I drove past it the first time, turning around a half-mile down the road after I realized the town had ended before I knew it had begun. A tiny dot on the map a few hundred yards from a winding creek and a less-winding railroad track, the town seemed to consist of a few houses, a white-sided post office, and the unmarked tavern I was looking for.
Driving more slowly back along the twisting road, a brown, wood-sided building with beer signs in the windows and “Hunters welcome” poster tacked between dormer windows caught my attention, and I pulled into a small, gravel parking area cut out of the hill. A white piece of paper taped to the door warned in black, permanent marker: “This is a smoking establishment. No one under 18 allowed.” Everything was still and quiet in the hot (for a Pennsylvania April) afternoon sun. A bell rang as I pushed open the door, then tinkled again as it swung shut.
The air inside was cold and dark, and rank with cigarette smoke. Several old men sat in absolute silence at the bar, looking straight ahead and ignoring the stranger. A girl stood at the far end, talking softly to a younger man who, like his elders, was staring straight ahead. She looked at me. From the other side of the curtain, in the kitchen, I heard talking. One of the men grunted a name, and the bartender came out.
“What can I get you,” she asked. If she wondered what I, dressed in a pencil skirt and professional, demure black shoes, was doing in her tavern at 2 on a Thursday afternoon, she didn’t ask.
But when I mentioned his name, she came around the counter and led me to a back table, away from her patrons. Sitting across from me, she seemed nervous. In the 18 years she had worked at that unnamed tavern in the tiny town, she had never known anything like the stabbing that had occurred there last night.
The victim hadn’t been around in a while, but she knew him. It had to have been eight months since she’d seen him last? His brother said he’d been doing so well lately. But that Thursday night he’d come in with some friends; and as the night wore on, two men and a girl she’d never seen before came in just looking for trouble. They were picking fights at the pool table, arguing with her patrons. She asked them to leave – one of the men had tattoos, she said, nervously touching her own neck where his markings had been, and she’d heard rumor of a criminal history. The other bartender, he asked them to leave too. Next thing she knew the bar was emptying out the front door, and she hurried into the middle of the fight, urging the regulars back inside. She saw him rolling in the grass with one of the strangers; one of them pushed her; then someone was yelling that he had been stabbed.
The strangers ran into the night, and she helped bring her friend inside, tried to staunch the bleeding from his thigh, his side, his shoulder. They had to do surgery to put his intestines back in; that’s what she’d heard, anyway. About 10 or 15 minutes later she heard the train passing slowly behind the tavern, and wondered if the suspects were catching a ride out of the valley.
She wouldn’t let me use her name in my story for the next day, she was too afraid that the strangers would come back, looking for her this time. She didn’t want to be identified in any way. “Say ‘Sources at the bar,'” she pleaded; my editors nixed the idea and we kept her story out altogether.
“I’m scared,” she had said, more than once.
So as I drove back along the twisting, sunny road – without the story I’d hoped to be bringing back – I thought about stabbing, and the anxious bartender, and the children of the home where the helicopter landed next to their trampoline at 2:30 in the morning to pick him up. Everything seemed so quiet in that sleepy little town in the afternoon, it was hard to imagine the chaos of the night before. There was no crime tape, no police cars sitting around. Just quiet, and the nervous talking of the bartender in the dark, still, filthy air of the unnamed tavern.