(NOTE: This month, The Hungry Reader will be writing a novel in public. There is a minimum post limit of 1350 words per day. Commentary is appreciated and encouraged, but when the project is complete, all posts will be removed. Enjoy!)
Chapter 1: January 22, 2007
One of the more entertaining exercises in futility to be commonly found these days is the process of eating dinner in a bar.
High-backed barstools make it look inviting. Come, sit, they say in the silent language of burnished, hand-lathed cherrywood from Cost Plus. This is not just a bar, you understand, it is in fact a bar and GRILL. There is more to do here than wax nostalgic to an indifferent bartender, more to eat than month-old novelty pretzels shaped like Santa hats. Viva La Eighties loves you more than your mother ever could. This is a lie that barstools practice all their lives on everyone who meets them. It is the furniture equivalent of an angler fish’s glowing lure.
A diner stool is always honest. You’re not here for the atmosphere, they say, in a cracked leather voice with dirty cotton batting bulging through. Sure, we put a jukebox in the corner and a clock with Fonzie’s face over the door, but you’re not here to pretend it’s the fifties; you’re here because Ysidro, the overnight cook, cares more about serving you an inexpensive but tasty chicken-fried steak than your congressman cares about keeping drugs out of elementary schools. Hunch over the plate and don’t look up from that glorious mess until your waitress asks you if you feel like some pie.
Liane knew, as soon as she sat down in it, that the barstool had lied to her. Again.
The bartender, shaven-headed and lanky, looked like a portrait of Ebenezer Scrooge as a young man. He took down a shot glass for her without being asked, hovering his fizzy-gun over it as he waited for her order. When it became clear she was asking for food, his expression changed from professional indifference to acute personal disgust. He grabbed the glass back and fairly hurled it into the dishwasher rack. Apparently anything the bartender touched had to be cleaned afterward, whether it was used or not. Liane had actually intended to ask for a Coke, but now felt like she’d be imposing on the bartender’s personal time. This was, of course, exactly the impression he wanted to give, but you don’t call someone on their douchebaggery when they’re holding a carbonated water pistol.
Maybe this was her own fault for being so hesitant to drink in legitimately sleazy bars.
Perhaps it was time to experiment in that department? This town had to have an actual underworld somewhere– a place to go alone, speak to no one, load your empty stomach with depressants, and eventually slump over your beer and allow the sleaze to grow over you like moss.
Any sleaze to be found in Viva La Eighties was antique, fully intentional, and scrubbed clean with corporate sanitizers. The neon sign that would say “No Dirty Dancing Please” if the artistically broken word “No” had been actual neon lighting and not colored plastic. The wall with a monochrome picture of Ronald Reagan’s face blown up as tall as a refrigerator, with sunglasses and a word balloon saying “Yo!” stenciled on in day-glo green spraypaint. A roller-skating waitress wearing a pre-distressed Mr. T belly shirt.
Liane looked at the neon lights at the windows. Awesome, they said backwards. Gnarly. Radical. Outrageous. All of these words had existed in dictionaries since the turn of the 20th century, but now they had become artifactual icons of a decade. The youngest word of the lot was probably Cowabunga, and she knew for a fact that Cookie Monster had been saying that in the seventies.
Liane had been only a child in the 1980s, but she felt much the same way here, she imagined, as Edward Teach and William Kidd might have felt upon boarding the Pirates Of The Caribbean ride. Someone had taken the world they lived in and remembered, caricatured it into abstraction, and was selling it back to them at a tidy profit, plus a bonus from Coca-Cola for including their latest and lowest-calorie product in their re-imagining of strangers’ childhoods.
To Liane, the 80s was sun and sandboxes, daycare and dandelions, Superman, Spider-Man, and Superfudge. It was laughing at anything, crying at nothing, hitting people and getting hit by people and everyone going to the principal’s office. It was a childhood like anyone else’s from the previous generation or the next, and much of what was celebrated at this bar was things she had at the time considered none of her business. It was not a Dance Dance Revolution machine burbling a techno remix of the theme from Tim Burton’s Batman. It certainly wasn’t a 52-inch plasma TV with an average-looking Asian-American man serving as muted commentator on a football game from earlier in the day, his words spilling into alphabet soup at the bottom of the screen as the closed-captioners struggle to keep up. And it definitely wasn’t a plate of dry, spottily reheated buffalo wings and icy celery for $11.50.
The bartender gave Liane a surly look as he handed over her meal. I have real customers to serve, so be quiet and eat this microwaved garbage we sell at a loss while I make an actual profit by pouring two beers, he seemed to be saying. And don’t let me hear you ask for Christmas off again, Cratchit. She hadn’t had a meal served to her this grudgingly since fifth grade, when a friend invited her over for dinner without telling the parents to set an extra place. It turned out to be a very bitter lasagna.
Liane turned her chair around to peoplewatch as she ate, putting the plate on her lap to protect it from sullen bartender spittle. Immediately her mistake in judgment snapped into focus. She hadn’t noticed it before because she was too intent on the wait for her meal, but now it was all too clear.
For one thing, even at 27 she was probably the youngest person in the room. The other patrons were all office ladies and drones in their forties and fifties, some equipped with suspenders in a Wall Street homage, some equipped with paunches in homage to nothing but their own advancing age. An argument could be made that, even coming up on thirty, Liane was still in her prime, but this bar and grill catered to those who wanted to relive primes that had come and gone. Come to Viva La Eighties and be twenty-five again!
The other side of her mistake was in coming alone. It was apparent from the tones of the various conversations that everyone here was in a party. This was no singles bar. There was no mingling, only loud laughter erupting randomly from the various tables as beloved and time-worn in-jokes came up once again. There was no time to meet some lonely person who wanted to know what was so funny; if she doesn’t know already, she’s not one of us and we have no use for her, right? The only people we have time with are people we see every single day at work and are specifically avoiding our families in order to see them even more today!
Liane glumly dipped one of her chicken wings into the tub of syrupy bleu cheese dressing that had come with it, and watched most of the sauce come away with the wing only to drizzle itself across the front of her new hoodie on its way up to her mouth. “Shit!” she hissed under her breath.
From the back corner of the room, someone heard her.
A man who was silhouetted by the UV light illuminating the exit door behind him was approaching her now, focused on her. She turned her head to meet his eyes just as they were opening for what seemed like the first time. It made her wonder if she should apologize for waking him up. It seemed ridiculous to assume that he’d heard her, but thinking back she realized that she’d actually heard him hear her, which was not only equally ridiculous but also very confusing to write and spell, so she hoped it would turn out to be a misunderstanding. Her journal was poorly spelled enough already.