Wow...it's scary to push that "publish" button! Getting this first chapter up was a serious group effort. I couldn't have done it without three of my most favorite people, RobsSwissMiss, bierbeck, and Becky_Boodles. You all are just seriously awesome and I love you. Thank you so much for your support.
Playlist for this chapter:
Let It Ride, Ryan Adams
King of New Orleans, Better Than Ezra
Disclaimer: I own a crazy parakeet, a dog named Turtle, and vast collection of RobPorn. Everything else belongs to S. Meyer.
Dusky, hot, there's a goat in the lot next door. I'm not sure why the goat is there. There's always been a goat. He spends most of his time standing on the picnic table. Glaring at people who walk by. Business during the day; people shopping, talking, eating, a few tourists who aren't brave enough to come back at night. There's a kid picking an old guitar on the corner. I don't bother to ask why he's not in school. Maybe he is in school. There's a faint breeze rolling in off the river; things will start to get busy soon. Supper time. Then drinking time. Then music. Then more drinking. Then deepness. History. Soul. Brick. Hot. Sad. Wail. Sweat. Electric. Neon. Acoustic. Bible thumpers with their signs. Whores. Handy. Drugs. Satan. College boys. Voodoo. Elvis. Lost. Comfortable. Safe. Home.
A mule cart comes clip clopping down the street and I close my eyes and for a minute, I'm there. I can smell the sweat coming off him, like he smelled during a different time. When he really had to work for his living. Not buggy tourists around downtown with fake flowers and lights strapped to his traces. I feel sorry for him, for a minute only. I've got sugar in my pocket, of course, and he knows it. They always tie up in front of my place. Wait for the next group to come along, looking for an authentic Delta Blues Beale Street experience. Good luck. You won't find it staring at a mule's ass for $40 an hour. Not now, anyway.
I toss my cigarette butt into the gutter, not feeling guilty, because quite frankly the street is disgusting anyway. Memphis In May is finally over, and it will take at least a month for the streets to get back to normal. Jasper and Alice are catering an event at some yuppie McMansion out in Germantown tonight, so I'm on my own in the bar. I give Bill the mule one last slap on the neck, nod to his owner Pops, and head inside. I hear Bill nicker after me and smile to myself, even though I know it's only because I still have a sugar cube in my pocket.
Stepping inside the dark bar, I wait a moment for my eyes to adjust. I look around, sizing the place up, sigh deeply, and flip the lights on. The bar itself is made out of salvaged wood that we brought with us from New Orleans, and there's an eclectic mix of photographs and folk art on the walls. I'd let Alice do what she wanted in the deli, but told her that the bar was off limits. Above the bar is a giant black and white photo of a mule tied up to a parking meter, taken in the 1930s. Some places have a naked lady over the liquor, I have a mule. I named him Faulkner, and he's been privy to some of my deepest secrets, most of them coming forth in a tequila induced manic depressive stupor when everyone else leaves. I talk to him regularly, though, which so far has not seemed to scare away any of the regulars. Memphis is like that.
I glance up at a photograph sitting behind the bar and for a moment my mind flashes back to Decatur Street and the hell that I left behind there.
I followed Jacob to New Orleans. He wanted to open up a tattoo parlor, I wanted to sip hurricanes and learn about the Delta. Of course, it never really occurred to me that opening a shop like that took a lot of money and a lot of hard work, neither of which Jake was willing to expend, nor could he. My best friend Jasper moved down to be closer to me after a few months, and he was my saving grace when things really went south with Jake. At least I had a place to go and a shoulder to cry on the night I walked in on that fucker with an 18 year old stripper. After throwing everything within my reach at the "happy couple", I grabbed my cat Fraggle and my macaw King Louie, and ran to Jasper's, sobbing all the way. Luckily his girlfriend Alice and I had become really close and neither one of them minded having a houseguest. I cried for a day, and then somehow willed the tears to stop. I knew Jake wasn't worth it. But New Orleans was poison to me after that, and when my dad bought two old buildings on Beale Street in Memphis, I knew it was a sign to move. Jasper had always wanted to open a restaraunt and we figured it was now or never.
So now we are the proud owners of High Cotton Deli and Catering. Jasper and Alice run that side of the business; I try to be a silent partner, which is difficult for me at times. Alice turned out to be a fucking pro at baking shit, and with the catering business going strong, it's a pretty successful venture. One side of the building is a deli and we sell sandwhiches, slices of cake, and the best sweet tea this side of the river to tourists and businessmen on their lunch hour. I figured it would also be cool to have a place to sit around and drink, outside of our living room, so I turned what was left of the property into a bar. A lot of the time Jasper stays behind the bar, but on nights like this when they have really big events, it's just me. It's not hard for a bar to make it on Beale; there's a pretty regular string of people looking to drink most nights. I named it The Casino, after a ghost from my past. The place is small; there are only 4 tables and about 15 stools at the bar, but when it's warm out people spill out onto the street. I hate air conditioning, so most nights I just turn the fans on, open the front windows and door, and let the breeze off the river keep the place cool.
"Well Faulkner, I guess we're open for business. Care to take a shot with me? Of course you do," I say to the mule as a I pour myself a shot of Patron.
"Bottoms up, old man."
The tequila rolls down my throat and I feel it settle warmly in the bottom of my stomach. For a second I feel nostalgic and lonely, but I shake it off and plug my iPod into the speaker system. I scroll through my music and settle on my When All Else Fails playlist, and Ryan Adams starts crooning to me. I smile and glance up right as Pops walks through the door and takes his regular seat at the bar. I slide his whiskey to him, pour myself some, and we enjoy each other's quiet company as the sun starts to sink into the Mississippi.
"Well, Miss Bella, I gotta get going. People be finishing up their supper, might be looking to get a ride around downtown tonight. Nice out," Pops says as he slides his empty glass back towards me.
"You wanna sandwich or something before you go? I know there's stuff leftover from lunch," I ask him, hoping he'll say yes. I worry that he doesn't eat enough.
"No ma'am. I best get on. Though I'm sure that old mule out there would like an apple outta your 'fridgerator," he replies with a glint in his eyes.
I smile and take an apple out of the bag at the bottom of fridge, and slice it into quarters for Bill. I follow Pops back out to the street and give Bill his apple a slice at a time, loving the way he savors each cool, sweet piece. Just for good measure he sneezes on me when he's done with the apple and I can't help but laugh at him.
"See you both tomorrow. Don't get into too much trouble tonight," I tell the pair as they head off towards downtown.
I, in turn, head back inside, covered in sticky mule slobber and snot. The funny thing is, it's comforting and familiar and I find myself missing another ghost, one that haunts me regularly. Again, I shake the feeling off and set my mind to business, noticing that the street is starting to fill up. A lot of the people who came to Memphis for the Beale Street Music Festival are still in town, and I figure it's gonna get busy since it's Friday night and the weather is just perfect.
"Hey! You got slot machines in here?" I jump, startled out of my thoughts, and see a group of boys standing in the doorway, looking quite douchey with their collars popped and gelled, spikey hair. I close my eyes for a second and take a deep breath, willing myself not to say something bitchy to the first customers I've had all night.
"No, it's just the name. But I'll sell ya well drinks for $4 a pop until 9:00," I say, trying to smile.
They look back and forth at each other, shrug, and decide to come in.
And my night starts.
I never went to bartending school, never really spent much time in a bar, but it's not really rocket science, and when you're working your own place you can pretty much do whatever you want. I have been known to tell somebody that they're ordering a stupid drink and to either decide on something on the rocks or a beer or get the hell out. Most won't argue with you.
The phone rings at about 11:00 while I'm in the middle of making a pitcher of frozen margaritas for a bunch of girls (Yes, frozen margaritas. If looks could kill, their bodies would be lined up on Beale, left to the rats). I grumble and pick it up, but immediately smile when I hear the voice on the other end. I know he'll appreciate the situation.
"Hey sweet thing. We're still going strong out here in no-man's land. These old, rich fuckers can do some eatin'. You doin' ok?" Jasper asks.
"Hey Jas. Yeah, I'm good. Busy, actually. I'm making frozen margaritas," I tell him with a grin.
"Well shit. Don't let me keep you from that. Just wanted to check in. We'll probably be home by 2:00."
"Alright. I'll still be down here. Ya'll be careful coming back into town," I tell him.
"Will do. See ya in a bit. Oh, and try not to kill anybody before we get home," he says as he hangs up.
I roll my eyes and hang up the phone. Oh ye of little faith, I think.
By midnight, things have died down, at least at The Casino. It's a pretty good place to start the night, but we don't let people get too rowdy, so they usually move on to one of the bigger bars, which is just fine with me. There are still a few of the regulars sitting around the bar. They've been talking about heading home for over an hour now, and one by one they finally start to filter out. I'm sad that the hot stranger hasn't made an appearance tonight. He's been in all week, sitting at the end of the bar, drinking whiskey and just generally looking fuckhawt. I haven't worked up the nerve to say anything to him other than to ask him what he wants to drink, but I've caught him staring at me a few times. I keep thinking about crawling across the bar and running my hands through his awesome hair, but that might go beyond the realm of what's socially acceptable.
I light up a cigarette as the last customer walks out and switch my iPod over to Better Than Ezra, because really, every night should end with a little BTE. King of New Orleans is still one of my favorite songs, and despite myself I start to sing along. Halfway through the song, I'm wiping down the bar, belting the lyrics out at the top of my lungs, cigarette hanging out of my mouth, shirt covered in mule snot and frozen margarita, when I look up and see hot stranger standing in my doorway. My smoke literally falls right out of my mouth.
"Um...are you still open?" he says with a wicked grin, knowing he caught me in a pretty private act.
"Yeah. Yes. I mean, sure. Come in. I'm the dumbass who left the front door wide open. I mean, I was gonna wait for my friends to get here before I really shut down, so yeah..." I stutter like a complete social retard.
"I don't want to interrupt. I just got tied up with some, uh, other stuff tonight and could really use a drink," he says, still standing in the doorway, still grinning at me like the fucking devil.
I regain some of my composure and grandly gesture towards him with my hands. "Please, come in. What'll you have?"
"The usual," he smiles.
My stomach flutters and I know I'm in trouble. Partly because he's doing some shifty shit to my psyche with that fucking smirk and partly because I haven't gotten laid in two years and he's just too pretty to not think about what it'd be like. Well, and partly because I've been sneaking shots of tequila for the past three hours. I look down and realize that my still lit cigarette is about to burn a hole in my precious bar, so I grab it and put it out quickly before grabbing a rocks glass out of the sink. Fuck me. This is going to be bad, I think to myself.
"Here you go," I say as I hand him his drink. "So, what brings you to Memphis? You don't seem like you're here on vacation," I ask him, feeling like a complete loser.
"Long story. I think I may be a long term visitor. We'll see how it goes," he replies cryptically. "Have a drink with me?"
Jesus. Ok. It's my bar. I can drink with him, right? Mr. I'm Beautiful And Have Really Hot Sex Hair And Drink Scotch On The Rocks And Grin Like I Either Want To Fuck You Senseless Or Kill You.
So I opt for a beer, because I'm pretty sure that at this point the tequila is going to my head. I keep Woodchuck Cider, my favorite, on draft, even though I'm really the only one who ever drinks it. I light up another cigarette, because I didn't get to finish the first one and I really need something to occupy the hand not holding my beer.
"So long term visitor, huh? I guess I know the feeling. This is one of the first places I've lived where I don't always feel like a long term visitor," I say to him.
He grins at me again. "I know what you mean. So do you live close by?"
"Next door, actually. Um, this is kinda my bar," I say to him, wondering why I'm suddenly bashful of the fact.
"Really? I just figured you worked here. Well, I like your taste in decor. And music. What's with the mule over the bar?" he asks.
That's the last straw. My heart turns to goo. Not only does he offhandedly admit that he likes my favorite band, but he says mule. Not donkey. Not horse. Mule.
"I just like that photograph. The contrast between the mule, the parking meter, the cars parked next to him. People around here still used mules to plow their fields and get around well into the '60s. Plus, I like his eye," I stop as I realize I'm starting to give him a dissertation. "His name is Faulkner."
"Well, in that case, To Faulkner!" he exclaims as he raises his glass. I'm pretty sure I've just gone into heat.
"Cheers, old man," I say to the mule, and take a giant swig of my drink, thinking that I probably need a shot of something strong right about now.
"So forgive me for not introducing myself. All week. I'm Edward," he says as he extends his hand across the bar.
I look down at it for a second before grasping it. For one thing, I'm pretty positive at this point that he may be able to impregnate me just by touching me, and for another, I kind of have weird touching issues, especially with men. But I grab ahold of him anyway and gasp a little at the current that passes between us. He looks up at me, and I'm not sure if the question in his eyes is there because he felt the same thing, or because I hesitated before taking his hand.
"I'm Bella. Nice to meet you, Edward."
"So Bella. How long have you owned this establishment? You don't really seem like the bar-owning type, if you don't mind me saying so," he looks at me curiously.
"Well, it's kind of a long story. It was never really my life's ambition or anything, but I'm happy here," I say, doing my best to avoid an awkward conversation.
"I understand. I'm not exactly doing what I set out to do with my life either. But shit happens, I guess. What exactly was your life's ambition?"
I sigh and realize that I'm gonna need stronger alcohol if we're really going to go there.
"Well, I wanted to be a historian. Work in a museum or something. I went to school and got my degrees and everything, but life brought me here."
"Degrees?" he questions as he raises his eyebrows at me.
"Um, yeah. I have a couple," I say as I turn my back to him and busy myself with trying to find something harder to drink.
"Well, I have a PhD in History. From LSU. I studied the music that came out of the Delta. And I wrote my master's thesis on mules. Hence all the long-ears shit in this place," I said, my back still turned. I'm ashamed that I don't use my education for a damn thing other than to wax poetic about a draft animal and talk to the old musicians who sit around my bar every night.
"Well then, Dr....what's your last name?" he asks.
I huff at him and know that I'm not really doing myself any favors by answering his questions, but I can't help it. "Swan. My last name is Swan."
"Dr. Swan, then," he says, a smile in his voice.
"Please, for the love of all that is holy, do not call me that," I beg.
He remains silent, smirking at me. Well, at least I think he's smirking. My back is still turned.
I grab two shot glasses and rummage around in the back of the fridge, finally finding what I'm looking for. I make a mental note to clean that shit out, because it's starting to become a science experiment.
"Can I interest you in some of North Carolina's finest white lightening?" I turn and ask him, smiling as I hold up a Mason jar of clear liquid. "You're really supposed to sip it, but I can't. Shit's too strong." I fill the shot glasses and pass him one.
"I can't say I've ever had moonshine. Where did you get it? I thought it was illegal," he says as he holds the glass up to the light. I have a feeling that he's lying about never having it before. Only someone who knows what they're looking at holds 'shine up to the light.
"Friends in high places," I say and it's my turn to grin at him. "No, actually, my family is from the mountains. I have a second cousin who still makes a little every year." The ghost flickers over me again, and for the third time that night, I shrug it off.
Edward sips his, but I down mine in one gulp. I shudder and slam the shot glass back onto the bar and he raises his eyebrows at me. I actually blush. It's suddenly warm behind the bar, and I shed my hoodie. I see his eyes widen.
"Yeah, I know. I bet I also don't look the type to have tattoos running down the top of her arm either, do I?"
"No. It's just, well...ok, yes. It's a bit of a surprise. How many layers to you are there?" he asks. The grin is gone. Now his eyes are just...burning into me.
I smile at him. "Probably more than you'll ever want to unearth, Edward."
There is a pregnant silence between us for a moment, and I start to mention to him that I believe now it's my turn to barrage him with questions, but the screen door at the back of the bar swings open and Alice flits inside, twirlling around like a damned wood nymph. She stops suddenly when she spots Edward sitting at the bar. She gets that look in her eye, and I brace myself for the fury that is Alice.