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'Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club' is J. Ryan Stradal's love letter to his mother

J. Ryan Stradal. (Courtesy of Franco Tettamanti)
J. Ryan Stradal. (Courtesy of Franco Tettamanti)

Host Robin Young speaks with author J. Ryan Stradal about his new novel “Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club.” The book centers around three generations of women connected to a family-owned supper club in upper Minnesota.

The cover of “Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club.” (Courtesy)

Book excerpt: ‘Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club’

By J. Ryan Stradal

One

Mariel, 1996

Mariel Prager believed in heaven, because she’d been there once, so far. She’d like to report that it looks an awful lot like Minnesota. The next best place to heaven, in her experience, was a type of restaurant found in the upper Midwest called a supper club. When she walked into a good one, she felt both welcome and somewhere out of time. The decor would be old-fashioned, the drinks would be strong, and the dining experience would evoke beloved memories, all for a pretty decent price.

Since she was a kid, Mariel had spent countless days at Floyd and Betty’s Lakeside Supper Club on scenic Bear Jaw Lake, Minnesota. The place wasn’t particularly scenic itself, just a one-story brown wooden building with bright red front doors and tall windows on the side facing the lake. The sign outside read fine dining at a fine value since 1919, and because everyone trusts neon, fulfilling that promise was the duty of the owner, which, for the past two weeks, had been Mariel. On her watch, a proper supper club meal began with a free relish tray and basket of bread, followed by a round of brandy old-fashioneds, and then a lavish amount of hearty cuisine, with fish on Fridays, prime rib on Saturdays, and grasshoppers for dessert.

Before he died, Mariel’s grandpa Floyd had told her that she was ready to take over sole ownership, but this morning, she wished that someone else-anyone else-were in charge instead. After locking the front door of her house, Mariel wanted to hurl her body into the lake and float away.

For a long time, she’d simply managed the Lakeside’s bar. It was a job she’d kept since becoming the owner, because it was the greatest watering hole in the north. It was loud and smoky, her hands were never dry, she never sat down, and she loved it. Every summer weekend, the horseshoe-shaped bar and its wood-paneled lounge were packed with people fresh from fishing boats and softball games and cars that had driven up from the Cities. It was a place where people chose to be on the most memorable nights of their lives, and it was a pleasure to be at the center of it all.

After what happened last night, though, she wasn’t up for any of it, but that didn’t matter. If she wasn’t standing behind the bar when it opened at 5:00 p.m., people would talk.

Mariel’s quiet, peaceful commute to work had always been her favorite part of the day. From door to door, it took exactly fifty-four seconds-the time it takes to make a perfect old-fashioned-to walk at an ordinary pace down her driveway, across a county road, up the gravel shoulder, and into the paved parking lot. It had her two favorite smells, the sharp, earthy tang of pine trees on one end, and the stubborn mix of stale cigarette smoke and fry grease on the other, smells she’d always associated with belonging and pleasure. If she spotted an animal en route, she’d give it a name, like that day, when she saw a squirrel she named Pronto. Most important, if she could make it from home to the supper club without any interruption, it’d be a good day, guaranteed. The day before, her husband, Ned, stopped her in the driveway to kiss her before he left for the weekend, and it had been the worst day in a long time.

That morning, Mariel almost made it. She was a few steps into the Lakeside’s parking lot when someone ruined her day.

“Mariel!” a woman’s voice bellowed from a white station wagon. It was Hazel, the oldest of her regulars from the bar.

Mariel sighed, and turned to face her. “How ya doing, Hazel?”

“Better than I deserve,” Hazel replied. “So, where’d you go last night? You just up and vanished on us.”

“I was feeling sick, so I went home early.” That’s all Hazel needed to know.

“Oh, jeez. Food poisoning?”

Mariel just decided to nod.

Hazel responded with a brief, exaggerated grimace. “Well, you look all right today. By the way, nice T-shirt.”

Mariel had to look down to remember what she was wearing. It was a Bruce Springsteen concert shirt from sixteen years ago. Maybe the last time she’d been to a concert.

“Thanks. Well, I should get to work.”

“One more thing. Your mother called me. She needs a ride home from church, and wants to know if you can do it.”

Mariel hadn’t seen her mother for more than a decade, until two weeks before at Floyd’s burial and wake. They’d made eye contact, briefly, but still hadn’t spoken to each other.

“Why didn’t she just call me?” Mariel asked.

“She said she tried three times, and it rang and rang.”

Mariel had been to see her doctor that morning, so it’s possible her mother’s claim was true, but when she’d been at home, no one had called.

“Why can’t whatever friend she’s staying with just drive her?” The last Mariel heard, her mother had been hopping around the guest rooms of various childhood friends since Floyd’s funeral. The fact that Florence hadn’t gone back home to Winona by now was unsettling. Something was up.

“She specifically wanted you.” Hazel looked pleased, which was a bad sign. “I’ve known your mom for sixty years. It’s time, Mariel. At our age, none of us knows how much time we have.”

Mariel hated it when older people played that card, especially on behalf of other older people. In her experience, it was true of everyone, at every age.

“I’ll think about it.”

Was she really going to do this today? She noticed a yellow-bellied sapsucker in the tree above, its red-capped head darting around, no doubt planning even further destruction of her trees in its godless little mind. Then she noticed another, one branch above. Maybe they were gathering their forces, and would soon descend in a cute fog of pestilence, and wipe out the forests, the buildings, the people, everything. Then it would be a lot quieter around here, and she could finally have a relaxing Saturday.

“Don’t think too long,” Hazel laughed. “Can’t keep Florence Stenerud waiting.”

Despite not living anywhere near Bear Jaw for fifty years, Mariel’s mother was still widely known, somehow loved, and often feared there. It was well known that anyone who disappointed Florence in the slightest, anyone who inconvenienced her or failed to meet her expectations, would have a swarm of baseless rumors unleashed after them in retaliation. Consequently, Mariel was certain that not collecting her mother in a timely fashion from the Our Savior’s Lutheran Church pancake breakfast would mean half the town would soon hear that Mariel had been badly injured in a car accident, or was trapped beneath a fallen tree, or had caught a rare, incurable illness, or was getting a divorce, or some heady cocktail of the above.

Mariel checked her watch. It was ten o’clock. “How long do I have, Hazel?”

“The pancake breakfast goes until eleven, but she’d like to be picked up by ten thirty.”

“Okay, I’ll do it,” Mariel said, surprising even herself.

When thinking of how she’d eventually speak with her mother, Mariel had long imagined a tear-streaked deathbed reconciliation, followed by a few decades of regret, and that sounded fine. But maybe it was time, as Hazel said. Mariel was bound for a bad day anyway.

Excerpted from Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club by J. Ryan Stradal. Copyright © 2023 by J. Ryan Stradal. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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