Memoir in Woodgrain
by Gregory Von Dare
Old desk in a second-hand store beckons to me. It is dented and chipped, slightly warped, worn smooth and shiny on top from much human contact. No one can tell me who owned it, where it came from. Like a book in a foreign language, the desk has stories to tell but they are hidden, encoded in wood and varnish. Too subtle for a quick glance.
Desks like this one were made of real wood, not sawdust pressed into boards by giant dusty machines somewhere in China. They were crafted from walnut, cherry and teak. The trees held a story of where they had grown, soaking in moisture and rustling in the breeze, bending their stout limbs under the force of a heavy downpour or monsoon. Each ring in the woodgrain marks another year of life; some good some bad.
This old desk is constructed from dense boards of oak, the hardest of hardwoods, the monarch of trees. Squirrels and birds once frolicked ebulliently in its branches, feasted on the acorns it supplied. Until one day a team of men cut it down, perhaps with a long saw that rasped back and forth as the lumberjacks pushed it through the trunk, reducing nature’s pillar to a fallen resource, a commodity, an object no longer alive. They didn’t think of themselves as murderers, but harvesters.
Did you pass your days in a small, windowless garret or in a big loft, with light streaming in and the clamor of a large city outside? There aren’t many clues here in this resale store, among all the slack and worn clothes, the chipped plates, the odd colored glass from a passed generation.
I open the center drawer and a whiff of cedar drifts out like an escaping djinn. There are blobby ink stains in the bottom of the drawer; at the back, a tarnished penny caught in a crack. Also some yellowed confetti, where a punch has pierced bond paper. Made three perfect holes so that pages may be snapped into a folder; or fixed with brass brads, binding a manuscript that was sent to an agent who reads it while eating a hot pastrami sandwich on rye—with extra pickle.
A side drawer hints at floral perfume. Was this once a woman’s desk? Perhaps, a woman hoping to get respect for her talent as she pecked-out romantic novels, or a busy mother raising children on her own against all odds. It might have been a complacent housewife, paying her bills every month and keeping scent hidden in a drawer against the days her lover came to call. It might have witnessed shouted quarrels, tears and apologies. Or it might have seen a wife, a brilliant and beloved woman, die in the prime of life and the husband—shocked, shattered and nearly mad with grief—exiled her possessions, too bereft and wounded to behold them any more.
This battered old desk might have stood at the center of a political movement, a nest of radicals, certain they could and would change the world, only to disband six months later when the money ran out, or the police arrested their leaders on false and ridiculous charges. A desk like this one would have served many owners, lived many lives.
I take out my wallet. I want this old desk. Want to add my story to its anthology of love and loss.
Gregory Von Dare is a writer and dramatist specializing in forward-leaning theatre and fiction, often with a humorous or ironic twist. He attended Chicago City College and the University of Illinois. While living in Los Angeles, he worked for Universal Studios, Disney, Armed Forces Radio and Fox Sports. He was dramaturg and head of the Directors Wing for the Classical Theatre Lab in L.A. Recently, his fiction appeared on the Soft Cartel, Out of the Gutter, 50 Word Stories, Rejected Manuscripts and Horror Tree websites. Greg is an Affiliate Member of Mystery Writers of America and a member of the Playwrights Workshop at Theatre of Western Springs. He now lives outside Chicago where certain people will never find him.