King’s Tavern Blues



At nine, I searched the crowd in Quincy’s Bar and found Gary. He was a stocky guy with dirty, leathery hands, sitting alone in a back booth. Despite the quarter-full pitcher of sudsy beer and emptied shot glasses before him, his face was bloodless and sober. As I approached, I saw that his eyes were red, though not from drinking. I knew how a drunken Gary should look. That night he had been crying.

“Ricky,” he said, “thanks for coming.” I sat down across from him and we shook hands. He spoke at a rapid clip before I could say anything. “I’m sorry to have called, but. . .here, let me get us drinks first.”

I watched him beeline through the crowd toward the bar. The year was 1996, when people still smoked indoors; people still smoked, period. Quincy’s asthmatic ventilation system did nothing to quell the bar’s stink of sour beer, booze, and cigarettes. While waiting for Gary, I smoked one of his Marlboros and watched as a young woman at a nearby pool table scuffed up the green felt with her shots.

Gary returned and set fresh glasses and a pitcher of Coors on the table-top. “Hope you don’t mind the cheap stuff,” he said.

“Next round’s on me,” I offered, though I had little intention to stay that long.

“That you can do, man.” Gary grinned crookedly and poured two watery beers. He pushed back his greasy Sunnyvale Autos cap and exposed a crushed gash along his hairline for me to see. He lit a cigarette, inhaled deeply, and met my eyes without a smile.

“Did you hear about King’s?” he asked.

Before matrimony and fatherhood, I often drank at King’s Tavern. It was a genuine dive-bar off Route 36 along the Pennsylvania border, set in the woods behind a long, dirt driveway that split a wall of pines. Whereas Quincy’s was white-trashy, with its yellowed flags draped behind the bar, karaoke queens, and Quick Draw junkies, King’s Tavern was worse. Its patrons had a certain prestige, because the place had sawdust and unfinished floors, a plywood stage riser, and nightly parking lot fistfights that erupted over the most meaningless offenses. To drink and survive at King’s Tavern required guts.

Newcomers didn’t wander into King’s without being accompanied by a regular. Gary, my mechanic friend, initiated me. And after a few trips with him, I started going alone.

“What about it?” I asked.

“You didn’t read the paper or watch the news?” Gary asked.

“Not this week.”

An old fireplug named Maggie managed King’s. Nobody knew who owned it, only that he never came around. Maggie was chief and always there, squirting lime juice into her Schlitz drafts and penciling crossword puzzles while we raised hell. She took to me after a while. I once saw her shatter a bottle over a disorderly customer’s head, and then mop up his blood as if sweeping a sunny porch. When I think about King’s, Maggie comes immediately to mind.

“Geez, well,” said Gary. “How’s Heidi? And your boy?”

“What about King’s?” I asked.

Quincy’s had grown noisy. A crowd circled the pool table. Ed Quincy, the owner, came over to chew out the embarrassed woman holding the cue. Gary let the scene distract him and took a long drink before continuing. “God, this’ll sound . . . I’ve seen some weird things. . . .”

At the time, Gary had seven years on my twenty-nine. He’d started drinking in King’s at eighteen, with his brother Bill’s driver’s license. His first time there—with his uncle Jim, before Jim’s incarceration for drugs—an old drunk clapped him on the back and said, “Damn Bill! Ain’t seen you since my last piece of ass!” Everyone agreed that that must’ve been a long time, and Maggie asked what Gary-as-Bill wanted to drink.

When they caught on, they renamed him Little Bill. But by then he’d proven his mettle and Maggie never booted him for being underage.

“. . . . I’m sitting at King’s last night, around midnight,” Gary said. “Watching Newton, remember him?”

Of course, I did. Skinny Newton had a big beak, an overgrown Adam’s apple, and an uncanny resemblance to Ichabod Crane. Only Maggie’s bar mileage beat his. Everyday he’d perch over a bucket of Rolling Rock ponies and clap along with the jukebox. At closing, he’d turn over the barstools, empty the trash, and swept to help Maggie. Newton’s bulb burned softer than most. Because I can draw well, he always tried to impress me with an ornate dragon that he’d penciled and kept in his wallet. To have a fixture of the bar take a shine to me felt good and probably kept me out of a few scrapes.

“Newton’s acting weird,” Gary went on. “He’s bent over the bar, holding his head like he’s got a migraine and starts stomping like a horny stud horse.”

Gary paused to watch things develop at the pool table. The embarrassed woman’s boyfriend had stepped chest-to-chest with Ed Quincy.

“Yeah,” I prompted.

Gary snuffed his cigarette in the ashtray and lit another.

“Anyway, Maggie smacks him upside the head, hard. She says quit it and goes back to her stool behind the bar. She’s doing her crossword, but watching him, right? And now he’s not only wigging out, but crying, too.

“So, Maggie gets up and waves the Ellis boys over. Remember them? Coupla muscle-bound hobbits. They go to Newton, who’s terrified and nearly pissing himself. He waves his arms, screaming, ‘No! Please! I didn’t see nothin!’ But those two grab either side of him and Maggie marches ‘em all back through the kitchen door.

“Now half the bar is half-interested, and the rest are carrying on like nothing’s wrong. But I’m curious, you know? So, I step outside to take some air and go around the building.

“It’s all thickets and overgrown brush around there, and I’m drunk, tripping over stuff. I round the corner to the back and all the windows there are boarded up. I hear these muffled sounds, though, so I put my ear against the boards to listen and then I notice a gap.”

In Quincy’s, the boyfriend and the owner screamed at each other. Spit flew. Gary watched them, but my eyes remained glued to his face. “And?” I asked.

“Yeah, so, through the gap I see a room. Not the kitchen, it’s . . . something like Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There’s a metal cot off to one side, so I think maybe it’s a bedroom. Old, yellow newspapers cover the walls and, man, there’s the Ellis boys holding Newton down on a rusty chair.

“And there’s fat Maggie, cackling, and . . . I can’t bear the thought . . . her face is bubbling, like steam’s trapped under skin. Her hair slides off like it’s some kind of wig and her skull is covered with these tumors, like when my dog’s belly got bloated with worms, only his stomach finally split open. Her boils just keep expanding.”

Gary shuddered. His gaze was fixed on the beer glass in front of him, as if watching the scene unfold there. “Her teeth,” he said, “they’re like these long, snake fangs.”

Gary briefly glanced up at me, but then away quickly, as if he wasn’t ready to know my reaction. He continued his story. “My mind is spinning. Newton’s screaming and thrashing, but those two bulls have him tight. They’re changing like Maggie, too, and under their shirts their backs are becoming lumpy. Watching them, all I can think of is the Incredible Hulk.

“I should run, but my feet won’t move. Maggie’s face is twice as wide and hungry now. She growls in this voice that’s deep and evil and dead. She says, ‘Tremble, thou earth, before the Lord who shall devour thee!’

“I’ve never felt so scared. Whatever Newton’s seen or done has pissed them off. My heart hurts for him. And then I scream.

“Maggie turns my way with these glowing, red eyes. Then she’s facing Newton again and I think, maybe she hasn’t heard me at all, because he’s really tearing loose, jerking around and howling. She leans over him and opens her arms. And then she’s sucking . . . she’s sucking. . . .”

Gary’s sallow face showed deep grooves around his troubled mouth, as if producing vomit.

“She’s sucking this light out of him, oh Christ, this bright light, this light that’s gotta be his soul, this light, it’s gotta be his soul. . . .”

Gary’s arms were flailing at the air, but no one noticed—Quincy has been knocked to the floor. The bouncer rushed by us and leapt upon the boyfriend. A number of thugs joined in and I couldn’t see the offender under the pile of punching, kicking bodies. Gary turned stiffly toward the scene as though he were in a neck brace. His eyes bulged and his mouth mimed that last phrase over and over. When I snapped my fingers by his ear, he jerked as if I’d shot him.

“What else did you see?” I asked.

Gary turned back to me. His eyes had started to dribble.

“Nothing. I run. I’m tripping through the brush. The building’s like a mile long. At the front, I stop to see if they’re chasing me. I try to decide what I’m supposed to do. And then Maggie calls to me from the front door.

“She looks the same as always, and I’m starting to think I must have been hallucinating. She laughs at my face and asks, ‘Aren’t you gonna come in and finish your beer?’

“So, I follow her in and go to my stool. What could I do? Maggie circles round the bar, puts a shot in front of me. I drink it, and she pours another. Her face is happy as a clam. ‘Busy night, huh?’ she asks and goes back to sit on her stool, amused and watching me.

“I keep an eye on her and start considering the people around me. Did you ever notice how most of the people at King’s, the way they act . . . something’s not right?”

I shrugged and had another of his cigarettes. “Guess it’s always been a weird place,” I said.

“Take Mark O’Neal, the roofer,” said Gary. “You’ll see him all over town and he’s nice enough to say hi or wave, but he’s a strange one, like he’s always sizing you up.

“Or Kevin Scutter. One time my aunt hired him to fix a busted water pipe in her house. He went over, did a good job, no complaints. But afterward, my aunt asked me if he’s a little touched or something. Because when she looked around the bathroom door to offer coffee, he was sitting on the tile with his tools all spread out and staring into space, sniffing the air like an animal. He scared her witless and she went and hid.

“A lot of guys at King’s are just off. So, I’m watching them when I should be leaving, and then Newton comes strolling through the kitchen door with the Ellis boys. Only now, Newton looks as pale as paste, but completely . . . relaxed. He takes his usual seat and holds his Rolling Rock like he’s remembering how his arm works.

“The Ellis boys return to their table, picking up their conversation with some fellas like they ain’t missed a step. And Maggie says to me, ‘You catchin flies?’ I close my mouth, quick. She laughs and keeps doing her crossword, eyeballing me, though. And I’m pants-pissing scared.”

Quincy’s mob distracted us again. They were dragging the boyfriend by his armpits toward the door. The girlfriend swung her pool cue across the back of the nearest straggler. The guy wrenched around and snatched a fistful of her hair and yanked her along with the barbaric parade. The riot stumbled out onto the sidewalk.

Gary wiped his wrist across his nose. He shook so badly he couldn’t hold the pitcher. I poured beer into his glass and nodded for him to continue. He inhaled deeply and spoke with a trembling voice.

“My bladder’s ready to burst, so I wobble to the bathroom in a daze. I pass Newton, and since Maggie’s watching me like a hawk, I don’t stop to say how-do. There’s music playing on the jukebox, but Newton’s not clapping along. His face is blank while he stares at his bottle.

“Anyway, in the bathroom, I’m standing at the urinal but nothing comes out, because now I’m thinking about my brother. . . .”

Gary leaned forward to meet my eyes. “Ricky, I never told nobody this. Fourteen years ago, Bill moved back home after that Ohio bitch left him. Depression mixed him up hard. Those days he either stayed in his room with the door closed, or he drank at King’s. Mom paid him an allowance, so he could afford his beer. She felt awful for him.

“Well, one morning, I’m downstairs watching TV. Bill’s in his room after being out all night. Mom goes up around noon and knocks, telling him to get up and help her with something. She’ll fix him a sandwich, she says. He doesn’t respond. She knocks again and from behind the door comes a shriek that sounds like a critter caught in a bear trap.

“I run upstairs to see Bill charging toward me, berserk, with his hands covering his face. He swings at me without stopping and I’m thrown against the wall. In that moment, though, I see his one bare eye, and his pupil’s red. And then he’s gone, down the stairs like a track star.

“Mom’s in a heap by his door, shaking all over. I ask what’s happened but she can’t make any words. Bill’s truck starts up outside and squeals. I race to the window in his room and watch him clip our mailbox as he’s wheeling away.

“Then I look around and can’t believe it. His mattress and sheets are ripped up like he’s spent the night running a knife through ‘em. The lamp by his bed, its shade is torn up, too. And in the wall above the bed are these long . . . claw marks.

“That’s the day Billy drove into a tree on Route 36. When they found him, his body and the truck’s cab were all burnt up. The troopers said that the fire couldn’t have happened because of the accident, though. They said he must have started it himself, before the crash.

“All these years, I thought he’d just blown a fuse. But now, standing in King’s bathroom, Bill’s death makes sense. I zip up and take out my lighter. There’s a spare toilet paper roll near the toilet, and I set it on fire. My brain’s totally checked out. I light up paper towels by the sink and the garbage. Pretty quick, the bathroom’s blazing.

“Next thing I know, I’m running. I’m halfway through the bar when everyone swarms me. Tommy Edwards is blocking the front door like a linebacker. I bum rush him and we smash through the door. That’s how this happened,” he said, touching the gash below his hat.

“We roll out onto the front grass and I break free. I reach my car and everyone’s piling out of the bar in hot pursuit. The engine starts just as somebody slams against my trunk. I gun it as fast as she’ll go and shake that sucker off.

“I’m racing down Route 36, watching the mirror to make sure no one’s following. I don’t know where to go. When I reach town, I drive to the supermarket because it’s open 24 hours and the parking lot’s lit up. I try to get my head together. What can I do? Leave town? Who can I talk to, you know? And eventually, I just pass out from exhaustion.

“The sun’s up when I come to. I get out and walk into the store, to the newspaper rack.”

Gary produced a torn page of newsprint from his pocket and placed it between us, saying, “This says King’s is completely destroyed. A couple people dead. Tommy’s one. Another’s Newton, and that breaks my damn heart.

“So that’s when I called your house. I didn’t want to put you in Dutch with Heidi. I know she doesn’t like me and I would’ve hung up if she’d answered. But you’re the only person I trust right now. I’ve been hiding out all day, waiting to see you.”

I scratched my neck and skimmed the article. Gary drained the last of the beer. Quincy’s mob had returned without the woman or her boyfriend. Ed Quincy declared a round of drinks for the house.

“That’s some story,” I said.

“You don’t believe it?” asked Gary. His eyes were shiny and pleading.

I breathed heavily and looked him over. “Listen,” I said. “I don’t know what to make of your story, but arson is serious business. And if people died, you’re in even worse trouble. Do you even have enough money to skip town?”

Gary hung his head. “Not much,” he said.

My fingers drummed the tabletop. I said, “Okay, this is what I can do. Follow me back to my place and I’ll give you $200 in cash. Then you’ll drive as far as that gets you. Don’t worry about repaying me. Just never bring me into any of this, never breathe my name again. Jesus, we’ve already been seen together.”

“I know,” said Gary. “I’m so sorry about. . . .”

I waved him off. “This bunch of ignoramuses will be lucky to find their cars in the morning.”

Gary was starting to brighten with relief. “Ricky, I. . . .”

My hand went up. “The other part, about Maggie and the rest. That’s plum crazy.”

“I know how it sounds.”

“It’s crazy,” I said. “No further comment needed.”

Gary nodded. I slid my glass over to him. “Finish this while I use the bathroom,” I said. “Get yourself together and ready to leave when I return. Got it?”

“Yeah, man,” he sighed.

As I stood, he touched my arm. I looked down at him.

“Ricky, I gotta thank you for saving my life.”

I squeezed his shoulder and headed toward the bathroom. There, I went into a stall and dialed a number on my cell. My wife’s cold voice answered.

“Heidi?” I said. My fangs were beginning to itch beneath my gums, above my regular teeth. “I got him. Tell Maggie that Little Bill is on the way.” And then I left to lead him home.