Damn, it’s hot outside . . . and a visual found poem

No Telling

The high today was an unbearable 104 degrees. My favorite thing is when the Weather Channel also give us the “Feels Like” temperature as well, because when that bad-boy reaches 111, like it did today, I’m not leaving the house. Enough, I say.

I know, I know. I’m actually old enough to remember when scads of people had no AC at all down here in Arkansas. In the evening, the attic fan would suck the living room curtains right up to the ceiling. People spent more time outside than in because the inside of a late-July Arkansas house was a steam bath. At least you could get a little breeze on the porch, even if it did smell like bubbling road tar.

I remember once watching my grandmother’s black hair rinse sweating all around her face in little back rivers from this kind of heat. She was also deathly afraid of rain and that made perfect sense. I use permanent color deftly and regularly applied at Athena’s Salon, and so have no fear of melting.

This heat is making me wander off-topic.

And since I’m whining about the weather, I guess I’ll indulge myself a bit and whine about mosquitos as well. They are numerous and biting. Sooner or later we’re going to have to experience Winter down here just to put a dent in the mosquito lifecycle. We could sure use a break on that.

For your summer viewing pleasure, a visual/found poem I call Skeeters. I couldn’t add music, so you’ll have to just hum something while you watch it. Just let me know what song came to mind.

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes

No Telling

Poisoned produce is nothing to joke about, especially when the poison has spread to Arkansas. There are a few things we get excited about down here. Watermelons, for instance. Hope, Arkansas is the Watermelon Capitol of the World, infamous for growing the tastiest and largest melons anywhere. We also grew a U.S. President down there, and another fellow who’d like to be one.

As excited as we get about watermelons, it’s nothing compared to the religion surrounding Arkansas home-grown tomatoes. Almost everyone has at least one plant growing in a sunny part of the yard. Folks with more than a 5′ x 5′ square of unused land usually tuck at least one tomato plant in among the marigolds. Those out in the county grow enough tomatoes to feed a small country. These are always for sale at sweltering roadside stands or out of the back of a pick-up truck. There are people, I tell you, whose sole commerce is to sell those tomatoes.

You can always buy them at a chain grocery store, and a lot of people do. A lot of people, I might add, who are checking their temperatures and waiting to feel queasy right about now. While we’ve been reassured that the Recent Tomato Unpleasantness (salmonella) involves only store-bought tomatoes, just the thought of dire illness has many wondering how to complete their summer without freshly salted and peppered tomatoes on a plate. It’s a little like telling us not to eat devilled eggs. We don’t know how to behave.

My daughter hit the drive-thru at Burger King the other day and came back with ominous tales of posted “no tomatoes here” signs. Same thing at McDonald’s. I reminded her that 1) she’s never eaten a tomato in her life, and 2) in the end, fast food is just as deadly as salmonella tomatoes, but I don’t think she cares. She spent her formative years listening to the Bush administration and is afraid of damn near everything, even tomatoes she doesn’t eat. I did my best, I really did.

No government agency seems to be able to explain why exactly all those store-bought tomatoes are tainted. I find that scarier than the actual salmonella.

In the meantime, it looks like the roadside stands, farmer’s markets, and pick-up trucks are going to be our only safe sources. Unless, of course, you’ve got a staked plant or two in a tub out back. If you have any extras, bring them over to me.

By the numbers…


This particular funnel cloud ravaged parts of Conway County four days ago and killed two people. When the worst was over, Arkansas counted between 11 and 13 tornadoes on May 2nd that took a total of seven lives.

A lot of numbers. There is YouTube footage of several tornadoes taken by some storm chasers from out of state. I’m not including a link here because the running commentary on the video proves a startling disconnect between viewing storm-as-art and the reality of people – children – dying as a consequence of the storm. It’s in extremely poor taste.

I can’t stop thinking of Ed Buckner, KTHV meteorologist. After the storms moved east and all those numbers started rising, he looked like a man who’d been hit by one of the uprooted trees. Clearly, Ed hoped he could transmit safety and people died anyway. I imagine it’s a terrible thing to predict acts of God for a living, and even worse when the predictions are accurate, the warnings go out, and things still turn out badly. There are limits.

There aren’t any hard numbers for how many people were saved, and that’s a shame. There are near-miss stories everywhere, though, and some of them are too difficult for me to think about.

Let’s hope this is the end of the worst of it, at least for this year. I’m not sure our hearts can take any more just now.

Weather Report


It’s sleeting outside this very minute. I’m serious.
Please understand that yesterday afternoon as I cruised into the typewriter shop, it was 75 wind-whipping degrees. It was January 29th and I had to turn on my AC both in the car and at my house. The wind galloped so frantically that power went out all over town and two people out in the county died from wind-related deaths. If the sky hadn’t been so clear we all would have listened for tornado sirens and stood on our front porches. I know that’s not proper Severe Weather Protocol, but that’s how we do it here in Arkansas. A tornado watch means nothing here because we’re always under one. We have to see that bad-boy touch the ground before we take cover.
That was yesterday. This morning it was an icy 26 degrees and now it’s sleeting. No one’s had a chance to run to Kroger for bread and milk, and that’s bad news. While we don’t generally panic during tornadoes, we go full-tilt when it snows or ices. All over town it’s Quick honey! Run to Wal-Mart before we’re snowed in. We get a little frantic because this is the land of 110 degree summers. There’s not a snowplow in the whole state and no one – NO ONE – knows how to drive on snow or ice.
Bread or no bread, I’m done for the night. As long as the plunkety-plunk I hear on the roof is sleet instead of hail, we’re golden. The Weather Channel says it’s supposed to be in the 60’s by the weekend. That figures.

Remembering Iva


It’s bad luck to speak ill of the dead. But Christmas is coming and we’ve been dragging out all the old photo albums, and there she is. Iva. Maw. My ex-grandmother-in-law and the meanest woman I ever met.

I honestly can’t remember a moment of kindness from that woman that wasn’t followed up by some horrific stab in the back. Or the eye. That was her M.O. – make you feel comfortable for an hour or so, then viciously attack the very thing you care about most. Iva talked about you behind your back and to your face, both with a cruelty that could take your breath away. And no one was spared. For Iva, truth was relative. If she thought about some imagined wrong done to her enough, then it really happened. The telling and retelling of the lie made it true enough to her to invoke a confrontation. Iva was a tornado dropping out of the sky, decimating everything in its path, then just as mysteriously lifting back into a harmless cloud.

From a distance, Iva was fascinating. I only knew her in bits and pieces, but what I know is that her mother was a cold, silent, stubborn Native American of various tribes, depending on who told the stories. Iva picked cotton and lived scarce, even when she married Ben Prouse (or Prowse – spelling was optional in that part of Faulkner County). Ben was a red-headed Irishman who must have been in the Navy at some point, but who ended up in Naylor, Arkansas with Iva. They had three children, the youngest dying as a child from a burst appendix. Ben died from a heart attack many years ago and the picture of him prone in the coffin at his funeral is still in a photo album somewhere. Iva took the picture. I’m still haunted by the image of a woman leaning over her husband’s casket with a Polaroid flashing. It’s unsettling.

My timeline’s a little fuzzy, but not long after Ben died, Iva retired. She’d worked at the Children’s Colony (now the Conway Human Development Center) for a number of years. I’m not sure I understand how she worked with mentally retarded children, because it didn’t suit her personality at all. At any rate, there was an accident at work involving a kiddie train ride that circled the Children’s Colony estate and Iva had been on the train with her charges. I’m not sure if or how badly she was injured, but the state paid her a nice settlement and she went home for the duration.

There, she made life a particular hell for her remaining son and daughter, as well as their spouses, children and ex-wives. Oh, the stories I could tell. I’ll leave everyone else out of this, though, because in the end, Iva is enough.

She dated a lot for a church-woman, danced every Saturday night in El Paso, and had men sleep over, much to the disgust of her relatives. She even married a couple of them. One in particular was a strange man with a metal plate in his head who sold some of her belongings at the Naylor Auction. He eventually shot himself in the head right there in her house. She was in her seventies, then.

Christmas in Naylor followed a predictable pattern. The celebration was always on Christmas Eve at my in-law’s home, and the house was festive, food and children everywhere. Just as predictable was Iva’s yearly Christmas tirade. She’d pick a target each year and hammer-down. After years of this, I quit trying to understand why she wanted to ruin everyone’s good time and simply counted the minutes until it happened.

Some Christmases ago, it was my daughter. Iva’s cruelty dropped out of the sky and landed squarely on Emily in the middle of her yearly Naylor Christmas Eve. She was seventeen. I understand the ensuing scrap between her father and “Maw” over the attack ended with Rick wishing “the old bitch would just die” and Iva’s furious stomp off across the road to her house to do just that.

When her son looked for her on Christmas morning, he found her on the toilet, dead from a heart attack.

If there’s a lesson here, I’d rather not attempt it. Out in the County, things are what they are. The family, extended and close, breathed a collective sigh of relief and buried her. I’m sure that like all good people, they try to remember the better parts of Iva.

I keep writing bits and pieces of her into my stories. She’s not the kind of character to write “as is,” though, because she was her own literary cliché. No one would believe her unless I made her a little kinder, so I’m giving her a sort of eulogistic synopsis here. In my stories, she’ll just have to be a little less Iva.

Chesaleen (bless her heart)


The morning Chesaleen died she bought two silver bottles of black hair rinse, which is why when they found her late that night, straddle-slipped on the rain-wet cement steps, they assumed she bled the black blood of a terrible sin. Truthfully, her heart quit on the second step and there was no blood at all, black or otherwise, but that was neither here nor there. The sin was an old one and not a secret, and the sight was more interesting for the way she pointed up with one fat finger propped against the rusted stair rail, pointing in penitence or accusation and laying like a billowy squid in a puddle of her own ink.

Back before the town elders became Christians paying their wives back for assorted wrongs by going to church, they cooked corn whisky out behind Chesaleen’s barn. She was a sweet thing then, with dead parents and a little money and eyebrows arched up like a movie star. Chesalean knew how to play cards and drink one-handed corn. She had a thirsty wink for the men young and old, single and otherwise. Boys always began coon-hunting, but ended up midnight at Chesaleen’s where she was always wide-awake waiting with a cigarette clenched tight in her smile and one eye squinting for the smoke. She wasn’t even a Methodist.

On the way to church, Mama used to make me cover my eyes when we passed her house and Daddy would cough some. There she’d be, between my widening fingers rising out of her own weeds like a toss-headed witch. Chesaleen scared the hell out of me, just like she was supposed to.

“Good girls go to church,” Mama mumbled straight at my cupped hands, “Bad girls go to hell and burn forever til their blood runs black.” She’d look at Daddy and he’d start fiddling with the gas pedal and that was that.

Chesaleen just waived her housecoat a bit at us and we left her swallowed up in road dust.

There’s a story goes that once Chesaleen showed up uninvited to the Saturday quilting at the high school gym and brought a chocolate cream pie. She wore white rolled-up shorts and spiky shoes with her toes showing. She set that pie down on the table with her red fingertips, mustered up a big lipstick smile, and waited. Well, those good women never quit rocking the needles. They never did anything else either, and when Chesaleen left bawling Mrs. Humnoke went right over to the table, scooped up that pie, and threw it in the stove-fire.

“Smell that pie burn,” my Mama said through the quilt frame, straight down at me underneath it. Women and needles rocking in and out above my head and that sweet, burning chocolate.

Two weeks later Chesaleen showed up again, this time with a pretty lemon pie in her plain fingers and a buttoned-up cotton dress down to her knees. Still, the needles kept rocking and the women set their mouths hard against her. She just smiled pretty and spun around to the door. A few minutes later, it was Mrs. Brashear broke the quiet.

“I think she’s trying,” Mrs. Brashear was blonde and not a little pregnant and had soft spots now and again. She rolled out of her chair, waddled over to the table, and sliced herself a piece of that lemon pie before she screamed and fainted. Women leaping to catch the blonde bride failed before she hit the gym floor planks like a felled pine.

Well, that pie was full of maggots, crawling in all that lemon and meringue like seed pearls. I never told Mama that from under the quilt frame I could see Chesaleen wasn’t wearing any underwear. They were busy enough what with maggots and Mrs. Brashear half-dead from the fall.

When Freddy Brashear was born the next day he had a strawberry mark on his chin and everybody knew it was because his mama had eaten Chesaleen’s maggots.

(I’m not yet sure what to do with this piece. I play with it, find new directions, discard them – you know the drill. Chesaleen’s just a character I can’t leave alone. Maybe I’ll write a little bit more of her over Christmas break. Maybe.)

Roe sells his family history by the acre


(Who knows what this will eventually be. I’m just scribbling.)

Roe’s house had been for sale as long as anyone could remember. He freshened his advertising once a year or so with new paint to attract attention. No one ever slowed to take down the phone number and no one ever called. Once in a while Roe would mention figures to the neighbors and family – usually around Christmas but mostly after church. He estimated and reestimated appraisals for local properties most nearly like his own, upgrading his own eventual gross sales price with each passing year.

The Hutto house was certainly something to look at, and when Roe was diligent with the yard work, it could actually be seen from the road. The house began as a three-room tar paper box built off the ground to keep it cool in the summer. Since his great-grandparents constructed it in the mid-thirties with money from cotton picking and sharecropping, there had been a few changes. This was the Hutto Starter House. Roe’s great-grandparents began their married lives in this house, as did all the freshly-marrieds in the family.

Electricity glowed illusory from three single, dangling wires – one in each room of the house. The open back porch was enclosed to accommodate a toilet, tub, and sink some years ago, and the other half was dangerously wired in devotion to a rusted washing machine that did not now nor had ever worked. The interior walls of the house were solid two-by-fours and appeared to have been painted variously at various times, showing traces in the living room of a hurried winter newspapering.

The whole house, porches and all, measured a scant 20’ x24’. If a visitor stood at the epicenter of the Hutto home, he could be reasonably comfortable in all three rooms at once.
There was a place by the north wall covered now by a rather frantic Olsten photograph of Roe’s daddy, Petrus, grimacing proudly in his Screaming Tigers football uniform back when the pads were small and helmets were metal. The football portrait represented specific skills of movement or prowess – a postured still just violent and childlike enough to make his mother’s heart sway and his father suck in his own gut in admiration. Behind this frozen gridiron legacy was a valentine card pasted directly on the two-by-four and painted around, but never over. It read, “TO MY SWEETEST ONE. I ADORE THEE” in a flag of beautiful scripting carried aloft by a mainly naked, smiling cherub. The paper was thinning and faded and bore neither the name of the adored nor the giver of the sentiment. The Hutto family considered this a sacred relic of sorts: at some time some member of their family had a feeling strong enough to warrant the purchase of such a card and was too overcome with the depth of that emotion to mar it with one single, secular, mark.

The house was built as it could be paid for and was never really completed. It existed in a permanent state of flux where the work seemed to create and redouble itself to keep the house from being complete. Each spurt of enthusiastic newlywed workmanship shone outwardly and inwardly like fine and many colored sandstone layers. The main roof was originally tarred roll roofing that had been replaced and patched, but never changed. That front porch was an afterthought and its corrugated metal roofing was added even later than that. A rusted-out section had been covered by an odd piece of green corrugated fiberglass that filtered the Arkansas sun like a Cold War atomic afterglow.

It’s hard to put a price on a house like that.