The City with a Smile
On highway 64 between Helena and Jonesboro,
a giant cross forced on the sprawl of hills dotted
with churches and fast-food eateries; gas stations
and strip malls slowly succumb to vacancy
and horizon. Ranch-style houses splinter in all
directions. Trash and car washes. Train cars rust
in the shimmering heat, waiting for the freight
to come back, their tracks more wall than line.
Teenagers cruise from the bowling alley to Sonic
and back, park by Wal-Mart to neck or drive out
to Big Eddie Bridge to smoke pot and complain
while lightning bugs dance in the trees. There is
high-school football and judging others. There is
Jonesboro, Memphis, Little Rock, if you can drive.
Summer fairs and satellite TV. Further out,
there are rice fields, a handful of dwindling factories
with their bags already packed for Korea. Wynne,
this sleepover town near enough but not Memphis,
founded on the spot where a train derailed. We thought
we were tough because we spent one dry-eyed year
in the run-down Junior High across the tracks
before moving to the new one in the middle of town.
We were wiser than Solomon in our packs,
more concerned with the price of each others’ shoes
than the usage, already learning to turn up our noses
at the secrecies of the heart. We were killing time until graduation
or sixteen and old enough to drop out without losing
our licenses. Vo-Tech meant half days today, but Honors
meant a future. Teachers whispered to the few of us who’d listen:
study hard and you can go to college and never come back.
* * *
Dad would come in from the fields
with hungry kids to feed, set me to peeling
potatoes for German Fries, a kind of thick
hash-brown, learned from the Army
like most of his dishes; get a pot
of beans going with ham hock
and pepper to taste, his true masterpiece;
served with pork steaks pasted in flour
and dunked in lard to splatter the stove
a full three minutes before he flopped them, bleeding,
on a plate. Chicken was the same, steak, barely
warm when served. Once, my sister bought
butter flavored Crisco and he spread it on his
toast, thinking it was margarine, too thin
to be grease. There is a story
that Mom swatted a fly on a burger and he ate it
anyway, saying, “More protein.”
There were aunts to take us to church and uncles
to teach us to curse. During roundups, they’d chase
me and my cousins with cattle prods, hook
the springs in each other’s truck seats
to their ignition coils so they’d be shocked
each time they cranked the engine. One was hit
by a train and they sent him a new pair
of boxers in the hospital. They took out ads
in the paper selling each others’ possessions. Mom
used to wash our mouths out with soap if we said
“dang”. Once, my sister asked the other meaning
of the name for a cat, and Mom knocked her across
the bed. Our uncles routinely called us names
we wouldn’t understand the meaning of for years:
Whistle-britches, Goin’ Jessie, others Mom
would’ve fainted dead at the sound of.
How to make her understand: it was a sign
of affection when these men took a break from playing
grab-ass in the gravel lot and dressed us down.
Theirs was not a world in which scrapes
were kissed, forks were placed properly or even
used; theirs was a world in which the soft veal
of youth is eaten, the playful rabbit is stewed.
* * *
The straight iron legs of the kitchen
chair dig into the linoleum, leaving light
gashes from the table to the fridge. I stand
on its unmoored black cushion to reach
into the freezer. Plastic
whiskey bottles with their spouts
cut off, filled with frozen lard rest to one side.
Their mottled white fat begs use, leaking
the smell of loam. I stick my nose in, breathe
deeply, imagining bacon ice cream.
I will lie and say I was ten, twelve, old enough
to be unattended, but then why did I need
the chair to stand on in front of the old stove
with burners so coated in grease splatter
we let them burn clean before each use?
Pancakes were easiest, ham steak, another
chair for the oven whose filament also caught
fire sometimes, giving biscuits a smoky, charbroiled edge.
Wild children, my sister and I nested like rats,
rearranging furniture to fit our games—Crocodiles
in the Carpet (don’t get bitten!) or Table Slide!
My favorite was when we’d pull a chair
up to a closet and hide in the plywood
cubby-hole up top. Even above the piano, we pasted
pictures cut from mom’s magazines, scribbled
our names in crayon, left notes for each other: “Meet
me in Mom’s closet. Urgent! Signed Boo.” I’d run
to Mom and Dad’s bedroom, climb a kitchen chair
to find my sister, whispering so the Indian Marauders
wouldn’t come for our scalps
as Mom, lost, stared glazed-eyed at a point
just above and beyond the TV screen.
When we’d exhausted the closet clubhouses, we’d pull
a chair up to the door between the kitchen and living room,
take turns climbing up to perch, one foot on each knob
on either side and ride the door while the other
pushed. Call it sound construction; by the time
we’d outgrown this, the door was only warped so much
that it couldn’t pull-to completely.
Mom’s china cabinet stood slightly removed
from one wall. The dining room chairs huddled
around a table the polished mahogany
of a coffin, their thin frames curved
like the graceful legs of an insect. Their seats
had collapsed in on themselves, so only one or two
could be balanced upon successfully. After Mom
became sick, Dad never threw anything away.
We thought he was cheap. The house
filled with junk: Mom’s old
clothes, piles of letters and magazines.
The day after Thanksgiving, three years later,
the house burned. Secretly, we were relieved
to not have to face an un-cleanable storehouse
of broken memories, until they threw
out the couch we had jumped on until the springs
broke, the table we used to slide down, the piano
we hid messages in, and all the old chairs
no one could’ve sat in even if they hadn’t
burned. All of it smoke-stained and mildewed, yes,
but also ours. My brother’s wife spent weeks replacing
everything with new, clean, orderly furniture, chairs
you could sit on without fear of falling through
the seat, closets free of scribbles and bowed
shelves, no more clutter, no more spiders or mice
or Indian Marauders: a house we no longer recognized.