The Daily

Traveler’s Trough

A man’s power to connect his thought to its proper symbol, and so to utter it, depends on the simplicity of his character, that is, his love of truth and his desire to communicate it without loss.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The whole thing had been a mistake from the beginning. It was if the Old Grey Fox himself was smiling down from above at the foolishness of any tavern, let alone a local one, being named for his beloved horse.

From his table, the lone patron hears a boisterous night crowd in the street below. He stood at the old battered floor-to-ceiling window that fronted Main Street, looking out into the winter night and onto the street below. His solitary thought interrupted, he steps to the large semi-circle window – triangular glass panes inside old wooden frames, extending like spokes of a wheel from a brass knuckle set into the ancient hardwood floor.

The glass panes shimmered with color and movement in the night, reflecting the fire burning in its place across the room. The window seemed to be rotating with the reflections, turning ever more slowly. Rather than spokes, the moving color and firelight gave the window the appearance of a slowing roulette wheel taking forever as it neared some arbitrary decision.

The patron stands back from the cold draft of air reaching through the window. He holds a position just far enough away to stay warm yet close enough to see the street below. Down the hill three blocks down, through beads of moisture on the window, he sees the Theater letting out. A swollen mass of blackness exits and spills onto the snow-covered portico and walkways leading to the street. As it moves, the black mass thins – breaking up into smaller groups … some moving away into the night … others holding on in the cold for a moment.

A happy coterie, formally dressed celebrants, moves aimlessly up the middle of the otherwise deserted avenue. From one side to the other they swing … a drunk, black snake. Arm in arm, the men and women take long swinging steps singing a happy melody … a parlor tune lingering in the ear for a moment after the show’s end.

Every now and then a young figure pops free of the group … a girl. Running ahead, she makes a small dance … only to be caught up again in the swell of the small group. She looks free and beautiful. On this cold night, she stirs a voyeur heart a bit.

The little procession slows as it nears the Tavern, calling out in unison toward the entry door on the street below. Under the hanging sign, the patron’s view is blocked and the cause of the commotion is unclear. The entry door below is heard opening and slamming shut … heavy feet of a solid man bounding up the stairwell … scraping and banging the walls and banister as he approaches.

Unconsciously, the patron backs himself against the wet panes of glass as the Tavern door throws open, injuring the darkness of the Trough with piercing light from the stairwell. As his eyes readjust focus, the patron sees that the Tavern holds three occupants now: himself, the barkeep and a young reveler. The reveler, formally attired but disheveled, wears a long black overcoat with a cape and scarf. He has no hat. He seems preoccupied with distress … his eyes initially meet no one, darting about the room nervously. He does not appear to appreciate the loud cries of his companions outside in the street for his return.

The reveler’s face is pale, circumscribed by a mat of wild tossed curls, wet and dripping into his brow. His eyes are open madly wide … his mouth extended into a loose leer covering the bottom of his head. He appears drunk or completely insane.

The reveler stands still a moment … just as he entered … moving neither muscle nor inch. Steam emanates from the top of his dark, wild head and from out of the cavern of his open, gaping mouth. The patron feels he knows the reveler but cannot place him … a pure visage of a fire-breathing angel.

Suddenly, the reveler thrusts his clenched and gloved fist through his cape and into the air between himself and the room before the patron. In his fist, he holds the silver head of a cane bearing the likeness of an animal. He waves the cane and silver headed beast back and forth … gesticulating arms akimbo as if animalized himself … assuming more than twice his size when he entered the room. The patron cringes against the window and the reveler fixes him with a glare. Charismatic bellowing fills the dark quiet of the Trough.


Shock gives way to awkward embarrassment in the moment that follows and the patron determines during the brief quiet that follows that the shrieking performance is both primitive and trained … the sound of poor dramatic coaching and years of attention deprivation. It was as though, in each word and syllable, the performing reveler intended to convey every emotion ever experienced in the planet’s history. Every syllable emphasized … pulled and stretched into eternity to nearly unbearable effect … a metal shredding tree chipper, a thousand nails gouged across a mile-long blackboard, the night of a million long knives placed delicately into a single eardrum.

“Do you think a great city endures?

Or a teeming manufacturing state?”

The patron stares at the floor nervously, feeling a nausea rumbling his bowels. Pulling himself away from the window, he slowly makes his way along the wall toward his table.

“Or a prepared constitution?

Or the best built steamships?”

The patron briefly spies to see if he is being followed or if the reveler’s attentions are re-focused mercifully elsewhere. No such luck. Despite a strange attraction to the piece, the patron cannot endure it. Even so, he finds himself transfixed … unable to move now, speak or intervene. Only force of will allowed him to avert the reveler’s intense stare.

“Or hotels of granite and iron?

Or any chef d’oeuvres of engineering forts or armaments?”

Having placed a table between himself and the performer, the patron feels just comfortable enough to observe more closely and just then, the reveler changes position suddenly, presenting a new and thankfully less threatening position. A fresh act or stanza begins as the reveling orator continued unabated. A vague suggestion of illness returned to the patron’s abdomen.

(With gusto or bravado and in deeper voice)

“AWAY!! These are not to be cherished for themselves”

(Quietly, with overwrought tenderness, dramatically cocked head and arched eyebrow)

“They fill their hour

The dancers dance”

(With fingers lightly painting the air)

“The musicians play for them”

(With head bowed in over the top solemnity and more quietly)

“The show passes

All does very well enough of course”

(Dramatic pause or caesura, a sly grin and salacious peek at the patron)

“All does very well …”

The last word of this last phrase holds in the air for an eternity (may be holding yet) like an undiscovered musical note. The reveler stands upon his toes, one gloved hand (not holding the cane) and head thrown toward the cobwebbed rafters hidden in the darkness above. Then, producing a sound only to be described as a modified yodel … a great comic swan song of a dying twang … the violent pluck on a tuneless rotting dime store banjo lying on the porch of an Appalachian shotgun shack.

Quickly, he crouches looking over his shoulder with a practiced ‘fierce glare’ directed in his unspoken thoughts toward the barkeep in the most affective way.

“’Til one last flash of defiance …”

The barkeep, a large and dour man, reached under the bar for an object he did not bother to mention by name. The reveler continued, though apparently calming himself during an almost imperceptible pause.

“A great city is that which possesses the greatest men and women

If it be a few ragged huts it is still the greatest city in the world.”

The performance ends as suddenly as it began. The reveler wheels ‘round quickly, his exit scarcely noticed. He could be heard tumbling down the stairs, then a crash and a cry from his waiting assemblage of friends in the street. They moved up Main again, heaving their reveler high overhead for the first dozen yards or so.

The patron had nearly forgotten the girl but noticed her again dancing along the fringe of the group as it moved. Like a fairy, she dances over the snow and ice, her small feet impervious to the cold and laws of gravity. They keep her perpetually aloft.

The patron watches her, transfixed again, until the group turned a corner and she danced out of sight several feet off the ground. He returns to his table, his drink and his thoughts. He felt something would happen on this evening. But other than this … nothing did.

Traveler’s Trough is a dark and customarily empty place, less frequented every passing year. From the second floor of the Robert E. Lee Hotel, the tavern witnesses the Main Street happenings below rather than being a part of them. It is now more a container of memories than a going concern.

Cold winds whip the tavern sign noisily against the iron bar from which the sign hangs … carved figures, horse and rider with brandished sword. The clatter … an annoying reminder of distant but not nearly forgotten battles and killing fields.