- 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.
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Downloading SpeakEasy Chapter 3 by Miranda Ericsson Kendall
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Read Online: SpeakEasy Chapter 3 by Miranda Ericsson Kendall
Ronni and Pete made their way through the lashing rain to the restaurant without saying a word. Pete seemed calm, but he kept his hands on the wheel and his attention focused intently on the road. That was fine with Ronni; she knew better than to speak when she still felt so ticked off. She sat with her face turned toward the passenger-side window, watching the blurred lights of cars and businesses through the rain-streaked glass and trying to relax.
After a few minutes, Ronni pulled out her phone to check the time. She almost called Charles to let him know that she was all right, but then she dismissed the idea. He was no doubt too busy with his study group to wonder if she was safe from the storm. Anyway, she really didn’t feel much like talking to him, either.
A few minutes later Pete pulled into a parking space in front of Speck’s Bar and Grill. Ronni’s eyebrows went up when she read the sign out front.
“Home of the original three-pound burger,” she said. “Are you feeling hungry, Pete?”
He laughed. “Actually, I am, but I probably won’t go for the big one … this time.” He winked, and then he was out and opening Ronni’s door for her. They ran up to the door and walked into the warmth and good smells of a cozy tavern. Chatting couples were seated in booths along the walls, and most of the tall chairs at the bar were occupied by men with tall beers. A young man with a neat blond ponytail looked towards the door and smiled when they entered, and the woman behind the bar smiled and waved. Pete waved back, held up two fingers, and led the way to an empty booth on the right side of the room. Ronni took a seat across from him.
At the far end of the room, an acoustic guitar player with a smooth voice and a drummer with a long black ponytail were performing “Johnny B. Goode.” A small crowd was seated close to the music, tapping their feet. Ronni noticed a woman holding a ukulele and another with some kind of hand drum in her lap.
Ronni locked her eyes on the guitar player and listened absently while she tried to decide how to tell Pete off. Just as she’d drawn a breath to start in, the woman from behind the bar stepped up to the booth carrying two beers in chilled glasses.
“Hey there, Pete,” she said. She set the glasses down and pulled out a notepad.
“Hey Deb,” Pete said. “I see you’ve got a good jam cooking up tonight.”
Deb nodded. “I think so! Are you going to join in?” She smiled at Ronni and then looked to Pete for his answer.
Pete smiled back and shook his head. “Nope. I’m just here to have dinner with a friend.”
“Well, you know you’re welcome to get up there if you change your mind,” Deb said. “What can I get you to eat tonight?” She lifted her pen and pad.
“I’ll take my usual.” He turned to Ronni. “How about you? Do you eat burgers and fries?”
Ronni wanted to feign indifference to his offer, but her stomach growled loudly at the thought of a hot meal. Ronni felt herself flushing hot with embarrassment, though she was pretty sure that Pete couldn’t have heard it over the music.
“I’ll have whatever he’s having,” she said.
Deb nodded and made a quick note on her pad. “We’ll have it right out.” She smiled at Ronni again and hurried off to place the order and tend to other customers.
“She’s the owner of this place,” Pete said, “and she’s always especially nice to the musicians. You’re going to love these burgers, by the way.”
The two of them turned back toward the guitar player and drummer, who had been joined by a young man on a harmonica for a lively version of “Moondance.” Ronni sipped her beer and listened, and before long she found herself relaxing into the music. She closed her eyes and tapped her fingers on the table top. When she opened her eyes and looked over at Pete, she found that his eyes were fixed on her, and a smile was lighting up a dimple in his left cheek, near his lips. Ronni jerked her eyes back to the performers, feeling a flush sweep up from her neck. Did he have to be so infuriating all the time?
Just then a tall young man delivered thick burgers loaded with toppings. He set a large plate of homemade fries in between them and laid a few extra napkins at the end of the table.
He smiled. “Can I get you anything else?”
Pete grinned and reached for his burger. “I think I’m all set. How about you, Ronni?”
Ronni nodded and smiled, her eyes locked on her plate. She hadn’t eaten since early that morning, and she realized suddenly that she was famished. She picked up her burger with both hands and took a big bite, closed her eyes, and moaned.
Pete swallowed his own first bite and then laughed. “Great, huh? I think they’re the best in Topeka, without a doubt. They might even be the best anywhere.” He smiled at her and took another big bite.
Ronnie narrowed her eyes at him, but she shrugged and took another bite. It was hard to stay mad at Pete, especially with a beer warming her up, lively music loosening her muscles, and a truly heavenly burger in her hands. For a few minutes the two just ate, each reaching for fries from the piled plate in between their bites of burger.
“So,” Pete said. “Tell me a little more about this paper of yours.”
Catching her glare, Pete laughed and lifted his hands palm-out, in a gesture of surrender.
“Sorry,” he said, still laughing. “I mean your dissertation, of course.” He smiled – with another flash of dimple – and Ronni found herself staring again. She snapped her eyes up to his, hoping that she didn’t look as silly as she felt. She composed her face, took a drink, and then cleared her throat. She focused her eyes on her own fingers, wrapped around the cool glass, while she launched into her spiel.
“Well, as I told you before, my dissertation is about the prohibition era in Kansas. I’m particularly interested in the role of women during that period. Even though women weren’t given the right to vote in statewide elections until 1912, they were a driving force behind the effort to dry Kansas up. It was a moral issue for some women, but for others it was all about getting their husbands to spend time and money on family instead of booze – especially since they had to depend on their men for support.”
Ronni looked up at Pete, expecting to see his eyes glazing over. Instead she found that his face showed real interest. He nodded to let her know that he was following her so far, and she continued.
“Have you ever heard of Carry Nation?” she asked.
“Sure. She’s the woman who went a little crazy and started smashing bars with an axe, right?”
Ronni laughed. “Something like that. She was a reformer, or maybe even a revolutionary. She was widowed by a man who drank himself to death, so the alcohol issue was really personal for her.” Ronni chewed up another bite, then continued. “She actually changed the spelling of her name from ie to y, to symbolize that she was going to carry a nation forward into a morally-sound future society, free from the devastating effects of alcohol.”
Pete lifted his eyebrows and took a long, slow drink of his beer. He grinned at Ronni.
Ronni got the point. She grinned back and smoothed her face again with an effort. She had to remember not to get too friendly, after all. “Obviously I’m not a teetotaler, myself. But I do think alcohol has ruined plenty of families. I’ve seen more than my share of drunk-and-disorderlies at the bar, too.”
Pete laughed. “I’m sure you have, and without the big tips to compensate.”
Ronni rolled her eyes. “Anyway, I do think that she’s a really interesting character, and she definitely believed in what she was doing. The part that fascinates me most is the strength that it would have taken, as a woman in that time period, to get out there and take a stand for a really divisive issue, without leaning on a man. I mean, she was a little crazy, I guess, to destroy property – but then you have to remember that when she was taking her hatchet to those bottles, they weren’t supposed to be there.”
Ronni felt as if she was talking too fast, so she stopped and took a breath and another sip of beer. Her glass was almost empty, but she noticed that Pete’s was still more than half full. He caught her assessing look and smiled again.
“One more?” he said. “We’re still going to be here for a little while.”
Ronni laughed. “I’m tempted.” She considered for a moment. “How about a root beer? I think I’d better behave while I discuss prohibition.”
Pete laughed and stood up. He headed over to the bar and returned shortly with a dark, bubbly soda on ice. He set it down in front of Ronni and laid a paper-wrapped straw beside it.
“Thanks.” She took a long drink.
“So what’s the unique slant you’re hoping to take on this topic?” Pete asked.
Ronni’s eyebrows flew up, and she swallowed hard. “Well, I guess I haven’t finished narrowing it down yet. I’m hoping that Julia can give me a lead to follow.” She looked down and sighed. “That’s probably part of the reason that today’s interview stressed me out so much: because I don’t feel like I’m any closer to nailing down my focus.” She paused, and then went on. “I do think one important aspect of research on women of the era is the way that they connected to men, personally and professionally. Since women still didn’t have much official clout, a lot of the temperance activists were really trying to convince their husbands or the men in power to take action. Even Carry’s work was defined by her relationship with her husband, since it was his addiction that set her off. None of those women, no matter how intelligent or well-spoken, could have passed laws or enforced them without the support of men in power.”
Pete looked thoughtful. “Well,” he said, “we’re all defined by our relationships, to an extent – even today. The people we know shape our lives and affect how we interact with society as a whole. Back then, I guess, a woman’s role in society was mostly determined by her father or the man that she married. Maybe you should look at how the women of that time found the advantages in that sort of limitation, and made so much happen despite it, or even because of it.”
Ronni felt surprise on her face before she could stop it. For some reason, she hadn’t expected such a thoughtful response. She stared at him blankly for a moment.
“It’s a thought,” she said. She lifted her soda toward him and smiled. He toasted her in return, and the two took a moment to sip.
Pete lowered his glass. His face was serious now, and he leaned forward to catch her eyes. “Look, I’m really sorry that things didn’t go the way you planned today.” He looked sincere, and Ronni found herself shrugging and smiling.
“I guess I should have known better than to imagine the whole thing in my mind ahead of time,” she said. “I’m glad you were there, really, because she didn’t seem to warm up to me.”
Pete laughed, and then grew serious again. “You know, I really do think that you got some great material today. You can see already that her existence and livelihood was dependent on the men in her life, but she also had a lot of independence in her position at the speakeasy, since it was operating outside the law anyway. I’m sure that you can get something out of that for your paper. And, if what she said about Billy’s death is true, you might even have a mystery to dig out of the archives.”
Ronni frowned. “Do you think that really happened?” She paused for a moment, chewing her lip. “Not that I think she’s lying or anything like that, but do you think that she’s remembering clearly? It was a little hard to follow exactly what went down, like who unlocked the gate and how Billy died. Remember when she said there was no blood? I can’t figure out what she meant. And she is 108 years old, after all. Maybe she just got a little mixed-up.”
Pete nodded slowly. “I’d agree that the story was kind of sketchy in parts, but I didn’t get the feeling that she was confused. I think she was reaching in pretty deep, that’s all. It wouldn’t be easy to talk about something like that, especially after keeping it inside for so long.”
Ronni nodded, her brow creased in thought.
“Anyway,” Pete said, “you have some names to research. The first thing might be to look for a reference to Michael Ward or Mike’s Mirage, and see if you come up with anything. And how about all that stuff about the friend who sold her out? Maybe you can track down the author of that bogus article and the source. There has to be a reason why she sold Julia out.”
Ronni’s brows lifted in surprise. Pete had a good point. She did have some leads to follow from the little bit of interview that she’d gotten on record.
Pete continued. “Aside from that, Julia had a really good time today. I don’t doubt that she’ll give you another interview, and maybe you can steer the conversation a little more next time.” He looked so earnest and pleased that Ronni found herself feeling a little bit sorry for the way she’d snapped at him earlier.
“You’re right,” she said. “I’m sure that she had more fun today than she’s had for a while, thanks to you.” Feeling flustered, she looked away and busied herself for a moment by dropping her napkin onto her plate and pushing it over to the side.
Pete piled his plate on top of hers. “So when are we going back to see her?”
Ronni’s jaw dropped, and all of her irritation returned in a prickly rush. “Excuse me?”
Pete lifted one brow and smiled a maddening half-smile. “Well, you are going to schedule another interview, aren’t you?”
Ronni scoffed. “Yeah, definitely. But who said anything about you coming along?”
Pete laughed and held up his hands in surrender again. “Truce. Please! I’m sorry, Ronni, I didn’t mean to assume. I guess I should have said that I’d be glad to come along when you go to see Julia again. I’d love to hear more of her story, and I promise to behave myself and let you lead the way. Okay?” He smiled warmly, but his eyes were serious again.
She felt silly for letting herself get all snappy again. After all, the guy had dropped everything to bail her out with a ride, and he’d shown her source a good time. He’d also warmed her tummy with a very pleasing dinner. Still, she wasn’t sure that she wanted him along for the next interview. She decided it might be best to change the subject.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath in through her nose and exhaled through her mouth. When she opened her eyes, she gave Pete a real smile. She picked up her soda and leaned back in the booth, getting comfy.
“I think we’ve talked enough about my research for now,” she said. “How about you tell me a little more about you?”
Pete smiled and shrugged. “Sure. What would you like to know?”
“Oh, the basics, I guess,” Ronni said. “Like what you do between playing gigs and rescuing your sister’s friends.” She flashed what she hoped was a lighthearted grin, and Pete grinned back and relaxed into his side of the booth.
“Okay,” he said. “Here goes. As you know, I grew up in Lawrence, and Donna is my only sister. Our folks are still together, and they still live in the house where we grew up. I graduated from Lawrence High, then I commuted to Washburn in Topeka for my undergraduate degree in English. After that I moved to Emporia and did a graduate teaching assistantship to help pay for my MLS. I moved to Kansas City when I got hired on at the Kansas City Public Library. I just got promoted, so I work in the Kansas Room.”
Ronni felt her eyes widen. She knew she shouldn’t be so surprised to hear that Pete had a day job, given that his car was probably 15 years younger than hers, but for some reason she hadn’t expected to hear that he was so … professional. She went back through their conversation, wondering if she’d sounded like an utter idiot when she told him about her dissertation.
Pete continued. “Music has always been a big part of my life, and I was a total band nerd in school.” He laughed. “But when I went on to college, it became my own thing. I play what I want to play now, and I have a blast. All of the guys in the group are old friends, except one guy that we picked up for trumpet a couple of years back. We play a lot of gigs in K.C., and we get around to Lawrence and Topeka every now and then. I hope we’ll be able to keep at it until I’m as old Julia.”
Ronni smiled and fumbled for something to say. “So I guess if I need someone to help me track down leads or read over my dissertation, you might be able to bail me out again, huh?” She laughed out loud, then looked down at the table top, feeling awkward. What was she getting herself into?
Ronni jumped as her phone buzzed in her pocket. She pulled it out and saw a call from Charles on the display. She frowned before she meant to, then recovered her smile.
“That’s Charles,” she said. “I should call him back so he won’t be worried.”
Pete nodded. “The little room over there to the side is a bit quieter if you want to take it in there. I’ll check the radar and make sure that we’re cleared for take-off.” He smiled again, but Ronni noticed that his dimple didn’t make an appearance this time. She felt a twinge of guilt.
“Thanks.” She set aside the phone to rummage through her purse, and then she pulled out a wad of crumpled 1’s and 5’s. “Dinner’s on me,” she said brightly, “as my thanks for your help.”
Pete raised his eyebrows. “Are you sure? This was my idea.”
“Definitely. I really do appreciate your help.” She hesitated a moment, feeling as if she should say something a bit more eloquent, but then her phone buzzed in her hand – Charles again. She scooted quickly out of the booth. She smiled briefly at Pete and walked toward the side room, lifting the phone to her ear.
“Hey!” Charles said. “Are you okay? I just heard there was a pretty big storm moving through the area.”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Ronni said. “I stopped to get a burger with Donna’s brother, but I’ll be heading back that way as soon as the storm clears up.”
“Okay, no rush – I’m still at study group.”
Ronni prickled. “Hope you’re learning lots,” she said. Her voice sounded snippy even to her, and she winced.
“Yeeeah. It’s a good group.” He paused a moment. “Hey, I hate to say it, but I need to break our dinner date tomorrow. We’re going to pull an extra session because that big exam in Administrative Law is on Tuesday. Sorry to bail, really, but you understand, right?”
Ronni clenched her teeth. She wanted to tell him that she didn’t understand, that she had taken the night off of work specifically to be with him, but she decided not to start any drama.
“Yeah,” she said. “I understand. Guess I’ll call you tomorrow morning to fill you in on my interview.”
“Okay, sounds good. Stay safe!”
Ronni started to say goodbye, then realized that the call had already cut out. She took a deep breath and relaxed her shoulders. Then she went back into the other room to grab her stuff. She hoped that the storm had moved on, because she was really ready to go home. It suddenly felt like work to put one foot in front of the other.
Pete smiled a greeting. “The storm’s passed. Ready to go?”
Ronni nodded and smiled gratefully. “Thanks Pete. I don’t know what I would have done without your help today.”
“No problem,” he said. “I’m glad to help.”
They pulled on their jackets and headed towards the door. “Do you happen to have any plans tomorrow? Donna’s going to be coming to my gig, and I’m sure she’d love to have your company.” He opened the door for Ronni, and she stepped past him into the dark.
Ronni hesitated. “Well, I do need to go get my car at some point, but I don’t have anything else going on.”
“Great. Maybe you can even convince Julia’s nurse to let her come along, too.” He opened the passenger door on the car for Ronni.
Ronni’s jaw dropped, and she stood staring. “Julia? She’s 108 years old! I think she might be past her concert days.”
Pete smiled again, and this time the dimple returned. “You might be right, but I got to thinking that the music might jog her memory. Plus, I know she’d really enjoy it, and we could take her out for a little dinner or some coffee afterwards, if she’s up for it.”
Ronni laughed as she scooted into the car. Pete closed the door and went around to the driver’s side. After he’d gotten into his seat behind the wheel, Ronni looked over and smiled.
“I’ll see what I can do,” she said. “Sounds like it could be a lot of fun.”
Chapter 4 will be published next week at https://tscpl.org/community-novel