Bailey White: 'What Would They Say in Birmingham?'

Bailey White

hide captionWriter Bailey White lives in Thomasville, Ga. This is her 15th annual Thanksgiving tale.

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The annual tradition of Thanksgiving Day stories by Bailey White continues. This year's offering is a tale of love, small-town Alabama life and a quirky character called Smash McCoy. It's called "What Would They Say in Birmingham?"

It all started in the bathroom in the back of the bookstore in Florinna, Ala., the store owner Mrs. Horne gesturing magnificently at the blank wall and talking about Arabian stallions, and the mural painter, Lucy, backed up against the toilet, nodding and saying yes, yes, while wondering how in the world she could possibly paint seven horses in a race with the wind around the toilet paper holder and faux marble sink.

Lucy spent a lot of time painting in small rooms, because of the idea people had that a mural opened up the space. Before 2005 she had painted mostly coastal scenes in new developments along the beach, but Hurricane Katrina had taken the charm out of sunlit waves on gleaming sands. Now she found herself farther inland, painting alpine scenes.

Mrs. Horne had decided on a Vermont village with a red barn and a church steeple, but last night she had gone to an inspiring neighborhood development meeting where the speaker had talked about a sense of place. Build your own memories into this town! he commanded. Sure it's a beautiful old town with loads and loads of history. But it's your town now, and you must give it your own history. Build into the town everything that you love.

So Mrs. Horne threw out all Lucy's sketches of Peacham, Vt., and decided she wanted for her mural a rendition of the frontispiece of her favorite book as a child, Wesley Dennis's magnificent illustration of seven Arabian stallions dashing across the desert in Marguerite Henry's book King of the Wind.

The town was the little old town of Florinna, Ala. It had boomed when the Jackson Lumber Company established a mill there in 1895 and shipped out two million board feet of tongue-in-groove, end-matched rift flooring a day to cities in the northeast and overseas to Europe. The optimistic, forward-looking settlers of Florinna built sturdy, straightforward heart pine houses with long windows opening onto wide sloping porches. They planted hundreds of baby live oak trees all up and down the streets. They built a brick school on the hill, and one brick downtown street with everything anybody could possibly need or want: a feed store, a grocery store, a drugstore, a hardware store, and a dry goods store. But in 1916 the planer mill burned, and in 1930 the depression came, and in the 1960s the road just east of Florinna became an access road to I-10, and one by one the stores shut down, the porches sagged on the houses, the windows on the school were boarded up and Florinna children were bussed to the big new school in the east end of the county. For 40 years, the only things that continued to thrive in Florinna were the live oak trees and Smash McCoy's feed store.

Then Hurricane Katrina hit, and the real-estate developers turned their backs on the coast, took off their sunglasses, and saw for the first time, 50 miles inland and 350 feet above sea level, the peaceful little old abandoned town of Florinna, with its oak-shaded brick streets and its Victorian downtown. Whoa! they said, and they started writing contracts. The hardware store became an art gallery selling folk art, the dry-goods store became a gift shop belching out the scent of Yankee candles, and the grocery store had a sushi bar. Big tubs of geraniums lined the sidewalks, a vacant lot was turned into a pocket park, and now after just one year, Florinna was hovering on the edge of cute.

Mrs. Horne, fresh from her divorce with nothing but her white cat Precious under her arm and $3 million in her bank account, came down from Birmingham, and set up her book and gift store in the old drug store building right next to Smash McCoy's feed store. She called it White Cat Books. First I thought of cats for the mural, Mrs. Horne said to Lucy, a whole wall of cats.

From the front of the store Lucy heard knock, knock, knock. "Do I hear — "

"But then I thought no, no, no, this is a bookstore, it needs to be a scene from a famous book, and I thought of Lad: A Dog, but nobody reads Lad: A Dog anymore, everybody's into Shar-peis — "

"Yes," said Lucy. "Is somebody — "

"And then last night Pierre Lepont said, 'Build in your own memories, this is your town.' That was a pivotal moment for me, Lucy, because this is my town." Mrs. Horne raised her arms dramatically, as wide as she could in the small space, and hugged herself with her eyes closed. "It's my town, and it's my life, all my very own!"

"Is somebody knocking?" said Lucy.

Then they heard footsteps, and there was Smash McCoy's standing in the doorway of the bathroom holding a white cat by the scruff of the neck.

"Ma'am," he said.

"Precious!" squealed Mrs. Horne. The cat dangled limp wristed, with its tail curled under its belly and one eye pulled into a squint and its mouth pulled into a long smile. It looked at them peacefully through slitted eyes, as if in a meditative trance, and Mrs. Horne gathered it up, rump first, and cuddled it under her chin, gently swaying from side to side.

"My name is Smash McCoy's, ma'am," said Smash McCoy.

Smash McCoy's looked like a combination of Cool Hand Luke and Moses from a bad movie of the Old Testament. He had those blue eyes and that regal nose and a kind of still dignity to his face, caused by badly patched-up skin cancer surgeries. He was the only person left in Florinna who was from Florinna, and he ran McCoy's Feed and Seed, the store his grandfather Lucien McCoy's had opened in 1895. The store had crept along selling seed corn and crowder peas and fertilizer and grain to farmers in the county, but the developers of the new Florinna had set up a model farm on the outskirts of town, just for looks, with a bronze statue of a horse on a stone pedestal, with its head high and mane and tail flying. There were riding horses in the pasture, and a brand new barn that looked like it came right out of Charlotte's Web.

Smash McCoy's himself had been turned into a kind of pet, and from the old beadboard hoppers in McCoy's Feed and Seed, he now kept fancy sweet feed and oats and organic chicken feed with no added antibiotics, where there used to be moldy scratch feed and laying mash.

Everybody loved Smash McCoy. The urban theorists said that he gave authenticity to the town, and the real-estate developers called him Smash and winked and said that he was a real gentleman of the old school. They wrote Smash McCoy's and his family feed store up in their promotional literature and asked him to pose for photographs for their brochures. They loved the questions he asked at the charettes: "Now how are them cows gon get to water, you got the creek fenced off." Joggers began to drop in at McCoy's Feed and Seed to shoot the breeze with Smash McCoy, leaning up against the grain bins in their nylon pants with zippers at the ankles.

"Smash," they asked, "what do you think of this, and what do you think of that" — just to hear him talk, and just for the satisfaction of being able to say, "Well, I had a nice visit with old Smash this morning."

Smash McCoy's came to be the symbol of everything the ad brochures claimed about the New Florinna — authenticity, old-fashioned charm, the simple life, traditional rural values. Ladies living in the fixed up old houses along the river had fancy chicken pens built in their back yards and were thrilled to gather their own eggs, and to consult with Smash McCoy's about their flocks. They brought little ailing chicks in to him, cuddled in the palms of their hands.

"Ma'am, that biddy's got the gummy tail, ain't nothing you can do about it but snatch its head off," said Smash McCoy.

Then they would go home and talk about Smash McCoy amongst themselves, and laugh about his "tough love."

Even Mrs. Horne's white cat Precious loved Smash McCoy, and instead of lolling on a satin pillow in the store window under the curlicue sign "White Cat Books" as Mrs. Horne had planned, he took to pacing back and forth in front of the door, meowing plaintively with his longing to get out of White Cat Books and dash over to McCoy's Feed and Seed.

One day when Smash McCoy's brought Precious back to the bookstore, Mrs. Horne took him into the bathroom to see Lucy's mural. Lucy showed Smash McCoy her preliminary sketches of the seven Arabian horses racing across the desert.

"Look like they got a little bit of quarter horse in them,"said Smash McCoy.

"You got that just right, how he's got them hind legs gathered up underneath him. You draw a mighty fine horse, ma'am."

"Thank you, Mr. McCoy,"said Lucy.

"Smash," said Mrs. Horne, "I have a thing about horses, and I think there have been horses in your past. When I look at you, I see horses."

"Yes'm," said Smash McCoy. "I have had a right smart of dealing with horses in my time, and there was some good and some bad about it."

"I would love to hear your stories, Smash," said Mrs. Horne, and she led Smash McCoy out into the little sitting room part of the book store where she had reading lamps and comfortable furniture. "I bet you could tell the most fascinating horse stories, better than the stories in the books I sell."

"Yes'm, I could tell some horse stories'd make you want to just put your head in your hands and cry like a baby," said Smash McCoy.

"You know," said Mrs. Horne, "when I was a little girl, my daddy bought me a horse, just the laziest, good-for-nothingest horse you ever saw. All he did was stand around half asleep, with his bottom lip hanging down, but I loved him so, and I named him Trigger. Oh, I had such horse dreams, Smash!"

Mrs. Horne's favorite colors were lavender and pale green, and she was skillful with her clothes and makeup. She had soft blond hair and she smelled like heliotrope. Mrs. Horne sat down in the chair across from Smash McCoy, crossed her legs and smoothed her skirt around her knees. She had pretty little hands and feet and she arranged them just so. "You know," she said, "I still dream of horses, but not of horses like my old Trigger. Oh, no! I dream of horses like the Arabian stallions in Lucy's painting, horses from books I've read, spirited horses with fire in their eyes and their heads and tails held high."

Smash McCoy didn't say a word, but sat there thoughtfully for a long time, while Precious meowed and gazed up at him.

By that afternoon Lucy had finished the background of the mural and begun to block in the horses. She was washing out her brushes when Mrs. Horne came in to admire the work and chat.

"You know," Mrs. Horne said, "I do believe Smash McCoy is a little sweet on me, isn't that the cutest thing? The poor man was absolutely tongue tied!"

"Or maybe he just didn't have anything to say," said Lucy.

"The silent type!" said Mrs. Horne, wagging a finger. "Still waters run deep!"

After that, Smash McCoy began showing up nearly every day at the bookstore, to see the progress of the mural and to sit in the comfortable reading lounge with Mrs. Horne. She fed him sesame wafers from the coffee shop — "I feel just like a little birdie, eating all these seeds," said Smash McCoy — and made him cups of green tea — "Tastes about like branch water," said Smash McCoy.

One day about a week into it, Mrs. Horne confided to him in whispers that she wasn't happy with the progress of the mural.

"I feel so bad, Lucy has worked so hard, but there's something troubling about it," she whispered, leaning in to Smash McCoy.

"Ain't nothing wrong with them horses, now," said Smash McCoy.

"It's not the horses, it's the background," said Mrs. Horne. "It looks like something out of Desert Storm. Will you come with me when I confront her, Smash? I must be brave, but for this I need a man by my side."

"I'll be that man," said Smash McCoy. "Happy to."

Smash McCoy stood in the doorway as Mrs. Horne began. "We love the horses, Lucy, but there's something harsh about the background."

Lucy stood with her brush held lightly in her fingers, looking at the rock she had just painted. Those shadows had not been easy.

"Could you just put a tree or two in there?" said Mrs. Horne. "Not necessarily a tree tree, but just a suggestion of trees. I think it needs the softness of trees. What do you think, Smash?"

"I like trees," said Smash McCoy. "This whole town was built on the longleaf pine."

So Lucy worked another day and a half, wishing she got paid by the hour instead of the job, painting out rocks and painting in trees, and at last it was done.

"I love it, Lucy, I absolutely love it," said Mrs. Horne. "That is exactly what it needed, just that little touch of green." She signed the check, and hung a roll of toilet paper under the thundering hooves of the bay horse. She stood back and clasped her hands delightedly under her chin. "Just in time for the parade!" she said.

Then it was Thanksgiving week, and the whole town was scurrying to get ready for the first annual Florinna Thanksgiving Day Parade. On Tuesday afternoon, Mrs. Horne got Smash McCoy to drive her all the way to Dothan to get a truckload of bronze and yellow chrysanthemums. It was after 11 by the time they got back and it was 1:00 a.m. when Smash McCoy's truck pulled out of Mrs. Horne's driveway and headed slowly down the street with the headlights turned off.

The next day Mrs. Horne was all over town delivering pots of chrysanthemums, and whispering and giggling.

In the coffee shop, alternating pots of bronze and yellow: "You know how courtly he is! Why it was just like something out of a book!"

At the gift shop, pinching off broken flower heads: "Alice, I'm telling you, he was down on his knees! I said, 'Smash, get up from there!'"

And to Lucy late in the afternoon: "Why I had no idea what thoughts had been forming in that stony old head of his! It was one o'clock for heavens sake, I was just exhausted, finally I just threw him out, I said, 'Smash, go home!' What in the world was he thinking?"

It was not a big day at McCoy's Feed and Seed. Smash McCoy sold a ball of string and loaded 50 bales of hay for seats around a bonfire, but he didn't come out of the back of the store all day.

The next day was Thanksgiving, but long before daylight Lucy's telephone rang. It was Mrs. Horne, in a shrieking whisper:

"Lucy! There is something in my yard! Lucy! Smash McCoy did this! What am I going to do? Lucy, please just come over here. I'll pay you anything, I need help!"

Mrs. Horne met Lucy in the dark and led her through the dark house. "I can't turn on lights," she whispered. "No one can know about this. Look!" and she threw open the back door. "Just look!"

There was a magnificent old crape myrtle tree from the old Florinna days, its smooth trunks gleaming white and a little row of Indian Hawthorne bushes Mrs. Horne had put in and then right in the middle of the flower bed where the yard began to slope down to the river something big and dark looked almost like a horse.

"What in the world ... " said Lucy.

It was a horse. It was the bronze horse from the entrance to the model farm, gleaming in the moonlight of Mrs. Horne's backyard, its head held high and its mane and tail flying, its majesty slightly impaired by a staggering tilt to the left where its supporting front leg had punched into the soft dirt of Mrs. Horne's ophiopogon border.

"What was he thinking!" said Mrs. Horne.

"Why in the world ... " said Lucy.

"Because I won't marry him!" shrieked Mrs. Horne. "The very idea! Give up that alimony check for a man who sells chicken feed and chews a mint-flavored toothpick! Me! I'm from Birmingham!"

"How did he get it off of there?" said Lucy. "How did he get it over here? It must weigh — "

"I don't care how he did it!" snapped Mrs. Horne. "We've got to get rid of it. Think about it Lucy: Nothing can touch Smash McCoy. He is an iconic figure. But I'm just a little businesswoman! How will this make me look? I'm the one who will be ruined if this is found out." She paused and bravely choked back a sob.

"What would they say in Birmingham?"

It was not hard to tip the horse over, with both of them pushing, and it shoved easy over the dewy St. Augustine grass of Mrs. Horne's lawn and down the slope to the river. The head, tipped at that angle of arrogance, cut some gouges, but nothing that could not be sodded over. Once in the water, it wanted to float head down, with its pointy feet sticking up, and Lucy had to wade in waist deep and hold it down against the current while it filled with water from a hole in its belly. It rolled over on its side, and floated high for a minute like a dead, bloated thing. There was a glug glug glug sound, it sank lower and lower, and at last Lucy guided it out until she couldn't touch bottom anymore and gave it a shove. It caught on a snag, twirled once, and sank.

The next day the first annual Florinna parade went on as scheduled, but it was a pitiful thing, with no enthusiasm. Nobody could think of anything but the missing statue. They all left the parade and went down to the gates of the farm and stood around, staring at all that was left of the bronze horse, its three feet on the stone pedestal, cruelly cut off at the fetlocks with a hack saw. All they could talk about was who and why: vandals, college kids from Auburn, just for a lark, no understanding of values, what a shame, the first crime in our town. Nobody was thinking about the joys of the season, so Mrs. Horne turned out the lights on the display of Christmas books in the bookstore window and closed early.

Everybody seemed to find Smash McCoy's feed store a comforting place to be, and they congregated there and stayed until long after dark, drinking coffee and talking about the stolen statue. Smash McCoy didn't say much, just a few times, "Ain't it a shame." He sat in a straight chair by the woodstove, whittling a little horse out of basswood with his penknife, while Mrs. Horne's white cat wove in and out, rubbing up against his legs.

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