On May 11th, 1985, my family moved from Cottonwood Street in Springdale to a house next to the Willis Shaw long-haul employee parking lot in Elm Springs. To be exact, it was 111 Jayroe Avenue. As for the date, I only remember because of the circumstances and that I wrote an erratic journal entry that day. Graduation from high school loomed close for me. I loathed moving away from town again. Although I can’t remember why we moved from Springdale, it seems like Dad wanted to be close to Mr. Dunivan’s house and car shop near there. (Mr. Dunivan was married to a paternal cousin. I grew up thinking he was the cousin, rather than his wife.) I was surprised that Mom and Dad were moving together; their feuds were becoming bloodier and louder. Barring a duel to the death in the street, I assumed that my graduation would be the apex of their shared hatred for one another, at least married hatred.
My brother left ASU and came home long enough to realize his best option was to be somewhere else. He joined the Army while we still lived on Cottonwood. My sister was long gone, on her circuitous road to disaster.
We rented a house next to the landlords in Elm Springs, one of whom was the postmaster at Elm Springs. I’m 75% certain of the last part. Our house was literally next to the parking lot where the trucks idled. The constant hum and rumble of diesel trucks never ceased. I’m not using hyperbole; they literally never turned off. It required an adjustment, but once in the background, everything sounded crazily quiet by comparison.
Elm Springs was a great little town. We had our own version of Joe the Tiger King, a strange man who owned escape-prone large cats. He lived right off Highway 112, which cut through Elm Springs. The roads were ideal for running, biking, and walking. I lived in Elm Springs the first and only time I was a victim of a deliberate hit-and-run while I was running. I guess it would be a hit-and-run-and-running in that case. That’s a story for another day. The house was near the community building, on the opposite side of the employee’s parking lot across from the diesel lot.
It was from that house that my dad finally fled Northwest Arkansas to return to Monroe County. He never returned to live in NWA. He died a few years later. I could not understand why my parents had inflicted so many years on us by staying together. Individually they were treacherous. Together, toxic and flammable. It seems like they needed both victims and witnesses to their lunacy. It’s a great foundation from which to draw stories. Oddly, this is the house my Mom lived at when she went to rehab for the first time and before she lost her great job at SW Bell aka AT&T. For the golden era shortly after her return from rehab, I couldn’t believe she was the same person. The golden era of sobriety didn’t last long. She kept finding higher cliffs to jump proverbially from after her sobriety.
If you would have told me that my Mom and Dad would have voluntarily remarried one another after intervening marriages to other people, I would have laughed. They originally married on Feb. 12th, 1964. They remarried on Feb. 12th, 1993. Dad died 7 months later.
While we were in the Willis Shaw house, it was an erratic series of brutal nights. Rent-A-Center didn’t exist then. If it had, we would have bought 30 roomfuls of furniture. For reasons still unclear to me, one of my parents would buy or bring home a wide variety of glass furniture, or furniture that was easily lifted. I often amused myself by considering the purchase of a box of used plates from the Tontitown Flea Market on Elm Springs Road. (It used to be called the ‘original.’ Everyone misses it.) I could then stack them on the counter or table in huge piles, ready to be grabbed by beer or whiskey-scented fingers in anger. After each round of furniture melees, Dad would load the pieces into his truck and dump them at Mr. Dunivan’s, or burn them there.
I have a lot of stories from this place. This one, though, amuses me.
There were a few houses marked by greater-than-average savagery: my cousin Leta’s house in Tontitown, the tiny tin can trailer where Don Tyson now meets Butterfield Coach, the trailers on Piazza Road, and the Willis Shaw house, as I remember it in my memories.
Somewhere out there in this world, there’s a man who tells a terrifying story, one that began with his intention to check on the welfare of people in a house in Elm Springs next to the Willis Shaw lot. I call him Cowboy Boots Man. How long he had been out on the road in his 18-wheeler is something I’m not aware of. But I do know that he pulled in and walked across the street to enter the vehicle parking area where his truck sat, after at least 3 weeks of not being driven. Though my memory is a little dim, I think it was about 8 p.m. He must have been worn out from driving for weeks.
He probably heard a thunderous crash and perhaps a series of screams and shouts. I’ll remind you at this point that due to the trucks always running, the volume required to pierce the atmospheric blanket of noise must have been chillingly loud.
The back of the house where my room was had a bad door directly from it. This was invaluable on many nights. My bedroom was cavernously huge, as an add-on sat at the back. I had a couch. I also had an incredibly bizarre old organ that someone gave me. Because of my mismatched skill with electronics, I had modified it to allow me to input/output and to record with it. I wrote some truly strange music in those days. I could also record the rantings and violence of my parents. I didn’t keep those recordings, which is a shame, given the historical clarity they would have provided me later in life.
That evening, I’d left and taken a very long walk, after running earlier in the day. I assumed that upon my return that my mom and dad would have lost all interest in their violent fight. I was wrong. I looked into the living area, and the carnage was almost comical. My parents were screaming insults back and forth. Mom was sitting near the t.v. and dad was on the edge of the upended couch. He held a sawed-off 20-gauge shotgun in his lap. In one hand, he had a bottle of whiskey. The gun didn’t alarm me. I’d seen it pulled in a fight repeatedly. No one could guess the alchemy which determined at what point my Dad might lose his temper permanently.
I shut my bedroom door and just as I sat down on the cheap couch in my room, I heard a bang on the front door. Bang! Bang! Bang! Someone was at the door. That raised the hairs on the back of my neck. Interlopers made it very dangerous for everyone present. I opened the bedroom door. Dad stumbled across the mess of broken household items and flung open the front door.
“I heard someone screaming…” the man began to say. Just as he started to speak, Dad raised the shotgun at him. “What the f$%^,” the man half-shouted. I don’t remember what Dad said. It was both threatening and a little humorous. The man must have not registered that laws were inapplicable to my Dad in this state.
He asked if everyone was okay and took a step forward as if he was going to stick his head inside the door. Dad was initially surprised and almost fell backward. In the interim, Mom was rambling incoherently and angrily in the background. Dad took a swig of whiskey and then took steps toward the man. He hastily back-pedaled away, retreating to the edge of the concrete porch. He grabbed one of the wrought-iron decorative posts to steady himself. Dad flicked the light switch with the hand holding the whiskey bottle. The light came on, illuminating the face of the man who was only trying to help.
Dad raised the shotgun, and for a second, I knew he would cross one of the few remaining lines and shoot. He did. The gun blasted and Dad’s arm flew up with the shot. It sounded like a bomb went off inside the house. Even Mom stopped angrily ranting momentarily. The man stood frozen in place. Though it’s not quite right, Dad then asked, “Anything else, c#cks#cker?” and took another drink from the bottle and howled as he sometimes did.
It was a frozen moment. Without a word, the man turned and ran toward the street, even though he was wearing cowboy boots. Mom jumped up, or tried to, and fell face-first across the upended couch. She flipped over like a child’s toy knocked off a high shelf.
Dad turned off the porch light and slammed the front door. “Goodbye, c#cks#cker,” he said to himself. “C#cks#cker,” as I’ve probably mentioned, was almost a prayer word for him. He sat the whiskey on the shelf nearby and sat the shotgun next to it. “Imma going to bed,” he said. I know he saw me there, but thankfully he said nothing to me. He walked to my right and down the hallway to the bedroom on the righthand side of the hallway on the end. I went into my bedroom and went outside through the backdoor. I walked around the side toward the employee parking lot and waited.
I saw no sign of the man who just saw his life pass in front of his eyes.
No one else came by that night. No police. Though it will cause some strife to hear it, even if the police had come, it was easy to ‘persuade’ them to lose interest. Dad or Mom could have held up the decapitated head of the other, and I’m certain the police would have asked them to please keep the noise level down.
The next day, I peeked out into the living room early. Mom was still lying on the floor near where she fell. She’s moved a couple of feet during the night. Passed out, I presumed. I took a long run, wondering what the day would look like. Early morning fights were the ugliest. Fewer words, more bile. Unlike the other parts of the day, it was the one time when holding a cup of scalding hot liquid seemed to present the insurmountable urge to fling it at one’s spouse in anger. “The best part of waking up, is 3rd-degree burns on your face,” was my family’s version of the Folger’s commercial.
Hours later, when I came out of my bedroom from reading and before I had to go to work, Dad was outside, running his hand along the front panel of his truck. There were pellet dents all along its surface. The shotgun had been moved, so I assumed Dad put it away, either under a piece of furniture or under his truck seat. I could hear Dad cursing under his breath.
“Did Kack do this?” he asked. (A nickname for my Mom.)
I didn’t want to answer either way.
I chose the middle option: I lied. I figured he didn’t remember most of it.
“I wasn’t here.”
I wondered about the Cowboy Boots Man long after. Why didn’t he call the police? Did it cure him of his desire to help people? Did landlords ever check references when my parents expressed an interest in their properties?
P.S. The picture is one from my parent’s second wedding at the Lutheran Church in Rich, Monroe County. I was the flower girl. In a twist, my dad, who loathed formal wear, wore a suit minus tie. I wore my beloved “get shot in Chicago” jacket with a glowing “X” on the left side, which is a story unto itself.