I’ve heard that bar the Tap Room might be on its way out, so I head down to the Cumberland Avenue Strip to check. I throw my weight into opening that side door on the “insiders” entrance, the way you have to here. I stride in decisively—you have to do that, too—eyes furiously adjusting to the light haze and dusk, trying to take in who’s here before they spot me.
The bar’s the same—the dart board’s there, they’ve added a pool table. Doug Pickens, the owner, my former husband’s greatest friend, is out on the deck, they tell me. He’s happy to see me.
But it wasn’t always so. When I first came to the bar it was 1986, and I stuck out and was young and a brat. I’d been brought by John Hall, my Knoxville boyfriend, a few months into our salad days, and I’d drink a couple of Bud Lights in a bottle and be chatted up about my Yankee background—all the way from Virginia!—and talked down to because I didn’t know much about politics—who was running?—or football—what’s a running back?—or John Hall—what a great guy he was. Couldn’t I see?
I was 24 and he was 32 and smart and kind and set in his bachelor and corner bar ways—the Tap Dive he always called it, with that flair for labeling.
When we had our early falling outs, I would bring myself to the Tap Room, flounce through that door, smile and drink drafts and stub out his lit cigarettes if I could.
“You just can’t do that,” John’s friend Danny O’Connor would tell me, his voice scholarly, his brown eyes mad. I didn’t get why not.
I sometimes had a good time at the bar, singing along with “Jose Cuervo” with Shelly West, though at the beer-only Tap Room there was no way we’d “had too much tequila last night,” or reading the sports comic Gil Thorpe in the Knoxville Journal just like the bar regulars.
But usually, I just did not get why John could never tear himself away. The closest he ever came to explaining: “We can all go there and be friends, but you can go home whenever you want.”
When we two stopped being a couple after a few years of marriage and two children, I guess I knew the Tap Room didn’t belong to me even a little anymore. Mostly I just saw John when he came to our house, the house where he’d grown up, to get the girls.
I didn’t see those guys at all, once John was diagnosed with cancer in fall 1999, though I understood that Ridgely, a kindly gruff baseball-capped fellow who never talked to me much, had insisted on ferrying him to chemo, every trip.
But I’ll never forget group hugging with John’s sister Jenny at the Tap Room after John’s funeral six months later. And after that I tried to represent a little more—for the kids, I told myself—at Tap Room events, a wedding here, a football party there, two too many more times, a funeral.
I brought my nephew here for his first legal beer, in 2006, and among the partiers I only recognized Doug’s son Seth, now 22 or so, to me a little boy grilling steaks with John at the house.
Tonight, I know Doug and Seth, and Tennessee Gary, a mountain-man genius of a neighbor I never had to surrender in the divorce. But I’ve gotten my news—no more Tap Room—and I’m heading out.
“Hey,” I say, noticing a hewn-log shelf right on the wall near the side exit. “Is this one of yours, Gary?”
“Wait, that’s from your yard,” Gina says. She’s someone I know from the Mellow Mushroom, another life.
“Yes, I made it from that persimmon tree in John’s yard,” Gary says. “And see here?” There is a little scribbling, wood burning, in one corner. “I burned some of John’s ashes into it. That way he’s always here with us.”
The next, and last, time I come to the Tap Room, the dismantling has begun. But people are still drinking beers. I’m greeted with a few hugs, a few tears. And I notice the two scabs of plaster where the paint was torn when they took down that shelf.
“They claimed it fell off the wall...” Doug Pickens tells me. Tennessee Gary assures me the shelf is at his house now. I’m relieved, but so sad, too.
I don’t think John Hall would have liked it, being the first to leave.