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.
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.