Miller's Memories--a Tap Room Short.

Miller sits at the bar stool, half-nursed beer in hand and wears the bedraggled look of an executive. He pours over numbers while he waits. He’s heavy, carries corporate weight like a Pakistani rickshaw donkey. If you could strip him from his spreadsheets and focus groups, if you could rub him raw, he’d tell you about Somalia. Sometimes he feels the wind on the back of his neck and remembers the gales off the coast in 1993. His unit circled the ports of Mogadishu for twenty-five days and tried to convince the locals that hope can be restored at the fire end of a rifle. He was 19 that October, contemplated body armor sizes and extraction details on the night those two Blackhawks were shot down. He remembers the cold sweats in the mess hall.

Miller might also tell you about the worst itch he’s ever had. He’d tell you about that old country church poised on the banks of the Cossatot. One Sunday, when he was four, he stripped naked and swam in the river while a murder of crows gawked on the opposite bank. Miller’s brother stood on rocks over Miller’s right shoulder and squared an old bird in the iron sights of his BB gun. He was a poor shot so he missed badly, but the bb ricocheted off the embankment and kissed the black-eyed gawker in the beak. The crow gave Miller’s brother a cross-wise glare and then the whole lot of death omens silently lifted from the banks and flew over the boys, peppering them with bird droppings. The boys ran into the field, snaking on their bellies to wipe off the excrement, and in the process they both picked up a mess of seed ticks. It was oatmeal baths and Calamine for weeks after that.

If you made it through all of that, if you asked him what keeps him awake at night, he’d tell you that he fears forgetting how to feel. His memories are fading—the memories of cold sweats, blackberry seeds in bird diddle, the itch of ticks, and the smell of Calamine. The factitious cares of economics have ruined him, he might say.

But as I sidle my own baggage up next to his, Miller extends his hand and tells the bartender to bring me a pint. We’ve been friends for a few seasons now, so we exchange tolerable pleasantries and let the unsaid stay unsaid.

But I know Miller. And Miller knows me.

Tap Room -- Second Fermentation (Part 2)

This is a continuation of a short story by my friend Kevin Still.  It feels real, and I'm enjoying his words.  Read part 1 here.  Good work on this Tap Room submission, Kevin (looking forward to the next couple of parts).  Keep us looking for that one-time glory._____________________________________________________________________

Alan wondered if his new river-loving friend here at the Tap Room might smoke weed. He’d never tried that. Always wanted to, though. She held her glass up to Alan for a toast, “But you can’t blame a girlfriend for caring. And sometimes you just got to let a woman talk her fill, right?” Alan picked up his glass, clinked hers, and drained the final bit of his beer. Yes, Alan thought, looking at the lady sitting beside him. Sometimes it’s good to just let a woman talk.

Not like the bastard in the parking lot yesterday, the one that flagged Alan down as he left the Mexican restaurant. Alan loved good enchiladas verdes, and this place served the best he’d found. He was always careful to take one enchilada, covered in thick green sauce, home for lunch the next day. The only thing better than fresh enchiladas verdes was day old enchiladas verdes, after that green sauce had time to marinate and fester and wallow in itself overnight. Alan had his leftovers in the passenger seat. He wanted to get them home and in the fridge quickly. He had a fear of meat sitting out too long. And then, sure as flies laying maggots, a guy with a broken down Crown Victoria flagged him for help.

Alan stopped his car, looked around the parking lot, and realized they were alone. Reluctantly, he rolled the driver side window down. A middle-aged man in khaki shorts and a button-down Banana Republic shirt covered in palm trees started towards Alan’s car but stopped half way, leaving a good six-foot clearance between the two men. “Sir, thank you. Thank you for stopping. You wouldn’t believe how shitless the people are around here to help a stranger.” The man, easily twice Alan’s age, was sweating more profusely than he’d ever seen a man sweat. He wondered if drugs were involved. Or torture by cartel. The man looked rough.

Alan did not want to get involved, but then he heard himself ask, “What do you need?”

“Sir, I just need a jump, just charged enough to get across the street. I’ve even got my own cables.”

Alan looked out the passenger-side window and saw an Auto Zone on the corner. He looked down at his leftovers, packed in Styrofoam, the meat growing warmer by the minute, bacteria setting in, illness, all that beautiful green sauce gone to hell for a dead battery. Not to mention, Alan knew this “jump-my-battery” routine was a typical ploy to rob people stone blind. He’d seen it on TV. Fellas put on a semi-nice shirt, drench themselves in salt water, stand by a car and flag down some big-hearted Samaritan with a wife and two kids. The Samaritan jumps out, leaves the car running, and then gets smacked square in the forehead with a tire iron while feeling good about himself. The wife and kids get dropped off – maybe, or maybe they’re taken hostage – and the Samaritan is left on the ground hating himself and the Bible stories he rode in on, and for what? Alan ran all this through his mind, looking down at his leftovers with nowhere to go but his empty refrigerator. Screw it, Alan thought. If this guy gets me, he gets me. More power to him. In fact, I hope he tries. I want him to try. I want to know which side of the head a guy like this works on before taking another man’s car.

Without speaking, he pulled his Forerunner beside the Crown Victoria, hood to hood. He killed the ignition and jumped out, leaving his car door open. The man already had his own hood up, one end of the jumper cables attached to his own battery and the other end clanking together, sparking carelessly in the air. Alan wondered for a half-second if the guy would knock him down, attach the cables to his chin and left nipple, then leave Alan’s body flapping like a shored up bluegill as he drove away with Alan’s car.

Curiosity made Alan move closer to the sweaty-man. He smelled like cat piss.

A moment later the cables were attached. “I just bought this damn battery. Spent $94 on it at that same Auto Zone. I think my alternator is out, draining the battery.” Alan didn’t know what the man was talking about. He knew nothing about cars. He thought this might be street talk for hope-you-like-the-sound-of-this-fancy-sounding-car-jabber-before-you-get-jacked, Jack. “Think you could rev up your engine for me, sir?”

Alan gazed at the old man, held his eyes. He wanted to say, “What’s with the ‘sir’?” Or better yet, “You do it. You climb in my car and rev it up. Car’s empty. I’m not even sure you hooked them batteries up right. What say I stand straight, plum over them and find out. Just toss me my leftovers as you drive away.”

But Alan knew the moment had passed. The batteries were attached. The man was kind. Grateful. Still, Alan imagined explosions. The sweaty-man behind Alan’s steering wheel covered in glass and upholstery.

Alan climbed in the driver’s seat of his Forerunner and keyed the ignition. The sweaty-man gave him a thumbs-up, smiling like a Southern Baptist over fried chicken.

“You a Boston fan?” the sweaty-man asked as Alan climbed down and closed the door. The man reached up and fingered towards his own forehead to indicate Alan’s Red Sox cap.

Instinctively, Alan grabbed the brim and tugged it down on his forehead. Aubrey had bought the cap for him years ago, before the twins were born, back when Alan decided that all American men should drink Budweiser and watch baseball. Aubrey laughed when he said things like this. “Tell me again, why not the Cardinals? Don’t they play in Budweiser-land?” she asked when she gave him the Boston cap as a gift. “Maybe I like Boston because I like Irish music,” he answered. “You talk baseball like my sister picks shoes,” she laughed, “you match your hobbies to their accessories.”

Alan stopped thumbing his hat and crossed his arms over his chest. “Hell, I don’t keep up with baseball. Didn’t even keep up with it when I said I was keeping up with it. This is just an old hat.”

The sweaty-man kept smiling and sweating. “1975. I was in Cincinatti. Saw the Reds play the Red Sox in a World Series game.”

Without noticing it was not his car, Alan leaned back on the Crown Victoria. “Is that so?”

“Oh yeah. Went with my brother.” The sweaty-man checked the cables and wiped his brow with the bottom of a palm tree. “Great game. Saw Pete Rose play. Will never forget it.”

There was a silence. The car engines hummed between them. A few people came out of the Mexican restaurant. A family. Father, mother, three kids and a grandmother. Mom walked grandma. The kids jumped and ran circles around the car. They all had Styrofoam boxes. Kids can never sit still for long, and they never eat their food. The sight of them lit a match in Alan’s chest. He looked away and fidgeted with his hat again. He wanted his new friend here to keep talking.

“Who won?” Alan asked.

“The game in Cincinatti?”

“No. The Series.”

The sweaty-man laughed. “Hell, you really don’t know anything about baseball. Reds won. Took the title in the seventh game. I wasn’t there, but my brother and me were home listening on the radio and wearing our Reds hats.”

“You guys have a big hurrah that night? Get blitzed and dance around the house in red underwear and hats?” Alan felt clever. He could hear the kids in the parking lot behind him. One kid said to another kid “no, you’re dog poop.” The father yelled at all three of them to get in the car.

The sweaty-man paused, looking at Alan, appreciation dropped to pity in the man’s face. “Sure, kid. Sure. We kicked back some Schiltz’s and celebrated on the porch. Slapped each other with our hats. We were brothers. We were happy.”

“Sure,” Alan added, still feeling clever. “Damn right, you partied. Should of taken money off folks for a game like that.”

The sweaty-guy leaned over Alan’s hood, a few rogue beads of salt-water dropped off his chin onto the radiator. “Know what else we did that night, kid?”

Alan checked the family getting into their cars. Mom was closing grandma in the driver’s passenger door. All the kids were inside, probably still yelling. Probably still getting yelled at. Alan turned back to the man with the dead battery and shrugged.

“We burned our Cinncinati hats that night. Burned them in a barrel behind the house.”

“Why the hell for?” Alan asked. “Too much Schlitz?”

“My brother and me decided you can’t stick with the winners always. You can’t have the winning team two years in a row. The glory happens one time. And we didn’t wanna chance the Reds winning the Series in ’76.”

The car hummed. Alan heard voices behind him, but did not turn to look.

“Did they? The Reds?”

The sweaty-guy laughed and moved towards the Crown Victoria. He called over the hood, “Let’s just say my brother and me didn’t look like posers when the Yankees limped home the next year. Cinncinatti was a mighty loud place for three or four days. And they had reason to be. We even bought new caps for the Series, then burned those, too.”

This was strange talk over broken batteries, Alan thought. Too much like father-son bullshit to pluck out of the air in a Mexican food parking lot.

The sweaty-guy started the Crown Victoria and let out a yelp. Alan released the cables from his battery and handed them to the other man. Feeling awkward, wanting to leave, Alan slammed his carhood and heard himself ask, “Your brother and you catch many games after the ’75 and ‘76 series? I’m sure you did.”

The sweaty-guy closed his driver’s door and leaned out the window. “Sure, we saw plenty,” he said. “Went to Kansas City. Saint Louis. Milwaukee. Back to Cincinatti a few times.”

“What’s the next game you guys gonna catch?”

The sweaty-guy looked towards Auto-Zone, illuminating with orange and white lights. He looked back and smiled at Alan. “Benny passed away ten years back. Brain tumor. It was a long road there for the family. I tried to go to a few games after that. Tried to take his kids. But it never worked out. I quit going, quit taking them after awhile.” He looked at Alan and smiled, “Maybe glory really does happen only one time.”

Alan dropped his eyes, fingered for his keys in his pocket and realized his car was running. The enchiladas were probably pretty warm by now. He needed to get them in the fridge, so he turned to his driver’s door.

The Tap Room - Second Fermentation (Part 1)

Welcome Back to the Tap Room series.  Today, Kevin Still gives the Tap Room a little more depth, a little more character, and a little more edge.  I love what he's done here with the characters, how he's made this a decidedly real setting.  Please spend some time with his words, think about what he's weaving. Make sure to catch up on all of the previous Tap Room posts here.  And while you're at it, visit his site here (great movie reviews, Kev). Now, without further delay, welcome back to the tap room.

[parental warning: there's a wordy-dord or two here if you are the type that is easily offended]. _________________________

“The recipe calls for a batch of dry hops in the second fermentation,” she said, pulling a pint glass towards her face. “But I think I can live without it. Spend all that time cleaning shit out of the first batch just to throw it back in on the second run? Doesn’t make any sense. I say screw the recipe.”

She stopped talking long enough to take a swig of her beer, bright orange with white belt laces marking her sips along the insides of the glass, and Alan marveled again at how much she looked like a man. An old man. He even found himself second-guessing her with his eyes. Checking her profile. Her chest. She hadn’t said her name – its name – yet. And he wondered.

“What do you think?” she asked, rubbing her mouth with the back of her hand.

“Yeah. No, yeah, I agree,” Alan said. “If a second fermentation does anything, it filters out the crud. You gotta keep it loose till bottling.”

She smacked Alan’s arm, “I’m talking!” He guessed she was agreeing; at least, her voice was full of enthusiasm and she was smiling. He did not know this woman. She was already at the Tap Room bar when Alan sat down for a pint. Five minutes later they were talking beer recipes and fermentation cycles, which Alan knew nothing about. He bluffed his way through the brewing conversation. She didn’t seem to notice, or mind, and Alan appreciated the distraction. He came looking for a quiet afternoon. He found a chatterbox working through a solid beer buzz instead. And he liked her instantly.

She swatted at the bartender walking by, the one who tried to put money on the High Definition tennis match playing over the bar. Thumbing a gesture at Alan she said, “Dale, this guy knows what I’m talking about. He said skip the dry hops, too. Shit, pour him another something good.”

The bartender looked at Alan. “You ready for another beer?”

“How about a burger?”

“And how you want that?” “Cheddar. Everything on it. Could you burn the meat?”

The bartender flittered his eyebrows in amusement. “Alright, cheddar, everything, burn the meat. I think we can do that.”

Alan thanked him and sipped his pint.

“I tell you though,” she started again, “only thing I love more than beer is being on the river.” Alan turned to listen but saw a waitress over her shoulder. Bouncing between tables, the waitress was pretty. Maybe nineteen or twenty. Short skirt. Long socks. Firm thighs. She was tall. Light brown hair fell over her collar while a thin line of skin shown beneath her chin. Alan wondered what she smelled like up close, imagined the softness of her neck. The sight of the young waitress made Alan swirl back towards his glass.

“My brother and I kayak once every three months,” she was still talking. “Shit, I came in town today to pick up some camping equipment at REI. Bought two new pairs of running shoes on sale while I’s at it. My girlfriend nearly bleeds everytime I come to town. She knows, even though I’m coming to get more camping gear, that I hit the Tap Room while I’m at it. Do it everytime. How could I not? And she knows I have three pints before driving back to Kinston. But, hell, it’s a straight shot. So.”

Alan thought her voice sounded like she’d stopped smoking five years before but ten years too late. He suddenly wanted a cigarette. He didn’t even smoke, but he wanted something that would burn his throat. He wondered if his new friend smoked Winstons. His dad had smoked Winstons, which meant Winstons were the first cigarette Alan tried. Twelve years old, he and his friend Michael hocked a pack from his dad’s carton on top of the fridge and skittered down to the woods behind the house. They didn’t know how to inhale, so they puffed in and puffed out, feigning coughs every few breaths. Alan remembered the way they leaned back against the trees, crossing their arms over their chests and their legs at the ankle. Michael was the closest thing Alan ever had to a brother. By the time Alan was old enough to buy cigarettes, Michael wasn’t there to practice leaning on trees or carhoods, to practice smoke rings and inhaling without the coughs, so Alan didn’t care anymore.

The Tap Room--On Ray

Welcome back to the Tap Room. We're putting together a series of stories centering around a little community watering hole located somewhere in the Carolina Appalachians. Join us as we build the room and fill it with characters.  Click here to read the previous Tap Room offerings.

Today's offering is from dear Abby Leigh Barnhart. Take a minute today to visit her space on the net. She's right good.  Without further delay, welcome to Abby's Tap Room.


Ray sat at the opposite end of the bar, farthest from the front door in the lone unworn corner of Carolina hickory. Mary Carter gave him hell for choosing the only seat she couldn’t serve. She’d been bugging Skip, the sole proprietor of the Tap Room, for a corner box for ages, but he’s a hair more stubborn than she, so we all knew how that’d end.

Ray’s spot in the bar’s newest nest suited him just fine – the perfect perch for spotting new faces as they slipped beneath the neon. Its red-stained wood a fresh reminder of a failed attempt to add Flaming B-52s to the menu. The local vets appreciated the tribute, but I’m not so sure they’d’ve downed the Kahlua on its own, let alone while catching their beards on fire mid-shot.

“Best stick with whatcha know,” Ray quipped as the Fire Department pulled away. “Taps n’ tales, drafts n’ distractions. Leave the fire-breathing to the dragons.”

If there’s one thing Ray knew well, it’s how to spin a story.

Ray’s stories played the deep bass to our bluegrass, and that of every Tap Room band before us, as far back as even ole Skipper could remember. He really only had one yarn to pull, but he’d wrap you up right tight in it if you gave him a chance. He always found a string to tug, as the straight Jim Beam set the stage.

“If’n you think you got it all figured out, take the night train North and call me when you get there.”

Regulars gave Ray a wide berth, not anxious to be pulled back in. At just 5’10”, his favorite fodder was a right tall tale – of transmigration, transportation, and the eerie feeling that Ray saw more than you’d ever meant to let on. He’d spent his first sixty years perfecting his art, and the next seventeen practicing on anyone who’d listen.

Seems when Ray was around twenty-five . . . or so the story went last night . . .

I took off for Virginia and what all lay past it with Grandaddy’s last few dollars. He’d worked the Deep River Mine until they closed in ’37 and was on his way to meet his maker when my train left Carbonton. I had fewer plans than pennies but slept soundly as the night train shook, only stirred by a distant rasping voice I knew no longer coughed.

By the time we stopped in Greensboro, a stranger sat across. I didn’t know him from Adam but turned slowly and leaned half into the aisle to pick up the notes of his gravelly voice.

“If you’re fixin’ to get off this train, son, you had better think again.”

In the light of a dusty train car, in the skin of a middle-aged black man, I met my Grandaddy reborn, and I knew I wouldn’t see Virginia by morning. I slipped outside as Ray was winding up, my shift over but his bar-mate’s just beginning. I hoped he’d stay through the end. I loved the end and dreamt of it that night . . . along with Virginia, Grandaddy, and my pride. There’s no better tonic for a good night’s sleep than a head spinning with story, sifting for truth.

The Tap Room--On William

Neil always carried one of them small New Testaments in the back pocket of his work jeans and a hard pack of cigarettes in the front pocket of his shirt. He never smelled of smoke, just of wood chips and turpentine. Neil walked through the front door every Friday at 3:00 and eased up to the bar. I always watched him whisper his usual down to Mary Carter. She didn’t never ask him anything, just smiled, poured him a pint and brought me the order.

He was a white man with a voice like Barry White. Once I told him that and he laughed. He said his voice had more gravel in it, like Tom Waits, whoever that was. Neil was a modest tipper, just a furniture maker by trade, but he was always kind to me. He was good to leave a cigarette with the extra dollar.

Last Friday I brought him his order and he noticed my forearm. He asked about my tattoo, the dark blue outline of a cross with the words “by his stripes” written underneath. I tried to tell him it was a long story. He smiled. “Can’t be that long,” he said.

“My brother Ronnie and me got them tattoos when we was sixteen,” I told him. “We used to live out on a county road in Mississippi. Me and Ronnie got into hubcap stealing, sold them to this fella out of Jackson. One day the police came to our house on a tip. Daddy knew we’d done it, but he told the police it was him. Said he was trying to make some side money. The police dragged him out the front door and beat him with an old horse whip. Cut him up real bad and dragged him off to jail. I didn’t see him after that.”

Neil listened carefully, didn’t ask me whatever happened to Ronnie. Instead, he reached for his front pocket with his left hand and his back pocket with his right. He pulled out bible and the cigarettes, stacking them up like dirty dishes. He slid them to me across the bar. “Merry Christmas, William,” he said as he reached for his pint and raised it to his lips.

“It’s July, Neil,” Mary Carter chuckled behind me. Over the top his glass he looked down at Mary Carter, then back to my arm. “Peace on earth, and goodwill to men.”