Read an Excerpt
The MEMORY TREE
A Linden Corners Novel
By JOSEPH PITTMAN
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Joseph Pittman
All rights reserved.
In the blink-and-you-miss-it downtown area of tiny Linden Corners there stands a local bar once called Connors' Corner, now named George's Tavern after the kind, wise old man who had first welcomed a just-passing-through Brian Duncan to town and who later left the bar in Brian's care when his own time on earth came to an end. Since then, Brian had honored the traditions George had instilled all those years by running a friendly bar as best he could, and that included knowing when it was time to close up after a long night. He was tired, and tomorrow, a holiday, promised to be exhausting, mostly because he'd volunteered to do the cooking. He flicked a switch on the wall, dimming the lights until just soft yellow bulbs over the long stretch of oak remained. The open room developed a ghostly glow, with only shadows sitting at the empty tables. Except for one last straggler, the midnight hour chasing him away before Brian could.
"Any bigger hint and you'd be hitting me over the head with a hammer you bought down at Ackroyd's. I'll be heading out now. I'll see you tomorrow night, Brian," said Chet Hardesty, an out-of-work welder who'd been coming to the tavern more and more of late. He rose from his bar stool with a crack of his knees.
"Closed tomorrow, Chet. It's Thanksgiving."
"Oh, right, the holidays. They kind of sneak up on you, don't they?"
That would normally be the case if not for the defrosting twenty-five-pound turkey hogging precious space inside the refrigerator back at the farmhouse he shared with his young ward, ten-year-old Janey Sullivan. Still, he supposed weathered old Chet raised a good point. It was hard to believe that special time of year had arrived again, when not just turkey, but trimmings, tinsel, and trees would dominate the local conversation. Whether here or across the county road at the Five O'Clock Diner over a cup of coffee or down the street at Marla and Darla's Trading Post, at the counter inside A Doll's Attic, really anywhere in Linden Corners that the locals liked to gather, Christmas had a way of consuming their lives.
"Take care of yourself, Chet. Get home safely, you hear?"
"I made it to sixty-four with few problems, knees notwithstanding," he said. "Don't see why tonight would be any different."
Chet responded to his time-honored wisdom with a hearty laugh, but to Brian it sounded hollow. He briefly wondered if Chet had any family to go home to tonight, a place in which to spend the holiday, and he nearly extended one more invitation to the festivities scheduled to take place within the gentle warmth of the farmhouse. Perhaps his wife was out of town visiting relatives and he had stayed behind. But then Chet was gone into the night, the zoom of the truck's engine disrupting the night's silence. Brian might be a bartender, but that didn't mean he was cut out to solve everyone's problems. Didn't he have his share of them? As much joy as he'd experienced here in town, certain things in his life remained unsettled.
Linden Corners was usually discovered only by unsuspecting visitors who had made an inadvertent turn off the Taconic Parkway. Existing on a stretch of highway that sliced through the rolling green hills of the Hudson River Valley of New York State, it was a place that liked to roll up its sidewalks as dusk arrived, George's Tavern one of the few exceptions. By midnight, it was only his lights that allowed unsuspecting travelers to know they were passing through civilization. Brian had made decent money with such a business mode, as some folks just didn't like staying home alone, and so the bar offered up a regular place to kick back and relax, watch a ballgame on the wide-screen television on the wall while knocking back a few beers, a chance to make new friends. Otherwise, on weeknights like this, the downtown area was as dark as night preferred, lights doused, a sleepy village living up to its reputation.
Brian made his way across the creaky wood floor, wondering if maybe the converted old home needed some repairs before winter, turned the lock on the front door to avoid any possible last-minute customer. Back behind the bar, he set about cleaning the remaining glasses quickly so he could get back home to Janey, even though he expected she'd already be fast asleep. Sara Ravens was watching her tonight, no doubt catching a few needed winks on the sofa. Sara, one of the waitresses over at the Five-O and Brian's tenant who lived upstairs from the tavern with her husband, Mark, had recently volunteered to look after Janey a couple of nights a week, practice, she said, for when she and Mark had a kid of their own.
Which would come soon enough. Sara Ravens was eight months pregnant.
Brian flipped on the faucet, letting warm water wash over his hands. It wasn't cold out, the usual winter chill not having swooped down on them, surprising given the amount of snow the region had suffered the last two Christmases. Last year, in fact, he remembered a snowstorm hitting them on Halloween and little relief after that until April. At this hour, though, despite the unseasonal temperatures, there was something about the big sky and its shroud of darkness that produced a natural chill, and it reminded Brian of his solitude. Or was that loneliness? Sure, he had Janey to light his life, she who filled his days with boundless joy. But then there were those nights, especially when he was off from tending bar and Janey was helping over at the Knights' with baby Jake, when he found himself pacing the farmhouse with no purpose. He stopped, setting the clean glass down on the washcloth, and let out a sigh. Taking a look around the place where he spent most nights, the quiet jukebox and the empty chairs, the smell of beer wafting through the air, he wondered, not for the first time, what more he could be doing with his life.
Just last Christmas he'd asked the same question of himself, and rather than seeking out answers, he'd wrapped himself up in the complex lives of others, like Nora Connors Rainer, like Thomas Van Diver, strangers then, now friends and expected tomorrow for Thanksgiving dinner. He'd solved their issues and ignored his own, and then a new year had begun and life just chugged along, Brian's life the lone whistle at the end of the journey. And suddenly it was Thanksgiving again, and along with Nora and Thomas, several other guests were expected, and so Brian supposed he ought to stop wallowing in his brand of self-pity and get on home. His life wouldn't be changed tonight, and that turkey wouldn't cook itself tomorrow.
A rap of knuckles against the glass pane of the front door caught his attention.
He waved, said, "Sorry, I'm closed."
He could see a deflated expression cross the face of the person on the wrong side of the door. Brian noticed through the panes of glass that it was a woman. He didn't recognize her.
She knocked again, persistence winning out. Maybe she was in trouble.
Tossing down the towel, Brian crossed the floor again but didn't immediately turn the lock.
"Sorry, I just closed up," he said. "Taps are turned off."
"I'll be quick," the woman said.
"Quick about what?"
"This is a bar, yes?"
"Yes. A closed bar."
"Your sign here says you're open till two." She pointed toward the Hours of Operation placard that dangled from one of the panes.
"True, but I hardly ever do. Maybe weekends. Look ... miss, I'm sorry ..."
He again saw defeat crumple her weary features. He sighed again, turned the lock, and let her in before turning the deadbolt behind her. No other strays allowed tonight, he thought, just this one. And she better be not just quick but a good tipper. As he made his way back to the bar, the woman, whom he guessed was around thirty, trailed after him and hopped up on one of the stools found midway down the bar. He turned to her just as she was removing her fur-trimmed overcoat, a bit bulky considering the mild temperatures outside.
"So what'll it be?" he asked.
"Scotch, neat," she said. "You got Johnny Blue?"
Brian's top shelf didn't reach that high. "I think I have Dewar's."
"It'll have to do in a pinch."
Brian poured the requested drink, sliding it over with a gentle push. She peered through the glass, judging its contents' clear brown character before taking a sip. Satisfaction apparently met, she knocked back the rest of it with one gulp, setting the glass down with a loud thunk. Her gesture indicated that Brian should hit her with a refill, not that she ever voiced such words. He did so, her hand helping him tip the bottle until it had produced a double.
"Better?" Brian asked with a hint of sarcasm.
She took a sip, then settled down like she was getting ready to nurse it. Which meant she wasn't leaving anytime soon. "I needed that first one. Thanks."
"Mind telling me what's got you so eager for a few shots at this late hour?"
"You a bartender or a shrink?"
"Aren't we supposed to be both?"
"Ah, Linden Corners. Home to stereotypes."
"Is that comment directed at me, or you?"
"Touché, Dr. Barkeep."
She sipped at her drink again and Brian wondered how long this second drink would take.
"Trina," she said. "My name's Trina. And who might you be?"
"Late for home, apparently."
She laughed, the sound producing a smile for the first time since she'd appeared, virtually out of nowhere. Brian observed her appearance, from her mousy brown hair matted against her head, like she'd worked up a sweat, to her simple jeans and a blue chambray shirt. A speck of makeup but otherwise no noticeable signs of jewelry, no necklace and no rings, and her ears he couldn't see, what with the flat head of hair. As hard-edged as she seemed, her smile softened up her face, her lips widening.
"Sorry to mess up your plans. The little woman waiting for you?"
In a way, Brian thought, thinking of Janey. But this Trina woman, she meant otherwise.
"Just my daughter; she's with a sitter."
"Sorry," she said with a raise of her glass. "Guess I was a little presumptuous, George. I'm really good at jumping to conclusions."
"How are your landings?"
"Generally sucky. I'm here, after all—don't take that as an insult. I don't mean your bar. Just ... Linden Corners," she said, the name of the town falling off her tongue with more than a hint of derision. "Let me guess—your name's not George."
"Brian," he said, extending his hand.
"But the sign outside says ... Never mind. It's nice to meet you, Brian," she said, taking the proffered hand. "So, Brian, what's a guy named Brian doing running a place named George's?"
"I'm happy to listen. I'll even spring for a round."
Brian shook his head. "Kind offer, but I'll pass."
She looked around the empty bar before returning her focus to him. Her eyes were wide, a soft blue in the dim lighting. "Afraid of setting a bad example in front of your customers?"
"No, I just don't drink."
She had her glass up to her lips, where it lingered. Like she was deciding whether to take a gulp and suddenly felt bad about Brian's late-hour confession. She set the glass back down, gave him a curious look. "Can I ask why not?"
"No, you may not. Drink up, Ms. Trina."
She did, quickly. "Okay, I'll get out of your hair. I just needed to get away for a bit."
"Where you staying?"
"At the Solemn Nights," she said, sounding like it was the last place she wanted to be.
Not surprising, really. It was hardly the ideal place to rest your body. The Solemn Nights was the only motel in town, located about half a mile down Route 23, and was owned by Mark's uncle, the eccentric recluse Richie Ravens. Brian had once stayed in the motel's less-than-deluxe accommodations when he'd arrived in Linden Corners, and for a second he questioned what this woman's story was and why she had chosen the roadside location. Now, though, wasn't the time to get into it, not when he'd put the bottle away and he was anxious to get home.
"Well, maybe you should wait a bit before driving back. Those shots are strong."
"It's okay, Dr. Barkeep. I walked over. Like I said, I needed air. My father was driving me nuts."
"Your father? He's staying with you?"
"More like the other way around," she said, offering up no more explanation.
Brian let it go, deciding her business wasn't his. He let Trina finish the last drops of her drink while he finished cleaning up, hoping his actions were as subtle as when he'd chased Chet out. She set down a twenty-dollar bill and told him to keep the change. Brian just pocketed the money for now, his register closed. Trina busied herself with putting on her heavy coat.
"I was expecting snow by now," she said when she saw Brian watching her.
"Weather's been weird this autumn," Brian answered. "Supposed to be sixty tomorrow."
They walked together toward the front door, where Brian turned the lock again.
Trina stepped through the doorway onto the front porch. "Thanks. Maybe I'll see you again," she said. "Like tomorrow."
"Closed tomorrow," he said, parroting himself. "It's Thanksgiving."
She nodded once but didn't say anything. A fresh darkening of those blue eyes told him all he needed to know. Some people found holidays less than happy occasions. Trina looked to be among them. She made her way out to the parking lot, gone as quickly as she had come and leaving Brian once again to his familiar solitude.
Back at the bar, he took hold of her glass, noticed a faint stain of lipstick on the rim.
He stared back at the door, almost wishing she would return.
He'd actually enjoyed her company. She had made him forget that he'd been lonely.
But then the glass hit the warm water and the red gloss melted away.
It was getting on toward one o'clock in the morning before Brian had fully washed down the bar and turned up the chairs and stools. He'd sent a text Sara's way, saying he was running a bit late, and her reply had buzzed back quickly, telling him not to rush. All was fine, she'd typed, Janey was fast asleep, even if baby Ravens was kicking up a storm inside her belly. No longer in such a hurry, Brian gazed about the darkened bar, amazed at how much his life had changed in nearly three years and how much it still amazed him. His New York friend John Oliver liked to joke that Brian had traded the noisy subways of Manhattan for the endless cornfields of Linden Corners, from corporate maven to early-rising farmer, and while the lifestyle was admittedly a 180-degree turn, Brian was still a night owl. He could often be found rattling around the farmhouse at two in the morning, unable to sleep, his mind unable to shut down.
Tonight was no different.
He'd probably be making chestnut stuffing at five A.M.
Still, best to let someone get rest, and that someone was Sara. If Brian's life represented time standing still, Sara's was the picture of progress. A year ago she'd been pushing Mark for a wedding date, and now eleven months later they were married and the birth of their first child was fast approaching. Brian, on the other hand, still worked at the bar. Period.
"Okay, Duncan, enough wasting time. Get on home."
He heard the echo of his voice before it too dissipated. Silence again ruled the night.
Flipping off the last of the lights, he grabbed his keys and exited the bar, turning the lock for the final time that night.
Tomorrow was a much-needed day off from pulling the taps and refilling the pretzel bowls, and he allowed himself another sigh. He refused to give those sighs a name, fearing they would reveal a level of dissatisfaction he didn't want to believe. Once out on the porch, he went toward the stairs, and suddenly he stumbled, feeling something connecting with his foot. Only a quick grab of the railing saved him from stumbling down to the walkway.
"What was that ...?" he asked.
His eyes adjusted to the darkness, and he noticed a parcel on the top step of the tavern's entrance. Curious as to why someone would leave it there, he bent down and was surprised to see his first name written across the brown paper covering. There was no mailing address on it, no return address either, and no postage anywhere. Which meant someone had dropped it off in person. But who, and why? And for that matter, how long had it been there? Also, what should he do with it?
Excerpted from The MEMORY TREE by JOSEPH PITTMAN. Copyright © 2013 Joseph Pittman. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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