As I neared the last corner on the way home, I saw my Marshallese neighbor in the lateral sideyard playing ball with his son. They were using a tennis ball and running across the yard, laughing. Unlike some of the neighbors, they were careful. It was a great late morning for such games, with a temperature in the upper 70s, a light breeze washing over them, and a sun uncharacteristically cool.
Seeing them frolic made me realize that I found a home for another of my keepsakes.
I drove past the few remaining houses to mine and parked in the driveway. I backed my wife’s car out of the garage and then used the drop-down attic staircase to go up. I shifted the bins around until I found the one with my two baseball gloves and a special baseball. A few years ago, I reconditioned both gloves and sealed them. It surprised me that I had not found a good home for the gloves before today.
When I was younger, I learned to catch using whatever glove was available. For most lefties like me, especially poor ones, I either used my bare hands or learned to rapidly remove my glove and throw the ball. The positive result of this was that I could catch perfectly well with either hand and bat right-handed.
Until today, I’ve waited to find a new home for my gloves. I didn’t want to give them to someone who wouldn’t appreciate them. Having them unused in the attic bothered me a bit, though. I’m violently opposed to owning such things without using them. Gloves are meant to be used. As terrible as a sports fan that I am, the simplicity of playing catch, hotbox, or hitting balls in the summer sun is something that I loved doing when I was young. Like most boys, I participated in versions of baseball anywhere that we could manage, from dormant municipal baseball fields to cow patches where large apartments now tower above the land.
I walked down to the corner. Rosen, the younger Marshallese owner of the house, walked up to meet me. His young son stood on the lawn, wondering what I was up to. Another smaller boy sat on the chair under the small covered porch on the front of the house.
“Hey, do you remember me? I’m the one who gave you the weedeater and spoke Spanish to you?”
Rosen nodded yes, and then said, “I know you have a strange name, but I can’t remember what it is.”
I showed him my work badge and told him, “X.” Seeing it written out sometimes gives people the right context to understand what I’m saying.
“Rosen, I want you to have my gloves. One if for lefties, and the other is for those who use the wrong hand to catch. And the baseball is a special one I’ve kept for many years. I want you to keep them and enjoy them.” The look on Rosen’s face told me that I had once again surprised him. When I moved to the new house a few years ago, I walked down and gave him a new weedeater. He was shocked then and surprised now.
“Wow, thanks X. We’ll definitely go to a ball field and play. We’ll use the tennis ball right now.”
I laughed. “Okay, but if you really want to repay me, you’ll break out a couple of windows of that neighbor’s house.” I turned and pointed to a house across the street, a house that is well on its way to becoming a version of Boo Radley’s house.
The residents of that infamous house are using every page of the ‘Asshole Neighbor’s Playbook.’ If the human underarm could become a house, it would be that one.
Rosen laughed, too.
He might not know the significance of that ball or what it meant to me, but if he uses it even for a single shared afternoon with his son, the honor will have been paid in equal measure.
I walked away and heard one of the boys say, “Dad, who was that nice man?”
I smiled, wondering what ripple effects I had unknowingly set in motion by my gift.
Years before the interstate crossed western Springdale, my cousin owned a big chunk of land where the Springdale Convention Center, Denny’s, and La Quinta now stand. (Little did he know how valuable his land would one day become.) He had one of the region’s largest machine shops there. (If such things matter for the story, he technically was ‘the husband of a 1st cousin 1x removed.’)
Along the road, his parents, Goldie and Ellis, owned a house, followed by a trailer and another little house further down. Pasture framed the property in a large “L.” Like much of the area, it was rural and Highway 412 was a slender ribbon known as 68. 48th Street cut across the highway, uninterrupted by the interstate like it is now. It’s interesting that Springdale is now reconnecting across that area with Gene George Blvd. On our side of the highway, 48th Street was a narrow road to almost nowhere. Close to the road stood several massive oak trees, a couple of them towering high about the landscape. There were pear and apple trees dotted all over the property, as well as a couple of walnut and pecan trees, one of which almost literally killed me, but not for the reason you might imagine. That’s a story for another day. My cousin Jimmy and I both narrowly avoided being blinded near there, which is also a story for another day. My family lived in two trailers and a very small house on the property.
I don’t remember how we ended up in the jon boat sitting in the grass near the trees in front of Goldie’s garage building. It was there for a while, so you had to careful about jumping into it without inspection. Otherwise, you might find yourself jumping right back out with a snake or other critter attached to you.
My cousin Jimmy found a few large darts somewhere. Time has stolen the details about where they originated. While they weren’t the infamous lawn darts that came later, they were larger than standard throwing darts that we’ve all tossed and hit the wall accidentally with, even as we tried to conceal our errant misses.
More than once, I said, “Watch out with those darts, Jimmy!” He was younger than me. He was also was protected by a strange force field of superiority. He was almost Kevin Costner untouchable. Jimmy laughed and threw another one with even more recklessness. It thudded into the wood bottom of the boat. “Darn it, Jimmy, you better not hit me!”
Jimmy stepped several steps further back and, without pausing, launched the heavy dart high into the air, in a long parabola of unknown destination. Naturally, I did the only thing possible: I covered my head and winced. I doubt Jimmy expected me to duck.
It turns out I didn’t need to concern myself with being hit in the head with the dart.
It landed directly on the top of my foot, impaling my left foot almost all the way through. I had a Jim Carrey moment, one in which I stared at the heavy dart impaled in my foot. My brain was taking a bit of a break to process this.
Suddenly, my foot cramped.
Jimmy’s face made an absurdly round “O” as his mouth fell open, as I writed a little bit in agony.
For once, I believed he didn’t intentionally do the thing that just happened. That is what happens when you indiscriminately toss heavy darts above people’s heads, though. That’s a helpful note if you find yourself indiscriminately tossing darts high into the air around other people.
All at once, the pain of the large dart being stuck through my foot reached my brain and I screamed like someone put a firecracker in my open mouth.
Jimmy ran away, already hollering that I was beating him, when in reality I was sitting in the boat with a dart stuck in my foot. I pulled it out without thinking very long about it. It took several seconds for the hole to begin oozing blood. I did not run after him. For the time being, I didn’t care if he had season passes to Dogpatch and free ice cream for me.
After several minutes, I hobbled around the trailer on the backside and tried to go inside. “You better not get blood in here, you little sh!t,” Mom told me between puffs on her cigarette. I went back outside and around to the front of the trailer. Dad was sitting there with Uncle Buck.
My Dad, often the comedian, yelled “Bullseye!” at me. I assumed Jimmy finally admitted he threw a dart into my foot. I still didn’t see Jimmy.
Uncle Buck, in the role of a caring human being, told me to wash the wound out.
“Nonsense,” Dad opined. “Put some ash on it.” Dad unsteadily stood up and with his drunken swagger approached me. He grabbed charcoal out of the burn pile and motioned for me to approach. He smashed it in his fist and rubbed it on top of my foot. I stood perfectly still, hoping his attention would shift so that I could get away. I knew better than to flinch or cry. “Bullseye,” Dad repeated and laughed.
I hobbled away. I found Jimmy a few minutes later sitting on a low branch of one of the apple trees between Goldie’s house and the rear of the machine shop. I didn’t hit him. He was Jimmy – and Jimmy did only what Jimmy did best. I think he found it difficult to relax if I had a dart in my hand, though.
Once again, I opened my email to discover a message telling me exactly what I needed to hear. A sister of one of my paternal aunts wrote me, telling me she’d noticed I added another 100+ pictures of her sister on Ancestry. These are archived in original resolution. My aunt’s sister told me she’d cried a bit, something she hadn’t expected. I wrote her back and told her I put every usable picture I owned of my aunt on there, in the hopes they might last forever, for anyone to see. I also told her I did the same for my uncle and my cousin Jimmy, both of whom now have hundreds of pictures on their respective pages. If you didn’t guess, putting so many pictures on accounts is a rarity.
It was a labor of love and honor. It’s the least I could do. These pictures are in my possession, but I don’t think I own them. They belong to us all – anyone who shared moments, laughter, or time with those in the pictures.
Yesterday, I wrote a post about high school pictures. I used a horrible picture of myself from many years ago. It was a bit satirical, but the message was one I’ve written about a few dozen times: vanity and hoarding regarding pictures is sinful. I’ve never owned a picture that I haven’t offered to everyone who might have an interest. I don’t get the urge to hoard pictures in a box, under a bed, or in a seldom-used closet.
More than one person got irritated at me for preaching the gospel of sharing. Some people righteously guard their past appearance, as if history isn’t going to kick that door open with time anyway. Others play the role of Gollum and greedily keep their pictures hidden in the crook of their unapproachable arms. The last tendency lessens everyone’s ability to remember and cherish people in our past who’ve passed on to the next life.
When my aunt’s sister reached out yesterday, she didn’t know that it was what I needed to hear. My actions months ago opened her heart again, even if for only for a while yesterday. In those moments, she could see that I had paid homage to her sister, to life, and to people we love.
All those pictures? Some of them have been downloaded dozens of times, each time by someone who discovered my treasure, one freely given. I am merely the guardian.
My cousin Jimmy had everything good to eat. No matter what he wanted to eat, his mom bought it for him. His cereal cabinet might as well have been made of gold. At home, I was lucky to avoid eating a can of hominy instead of cereal. He had Pop-Tarts, Fruity Pebbles, Count Chocula, Captain Crunch, Lucky Charms, and anything else he requested. While I loved corn flakes, I’ll admit the exotic flavors of Jimmy’s cereal cabinet were a sight to behold. He also had really good milk, the kind I’ve despised most of my life since. I’d rather drink the urine of an infected goat than finish a glass of milk – especially whole milk. When I worked in a dairy in high school, my distaste intensified.
Jimmy was three years younger than me. He loved challenging me to exotic dares. I had two things working in my favor: I didn’t expect to live long and I was an idiot. Jimmy maximized his arguments to appeal to those attributes. He seldom had to fear any repercussions for his antics, even if arson or dismemberment were involved. For my Aunt and Uncle, they were mainly only interested if it was their son’s arm or leg which had been detached; beyond that, they growled and barked but otherwise gave him carte blanche to do as he wished.
As was the case with cereal, Jimmy also had the awesome drinks of childhood: clean water devoid of sewage residue, unlimited whole milk, orange juice, chocolate milk, hot cocoa with real marshmallows, and the entire range of available sodas. He also had Tang.
Because of my aberrant taste in food, I loved stealing or a spoonful of Tang powder and eating it. It was luxurious and overwhelming. At times, I’d up-end the jar and pour it into my mouth directly. I had been unknowingly training for years to ingest a large amount of Tang on a dare.
One Sunday morning, Jimmy ate two different kinds of sugary cereal. Afterward, he jokingly challenged me to drink a big spoon of lemon juice. My Aunt Ardith always had a large jar of it in her cabinet near the stove. I don’t remember what we bet. Jimmy went first. He poured the spoonful in his mouth. Immediately, he spewed it back out. It splattered across the counter and in the direction of the sink. “Yuk!” His eyes turned red. I took a spoonful of lemon juice and poured it into my mouth. Just to rub it in, I gargled it and then swallowed it. It was beyond sour, of course, but tasted good to me. Lemon juice was an exotic food in my house. Mom would no more buy lemon juice than cut off an ear lobe with a steak knife. I took another spoonful and swallowed it. “Yum!” I said, just to irritate Jimmy.
“You bastard! How’d you do that,” he demanded. I laughed at him as he got a glass of water and swished his mouth out.
I said, “How about a REAL challenge, Jimmy?” I turned and took out the bottle of Tang powder.
“Yeah, okay, but you’re going to go first. NO tricks.” Jimmy watched me carefully as I got out the biggest spoon that would fit into the jar.
I dumped it into my mouth and held it, letting it dissolve and mix in my mouth. As I mentioned, it was sublime and delicious. After a moment, I showed Jimmy the inside of my mouth.
Keep in mind, this was in the 70s, long before the cinnamon challenge. We were just two idiots trying to outdo each other.
Jimmy took another spoon out and took a smaller lump of powder from the jar. Luckily, he put the jar back on the counter next to the stove.
He put the spoon into his mouth between his teeth and spilled it into his mouth.
While I’m not sure, I think he must have inhaled a good portion of the Tang dust as it dispersed into his mouth – and throat.
He gagged. A big plume of orange dust billowed out of his mouth as he turned to gag and retch into the sink. He used one hand to cup water into his mouth, even as he tried to get the powder out of his mouth and lungs. This continued for at least a minute.
“What in the hell are you two doing in here?” Aunt Ardith had walked up to the counter between the table and the kitchen, one hand holding her Tareyton cigarette and the other pointing at us. She looked at us like we’d been setting her curtains on fire with a cigarette lighter.
Jimmy and I froze like statues momentarily.
Even though Jimmy was stuttering and coughing, he managed to say, “Having breakfast, what does it look like?”
*P.S. The picture is of my cousin Jimmy. I loved this picture because I used it to tease him that he was too dumb to use his grill outdoors. In reality, he had just bought a house and was assembling the grill. Whether he actually used it in the living room depends on whether he overcame our genetic predisposition to outright stupidity that day.
Although modern vehicles still retain the round 12-v holes in which to plug in adapters for power, people of a certain age all recall the magic of the spring-loaded cigarette lighters of yesteryear. Back in the day, everyone smoked, even people using oxygen, priests, the doctor who delivered you (while delivering you, no less), and the irritated waitress bringing you overcooked hash browns at the Waffle Hut. (There were no food returns, only “Get the hell out!” requests if you complained about your food, or ashes in your grits.)
Adults, however, could not be without a cigarette lighter for over ten minutes. Before we removed the clause from the Declaration of Independence, all adults were required to smoke at least a pack of cigarettes a day. My mom, for example, showed her patriotism by sometimes smoking a literal carton a day. It seems impossible. She often rose from the bed with a lit cigarette, bathed with a cigarette, and smoked all day as she sat in the operator’s chair for Southwestern Bell. There were times when our house on wheels looked like the polluted skies over an industrial factory. If we were in the car, the windshield seemed opaque from all the smoke. Having the windows down was a bit of a relief, but we all remember the clotted gasp of discovering that a butt thrown out the window had reentered to find itself in our mouths and throats. My mom didn’t believe that throwing a lit cigarette out of the car was a problem. If Smokey The Bear had been standing beside the road, she would have flicked it directly into the pocket of his shirt in an attempt to catch him on fire.
Adults who smoked treated the car cigarette lighter as if it were a religious relic, one to be admired, worshipped, and never touched by the undeserving hands of a child. (Unless we were told to light the cigarette for the adult, who undoubtedly was struggling already to pop the beer can open, the one cradled in the cheap koozie used to hold it.)
Unrelated to the story: the word ‘koozie’ is one of the ugliest words in the English language.
I don’t know how old I was for certain. My cousin Jimmy and I were in one of my dad’s and his cousin Tom’s jalopies for sale. Jimmy was spoiled, but sometimes lit up with mischief and humor. We sat in the front seat of some aged old car, honking the horn and ducking below the dash to avoid being seen. I’d get a beating if caught. Jimmy would have received a smile. Jimmy kept pressing the cigarette lighter in, waiting for it to startle him as it popped out, its insides glowing red. He acted like he was going to touch it with the tip of one of his fingers. “Don’t!” I yelled, despite my extensive Shakespearean training in the vocal arts. Jimmy laughed.
“Oh, it won’t hurt so bad.” He seemed sure. I was 100% certain he was wrong, having been stupid enough to do it myself. More than once and probably fifty times up to that point. I noted that my burned fingertips didn’t smell like pepperoni, either.
“I’ll give you 5 bucks if you touch it to the tip of your tongue,” he told me, smiling. 5 bucks was the equivalent of a fortune for me.
I considered it. I pulled the lighter from the sheath and watched it as it glowed red and hot. When I got it closer to my mouth, I could of course feel the heat radiating off it it.
“Get it hot again,” Jimmy insisted, so I popped it back in the ashtray that contained the plug in.
In a few moments, it popped back out. Jimmy grabbed it and handed it to me.
I unwisely brought it up to my face and stuck out the tip of my tongue. The heat was too much. At that precise moment, Jimmy slapped my left hand unexpectedly and the hot coil hit the tip of my tongue. Luckily, it came away immediately as I reacted and pulled it away. A bit of my skin came away with it. I could smell it burn and hear a slight hiss and sizzle as it cooked my disconnected skin.
I didn’t scream, but I did whimper as I coiled my tongue into my cheek. I could feel it burning. I think it was saying “Idiot” to me in the only way it knew how. Jimmy was doubled over and laughing. His eyes were teary as he peeked to look at the horrified expression on my face.
Because I was poor and my mom refused to let us use the excellent insurance she had through her work, my concern was the possibility of needing medical care. Dad would have opted to slice off the tip of my tongue with one of his hunting knives, or push me into an open septic tank.
Sidenote: the house I lived in, one off of Powell and near Hatfield Street, and opposite the old City View trailer park, had a secret. There was a round garage on the property that Dad used for his mechanic business. The property had a well and a septic tank instead of city water and sewer. We had been bathing in – and drinking – water contaminated with sewer waste from a faulty septic tank for over a year. We kept complaining that everything tasted like sh*t. We weren’t wrong.
This is a true story.
Without going into the details, it’s why to this day I have to concentrate to take the first bite of ramen noodles.
Jimmy finally stopped laughing. My eyes cleared up enough for me to tell Jimmy I was going to sneak up on him while he was sleeping in his waterbed and put a snake under the covers with him. The idea of snakes on him while sleeping terrified him. He begged and pleaded for forgiveness.
My tongue hurt for several days. I had to play the French Horn. Each time my tongue punctuated a note against my lips or the mouthpiece, I’d cringe a little. I felt like a little poodle on the verge of wetting myself.
I never put a snake in the bed with Jimmy. But I thought about it. A million times.
Before highway 412 modernized us, we intimately knew highway 68. Before its expansion and encroachment all along the yards lining it, it was a typical narrow road passing through NWA. It was a vital artery connecting the small towns that dominated our corner of the state. It’s “Old 68” now, truncated and lost to failed bridges that isolate it from its replacement. I once knew parts of the old 68 with precision. There were many times I would ride back to our home with my drunken dad, praying to the silent god who presumably watched over idiots like him. On the other hand, I knew such hopes were truly childish because Dad had killed a cousin of mine in a DWI accident. This knowledge invalidated the whispers of hope I had. Sometimes I’d pray for a horrible crash to engulf us and put an end to the uncertainty; other times I’d wish to just get home in one piece.
The land over on the far side of Tontitown was simply beautiful. I find myself forgetting this at times. Rolling hills, thick trees, creeks crisscrossing where the land permitted, and open expanses of fields filled the area. For the most part, property owners weren’t aware of kids traversing their land. As long as we respected their property, those that were aware simply chose to ignore us as we did what kids do best. There were times where we’d set off walking and have no idea where we were heading. Chiggers, mosquitoes, and snakes often accompanied us. When you’re young, you assume that such things are a required tariff in order to enjoy life.
Because my family moved more often than a pack of unwanted nomads, I lived in Tontitown more than once in my youth. The first long stretch followed our trailer in City View Trailer Park in Springdale burning down, rendering both at least 100,000 cockroaches and us homeless. We moved to the western fringe of Tontitown, near the bend where the new 412 first veers away from the original 68. When 68 was rerouted and renamed 412, it cut across Road 852. Technically, it wasn’t and isn’t Tontitown – but everyone considered it to be so. It was not too far from the infamous and now-defunct Blue Hole swimming spot, home of the coldest water imaginable. When I was young, I didn’t even realize that Blue Hole Road was a real name.
We moved to Washington County Road 852 to stay with Leta, the widow of a paternal cousin. Dad had a penchant for sleeping with a variety of people, and choosing from the woodpile didn’t deter him. It took me several years to pinpoint precisely how Leta fit in the family tree. Her husband, my dad’s distant cousin, had died a few years prior. Leta had an interesting life, and despite all the other surrounding confusion, I now know that I would be fascinated if I could go back in time and have an adult conversation with her. She wasn’t a warm person; on the other hand, I didn’t understand how much of an interruption we might have been to her life.
I’ve written before about the place being the perfect alignment of isolation, anger, and addiction. Highway 68 ran across the north, leaving the land below it pristine and only accessible through a complex series of dirt roads. I was in 7th grade, and because of the fire, I had lost everything. The house was small, and even the so-called bedrooms were nothing more than imaginary boundaries inside the old house. We all shared one bathroom and a clawfoot bathtub. Ancient box fans provided most of the airflow into the house. The outside of the house was covered in tan brick-theme tar paper, similar to what was commonly found in the area where I was born. While we lived at Leta’s, Dad spent time filling the inside of the house with dark paneling. We shared one console television in the living, very close to the front door, connected to an old tv antenna outside.
My parents often fought, as they were prone to do regardless of the impermanence of their residence. My dad had several affairs, including the notorious relationship with Leta who owned the house. The adults around me drank more per capita than any household in Tontitown. The alcohol-fueled many days and nights of violence and terror. It also sometimes granted us too much freedom. At times, I forget that because Leta worked at the Venetian Inn at night and Mom worked split shifts and unusual hours at Southwestern Bell, our presence at the house overlapped in a crazy Venn diagram.
As much as I vilify the players in the drama in that period of my life, I am the first to admit that there were some spectacular adventures. The geography allowed for us to trek miles in several directions, to explode a ton of fireworks with a total disregard for human safety, fire a variety of pistols, rifles, and shotguns, and to escape the lunacy the adults brought to the table. I could go outside and climb on top of the barn past the gated fence, or if I was really ambitious, crawl up onto the roof of the house or clamber up one of the ten million trees. The house also had a simple covered front porch, bordered on one side by a massive pile of firewood. We dreaded the surprise announcements that we were going to have to help our Dad cut firewood. I have an entire book of stories about some of those mornings. I could sneak away across the barbed wire and read, as long as I could suffer the bugs and snakes inhabiting the area. It was at Leta’s that I found her copy of “Your Erroneous Zones” by self-help guru Wayne Dyer. It was a revelation and seemed to describe an attitude and life that seemed impossible. I could take my french horn down into a dense valley and sound like I was summoning the Valkyries. It was possible to walk and fill oneself with many grapes picked off the vines or find patches of blackberries thick with both briars and berries.
At night, the area seemed to revert to a time centuries ago. Dark was genuinely dark, and animals of all kinds inhabited every nook and cranny of the fields and forests. There was a couple of times that my Dad forced us to walk across the darkened fields and leave proof of our visits inside an abandoned house, once part of a now-forgotten community. My cousin Jimmy was unnaturally afraid of the dark and everything it might contain. We were more afraid of my Dad, though. One of those forced walks in the dark is now one of my most cherished memories. The house stands epically in my memory and its silhouette is still etched in my mind and often used as a comparison to measure foreboding. Had my parents been more normal, it could have been a paradise. My appreciation for the land of that area has only grown as I’ve aged. The land owes me no apology for the people who stained its beauty.
As much as I knew about the area, I knew much less than my brother who had more friends and didn’t hesitate to go out and work in the grapevines or tomato farms. When the trailer burned, it burned my connections to the friends I had at City View. Sometimes, though, old friends, especially my brother’s friends, would visit and the shenanigans would commence. There’s a reason we universally look back and hold dear those memories of such adventures. They encapsulate so much of the joy of being a boy and having the freedom to experience small pieces of the world.
We often had mega-barbeques, fish fries, and feasts. They were raucous affairs, of course, and many ended with fisticuffs, shouts, and blood-soaked shirts. On one occasion, the party ended because my dad threw an entire box of ammunition in the wood fireplace in the living room. I took advantage of those times by eating barrels of salad soaked in Viva Italian dressing, or bag after endless bag of Venetian Inn salad and rolls. Leta worked at the Venetian Inn and brought home a treasure of food from there each day she worked. I, of course, loved pasta. After eating several miles of it, though, I usually opted for endless salads. We would walk the long dirt road home, rain or shine, from the nearest school bus stop up near Mitchell’s service station. (Those walks home after school would dissuade anyone from choosing a large band instrument to learn.) I’d often eat a king’s meal of rolls, salad and sometimes 2 or more chicken breasts. I could make a pot of coffee and drink it all. I sampled a variety of wines, too. Leta didn’t mind. She knew that we were going to be unable to overcome our curiosity. Don’t be too concerned about the bit of wine. I had access to unlimited alcohol and a few drugs, which didn’t interest me.
I’m only reminiscing because one day not too long ago, someone online answered a comment about that area and Brush Creek, which lies not too far away. Another commenter mentioned the massage parlors in the area. It made me laugh, reading the comments of those who claimed they were all fables and made-up urban legends. Where men walk, you can be assured that vice follows.
For those who don’t know, Tontitown once harbored several houses of ill repute, stills for moonshine, and a bit of weed for those wishing to find them. It’s topography made it ideal for concealment while also not being so far out of the way that it was prohibitive to find it. The hills and hollers made intrusion unlikely. Not too far from where I lived out on the dirt road, one of the residents had a decent plot for marijuana growing, with a water well off the road, powered by an illegal electric connection that was off the grid. He resembled the actor Brett Gelman if he never shaved. He also looked exactly like Leta’s son, who was the personification of an ex-Vietnam hippie. Leta’s son struck me as crazy, but he was always kind to me and talked to me like an adult. I remember once when we drove to Timbuktu to visit him, and he was in the front yard, totally naked, taking a shower under a hand-made system of water hoses. It was hilarious.
Even though the accusation will make some people defensive, many of these unsavory places were known to law enforcement. I’m not alleging conspiracy, of course. People do crazy things often enough with the necessity of making outrageous claims. Someone I know very well loves telling the story of her dad, who was a Springdale policeman at the time, giving protection to someone involved. My dad was known to payoff DWIs under the table, not to mention bribing people to look the other way. It was common. I’m not telling the story to paint someone negatively; it was just the way many things were done. Monroe County, the place where I was born, was a significant conduit for all manner of vice, too. Everyone knew it. Dad had a temperament and way of finding the most clever places to get into trouble. “Friends in low places” would describe his circle. Regardless, though involved in the shady businesses never interfered in other people’s business and expected reciprocity in return. Minding your own business granted every mutual safety.
The massage parlor sat near 68, hidden in plain sight in a nondescript tan trailer. There were, of course, no signs or indications that nefarious goings-on could be experienced within. I used to amuse myself by imagining that some industrious and brazen entrepreneur would put up a huge flashing neon sign indicating “Sex Shop” near the place. Google Streetview hasn’t visited the road in over ten years. I know that many people got lost looking for the massage parlor because I remember Leta and others telling stories about the faraway neighbors getting late-night knocks on their doors, demanding to be let in.
Because Dad would drink to excess, he would mouth off, often without realizing he was spilling the beans. One evening, he had driven by the trailer with his bottle of Evan Williams between his knees. “That place will make a man out of you,” he said, as he punched me on the side of the head. I don’t remember why I was in the cab of the truck with him. I would choose the bed of the pickup even during a lava storm to stay away from Dad when his mood could shift.
Sometime after, Dad had pulled in to the small driveway next to the trailer. I was surprised because I was in the back of the truck. Dad’s dog Duke and I remained in the back of the pickup. A little bit later, Dad came out and proudly drank some of his whiskey and coke and drove home. I overheard him talking about the place to more than a couple of people.
It took me a bit to connect the dots. There was a cookout at Leta’s one Sunday, and someone said something about the convenience of having a massage parlor up the road. Mom threw her cigarette at the person joking about it and then hurled her half-finished beer into dad’s face. She shouted her favorite “MoFo” curse repeatedly as she left. (Many get-togethers ended that way.) Dad didn’t rush after her as everyone expected. He drank until the sun descended into the valley before reminding Mom of how dangerous he was. I don’t remember whether I cowered out of sight or managed to escape outside and down the road or through the surrounding landscape.
There were times when Mom would drink and then decide to go hunt for my Dad. She’d drive by the Red Door and all the other usual places that might contain him. I think after finding out about Dad’s presence at the massage parlor that she always took a moment to look over the area around it in hopes of seeing his truck. I’m not sure how many times I was forced to prowl with Mom. I do know that she had no business driving most of the time.
Or being married, now that I think about it.
I’m not sure how long this particular massage parlor stayed in business. (Long enough to increase Dad’s chances of getting his head caved in, though.)
If you missed it in a previous post, we moved after Mom discovered that Dad and Leta had been having an affair for a long time. I found them together one night, which is why I can state with such certainty this isn’t a figment of my mom’s fabled anger and imagination. Weirdly enough, we moved to a place very close to where I now live, to a tiny trailer on the road that would one day become part of the Don Tyson Parkway. That place was indeed a crucible of violence. Mom knew that Dad was unfaithful. Proof of it, though, inevitably started a predetermined sequence of weekend tirades.
Now that I know so much more about Dad’s inability to behave like a normal husband, it would be interesting to know whether Mom would kill my Dad after learning the new information. The breadth of my Dad’s infidelity goes much deeper and further than I suspected – and that’s quite a feat.
I have several stories that I’ve never told. Some of my reluctance arises from the involvement of other people who still walk the earth. While it is my right to share these stories, I’ve not done so because some of the unflattering biographies aren’t entirely in my control.
I don’t have a great record of our time out there on the western edge of Tontitown. I’ve mentioned before that my family simply didn’t own a camera. We relied on others to document our lives. There are pictures of our time there, but very few.
P.S. I wrote this story without stressing the storyline. I didn’t know how to create a central theme, so I didn’t. The story and words stand ‘as is;’ take from it that which you will.
In the summer of 1978, my family was living in City View trailer park, a place of infamy I’ve previously written about. Many residents were notorious about not maintaining their lawns. I’d go so far as to say that the word ‘lawn’ would almost be the last word a rational person would use to describe the lots assigned to each tenant. Some, however, took pride in their lots, which confused me when I was younger. In a bizarre twist, my dad usually made my brother and I trim the grass around the bottom of the metal skirt under our trailer with a butcher knife. I know – what could go wrong?
Residents would pile an amazing array of objects next to, under, and at each end of their trailers, often partially hiding the end with the heavy metal hitch on it. This tendency caused at least ten million banged shins and legs, especially playing tag, catch, or football in the yards. During the time we lived at the trailer park, I found a loaded pistol, pornographic magazines, whiskey, potato chips, and other things under the skirting of trailers.
Many of the kids living in the trailer park spent their entire day roaming the park without shoes. I was one of those barefoot savages. My feet were as hard as tire tread.
One of the endless days at the beginning of summer, I jumped down from the back door of my trailer, as steps were an invitation for someone to try to get inside. Even the front steps of most trailers were cheaply made using narrow wood planks and thin metal supports. Most trailers had terrible front steps and none at all in the back, often with both comical and horrendous consequences due to the number of people who attempt a hasty exit or entrance while under the influence of one substance or another. A smart kid knew exactly how to jump from the back door and simultaneously fling it closed again as he or she leaped out. Note: not while a parent was inside. As we all learned, slamming a door was treated by parents as seriously as murdering someone in broad daylight.
My friend Troy had told me to come over and find him. I hit the ground running and by the time I made it to the spot a few trailers away, Troy and the other miscreants took off running from me. I darted around the end of one of the trailers. The grass was at least waist high against the trailer. Because I was attempting to set a land-speed record and catch up, I ignored the danger of the grass. I jumped in the grass as I ran. My right foot landed on something hard and I felt the immediate agony of something cutting into my foot. In my childhood, I stepped on a few dozen nails, broken bottles, as well as an assortment of other things. It went in deeply. Despite my speed, I fell into the grass. I had landed on a long, old-style rusty bed rail. The upturned corner had pierced all the way into the arch of my right foot. I was surprised that it had not passed all the way through my foot and out the top.
I could barely see my foot, so I crawled out of the grass and sat on the ground, looking at the expansive and deep cut in my foot. For a few moments, it didn’t bleed. As I released my foot, the blood spurts and an intense cramp started. I survived my second head trauma a few years before, one which resulted in massive blood loss and almost 200 stitches. This didn’t seem as bad until the cramps started. As the blood pulsed out of my foot, I realized I had to get back to the trailer, so I crawled as fast as I could despite the cramps in my foot.
There is a lot I don’t remember about that day. Someone called my dad at work. Normally, this would signal the end of my life. No one called my dad, not ever, even after a decapitation. It was probably my sister who called. I don’t remember. My dad did not want to come home, even after someone exaggerated the severity of the cut by saying they thought I was dying. It didn’t sway him, however, as his parenting style could best be described as “If he dies, I had too many kids to begin with.”
I do remember that by the time I got out of the trailer, the cheap linoleum looked like a crime scene photo and the rags I had used to try to stop the bleeding were drenched.
Dad came home over an hour later, angry and blustering. He screamed at me to get in the bed of the pickup truck as he got behind the wheel. I managed to climb up, then over the tailgate. My foot registered every bump and pothole in the road between our trailer and the medical clinic over on Quandt Avenue and Young Street. Dad’s dog Duke kept me company during the trip.
I don’t remember who the doctor was who helped me but he was a rapid-fire, no-nonsense doctor. He used a large bottle with a nozzle on it to spray inside the deep cut even as a nurse used her gloved fingers to hold the wound open as far as she could. For good measure, he doused it with a huge quantity of some type of disinfectant, which set off another round of foot cramps. Dad was not in the room with me, which was a huge relief to me. He’s the type who would probably slap a surgical patient for sleeping during the procedure.
The nurse went out to find him and dad returned and stood in the doorway. I’m paraphrasing, but the doctor asked him if he wanted some other kind of treatment. Dad told him no and that the doctor should do whatever took the least amount of time. I’m certain that they were discussing cutting my foot off, given my dad’s mean streak. I figured out later that stitching it quickly might cause some long-term cramping or other risks. Dad went back out to smoke.
The doctor seemed to put an inordinate number of stitches in my foot. Despite the shots to numb my foot, I could feel most of them. He did tell me that the bed rail had almost pierced all the way through my foot. He dressed it and listed off a list of important notes that I couldn’t possibly remember. I didn’t have anything to cover my foot, so the doctor put a plastic bag over it and told me to stay off it for a couple of days and to avoid getting it dirty.
Because dad wouldn’t come back in the room, I didn’t get crutches. Fair or not, a doctor in Springdale at that time wouldn’t have been surprised by a callous father. I think it was almost normal for medical staff to witness parents treat their children like cattle.
My Dad also, of course, didn’t offer to help me as I tried to hobble out to the truck and once again climb in the back of the truck.
When we got to the trailer, dad didn’t get out. I climbed over and managed to get out without screaming. I knew a beating was coming and simply didn’t want it to happen right then. We got the blood cleaned off the trailer floor, not that it mattered. Mom and dad routinely added one another’s blood to the floor at regular intervals.
To add insult to injury, I got a celebratory beating from both my mom and dad later that day, for a confusing mixture of carelessness and the sheer inconvenience of being bothersome. They both waited until they had consumed enough liquid courage to justify a beating. It’s some consolation that their anger toward me for getting injured at least stopped them from beating each other, at least on that night.
My foot secreted a constant ooze of clear fluid tinged with blood, especially after I walked on it. Mom, with her degree in folk medicine, ignored what I told her the doctor said and forced me to sit in a scalding bathtub of baking soda with my foot submerged in the liquid. She then poured undiluted alcohol on my wound until I almost passed out. She also insisted that I not cover the wound, so that it could breathe. Given that she made me literally eat Vick’s vapor rub, I didn’t have much faith in her medical advice. I also couldn’t figure out her idea that a beating might be medically advantageous for me, either.
A couple of days later, my Aunt Ardith convinced my mom to go to the clinic and to find out what was supposed to be done. Mom only went to the clinic to ask out of fear Aunt Ardith could say “I told you so” after they amputated my leg for gangrene. Mom came back with bandages, gauze, and some ointment. Aunt Ardith asked her about the crutches after reading a few of the notes the nurse gave my mom. “He ain’t got no G-D broken leg!” she shouted. Aunt Ardith rolled her eyes. By then, I was walking around without anything covering my foot. I had popped two of the outer stitches after a cramp hit me and I tried to stand up. I think my foot was a little infected by then. Aunt Ardith prepared a foot bath for me as Mom sat and drank a beer. My aunt showed me how to prepare the foot bath and told me to keep the bandage on it and to avoid putting pressure on my foot. No more mention was made of the crutches. I am certain that Aunt Ardith is the only reason I didn’t get a massive infection in my foot.
The next weekend, my cousin Jimmy wanted desperately to go see the movie “Thank God It’s Friday,” a 70s disco comedy, if such a thing is possible. It was showing at the Springdale Malco Twin theatre, on Highway 68 near Harps grocery. As I’ve written before, Jimmy almost always got his way, which worked out in my favor. All of the movies I got to see as a kid were the result of Jimmy, Mike Hignite, or another cousin. Literally, all of them. Aunt Ardith drove us to the theater while Mom sat in the passenger seat drinking her salted beer and smoking. They dropped us off and drove away. At the window, Jimmy got a laugh out of a woman who refused to say “God” in the title of the movie. “I need four tickets to ‘Thank Goodness It’s Friday'” she said several times. Jimmy was tickled that she couldn’t say “God,” but somehow thought that the movie would be appropriate to watch instead. Like many of our memories, I have no reason that adequately explains why I can remember that tidbit, but not other more important details in my life.
We bought two tickets and as I turned to go inside, one of the very young workers at the theater told me I had to put shoes on both feet to see the movie. I couldn’t have put on a shoe if I tried, especially with the thick gauze Aunt Ardith had put on my foot before leaving the house. I wasn’t wearing a sock and we’d never imagine such a thing as a medical boot or shoe. The manager came over, looked at my foot and said, “Get out,” as if I had planned to run inside the auditorium like an angry linebacker. We also didn’t get a refund.
My cousin Jimmy was furious. We went back outside and sat on the curb outside the theater. A few minutes later, someone came from inside the theater and told us we couldn’t sit outside and had to leave. I hobbled with Jimmy down to a payphone. No one answered at his house. As is the case with most of us and the phone numbers of our youth, I’ll never forget their phone number: 751-1551. Unlike my mom and dad, my aunt and uncle lived in the same house for almost their entire adult life, with the same phone number.
We wisely decided that our moms went to the liquor store for replenishments. So, we waited. After an hour, they drove up next to the building and we got in. Aunt Ardith parked the car haphazardly behind some of the other cars and walked up to the ticket window, her Tareyton cigarette still in her hand. I’m not sure what she said, but the manager came back over and immediately regretted it. Mom sat in the passenger seat, shouting obscene and encouraging words of agreement toward Aunt Ardith. The ticket clerk handed Aunt Ardith the money Jimmy paid for the tickets. She was cussing when she got back to the car. Mom threw her Budweiser can into the parking lot and opened another from a paper bag at her feet. She had probably become concerned that she might run out of beer during the very short drive from my cousin Jimmy’s house.
Evidently, my aunt had also demanded an apology from them for forcing us to get up and leave the relative safety of the front of the theater after being turned away for not wearing two shoes. I wondered what the manager would think if he knew that both Aunt Ardith and my mom were drunk. I think the shadowy canopy near the payphone to which we had been banished was far safer than the interior of the car being controlled by two drunk women. This sort of observation would have led to a beating for me. It didn’t occur to me until much later that normal parents would have known not to send a child to the theater without shoes, even if they had a medical reason.
I didn’t see the movie “Thank God It’s Friday” for another 25 years. Compared to a massive cut in the foot, it’s not so bad.
I ended up taking out my own stitches, in the stupid hope of avoiding another beating for the necessary return trip to the doctor.
In the years afterward, I would sometimes have the strangest phantom cramps in my foot where the scar is. The scar diminished in size but would occasionally flare up when I least expected it. Once, I was foolishly ‘jogging’ with Mike Hignite and it stiffened, causing me to fling myself headfirst into the waiting mud. I ran a lot when I was young and it was invariably on my mind to be careful of my foot catching me off guard. Sometimes, it would cramp while I was driving with my foot on the gas pedal.
If I run my finger along the scar on the bottom of my right foot, I can almost imagine that summer day again.
Thank God it’s not Friday, I say.
P.S. The picture is of Jimmy and me at Dogpatch. The bottom inset picture is another one from the same day.
Enough time has passed since Jimmy died for me to remember the goofiness more than the anguish of cancer that he endured. It’s natural that death works that way, as he was alive and kicking for much longer than he was suffering. There are still those days when I catch myself wondering what Jimmy might make of something or I half-expect him to drive up to the house after getting more stuff for his hoard from a local garage sale.
Fair or not, a lot of Jimmy’s energy was siphoned away by his one family member’s obsession with money and getting what she thought was hers. It was a travesty and I learned a lot from it, whether I wanted to or not. It angered Jimmy that he was being punished with cancer. Had he survived and not relapsed, I think he might have begun to feel pity for his family member again, as she was at the whim of her own addictions and demons – and he could see it.
The above picture is one which my cousin Jimmy insisted I take of him. It was immediately after his first cancer surgery. We were at his mom’s house. (My Aunt Ardith.) As you can see, Jimmy was still smiling and laughing. His mom wasn’t too thrilled with our brand of humor. Our custom was to make the most outrageous, tasteless and macabre statements that we could imagine. Between the two of us, we used to come up with some epic craziness. Aunt Ardith would sit in her perch on the couch next to the sliding glass doors, drinking her whiskey and coke, smoking, and feigning surprise and mirth at some of our goofiness. We had the ability to literally say anything to each other or about each other, directly, without fear of anger.
Jimmy was very confident that he was going to beat cancer. When this picture was taken, I was very hopeful. Realistically hopeful, I thought. Jimmy joked that this picture would make an ideal Christmas card. His mom specifically told me that I had better not make cards with the picture on it. (My reputation for doing that sort of thing was quite well known…) Jimmy then chimed in that it would make an ideal “All I got was this lousy bout of cancer” t-shirt. It’s still funny, although with a slightly different twist to it now.
The plan was going to be to post this picture on Facebook after-the-fact. Jimmy was interested in being able to talk to people about his experiences. As a well-liked employee of Budweiser, he knew a lot of people and would have a lot of opportunities to talk to people. Unfortunately, his cancer came back to take him down.
This picture might as well have been taken in another century. It both seems like both yesterday and ten years ago simultaneously. His mom became ill and died a few short months before him after he relapsed. His mom’s house is sold to strangers and Jimmy’s life is fading in everyone’s collective consciousness.When Jimmy died, I had tried to get people to write anecdotes and stories to share with me. I had made a commitment to share them out in the world in such a way as to attempt to keep those memories alive. I did my best to disseminate his pictures to friends and family, sharing them on public drives and makings disks, printed copies and any other method I could think of. We all have our stories and moments to remember with Jimmy. Some of us have a strong collection of memories, many of which were times that weren’t fun while we were living them but are as much a part of his life as the “good” times. As time slides past us, our stories will slide into the fog with us.
Whether it is wrong to say so or not, Jimmy’s death affected me in countless more ways than my own mother’s death did. I was with Jimmy for much of his final time and was with him when he finally had nothing left with which to fight. He weighed so little that it seemed only his soul remained in him.
Not only were we contemporaries, but we shared a common bond of ridiculous attitude toward many of life’s idiocies. We were both forged in a family where laughter could be replaced by drunken rage without notice. My youth was fuller thanks to Jimmy and his parents, even when the times weren’t so good.
Jimmy’s life was one of potential. His younger years were full of missteps and mistakes. (Isn’t that true of all of us, though?) It would have been interesting to see what he would have made of his promotion at Budweiser, of his relationship with his girlfriend (and then wife) before his passing, or of his new appreciation for the scarcity of life. Had cancer not kicked him, I think he would have been one of those people who would have flourished with another lease on life. His laugh would have been a beacon to people and his youthful impatience would have dissipated.
(Jimmy is on the far right. Picture from Dogpatch, USA, the 1970s.)
If you’re interested, you can find a few more stories about my cousin Jimmy on this blog by using the “Category” drop-down menu on the right-hand side of the main blog page.
As the sun beat down and the creek noisily flowed away from me, I glanced up to see the array of monuments to lost mortality on the bluff to my right. It’s deceptive how the trail sprints like a careless runner through the middle of things. I pictured Jimmy standing up there, waving, telling me to keep walking even if they sun cooked away my enthusiasm. That’s how time works sometimes, hurling the most pleasant of hallucinations upon us.
There’s no lesson or moral to this story, just an observation about the overlap of memory. Maybe it’s because Jimmy is up there on that bluff, his own rock and etched tooth raised against the August afternoon breeze. He wouldn’t waste his time lecturing me; he’d turn up the radio and let the music waft through the air. As I walked past, Cristian Castro sang, “…que el tibio abrazo que no volverá …” It wasn’t Jimmy’s kind of music, but he’d laugh and say, “Whatever floats you away, dude.”