As part of offering quality short fiction that moves readers, we present The Stein Collection, which received a first place award in the Carpe Diem Publishers annual short story contest. It was also recognized for excellence and published by Tyrannosaurus Press.
About the character: Kell is perhaps not what we would define as an entrepreneur so much as an opportunist. Nonetheless she laboriously sweats over finely crafted steins, which, not by coincidence have much to do with the drinking and dancing establishment she owns and operates. The author would share that there really is a Kell’s Restaurant and Pub with live music near the waterfront in Portland, OR. A lot of history surrounds the old brick establishment that sees gray rainy days more than sunny ones and still serves cold beer with tall tales on stormy nights.
THE STEIN COLLECTION
By Kathryn Mattingly
Sam stood in the rain listening to live band music and the clinking of glassware from Kell’s bar. Through the heavy paned window, she glimpsed elbow-to-elbow people on metal stools at a highly polished counter. Shelves jammed with bottles of liquor in every shape and size hung on the wall behind the bar. It was a cozy picture of a patron-filled pub on a Saturday night.
She peered in the adjacent window and saw the restaurant side of Kell’s, with its cloth-covered tables carefully arranged. Dreamy piano music escaped from the walls and lingered in the rain-soaked air with bass guitar sounds from the bar. Diners smiled politely at one another, unlike the crowd on the other side where laughs were hearty and tunes lively.
Between the restaurant and bar side of Kell’s stood a door. Sam looked through the window and saw a steep stairway. It appeared ominous in this dismal weather. Why couldn’t her fiancé Jake have met here as planned? Sam was doubly annoyed with him as she stood there in the rain, hesitating to go in. Did they really want their wedding reception in an old dance hall with a shaded past? Kell’s Bar was, however, enticingly trendy and rich with history. As the story went, Kell did away with a few too many customers before being forced to close in 1953. Sam pictured a huge Irishman, intimidating troublesome clients.
Closing her umbrella she unlocked the door with an old key Jake had stuck in an envelope and started up the stairs. Lightning struck and ensuing thunder shook the building as Sam climbed the narrow steps. Storms were not very common in Portland, and this was a particularly rowdy one. It made her edgy, but she had to check out the room, or Jake might think she’d been too afraid. She already heard him laughing at her. Proud of himself for planting a seed of fear with his maudlin tales about the second floor dance hall.
Rain drummed on the roof as she paused to catch her breath on the last step. Straight ahead there was a dimly lit room filled with tables and a bar set against the wall. The wooden floor was worn and dull. A woman was perched on a barstool sipping beer from a heavy stein. She looked lost in thought. Was this room available for employees on their break from the restaurant downstairs?
On a shelf behind the bar was an unusual set of heavy beer steins, similar to the one the woman drank from. There were at least a dozen of them, each different and unique, but blending impressively as a collection. The array of shapes and sizes made quite an effect lined up on the shelf. Yellow-shaded lamps gave them an eerie glow.
The room was just the right size for a small reception, and Sam liked the atmosphere despite the storm’s surreal affect. The strange woman continued to sip on her beer and gaze into space. Sam gathered her nerve and sat at the bar a few chairs down.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, but Jake didn’t tell me there’d be anybody here,” Sam admitted.
The woman turned her head and looked clear through Sam, who couldn’t help but notice the woman’s striking features. She was a voluptuous blonde and wore a black calf-length skirt that hinted of long toned legs. A white silk-blouse cut impressively low finished the classic look.
“You’re no bother. Want a beer?” she asked, with a slight upward turn of her blood-red lips. The crimson shade complimented her creamy complexion perfectly.
“Sure,” Sam answered. She watched the woman gracefully slide behind the bar.
“I’m thinking of renting this room for my wedding reception,” Sam offered up, hoping to break the icy air between them. “It’s just the right size.” Sam glanced around again. “I’m sure it would hold a hundred people. The billiard room over there would be great for setting up food.”
The strange but striking woman plucked one of the shimmery steins off the shelf. She filled it with frothy beer from a tap that flowed generously as she pushed the white pearl handle firmly. Her blonde hair fell to her shoulders, turning under at the ends in a classy sort of way. She set the beer in front of Sam, and their eyes locked in a mutual stare. This time the woman didn’t look past Sam, but focused on her through long sweeping lashes. Her eyes were a soft shade of blue and hinted of sad tales. Looking into them was like trying to find something in a fog. The woman didn’t have a young face, but it was far from old. It was seemingly ageless.
“What a beautiful stein,” Sam commented, feeling very brunette and with no special attributes to distinguish her wholesome good looks.
The woman smiled. “It’s from my private collection. You like them?”
“Yes, very much. My name is Samantha Roberts, by the way.”
The woman hesitated and then shook her hand. “I’m Kelly Malone, better known as Kell. This whole place used to be mine. The bar, the restaurant, and this here dance hall.” Kell slid back onto her stool. She pointed to the far corner of the bar. “That’s where the band set up. Best fiddlers you ever heard. They’d start slow and easy about nine p.m. and by eleven there’d be a dancing frenzy going on.”
Sam wondered how she could be the original Kell. It would certainly take a crafty woman to make belligerent drunks disappear forever. “When did this quit being a dance hall?” Sam inquired.
“Long time ago.” Kell sighed gloomily.
“When did you decide to rent it out for wedding receptions?” Sam further inquired, but Kell didn’t hear the question.
“Businessmen used to flock here when they were in town,” she commented.” We had a reputation all over Portland.”
“I know Kell’s bar is sure popular with the college crowd nowadays,” Sam mentioned.
Kell didn’t acknowledge Sam’s comment. “Most of the men who came here only had a few beers. They’d dance for a little while and then return to their motel rooms or homes if they lived nearby,” she said as if in a trance.
“Was there a live band every night?” Sam asked, deciding to go along with Kell’s nostalgic mood.
“Wednesday through Sunday. We closed Monday’s and Tuesday’s.” Kell grinned wickedly. “I paid half a dozen girls every night to dance with the men. That was my secret, feisty girls that kicked up their heels. It brought men in like bees to honey.”
“Really? Girls danced here?” Sam liked the romantic idea of that.
“You bet. Of course, sometimes the men drank too much and tried to woo my little dancers out the door and to their rooms.”
Sam took a long swig of her beer. “What if the girl wanted to go with him?”
“Not an option.” Kell slammed down her stein. “I paid them to dance. Not to find a boyfriend or make a little extra money on the side.”
“I see.” Sam raised an eyebrow as that sunk in. She watched Kell refill their steins from the pearl handled tap, confused about who this Kell really was, and when this dance hall last operated.
“Sometimes,” Kell said while staring Sam right in the eye from across the counter, “I had to take matters into my own hands. Not often mind you, but sometimes.” Her dreamy blue eyes drifted out the window where the wind howled, slamming rain into the glass. Old beams creaked above their heads. A shiver ran down Sam’s back. It was creepy to be here alone with Kell, who was scarier than the storm.
“How did you do that, exactly? I mean, take matters into your own hands?”
Kell ran slender fingers up and down the beer stein as if caressing it. “I invited them to my apartment.” She nodded her head toward the back of the dance hall. “Down the back stairs, beside the furnace. The caretaker used to live there. You know, the guy who shoveled the coal and stoked the furnace. ” Her eyes glowed, as if on fire with past memories.
Sam looked at her curiously. “You’d invite rowdy drunks to your apartment?”
“Oh, I would calm them down first.” Kell tossed her blonde hair. “I’d give them a drink on the house. And it always had a sedative in it.” She grinned like a Cheshire cat.
Sam tried to imagine Kell shoving a drugged beer into a drunk’s hand, and luring him to her private quarters before he crashed in the middle of the dancehall.
“You drugged him? And then what?”
And then I would let him sleep it off on my sofa.”
“How clever of you.” Sam wondered if she might be that gutsy one day. She realized running a dance hall must have been difficult. Just like everything is when wine and women are involved, or men and beer… and dancing. Rowdy knee stomping swing around the floor heated up and liquored down dancing. It must have been a dizzy delight to see on a hot Saturday night.
Kell slid onto her shiny metal stool and ran a blood red fingernail around the rim of her stein. The nail polish matched her lipstick perfectly.
“This building takes up a whole city block. Did you know that?” Kell tipped her head and a lock of hair fell across one well-formed cheekbone.
“It’s an old brick monstrosity, for sure.” Sam agreed.
“I remember when they kept that coal-eating furnace behind my kitchen revved up so hot Id cook dinner in just my panties and a bra.” Kell laughed, and her trance-like state evaporated. Color ran through her cheeks as she continued. “I like a good hot fire though, don’t get me wrong. Pottery is my hobby. Nothing like a good hot fire for that.”
Sam was amazed. “You make pottery?”
“Sure do,” Kell admitted.
Taking a long sip of her icy beer Sam examined the stein it was served in. There was a solid gold edge around the rim, and when she held it up to the light little metal flecks sparkled and winked at her. “Did you make this ceramic stein?” Sam asked, knowing it was an incredible thought.
“I surely did.” There was pride in her eyes. Waving a hand across the neat row of elaborately designed ceramic ware, she indicated the stein collection was created by her own hands.
Sam was amazed to learn Kell had a passion for ceramics. Her long slender fingers and blood red nails didn’t indicate abuse. It boggled her mind as she observed the steins. Each one shimmered and caught the light, as if little shooting stars were melded into the glaze. “What makes the shiny metal specks?” she asked curiously.
“I melted down old jewelry to get that effect. I once had a steady source of it.”
The stein Sam drank from was the only one with a gold rim. “This edge must have taken a lot of melted jewelry,” Sam commented.
“A pocket watch.” Kell laughed. “Keep it… the stein. It’s yours. Consider it a little souvenir from our chance meeting on this godforsaken night.”
Kell drank the last of her beer just as lightning struck outside the window. Thunder rambled right through Sam’s chest as the yellow-shaded lamps went out. The dancehall became dark. Only a steady downpour on the roof could be heard.
“Kell? Are you there?” The hair on the back of Sam’s neck stood on end as she stumbled off the barstool, the stein held tightly against her chest, as if to protect her from the pitch black. She made her way slowly to the front stairs.
“Kell? I’m leaving now!” She shouted above the rain blowing sideways into the window, as if it were a hungry wolf trying to enter and devour her. “It was nice meeting you! Thanks for this beautiful stein!” There was no response. Somehow Sam knew there wouldn’t be.
Shaking from a damp chill in the air, or maybe from fear, Sam stumbled clumsily down the stairs and looked out the door. Water was backed up from the storm drains, and rushed along the street gutters. But the gods had quieted. All she heard was live music and cheery voices coming from next door.
Wandering into Kell’s bar Sam felt dazed but delighted by the candles lit everywhere and the friendly laughter. They too were without electricity. Drinks were on the house. The storm seemed to have bonded customers.
“Do you always bring your own beer stein?” The bartended asked, grinning.
Sam looked down at the stout mug held tightly to her chest. “No. This was a gift.” She looked right into the bartenders green eyes. “From the blonde woman upstairs. Do you know who she is?”
“I have no idea who’s up there. What can I get you to drink?”
Sam set her stein down on the bar. “Nothing, thanks. What do you know about the original Kell? Was he a big Irishman?” She longed for the answer to be yes, a huge Irishman with curly red hair and his mama’s gift for song.
“Irishman? Nah, Kell was a beautiful blonde woman. History has it she was ferocious about watching out for her dance hall girls.” He shrugged while mixing drinks and added, “Supposedly, she had a way of getting rid of troublesome drunks permanent-like.”
“So I’ve heard.” Sam began chewing on a fingernail, thinking of Kell. Hers had been painted blood red, long and pointy, like little weapons.
“Well, I don’t know how true the tale is, but they say she drugged unruly clients and escorted them out the door – never to be seen or heard from again. Finally one too many drunks disappeared and the cops closed it for good.” The bartender glanced her way and winked. Was he making it all up? Or did the idea of a beautiful blonde serial killer amuse him?
The lights went back on and everyone cheered. The bartender continued his story. “When they cleaned out that big ole coal furnace to put in gas, a few suspicious looking bone fragments were mixed in the ashes. Sure enough, they were human.”
“Really?” Sam stared at her stein.
“Really. Now some say Kell was too delicate to heave a big man into the furnace, but others thought perhaps Lewis helped in exchange for some free bar food.” He leaned on the counter, close to Sam. “Lewis was a large black man who shoveled coal in exchange for a cot to sleep on.”
The bartender began mixing drinks again, his story flowing like Irish whiskey. “Of course, some thought Lewis was the culprit cooking the bodies after he found them sleeping in the alley and robbed them blind. Burning up the evidence, you might say. And there was a pawn shop around the corner where some thought he exchanged wedding rings and watches and such, for cold hard cash.”
“So no one ever found anything to convict Lewis or Kell with?” Sam asked.
“Nope. And one day she got her own just desserts. She disappeared herself. Some think Lewis did her in because the beautiful Kell was love struck by a gent one night and tried to break her own rules. She waltzed right out the door with a patron.”
Others at the bar were listening in by now, fascinated with the story. Some smiled knowingly, as if they’d heard the preposterous tale before. The bartender was in his element. Spinning yarn with gusto while serving drinks cold and fast.
“Lewis was said to be furious, ‘cause he was smitten with Kell himself. So out of jealously he did her in on a stormy night like no other. Except maybe for this one.”
Everybody at the bar stared into their beer. One little old man drummed his fingers on the counter. Nobody spoke, but several patrons nodded as if they’d been present when it all happened – if it happened.
Or was it Irish folklore, Portland style?
Sam caressed the gold-edged stein. She thought about how Kell mentioned a steady source of jewelry. Was it from the pawnshop nearby? Or from robbing drugged men before she and Lewis tossed them into the fire? The furnace room was right there on the other side of her kitchen, afterall. Sam could see Kell pushing with all her might to shove the limp body into the stove, wearing only her bra and panties, while Lewis helped steady and lift the dead weight. Did they sit around her cozy kitchen afterwards, gobbling down leftovers from the bar?
“They say she haunts the place on stormy nights. Hovering and fretting over those steins like she did her dancehall girls.” The bartender laughed.
He’d obviously never run into Kell, or maybe she was just a setup, and he was in on it. If it was a joke, it was a damn good one. Kell was spookier than hell. Sam grinned back, said thanks for the folklore, grabbed her stein and slid out the door onto the street. The rain had stopped and the air had a fresh scent. She glanced up at the dance hall windows. It was dark on the second story.
Sam took the metal key from her pocket. Maybe the lights would turn on if she flipped the switch inside the door. She had to see that stein collection one more time. Now that the storm had cleared, she felt braver. Sam had to know if she’d been duped by Jake and whoever else was in on the fun. But the key wouldn’t open the door. That was odd. It opened easily the first time. Sam toyed with the lid on her stein. This one got away. In fact, unlike her dancehall girls, Kell had given it away. Glancing up at the second story window one last time, she thought she saw the blinds shift.
Sam stuck the stein protectively in her coat and headed for the car, thinking it might be fun to have her wedding reception in a haunted dancehall, giving her the last laugh. Unless of course, Jake had nothing to do with her unbelievable evening, in which case, unlike most brides, she would pray for rain. Maybe she’d see Kell again, and thank her for the priceless wedding gift.