John Sebesta / Art Photos / CC BY-NC-ND
The Mahogany Trough
The rickety old cart trudged down the road. Slowly, lazily, without a care in the world. The wheels squeaked and clattered as they grinded against the dusty, gravel-splattered road, but you probably couldn’t hear it over the descending cacophony of chickens over from Jenkins’. Old Hartmann pulled at the reigns and kept muttering something. There was a flicker of impatience in those cautious, brown eyes of his.
Simon Wright shifted his straw hat. Just a twitch to the right. A stray sunbeam from the auburn sky fought its way under the hat and caught Simon’s eye. He smiled, and gazed upwards.
A good evening, he thought. Just as good as he remembered them, at least. With something of an effort, he managed to look down to his left without actually moving his head. The road faded away down the slope as an endless expanse of soft golden grass took over. Maybe it was the harvest though, Simon thought. He remembered that one day Al, Sally and him spent lying about in cornfields. Perhaps it was an entire vacation. He grinned rather widely and sat up, trying to pick out the farmhouses and rivulets that disturbed the golden wave. All the farmhouses looked newly painted, what with their white sheds and red roofs. He wished he could’ve gotten here before they were painted. A golden streak of recognition and soft aromas rushed through his mind, accompanied by something of a lurching in his stomach. Almost as though it were constructed. He wondered why it was so fleeting.
It was a sundown in the valley. The clouds were thin and papery as they rolled off to the west, tinged a washed-out scarlet by the sun. That pure, glowing blob of orange, with the mystical edges, that was sinking behind the hills in the east. Simon looked to the hillsides, spying out the farms that he knew dotted their western slopes. Abercrombie’s farm! He could swear that it was somewhere there, very close, as the crow flew, from this road - the High Street. Somewhere at the base, maybe. If only he could put his finger on it. It was something he ought to remember.
The cart was slowing down as it turned right onto a dingy little side-road. The path winded and sloped upwards as it inched ever closer to the hills. The smell of fresh earth and trodden grass wafted about. The hills grew greener, Simon observed. The air felt a tad more homely. There were quite a few houses all around him now. Estates, really. The valley to the east seemed larger than life now. The famous Saint Louis Valley of Logan County, his grandfather had told him once. Quite distinctly. The shortleaf pine and hickories loomed all around, distorting one’s view of the otherwise open sky. Where the road ended and joined up with the hill, and people were returning home after a long day, asters and rabbit’s-foot clovers brushed the grass in white and pink. Up ahead, beyond the town limits, the thick woodlands with their maple leaf oaks ran wild into the sunset. Simon levelled his eyes to the edge of the cart and peered into someone’s garden to catch a glimpse of the creeping buttercups. The Smiths. The name didn’t quite ring a bell.
“We’re almost there, sir.”
“Oh, right.” Simon paused. “And what’s with all this sir-stuff? Didn’t know they’d gotten so formal down here.”
They trudged on. Hartmann growled something inaudible. But his eyes softened. He grunted once more for good measure and with a lazy, drawn-out heave, he pulled the reigns. The horses stopped, and the cart pattered to a halt.
Simon stood up slowly. With a flick of his thumb, he tilted his hat backwards. He picked up his bag and jumped off the back end of the cart, landing in a cloud of dust. There was a strange half smile on his face and a gleam in his eyes; the very same look he fancied his Hollywood heroes, of bygone days, used to wear.
“Jeremiah Wright,” mouthed Simon, fascinated by the mossy, grey depression in the gate wall. He smiled. Home.
Hartmann was mumbling something to the horse while stroking its mane. The sun had retreated behind the furthest of cliffs.
All of a sudden, Simon felt as though he were perched atop the roof of a house somewhere. The sound of a baseball game and the cries of children drifted behind him. The grey clouds rolled in threateningly, larger than life. He embraced them with a resigned calm.
A bittersweet smile.
“Enjoy your stay in Arkansas, son,” said Hartmann, as he clattered away.
Simon awoke drowsily. The back of his neck felt very warm. Disoriented, he looked about and caught sight of the sunlight streaming in through the window above him. Must be midday already. He lay there, trying to go back to sleep until the heat was quite unbearable.
As he wandered out into the garden after breakfast, still feeling rather ragged, his uncle spotted him from where he was weeding the chrysanthemums.
“A bit late for this part of the world, my boy,” he shouted, as he fiddled with the shears.
“Give it a coupla days,” grunted Simon.
The sun seemed much more pleasant out here. Simon shuffled over to the edge of the green near the chrysanthemum patch, where the wall lay dilapidated and the grass blurred itself into the tangled brush of the hillside. He looked around and plonked down onto a faded mahogany trough. The two talked for a while. Like laughter on the breeze. Of what had not already been spoken about the previous night. Of far-flung family and the state of the world. And again, of those gloriously long vacation days spent here, an age ago. Of the government, and the harvest and the village parish sale. Jeremiah moved onto the azaleas. Simon settled into a calm reverie. For some time, the silence was only broken by the twitter of birds and the rustling of the midday breeze. Simon watched the rhythmic clipping of the shears. The minutes seemed to roll on relentlessly.
“Lazy old sun,” he murmured.
He stood up abruptly. As he looked down, he noticed the trough.
“Interesting,” he said, curiously examining it. He tapped thrice on its rich, brown exterior.
“You know, back in Chicago, Josie had a nice oaken desk. Kinda looked like this. What’s it made of, anyway?”
Jeremiah looked back over his shoulder before resuming his efforts on a particular virulent creeper. “Oh, that’s just mahogany. There were these government-issue farm things, see, back before the War. Mass produced, they were, down here. One of ‘em was these here mahogany troughs. Back from your granddaddy’s days. You’ll likely find ‘em in all the old farms here roundabouts.”
“Ah, well it’s nice it wasn’t thrown out with the farm.” Simon drew in a large breath. “All these old yarns are so quaint, eh? But ya know what, Uncle? Mahogany’s actually really in right now. The height of décor and all that. I’ll look for some mahogany stuff when I get back. For the new apartment, that is.”
But Jeremiah wasn’t really listening. The weeds were being rather more obstinate than usual.
It was pretty dark outside. The lone electric lamppost, at the street corner, flickered uncertainly. Simon slumped back some more on the battered old stile. Rummaging through his pockets, he found a smoke and lit it. It was peace.
Simon was feeling jazzy. The boys woulda loved to be jamming right about now, he thought. The night air did feel really cool. The way Jones carried on about their deadlines, and all those pending articles – he couldn’t get that out of his mind. He looked up. As though on cue, the light went out with a sense of finality. He just sat there thinking. About everything that had changed and how effortlessly he had forgotten. But the starlight was awfully bright that night. It was peace, too.
Uncle Jeremiah was sound asleep by the time Simon got back. Simon dragged himself up the stairs into his bedroom. The bed did look so cool and inviting. Just as he was about to shut the lights, he caught a glimpse of a sturdy ladder across the corridor. He knew that ladder. The attic, of course!
Simon shimmied up to emerge in a warm, dusty room with a low ceiling. It wasn’t too big at all, just an elongated alcove of sorts. Half-crouched, he walked over to where broken-down furniture and cartons full of old junk were piled up against the wall. With a flick of his thumb, Simon switched on the light. The little bulb cast a cramp, pale yellow light all around, and accentuated the shadows.
Simon didn’t know how many hours he was up there. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, sneezing intermittently as the dust got to him, going through all those cartons, one by one. Books from his childhood, toys he didn’t remembering playing with, scraps of metal from around the house and trinkets that stirred his memory. He knew them. From some other age.
He couldn’t help but cry.
Simon was sitting on a stile once again. The afternoon sun hung low behind him over the horizon, covering the world in a soft, roseate haze.
Al sat next to him. He’d sure been surprised when Simon dropped in on him, all dapper-like. Man, it’d been years since he’d seen Simon. They’d been the best of friends back in the day, but man, it’d really been so long. But back then, messing around at the ranch and exploring the woods – that’d been the life. And trying to build a radio that one time! He’d wait for Simon to arrive every summer vacation. Al thought back, and smiled happily.
He’d remembered right, though. Simon was in Chicago now. And it’d been a nice walk, but he wasn’t getting any younger.
“So, Chicago. Huh.”
Simon said nonchalantly, “Yeah, it’s a nice place.” He looked into Al’s eye. There was a tinge of grey.
“Hey, Simon, you still play the guitar? You could be doing Sweet Home Chicago up in Chicago!” Al chuckled. “I still got that record, you know.”
The afternoon grew longer. Simon kept shuffling the thought in his mind, till he didn’t quite understand what it meant. Finally, he had to ask, “Why didn’t ya try to leave here? You always kept on about the big city.”
Al was quiet for a while. “It’s not so bad here, you know. A bit sleepy maybe, but we get by good. And I’m sorta getting into all this real estate. All those new cottages on the west side, we get lotsa people wantin’ to rent ‘em, mostly artists and suchfolk. It’s good business on the side.”
“It doesn’t matter much anymore.” He was quiet again.
Simon looked out, far ahead into the distance.
“And after…after Beccy and the kids and all, I couldn’t leave, you know.” Al smiled softly.
Simon couldn’t help but picture his own home. Downtown Chicago. And his desk at the Times office. Something stirred in his heart.
He thought of Al. And as he looked him in the eye, he was overwhelmed by yearning. Yearning, and longing, for what he could never be. It made him happy somehow.
They’d begun to walk back now. Evening would soon be upon them. Al was saying, “You really gotta come over for dinner one time before you go. Tonight, even! Beccy’ll put out some spread! She makes this thing with the steak and the green tomatoes – you ain’t had nothin’ like it!”
Simon felt as though he was watching Al and himself from up on the hills. It was the strangest feeling.
They’d reached the crossroads. Al turned to where the path would join up with the High Street. Simon turned to take the cart track which ran into the outskirts.
“Nice meeting ya, then.”
“Don’t forget, dinner’s still on me.”
They carried on. Suddenly, Simon swivelled around.
Al looked back.
“Ya know, I’ve missed ya, buddy!” He gave a wide smile, and started laughing.
“Me too, mac!” Al shouted back. He was laughing too.
And they walked on down the road.
The dinner had been splendid. He’d called that one. Al had a good thing going there.
Simon was particularly cheerful that morning. Really, this sorta clear-headedness oughta be a luxury. He’d thought of taking a day on the town.
And so there he was, at the church with the steeple. Man, did it look old. He’d always remembered it as the crumbly old structure that it was, but with something of a timeless feel to it. It sure was past its prime now, though, with all the moss glazing its side and the unkempt courtyard. There was something dark and looming about it. Some tragedy Simon wished he knew about. He wondered why they just hadn’t kept it the way it should’ve been.
With a final glance at the steeple, he turned to go. That sure did look majestic though. They hadn’t been able to take that. Wasn’t he standing right here once before? Looking up in awe and swearing to pierce the heavens above? He couldn’t be sure anymore.
There were people coming out now. He stared at them for a minute before putting on the old hat and quietly walking away.
He knew where he had to go next. It really had to be done. He rambled along aimlessly though; those quaint country roads were so relaxing. Past a myriad of twists and turns, and along rows of identical houses, all neat and clean, with freshly-lit chimneys.
The sun was high up in the sky by the time he reached the edge of the town. With the High Street at his back, he could see the viridian hills roll off for miles ahead. Talk about giving a guy the old pick-up, Simon thought light-heartedly.
But when he got there, it wasn’t there. Abercrombie’s farm. He could still see the run-down old barn in the corner, and the part where the hedge used to mix with the brush and you could crawl through, but that was it. It was all silent and deserted. The farmhouse looked as though it’d been abandoned a great many years ago. And even under the mid-morning sun, a grey, chilly draught seemed to envelope the place.
Simon headed back down. It was what it was, he supposed. As he was nearing the base of the hill, he spotted a man briskly striding up.
“Hey!” Simon called out.
The man was momentarily confused, but he found Simon soon enough. He walked up to him. Simon noticed the overalls – one of the labourers, he decided.
“Hey, ya know what happened to the farm up there? And Abercrombie? Where’s old Abercrombie?”
The man squinted at Simon closely for a moment or two.
In a bored drawl, he said, “They packed, and moved up North. It’sa been many years now.”
The man continued on, past him.
Simon muttered resignedly, “It’s a goddamn shame, innit?”
“Eh?” The labourer looked back over his shoulder.
“The Abercrombies. Them moving, it’s a goddamn shame, don’tcha think?”
“Yeah, guess so. See, I gotta get goin’ now.”
Simon watched him disappear over the crest of the hill.
Café Redwood. It was lunchtime, and Simon wanted lunch. By a miracle of chance, Simon had stumbled upon the place. He wouldn’t have recognized it at all, had it not been for the nice old woman behind the counter. She was the one who ran it all those years back as well, but didn’t look a day older to prove it. Back when it was just a small joint on the corner for coffee and ice cream. The finest of coffee and ice cream, mind you.
The inside of the café was cool and comfortable. Simon was sitting by the window, lazily staring at the dusty road, sipping a cool coffee while the sun beat down relentlessly elsewhere. He found himself enjoying watching the passers-by go about outside. And the occasional tumbleweed that blew across the road and the warm sunlight flitting through the leaves of the oak. It relaxed him. When the food came, it was great. It was all great. Exquisite, Simon thought. He rolled the word around his mouth. The coffee had been really good. Better, even, than he remembered it.
The peaceful air was rather abruptly disturbed by the sound of laughter, shouts and scuffing feet. The door opened and two kids barged in. They looked dusty and messy, as though they’d spent the morning in the woods.
“Two chocolate ice-sticks, please!” demanded the smaller of the two kids. The woman behind the counter smiled, wiped her hands on her apron and headed inside.
“Didja see The High Road yet?” It was the smaller kid again.
“Nah, gotta wait till Saturday. They took me money off me again. Was it any good?”
“Good?! Boy, I tell ya, it was swell! There were chases and shootouts all over the place!”
The ice creams had arrived, and were welcomed with the dignified silence that was their due. For a few minutes, the two were busy lapping up the ice-sticks.
“But boy, it was swell, I tell ya!” The taller kid nodded knowingly. The other one suavely flicked a coin across the counter, and they went out.
Simon thought back to a week ago. Berating Charlie for not having much of a taste in world cinema. And actually liking Miller’s newest book!
He chuckled and shook his head.
It was another sundown in the valley. Simon was lying in the grass, on the other side of the stile this time. It’d sure been a long day, but he hadn’t been able to resist one last detour.
From here, he could see it all. The shimmering valley, the sun, and the sky. And the endless fields of gold all around. They lilted in the breeze, with just a mellow dash of crimson.
Simon closed his eyes. He felt free, free of all care. As though at leisure. A warm summer breeze ran through his hair. And just then, for the briefest moment in time, as the clouds overhead gave way to the sun, still in the meadow of his dreams, still looking at the sky, Simon saw everything. He felt, he lived, he remembered, he was – everything! Like a madding rush of gold, it surged through his veins, assaulting him with emotion and charming him with peace.
He knew - for he’d seen it all! As it truly was.
Sitting on top of the world.
And yet, Simon felt, as the wind died down, tomorrow was another day. Tomorrow, he might be a different man. Tomorrow, he might forget.
But he believed he wouldn’t. In that one flicker of time, he’d seen everything he had to. He felt he’d known himself all his life. He truly believed.
And so, he shut his eyes. And smiled.
It had been a week already. A glorious week. But now, he felt excited to be returning to the old grind. Simon could already feel his memories fading into a roseate haze, somewhere in the recesses of his mind.
Hartmann was rattling the gate. Simon stepped out, and tossed his hat up onto his head.
“Goodbye, Uncle Jeremiah! I had a dashed splendid time. And thanks for everything!”
Jeremiah gazed at his nephew with those grey, shimmering eyes. “Here’s to ya, kid!” he whispered with his parting hug.
“Ready ter go, sir?” said Hartmann with a toothy grin.
“All aboard, my good man.”
The cart trudged on down towards the station. It didn’t feel quite so rickety anymore, Simon mused. They were passing by Jenkins’ when suddenly, the cart stopped short with a jerk and tilted over to its right.
“What happened?” asked Simon.
Mumbling to himself, Hartmann got down and circled the cart, studying it.
“Them ruddy wheels. They’re loose or somethin’. You jus’ give me ten minutes, boy, and I’ll have her all fixed up.”
“Right,” said Simon as he got down. He’d just spotted the break in Jenkins’ fence. The whitewash had flaked off and covered some parts of the nearby grass with a dusty white canopy.
One last visit.
He entered the farm and looked about. Up ahead, near one of the smaller barns, there was something of a crowd. His curiosity aroused, Simon walked towards them, whistling a low tune.
It was old Jenkins and a scruffy teenager – one of the newer farmhands. They were surrounded by a bunch of kids talking very excitedly.
It was then that Simon saw her. Sally Mae. Just her head at first but he’d have recognized her anywhere. He pushed through the crowd and ran right to her. And there she was! With the regal mane that was as soft as it was beautiful and the chestnut skin that glistened in the sunlight. Tied to the post, Sally Mae – Simon’s steed!
Jenkins was giving Simon a puzzled look.
“Here, mister, what can I do fer you? You lookin’ for directions?” he asked in his customary Southern twang.
Simon turned around quickly. “Hey, Mr. Jenkins! I’m Simon, don’tcha remember? This…this is Sally Mae, isn’t she? I used to ride her around the farm sometimes, back when I was a lad. Boy, she was the first horse I ever rode! I loved her, I did! Don’tcha remember?”
Jenkins was stroking his beard, looking increasingly more puzzled. “Well no, son. I can’t quite place you. I’m gettin’ on in years.” He chuckled. “But you’re darned right about old Sally here. Isn’t she a beaut? You oughter know, you’s seen her in her prime, eh?” He chuckled again.
“Oh. Yeah, well, I used to come down here for the summer and suchlike. It doesn’t really matter. But Sally Mae, fancy finding her still here!”
Bored with the proceedings, the kids had backed away somewhat, so Simon took a few steps away from the post himself. And then he saw it. Jenkin’s old shotgun, carelessly propped up against fence.
He understood right then, but he had to ask. He just had to. “You…Whatcha folks doin’ out here?”
Jenkins shook his head ruefully. He pointed towards Sally’s leg.
“We gonna put her down, son. We gonna put her down.”
Simon understood. There was nothing he could do, yet he had to do something!
Unfortunately, he knew.
“That’s a goddamn shame,” he murmured to himself.
He felt like he should say something. But he just tried blocking it all out instead.
“I-I’m sorry, I gotta get movin’.” He paused and shuffled his feet. “This ain’t none of my business, but please…please do it gently.”
Simon heard Jenkins say something, but it didn’t really matter much anymore. He felt those warm tears stream down his cheeks. Rubbing his eyes, he turned to look at old Sally Mae one last time.
She was drinking from the old mahogany trough.
Their eyes met for the briefest of instants, or so Simon felt, and then he turned. And walked away. He could feel the tears coming down now, without a care in the world. Already he could hear the strains of jazz, somewhere in the distance. Like wisps of smoke in his mind. He hoped a new day would ease the pain.
He thought he heard the gunshot. The tears glistened on his face. Only the trough was left now.
The thought gave him peace.
He thought back to everything. And everyone. Throughout the dusty days.
And he smiled.
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