Listener, Take 3: Ozark Failures

Welcome to Take 3 of our Listener reaction. This week, a few of us are taking different pieces from the band Listener and writing what comes to mind. Have you checked out Take 1, and Take 2? Today, I tackle two pieces, "Ozark Empire," and "Failing is Not Just for Failures."

**This is a piece of short FICTION.

***

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QyTejjdHejs]

They mailed his last shred of dignity to him in 2007, a severance check for two weeks pay and letter signed "cordially." He never got up from that chin shot. It crushed him.

He ran his office like a well oiled machine, allowed himself no indulgences except for the yearly hot rod calendar that was thumb-tacked to his felt covered wall. He kept his papers at right angles, kept his email inbox clean. "These are the things valued by the corporation," he told me once.

Dad raised me on a steady diet of do-right. "Play the part," he said, "tie a double windsor, floss regularly, and by God, keep your blood pressure in check." Dad was risk averse, content to blend in. He ate less than he killed and always kept a storehouse for the lean years.

We were all surprised by the layoff. It was "company wide," the nightly news reported, but some of his co-workers had kept their cubicles. Dad didn't fight, just cashed his check and sank into a deep chair on his back porch for ten months. His jet-black hair grew long, grew until it curled in the back. He read an old collection of Sherlock Holmes, drank a daily sixer of PBR, and watched the blue jays. He slept.

Twice a week, I brought Dad supper and we talked about politics--Dad was a hopeless republican--or the economy. One night in February he told me, "I'm thinking about calling this 'early retirement.' I've got enough, and if I draw SSI...." His voice trailed.

"You can't just hang it up," Dad.

"Can't I?" He pushed carrots around with his butter knife. There was a moment of silence before he unraveled.

"I've been thinking, son. You gotta shake things up as hard as you can. Don't play it down the middle, make some noise. You have to push and push and push your way up. Push until you're so close to the top that no one can pull you down. You've got to take it by horns."

He took a slug of PBR. "I just don't have that kind of energy any more. "

I stared at my plate, mashed my potatoes under my fork.

"You understand, son?" he asked.

"Yeah," I said. But what I wanted to say was, "I lost my best friend to sadness."

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VIZm11T49yA]

Present in the City, Part 2

This is the second and final part of my Present in the City series. For part one (and the back story), read here.  To download the audio of the Cobblestone Project's panel discussion at Present in the City, click here  and find the panel discussion link (it worth giving a listen; my wife's on there).

***

The cabby's name was Lawrence.  He asked "whereto, boss?"  I gave him the address of my hotel and sunk into the rich pleather seat.  He asked where I was from and I told him Arkansas. He sighed, "ah..." and then slowly pronounced "Ar-Can-Saas; yes, I know Ar-Can-Saas."

"Oh really, how's that?" I said, feigning interest.

"My wife is from Ar-Can-Saas."

Trying to make small talk, I asked how they met.  He said, "that's a long story boss, but lucky for you we have a little time."

"Yes, lucky for me," I thought.

Lawrence was the black sheep of a wealthy Syrian family.  He had come to the United States for college, dithered about for six years, met an American woman, and fell in love.  When his father demanded that he return home, he refused.  Instead, he married and started his own family.

Lawrence's daughter was born with a significant heart defect.  The doctors pronounced that she would require a lifetime of medical attention.  When Lawrence's daughter was a teenager,  he accidentally failed to send a monthly insurance payment.  The insurance company canceled the policy and refused to issue new coverage for his daughter.  Her heart defect would constitute a preexisting condition under the new policy, they said.  The mistake would cost Lawrence thousands of dollars and would ultimately ring the death knell for his marriage.

"My wife took everything, boss.  Everything but the medical bills.  She left me with every single cent of those."

"I'm sorry, man."  I meant it, but it didn't seem enough.  It seemed hollow, cavalier.

"I guess it's all history.  If I had not divorced, I would not have met my new wife.  She is a good woman. She is getting her bachelor's degree in a medical field.  I am driving sometimes fourteen hours a day to put her through school.  And," he said demonstratively as he placed his right pointer finger in the air, "she is from your state.  Do you know her family?"  Inferring that everyone in Arkansas is well acquainted, he told me her last name.  I informed him that I did not know a single French Arkansan.  He said that was a pity because French Arkansans are very good at love.  He chuckled.

"Any kids?" I asked.

"No, not yet.  We are fifteen years apart in age.  We are happy together, and I am not sure she wants kids.  But, she is good to me, anyway."

We pulled into the hotel parking lot and he swiped my credit card.  I told him thanks for the lift, told him to take care of his wife.  He said, "I will boss.  Enjoy your stay."

I entered the hotel lobby wondering if even half of Lawrence's story was true.  I'm not really sure whether that matters.  The truth is, everyone loves a good second chance story; everyone wants to believe that there is love in the end.

The Cushite Photo

Deep in the heart of nomad country, an old clan leader asked if we would help him carry a briar bed to his compound.  His goat pen was running a bit sparse and there had been hyenas casing the joint. These were good thorns, long and sharp, good pastoralist barbed wire.  We agreed, so he hoisted the brush atop the luggage rack and held on to the Cruiser's ladder.  It was only a couple hundred meters, he said in his Cushite language. I think of  Moses' father-in-law.  Was he small and wispy like this clan leader?  Did he light a fire at the midnight heckle of the hyenas?  Was he a thorn dweller; did he make gates from desert quills?

I wonder about Moses.  Those years before he turned the Nile to blood, did he wander with the camels?  Did he rediscover his nomadic roots, the roots of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?  What better preparation for a forty year wandering, I think.

We find the clan leaders hut and he unloads the thorns.  He looks at me, sizes me up and points to my camera.  He smiles broadly, laughs,and asks the translator if I could take his photograph.  I oblige.

Then, he reaches for the camera, takes it from my neck with authority, and turns the lens to me.  He holds the body a foot away from his eye, tries his best to frame me up.  I half push the shutter button, in part to focus, in part to teach him how to capture a picture.  He presses and the camera fires.  He jumps a bit, surprised by the click.  He sees the image display on the back of the camera and laughs with an ancient joy.

These people, they are good.

Ozark Impressions (Just Write)

The winding S of red tail lights cuts a line through the Ozark Mountain Range. The mountains rise like giant ink blots against a navy blue sky dotted by only the brightest stars. Even those are dimmed, road weary from light-years of travel, I think. Matt once told me that it's the light pollution that all but obscures the Milky Way, at least here in America. Our grandfathers saw the sky naked, he says, glory un-shrouded by the lack of street lights and skylines. The stars were waypoints back then. The elevations of the ink blots are pocked with brighter, man-made stars. Red and yellow, they blink from the tops of cellular towers and broadcast antennas. This valley has been radio-waved for decades now, and the sounds of Rock-And-Roll settle in its basin where the ink blots spill their contents into a thin stream.

The Mulberry River.

At night, while we travel up the highway, coyotes visit the banks of the stream and drink deep. If the moon were full, the river would drip iridescent from their jowls as if illuminated by a great black light. They haunch on the other side of the brush waiting for prey. In the morning the buzzards will circle like smoke over the remains and the truckers will imagine the ghosts that haunt the valley. A young deer, a lost hiker, maybe both.

Most of us travel this stretch toward Fayetteville, Springfield, or Kansas City. There, we'll find our families, taverns, and places of worship. But for now we travel in a more pristine place, a range that hides its small communities. On the down side of these slopes lies Mountainburg, or Chester, or West Fork. Good people have settled in these hills and put down deep roots. They've made babies, started churches, worked honest jobs. This morning they attended Sunday services. The town drunk was baptized and the smell of whiskey was buried once for all in the baptismal pool. Bun-haired women shouted for joy and their long skits swished the dust back and forth across old planks as they swayed their hallelujahs. They're always looking for a reason to holler to Jesus and if we stopped and rolled our windows down, we'd maybe hear it echo in the valley. Even at this late hour.

Welcome to the Ozarks. It's good America.

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This is my submission to Just Write ~ The Third.  Thanks for the space, Heather.