I want to run through an exercise for something I’m not particularly versed in. Though that statement gives me an easy out, as I often sit on the writer scale’s far discovery end I don’t put much thought to new environments when I’m building on the preexisting characters. Locations and places have always been barebones on the first draft and then filled in to a respectable degree in the revisions. I’ve never maintained a fascination with environments in my own writing, relegating them to literal background faff, but whenever I read an exceptional locale description I’m glued in. Immediately I think of the intro to Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary. Maybe I’m jealous of that ability and then denigrate its importance in my own work (I’ve done it before). If so either work on it or stop complaining. So I want to draft up a setting in detail beyond what I’m comfortable with.
Here I go:
Deer Path’s old town center was never the largest hub but served thirty years ago as the nightlife center for the young couples who settled down in the Chicago suburbs where the largest story on a daily basis was how close someone came to hitting a deer in the woods flanked roads which rose and fell through once affordable, spaced out single family homes. Thirty years ago the town was unbridled by responsibilities and the town center’s clubs reflected that. But as the children came so did the pediatric dentist in the outskirt office complex. The clubs gave way to restaurants like The Village Tavern and an artisanal sweets shop. In the fall was the pumpkin patch and in the summer were art fairs in the big gravel lot. The tiny roads were choked by streetside overflow parking and families crossing all linked together in hand.
But the single lane streets became impractical when the children grew old enough to get their own cars and double traffic. Widening the lanes was impossible due to the shops’ close proximity. As years turned to decades the minor cracks in the asphalt were filled in with water inevitably expanding with ice each winter. Roadwork was desperately needed just in time for the nests to empty and strip malls to lock in on the highways that surrounded the town. There was nothing more to build, only money for minor refurbishments and patching the swerve-out-of-lane potholes. The one corporate holdover from what might have been was a Citco station with four pumps, prices forty cents above the three closest stations, and a painful sign which read “HELP! CUSTOMERS NEEDED!”
The town’s premier bar Smattering served as the last oasis of sustained profitability. The building it occupied was once a farm themed exploratorium popular amongst local elementary schools for field trips. As such it maintained a faux barn exterior complete with a wooden archway above the entrance. The dark paneled walls wrapped up to a second floor and around back to a paved parking lot shared with a brewery and a dance studio named after a golden age of Hollywood song and dance man. The single entrance was oft choked from attempts to navigate a difficult left only three car lengths from the main crossroad’s intersection. The unmarked ramp was wide enough for two cars but at night, unlit it was vexing for the best drivers and a mystery for the impaired. There was also a single exit lane sandwiched between Smattering and cheap pizzeria but it sat directly before the intersection and was rights only and subject to near collisions from those who couldn’t discern the no entry signs.
Beyond Smattering’s heavy barn doors was a heavy step up into a claustrophobic vestibule with restrooms on the right and a twisting staircase to the second floor. After squeezing through a narrowed doorway the host stand sat attentively but meekly in a cramped corner on the right. Most hosts and even some hostesses had to bend to grab the highest stacked menus. From there all passages were hemmed in between the island bar in the center and the tables in a crescent span on its left. Three low top four seaters bare of coverings were wedged uncomfortably between the entryway and the corner under a flat screen TV. Four high top four seaters then spanned down to the next corner TV and one alone on the back wall beside the rear emergency exit. The rest of the back wall was clear being too close to the end of the island bar and the stools which nearly tipped back to rest upon it.
Though there were tables for the dinning, the bar took the grand stage for the regular customers. Cushioned, detached stools were packed in front of the cherrywood countertop. Segmented into three pieces the long portion running down the room maintained a dark stripe as a memory of the single proud tree it was carved from. Above the bar was a thatched roof hung with mass printed basketball and football cards from the Bulls dynasty and eighty-five Bears. Nothing of value to steal. Screwed into the corner post was a brass hook and ring with fast nicked names and scores. On the beams ran the immediate liquor replenishments of favored whiskeys and vodkas and others. Below were the spout capped bottles, ice, and buckets of lemon and lime chunks. It also housed the register next to the entrance and was wide enough to employ two bartenders and squeeze the owner in too if he wanted to chat up his regulars.
Through a short walkway was the five or six man kitchen depending on the rush. Most of the food came off either the flattop grill or the two basket deep fryer. White cupboards high and low held most of the equipment and had to be closed before someone tripped or smacked their faces against them. The fridge held the preformed burger patties and fish cuts as a stainless steel countertop on the opposite side housed the buckets of garnishments and taco toppings. Those were the real specialty as the regulars knew them. After a quick flash on the grill they came down in fives and tens. All dishes were set upon the scratched steel counter on the open window (almost as wide as the kitchen itself) facing the bar. Of course, they were all served with a smattering of fries (unless substituted).
The vertical wall panels gave an illusion of height to the eight and a half foot ceiling. Along the top was a continuous shelf for old radios that once might have blasted tunes on the lake docks before the advent of Bluetooth speakers and smartphones. Below them was a collage of old alcohol advertisements, neon beer signs, a photograph of the old exploratorium, black and whites of ball parks, band posters (all autographed), and trinkets from a summer backpacking across Europe. Across two green chalkboards on the left and back wall were the beers, their brewer, ABV, and price in alternating white, yellow, sky blue, bright red, repeat. The corner TVs showed their close captioned sports games between advertisements for hair loss, E.D., and mobile gambling.
Up the twisting stairs was the boxed in floor packed in against the stage on the back wall. Different nights met with small bands or trivia. If not those then it seldom hosted a couple kids jumping about and tight roping on the lip. A ceiling mounted projector showcased old horror movies without the sound but sporting constant shadows from the waiters and waitresses as they served. The room noise shared the first floor’s speakers blasting out a predominantly a classic rock station mix of hits paired alongside Grateful Dead jams and what could pass the regulars as acceptable “new” rock bands like Greta Van Fleet and Halestorm. High up they catch the distant sounds of sports cars gunning down the neighboring highways and motorcycles spinning up at the intersection.
This is far too wandering and droll to be used whole cloth in a story. Unless it’s for a personal history of this town this has no pull, no characters, no strong conflict. I hate it. I hate it. I hate it. That said, if I know the story is going to pass through this town and take place in Smattering for a bit then I’d be forever thankful to my past self for establishing this place. A copy and paste here and there, moving the perspective down to street level as a character drives through in start and stop fashion in traffic. I see that.
It was grating for me to not divert into talking about the people in that bar. I would have just focused on them if I hadn’t kept to the bar itself. But now that I have the town and bar set up, I can see the types of people who’d frequent a place like that. Late Baby Boomers and early Gen Xers who betrayed the convictions of youth and ended up taking jobs advising large businesses on how to reduce their tax burdens to zero. The weekend concert goers with mom and dad’s permission. The retirees finally attempting to explore a creative pursuit in the short hours before they go off to drink, content to spend their long amassed retirement fund in a bar. On the tables are the late comers to the neighborhood hoodwinked on the prospect of a renewed downtown. They rotated to Smattering that night to have some time together away from the kids. They order the most food and the women make the most substitutions on the fries. Upstairs are the younger still millennials who drive twenty minutes in to eat and have trivia night. They bring their friends in on double dates and chatter about how weathered everyone on the first floor looks.
There’s certainly a lot of generational economic divide in that bar. A lot of small town decline all around. People stuck where they are from life circumstances and locked in mortgage rates. All these people are lonely. Despite how much they complain about their chairs knocking into the person next to them or having to lean aside as a server comes through with a full tray they all crave being that close to other people. In a modern world that’s left the small town charms behind the familiar bar with its recognizable faces help ease the fear that everything has moved past them at a pace they can’t fathom and can’t maintain on bad knees. Better to wind down those years with the cure-all. The world needs you about as much as it does the old town center.
On its own after a few drafts the passage could be made good, not great. It could be an interesting snapshot of the town but to be great it’d have to showcase the patrons and staff. There’s tension between them as their different lives make it impossible to fully connect. Resentment from the younger staff and patrons for not being able to afford as much as the older generations and resentment from the older customers’ unlived lives seeing the youth waste their lives online just as they did with work in the first cubical craze. If I can make it about that or something with purpose and bite, then it could be great. But the practicable solution would be to take the passage and chop the best lines and ideas for the larger story. It sounds a chore to write a great piece and then only use parts of it but if the whole story is weaved from great pieces it can come together into a masterwork.
When you try this yourself don’t be discouraged that you’ll throw out so much material. What’s a perfect story but one where all the faff is taken out?