Taft: A Novel by Ann PatchettTaft: A Novel by Ann Patchett

Taft: A Novel

byAnn Patchett

Paperback | April 19, 2011

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ANN PATCHETT is the author of six novels, including Bel Canto, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize . She has written for the Atlantic, Gourmet, the New York Times Magazine, Vogue, the Washington Post, and others .
Title:Taft: A NovelFormat:PaperbackDimensions:288 pages, 8 × 5.31 × 0.75 inPublished:April 19, 2011Publisher:Houghton Mifflin HarcourtLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0547521898

ISBN - 13:9780547521893


Read from the Book

  A girl walked into the bar. I was hunched over, trying toopen a box of Dewar’s without my knife. I’d bent the blade theday before prying loose an old metal ice cube tray that had frozensolid to the side of the freezer. The box was sealed up tight withstrapping tape. She waited there quietly, not asking for anything,not leaning on the bar. She held her purse with two hands andstood still. I could see her sort of upside down from where I was.She was on the small side, pale and average-looking, with a bigpuffy winter jacket on over her dress. I watched her look aroundat the stuff up on the walls, black-and-white pictures of MuddyWaters and Howlin’ Wolf in cracked frames, a knocked-off streetsign from Elvis Presley Boulevard, the mounted head of a skinnydeer. She pretended to be interested in things so she didn’t haveto look at anybody. Not that there was much of anybody to lookat. It was February, Wednesday, four in the afternoon. The deadtime of the deadest season, which is why I wasn’t in any rush.The tape was making me crazy. Before I even got the box open, Cyndi walked out of thekitchen and headed right for her. “What can I get you?” Cyndisaid. Then I straightened up because the girl in the puffy coatwasn’t of a drinking age. She was eighteen, nineteen. Could’vebeen younger. When you’d spent as much of your life in a bar asI had, you recognized those things right away. Cyndi, she knewnothing about bars other than getting drunk in them. She wasjust a girl herself, and girls were no judge of girls.“Get her a Coke,” I said, and headed over to them. But thegirl put up her hand and I stopped walking just like that. It was afunny thing. “I’m here about a job,” she said. Well, then I could see it. The way she was overdressed. Theway she didn’t seem to be meeting anybody but didn’t seem likeshe was there to pick anybody up either. We got plenty of girlsthrough there. We got the college girls looking to make moneyto pay the bills who wound up trying to read their books bythe little light next to the cash register when things were slow,and then we got the other kind, older ones who liked the musicand liked to pour themselves shots behind the bar. Those werethe ones who walked out in the middle of their shift with somestrange customer on a Friday night when the place was packedand then showed up three days later, asking could they have theirjob back. Those were the ones the regulars always took to. “You over at the college?” I said, and Cyndi looked at herhard because she didn’t like the college girls. The girl nodded. A piece of her straight hair slipped out frombehind her ear and she tucked it back into place. “How old are you?” I said. “Twenty,” she said, so quickly that I figured she’d practicedsaying it in front of a mirror. Twenty. Twenty. Twenty. Shedidn’t look twenty, but I would bet money that her ID was fake.It didn’t so much matter in Tennessee. Seventeen could serve adrink as long as they kept it clear of their mouths. “Any restaurant experience?” I looked at her hard, trying totell her age from her face. “Ever work in a bar?” I was out of thoseemployment forms. I made a mental note to order a box. She nodded again. Quiet girl. “Not around here, though. I’mnot from around here.” Cyndi and I stood there on the other side of the bar, waitingfor her to say where she was from but she didn’t. “Where?”Cyndi said. “East,” the girl said, even though that could mean anywherefrom Nashville to China. East was the world if you went withit far enough. I didn’t think she was trying to be difficult onpurpose. The way she stood so straight and kept her voice lowand respectful, it was plain that she needed the job. I liked her,though I didn’t have a reason. Even when I just saw her standingthere, when she put up her hand and for a second it felt likesomething personal. I liked this girl. “What’s your name?” I asked. “Fay Taft,” she said. “Like the president?” “What?” “William Howard Taft.” “Oh, no,” she said. “My father tried to trace that back once,but he didn’t come up with anything. I don’t think our Tafts evermet their Tafts.” “Only president ever to be chief justice on the SupremeCourt.” I had no idea why I knew this. Some facts stick with youfor no reason. “He was fat,” she said in a sorry voice, like there could be nothingsadder than fat. “I always felt kind of bad for him.” Not very many people who come into bars can talk to youabout dead presidents. I told her she had a job. Cyndi turned on her heel as soon as I’d said it. Cyndi wantedtwo shifts a day, seven days a week. She wanted every tip from everytable in the place. She saw no need in the world for a waitressother than herself. “Come back tomorrow,” I told Fay, not looking over myshoulder at Cyndi, who she was straining to see. “Come in beforelunch. We’ll get you started.” She wasn’t saying a word. She looked too scared to take a deepbreath. “That okay?” I asked. “School,” she said softly, like the very word would be the endof it. No bar, no job. “So come after class. Just be here before happy hour. Thatstarts at five. Things get busy then.” She smiled, her face wide open with relief. For a second thatlittle white face reminded me of Marion, even though Marion’sblack. This was Marion from way back, when I could read everythought that passed through her like it was typed up on herforehead. Young Fay Taft nodded, made like she might say somethingand then didn’t. She just stood there. “Okay, then?” “Okay,” she said, nodded again, and headed out the door. Iwatched her through the window as she went down the sidewalk.She took a stocking cap out of her pocket and pulled itdown over her ears. The cap was striped blue and yellow and hadone of those fluffy pom-pom things on the top. In it she lookedso young I thought I must have made a mistake. One thing’sfor sure, she never would have gotten a job wearing that hat. Itwas gray outside and spitting a little bit of snow that wouldn’tamount to anything. The girl, Fay, stopped at the corner andlooked out carefully at the traffic, trying to decide when to cross.I watched too, watched until she crossed and headed up the hilland I lost sight of her skinny legs trailing out of that big jacket. “Like we need another waitress,” Cyndi called down loudlyfrom the end of the bar. But Cyndi hadn’t been around long enough. She didn’t understandabout the spring, how waitresses take off for the gulfon the first warm day and leave you with nobody trained. Best tostock a few girls up when it’s still cold outside, ones who look reliableenough to last you past seventy degrees. “I’ll tend to my job and you tend to yours,” I said, going backto the Dewar’s. Cyndi had a hell of a mouth on her. Maybe that’sthe way they teach girls over in Hawaii where she came from.“I’m the one that hires people.” Cyndi took up a couple of clean glasses and went back to thekitchen to wash them again, just to let me know it wasn’t right. If it was or it wasn’t, I had no one to account to. It was my job.I hired people and got the boxes of scotch open. I counted upthe money at two o’clock in the morning and took it to the nightdeposit box, every night waiting to see if somebody was hoppedup enough to crack me over the head for it. I plunged the toiletswhen they backed up. I used to throw people out when theygot drunk and started beating one another with the pool cues,but then that got to be a full-time job so I hired a bouncer, a formerMemphis State linebacker named Wallace whose knees hadgone bad. He worked the door on Friday and Saturday becauseno matter how drunk people got on a weeknight they just aboutnever took to beating on one another. This is one of the greatmysteries of the world. I was putting Wallace on behind the barmore and more during the week. He made a good mixed drink.The tourists liked him because he was coal black and huge andthe sight of him scared them and thrilled them. When he wasn’tbusy doing his job he was posing for pictures with strangers. Onetourist snaps the camera while the other tourist stands next toWallace. It tickled them to no end to have their picture takenwith someone they thought looked so dangerous. The bar I managed is called Muddy’s and is on the water sideof Beale down past the Orpheum Theater. It’s owned by a doctorin town who holds more deeds in Memphis than anyone knows.He bought it back in the late seventies from Guy Chalfont, abluesman we all admired. Chalfont swore the bar wasn’t namedfor Muddy Waters or the Mississippi River, but for his dog, afilthy short-haired cur called Muddy that followed him with thekind of devotion that only a dog could muster. It seemed like allthe old bluesboys sold out in the late seventies with some sad notionabout going to Florida, They thought it would be better todie down there, sitting on lounge chairs near the ocean, wearingsunglasses and big Panama hats. They sold just before the real estatemarket broke open, a couple of years before their little clubsturned out to be worth a fortune. The main thing I had to do to keep the job was book thebands and make sure they showed up and didn’t plug all theiramps into the same socket. In the winter it wasn’t so hard becauseit was pretty much a local thing, the same people playing up anddown the street on different nights. But the truth was that goodblues were nearly impossible to find. Real music had packed offto Florida with the old boys. I had about decided the problemwas that people didn’t suffer the way they used to. I was an advocateof greater suffering for anyone who came through myclub. Bands these days were always hoping to be what they calledcrossovers, which meant that white college kids would start buyingtheir records, thinking they’d really tapped into something.People watered themselves down before they even got started.They thought if their blues were too blue there’d be nobody tobuy them since nobody, they figured, was interested in beingthat sad. When I took this job everybody said I’d be the right man forit. I was a musician so I’d know, run the kind of club a musicianwould like to be in. But when I started managing I stopped playing.I forgot what all of that was about and people around townforgot I ever was a drummer. I was running a club just like everybodyelse who was running a club. I was the guy who passed outthe money at the end of the night. I took the job managing Muddy’s at a time when things withMarion had come all the way around, from her doing everythingto please me to me doing everything to please her. I said I’d stopplaying and take on a regular job to show how steady I couldbe. I thought it was just for a while, like you always think somethingbad is for just a while. I figured I’d get her settled downand then I could go back to the band. I didn’t take into accountthat I might lose my nerve, all those nights in a bar when I waswatching instead of the one up there playing. I didn’t imaginehow that could undermine a person. Once you thought abouta beat instead of playing it you were as good as dead. Nothingcame naturally anymore. I could play at home when I was by myself,but as soon as somebody else was there my hands started tosweat. Then I just ditched it altogether. After Marion and Franklinwere gone, long past any hope I had of them coming home, Ikept my regular job as manager. It was all I knew how to do. When Marion took our boy to Miami last year she stopped callinghim Franklin and started calling him Lin, like she was in ahurry and there was no time to say his whole name. Sometimesshe called him Linny, like Lenny. It was her way of saying I didn’tknow him anymore, that anything that had come before was nogood, even his name. Sometimes I called him Frank, but Mariondidn’t like that one bit. If I called down there and asked to speakto Frank she’d act like she didn’t know who I was talking about.No Frank here, she’d say, and make like she was going to hang up. That was when I’d want to tell her that Lin was a pretty namefor a daughter but I’d called to talk to my son. I never said that.Marion had been known to hang up on me and when I calledback she didn’t answer. She had a million ways of keeping mefrom him that had nothing to do with me and Franklin and everythingto do with me and her. Marion was pissed off at me forwinding up how I did, which is to say, winding up like myself. When I pressed too hard for visits or a school year back inMemphis, she’d say that maybe Franklin isn’t my son. Nowhereon paper did it say he was mine, since she was mad at me theday she delivered and left the father slot on the birth certificateblank, like maybe so many people had been down that road therewas just no way of knowing. Franklin was my son. Marion waseighteen when he was born and for all her tough talk nine yearslater, I knew who she was then. Her face was wide open. Marionused to wait around for me while I was playing. She’d smile at meand turn her eyes away and laugh when I looked at her for toolong. She wasn’t screwing around and I wasn’t screwing around.We were good to each other back then. She liked me because I played drums in a band. One of themany reasons she didn’t like me later on. I wasn’t a centerpiece,no Max Roach, no showy genius like Buddy Rich, but I wasas solid a drummer as you were going to find and everybodywanted me. I made the other people look good. That’s what agood drummer does. He keeps everybody steady and paced. Heshines his light at just the right time. That was me. I was born drumming. My parents admit to that even thoughthey were never happy about it. I was asking to hold two spoonsfrom the time I knew how to hold one. I heard beats in everything,not just music, but traffic and barking dogs and mymother washing dishes. I heard it. That was who I was, big armsand loose wrists. Getting a set of drums just made things easier.Getting a band made them easier still. Twelve years old, I was sittingin with a bunch of high school boys. I knew, right from thestart. The band I was in when I took up with Marion was calledBreak Neck, now one hundred percent scattered. We playedmostly in Handy Park and when we couldn’t get in there weplayed down by the water until the cops ran us off. It was allhat passing then, decent money if you were on your own but ajoke once you carved it up in six directions. By the time we weregetting real jobs with real covers, we were already falling apart,changing out the bass player one week, going through three singersin a year. I left before the whole thing evaporated. I got anotherband and then another one. As soon as I could outplaythem I was gone.

Editorial Reviews

"Patchett writes with remarkable conviction."