The Altar of Her Love

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Erin Kemp worked for me. Quite a few years back, when I was in my 20s, I somehow ended up managing Hector’s, this college bar in the small, Midwestern city where I had been going to school, and Erin was the first employee that I hired to work in the place. If you had ever seen her, you would have understood why I picked her before anyone else, though, truth be told, her attractiveness was only an added plus. She ended up being the best worker I had.

She was really out of my league; I’ll be the first to admit it. Consequently, how we ever wound up together — even for the short time that we did — is kind of hard to understand. All I know is that it’s now more than 20 years later, and I still can’t get her out of my head. In the last few months, these really vivid images of her face keep popping up in my dreams, and I swear the sensory memory of kissing Erin’s lips is just one of the most evocative remembrances I have ever had.

It all came to fruition one Halloween night back in the 80s. We were both working that night, and it was a crazy, crazy evening — just about anything that could go wrong did go wrong. That Halloween, though it was one of the best nights of my life, was also probably the scariest, and ironically, being scared didn’t really have much of anything to do with Halloween.

Apparently, I must have handled my fear pretty well, because that was the night that Erin finally gave herself up to me, and I have a whole lot of asshole, college football players to thank for that. When that night rolled around, I had been tacitly pursuing her for 10 months, and then all of a sudden, the seas parted, and she walked straight into my arms.

But, just as suddenly, two months later, Hector’s was no more, and I was out of a job, and she was out of my life. I only saw her one more time after that. I’ll get to all of this, but first I want set the scene, so to speak — to give you some background about me, and how I met and came to know Erin Kemp.

Even now, I find it strange to think how I wound up in those circumstances. A series of events in my sorry, little life had conspired to bring me to Hector’s. It all started when I quit school about two years before I started working there. I was young and still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, and so, after four years of wasting my time taking classes that weren’t going to help me to graduate, it was the realization that I was actually wasting something in far shorter supply — money, that finally brought me to my senses.

I needed a job, so I took one at this restaurant downtown — The Bike Club Pub — where I started working as a bartender. Eventually, I found myself waiting tables in addition to bartending, and then a few months after that, I was promoted to assistant manager, and later to manager.

But how I wound up at Hector’s is a story that involved several other people’s fortunes, and those fortunes ended up affecting my own. Back in the day, my boss John Symons, Hector’s owner, had built it into this incredibly successful nightclub for the college crowd.

When I started school, it held a kind of revered place in the life of both the university and the city. It was located downtown, just a few blocks away from where The Bike Club Pub was born over a decade later, and when it came time to celebrate anything big that happened at UWEC, Hector’s became the go-to gathering spot.

After running the place for twelve or thirteen years, John sold it to a brother and sister team that used to work at Hector’s in a contract-to-deed deal, in which John essentially served as the bank for the two siblings. In essence, they made their monthly mortgage payments to him. Following that business deal, John bought The Bike Club Pub and started running it. In the three years since he had initiated that business, he had turned it into one of the most successful restaurants in Eau Claire.

Anyway, bottom line, the brother and sister didn’t know what they were doing, and after a couple of years of trying to keep the business above water, they couldn’t afford to pay their vendors anymore and eventually had to shutter the place. After a few months of not paying their mortgage, John had no choice but to repossess Hector’s from them. In the end, the deal probably cost him a lot of money, because the value of the business he had repossessed from them was pennies on the dollar compared to the value of the business he had sold them.

Considering that, he didn’t have much of a choice — he had to try to build Hector’s back up again, so that he could sell it a second time, and if and when he did sell it, he hoped to get back as much of its original value as possible. He didn’t really want to own the place, but in the short-term, he had to try turn Hector’s into a money-making enterprise all over again.

That’s where I came into the picture. John thought I might be good at running kozyatağı escort a nightclub, though I didn’t really want the responsibility either. He knew that I was really into music, and Hector’s had long been known as the place in town for bar bands. He thought I might like the challenge of booking those kinds of acts and then figuring out how to pull college kids in to hear them.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to take that chance. I knew I would eventually go back to school to finish up my degree, and it was only a matter of time until that happened. Still, at the moment, I had a good, solid position at The Bike Club Pub that paid me a decent salary and benefits. The pub was a business that was running on its own reputation. On the other hand, John’s offer to move me over to manage Hector’s was fraught with all sorts of uncertainty.

In its heyday, Hector’s was legendary. It could literally accommodate almost two thousand people, and ten years before that on certain weekend nights in the spring and the fall, it often drew that many. But in the three years since John had sold the place, new competitors had moved into the nightclub music scene in town, and now there was no guarantee that Hector’s could recover its lost glory. If that was going to happen, it seemed to me, it would be entirely up to me to make it so. I didn’t know if I wanted to go there.

For one thing, in my time managing The Bike Club Pub, I had become acutely aware of one of the harsh realities of business: in order to be successful, you have to give people what they want, and what they want is oftentimes not exactly the same thing as what you think they want, much less what they should want.

Hector’s was conceived as a nightclub featuring live music, and knowing that bands were the drawing card, I had to face the fact that the music that the college-aged patrons of places like Hector’s wanted to hear was about as far removed as possible from the music that I was interested in and would want to bring to such a place.

Making decisions with my heart instead of my head was, of course, a bad business strategy, and on this point, John knew that he and I did not exactly see eye-to-eye. John’s foremost concern was making money, and my foremost concern was good music. From those two disparate perspectives, it was hard to see a way forward on which we could agree. Still, I really thought that once people were exposed to good bands playing good music they’d be just as excited to hear them as they were to hear the commercial crap that was being played with infuriating regularity on radio stations throughout our area.

Anyway, at first I told John no, that I wanted to stay at The Bike Club Pub. But John was a persuasive guy, and he knew which of my buttons to push. At first, he had tried suckering me into doing it, telling me he needed me to move over to Hector’s, because he already had someone in mind to manage the pub — the assistant manager, Gary.

He felt that Gary wasn’t yet ready to manage a business all by himself without his assistance, and was especially unprepared to start up a new place. John didn’t mind pitching in to help at The Bike Club Pub, but he sure as hell didn’t want to spend his time at Hector’s — he was in his 40s at the time, and he certainly didn’t want to hang out with college students any more. Besides, he said, Gary didn’t know anything about music, and I did. I suspect he knew that probably wasn’t enough to change my mind, but that was John’s initial appeal, and as I said, it didn’t work.

Next, he upped the ante. In the beginning, he was just going to pay me the same thing I was getting at The Bike Club Pub, but when I turned him down, he figured he had to offer me something more to change my mind. He said he didn’t have any more money to offer, considering we were trying to start up a new and unproven business, not to mention how much value he had lost in the debacle with the siblings, but he pointed out that there was an apartment above the bar, and that if I took the job, he would let me live there for free.

I have to admit the free rent had something to do with me changing my mind, but I still wasn’t fully convinced. It seemed to me that I was the one taking the chances — I had a job that was secure, and I didn’t know if the same would be true if I moved over to Hector’s. Then again, if I didn’t move over to Hector’s, I didn’t know if my job working for John would be secure. I found myself stuck, caught in “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

Finally, John hit me with what he knew would work — he appealed to my artistic sensibilities. He already knew a lot about my musical tastes. John was a pretty cool guy, and he knew that I wasn’t interested in commercial crap.

In the years that I had been working at The Bike Club Pub, he had actually been relatively küçükyalı escort supportive of me piping some fairly unorthodox tunes through the stereo system we had there — jazz, rhythm and blues, country and folk, and occasionally some punk and alternative shit. He ended up considering the unorthodox stuff a kind of drawing card, something that set us apart from other taverns and restaurants and helped to draw in some hipper patrons. He just asked that I play the more “out there” stuff after the dinner rush, when a younger crowd of drinkers occupied the place, and as long as I did that, he pretty much let me spin whatever I wanted to play.

Knowing what he knew about my musical tastes, if I accepted the job, he said he’d give me free rein of the booking decisions about bands. There was only one exception. He knew that I was friends with the guys in a local band — The Phat Larry’s — that played pop, punk, new wave stuff. I had taken some classes with a couple of the guys in the band. Anyway, John had heard me talking about them enough times, and he figured that when I started deciding on musical acts to book, that was probably where I would begin. He was right about that.

But I knew The Phat Larry’s were good, and because we were friends, I wanted to help them. They didn’t really have a place to play around town. John, on the other hand, didn’t think that a punk/new wave band would catch on. I did. I suspected that they played enough catchy stuff that young kids who liked to dance would take to them, and because they were local and had a lot of friends that they knew from high school and college, they could draw pretty well. I was hoping that, given the chance, they would win over the rest of our potential clientele too and could ultimately draw big crowds at Hector’s. They just needed a regular place to play, and once they had one, I figured the college kids would keep coming back.

Anyway, John said that before I could book The Phat Larry’s on a regular basis, we would have to test the waters — have them play for tips the first time. If they drew enough people and got a good reception, I could bring them back for other appearances. John said they had to prove themselves to him. Consequently, the decision that was to be made after that test gig, he told me, was his and his alone.

But that was the only limitation that John put on my decision-making about entertainment. He really wasn’t the kind of guy that wanted to micromanage things, he made that clear, and he promised that all other booking choices would be up to me. When it came to The Phat Larry’s, I was pretty certain I would be proven correct, and so, if that was the only thing necessary to buy myself artistic freedom, I was fine with it.

Managing Hector’s was still a risk for me, but I decided that if I failed, I would just end up going back to school. That, I figured, was Plan B. In addition, I vowed that for the first time in my life I would do something frugal. I would take every penny that I had been paying in rent, and I would put that money in a savings account. My lifestyle wouldn’t change in the least, but in a year’s time, I figured I would have enough money saved to pay my way through my last year of college. I figured we could last at least that long.

Anyway, John took ownership of Hector’s on January 1st, and the next day, I moved in above the bar. My first job was getting the place looking half-way decent, and John and I talked about some simple upgrades that didn’t cost much and would give the establishment a fresh look. I spent a week painting, and installing some cheap decorative siding around different places in the interior, as well as adding some lighting fixtures around the outer bar area.

Then the following week, I started hiring my staff. We put some ads up on campus and in the school and local newspaper to attract college kids that needed a part-time job, and for the next two weeks, I interviewed new employees and began booking bands to play either Wednesday or Thursday through Saturday night stints.

The first person to call to ask about work was one Erin Kemp. I didn’t know the name, but I made an appointment to have her come in the next day, the first of four interviews I ended up conducting that afternoon.

About ten minutes to one the next day, I had just finished installing a set of wall sconces above the tables in the outer bar area and was screwing in halogen light bulbs when this really young-looking woman walked in the front door. I was up on a ladder, and I swear to God I almost fell off it only seconds after she opened the door.

It was really bright outside, one of those sunny, winter days that follow a major snowstorm when the snow is caked like sugary frosting over the top of everything — the grass, trees, and shrubs, as well as the houses, streets, cars, mutlukent escort and buildings, such that the sunlight is reflected everywhere, and it takes your pupils three or four seconds to regulate their aperture from the dimness of the artificially lit indoors to the blinding brilliance of natural light outside. When my eyes made the adjustment, what came into focus was perfection, an angel emerging from clouds, as if heaven had suddenly revealed itself to me.

It was a bitter cold day, so she was all bundled up, but I was impressed enough by that face that I think she got the job the moment she smiled and said, “Hi, you must be Tom Hitchens. I’m Erin Kemp. I’m here for my one o’clock interview.” I climbed down from the ladder, folded it, and moved it to the opposite wall. At the same time, Erin walked near the bar, looking around with innocent wonder at the place. Then, I came back and shook her hand which was covered in a black, leather glove. The leather was cold to my touch.

“Please, sit down”, I beckoned her with a wave of my arm, inviting her to take a seat at a table in the front corner right by a vent that was kicking out warm air. Before she sat down, she must have felt the heat, because she started peeling off layers of clothing and draping each across the other chair on her side of the four-top. For fairly obvious reasons, I was glad we sat at that table.

First, she removed her gloves, scarf, and a long winter coat, and finally a heavy sweater, revealing a white, satin, dress blouse that displayed just a hint of cleavage. Her blouse was tucked into a pair of black, dress slacks. Her slender waist and thin legs gave way to a pair of black heels. She was incredibly skinny, and I swear there wasn’t an ounce of fat on that girl’s body. She was probably about 5′ 3″ and almost certainly weighed less than 100 pounds, but what she lacked in size, she more than made up for in physical attractiveness.

She pulled an envelope out of the inside pocket of her knee-length tweed coat and handed it to me. It contained her resume, and three letters of recommendation from former employers. I quickly perused each, and as I did, she sat down. When I was done reading, I followed suit.

Erin had never worked in a bar before. Hell, she was barely old enough to enter one. But she had a fair amount of experience working in several service industry jobs, including a couple of restaurants, and just from my quick glance, I could see her recommendations were really solid. Besides, she was easy on the eyes.

“Well, thanks for coming in, Erin. Your resume and recommendations look really good, but I’ve got a few questions to ask, if you don’t mind.” I stared at her and smiled to relieve a little tension. I think I was probably more nervous than she was. I had never interviewed a female applicant that was as pretty as Erin Kemp.

“That’s what I’m here for. Go ahead, shoot. I think I’m ready”, she said, smiling back at me, her pale blue eyes twinkling with the reflected light from the halogen bulb that I’d just screwed in to the wall sconce above our table.

“Okay, well, how about a really obvious question for starters — why do you want to work at Hector’s?”

She grinned, and I noticed her dimples for the first time. God, she was cute! Her smile seemed to suggest she knew that I would ask that question, and I could tell she had prepared her answer. “Well, a number of people in my family, one of my cousins, and my two oldest sisters, went to school here at UWEC, and they were here almost a decade or so ago when this place was really hopping. When I decided to go here, they all said the same thing to me — ‘when you’re old enough, make sure you spend some time at Hector’s.’ They all said it was the best bar in town, and that I’d have a great time. For three years, I’d been waiting to come here… even thought about sneaking in a few times or getting a fake ID so I could get past the bouncer…” She paused. ” …maybe I shouldn’t have said that….” She stopped and giggled momentarily, and I used the pregnant pause to respond.

“You wouldn’t have been the first person to do that! In fact, you wouldn’t have been the first person sitting at this table to have done that! That was a few years ago, and I’ll confess; I had a hell of a lot of fun that night!”

“Good, I’m glad you said that. Now I don’t feel so bad about thinking that I would have done the same thing, even though I never did. I guess I look pretty young for my age. I just thought I’d get caught for sure….” She paused again. “Anyway, last fall when I turned 21, I was all ready to spend my birthday here, and then I found out it had just closed. I have to say, I was really disappointed. But then, two days ago, I read the ad in The Spectator and saw a flier on the bulletin board in the Student Center, and I thought, ‘that would probably be a good place to work.’ Anyway, that’s why I called. I guess I just think this place has a lot of history, and every story I’ve ever heard about it made it sound like it was so much fun. I thought that I wanted to be a part of that. Besides, I need a job. When I paid this semester’s tuition, I emptied my savings account. So, anyway, I’m broke! By working here, I’d kill two birds with one stone.”

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