The early summer mist still blanketed the encircling cotton fields. Grandpa poured me a cup of coffee and then held the screen door open for me to slither through. Instead of sitting on the long porch swing, we both stepped down onto the cut railroad ties in front of the porch and sat. Grandma’s coffee was always hotter than the top of a wood stove. I was expected to respect the dangers of hot coffee. We could hear grandma inside, fussing with the skillet of salt pork, bacon, and sausage. When I was young and with my grandparents, vegetarianism was unimaginable. Later, as Grandma noted my love for vegetables, she filled my plate and bowl relentlessly with corn, mustard greens, and beans of every kind. After a few minutes, the smell of breakfast filled the damp air. All of our stomachs grumbled in anticipation.
Grandpa pointed with his right hand as a reddish grey coyote bounded through the periphery of the cotton field to our left. It stopped in the gravel drive, his head sniffing the air. To me, they all resembled foxes. After a moment, he turned and ran through the mist and across the road. We watched as the mist above him churned to mark his passage.
Grandpa sloshed the remainder of his cup onto the grass and stood up. Just as I stood up, Grandma hollered from the back of the house, “Woolly, come on!” Because of the way she talked, I found it hard to believe that she was calling him Willie; my young ears could not distinguish the subtle difference.
Grandpa shrugged his shoulders and took my cup and sloshed it into the yard, too, indicating we’d better get inside before the call to eat intensified.
Salt pork, sausage patties, bacon, and buttered toast greeted us as we sat at the table. It was Tuesday, but looking back, it was a morning for kings, one of many that summer of 1975. The mist of that early morning over forty years ago still swirls in my mind. I awoke this morning with it fogging my senses.
It turns out that the story I wrote regarding my dad and Oct. 23rd, 1993 might end up being ‘the’ thing.
A torrent of people wrote to me after reading the story in other places, wanting to know the rest of the story or asking questions about Bobby Dean – or the history of the place I once called home. I’ve done my best to answer them. My dad would get a laugh from the idea that so many people, almost all of them strangers to himself or his hometown, might want to read about his life. He would also struggle to understand that it would be his younger son who valued nothing of his contribution until it was too late who would ultimately be the culprit responsible for softening Bobby Dean’s character. I opted to shed myself of his name and yet the residue of his shadow eternally lurks just behind me.
Better writers, better singers, and better historians might recount a more compelling tale; from their absence or application of effort, however, they’ve yielded the floor to me. I don’t know what writer’s block is and I seldom let the undertone of misbehavior break my pencil. Our lives are all stories, even as we fail to see it or wish them to be unwritten.
For anyone who has looked past my imperfect and stubborn way of writing and reached out to me to let me know they found something of value in it, I thank you. I still believe that our lives and the internet would be more understanding if everyone could find a way to share stories, even those tempered by our lesser natures.
It’s maddening and rewarding to find an audience out in the sea of strangers on the internet, in the place allegedly most hostile to sharing one’s life or story.
This picture is of my dad in a moment brimming with happiness. The house is now a hunting lodge off of Highway 49. I’m not sure what music might have been playing in the background, but Schlitz beer was powering the occasion. Dad, whose dance moves ran the gamut between A and all the way to B, danced with glee in front of his friends. It’s worth noting that Bobby Dean would have never danced in front of other men had alcohol not been involved. Delma Lee, the wife of one of dad’s friends, snapped the picture. She was one of the nicest people I’ve ever known. Her voice was as supple as a whispering angel, one with a drawl long to reach across the room and cause people to listen.
It’s still difficult for me to believe that dad wasn’t even 30 when this picture was taken. 25 years after his death, people who never shook his hand or cursed at his antics are thinking about his life. It’s a romanticized version, of course, but the majority of our memories are culled from the husks of things that many times should remain at rest or fuzzy with the passage of time.
In the early evening of Saturday, October 23rd, 1993, Bobby Dean stood by the tan surface of Highway 49, in a community sometimes called Rich. He watched as the last glimmers of the sun reflected from one of the windows of the fellowship hall of the Lutheran church across the state highway. The church itself had no front-facing windows, something that always drew his attention. Due to Bobby Dean’s connection to farming in the Delta of Arkansas, he knew that the official sunset was technically 15 minutes ago, slightly before 6:30. Like so many from that part of the state, he didn’t need a calendar or weatherman to predict the weather for him.
It was a warm day for eastern Arkansas. Not that Bobby Dean typically wore a jacket, but on this day, he had left his grease-stained jacket on the hook in the garage all day. The day had turned out to be perfect, rising to the upper 60s. The gas pumps were busy for most of the day, then activity tapered substantially as people headed home to eat before either venturing out again of staying home to watch the world series or Hee Haw. In the last ten minutes, only two cars had passed. Neither had stopped, probably on their way to Helena or Tunica. The casinos had recently put their footprint on the area and Highway 49 was quickly becoming a rapid corridor to find them. Locals argued relentlessly about whether they’d bring life back to their area or further drain it.
As the last car passed, Bobby Dean had been inside the station, closing the old register, the kind featuring mechanical rolling numbers. For no particular reason, he looked out one of the two wide front windows and saw the Reverend from Our Savior Church pull out on to the highway and point his vehicle toward Brinkley. As was his custom, Bobby Dean instinctively waved at toward the departing pastor, unsure whether the preacher could see his silhouette inside the station. Much to the surprise of many, the preacher and Bobby Dean had become well-acquainted. He performed Bobby Dean’s remarriage, as well as his funeral. One of Bobby Dean’s jokes was that remarriage technically could be considered to be a funeral, depending on one’s perspective.
As Bobby Dean looked to the north and south, the highway lay silent, its straight strip of asphalt pointing the way to wide expanses of farmland and house dotted along its perimeter. The tilled-under fields now waited, dormant and marching toward winter lifelessness. For those who admire such austere landscapes, it was meditative. Bobby Dean was certainly no one to ascribe to such silly words. To him, it was simply peaceful.
A younger Bobby Dean had lived in Northwest Arkansas and a short time in Indiana. He resided in Pendleton Correctional facility in Indiana as well, for his part in a robbery of a truck stop off of U.S. Highway 20. His heart always beat strongest in Monroe County. He was anchored to his wild youth, his family, the soil, and the freedom that such wide open spaces always presented to those willing to live inside them. Unfettered freedom and wide stages often led people like Bobby Dean to run wild.
He took an unfiltered Camel from his front shirt pocket and lit it. The smoke filled his lungs. As he exhaled, it formed a small cloud near him. The day’s light breeze had weakened. Bobby Dean always smelled like a blend of one or more of gasoline, oil, cigarettes, dirt, mints, and whiskey. Those who knew him could often read his potential behavior based on the prevalence of one scent over the other.
Looking back at the small church across the highway, he recalled that he had remarried there only 8 months prior. Strangely, it reaffirmed where he’d started: married to Carolyn and living in the small farming community. Carolyn would undoubtedly be at home just a bit up the road, near Cypress Road. The last time Bobby Dean ran this service station, the United States was celebrating its bicentennial and he and Carolyn had lived in a trailer almost touching the rear of the gas station. For a second, Bobby Dean wished they still lived behind the station. He could imagine the scent of freshly fried catfish in hot oil, the shouts of people congregating, and time before family began succumbing to inevitable biological frailty. His weariness enveloped him. His dream of coming back here to live and to work was realized but his bones were weary. Bobby Dean’s idea of a metaphor was the type found in Louis L’Amour westerns or demonstrated in the slitted, watchful eyes of Clint Eastwood.
Tonight, his demon fed by whiskey would not rear its head. Lately, Bobby Dean could not sustain its aftermath. His hard life was dealing out hard consequences. His namesake son, X, had surprised him last weekend with a visit. Bobby Dean had been driving his pickup along Highway 39, heading toward Monroe. His son had pulled alongside him in his roommate’s borrowed car, hogging the entire road. Carolyn was in the passenger seat, smiling like an idiot and shouting. “What’s up, #$%#$%#$%$@#$ ?” Bobby Dean had shouted back, laughing. He pulled over so everyone could exchange greetings and cleverly-worded obscenities as they laughed. Bobby Dean managed to salvage a few normal moments with his son during that visit until the urge to drink overwhelmed him. Like so many, he had no way of knowing that it would be his last chance to build a narrow bridge back toward his son.
He finished his cigarette, dropped it to the pavement, and smashed it out with his boot. Bobby Dean turned and walked over to the three gas pumps. He leaned against the outside pump, watching.
The October sun had disappeared entirely. The edge of the highway and all that surrounded it now lay in a blanket of time and silence. Waiting.
38 days later, Bobby Dean walked his last step.
His bones now rest in Upper Cemetery along the same highway, near one of the areas where Cypress Creek and its thick, muddy waters crest near the road. If you drive by at night, you can hear Bobby Dean’s shouts trailing behind you. You’ll fight the urge to floor it without knowing why. Instead, you’ll roll down the window and listen more closely. Tilled earth, smoke, and whiskey will greet you. It’s my hope that you’ll find only the wild, enthusiastic side of Bobby Dean as you pass; may his violent undercurrent forever be at rest.
If you drive the highway to visit the area where the station once stood, you’ll find the small church still patiently marking the days of its members. The station, though, is long gone. In April of 2009, someone removed the subterranean gas tanks. Not long after, the building was gone. Now, as you pass, you’ll note almost no remaining footprint for the gas station. The two telephone poles which once aligned with either end of the property still stand, along with a very narrow strip of pavement. The rest, however, has surrendered to the relentless fertile soil of the Monroe County landscape. The last couple of times that I passed where the station once stood, I resisted the urge to stop and stand in the field there. I couldn’t be sure that time itself wouldn’t grab me and whisk me back to a distant decade, trapping me in nostalgia.
I fear that the entire area might be slipping into non-existence, reverting to a time before railroads, lumber, and commerce; one inhabited by natives.
I fear that Bobby Dean might be dissipating, too. He’s been dead for over half of my life and I’ve survived this place longer than he did.
Each of us only survives in actuality as long as a living soul still remembers us.
Somehow, I received the curse of being the historian of the family. Despite my untrustworthy memory, the only honor I can bring to the history of those who preceded me is to hold my hand aloft and swear to tell the unflinching truth. Some facts slightly disjoin in my retelling, without a doubt.
The mood and temperament though? These are my promises kept.
Nothing is entirely real, not even much of our memory. We revisit the places of our past and often find our footing slightly unfamiliar.
Emotion and bias tinge everything, a spreading patina of ink from a single drop. The more desperately we cling to our version of events, the less firm is our ability to live a life worthy enough to satisfy us. The emotional context which surrounds us shapes our ability to recall objectively what precedes us.
My parents were a volatile mix of temper and tantrum and no one could be an innocent bystander. To be a witness meant participation was mandatory and choosing sides wasn’t optional. There was no Switzerland in the households of my youth.
Yet, my parents chose to marry each other again, despite their long and violent history and while ignoring incredulous scrutiny from friends and family. Both had married other people during their marital hiatus and neither found adversaries willing to suffer and share their scarring.
I’m guilty of allowing my own history with them to cloud my ability to see that somewhere out of my reach, they shared a connection with one another. While it was forged in years of anger, it was real to them. Alcohol, jealousy, and unhappiness were the fuels of their mutual fire. Both of them were adept at stockpiling these lesser tendencies for the upcoming fires that would rage. None of us was equipped with the right tools to combat their wildfires. Each of us tried and failed.
Mom and dad married on Feb. 12th, 1964 and again on Feb. 12th, 1993. Dad died 9 months later, once again with mom in his life and while trying to make his dream work, in a rural little gas station on the edge of highway 49. The gas station is gone and a field has enveloped even its memory. If my father has a ghost, these greening acres along a nondescript highway are one of its homes. Most of these stretches of rural America certainly feel as if they are inhabited by lost souls.
This picture is of us in 1993, at a small Lutheran church that still manages to survive today. Mom and Dad had just exchanged vows for the second time. Although Dad was visibly uncomfortable in the suit he was wearing, he was at home with mom once again in his corner. Twenty-five long years have intervened. The church sits defiantly and almost directly across the road from the gas station dad attempted to make successful during two tries in his lifetime. Small communities need churches to bond them, serving both spiritual and mundane connections. Many of us in this world converged upon that small church in different stages of our lives; most of us have at least a few memories that are rendered opaque and wistful by having done so.
None of the facts has changed, but I have. I’m a stranger in the lands of my memories and I take comfort in my distorted reflection.
Somehow, experience has wrapped me in its strange embrace and violently shaken me. Not only is the sum of my parts now more than whole, but things I knew and things in my field or ignorance have exchanged residency.
I’m not certain of anything anymore.
Yet, paradoxically, I think that it might bring me greater happiness to see a fuzzy world instead of one sharply focused by my own opinions and experience.
The gas station and church both left footprints somewhere inside me, just as my parents did. I struggle with the same forces now that tormented me when I was younger. I learned ways to mitigate the disaster of my upbringing. There was no easy road or prolonged escape from the lessons I learned involuntarily.
I can see immeasurable violence in those whispering the word ‘love’ openly in the world and compassion in the eyes of someone with snarled lip and ready fist. I saw both in Carolyn and in Bobby Dean, the people who played the roles of my parents.
Love’s mystery is that it flourishes at all, as we teeter on the edge of loss at every moment.
“My dad taught me to swim by throwing me out of a moving vehicle. He was a master of incongruity.” – X
Charlotte once resided in a modest house on the corner of Lilly Street and Shumer Way, nestled inside one of the many decaying towns in the delta area of Arkansas. While she hadn’t stepped foot inside the family home in decades, it was still an infrequent and lingering beacon, a place that once defined her. Her mom had departed this world unexpectedly just as Charlotte hit her stride as an adult. Though her own life was full, a little air exited her soul with her mother’s passing. She not only had buried her mother but a sliver of her own life as well. It remained in her hometown, cloistered and protected from the world.
The promise of life blossomed before her, of course, but the loss of the person closest to her heart would always be one characterized by that uneasy and painful feeling one experiences after swallowing too big of a bite. In Charlotte’s case, the bubble of discomfort failed to fade completely. Each new experience, every shared story, and all moments of clarity occurred with an invisible and almost indiscernible hand on her shoulder. As time marched forward, the hand would feel lighter even as the bruise on her soul deepened. If a kind soul such as her mother could find herself so ingloriously subjected to the injustice of unearned disease, it could writhe toward anyone, despite nobility, intention, or merit. It was a hard lesson to accept but her mother taught it with unimaginable and sublime beauty.
She’d find herself in her hometown, often without remembering the interstate or the quaint highways that brought her there, the same byways once traveled by her mother. The engine of her car would be thunderously ticking, even as the beads of sweat rolled down her forehead. After untold minutes, she’d lower the driver window. Her eyes would devour the familiar details of the small covered rear porch and door, the one almost everyone used. The front door was almost ornamental; someone announcing himself there invariably identified as strangers. She knew without looking that there were 18 rows of white clapboard ascending the side of the house, culminating in exposed painted soffits. Some nights she would slowly emerge from a dream and could still feel the rough sensation of those painted boards as she leaned against the house of her youth. In the summer, one could feel the heat from several feet away.
The cacophony of the summer insects would reach her ears, the hum of mosquitoes would play its summertime melody, and she would cry. In her hometown, most memories anchored in the perennial summertime of her youth. Her mother was so close and the echo of her voice was a lingering presence in the humid air. Whispers, languid syllables of laughter and love, all these intertwined and coalesced in the way that only occurs in Southern towns infected by the paradoxical need to move away.
The peeling paint of the place she once called home still called her name. The four side windows once adorned with light and familiar faces now blankly stared outward without regard. The lawn now screamed for someone to show it the attention it once took for granted. No children would dance in its hidden garden again and it was likely that no family would claim it as an anchor before the structure yielded to the inevitable neglect and gravity. This town and all other places like it are the observable results of entropy; all slide toward darkness and disorder without a guiding force to sustain them. She felt sometimes that her mother was the same dynamic demonstration of physics and that her growing absence was slowly accumulating in her own body as a void with a widening precipice.
The apparition of her mom walked the streets next to the house, idly chiding an unseen canine companion as it wandered in exploration. That her mother might indeed be slightly beyond the unseen membrane between this place of the here and now and the unknown seemed plausible. It was a spell without resolution, though. Hours of fondly wishing it to be so proved the fruitlessness of the endeavor.
“Claire,” Charlotte would cautiously whisper, her mother’s name a secret she dared not say aloud, all these years later. The name, once fallen from her lips, would unleash something primal inside her.
The expectation of her mother’s return was the closest thing to an afterlife that Charlotte could anticipate. Perhaps tomorrow, perhaps in a decade, she would also yield to this world’s demands and sleep one last time, to awaken in the place wherein her mother now resided. It was promise enough for her, beyond even the lofty covenants given to her in church.
Mother and daughter would join one another in raucous laughter, undoubtedly in the unassuming kitchen of her youth. Love would be on the menu, forever, accompanied by the foods with which her mother had so gracefully adorned the family dinner table.
For now, though, Charlotte experienced the heat, the buzz of insects, and the observance of the disintegration of the cradle and crucible of her innermost heart. She could feel the fingers of time furtively clawing their way up her spine, just as they were doing to the integrity of the house she once called home. Both she and the house would inevitably succumb.
As a bead of sweat coalesced against her neck, those same fateful fingers chilled her and she smiled the most secret and indecipherable of smiles that puzzled everyone who knew her.
Not everyone holds onto life with desperation. For some, hope lies beyond, away, and in lingering embraces.
Meanwhile, some of us, like her, sit in the gathering dark in our versions of curious little hometowns and wait. All of this, each detail, is temporary on a sufficiently long enough timeline.
Memories abide and love resists the void.
Note: this anecdote is from my favorite cousin Lynette. She grew up in Brinkley, Arkansas, a quintessential small agricultural town in the South, one preoccupied with tornados.
A bad weather post a friend made earlier reminded me of a tornado experience from my youth.
We lived a block from a tornado siren. If you have never experienced one of these at that range, you should. A resident of my hometown likened it to the sound of the angel Gabriel blowing the final trumpet.
Anyway, one evening I was in the shower, and the alarm sounded. The sudden firing up of the siren alone was enough to cause cardiac arrest even for a teenager. Add to that the thought of being hit by a tornado nude, and the panic was real.
My mother runs into the bathroom throwing clothes at me. I catch the underwear and throw it to the floor.
She yells, “Put on your underwear!”
I scream, “There’s no time for underwear!”
She shouts back, “If the house is destroyed by a tornado, that is the only pair of underwear you will have!”
It’s Mom for the win!
Remember – There’s always time for underwear.
Recently, I wrote a story about finally discovering exactly what type of coffee cup I had used to drink my first cup of coffee with, back when people like my grandpa Willie believed that such things should simply just happen regardless of one’s age. I ordered a jadeite Fire-king cup from Etsy, more as a tribute than a keepsake.
A cousin of mine read my post and reached out to me. It turns out that she had a blue Fire-King cup, a cup my grandpa used to hold his razor and shaving cream brush. He was a minimalist, too, but for totally different reasons than mine.
My grandpa died on a Saturday back in October 1977. The cup he used most days sat dormant, waiting for me to wind my way through decades of intervening years. My cousin graciously offered to send it to me. I received it today. With the piece of ‘art’ I already posted about, this was a day for both something old and something new.
As sentimental as it may sound to say it aloud, holding the cup has already peeled back the foggy curtains of my youth.
The half-broken nail in front of the ‘shaving kit’ is the infamous nail that I wrote about in another blog post. This is the shortened version: A Rusty Nail…
P.S. My post about the jadeite green coffee mug on my blog and public figure Facebook page opened many doors for other people, people whose memories were triggered by the same recollections of family and home.