When a friend joked to me about having a reading in a bar, the thought immediately popped into my head that there are bar scenes in all my books and that they add atmosphere and color and sometimes content. Here are some examples, just one for each book with the exception of In the Land of the Dinosaur. Bars are such an integral part of the Wisconsin landscape that it deserves—and gets—two.
Suite Harmonic: A Civil War Novel of Rediscovery—p. 306
In a black mood, John went out to find Francis Cannon and have a drink with him since Francis could carry both ends of the conversation without even noticing. John sat turning his glass in the tavern. In a while, his father came in, too. He was carrying the Mount Vernon Union and, after he’d gotten a drink, he stayed standing and cleared his throat to read the words aloud that Mr. Lincoln had said at the cemetery at Gettysburg.
When he’d finished, he got another drink and, in silence, studied the words a while longer. “It’s a short speech,” he said then, “yet there’s something here. He’s not Daniel O’Connell, but he’s his own way with words. Still, it’s a terrible carnage that’s going on. You’d think it was a whole country of fighting cocks. Or us Irishmen set on each other.”
Time Stamp—p. 130
The bar she and her students went to, walking through the cold Paris evening, was off an alley Maddie had never explored. The alley was predictably skinny and winding but, in the shadowy light, the decaying paint on the walls of the buildings and the lack of any automobiles suggested another century, though Maddie thought the stray dogs sniffing at doorways and the cries of children, which leaked out through the shutters, and the occasional couple in teasing embrace could belong to any time. Any place, really, though the smell of the air was Parisian, a scent of garlic and pissoir.
When the group of them had reached the bar and had gone inside, she shrugged her coat off so it flopped over her stool, determined to shed her teacher role as well, though not in a way to suggest more than the simplest basics of égalité and fraternité.
A glass of wine and some scattered conversation later, M. Martine sat down beside her. Maddie had started to feel odd. Maybe it was the wine, she was thinking it was, and she snapped her head to the side, trying to clear it, wondering if she’d forgotten to eat today or even if the wine had been spiked. She tried tracking her eyes around the bar,
“You all right?” M. Martine asked. “D’accord?”
“Not really.” Maddie reached down for her coat, a sudden chill stabbing her back and coiling its way around her ribcage. “I need to go home,” she said, gingerly pushing herself up and testing her feet and wondering if she had the ability to make a coherent good-bye. “I’m not well,” she said, and she heard the flutter around her, someone saying she had the eggshell color that came with the quick onset of flu.
In the Land of the Dinosaur– “The Home of the Wet T-Shirt Contest” (Klemper’s Bar)—p. 28
When Otto pushed opened the door and they went inside, June knew she needed another word besides full. There were people everywhere. There were so many at the bar it looked like just one long line of glasses from end to end, and there were people sitting three to a chair and on the pool table and the shuffleboard. It was mostly men, but the women and girls who were there were on somebody’s lap and there was so much smoke in the air it looked like the streaks of fog in the morning hills. It was just crammed, crammed the whole way to the wall with people, and the air that was left was nothing but noise, all the screaming music and people talking so their voices went together in one ear-breaking, gigantic buzz.
June squeezed her way up to the bar. She started pouring beer. She glanced at Reed, but he was fixing drinks and his eyes were working the whole room as if he were keeping it together that way, hemming it in so it wouldn’t blow apart.
In the Land of the Dinosaur– “A Marriage in the Life of Faith Davenport” (Klein’s Bar)—p. 162
Faye pulled her car in under the Klein’s sign between two pickups and got out, hoping Sue was inside tending bar instead of Art. It wasn’t exactly that Art wasn’t talking to her. His name had been on the card they’d sent her for J. B., but it still didn’t mean he was friendly.
Somebody she didn’t know was behind the bar, some substitute from someplace, and Faye thought maybe her luck was changing. There were fans going and she stood in front of the dairy case and felt the dampness on the back of her legs from the car seat go dry. She took her eggs out and went up to the bar and sat down halfway on one of the stools waiting to pay. The jukebox was playing. There was sunlight glinting off the mirror and Faye squeezed the egg carton in her fingers so it squeaked and then looked down the bar into a sunbeam and straight at Jamie Squires.
Faye blinked. It was Jamie all right. He was smiling. He was grinning at her, and wasn’t it unbelievably Jamie with the same curly hair and browned face and only his jaw a little wider and his shoulders? He was coming over to her, his beer glass in his hand, and Faye sat down all the way on the stool and put her eggs down on the counter.
The Second Magician’s Tale—p. 40.
You could say we had our walking shoes on, and wherever we went to me it was all dusk and early nightfall and the smell of rain in the wool of Julian’s sleeve, being in love as I was, but maybe we walked so much just to get the smell of smoke out of his clothes. My landlady went to Des Moines and Julian took me to watch him work one night and afterwards my dress smelled like salvage from a fire sale, and if Julian said he hated working in a place with air like a dirty window and playing to a crowd that was half-levitated, but under not over the table, still there was something, an easiness about him there that made me love the whole thing.
“Show me your card tricks. Go ahead,” he said to the bartender when he was done working, and he sat with his arm around me, drinking a beer and laughing. He laughed at things like an ace of spades that ended up in somebody’s drink.
“You like this?” he said, and maybe my eyes were glittery—from the smoke, from the winding down rowdiness of the place. “I like the piano. We could dance,” I said, and maybe we did, me with my shoes off and my toes riding on Julian’s.
Watching Oksana and Other Stories (“Watching Oksana”)—p. 39
It was afternoon under a gray sky which dulled the lake. Aleksei had intended a brisk walk to a coffeehouse. In his duffel bag he had a book of poems, a collection of Greek lyrics in English translation, and he had wanted to read and drink coffee until it was dusk, until the lighthouse which, in summer, rolled up in the morning fog, silted light onto the darkening sky. But today he was no swift Idaios of the strong legs. The cold had settled in his knee. He was shivering with fatigue.
He stopped. For a moment he had no idea what to do. It was a long walk farther to where he was going and a longer walk still to return to the ship. Then a BudLite sign with a length of burned-out neon caught his eye and, shoving his duffel bag ahead of him, he opened the door of the bar which it illuminated and went inside.
The bar was not the kind of bar he was used to, not a sailors’ bar with a pool table and with the smell of dust and beer dried into the wood of the floor. It was a place with silent, big-screen TVs and a horseshoe-shaped foot rail that was brassy new. Aleksei stopped in front of a barstool and then changed his mind. He braced his knee, which was actually his hip now and even his shin when it came to the pain. He worked himself backward into a booth. A chill cut from his groin down his leg, chattering an aftershock in his nerves.
He saw the waitress coming to take his order. She was broad-faced and freckle-nosed, and she was wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt. “Brandy,” he told her, and the pain twisted like an augur in his leg.
Clare, Loving—p. 107
Clare looked at the band. They weren’t at all young and she liked that. They had a look as if they’d been in New Orleans forever, like the Spanish moss and the giant oak in the cathedral courtyard. She particularly liked the skinny guitar player in his overalls and felt hat.
“There you are,” she said, turning to Luc. “They’re starting again.”
It was why they were here in this bar: the music, the drink. Clare wanted to separate out everything else that wasn’t about that. She wanted to close her mind down, to stop thinking about the scars she’d accumulated in almost twenty-nine years. And she felt that she could. She’d gone back to the Jack Daniels after the wine at dinner and was settling in with the woody taste and the slight sense she had that she was floating.
A gorgeous, dark-haired woman of indeterminate race had stepped into the spotlight and Clare, looking at her blue spangled top and the confident way she held out the microphone waiting for her entrance, thought how cool. She didn’t know if this was the New Orleans sound. She checked the muted trumpet, the electric guitar, the piano and drum, and now the throaty voice slipping into place with the instruments. Close enough. She felt like dancing. She wanted her own turn with this sassy—this perfectly put-together music.