- SpeakEasy is the 2013 Community Novel Project of the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library. Read more about the project including the premise, behind the scenes, and the book launch party.
- Read online, download to your ereader or listen to the audiobook version.
- A new chapter by a new Topeka author each week at tscpl.org/community-novel.
Downloading SpeakEasy Chapter 1 by Aimee L. Gross
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Read Online: SpeakEasy Chapter 1 by Aimee L. Gross
“What do you mean it won’t start? It was working just fine when I brought it in here.” Ronni Long looked in swelling panic at the wall clock over the mechanic’s head.
“We tried to start it in the bay after your oil change, and it’s dead. Nada.” The man made a motion like turning an ignition key, then shrugged. “Not even a click.”
“I have to be in Topeka in just under two hours. It’s so important, mister, really. I have to interview a hundred-and-some year old lady for my research. I can’t put her off! Can’t you fix it or jump it or something?”
“We’re an oil change place. You’re going to have to get it towed to a garage or to the dealership.”
“The dealership is totally across town! That will cost buckets of money, and I don’t have time–”
He held up a hand. “They have computers and stuff there. You gotta get it out of the bay. You can’t leave it here.”
Ronni grabbed her cell out of her purse and stalked a few feet from the counter. What else were boyfriends for? She called Charles, and the instant he picked up, wailed, “This is the worst day of my automotive life! I need to borrow your car – right now.”
“Another worst day, Veronica? I thought you were in Topeka, and I need my car.”
She sputtered a quick summation of her desperate circumstances. “Please, Charles? I’ll try to be back before your study group.”
“No good, honey. I need it this afternoon – I’m giving… someone else a ride to the library first.”
Just that split-second hesitation told Ronni exactly what he meant. “Maybe she could drive you to the library so I can take your car.”
She heard a heavy sigh. “You know that’s why I didn’t tell you about giving her a lift – ’cause you’d be just like that about it. She’s nothing but a fellow law student.”
“Fine. A ‘fellow’ female law student. Cut to the chase. Are you helping me in my time of need or not? I just need to know.”
“I really think you need to learn how to handle this sort of thing for yourself, Veronica. Be independent, you know?”
“Goodbye now, Charles. I have to go be all autonomous.”
She called her roommate while the mechanic chewed a wad of gum and watched her avidly.
“We close at 5, lady,” he remarked.
If I throw my phone at him, I won’t be able to use it while I beg Donna for help, she thought.
But it wasn’t Donna who answered. A male voice said, “Donna’s phone.”
“Who’s this?” she said, off balance. Did she know him? He sounded semi-familiar.
“I’m Pete, Donna’s brother. Who’s this?”
“Oh, it’s Ronni Long. I met you when you helped us move in. I didn’t know you were in town. So, hi, hello, and can I speak to Donna?”
“Shower,” he said economically. “What’s the trouble? You sound kinda rattled.”
In a barely coherent rush, she told him everything – about her car, how her faculty advisor wasn’t really behind her choice of a 108-year-old primary source, how she had to make this work or spend another whole year living on peanut butter sandwiches and tips from her bartending job. She omitted the recent unsatisfying exchange with her boyfriend Charles, who was never called anything but Charles, not even by his parents.
And in twenty minutes, she stood watching Pete lean his elbows on the Casey Oil and Lube counter, as he replied to every excuse that came out of the mechanic’s mouth by saying, “It was running fine when she brought it in.”
Carl, as identified by his embroidered name above his shirt pocket, finally gave up. “What do you want me to do, sir?”
“Have the guys push it out of the bay and into a parking space so we can tow it tomorrow. I’m going to take her to interview the older lady now.”
Carl snorted. “My grandma is 75, and she can’t remember what she had for lunch yesterday.”
“What did you have for lunch yesterday?” Ronni snapped. “The staff says this lady is perfectly lucid.”
Carl looked blank as to what he had eaten yesterday, and also as if he did not know what ‘lucid’ meant. Ronni let Pete take her elbow and walk her to the door.
“I’d offer you some coffee for the road,” Pete grinned, “but you seem pretty revved already. Do you need anything out of your car?”
“Oh, yes, I’d have forgotten all of it. Digital recorder, all my notes, her file.” She felt her pockets for the key, until he reminded her the keys would be in the car. If he didn’t think I was a total idiot before, he can be sure of it now, she thought as she gathered an armload from the back seat. “This is so great of you,” she said aloud, “I’ll pay for your gas and the tolls. Are you sure you don’t have anything else to do?”
“Not a thing. A gig tomorrow. Just bumming a night’s lodging from my sister.” He opened his car door for her. He had shown up in a Nissan only a couple of years old. Not a ‘vintage’ model like her grad school beater.
“A gig?” she said when he slid behind the wheel.
“My band is playing in town. I came early to see Donna.”
“What kind of music do you play?”
“Jazz,” he said, with a reverent, velvety tone to his voice.
She directed him through town to the turnpike entrance while watching his easy, laconic driving. Donna had always said her brother had lots of girls hanging around. Ronni decided he was not bad looking at all. Nice eyes. “Brimming with Irish charm” had been Donna’s verdict.
He glanced her way.”Tell me about your interviews with the aged. Are you a history student?”
“Cultural anthropology. I’m working on my thesis examining prohibition in Kansas. Bootleggers, speakeasy clubs, rum runners. Also involving women’s social roles in the period … are you sure you want the full discourse? I hope you brought something else to do while I talk to her. Or, I hear they have a good public library in Topeka.”
“If it wouldn’t be a privacy violation, I’d be interested in what she has to say. How often does a person get to hear actual history from someone who really lived it? What do you know about her?”
Ronni fished the file from the stack on the floor at her feet and opened it on her lap. A photo of Julia was on the first page. She had a wry smile and a cloud of white hair partly captured in a bun on the top of her head. Her eyes seemed to suggest she was in on a grand joke but debating about sharing it with the photographer. Ronni had liked her the instant she saw the picture.
“I hope I will have accomplished half as much if I live to be a hundred,” Ronni said, turning over pages behind the photo. “Born in 1905. Listen to this – and I don’t even have everything she’s done yet – she was a missionary in Alaska, married to a bootlegger who ran whiskey from Canada, an innkeeper with another husband, a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse, barely survived the influenza epidemic, worked in a night club – which must have been a speakeasy considering the dates…”
“Was she a cocktail waitress, like you?”
“I’m a bartender,” Ronni corrected, with a touch of frost.
“Is that an important distinction?” Pete changed lanes before shooting her a brief look, eyebrows raised.
“Well, the tips are worse,” she admitted. “But it has a bit more status, I think.”
“I must remember to treat the barkeeps with more respect when I play the clubs, that being the case. And tip heavy.”
She knew he was making fun of her a little but found she didn’t mind. He was calming to be around; he didn’t take himself so seriously all the time, as Charles seemed to do. She went on. “I talked to Julia to set the interview up. The nurse handed her the phone, and the first thing she asked me was, ‘How old are you?’ When I told her twenty-four, she said, ‘Good. I only make the acquaintance of young people these days. All the people I knew when I was young are dead, and so now I only want to meet people who are going to outlive me. You’re healthy, are you?’ I laughed so hard. She was a total crack-up. And anyway, how did you know I worked in a bar?”
“I asked Donna.”
“Okay. But why?”
He didn’t answer for a minute and looked over his shoulder to check before pulling out to pass a Frito Lay truck. When he was back in the center lane, he kept looking straight ahead but smiled as he said, “I asked her a lot of things, after moving day. I thought you were very lovely.”
Ronni had no idea what to say. Most guys she had met would have said they thought she was pretty, or maybe cute. Possibly hot if alcohol was a factor. She knew how to deal with that. Lovely was so … sweet and old-fashioned. He’d said it sort of like he’d said jazz. What was he really like? Was he weird? She barely knew him at all, and she was alone in a vehicle with him …
She jumped and gave a little yelp when her cell rang. Charles calling. “Excuse me,” she said to Pete. “I need to take this.”
He nodded and flicked on the wipers, since it had started to mist.
Ronni looked out the passenger window with the phone pressed to her ear. It wasn’t really private, but … “Hi, Charles. You wanted something?”
“You sound chipper. Has your worst automotive day been eclipsed by something else?”
Yes, because of all your gallantry, mister. “I’m on my way to Topeka now – I got a lift with a guy I know.”
“Really? What guy?”
“Pete O’Neill; he’s a friend of mine.”
“Since when? I’ve never heard you mention him.”
“Well,” she said, savoring every syllable, “you know that’s why I didn’t tell you, because I knew you’d be just like that about it.”
“Okay, ouch. Are you sure you’re all right? You sound … odd.”
Conscious of Pete in the driver’s seat, she didn’t address his remark, instead saying breezily, “I’ll text when I get back to Lawrence. If you want to come over.”
“You know how late study group runs.”
Ronni rolled her eyes, still looking out the passenger window. “Yes, Charles, I know,” she purred, as if he had said something affectionate, something a person might expect a boyfriend to say to their girlfriend. Especially while a potential serial killer was driving said girlfriend around the state.
“Look, I have to get to group. I’m presenting. Hope your thing goes well.” He hung up before she could say anything else. Ronni shifted in the car seat to face front again and saw Pete grinning, although he was looking out the windshield, and not at her.
“I guess that was your boyfriend?”
“Did Donna tell you my whole employment and dating history?”
“I didn’t get to look at your permanent record or anything. I asked her if you were involved with anybody, and she told me you were.”
“Well, yes, I am. Involved.”
When she hesitated, he looked over at her. “Watch the road. It’s raining harder. We’re not seeing anyone else, no. Look, you’re not going to get the wrong idea, are you? I mean, I’m not going to have to stomp on your instep and get out the pepper spray, right?”
“Lord, no. Is that what you usually do to guys who are interested in you?”
“I’d really like it if you turned out to be a nice guy who’s just helping me out in a jam. Doing a favor for his sister’s roommate.”
He nodded soberly. “That is a precise description of my involvement, yes. You clearly have experience defining social roles.”
“So, we’re not going to have any more … overtures.” She narrowed her eyes at him.
He laughed. “Ah, even a musical reference. Anything for you, Ronni. If that’s the way you want it, I’ll be fraternal and nothing else.”
“Make fun of me all you want.”
He laughed again and inclined his head toward her.
She laughed, too. “No, really, make fun of me all you want. I can enjoy being teased if I don’t have to worry about your motives. This is the exit we want.”
Her phone app led them to Lakeview Manor. The long, low stone building had wings coming off at angles everywhere, and Ronni had no idea which wing held her source. She told Pete to pull up under the portico so she could run in and ask where they should park.
“It says visitor on those spaces,” he pointed across the drive. “You go on in so you don’t get wet. I’ll park and bring your stuff.”
“Oh, I can get it. I’ll wait for you inside.” She gathered the files and the bag with the recorder to her chest and opened the car door. It wasn’t until she was standing in the entryway watching Pete dodge puddles at a run that she glanced down to see she had gotten something black and greasy smeared all across the front of her sweater. Her pale yellow sweater.
Ronni moaned and looked at the files she was clutching. One of them had an oily imprint of her shoe on it. Grimacing, she plucked the file folder out and pulled the papers from it, then folded it grease-side in. It’s probably all over the floor of his car from my shoe … I must have stepped in something when I went to get the things out of my car. Ronni sighed and thought of a carpet shampoo bill being added to the total she already owed Pete.
Pete stared at her front when he came through the nursing home door. “You’ve got some, uh–” he waved a hand in front of his chest and gestured toward the black grunge on her sweater. “Do you want my jacket?”
“I’d swim in it. No, I’ll just have to go ahead. Maybe she can’t see well.” Ronni hiked up the strap of her shoulder bag. “If I should get to live to be a centenarian, this is one day I’m sure to recall in rich detail!” She swung around toward the reception desk. “Let’s go find my lady.”
Chapter 2 will be published next week at https://tscpl.org/community-novel