’s sarcastic side.
The man laughed, a sound that started in his toes and bubbled out his wide mouth, as he held open the door. “Ask Lee,” he said, and she ducked under his outstretched arm. He continued toward the parking lot, still chuckling.
Tara stood in an entryway. She waited for her eyes to adjust to the dim light, and saw another door in front of her. She pushed hesitantly, and was relieved when this door easily swung away from her. She crossed the threshold and bumped into an elephant.
Her scream bounced off the other animals in the room: a giraffe, bending down to gaze at her with liquid brown eyes. Four antelopes lined up like Rockettes without their tap shoes. A sleek-coated zebra with a white belly and narrow black stripes. And the elephant, with a plastic garland of holly draped around her neck.
“African,” said a voice behind her. “You can tell by the size of her ears.”
“What?” Tara spun around.
“The elephant. She’s African. Loxodonta africana, the Savanna Elephant.” A man crossed the room and flipped a switch. A row of track lights blinded her.
“What is this?” she asked.
“The building or the animals?” he asked as he continued toward her. Tara took in the blonde curls, the trim goatee, and the broad shoulders that she last saw at the cemetery, covered by a well-loved leather coat.
“It’s you,” she said.
“Yes, it is,” he replied. “And you must be…you.”
“Well, of course I’m…” Then she realized he was teasing her, and laughed. “Right now I’m not sure who I am. I’m certainly not sure where I am.”
“We’ll start with the easy stuff. I’m Lee Dillon, and you’re in my place.” He held out his hand, and Tara pulled off her glove and reached for it. “And you are…”
“Oh, sorry. I’m Tara,” she replied, finally grasping his extended hand. She noted clean, trimmed fingernails. No rings. “Tara Davies.”
“Nice to meet you, Tara Davies.” He nodded at the elephant. “And you’ve already met my sweetheart, Miss Gertrude. Or Gertie, for short. Named for Gunpowder Gertie, the Pirate Queen of the Kootenays.”
“Why do you have dead animals in here?” Then she groaned. “I’m sorry, my mouth gets me in more trouble…”
“No harm done. Come. I’ll tell you all about them.” He moved toward a door half-hidden behind the zebra, Tara following close behind him. As she passed the giraffe, she could have sworn its soulless eyes followed her. She reached out a tentative finger and touched the black nose, half-expecting it to be warm and wet. And was almost disappointed to find it cold and plastic.
Once through the door, Tara found herself in a traditional tavern. Pine paneling, green-shaded lights suspended from a beamed ceiling, painted wood floor. Bowls of salty nuts on the bar top. Tables and chairs scattered around the dimly lit room. The air smelled of damp wool coats, fried onions, and fermented hops. And the distinctive odor of wet dog.
The bar itself was beautiful. Hand-carved cherry, stretching the length of the back wall, bedecked with twinkling gold Christmas lights. The bar top was sleek with countless coats of polyurethane, and the brass foot rail gleamed. Figures were carved into the columns that framed the oversized mirror at the back; they looked like benevolent gargoyles, with their cherubic cheeks and demonic fangs.
Tara was relieved that the only animals in this room were the two-legged kind, except for a sheepdog snoring softly in the corner. Half of the high-backed stools were occupied. She chose an empty one and sank onto the padded seat, draping her wet coat across another.
“What’s your pleasure?” Lee asked from behind the bar.
He grinned. “Fruit. You know, lemon, lime.”
“Oh, sorry. Do you have oranges?”
Lee raised an eyebrow, but folded a slice of orange and wedged the fruit into the neck of a sweating bottle, muttering something about ruining good beer. Tara laughed and felt some of the tension in her shoulders ease.
He opened a bottle for himself, and raised it. “To fallen comrades.”
The cold bottle slipped a little in Tara’s fingers. “To fallen comrades.” And loved ones, she added silently, reaching for her necklace.
“What happened to your wrist?”
Tara glanced at the bandage. “Sliced the heck out of it,” she admitted sheepishly.
“On purpose?” He was staring at her intently.
“Why would I…” She paused for a moment, and then laughed. “Oh, no, I wasn’t trying to kill myself.” Although some days, that didn’t sound like such a bad idea. “Nope, just sheer clumsiness.”
Lee continued to study her, and she grew uneasy under his direct gaze. Did he think she was hiding something? And wouldn’t he be right.
“This bar is beautiful,” she said, changing the subject. She ran her fingers across the top. “You don’t find this kind of craftsmanship any more.” The beer was cold and smooth sliding down her throat, a hint of orange lingering on her tongue. Maybe she’d have another one. Maybe it would help her forget.
“True enough. I love old stuff. Shipped this beauty from Chicago. Saved her from the wrecking ball when they razed our neighborhood bar. City thought we needed another damn parking lot.” He idly spun the bottle in his hand, and told her about Lee’s Place.
The business began as a gas station in the 1950’s. The owner, a Swede called Ole, added to the place as the years passed: first a general store, then a café.
“Eventually he retired and his kids took over. Turned out he always had a secret dream to be a big game hunter. So, he headed to Africa; the family thought he was joking. Until crates started arriving. Big crates. First the antelope. Next, the zebra. When the giraffe showed up – that one came in two crates – his wife sent a telegram, suggesting that he come home.
“Rumor has it that when the elephant arrived, she flew to Africa and dragged his ass home. No more crates.” He took a long swig from his bottle, wiped his mouth, and flashed a brilliant smile. “I love that story.”
The dog stood, stretched, and shook vigorously. Ears flapping, she showered the nearby patrons with a spray of dirty water before flopping into the corner again and sighing heavily. “Thanks a lot, Zelda,” a man in an expensive suit said, scooting his stool down the bar, away from the damp dog.
“So how did you end up here?” Tara asked.
“Ole’s kids grew tired of the long hours and the rain. The timing was right; I was looking for a new line of work. Made a few changes. Kept the critters, though. They’re good company. And great conversation starters.”
A loud group entered the room and Lee moved down the bar toward them. In the background, Bonnie Raitt sang of margaritas and stars shining above Laredo.
Tara stood; this was more socializing than she had done in a long time. Lee noticed the movement and walked back to her. “Leaving already? Hope I didn’t chase you away. Next time, just tell me to shut up.”
She shook her head and smiled. “Nope, it’s time to go.”
“Glad you stopped by. Come again.”
She smiled and reached over the bar to shake his hand. He held hers a beat longer than she expected, his hand warm as it enveloped her smaller one.
As she ran through the rain to her truck, Tara mentally smacked herself in the head. She forgot to ask Lee what the secret was to opening the damn door. How was she supposed to get in next time? Assuming there was a next time.
Dumb, dumb, dumb.