The stretch of road near the dam often held a cloud of marijuana smoke as I went through, especially on those nights or pre-dawn early mornings when the air was dense from the nearby lake. There were a couple of houses that seemed to have a higher occupancy of partiers. That part of Northwest Arkansas was ideal for such families. Such areas dwindle with each subdivision. One late morning I ran too far and was run-walking the last couple of miles along E. Lake Road past the dam. A group of intoxicated people was crowded around the dubious porch and spilled into the yard. At least three grills were going. I don’t know if it was a mid-day party or just a typical day.
“Hey, you hungry?” shouted one of them. I waved and smiled, figuring the revelers were just shouting out to me from a combination of boredom and buzzed heads. (And that I could wave and keep walking.)
“Don’t be like that! We see you running by here all the time.” I had no choice except to go over and attempt to deal with what probably amounted to a drunkfest. One of the trucks had a decent pile of beer cans in the back already. It was impossible to discern whether the partial pile was permanent or recent. Of the twenty or so people in the yard, I’m sure all of them were smoking. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the few young children on the porch periphery were smoking, too.
At least 3 of them offered me a beer. There were coolers stacked on the ground and on the tailgates of several vehicles. “I have to run back home,” I said, to convince them I wouldn’t drink. It probably sounded funny to people who routinely drove with a beer between their legs. “Don’t run drunk” isn’t precisely bumper sticker material. If it were, you’d only hear in liberal California and not rural Washington County.
After considerable jostling back and forth about staying and eating something, I figured that I had to eat something, per the Grandma Rule. It’s a bit uncomfortable eating with people you don’t know. I think they were accustomed to doing it. Whatever I might say about them, I had no doubt that they exercised the ability to sit and eat or talk with anyone. That’s a gift that even someone like me can appreciate.
The grills smelled good. I wasn’t sure about what I might be eating. They had 5 or 6 kinds of chips and all the fixings to go on hamburgers or hot dogs. The steaks didn’t interest me. The tomatoes looked delicious and were sliced from thick, juicy tomatoes.
Grabbing a bun, I decided to go all-in with tomato slices. I didn’t even bother with a hamburger patty. I piled at least 10 tomatoes slices on the bun, along with mustard and ketchup. Immediately, one of the guys at the party shouted, “Look at that! That’s the most tomatoes I’ve ever seen on a burger!” Anyone sober enough to understand English turned or stood up to get a look at the weirdo with the over-piled bun of tomatoes.
I piled the side of my plate with ruffled chips and stood next to one of the pickups with its tailgate lowered. Picking up the hamburger, I mashed my mouth over it in one herculean push. When I bit down, tomato juice covered my chin. Several people laughed. While I ate the tomato burger, several people watched me, fascinated by my choice. It was delicious. I downed a coke after the burger.
No sooner than I sat on the edge of the pickup, one of the guys brought out several mason jars of clear liquid. I instinctively knew it was moonshine. Before I could devise an excuse to leave, several of them started saying, “Shine! Shine!”
“This is the best shine you’ve had in your life,” hollered someone. “And if you drink enough of it, you won’t remember you drank it.” Though it was a joke that probably echoed in that yard often, it brought laughs with it.
The man with the mason jars put them on a makeshift table made of plywood. Plastic cups appeared from nowhere, and he began to pour a decent amount into each. A younger woman standing nearby began handing them out. She didn’t ask me – she simply handed me one of the cups without asking. “Thanks, ma’am,” I told her. “Ma’am?” She said and laughed, punching me in the arm as she did.
“I’d say a toast, but y’all are too drunk,” said another one of the older men. “Let’s drink!”
Those who could understand spoken language raised their cups and took a gulp. I decided that I would be unable to avoid spitting and coughing and be a spectacle, so I did too. Shockingly, the moonshine was incredibly smooth. I did feel like my mouth and throat were coated with something highly flammable, but I didn’t cough. I drank the rest of it without making a face. “I’ll be damned!” said the man who brought out the moonshine. I laughed and said, “I come from a long line of drinkers.” My tongue was already numb. I would not dare light a cigarette after taking a drink of that concoction.
I stayed for several more minutes as more moonshine was consumed. To be clear, I didn’t drink more. That bit of shine in the cup was as much as I could ever drink.
“Hey, sir, what’s your name?” I asked the moonshine man.
“You can call me Hank,” he said and laughed.
I walked the rest of the way home that day, concerned because I had to go to work by mid-afternoon. My head had cleared in an intervening couple of hours.
In the days that followed, I did wave hello and shout, “Hey, Hank!” as I passed the house. One day, Hank’s girlfriend gave me a sack of ripe tomatoes on my way to work. Many times, they’d laugh when I shouted, “Hey Hank!” as I passed.
Weeks later, I ran by and waved and smiled at several people in the yard. “Hey, Hank!” I shouted.
A couple of the guys closer to the edge of the road looked at me.
“Who is Hank, dipsh#t,” one of them asked me.
“The guy in the yard, the one with the beard. That’s Hank,” I told him.
“That guy’s name is Pete.”
In my defense, he did tell me that I could call him Hank.