Category Archives: Story

November Chill

The day grew long legs while I was busy frittering away the hours. I was so accustomed to hurling myself from the bed at an early hour that I wasn’t sure my enthusiasm for a long walk would meet me outside so late in the day. I was wrong, though. Even though it was Nov 19, it was warm enough for a brisk walk, even at 4 p.m. The sun was slowly dropping toward the horizon. Its orange glow made me squint as I hurried along the leaf-strewn trail. I felt as if I could walk for ten miles and that the receding sun was being converted directly into propellant for my feet. The recognition of my initial reluctance to take a walk reminded me that once started, few walks fail to yield positive moments.

As I passed the house I had christened “hoarder house,” its yard still seemed like an abandoned junkyard. I’ve written about the hoarder house once before. Its existence had surprised me, so close to the modern new homes and bright recently-built park. I counted no fewer than five boats, eleven vehicles, and at least forty appliances scattered through the unkempt yard. Even the grass seemed to have given up, trading its light brown hue for a dingy, decaying gray. The pile had grown so unmanageable that I couldn’t see much of the front of the house as I approached it from the city limits. Last summer, I could smell the contents of the yard as I strolled past. I used street view maps to look back in time and found myself staring at a mostly empty yard. That the yard became so cluttered so quickly was a surprise.

Reaching the sign that indicated “NO turnaround, private property” a few hundred feet past the hoarder house, I turned and began my trek back. The road dead-ended a little further along, and despite its proximity to the city limits, something primal in the back of my mind stopped me from walking to the end of the gravel road. As I approached the hoarder house on my return, I noticed smoke slowly escaping the dilapidated chimney at the end of the house closest to me. I didn’t see smoke when I had passed the house the first time. At this point, it was just a few minutes shy of sundown, which was going to occur a little after five that afternoon. The orange tint to the air had deepened, and the air’s chill was beginning to feel like the inside of a refrigerator door when first opened. While I prefer the early morning sun’s desolate greeting, some sunsets evoke a deep, peaceful feeling in me. The evening walk felt like a slice of stolen time, and I realized that I hadn’t once thought about how far I had walked.

I approached the cluttered driveway of the house. I saw what I thought was a cat jumping up and down in a bare spot in the grass near the front steps and probably hunting mice in the debris. After a few more seconds, I realized it might be a human arm rising from a prone position. My pulse quickened. As I passed the rusted barrels obstructing a clear view of the house, I could see an elderly lady. She had fallen off the steps, her legs tangled under her, and her messy silver hair scattered around her face like shorn feathers. Her right arm moved up and down while her left arm remained immobile. I ran toward the porch, dodging debris and trash as I neared the fallen woman. I felt a sharp pain in my right forearm as a sliver of metal pierced my skin and cut me deeply. The metal shard was protruding from the edge of a small boat. I knew I was bleeding. For the time being, I ignored it and ran the few steps remaining to the porch.

Kneeling, I put my hand on the woman’s exposed left arm. Her flesh was cold. Had I not seen her moving, I would have been sure that she was dead. I pushed the hair away from her face, expecting some unseen injury. “Ma’am! Are you okay?” I shook her more harshly than I had intended.

I looked up toward the closed door above both me and then the small porch steps. When I looked back, the woman was staring at me, both eyes open. I almost screamed. Her eyes were clouded and silvery. Her lips began to move, although no words escaped her mouth.

“Hold on. I’ll call an ambulance.” I looked directly into the woman’s unsettling silvery eyes as I said it, to comfort her.

Her right arm came up, and her fingers encircled my left wrist. “No,” she croaked, her voice barely discernible. “Please. Help. In the house.”


Lifting her and getting her in the house was momentarily overshadowed by the idea of going inside this house at all. I had thought many times about how terrible it must be inside there. The place seemed to be the embodiment of decay. On previous walks, I could smell the presence of the house and yard from the road. I hesitated and considered calling an ambulance anyway. As I looked at the woman’s face, though, I knew that I wouldn’t call. It seemed like this wasn’t her first serious fall. I wondered what might have happened to her had I not wandered by on an impromptu walk.

Without her telling me, I knew her left arm was almost useless to her. I crouched and put my right arm under hers and pulled. She feebly pushed with one of her legs, and she wobbled up. Oddly, she smelled of vanilla and cinnamon.

We took the three steps up the porch one at a time, without any hurry. I grabbed the broken door handle with my left arm even though I knew my right arm, which supported her, was probably leaving a bloody trail across the fallen woman’s back as the cut on my arm continued to pulse in pain.

I couldn’t get the door to open, even as I pushed hard.

“Hard. Push!” croaked the woman. I leaned in and pushed with more force than I intended. The door popped open, and before I could stop us, we both fell inside. I felt the crunch and fold of paper as I tumbled in.


I resisted the urge to scramble upright, hoping our unintentionally gymnastic entrance didn’t further injure the woman. I rolled her over to her back. Her hair looked like a silver mop blown by a malicious wind. I leaned over and pulled her up. As I looked around the room, I was surprised by how few furnishings were in the living room. The floors were covered with newspapers. I shuddered to imagine what was beneath the multiple layers. A couch sat on the far left, and at least six armchairs were on the right. None of them matched one another. I moved toward the chair furthest from the door as I carefully pulled the woman along with me. Cups, saucers, and papers surrounded the chair. I knew from experience that almost all hoarders tend to make a nest in the spot where they spend the most personal time.

I helped the woman turn and let her go a bit too soon. As she fell into the chair, I heard a ‘whoosh,’ followed by a high-pitched squeal which turned out to be a startled tortoise-shell cat fleeing in surprise. It ran through the doorway near the fireplace. I noted no fire in the fireplace but didn’t understand why that seemed to bother me. While I couldn’t see into the next room, I could hear things moving, though, and I wasn’t certain whether the sounds were from mice, cats, or some strange thing better left unbothered.

Not wanting to leave the woman until I knew she was safe, I reached under the lampshade and attempted to turn on the lamp next to her chair. My hand ran across a mass of cobwebs. I quickly snatched my hand back. The old woman cackled as she reached across and brushed her hand on the lamp. It turned on immediately.

“Son, you can call me Dolores.” Her voice sounded like a broken drawl, one accustomed to fatigue.

“Nice to meet you, Dolores, and sorry about the circumstances.” I moved to sit on one of the other five chairs, trying to pose myself as little as possible across its front cushion. As I sat, I could smell the dust and years of neglect rise out of the fabric.

For several minutes we sat in silence. My mind was asking several questions, none of which did I dare utter. I wasn’t sure how much of her condition was chronic and how much might have been exacerbated this afternoon in her latest fall. I remembered the cut on my arm. It was now just bloody and drying across my forearm, although it still throbbed. It didn’t occur to me that I should leave, so I sat, in silence, waiting for some sign of what to do.

“Fetch me that album off the shelf there. The one with the purple tassel,” Delores said. Her voice had substantially cleared up. I stood up and carefully placed one foot in front of the other as I crossed the room. As I pulled it from the edge of the shelf, I realized it was a photo album. A purple tassel dangled from within its pages.

I handed it to her and lowered it slowly so that the weight of it wouldn’t surprise her. She placed it on her lap. Instead of opening it, she asked me to pull a worn stool over from near the door. Though it was well-used, it was dark black and had a faint carving in the top; whether it was a wolf or a dog, I couldn’t tell. Someone had undoubtedly made it with their own hands. I picked it up and placed it near her, and sat on it. It was strange that I didn’t hesitate to sit close to her.

She opened the album. Inside the first page was a large photograph of a mostly smiling family. Across the top, it read, “Fising Family 1922.” She pointed at a young girl in the front, probably five years old. “That’s me, sonny. I was a happy girl.” I did the math. The little girl in the black and white photo was smiling as she gripped the left leg of the man standing next to her. Dolores was somewhere around 100 years old now.

As if reading my thoughts, she said, “Today is my birthday! Nov 19.” I was finding it hard to believe that she would be alone at that age.
Dolores turned to the next page, reciting names. “My sister Georgie. My brother George. My mom, Georgie Mae Nador. My dad, George Wilson Fising. He was born in Romania but was adopted by someone coming to America. His real family was wealthy and sent him here.” She continued to turn the pages. I found myself looking intently at all the strangers in her album, imagining the one hundred years they documented.

She paused. “My son George. My only child who survived childbirth. He had seventeen kids. Can you believe it?” The next picture was of George, probably taken in the 1970s. Kids were sitting, standing, and crouching in every direction. “He had 47 grandchildren. What a wonderful life.”

“Where does he live now?” I whispered.

“He died in a fire on Christmas night many years ago. A good life, no regrets. He was the spitting image of my husband. My husband ran off the day George was born. He couldn’t take watching another child die. We lost nine kids before George was born and survived. I know how he felt, so I never begrudged him leaving like that. It was a relief, actually.” She sighed, undoubtedly picturing her husband in her thoughts.

We sat, slowly looking at every picture. Dolores occasionally commented. As she turned to the last picture, I could see that it was a snapshot of a very old man. He had a high hat in one hand and a cane in the other. He was smiling outrageously at the camera. Underneath the picture, someone had scribbled, “Yikes!”

“That’s my dad, George. That’s the day he died. He died on his 100th birthday, as spry as someone forty years younger. All his life, he joked that the Fising family in Romania was so wealthy because they all lived to be over 100 years old. He loved saying “Yikes” every time we turned around. We would often tell each other “Yikes” instead of “I love you.” It was a way of reminding us that life was just as many sparks and dismay as having a good time. But lord, we lived extraordinary lives.” Dolores wiped at her eyes with her right arm. It struck me that Dolores had, indeed, lived a proud life.

We sat and let the light diminish around us. As Dolores shared stories, I felt as if history itself were sitting in the room with us, cleverly hiding its presence. I pulled my cellphone out and was surprised to see that it was 7:30 and that we had been looking at pictures for over 2 hours. I didn’t want to pry, so I asked her if there was anything she needed. “No, I’m going to sit here a spell, sonny, and let the dark catch my thoughts.” The way she said it told me that she learned the phrase decades ago.

“Dolores,” I said, “Would it be okay with you if I come back tomorrow afternoon and look at another photo album with you?”

“Oh yes, that would be divine.” Dolores crookedly smiled. “Can you bring snack cakes,” she asked, her voice trailing.

I reached out and touched her hand as I stood, grabbing the stool to move it back where I had found it.

“Tomorrow it is, and yes, for the treats,” I said, trying to get outside before I started crying.

As soon as I opened the door, I realized it was dark. Pulling out my phone, I used its glow to slowly step around the obstacles in the yard and make my way back to the road. Once I reached it, I looked back and could see no lights on inside. Whether Delores used the time it took me to traverse the obstacles of her yard to cover the crevices or her windows or turned off all the lights, the idea of her seated in the living room alone bothered me.

The next afternoon, I finished work, and instead of parking at the park nearby to walk over, I drove and left my car a few hundred feet from Dolores’ hoarder house. I brought out a package of snack cakes and walked up to the house. After navigating the yard, I knocked loudly on the door several times. Finally, I heard a voice say, “Come on in.” I pushed the door hard to knock it loose, and it popped open.

“Sonny!” Delores said with energy. “I didn’t think you’d make it back.” Delores was wearing the same thin floral dress she had on the day before. She was seated in the same chair. Had I not know it was impossible, I would have believed she had remained in the same position since last night.

I handed her the bag of desserts, and as she clumsily looked inside, she laughed. “For some reason, I thought you’d bring me a fruitcake.” She looked up at me.

“I love fruitcakes, Dolores,” I said.

“I had a thought you might, sonny. I haven’t had one in what seems like a long spell.” I made a mental note to bring her a fruitcake. Or five. She placed the bag of cakes on the floor next to her.

Dolores asked me to bring her over another photo album, so I fumbled with the shelf’s contents until I pulled down an album with a green tassel. “My grandkids,” Dolores commented.

I pulled up the stool and sat. Delores once again began flipping the pages carefully, adding an anecdote or story about each one. Time stood still in that hoarded living room. Unlike yesterday, Delores seemed energetic and intensely created a whispered narrative of dozens of unfamiliar faces. I envied her life, though, the one cataloged in that album.

Her voice seemed to mimic a minor-key melody played on only black keys of an old piano. When she spoke of some of her family and the memories, I could discern a lilting pattern and uplift to her voice.

After she finished and closed the album, she told me some of the stories her father shared with her, many of them from Romania. Her love of fruitcake and minciunele were born from inside jokes she and her father had shared. “Never eat minciunele or fruitcake when you’re sad!” he would tell me.” For a moment, I could smell baking pastry dough pulled from a hot oven.

We both sat, staring into the past. As was the case yesterday, I was unaware of how much time had passed. I looked at my cellphone. Four hours had passed.

I stood and took the green tassel photo album from Dolores, and I placed it back on the shelf.

“Dolores, Thanksgiving is a couple of days away, the 23rd. I can’t come by tomorrow, but I’d love to come to see you on the holiday if you don’t mind. I’ll bring you a fruitcake and some fixings, if you’d like.” I couldn’t imagine her not being with family, but I was committed to avoid the sin of prying.

“Ooh, I’d love that, sonny.” She smiled.

An overwhelming urge to hug her possessed me, so I leaned in and wrapped my arms around her. She smelled like cinnamon again.
“I forgot what it feels like to be hugged,” she said as I squeezed.
I managed to get outside before my eyes filled with tears. Over one hundred years of life under her belt and dozens of family members in the world, and yet I was the one connecting with her. I stopped at the market on the way home and bought two small fruitcakes for my Thanksgiving visit. One for her and one for me. Or both for her, if she insisted.

Three days later, I again parked on the roadside a distance away. As I came up to the infamously cluttered driveway, I noted a newer Escalade was parked with its bumper up against the debris littering the front of the yard.

“Family is here after all,” I thought to myself. Though I was glad to know she had company, I felt a little put off by their presence.

I walked through the yard, and as I was about to knock on the door, it opened in front of me.

An older lady stood at the door, a mask hanging at her neck. Beneath it, I noted an ornate cross with a diamond inset.

“Yes. Can I help you?” She asked.

“I’m here to see Delores. We made arrangements to have fruitcake today.” I smiled.

“When might you have made those arrangements, sir?” She looked angry.

“Two days ago. Is she here? Is she okay?” I was getting an uneasy feeling.

“No, she’s not okay – and neither are you. I don’t know what game you’re playing. I’m Dolores’ granddaughter. She died a year ago on Nov 19.” Suddenly, I felt dizzy.

The next thing I was aware of, someone was shaking me and shouting.


“Hey, are you okay? What the hell? You passed out.” The lady who had answered the door was leaning over me. I felt the cold ground under me.


I rolled to prop myself up and sit upright on the ground. There were pieces of tools scattered all around me, all rusted. I had narrowly missed hitting a pile of pipes when I fell off the porch. It occurred to me that I had fallen almost in the very spot where Dolores had dropped a few days ago.

After a minute, I shakily stood up.

Delores’ granddaughter must have felt responsible for my fainting as she motioned for me to wobble my way up the stairs and inside. Without thinking, I grabbed the wolf stool by the door and sat on it.

The woman handed me a bottle of water. I opened it and drank almost all of it in one continuous gulp.

“I’m Georgie. Who are you?” Her voice was softer now, although I could tell she was a little concerned that I might be crazy.

“My name is X. I live a couple of miles away.” Realizing that my name probably didn’t help, I added, “And I met Dolores for the first time a couple of evenings ago. She told me a lot of stories.” I didn’t know what to say, in part because I had never fainted as an adult.

“I’m sorry. Dolores died Nov 19, 2016… X. There’s no way you saw her a couple of days ago.”

Before she could continue, I interrupted. “Delores Fising, born Nov 19, 1917, to Georgie Mae Nador and George Wilson Fising, born in Romania. Dolores was married and had nine miscarriages until her only child, George, was born. He had seventeen kids and forty-seven grandchildren, of which you are one.”

Georgie’s face slowly took on a shocked and confused look.
“I don’t know how you know all of that, X, but it doesn’t change the fact that she’s been dead over a year. I’m here to hand the place over to someone who wants the property. Today was the only day I could drive here.” She waited for me to reply.

“Get the purple tassel photo album off the shelf, and I’ll tell you a few stories.” I was floating in a cloud of confused bewilderment.

As Georgie retrieved the album, she handed it to me and sat on one of the chairs nearby. I opened the book and pointed. “This is Dolores, a happy child. Her father, mother, and family. I turned the page and loosely shared the same anecdotes Delores told me. Before turning the last page, I looked at Georgie and said, “Yikes!” “and then turned the page. This pictured is your grandfather George on his 100th birthday, the day he passed away. He taught the entire family to say “Yikes!” as an endearment.”

Georgie’s face blanched as I finished, and she stood up and retrieved the green tassel photo album and handed it to me. I opened it and recited a dozen family stories.

“Your father George died in a fire on Christmas day. Dolores said those sad times will always be held in check because your family was afflicted with happiness. I think that’s how she put it.” I closed the second photo album and sat in silence. “Afflicted with happiness.”

“Wow. I don’t know what to say. You don’t sound crazy. But there’s no way your story is true, X.” She shook her head, trying to escape the feeling of underlying magic in that dirty living room.

“I’m going to need to think about this. Is that okay?” Before letting me answer, she stood up and found a short pencil and a scrap of paper. “This is where Dolores is buried. Go see her.” She handed me another scrap of paper and said, “Write down your phone number for me, and if I can bring myself to do it, I’ll call you.”

I noted my phone number. As I handed it to Georgie, she grabbed my hand and clasped it between hers. She was looking intently into my eyes. “They passed down stories about how superstitious the family in Romania was. Strange goings-on, probably just stories to spook us. It’s working. I’m spooked. Dolores had a knack of knowing things and always told everyone that life never ended, at least not the invisible part.”

The next morning, I called in sick at work. I had resisted using my ancestry skills to look for Dolores digitally. As I’m an early riser, by 6 a.m. I was driving, following the unknown roads east of town. Several missed and wrong turns later, I found myself going down an uncertain dirt path around 7 a.m. The sun was just peeking above the distant horizon. Next to me in the passenger’s seat sat Dolores’ fruitcake. I couldn’t drive any further as the dried grass and weeds made it impossible to see what might be found underneath. The wind had subsided, and the cold enveloped me as I exited my car, fruitcake in hand.

I crossed through the sparse trees and dead foliage, dodging stray limbs as I walked. Ahead, I saw the broken teeth of graying tombstones rising from dead grass. The cemetery wasn’t plotted like most rectangular gravesites. There was no uniformity between rows, nor interval space between the stones. Limbs and piles of blown leaves littered everything. Guessing, I’d say there were only thirty marked graves.

As I approached, I could see the name “Fising” engraved or marked in haphazard fonts along the stones. It seemed as if all the stones were marked with that surname. I walked along the first row, searching for signs of a recent grave. The newest one I found was already fifteen years old. Fearing I had missed the resting place of Dolores, I turned to look back, and that’s when her spot caught my eye.

Stepping hastily across the cemetery, I made a straight line to the most massive tree in the rear of the grave area. Someone had piled sandstones in a rough circle around a tombstone, extending seven or so feet from the headstone.

Her stone was a large native rock, carefully inscribed with the following: “Dolores. Lived 100 years and several lifetimes.”

Despite its primitive construction, it was a beautiful spot in an unspoiled area. I tentatively stepped on the sandstones to reach the tombstone. I opened the fruitcake and unwrapped it, placing it along one of the headstone’s smoother top sections.

As I stood up, the wind picked up, dragging rustling leaves from the fields and trees across the cemetery. The hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I turned to look behind me, instinctively. I felt foolish. The sun was just peeking over the distant trees, illuminating this magical place.


Just as suddenly, I felt as if someone were standing behind me, behind the headstone. I turned back and saw that no one had approached. The fruitcake, however, was gone. Only a couple of crumbs stuck to the stone.


“Yikes,” I whispered, knowing that I’d never see the explanation for what I’d just witnessed.

“Dear Dolores, yikes,” I whispered again as the swirl of leaves covered my feet in oak leaves. I waited for a reply I knew would never come.

Dolores’ granddaughter never called me. I like to think that she recognized that I was telling the truth about Dolores. In such a family, magic would undoubtedly survive.

From time to time, I’ll catch myself uttering the word “Yikes” to those around me, especially those times which evoke a feeling of connection with them. They look at me quizically, and I just smile. I’m cautious about using Delores’ magic too often.

I remember all of Dolores’ stories, each one of them. The faces in her family pictures talk to me sometimes, telling me the stories in soft voices. I think she infected me with her memory and of her life so that it might survive. Some nights, I wake up with the odd smell of Romanian forests in my nose.

Yikes, to each of you.
.

I have not walked past the hoarder house since. While I am not superstitious, I’m uncertain what lesson was given to me three years ago.
.
.
I wrote this story in November 2017. Though imperfections found in it are genuinely mine, this story came to me in one balloon, wrapped in a single moment, as I stared at the house that inspired it. It is strange how people who never existed can haunt my imagination. I put the story out of my mind and went to bed that night. To say that the fall night stretched into a swirl of years in my sleeping mind would be an understatement. I woke up the next morning as if I’d been unwillingly snatched from another person’s life.

*

Just Hank

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.

An Unexpected Jump

Recently, a friend posted about kayaking on Lake Elmdale. He also mentioned that many people seem to be unaware of its existence. (The lake, not kayaking – although I do wonder if such people who kayak really exist.) I tend to agree with him. Lake Elmdale is an artificial lake built in 1953. It derives its name from a mix of the names for Elm Springs and Springdale communities. I think they missed their chance by not naming it something extraordinary, like “Devil’s Tooth Lake,” or even “Drowning Hole.” Arkansas already boasts Nimrod Lake, named after Noah’s grandson. (Sorry, but the word “Nimrod” was forever redefined by Looney Tunes.) 

Since I have your attention, in 1950, Springdale had a bit over 5,000 people. Ten years later, the population doubled. Elm Springs started at 217 and, by 1960, added a whopping 21 additional people. 

I have dozens of stories from my youth involving this body of water. Many from my early childhood are fishing stories involving my Dad and Uncle Buck or a rotating series of misfits called friends. Other stories are from the time when I lived in Elm Springs in the mid-80s.

If you look at the picture, you can see one of the lake access roads on the right, about halfway up. Just a short drive beyond, and you can take a left on Lakeview and quickly reach Elm Springs road. Continuing on the circuitous route past the lake entrance, and you’ll emerge on Elm Springs Road further east and headed to what is now I-40. This story is really about the roadway’s right side, where the lake access ramp road intersects with E. Lake Road. 

(36°12’02.6″N 94°12’56.8″W 

36.200713, -94.215790 

(GPS coordinates if such things interest you.)

My Dad loved a good scare while driving. Whether it involved turning off the headlights at any random moment, cutting unexpectedly through a field (fence or not), jumping out of the vehicle if it were going slowly enough, leaving the wheel to whoever might be both inside and paying attention, shooting a pistol or shotgun from inside the cab, playing chicken with unsuspecting people dumb enough to be on the road at the same time, driving on railroad tracks (sometimes suspended) over creeks, marshes, and rivers, or hitting things for no discernible reason, my Dad often had no limits. 

I know that the last sentence is intolerably long. I wanted to pile it all out there to give you an idea of the level of crazy that might Dad exhibited. Sometimes, it was scary. Looming death tends to be that way. Other times, it was fun – but after the fact. Surviving such ‘fun’ colors the ability to laugh about it. 

My apologies for taking so long to get to the point. Before this picture was taken, the road was less maintained. Edges weren’t graded appropriately, and erosion and run-off worsened already bumpy or uneven roads. This specific spot was no exception. 

While I don’t remember the first time Dad revved his truck to 50+ mph and fly across the edge of this entrance as he passed, I remember coming off the cab’s seat and floating for the briefest instant. Whether the vehicle had a solid axle or good suspension had a say in managing the landing. If you’re thinking of the Dukes of Hazzard reading this, you’re not far off the mark. Though you might think I am exaggerating, Dad once convinced me and my brother Mike that he would do it at 80 mph. He did, after telling us he was going to for a long approach. Our butts were clenched until the point we realized that Dad wasn’t bluffing. Afterward, I felt that Dad would have regretted doing it had he not been three sheets to the wind. When I tell the story, I usually say, “I could see Kansas from up there.” It’s a joke. It was decently dark when Dad took that last quarter of a mile stretch before hitting the bump at 80 mph. After keeping the truck in the road, he hit the brakes and skidded to a full stop. He took the Camel cigarette out of his mouth with a flourish, looked at Mike and me cowering against the other door panel, and said, “Which one of you wants to drive and do it again?” Dad took the same jump, albeit slower than 80 mph, while we were in the back of the truck in the bed, too. We failed to determine whether clutching the truck’s side was safer or to lay against the tailgate. 

At times, Dad doing this sort of thing would involve Mom being in the car or truck with him. Mom’s reaction to being scared like this can best be described as “murderous rage” or by one of her signature phrases, “Go# Da## It, Bobby Dean!” shouted at ear-piercing levels. If it lands me in hell for saying so, I’ll admit that hearing her squawk like that was amusing as long as we weren’t witnessing the oft-overlooked attempted murder aspect of many of our weekends. 

If you are wondering if Dad ever wrecked, broke an axle, or blew out a tire doing these things, the answer is “yes.” Likewise, if you wonder if any of us ever suddenly experienced bladder control issues, you’d be right for questioning. 

On one occasion, Dad drove with his boss back to his house in Elm Springs. The truck was a Cheyenne or Chevrolet truck of some sort, one of their favorites to restore. In those days, rednecks often stated with confidence, “I have to blow the cobwebs out.” Being young, I didn’t understand the cliché but did know that it roughly translated to mean, “I’m going to go incredibly fast and possibly die in this vehicle.” Dad wasn’t drinking. I was in the bed of the truck with Duke, Dad’s german shepherd. Charles sat upfront up with Dad. He had a cigar in his mouth as he often did. Charles was also married to one of Dad’s cousins. I didn’t figure that out until years later.

We drove down Highway 112 and turned on E. Lake Road leading to the lake. About halfway between Highway 112 and the lake, Dad slowed and shouted to me out the window, “White lightning!” I immediately realized that it was a “go” for Operation Scare the Boss Shi$less.” The phrase could refer to the hell-raising 1973 movie starring Burt Reynolds or to moonshine – and sometimes both.

About 100 yards from the side road to the lake, Dad pushed the gas hard and shifted gears. As we hit the bump and sailed off the ground, I laughed. I heard Charles scream in surprise and then scream at Dad, asking if he’d lost his ever-loving mind. By the time we reached Charles’ house, he was laughing and jokingly cursing at Dad. 

One more note. Thanks to Dad, I learned how to drive through barbed-wire fences, closed gates, front lawns, flooding creeks, and just about anything else. Here’s the secret: you have to not give a damn about what happens when you do it. Once you master that skill, sober or inebriated, you too can be an amateur stuntman. I wish that I had experienced that version of my Dad freed from alcohol. There’s no doubt he would have still managed to convince me I might die at a given moment. 

When my brother Mike came home from leave in the Army, I didn’t get to spend much time with him. Life’s demands and the constraints of his limited time conspired against us. We did drive the road leading to Lake Elmdale, though. I knew Mike was going to ask before we ever approached the jump zone. “Should we?” he asked me, laughing. We were in my car. He was driving. “How can we not?!” I shouted. We hit the bump going 50 mph. As soon as we started to lift, Mike regretted testing his courage. After the adrenaline subsided, we drove for another hour along what once were quieter roads. 33 or 34 years have passed. 

In the years since, in the spirit of full disclosure, I too have excessively sped toward that same bump without warning the occupants of the car. Though the ridge is considerably flatter than it once was while I am much fatter, it never fails to fill me with nostalgia for both the times that were and those which weren’t. 

Cake By The Lake

Back in the 80s, a popular photographer roamed the hills and valleys of NWA. One of his spots was a spot off E. Lake Road in Elm Springs, not too far from the post office and cemetery entrance. Because I know better than to trust my memory, I can’t be sure his tradename is as I remember it, but it was close. He was popular for senior pictures. One of the spots he used wasn’t too far from the road, in part because of the dense trees, foliage, and sloping once you stepped off the side of the road. It used to have a short section of lateral fencing there. Many seniors, especially girls, found themselves at this spot posing. The people I’m going to mention had nothing to do with this photographer, at least as far as I know. I mention him only because of what happened. The photographer I crossed paths with did use one of the senior photographer’s go-to spots, though.

I lived next to the Willis Shaw lot, near what is now the Police Department on Jayroe Avenue, on the other side of Highway 112. Many days, you could find me running, sometimes biking, and often walking the miles of roads in the area. It was a beautiful place to be able to do so. Those familiar with the area need no convincing.

One summer evening, I walked several miles and was coming back home on E. Lake Road after walking to Springdale. It was about 8. I can’t be sure because we didn’t have cellphones and I certainly had no watch. The sunlight was fading, and the valley there was dense and beautiful in a backroads way. Even though I was wearing a cheap radio, the batteries went dead a few miles into the walk. I’m sure I listened to KCIZ FM-105 for most of my walk. The insects were deafening. Over them, I could hear voices shouting and laughing. Their voices carried surprisingly well. I walked at least a couple of more minutes without being able to see them. I realized that their voices had shifted and that I had probably passed them. Even though I was exhausted, I turned around and walked a few feet down a horribly-maintained side driveway. The laughter that I heard was raucous and fun. I didn’t see a vehicle. As for my curiosity, youth usually overrides caution.

I stopped in my tracks. About twenty feet from me stood a naked man holding what appeared to be a large, expensive camera. In front of him and to the right was a naked woman. To get this out of the way, the woman was beautiful. She had black hair down to her shoulders. Although no one remembers her now, I’d say she looked like Phyllis Davis. She was teasing the photographer about taking too long with the shot. She stopped talking momentarily when she saw me. And then waved and smiled, as if I were expected at any moment. The photographer turned and laughed. “Hey bud!” he said, smiling.

It seemed like I just stood stupefied for a few seconds. “Hello,” I said, much too loudly.

Then, I turned and sprinted away from the driveway and up the road, all the way to the highway. I could hear the two of them laughing with strange merriment as I bolted away from them.

I ran past that spot at least five hundred more times. While I didn’t run past to see the woman, I did look to see if she was there. She never reappeared, though I did see a lot of unexpected people and things on those backroads. Walking quietly at any hour of the night often yielded people in places where they were expecting privacy. The cemetery there in Elm Springs certainly gave me a list of stories I could share.

Thirty-five plus years later, I sometimes wonder what the story was with Phyllis Davis’ doppelganger. She had the looks to be a model, and she didn’t seem surprised by seeing me magically appear from the roadside.

P.S. She is the only reason I remember Phyllis Davis or her name.

Humor’s Acolate

“As sorry as I was to hear of my brother’s passing, I’ll bet the news bothered him a LOT more.” – X

There’s a considerable risk in people misunderstanding you on a good day. Many of us tend to judge others with the worst possible filter. I’ve found that good people can understand and appreciate contradictory and sublime behavior. Those who don’t just aren’t my people. Old age and experience, if we’re lucky, gives us more latitude in recognizing this.

The greater danger is people hearing what you actually said, and you having no defensible context to mitigate it. So much of life is context, and much of that isn’t immediately explainable. “You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t” is a cliché for a reason.

The joke that started this post? I’m sure people can and will get angry if they choose to. They’ll claim I wrote it as an insult to Mike. It’s not. He would laugh his ass off reading that joke. About one hundred times over the years, I threw one of Woody Allen’s jokes at him: “I’m not afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Years later, I threw in another one: “My relationship with death remains the same,” he said. “I’m strongly against it.” When Mike and I were young, we both read “Death Knocks,” a story (turned play) by Woody Allen. It was a sometimes topic of hilarity, even though Mike did not like Woody Allen as he grew older. Mike and I both made many bargains with imaginary devils and deities when we were young.

Only those who can imagine hiding in the space between the bed and the wall in the dark and waiting for a parent to come for them in a drunken rage might be able to understand the connection between bargaining and gallows humor. I have a list of stories about these incidents, and some of them surprise me by being funny. If you’ve read my blog, you can see that I’ve largely refrained from identifying some of my family by name. Despite this, I still infrequently find myself at the receiving end of hateful criticism.

When we lived at City View Trailer Park in Springdale, Mike swallowed an incredible amount of tobacco juice. Several of us had played and fought down at the retched pond that once stood at the end of City View. Mike spent much of his time between punches proudly with a mouthful of tobacco. He puked violently on the floor for what seemed like a full minute. That black juice stained the purple carpet deeply. No amount of cleaning could remove it. We’ll talk later about how someone thought purple carpet in a tinderbox trailer might look attractive. When the trailer burned, the stain obstinately remained. The carpet was dark, of course, but the underlying stain plainly stood out. Years later, when Mike and I spent the night at Mom and Dad’s house on Highway 49, Mike compared that stain to dealing with being helpless all those years, or nearly so. That was the same night we discovered that a nest of yellow jackets inhabited the other bedroom’s west-facing window. That’s a story for another day. As for the tobacco, despite attempts to make Mike stop, he dipped most of his adult life. I have at least three dozen pictures of him spitting into a bottle, cup, or a family member’s potted plant to prove it.

After Dad died, my cousin jimmy recommended that I watch a particular Billy Bob Thorton movie. Most people have never heard of “Daddy And Them.” You’ll be shocked if you take a look at how many stars joined this movie. Because it was set in Arkansas, it accurately grabs the absurdity of white trash living and wraps it in comedy. (A difficult feat.) After Jimmy twisted my arm and made me watch it, I did the same to Mike. In it was one of the jokes my brother and I shared as hilarious. Here’s the joke:

“Hey! Do you know what Dad would say if he were alive today?” One of us would reply, “No, what?” Dramatic pause. “Let me out!” With the last line, we scratch the air in front of us with both hands as if we were clawing our way out of the coffin. Last year, an Irish veteran stole the joke and shocked funeral attendees by having a pre-recorded tape of his voice shouting to be let out played during his service. Mike thought it was hilarious and an excellent way to separate the humorless from the good people in a crowd. “Can you imagine how tightly wound up Aunt Elsie’s panties would get if someone did that?” was part of his reply.

I have to say, though, that despite the immense teeth-gnashing my brother and I often shared, our deplorable and macabre sense of humor was unrivaled. Marines and serial killers alike cringed if they accidentally overheard our nonsense.

No matter what you’ve read and heard on sitcoms or dramas about the impossibility of confining an involuntary laugh at a funeral, my brother and I separately were a disaster; in combination, we probably deserved the death penalty. Some of the fault lies with my Dad. Even when he wasn’t drinking, he could say some of the most outrageous things devised by a human being. He once called the preacher a “co$$su$$er” in front of about 50 people just to get a leg up on him. In a twist of fate I’ve written about before, Dad and the preacher somehow became friends.

My brother Mike once unknowingly used an open mic at a funeral home in Brinkley to improvise a bit of comedy regarding our Grandma’s teeth. The funeral director sheepishly ran into the outer area to grab the mic from my brother and tell him that it was a ‘hot mic.’ It’s essential that you know that my Grandma was one of the two closest people I ever loved. Despite that, I laughed. I cannot think about that incident without losing a little bit of my soul to laughter. I’m convinced each chuckle puts me a foot further into purgatory.

There’s no greater or sublime pleasure having someone who is both smart and willing to go the extra mile for a laugh, joke, or smile – even if it burns down a few villages on the way there. I give Mike the win, though, because he could tell jokes that I wouldn’t. That’s saying a lot.

Not too many months ago, I sent my brother a collection of hand-written postcards, each with a joke from comedians we both loved. As with index cards in my back pocket, I’m also a fan of prestamped postcards for quick notes. Even while we were uneasily bickering, I wanted him to know that humor was still a big part of my life. (Even if I’m old, boring, wear a lot of black socks as leisurewear, and get too excited by an early buffet.)

Mike would see these words as a compliment.

Because of our relationship, I tend to expect someone to emerge with poison in their hearts to attempt to silence me for joking. Those who know me also know I’ve written multiple times about the fact that they have my permission to mock me to the end of the world when I’m gone, especially if it is funny or creative. Mike was not someone to pull back from a bastardly comment. The same quick and violent tongue he sometimes used to wound me also created some world-class humor. For everyone who knew Mike and watched him in action on solemn occasions, the Bobby Dean in him could not be confined or controlled. Trying to do so was just catnip for his enthusiasm to up the ante.

It’s not reasonable to accuse me of glossing over or attempting to sugarcoat Mike’s life. Equally so, I have to tip my hat when it is merited. Both of us emerged from childhood with a scorched-earth comedic streak. It probably saved us as many times as it caused us grief.

As it turns out, Mike was indeed there when death came for him. His birthday would have been November 1st, the day after Halloween. For some, it is All Souls Day. When I sat to finish Mike’s ancestry record, I noticed that his two children are the same age I was when our Dad died. Mike was 20,062 days old, the mentioning of which would irritate him due to my occasional reminder that I still keep a tab of how many days old I am.

My job is to remember the Mike who put a fish under the driver’s seat of my 1984 Oldsmobile in the middle of summer during a visit to Aunt Barbara’s. (Without telling me.) Or the Mike who read “Lord of The Rings” in almost one sitting back in the early 80s.

Please don’t fault me for taking refuge in contradictory stories about Mike. But if you do, I’ll accept that charge. Given the arc of my origins, I find this potential sin to be minuscule.

P.S. The word “acolate” is mine, one devised to denote eulogic remembrance, perhaps a day too late.

McNamara And Mike

This post is a portmanteau of lives. One was a dedicated writer, and one was a policeman; both failed to adequately recognize their afflictions.

My wife’s eyes sometimes glaze over when I hear tales of “writer’s block.” I don’t know what that is. I can’t help myself: I always say, “What’s that?” half-jokingly. It’s the same way with me regarding boredom. Reading, writing, genealogy, humor, photography, and just scrolling the window of the internet could entertain me for fifty consecutive years. I’d be ideally suited to be a vampire.

This time, we were watching “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark” on HBO. Michelle McNamara had her deadline pushed forward a month and struggled to realize her ambition of finishing her book. It was her lifelong dream. She died before DNA solved the case of The Golden State Killer. Michelle and I share many attributes regarding writing. I don’t put myself on her level, though, so there’s no need to remind me snarkily. But I don’t understand the inability to plow through. She resorted to drugs to keep her up and allow sleep when necessary. The thing she relied on to help her achieve her ambition also undid her life.

I can’t walk the street, work, or sit and listen to music without wanting to research a hundred different ideas. Things breeze into my mind at a velocity that I cherish. The satisfaction of an overactive mind isn’t diminished by the value or result of the ideas. I’m able to divorce content from needing a goal. This allows me to produce dozens of things that never see the light of day or end up in the ‘delete’ file simply due to happenstance.

Had Michelle raised her hand and admitted she was overwhelmed, Patton Oswald and their mutual daughter would still have her in their lives. Instead, her book and ambition fell to uncertain others to complete, and Michelle lost a presumable thirty or forty years with family.

While I wrote the first part of this a few weeks ago, it still is on my mind. Not just because it was a great show, or a peek into a writer’s life, but also because a piece of it parallels the life of my brother. He was ridiculously smart. He could have worked to be a writer. As I do with anyone I recognize as innately great at writing, I repeatedly tried to convince him to spend a portion of his life writing his stories. I do not doubt that he easily had several books of material in him. Much of his writing might have derived from his professional career as a policeman and detective. Even his Army career was as an MP.

Michelle McNamara’s life revolved around crime and its intricate tendrils. My brother Mike spent his career investigating and collaring criminals. While Michelle’s ambition always included being a writer, Mike could have done the same, and just as expertly.

The contradiction is that his job itself was one of his biggest impediments. It put a wedge between his personal life and his ability to live it. The schedule, the demands, and the danger of having a job that perilously exaggerated his tendency toward authoritarianism. People often ask whether the job makes the man or the man gravitates toward it. I’m not sure. As much difficulty as my brother had coming out of his youth, the job exacerbated his personality defects. It’s no secret that police are more likely to be abusive and susceptible to addiction. My brother chose alcohol to appease his conflict. Michell McNamara chose prescription medications. Anyone who gets angry at me for saying so doesn’t understand me. In Michelle’s case, her husband Patton capably framed her turmoil in a very public and touching television show.

My brother’s intentions to retire as a detective after a full career collided with his inability to stop drinking. He was forced to retire. Even still, he could have turned that blow into a blossoming retirement. Had he stopped drinking, he might have lived to be seventy instead of dying before his fifty-fifth birthday. Because he was smart enough to work in the north, his pension was protected by a formidable police union. He had the option to pursue any interest he desired.

I was envious of that and his ability to work a job that allowed it. It’s a fantasy for most of us to round fifty and shift to do whatever interests us.

In the last couple of years, I sent Mike books, starting with “The Accidental Salvation of Gracie Lee.” I knew it would ignite his interest and recognition of what writing about the South could do. It was my hope he’d begin to leave the alcohol to the side, even if it cost him herculean effort to do so. He’d be able to careen into another career writing feverishly. Whatever else Mike did or didn’t do, he also loved books and libraries. That’s something that can’t be said about many police.

Mike’s death not only closed the door on his gift of writing, but it also cost him a couple of decades with his family. They’ll each struggle with the legacy of his big personality and choices. As Mike declined, I couldn’t help but get irritated at him for the waste of his life. Instead of pivoting to change his course and take advantage of the privilege of a chosen life, he furiously wasted his and his family’s energies to dedicate himself to drink. As bad it was, we were all lucky a few of the circumstances didn’t cause greater harm to others.

Now, silence. What could have been a rejuvenated family and life is now a complicated and unenviable path to an uncertain future for all of them.

As in my mother’s case, I know that much of the harsh words I shared with my brother were a result of alcoholism. Knowing it helps more now that they are passed than it ever did while they lived. He recognized the danger, just as I always did, but relied on his devious inner voice to convince himself he could overcome it. The same personality that made him loud and larger than life also participated in his fall. Many of our family and ancestors did the same. None of our ancestors who knew they were alcoholics successfully pulled out of it. It’s a sobering thought. I’ve written about the infection of my family. While I cannot adequately describe it, the trajectory of those around me gives proof that my theory must have some validity.

Mike loved that I wrote stories. Some of them caused him grief, especially before he could come to terms with the magnitude of the shadow that our dad and others left behind us. He vested energy in secrecy while I opted to throw open the windows. I was often a terrible brother. The only safe harbor I had at my disposal was separation. Mike had trouble seeing that my life was not one punctuated by drama. He also hated that I told him more than once that were I in his shoes, I would do anything and everything to break my addiction. It wasn’t because I felt superior to him in that regard, but that I never fooled myself into believing that any of us have magical skills that preclude us from behaving stupidly. Behavior that is obviously hard-wired into our DNA is that much more insurmountable.

The shelf that could have held Mike’s books will be forever empty.

The lives he could have intersected with for the next twenty years will now bounce obliquely off someone else.

The silences and subsequent shouts of confused recrimination will echo in his vacant place.

A life lived short of its possibilities.

A Girl Called Incident

I know most of you know that a lot of people reach out to me and share personal stories. Most of them who do so respond to my fling-it-to-the-wall method of personal sharing, I’ve yet to find a single person who doesn’t have a couple of jaw-dropping stories.

In the last year, I would say the strangest and most incredible story someone shared with me was the one shared by a woman about her sister, thought to have died during birth – but was actually stolen by a doctor here in Northwest Arkansas and given to a well-to-do family.

A while back, I wrote a post about not using a clothes iron. (I also don’t own anything that requires dry cleaning, either.) It was a little piece of fun writing. Shortly after, I received a note from someone who told me an interesting story. As with the baby-stealing doctor, I was fascinated but was held to secrecy regarding the people involved. She told me she couldn’t think about irons of any kind without thinking about her grandmother.

Here it is, with some redaction:

My grandmother was born dirt-poor. She didn’t really know what her birthday was because she was born between fields. Her great-aunt told her she was born in 1912. She remembered it was the year that Wilson won the presidency and that it was a leap year. The leap year fact stuck in her head because her uncles kept joking that they had been given an extra day to work. Everyone in her family worked the fields and farms, no matter how old they were. Until WWI, they barely survived. My grandmother Edna remembered her father going to serve along with his two brothers. Only one brother returned alive. His name was Henry, and he was an alcoholic and a violent man. Even though Edna was only 8 or 9, she knew she had to hide from Henry when he was drunk. Her mom Ethel married Henry to survive. Four children were too many to care for.

When she was 12, Edna was working as an adult woman. She spent her days cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, and working in the fields. Her other sister worked with her and neither went to school past the 4th grade. After a late-night of drinking, Henry came home and grabbed Edna. He later claimed he didn’t know it was Edna rather than Ethel. Edna fought and clawed until Henry collapsed on the floor. He broke several of her fingers during the fight. Her mom fixed her fingers on the back porch but offered no consolation or words of compassion for her daughter. Years later, she found out that her mom had been abused by someone for several years. The fact melted her heart and turned most of her anger to bittersweet understanding.

Weeks later, Edna hatched a plan to get rid of Henry. She stoked the stove in the living room with more firewood late in the evening instead of letting it burn down to ashes. She put one of the fire-irons into the red coals and closed the stove door as much as possible. After all the lanterns were extinguished in the two rooms used for sleeping, she lay awake, waiting. Before too long, she could hear Henry’s raucous snoring from the room next to hers and her siblings. She climbed from the sunken bed and walked across the freezing-cold floorboards of the cheaply-constructed shotgun house. She searched in the dark for the clothes she’d arranged under the dresser, tucked out of sight. All the doors creaked like the floor as she passed through.

As she entered the living room, she listened to the crack of the stove and the wind-up clock behind her.

Before losing her nerve, she used three rags to pull the red-hot fire-iron from the stove. Walking quickly, she went into the room where Henry and her mom Ethel slept. Henry’s snoring told her he was asleep. Before she could talk herself out of it, Edna pulled back the thick covers from Henry. She put the fire-iron, tip down, across his stomach and legs, as best as she could manage in the dark. She threw the covers back on top of her stepfather. In a few seconds, the snoring stopped, and then a loud scream erupted from Henry. She couldn’t see him grab the iron, but he screamed again, probably as he grabbed the brutally hot iron with a bare hand. A loud thud hit the wood floor. Her mom Ethel began to shout, asking what was wrong. Back in those days, the bedrooms didn’t have light bulbs, or if they did, they were a single hanging bulb awkwardly danging in the middle of the room in shotgun houses. You had to get up and relight the lantern. Her mom, still hollering, shuffled around and struggled to light one of the long matches next to the oil lantern on the table across from the bed. She managed to light the lantern and turn the wick up. As she turned to see what had happened, she saw her daughter Edna standing by the door with her hand over her mouth. Henry was gasping and clawing at his stomach and lower half. The iron had burned away his underclothes from just below his belly button to his upper right leg. Edna had misjudged the iron a little bit; otherwise, Henry would have been reminded of her each time he went to the bathroom. He looked as if he’d been burned by an absurd branding iron.

As Edna looked at Henry writhing in pain, she knew he’d never abuse anyone again. She also knew she couldn’t stay. She ran out of the house into the cold night. She didn’t go back. A second cousin offered to let her stay with her if she agreed to work with her at the store she and her husband owned a town over.

The sheriff visited Edna a few days after she moved. “Henry isn’t pressing charges. What did he do to you to make you do that to him?” The sheriff seemed as if he suspected. “What did he tell you?” Edna asked.

“He didn’t say much, other than he didn’t ever want to see you again.” The sheriff shook his head and left. “I expect you won’t be causing any more trouble, will you?” Edna shook her head “no.”

Edna’s new family immediately started referring to the incident as “the incident.” Before long, they jokingly referred to her by the nickname “Incident.” A few months later, Edna’s sister moved to live with her. Both sisters were adopted in the family and started attending school again. Though they didn’t go to court, as people often didn’t do in those days, they changed their names to honor their new family.

Both sisters became teachers and lived their lives without further felonious undertakings.

The woman who wrote me told me she discovered the story after doing a DNA test. Luckily for her, some of the surviving family shared all their stories with her, several of which she’s written for everyone to share.

*

As with the stolen baby story that happened here in Arkansas, the fascinating details aren’t mine to share. If it were my story, I would proudly tell it as a story of a woman who figured out that sometimes fire is a better solution than words or hope.

What Kind Of Tree IS That?

56

My friends Maya and Juan invited me to visit their house. They bought it in February before covid. Because Juan had more free time due to the virus, he spent a great deal of time building a patio area in the backyard of his house. He’d told me a lot about it. After months of avoiding seeing it due to an abundance of caution, Maya called and asked me to drop by after work for lunch. She promised to make a huge helping of pico de gallo, regardless of what she prepared for the meal.

When I drove up, I could see that Juan had indeed gone out of his way to make the house the way he wanted it. Plants bordered the front and a single magnolia tree stood in the middle of the front yard. Along the far edge, a series of lush bushes and flowers stood.

Just as I was about to walk around the side of the house, Maya opened the front door and beckoned me to enter. “Juan will be out in a minute. Always late for everything!” she said and laughed. She gave me the tour. As we stood in the kitchen waiting for Juan to emerge, she pointed at the large tree to the left of the brick patio and seating area. “Look at that! Juan was so proud to get that tree. His friend Marcos got that tree from a yard that was completely redone. It’s too bad that they brought the wrong tree. It’s caused some problems with the neighbors.”

Before I could inquire, Juan exited the end of the house I hadn’t seen during Maya’s tour. We bantered and joked for several minutes.

“X, take this glass of tea and sit under the transplanted tree.” Juan handed me a glass filled with tea and ice cubes. “Maya and I will bring lunch in a minute.”

I exited through the French doors and walked across the hand-laid brick patio. Juan had spent a lot of time out there. It was impeccable.

I plopped down in the chair under the branches of the tree. I couldn’t tell it was a transplant. As I took a drink from my glass, a voice said, “You could lose a lot of weight, buddy.” I looked around and saw no one. I turned to see if a window was open. As I turned my head back to examine the area around me, I heard the voice again. “Who bought those clothes for you? Stevie Wonder?” I stood up immediately and slowly did a 360 under the tree. No one was around. Before I could get seated again, the voice said, “Don’t use a bowl to cut your hair the next time!”

I took my glass of iced tea and went to the French doors and entered the kitchen, out of the bright sun.

Before I even said a word, Maya smiled at me. “I see you found out why we wish the trees hadn’t been mixed up when we got them.”

Seeing that I was still a bit confused, Juan added, “Yeah, we forgot to tell you that it’s a SHADE tree.”

Density Of Time And Place

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I walked through a dense, foggy meadow in the early morning. As I moved through the tall grass and flowers in the growing light, I walked across the meadow and into the stand of trees on the other side. The dense smell of foliage and trees lay heavy around me. For several minutes I walked. Finally, I stepped through into a small clearing. In the middle, a man sat hunched near a small fire. Above it, a metal coffeepot swayed slightly.
As I cleared my throat, he turned and laughed.

“Took you forever!” He said. “Sit,” he said. I walked over by the fire as he poured me a half a cup of coffee. I sat on the ground. It was covered with dry pine needles.

As I took my first sip of the aromatic coffee, he spoke:

“For anyone taking the time to share their stories and especially for those prone to self-doubt, here is the phrase you need to consider: “the voice in your own head never needs to stop to take a breath.”

Even while you’re hearing this, it’s likely that the narrator trapped in your skull is talking to you in ways that seem slightly out of your control.

If this happens to you consciously, imagine the number of ways your mind is interfering with you in ways that you can’t or won’t notice.

Most of us don’t hang around people who embody what we’re aiming for. Absent such examples, the people who’ve shouted into our periphery through life get the front row in our heads. When you’re taking the risk of doing something meaningful for yourself, you look out into your life’s audience and the first faces you see are generally those packed into the front rows. You didn’t choose them as your audience. Be wary of all those who are spectators to your life. They aren’t you and don’t know you.

Even if we imagine several people applauding toward the back, we tend to assume that they are outliers and aren’t seeing something that those who know us best see. The truth is that your entire life will be different if you treat the outliers as the ones who matter most. They see something in you that those nearest cannot.

Each of us is lucky if we have one or two cheerleaders in life. Most people are too busy with things in their own corner of the world to encourage you; it’s the daily grind of life manifesting itself by taking people’s attention.

When you consider that every other person in our lives has a different version of us in their head, it becomes easier to understand that we’re never going to be understood in the way that we ourselves understand what motivates us.

Equally true is the fact that many people are insecure and don’t have experience with authentic people or those doing things differently. Most are dialed into the common routes and expectations of what being alive is supposed to entail. We focus on the process instead of why.

People dedicated to doing their thing also tend to reflect back honestly to those around them. It’s evident that many people resent their reflections and respond defensively. Silence is easier for them, even though it lessens their time here. They’ll work hard to push you into silence, too.

It is a rarity for someone to stand on top of the pile of all these tendencies and forge ahead. Think of someone you admire. Whoever it is, they laugh often and always share who they are, no matter where that is.

If each of us could witness the totality of a single life from a distance, we’d see that most of the struggle is of our own making. We cannot win in the sense of winning that we’re taught. You don’t win by playing. You win by not playing by the rules other people demand of you.

The voice of doubt in your head is there for a reason – but not for a reason that benefits you. Make it pause and take a breath. Somewhere in that absence, you’ll discover the absurdity of almost everything we take for granted.

Whatever you’re here for, I’m certain that you can see that silence and uniformity make us all lesser human beings.

Your time is here is almost up. When you finish that cup of coffee, you’ll wake up and wonder why you dreamed of me. Soon after, you’ll look up into the sky this morning and see your life reflected there. There is only one you.”

The clearing dissolved to nothing. Despite having a box fan turned to ‘high’ and thunderstorm noise playing in the room, I woke up instantly. Outside, a single bird squawked raucously. Before I lost whatever it was that the imagery provided, I went and made a picture for a friend, one treading the line between reality and fiction. In it, I captured the essence of a world she needed most.

All because of the smell of woodsmoke, fog, and coffee in a place more real than imagined, inhabited by a strange voice that was my own.

My Condition

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Not all my posts make me look good. Here’s one…

I was driving on Crossover, on my way to Lowes to purchase completely pointless items, not too far from the marijuana farm. Some people call it “The Botanical Gardens,” but that is EXACTLY the type of fake name a weed farm would use, isn’t it?

I suddenly had to brake harshly to avoid hitting someone who failed to stop while approaching the main road. Because I was unsure I wouldn’t hit them as they entered the road without stopping, I veered to the left slightly. I don’t always do the ‘veer’ thing if I’m in my Ford Focus. It’s led to meeting some interesting people. It’s hard to say “Hello” when the air is filled with screeching brakes and shouting drivers.

A honk startled me. A white van had swerved to the further left to avoid hitting me from behind. I slowed and pulled over for a second. The white van with an interesting business logo on the side pulled ahead in front of me on the shoulder. I was expecting a giant, angry redneck to emerge. Instead, a woman about my age exited the van and stood about ten feet away from the front of my car. People don’t exit their vehicles unless they are very angry, have bees chasing them, or are in the vehicle with more than one teenager.

“What’s wrong with you?” She asked.

Given that she probably didn’t connect the car running through a stop sign and entering the road in front of me to my swerve, I knew it was pointless. I assumed she was crazy, anyway.

“I have a medical condition! You should be ashamed of yourself” I shouted at her.

“Oh! I’m sorry. What’s wrong with you?”

“Stupidity!” I yelled back at her.

Expecting a tirade or curse, I was surprised when she turned and went back to her van, got in, and drove away. She didn’t even give me a laugh.

I was proud of my impromptu answer.

It is possible to live 20 years without coming up with a rapid-fire quip that both delights and defuses the situation.