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The A.C. Tap
Anyone pretentious enough to call himself a writer has the same experience, over and over: In bars and at picnics, at boozy family reunions, people throw their arms around you, slurring “Dude, you got to write about us! Look at this craziness, man!”
If the perpetrators are close enough friends of mine, I respond honestly: “Listen, no offense, but this is just not that interesting.” If they’re really good friends of mine, I insult them, remind them that such an attempt would never flatter; if I don’t know the person well, I merely say “I’m very busy, fascinated as I am by your life and behavior.”
No one at the A.C. Tap—out on the highway (like all good Midwestern taverns, its location promising a spate of DUIs) between Sister Bay and Bailey’s Harbor, on Wisconsin’s Door County peninsula—has ever told me I should write about them. Why? Because they are all too busy drinking, or playing this stupid bean bag game, or piling on each other, or playing this other stupid dice game, or singing along to “There’s a Tear In My Beer,” which plays incessantly, or kung-fu fighting in the parking lot, or trying to get their hands down each others’ pants, pressed up against someone else’s car in the gravel parking lot.
I’ve done all these things, a lot of times. I’ve eaten the pickled eggs, and untold turkey gizzards. That was me, pissing out the window when the urinal was taken; that was me throwing darts at friends; that was me drinking Pabst (the taps are deadly, dirty; the draft beer will destroy you) that would ring behind my eyes for days; that was me skinny-dipping at two in the morning, afterward; that was me waking up the next morning with wet underwear and a pocket full of beef jerky.
I remember my sister the lawyer, caught beneath the pool table, shrieking something, walking a circle, pivoting on her elbow so her feet appeared at one side of the table, then the other, kicking along. I remember the gigantic Steve Sauter picking up my parents at the same time and kissing them—straight men often kiss each other here, out of daring or something more. I remember kissing them, the razor burn. I remember seeing Mike, a guy I’d worked with as a dishwasher, one summer; halfway through a conversation, he held up the stump of his wrist, saying “Oh, yeah, that was back when I had two hands.” He was still dishwashing, in fact; he bought my family’s dangerous, bad luck brown Pinto. Later I heard a friend of his had passed out and shat his pants in the back seat.
Twenty-five years ago the Tap was quieter, a home for afternoon drinkers, retiring farmers. Freddy Kadenko was perhaps the most notorious, the most eccentric; without a license, he’d drive his tractor down the highway and park it out front. His ancient baby picture, a near-daguerrotype, hung in a place of honor, on the wall separating the bar from the pool room. There was something mysterious about his house, too, miles from the Tap, surrounded by wooden boxes, overgrown, reportedly patrolled by fierce roosters.
Harley’s always there, taciturn behind the bar, wearing a baseball hat. Word is he was once a political science professor, but he won’t hold that over you. He drinks slowly while he works, with tolerance for amateurs. He is patient; he is forgiving.
I know this, because I remember the first time I visited the Tap, back in 1986, when I was eighteen years old. I was with a friend and his older brother, and the older brother’s friend. I had a beer and a half and was feeling good, displaying my maturity and my way with a pool cue. When I missed a shot on the eight ball, however, I decided to demonstrate one of my best drinking tricks, learned in Australia: I head-butted the wall in fury, hoping to impress my friends. I may have, for a moment. And then there was the sound of shattering glass, and groans, and a wave of angry voices.
I considered dashing for the back door; instead, I turned and saw that the baby picture of Freddy Kadenko had fallen from the wall. I bent down, picked up shards of glass, and tried to offer them up to Harley. No apology was going to ease that moment. Old men with enormous ears and droopy eyes sat at the bar, oozing cold disdain. Now I was asked for my ID; I slunk out, humiliated.
Slowly, over the next few years, I made my way back to the Tap, hoping never to be recognized as the defiler of the Kadenko baby picture, which was never re-framed, never re-hung. I grew my hair long, then cut it all off. I tried to be a generous tipper, a gentleman. And in these years I tried to cut down on my willingness to claim I was a writer; instead, I decided to do some writing. I wrote of Wisconsin, and of the Tap, and when I needed a mad taxidermist, a man who trapped raccoons and other animals, who built new species by commingling existing ones and then animated them with motors and with wires—when I needed this man and could have given him any name in the world, I chose “Eddie Polenka.”
Hadn’t I done enough to Freddy Kadenko? Was this any way to make restitution? I don’t know; Eddie Polenka also drove his tractor to the Tap (and tipped over into the ditch one time, climbing up as it went slowly over like a capsizing ship, sleeping the night in the upturned wheel), also had quiet conversations with Harley. He sought friendship, and understanding, and damaged other people.
My book Carnival Wolves came out in 1998; Freddy Kadenko had long since passed away. I worried a little about what Harley would think, so I asked ahead, wondering if he’d like me to change his name, or the name of the Tap. I sent him a draft of the stories, and after a while he replied with a postcard: “I very much enjoyed the stories and the characters in your manuscript. Looking forward to seeing it in publication. Best wishes.” -Peter Rock
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