High summer is upon us, readers, the days warm and sunny, the evenings long and languorous, and I think, at last, I am beginning to feel at home in Prism Bay. That is not to say the local culture makes any real sense to me—I’m still surprised, confused, and/or mildly terrified by the things I see here almost on a daily basis. But I think, finally, I’m beginning to understand that a certain base level of bewilderment is part of the pace of life in Prism Bay, at least for me. After two months of having my assumptions and expectations violently exploded before my eyes, I suppose I’m getting used to it. I avoid seasonal menus and no longer worry about wifi. More than that, I’ve made some friends.
You might have noticed, readers, that my first weeks at the Hemlocks on Prism Bay were not exactly overflowing with social engagements. This was at least partly by choice: Mrs. Sylvester has made it clear that she would happily arrange invitations for me to any of several events held around town throughout the summer. For the most part, I’ve avoided these, claiming an excess of work—but really because they were mostly held at places like the Prism Bay Beach Club, strongholds of the summer people, and I knew I would feel out of place, constantly running afoul of strange customs and unfamiliar codes of conduct. This town really feels like a foreign country sometimes, and if you’ve ever lived abroad, readers, you know how exhausting it can be, not knowing how things work. At the same time, my status as an outsider makes the locals wary of me. I’m caught in between, neither one thing nor the other. Generally, I don’t mind the solitude—writing is solitary work, after all, and that’s one reason I like it. But in a foreign land, human connections become that much more important—as I’ve recently rediscovered.
The point at which things began to change was, I think, also one of my most traumatic experiences in Prism Bay so far. You will remember, I hope, my run-in with a computer gremlin or computer djinni, also potentially a Russian hacker or crazed fan, on the wifi network of Prism Bay Literary Merchants. That story had a happy (or, anyway, non-disastrous) ending, but left me frazzled and shaken. When I returned to the Hemlocks that evening—after Helpful Hernán of the Best Buy Geek Squad had successfully booted up my computer, without even treating me like a hapless bonehead or Luddite, despite the appearance of both—Mrs. Sylvester instantly took in my careworn state and asked how she could help.
“I think it’s all sorted out, Mrs. Sylvester,” I said, after giving her a brief summary of my trials. “What I’d really like right now is to go out and have a drink somewhere. Would you care to join me?”
“It’s very kind of you to invite me, Mr. Black,” she answered graciously, “but I’m afraid I must decline.” Mrs. Sylvester gave no reason for her refusal, and I didn’t ask. Nor was I all that surprised—disappointed, maybe, because I enjoy Mrs. Sylvester’s company, but not surprised. It isn’t that Mrs. Sylvester doesn’t drink; she often has wine with dinner, and I’ve seen her sipping brandies and sherries and cordials from small crystal glasses. It’s that she never seems to leave the Hemlocks grounds. Maybe it’s only a coincidence that I’ve never seen her away from home; for all I know, she could be out and about all the time, and I simply haven’t noticed. Really, it’s none of my business. This is her house, after all. I’m just a guest.
Mrs. Sylvester asked if I had any particular destination in mind, and when I said I did not, she recommended a restaurant in town called the Dancing Squid. “A venerable establishment and local mainstay,” she said, “and a worthy setting for nearly any celebration, but especially when celebrating escape from disaster.” This was all the recommendation I needed: it’s true that Mrs. Sylvester sometimes steers with an unusually firm hand, but she has never steered me wrong.
The Dancing Squid is near the center of the town’s main drag, past the commercial docks, along the part of the harbor reserved for pleasure craft. As soon as I saw it, tall windows glowing yellow in the purple twilight, I remembered it from my first night in Prism Bay: it was one of the few restaurants still open as I drove through the town center that early morning, not yet knowing I’d found my destination—the one where I’d seen the staff gathered around the bar for an after-hours drink. Even now, with the whole street busy, the evening in full swing, the Dancing Squid seemed livelier than most, emitting an almost palpable hum as I stowed my bike (an honest to goodness oil lantern hanging by the handlebars to light my way home) and walked inside.
Standing in the small waiting area, I had a good view of the dining rooms I’d glimpsed through the windows, and I could see what Mrs. Sylvester had meant by a “venerable establishment and local mainstay”. Everywhere I looked, I saw well-dressed patrons enjoying elegant meals on white tablecloths. This, I surmised, was Prism Bay’s “fancy” restaurant, the place to go for those seeking to spend as much as possible on food and drink. When folks around here said, “Let’s go somewhere nice,” they probably meant the Dancing Squid. It would be where they went to celebrate anniversaries and important birthdays, to have rehearsal dinners for weddings, to entertain special out of town guests. The realization put me instantly on my guard, not because I don’t like fancy restaurants, but because in small resort towns there is often only room for one in the local economy, and the lack of competition makes them lazy. They act like being the most expensive is the same as being the best, and generally get away with it.
My initial impression was not improved by a trip to the bar—never a good sign, readers. The bar was a straight shot from the door, at least, and had a few comfortable, high-backed stools open at the counter, a gleaming strip of warm, lacquered wood. The barkeep, however, didn’t seem much interested in taking my order. He was posted—an appropriate description, since he was tall and sturdy enough to seem almost like a structural element in the overall architecture—at the far end of the bar, in conversation with a group of customers dressed in capes and bow ties, like Victorian era stage magicians. It was fully five minutes before he deigned to notice me, and then he poured my bourbon (I’d decided the situation called for bourbon) with a faint air of distain, as if under protest, before lumbering off to banter with a party of what looked like blinged-out lumberjacks but might in fact have been the Visigoths and Ostrogoths I’d heard so much about.
Yes, readers, it was a “summer person” bar. I hadn’t been surprised at the amount of khaki and blue blazers and pearls I’d seen in the dining area, of course—that was to be expected of virtually any fancy-pants resort town restaurant. And if the Dancing Squid was as overpriced as I suspected, the locals would know to avoid it anyway. But the crowd in here wasn’t the same as the conservatively dressed clientele enjoying their swordfish and chardonnay. They weren’t quite cloaked and masked crepuscular customers, either, but despite the cozy lighting and quietly tuneful piano music drifting through the air, I was getting a distinct Star Wars cantina vibe.
The bourbon, at least, was very bourbony, and the atmosphere was, as promised, a fine one in which to enjoy having recently escaped disaster. I sipped my drink and sat back and took in the crowd, which included, in addition to the Dr. Strange-looking guys and the collection of Vandals and Huns, a trio of women in dark sunglasses (inside, at night), and what I can only assume was the cast of a local community theatre production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—a version set in modern-day New York City where Oberon and Titania’s fairy court was hidden in Central Park and populated by eerily beautiful homeless people—who had all decided to go out tonight in full costume. I know that’s a fairly elaborate description, readers, but it’s the best I could come up with.
The community theatre troop, as I immediately began to think of them, was the largest group around the bar, taking up one full side and mingling freely among the other seats and high tops. I was curious enough about them to risk conversation with the barkeep, despite an expression that implied one wrong word would see me tossed onto the street. When he stopped by to refill my drink—with the obvious intention of moving on as quickly as possible—I said, “So, is there like a Shakespeare in the park sort of thing going on in town?”
He paused, and for the first time actually seemed to notice me as more than the chaperone of an empty glass. “Shakespeare?” he said, as if I’d asked about someone known to operate under several aliases.
“The playwright,” I said, more unsure of myself with each word. “The Bard. You know, Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, The Tempest, King Lear. I’d sort of thought this bunch here was from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
The barkeep glanced over at one cluster of the fair folk, then back to me. “You’re not from around here, are you?” he asked.
“I’m in town for the summer,” I admitted. “I’m staying at the Hemlocks.”
You might remember, readers, what sort of reaction this information earned me my first day in Prism Bay—but if not, let’s just say it was less than friendly. At the Dancing Squid, however, the result was just the opposite: this sturdy yet standoffish barkeep warmed to me immediately. I can only guess that he’d had some bad experiences with locals, and assumed me to be of that set due to my attire, which was nicer than my usual but did not involve a cape, mask, or crown of flowers. Where before he could hardly be bothered to spare two words for me, now he became positively gregarious.
His name was Larry, and he was something of a fixture (his term) at the Dancing Squid. When I mentioned I was a writer, he asked, “Like Shakespeare?” with such a deadpan expression that I could almost believe he seriously did not know who I was talking about. I said I was working my way up to Shakespeare’s level but hadn’t made it there yet. Privately, I reveled in the idea of having two things in common with the man who penned Much Ado About Nothing: we were both writers, and Larry the tall and sturdy barkeep had never heard of us. And Larry had not heard of me, readers, which was fine. Actually, it allowed me to puff myself up a little more than would have been feasible if he’d actually read any of my stuff.
When you get away with as much bragging as I did in the fifteen minutes that followed, readers, it’s time to quit, but I couldn’t resist. “How about blogs?” I asked, when we’d finished talking science fiction. “Do you like blogs?” Larry the tall and sturdy barkeep said he did indeed, which I took as a good sign. “Well I’ve got a blog, too,” I said. “I’ve got a pretty popular blog, actually.”
Readers, I’m not sure what sort of reaction I was expecting. Unless this guy was already a fan of my work, he probably wouldn’t care about my blog, even if “pretty popular” weren’t already a bit of an exaggeration. But I did not expect for him to become instantly offended. It was as if I’d just said something lewd about a beloved relation. “A pretty popular blob?” he asked, sneering.
“A blog,” I answered, taken aback but wanting to be clear. “A pretty popular blog.”
“Well it can’t be as popular as Mr. Bentley’s blob, Harold,” said Larry the tall and sturdy barkeep. “Harold is the most popular blob in town,” he added with barely-contained rage. “He’s the most popular blob at Blob Academy.”
Readers, I cannot be one-hundred percent sure he was saying “blob” instead of “blog”, but that’s what it sounded like to me. Maybe it was his accent; I don’t know. Really, I was far more concerned with his bewildering reaction, because who gets that upset over a blog? Maybe this Mr. Bentley was some local writer—one who chronicled life in Prism Bay on a blog of his own, perhaps. That would make me direct competition, possibly out there stealing Mr. Bentley’s material. If so, Mr. Bentley needed to work on his web presence, because I’d searched all over for information about Prism Bay before coming out here, and came up with nada. Also, who names their blog “Harold?”
I said none of this to Larry the tall and sturdy barkeep, however. He was so enraged that just letting him drift off without another word seemed the safe (if awkward) thing to do. Fortunately, I still had plenty of bourbon, and the bar’s curious crowd for entertainment. I watched as Larry took orders from a few members of the Shakespearean theatre troop who’d wandered away from the main group, amused at first by the novelty—not only their outfits, but the fact that they were plainly ordering from the “seasonal menu”. The more I witnessed, however, the more I felt the sense of lost-in-the-woods confusion that sometimes comes from close encounters with the summer people of Prism Bay.
There was an old lady who resembled a walking walnut but moved with the grace and power of an Olympic gymnast, and ordered (I felt instantly compelled to copy this into my notebook) “the sap of a pine tree, no less than one-hundred years of age, garnished with a rusty razorblade”. There was a woman with doll-like features and red dreadlocks, who asked for “the tears of a man weeping at the sight of a great work of art”. But what weirded me out the most, readers, was when a waifish little boy—he had to stand on tiptoes to reach the bar—requested “a teacup of doe’s blood, drawn at midnight in the depth of a new moon”. It wasn’t just his age, though he couldn’t have been much older than eight or nine—much too young to be hanging around in a bar, even with actors. What really got me was that the drink he received was not, as I’d expected, some fanciful kiddie cocktail—something with a lot of grenadine, maybe, like a Shirley Temple—but what looked disturbingly like an exact, literal interpretation of his order.
I watched the boy depart, gory teacup clasped between his delicate hands, and no longer felt even remotely sure I was in the presence of a theatre company, Shakespearean or otherwise. If this was the cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, who was he? Puck? The two women went with him, each holding a drink that was at least a visual match to their requests, right down to the rusty razor blade (no way to tell if I was looking at real sap and real tears—except, maybe, by ordering the same thing myself). I couldn’t decide what would be more appropriate just then: to get another round (maybe two, or seven) for myself, or to run for my life.
The decision was made for me, however, when Larry the tall and sturdy barkeep arrived with a new glass of bourbon. When I offered to pay, deciding this had probably better be my last drink, he said, “Already taken care of,” indicating a man a few seats down, at the edge of Oberon and Titania’s court. “You looked like you could use it,” the man said with a smile, raising his own drink—which, I noted with relief, seemed to be a perfectly ordinary martini.
“Thanks,” I said, toasting in return. “That isn’t, you know, three ounces of scorpion venom or something you’ve got there, is it?”
“Just gin and a very secretive whisper of vermouth,” he said with a laugh. He seemed a reassuringly mundane sort of person, with white hair and the roundish belly of a comfortable existence. His clothes were clearly expensive, if not particularly well tailored. He looked like a man who enjoyed his food and drink, and could afford the best of both. He looked, readers, like just the sort of person you’d expect to find in a bar like this—or, maybe, its counterpart in any other summery town. Like a man of middle years who has been successful in business.
“I’m Patrick,” I said, leaning over to shake his hand.
“I’m a man of middle years who has been successful in business,” he replied, shaking.
Readers, I cannot now recall whether I began to think of him in this way before or after he offered the label himself. It must have been after, of course—it would have been too much of a coincidence otherwise—but that wasn’t how it felt. He didn’t tell me his name, and I didn’t want to press. He’d just bought me a drink, after all. Instead I nodded toward the Shakespearean theatre troop and asked, “Friends of yours?”
The man of middle years who has been successful in business glanced over his shoulder toward the crowd of nymphs and satyrs. “Sort of a family reunion,” he said.
“Quite the family,” I opined, still a bit distracted by the ethereal boy (that shrewd and knavish sprite, as Bill might say) sipping from his teacup, a thin moustache of red painting his upper lip. Bloody Mary mix, maybe? Or tomato soup?
“You might say I’m the clan’s nonconformist,” he said. “The black sheep. Only really feels that way when we’re all together, though. At least it’s at a bar.” And with that, he finished his drink and signaled to Larry the tall and sturdy barkeep for another.
This was not how I usually pictured nonconformity, readers, but among this crowd, a man of middle years who has been successful in business did seem incongruous. In another context, this guy would have been the very image of entrenched power, but not here. I felt a surprising pang of sympathy. “Well, you’re not alone in feeling a bit out of place,” I said. I offered a few anecdotes from my summer misadventures—all of which you have already heard, readers. The man of middle years who has been successful in business seemed to enjoy them, at least, especially my story about the sinister Forest Wraiths Ornithological Society.
By this time, the family reunion was beginning to disperse. “Were you all waiting for a table?” I asked, noting how most members of the fairy court seemed to be disappearing into the restaurant.
“No, it’s just that you can never keep them all in one place for very long,” said the man of middle years who has been successful in business. “They go where they want, when they want.” He glanced at his watch, a heavy, expensive thing. “I’ve got a few friends showing up any minute, if you want to stick around.”
I was definitely interested to find out what sort of friends these would be. Other men of middle years who have been successful in business, perhaps? The cast of another theatre company, maybe one with more of a science fiction theme? I think I would have been equally surprised to meet the CEO of General Electric as I would a talking velociraptor in a top hat. Even so, when the man of middle years who has been successful in business raised a hand and waved to a couple across the room, I still did not expect to see Amy of Amy’s All-Hours Confectionary Kitchen making her way toward us through the restaurant, and with her, Pippa, the distractingly good-looking bookseller.
They were all old friends, readers, and had decided to get together after the “sort of a family reunion”, as described by the man of middle years who has been successful in business. He’d deemed the Dancing Squid an appropriate meeting place, not just because he already planned to be there, but because it was, as Mrs. Sylvester had put it, just the place to celebrate escaping disaster. Apparently surviving this family reunion qualified.
I’ve been back many times since, not only to celebrate other escapes from disaster, but for the company of this unlikely trio. Even Larry the tall and sturdy barkeep appears to be warming up to me, albeit very slowly—I still don’t think he’s gotten over my claims of blog or blob popularity. Those three are all outsiders in their own way, I gather—and even if I don’t really know what they’re outside of, exactly, they’re good company, and company of this sort, readers, is one thing I’d been missing.
As it happens, Amy and Pippa are planning a little party later this week, during a sort of town-wide festival. I’m sure it will be intriguingly unusual all around, readers, so please do check in next time. Until then, be sure and tip your servers, you never know what’s behind the bar!