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Chapter Two: Freshwater Pearls

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The summer after the River Sisters went away, I got sent down to St. Charles to stay with my great-uncle. My mother was expecting; she had the morning sickness so bad it was decided I would spend summer vacation on Uncle Harold’s houseboat.

I could hardly wait to get a hook in the water, and when daddy dropped me off, it felt like coming home. Nothing had changed since my last visit years before: Uncle Harold was just as skinny and bent, with wrinkly brown skin like deer leather. The White River was still green and endless, carrying the smell of a million growing things. Uncle Harold’s houseboat smelled like wet dog, pipe tobacco and fried fish, which we ate a lot. In other words, it was heaven.

I played with the Dupslaff kids down the way, a German family that treated me like a dark-haired version of one of their gangly towheaded boys and girls. Miz Dupslaff made the best bread pudding with whiskey sauce; between that and Altha Ray’s fruit pies, I was eating better than at home, where sweets were for special occasions.

Altha Ray was Uncle Harold’s lady friend. She came by every few days to tidy up the place and fix a big lunch. She and Uncle Harold liked to sit in rocking chairs on the deck, staring off at the sunset. Uncle Harold’s other friend, Mr. S.E., came over Sunday afternoons to play cards and “have a nip.”

Uncle Harold had a nip most every evening. He often fell asleep in his big easy chair in the living room. My room was a little space behind the kitchen, with just a cot and a bookshelf, but cozy. Bo, Uncle Harold’s lab mix, slept with me, something momma never would have allowed.

We went to St. Charles once a week, to the Mercantile. It was a relief to learn Uncle Harold wouldn’t be taking me to church—he said Sunday school for him was fishing with Mr. S.E., outside under the sky. And since “S.E.” stood for “St. Elmo,” I figured they must have a line on the hereafter.

Every time Uncle Harold went to pay at the Mercantile, whether for salt, sugar and flour or penny nails and lye soap, he pulled out a leather pouch, reached inside and handed something to Mr. Ballard. It dawned on me that Uncle Harold was paying for his groceries with pearls! Freshwater pearls from White River mussels.

I began snooping to see where he kept his pearls, and sure enough, one afternoon I peeked through the window as he was lifting up his mattress. He took out a small wooden box and opened it—it was chock full of pearls. So, next time Uncle Harold had a nip and fell asleep in the chair, I went and snuck one little pearl. I wasn’t greedy; I only wanted one teeny-tiny pearl.

When I showed it to the Dupslaff kids the next day, they did not seem impressed. The eldest went and rummaged inside their houseboat and came back holding a matchbox. Inside was a pair of long, skinny pearls. “These are slabs,” the boy said. “River tears,” explained a sister. “Two river tears pulled from the same shell’s bad luck.”

42 pearl and river tears

Uncle Harold asked me to run get a newspaper in town, so I hopped on the bicycle and took off, forgetting I still had the pearl in my pocket. On the way back I came to a one-lane bridge and saw a big dry-lander boy standing blocking the way. The Dupslaff kids had warned me about this bully. They called him “The Troll” because of his frown, and he was glaring at me now.

“Toll bridge,” he yelled. “Empty your pockets!” When I hesitated he rushed over, knocking me off the bike. I reached in my pocket and slowly handed him the forgotten pearl. “I bet there’s more where this came from!” crowed the Troll. I took off running through the woods, clutching tightly to Uncle Harold’s newspaper.

After doubling back a bunch of times and crawling through the swamp, I thought I had lost The Troll. I finally got home and handed Uncle Harold the tattered newspaper, along with some story about getting chased by a swarm of hornets and leaving the bike in the woods. He gave me a funny look and said I could get the bike in the morning. I went to bed praying The Troll would leave us be.

That night, Bo woke us up barking. Footsteps sounded outside on the stage plank as I ran to the living room. “Uncle Harold!” I yelled, “It’s The Troll—he’s coming for your pearls!” In an instant, my Uncle grabbed his shotgun and was out the door. There was a single shot followed by unearthly howling.

“This no-good’s gone and cursed my pearls!” my Uncle thundered as I stepped outside to see The Troll writhing on deck, his hand full of rock salt. “The only way to take off the curse is to throw that box of pearls into the Everlasting Pit!” Uncle Harold ducked inside and retrieved the box. Handing it to me, he dropped his voice as the bully thrashed and moaned.

“Take these—stay gone til this blows over, and then sneak back here,” he said. “That way we don’t have to worry your parents with this mess.” I began to wail. I didn’t want to throw away my Uncle’s treasure.

Uncle Harold leaned in so close his whiskery whiskey-breath tickled my ear. “You think these the only pearls I got hid away? Listen: I was a mussel-sheller for 40 years. I got little cedar boxes like this one buried at every cold spring in Arkansas County. I got pearls to last til the Resurrection.”

“But where do I go?” I cried as he stuffed the box inside my shirt and threw his jacket over my shoulders. “You just head up the road and catch the first bus comes your way,” he said. “Don’t be scared–there’s a full moon to see by. Just go til you git where you’re going!” With that, Uncle Harold gave me such a shove that I staggered off into the night.

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I was asleep on the bench outside the St. Charles post office when the sound of voices woke me. The sun was up and a big green school bus was parked at the stop, surrounded by a bunch of kids. The box was still tucked inside my undershirt. I fell in line with the gaggle of kids and got a few curious stares as I took a seat in the back.

“Are you with the CCC Floating Camp?” asked a bespectacled boy who plunked down next to me. “I never seen you before.” When I didn’t say anything, the kid started talking a mile a minute about the “Big Dam.” At first I thought he was cussing. But after a few miles of listening to him yack, I gathered we were on a field trip to see a dam getting built up north. The bus was full of kids of Civilian Conservation Corps workers—they all lived in a big string of houseboats near St. Charles.

53 CCC floating camp st. charles

“Of course, they ain’t finished building the dam yet,” the kid said. “Right now it’s just a big ol’ pit. My dad says it’ll be years before it fills up with water.” I stared out the window. The everlasting pit. A dam upstream from Uncle Harold—what would he say to that? The bus stopped for lunch and the boy, whose name was Nelson, shared his food with me. By now he figured I was a mute, and had quit asking questions.

It was late afternoon when we got to the construction site. Bull Shoals Dam. From the road it looked like a mass of scaffolding, planks and catwalks. The grown-ups herded us to a hillside park with a vantage. A CCC man in khakis and a rounded hat started lecturing about the dam. It was going to be as big as an Egyptian pyramid. I spied the nearest overlook—there was an iron railing off to the side. Hugging the cedar box, I bolted.

RESIZED DAM

The CCC man grabbed my collar just as I threw the box over the rail. He shook me til my head rattled, cussing the whole time, but I saw the little wooden box sail into the air and pop open, spilling its precious cargo into the gorge.

The CCC man was hollering, “Does anyone know this kid?” when Nelson piped up. “He’s my cousin, Mister. He’s deaf and dumb. Please don’t hurt him.” It was an impressive job—Nelson’s chin trembled as he fumbled with his glasses and wiped at his eyes. The man shrugged and let me go.

When we got back to St. Charles, I was glad to find Uncle Harold had fixed everything. Before long, everybody in town was talking about how The Troll was stealing Altha Ray’s peaches and she fired rock salt at him. Consensus was he’d gotten what he deserved. Everything went back to usual: I swam every day, S.E. came to fish and play cards, and Altha Ray baked pies for us. Uncle Harold said I did a good thing, throwing those pearls into the pit at the dam site. He never mentioned it again.

But later, after I went home and school started up again, I dreamed about that dam. In the dream, the giant gray concrete wall was finished. Behind it, a deep dark lake was filled to the brim. But at the base of the dam, little pinholes were forming, tiny holes the size of seed pearls, that bubbled and spread as I watched until the whole dam was pocked and crumbling. The giant thing exploded into chunks of tumbling cement as water foamed and roared into the gorge.

I had that dream for years, long after the dam was built and the downstream water temperature dropped, killing off the White River mussels and their hidden pearls. But I take comfort at the thought of Uncle Harold’s cedar boxes, buried beside every cold spring in Arkansas County.

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Copyright 2016 by Denise White Parkinson

Chapter One: The River Sisters

resized ladies on bluff

Everyone in Skunk Holler remembers the River Sisters. Half the town locked their doors whenever they passed by, while the rest of us cheered them on (under our breath).

I rode my bike out to the old River Place one time on a dare. Coming down the levee road, I was surprised to see their long gray wooden houseboat set up on the muddy bank, rock-throwing distance to the water (this was before the government kicked out the folks living on the river). I had pictured their home bobbing at the end of a towline.

Denise - houseboat

houseboat

The yard was deserted, which struck me as odd, and the houseboat had imitation brick paneling on the walls, which looked even odder. When I got to the top of the rickety steps to knock on the screen door, I noticed a cicada sitting on the wooden railing. It stared at me with big black eyes like some guard dog insect from another world, all quiet, not like any junebug I ever saw. Next thing I knew I was tumbling backwards down the steps and landed on my butt in the packed dirt. As I tore off down the path, I swear that bug was laughing at me.

My favorite thing about the River Sisters was their laughter. Each one had a distinct laugh. Mary, the eldest, had a golden voice to match her yellow hair, and her giggle was like a little ringing bell. I saw a halo around Mary River once, but I never told anybody.

The younger sisters were said to be twins, although I never believed that. Lily was ginger-haired with eyes like a cat and a quiet laugh like a purr. Poppy River, on the other hand, was as tan and brown as Lily was pale. Poppy’s laugh was loud and ripe and jolly.

The more things that folks around Skunk Holler did to try and make the River Sisters cry, the more those girls laughed—they’d laugh right in your face. They even laughed at Old Man Dump, the slumlord of Skunk Holler. He didn’t like the River Sisters selling their wares in town; he said they needed a permit. But every weekend the weather was nice, the sisters came to town to sell all kinds of stuff.

They’d set up their willow baskets spread out on a quilt under a big shade tree on the courthouse lawn (Old Man Dump didn’t like that, either) and before you knew it, every kid for miles around would show up on foot or bicycle to see what the River Sisters were up to. Needles, yarn or thread? Just ask Lily, who tatted reams of lace while she bartered. Want some homemade molasses candy? Poppy makes the best.

The older girls crowded around Mary, who sold little glass vials of perfume she made out of flowers. She also made medicines from combinations of flowers and sold those too. Some folks said Mary’s jasmine tea was a love potion, but I don’t know what it tastes like.

One time I got real sick and the doctor couldn’t figure it out. My fever kept rising and Momma got so scared she went for Mary River, who came right away. They say I was delirious until Mary’s flower tea broke the fever.

That was when I saw the halo I never told about. It was like rays of sun filling up the bedroom as she leaned over me and whispered something I didn’t catch. Her gray eyes looked ancient and wise, but she couldn’t have been but a couple years older than me.

It got to where us kids had to form a human chain on Saturday afternoons in order to keep the town bullies from coming up under the tree and bothering the River Sisters. We pretended it was all a game of Red Rover, but everybody knew we were guarding the girls. The only one we couldn’t guard them from, though, was Old Man Dump. Whenever he showed up, all the kids scattered.

Old Man Dump took to campaigning for Justice of the Peace, saying he was gonna “clean out those River Rats living down in the bottomlands.” I never met anybody in Skunk Holler that cast a single vote their whole life, but next thing we all know, it’s Mayor Dump parading around like he’s the biggest hog at the trough. After that, instead of picnics under the shade tree with the River Sisters singing songs and telling stories, it was only Old Man—I mean, Mayor—Dump, speechifying.

“Those River Sisters have no adult supervision,” Mayor Dump would bellow at anyone passing by court square. “There ain’t a person in town ever even seen their parents!” he spluttered as his face got redder and redder.

Everybody had to admit this was true. Whenever a brave soul ventured down to the riverbank to deliver a message to the family, there was always some excuse: “Daddy’s off checking his trotlines,” Mary liked to say, but her wink and giggle made a joke out of it.

The girls’ mother was said to be a legendary beauty, although no portrait is known to exist. The school principal and Preacher Burton couldn’t seem to catch Mrs. River at home no matter how often they tried. Poppy explained more than once that “Momma’s off catching a swarm of wild bees—she hoots at danger!”

27 White River St. Charles 2011

Then Spring turned to days and days of gray rain. School let out so everybody in town could sandbag the levee. Mayor Dump holed up in the one dry spot: the County Courthouse. We heard he was studying ancient deeds and plats, liens and property lines.

On the third day of rain, we abandoned the sand bags and retreated to the courthouse lawn, the only high ground for miles. Nobody knew what to do. Mayor Dump flung open the courthouse doors and stepped onto the portico, unfurling a big black umbrella. I saw him smirk at the captive audience. We were all too exhausted to move, and too muddy to come inside the grand old building. So we just stood in the downpour while Mayor Dump surveyed us, shaking his head.

“Here we stand, citizens of Skunk Holler,” he intoned, “having worked valiantly for days to shore up that levee yonder.” The crowd shifted uneasily at such a compliment, temporarily distracted from the fact Mayor Dump hadn’t lifted a finger.

“And yet,” he swelled under the umbrella, holding up a sheaf of yellowed papers. “And yet, those people—that pack of squatters down in the bottoms, could knock a hole in that levee at any moment. Those River Rats would not think twice about flooding out this town. Everybody knows River Rats are crazy! These papers right here, they—they explain how the property—well, these papers–,” he broke off in a shower of spluttering.

We all just stared at the Mayor. “Well, if y’all ain’t gonna do anything about the situation, I’ll just have to deputize myself,” he grunted, stuffing the papers in a coat pocket. Then he reached into a different pocket (Old Man Dump was known for his patterned waistcoats) from which he drew forth a black pistol. At this, the crowd began a low rumble, emitting a bass note not unlike a restive flock or herd does when alarmed.

“Follow me, citizens of Skunk Holler! I’m heading down the levee to run them River Rats outta town for good!” Mayor Dump steadied his umbrella and walked down the steps. A strange thing happened as the crowd parted to let him pass. People shook themselves like wet dogs, and half the folks streamed inside the (now unguarded) courthouse. The rest of us shrugged and followed Mayor Dump.

“What you think’s gonna happen?” one of my classmates, Mattie Lively, said as we trudged behind the line of muddy people. The water was rising fast. I couldn’t answer, and the closer we got to the bottoms, the more I fretted. Up ahead, Mayor Dump’s umbrella was flapping brokenly like some evil bat. I began to pray the River Sisters would get wind of us coming and hide.

“At least he can’t burn ‘em out in all this rain,” Mattie said. The crowd, sensing the nearness of the Mayor’s prey, quickened pace. From the front of the line a boy hollered and instantly more kids picked up the cry. “Sounds like we treed us some coons,” the Mayor yelled.

Mattie and I pushed through the throng until we had a better view. The river was running high and dark halfway up the levee bank. The shrieking kids drowned out the Mayor. “Look!” they cried, jumping and pointing.

The old gray houseboat had come loose from its stacked-stone foundation. It was floating away. The windows were shut and curtains pulled so you couldn’t see inside, but as it turned slowly into the current, we saw a puppy—it was Mary’s hound dog—setting on the back porch, just wagging and watching us all up on the bank waving and screaming like crazy.

Mattie tugged my sleeve and pointed—the Mayor was lifting his pistol! Without even thinking, I reached down and chunked a mud clod at him, hard, right as he aimed.

Mayor Dump got un-elected that day by unanimous vote, on account of accidentally shooting Preacher Burton in the butt. Everyone in Skunk Holler breathed a little easier once’t we didn’t have a mayor any more.

But nobody ever saw or heard from the River Sisters again, and I still wonder about them to this day. Especially Mary.

bowers daughters

Copyright 2016 by Denise White Parkinson

DOGPATCH 4-EVER!

Families streamed into the park for a September 8th event, and more are planned!

Families streamed into the park for a September event, and more are planned!

On dreary Mondays like today, when the world is chock full of bad news, it’s a comfort to remember that there are good folks doing good things, and some not so very far away.

In fact, just up the road a ways (Hwy 7 North, the Natural State’s Scenic Route) there’s a place that Arkansans of a certain age remember well. A place dedicated to fun and families. As a concept, first created in two dimensions by a cartoonist named Al Capp: Dogpatch, USA. A place we thought we had lost forever.

When I was a kid, my sisters and I LOVED going to Dogpatch. Arriving there after a couple hours’ journey up the Pig Trail was like entering another dimension of time and space – a universe of laughter, silliness and good times. For an eight-year-old with an overactive imagination (me), it was sheer heaven. The setting—gorgeous Ozark mountains, forest, waterfalls, the whole bit—was beyond beautiful.

The stonemasonry was built to last, as evidenced by the park's waterfalls.

The stonemasonry was built to last, as evidenced by the park’s waterfalls.

These days, the property is getting help from some highly motivated hands: Eddy Sisson, part of the team of photographers called “Abandoned Arkansas” together with partner Mike Schwarz, is archiving the rebirth of the place as “Dogpatch Village.” Eddy’s been updating photographs over the past year via his Facebook page and event pages – there’ve been some fun shindigs up in yonder hills, and folks are helping bring the area back to life.

I interviewed one of Dogpatch’s most memorable characters a few months ago: award-winning Arkansas actress Natalie Canerday remembers the theme park fondly and counts it as a foundational part of her life. Her thoughts on the place are worth repeating.

A native of Russellville (“God’s Country,” she interjects), Natalie got her first break performing at Dogpatch. With news of the property’s sale to a motivated owner, generations of Arkansans are expressing hope of a hill-country renaissance. Natalie counts herself firmly among the optimists wanting the park to prosper, in whatever form it takes.

“I was a senior in high school when mother saw they were holding auditions for characters at Dogpatch,” Natalie recalls. “I worked up a song from Oklahoma (‘I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No’) and a few bars into it, I forgot the words!” Instead of freezing in panic, she sashayed up to the man accompanying on piano. “I got behind him so I could cheat and read the words on the sheet music,” she laughs. “I began rubbing his bald head as I sang.” She won the part.

dogpatch pic 2 Natalie Canerday as “Moonbeam McSwine” stands with Pappy Yokum.

As the youngest performer of the 1980 summer season, Natalie embarked on an adventure. For young’uns who did not have the good fortune to experience Dogpatch USA during its wild and wacky heyday, a brief intro: the 800-acre theme park near Harrison, Arkansas, was a destination from the late 1960s until its closure in 1993. Since that time, the abandoned site has attracted intrepid photographers and indie filmmakers that venture into the hills to capture its eerily beautiful landscape. (New owner Bud Pelsor has purchased the property and is currently reclaiming it from years of decay.)

But in the summer of 1980 the place was in full swing, with rollercoasters, musical shows, non-stop roving skits and improvisational performance featuring characters led by Li’l Abner and Daisy Mae. (A thesis could be written on the significance of Li’l Abner’s and Daisy Mae’s archetypal foreshadowing of Jethro Bodine and Ellie Mae Clampett, but probably never will.) Harrison, Arkansas, and surrounding hamlets were amply rewarded for embracing Dogpatch’s hillbilly caricatures as tourism boomed, boosting the local economy.

By the time senior prom arrived, Natalie had been commuting to perform on weekends for over a month. After high school graduation she went full-time at the park. It soon became apparent that the summer of 1980 would go down as the hottest in Arkansas history. Natalie, with trademark enthusiasm, welcomed this trial by fire.

“I drove up in my ‘76 Monte Carlo,” she says. “They housed us in a little circular trailer park called Rock Candy Mountain—honey, it was smaller than any dorm room. All the performers stayed there. The others were in graduate school from Texas, Louisiana and elsewhere. At night, it was cool—they’d sit on the steps drinking, singing songs and playing guitar.” Natalie, all of 18 and away from home for the first time, was captivated by the atmosphere of laid-back creativity.

“That first year I was Dateless Brown—she carried a shotgun looking for a husband,” she explains. Lugging around a heavy antique rifle as a prop, Dateless Brown roamed the park searching for unwary little boys. “If they looked like they still thought girls had cooties, I’d come up to them and say ‘hey little feller, wanna get hitched?’ and make smooching sounds,” she says. The boys would run off screaming in terror and delight.

Nat dogpatch bw - Copy (791x1024) “Dateless Brown” roamed the park scaring little boys.

The following summer, five days a week, she portrayed Moonbeam McSwine, sort of a hillbilly Veronica to Daisy Mae’s blonde Betty. Every sixth day, Natalie played “Nightmare Alice,” the witch of Dogpatch. “I had so much fun—I carried a rubber snake and leather pouch full of potions and things, blacked out my front teeth,” she says. “As Moonbeam, though, I was all pretty and made up.”

Natalie attended college at Hendrix (Class of ’86 4-Ever!) and majored in theatre but maintains she learned everything she knows about staying in character during those sweltering Dogpatch summers, where heat stroke was a daily occurrence and the whole place, from town square to train depot and lake, was a theatre in the round.

“You could never break character, no matter if the train jumped the track (the heat kept loosening the rails) or if someone fainted,” she muses. “You couldn’t stop to tie your shoe, much less adjust your bloomers or wipe away sweat. Dogpatch was also the biggest influence on my accent—thanks, Al Capp!”

She remains in touch with fellow character James White, formerly the Shmoo, now associate editor of the Harrison Daily Times. “We bonded because James was one of the few kids my age. He toured Dogpatch with the new owner and wrote that it’s in better shape than he thought it would be.”

before and after A before-and-after pic of one of the park’s cabins.

At Harrison’s annual Women of Distinction awards banquet, Natalie was invited to be guest speaker (“comic relief,” she interjects). The organizers wanted her to share how Dogpatch influenced her career. “Afterward, every single person came up to me with some kind of connection with or good memory of Dogpatch,” she recalls. “People in the region know that back in the 1970s-80s, Dogpatch was a bigger draw than Branson and Silver Dollar City. It really affected the economy when that place closed. At one point I even dreamed about buying Dogpatch. I wanted it to become an artists’ colony—the Sundance of the South!”

And thanks to the artistry and hard work of some very dedicated folks, there is indeed a future for the formerly abandoned place. The sky is the limit where Dogpatch is concerned, so let’s dream big!

train station before BEFORE: train station

train after AFTER: train station

Morning in the Life of an Empath

beauty meets the beast daily!

beauty meets the beast daily!

It has to be Monday. Miles to go before I fully wake, start the day, the week, the endless rhythm of deadlines and moneymaking: a penultimate, wearying timeframe.

Promotional media, print media, social media, you, me, Medea –ripe nuggets of ambivalently valuable reality hang in the balance. But before I even get to work, I must navigate a minefield of ignorance.

I am dropping off the 6th-grader at his new middle school, located in a small town OUTSIDE of Garland County. It’s important to note that this public school is NOT located in Garland County.

(Although I’m not sure why it’s so important — this sort of public school thing is widespread, according to the Internet.) We are inside The School Office, home to the Secretary and ante room to the Principal, who has stepped into the office just as we arrive.

I fill out the appropriate student sign-in form (we have a doctor’s note, after all), slinging cursive confidently as part of my role as an appropriate parental guardian. But in the background, I detect a note of discord: an apparently delicate conversation between the Middle-School Principal and two terrified little girls standing in the corner.

(Seriously, these girls are little. Think: the character of Newt in “Aliens” or small as Scout in “Mockingbird.” The principal is your basic bland white-privileged male, anywhere from 30-50, it’s hard to tell b/c of the absence of any expression.)

From the corner of my eye, as I sign my name, I see the two little girls, all of four-feet-tall, trembling in their matching ankle-boots. It’s obvious (b/c Monday) that they have spent the weekend coordinating new outfits: knit purple tunics (mock-turtle neck) worn over patterned blue/green/purple knit tights. These are thick knit tights, probably seen featured in a Fall fashion mag’s full-color glossy spread as worn by a cadre of attractive ski-bunnies, displayed colorfully before a roaring hearth, probably photoshopped.

“You are breaking the school dress code,” the glowering Middle School Principal intones rather creepily. “Are you both in 5th Grade?” he inquires of the cowering pair.

“Yes, sir,” whimper the humiliated BFFs.

“Fifth-grade girls grow, on average, about 3 inches a year,” muses Principal Creepy-Ass Cracka, addressing the cringing Secretary behind the office countertop. Avoiding her gaze, I duck my head and finish filling out the required form as the Principal admonishes the pair of female children for having chosen garments that fall mid-thigh over such audaciously patterned knit tights. The Principal is shocked, Shocked! at the half-inch-wide deviation from the prescribed public school norm.

As Principal McCreepy gives the unfortunate girls a few more fashion/morality tips, I bid my (safely un-scrutinized male) middle-school child goodbye, wondering as I depart at his slovenly, threadbare, hand-me-down attire (a byproduct of our current Great Recession). I flee the distasteful, early-morning scene, hurrying out to the parking lot where I catch a glimpse of the two chastened 5th-graders scurrying up a flight of steps, the glory of their matching tights destroyed forever, replaced with a traumatic memory of epic scuzziness.

The girls are too far away for me to call out to them. I don’t want to frighten them by shrieking, “WAIT, WAIT! Your principal is an ASS!!! Your beautiful matching knit tunics that fall to mid-thigh, complemented in color and design by awesomely iconic contrasting knit tights; such timelessly youthful spa ski-wear, totally top of the line fiber art designs constituting a downright credit to the community — Wait, you girls don’t deserve to be insulted by hick, style-averse clods!” This is what I do not yell, to my eternal shame and regret.

I feel the need to apologize to all likewise universally insulted public school 5th-grade girls (and the women they grow into): beautiful Arkansas girls continually punished for being young, fresh and/or brash; the ones who call each other over the weekend to coordinate cool new Fall outfits — wearers of mock-turtle neck sweaters and matching patterned knit tights that reveal absolutely NO SKIN, except of course that undeniable, universally revolutionary fashion statement: a uniquely identifiable face and hands.

No burkas necessary in Arkansas, Mister Middle School Principal… at least, not yet, despite your patronizing best efforts at humiliating and shaming little girls for wearing clothes that defy outmoded, obsolete Patriarchal Constructs.

Radio Days

KUHS 97.9 FM Hot Springs Community Radio

KUHS 97.9 FM Hot Springs Community Radio

Today I drove downtown listening to local radio: KUHS FM, Hot Springs’ new solar-powered community station. The rain’s been coming down for days with no discernible effect on the transmission, which makes solar power even more impressive.

A mellow DJ was spinning some ‘80s tunes, including the B-52s’ “Channel Z” and the German version of “99 Luft Balloons.” After a bit, the DJ addressed the listening audience:

“Today’s theme is songs about nuclear war,” he explained. “I was 11 back during that particular Cold War era. I didn’t follow geopolitics.” The DJ then described a recurring image from his childhood, “nuclear propaganda,” some film of a boy at a dinner table dropping a fork in slow motion. Before the fork hits the table comes the atomic flash.

“You were vaporized,” he intoned, his deep DJ voice echoing through my car as I drove through steady rain, heading back to the office.

I remember where I was when those songs first got airplay: Hendrix College, walking across campus in the twilight as KHDX FM streamed music out of an open window overlooking the fountain. One of my favorite songs then was “Melt the Guns” by XTC. Sometimes, walking across the lush, shady lawns of the campus, I’d suddenly imagine a mushroom cloud filling the horizon. It was the 1980s and I was barely 21, but it occurs to me that the only thing more unsettling would be to endure such visions at the age of 11.

The nation’s first Cold War happened before I was born, but I was prepared for it due to my upbringing by End-Timers. Apocalyptic imagery of a nuclear flavor originally permeated the minds of writers that came together in the early 1950s. The Beat Poets signaled the first literary movement to address an omnipresent threat of mutually assured annihilation due to the splitting of atoms.

“Beat,” as in beat down to the point of beatitude, beat down to the nanoparticle level, suggests willful groveling in the dirt and mud of life:

“Life is a snake. What do I lose when I lose the snake?
I lose my writhing properties…”
— Jack Kerouac

This theme recalls an earlier mystic:

“I am content to live it all again
And yet again, if it be life to pitch
Into the frog-spawn of a blind man’s ditch…”
— WB Yeats

As I sit here on the night porch listening to the rain’s drumbeat, it occurs to me that if it be life to confront the pain of ceaseless war again and again, I’m there. I’m also grateful for radio-waves sending music into timeless darkness. Like the rain, let come what may!

Poetry Night, 9.30.2015

I was invited to be the featured poet at Hot Springs Wednesday Night Poetry venue downtown, hosted by founder Bud Kenny at Kollective Coffee + Tea. Here is the first fragment I have been able to upload, will post the longer vid tomorrow. Thanks and praise to artist Julie Williams for filming this poetry written during researching and writing Daughter of the White River!

On the Town

A violation @ Carpenter Dam & Malvern Ave.

A violation @ Carpenter Dam & Malvern Ave.

I may no longer live in Hot Springs, nor Garland County for that matter, but I did for seven years, and I still work there every weekday and go there nearly every weekend. So today’s view was jarring, to say the least.

Malvern Avenue is getting a close shave for some odd reason, considering two sudden and pathetic attempts at what will probably be called “in-fill” development by the powers-that-be.

The woodsy knoll at Golf Links has been completely obliterated, with nary a buffer zone nor screen o’green to compensate for the loss of a once-steep hill filled with natural beauty.

This used to be a hill with tall trees.

This used to be a hill with tall trees (Golf Links & Malvern Ave).

But when the travesty of a sham of a mockery of a travesty began taking place a block away, at the intersection of Carpenter Dam Rd. and Malvern Avenue, my eco-rage-ometer zoomed into the red. I drove into the side street to take a picture of this ecological holocaust in the middle of a once-serene neighborhood, and lookie what I found:

This used to be a hill of really tall trees.

This used to be a hill of really tall trees.

The city’s response to this desecration of a main corridor of Hot Springs can best be summed up as too little too late. But after writing about ecological issues and natural resources of my home state for a quarter century, I have to ask:

Am I naïve to think city officials did not know about this building plan, which covers more than an acre in the heart of town? Could this development be just another oopsie daisy, or is this horror the work of a Hassanflu or a Malt, or some other plundering, well-connected fool? There have been so many, from outside Arkansas as well as from inside.

Garden City of the Natural State deserves better!

Garden City of the Natural State deserves better!

I spent the late 1990s attending countless city board meetings in another city, one that had no tree ordinances or desire for vision. Citizen appeals (including crying children) did not prevent the destruction of neighborhoods by rapacious developers in league with city hall. But then, Little Rock has never had much of an identity as a city.

Hot Springs is a different story: Hot Springs is as culturally unique as it is blessed with natural beauty. If Hot Springs wants to become another Little Rock, keep it up! You are getting there. Keep closing the barn door after the cows are long gone, and you will have arrived.

Thankfully, it is not too late to plant seeds, generate a vision and become the Garden City of the Natural State. Time to grow up, Hot Springs!

This used to be a hill w/trees on it.....

This used to be a hill w/trees on it…..

Giving Trees

600 oak trees at the nation's 9-11 Memorial wear memorial "tree necklaces" designed by Ann Mayle

600 oak trees at the nation’s 9-11 Memorial wear memorial “tree necklaces” designed by Ann Mayle

Hot Springs entrepreneur overcomes tragedy and loss to create lasting, living memorials.

By Denise White Parkinson

memorial marker at Helen Spence's cedar tree

memorial marker at Helen Spence’s cedar tree

Meeting Ann Mayle (MAY-lee) is a singular experience: her zest for life and abiding faith are outshone only by her smile. From a vintage high-rise overlooking Lake Hamilton, the Hot Springs entrepreneur recounts a journey that has brought her home to Arkansas roots.

“My grandfather graduated from the University of Arkansas in 1910, when the graduating class numbered less than 100,” she notes. “Roy C. Goodwin—he was from El Dorado.” Ann grew up in Southfield, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, as her delightful Midwestern accent reveals. When she was 14 years old, she experienced a life-altering event. After driving with friends to an after-school house party, Ann opted to remain behind when her teenage companions jumped in the car for a quick trip to a nearby supermarket.

“There was a temporary construction median set up a block away, a cement wall,” she recalls. “We heard the crash from the basement den.” Because Ann’s purse was still in the car, police called Ann’s mother, who rushed to the scene and nearly fainted with relief to find her daughter alive. But the four boys and girls in the car—Ann’s best friends—did not survive the crash. “For the next week my mom took care of me,” she says. “I was shaking and crying nonstop. I would get up every day and go to funerals…they were all such good kids.”

Two decades later, she was having lunch with a friend and spotted a Detroit News article about a fatal crash involving local teens. The accident occurred on Woodward Avenue, a well-known street for cruising in the Motor City. During a lunchtime drag race, a car carrying three high school boys spun out and hit a tree. The article included a photograph of the crash site’s makeshift, hand-lettered memorial wooden sign and some plastic flowers drooping in the rain. “How sad that looks,” her friend commented.

Ann grabbed a napkin and began sketching designs for a permanent memorial, something that would last, like the tree upon which it would be placed. After consulting with arborists in Michigan State University’s Urban Forestry program and private companies, she launched her product in 2000, creating the website, www.AFamilyTree.com.

“I call them tree tags,” she smiles. Clients describe them as tree necklaces, tree bracelets or “tree-lets.” The markers are slender, 6-inch X 2-inch stainless-steel plaques inscribed with custom phrases. A special spring-loaded chain encircles the trunk to expand as the tree grows.

The environmentally friendly tree tags are manufactured in the U.S.A. and Ann encourages planting trees as part of the memorial process. When New York’s 9/11 Memorial planted 600 oak trees to honor fallen Americans, A Family Tree created custom oval plaques for each tree, a living legacy. To date, 20,000 memorial tags by A Family Tree have commemorated people, events, places and pets, worldwide. Ann’s product made the “O” List, featured in O Magazine as “one of Oprah’s favorite things.”

600 oak trees at the nation's 9-11 Memorial wear memorial "tree necklaces" designed by Ann Mayle

600 oak trees at the nation’s 9-11 Memorial wear memorial “tree necklaces” designed by Ann Mayle

After moving to Hot Springs to be near her elderly mom, Ann donated memorial tree necklaces to two very different, yet intimately connected places, and our paths converged.

Exploring her new hometown, Ann discovered the Community Garden I co-founded several years ago, tucked away in historic downtown’s arts district. Enthused about the prospect of joining the garden in the spring, she went right out and bought some tools and gardening gloves. Then, she happened to read a newspaper article describing Daughter of the White River, a book I wrote about a young Arkansas girl named Helen Spence.

Ann was saddened to learn of the girl’s tragic death during the Great Depression and intrigued that Helen Spence’s grave is marked only by a cedar tree. Ann decided to donate a tree marker, and so she tracked me down. As it turns out, we live only 10 miles apart. When we met, she still had the gardening tools in the trunk of her car.

Ann appreciates life’s serendipity as a reflection of a deeper truth. Having worked closely with each client, hearing their stories and choosing the right message for loved ones, she marvels at the interconnection of the human family. When we traveled to Arkansas County to place the memorial plaque on Helen Spence’s cedar tree, we were joined by others at the St. Charles cemetery.

first, we sprinkled some soil from Hot Springs at the base Helen's cedar

first, we sprinkled some soil from Hot Springs at the base Helen’s cedar

Brought together in remembrance of a tragic, unjust loss, we sprinkled soil from our homes at the base of the cedar, adjusted the tree tag and stepped back to regard the effect. Suddenly, a discoloration on the trunk’s shaggy bark was evident—the image resembled a silhouette of a young girl, wearing a silver necklace.

as Ann stepped away we saw an image on the trunk

as Ann stepped away we saw an image on the trunk

An avid gardener, Ann is enjoying life in the Spa City, where one of her tree necklaces now adorns the Community Garden. The plaque was placed in remembrance of Elnora Bolden, a garden supporter who passed away at the age of 97. Like a jewel in a sacred grove, its silent message is lit by sunbeams:

A precious one from us is gone
A voice we love is stilled
A place is vacant in our hearts
That never can be filled.

Community Garden co-founder Margaret Ballard with the tree memorial to  her mother, Elnora Bolden

Community Garden co-founder Margaret Ballard with the tree memorial to her mother, Elnora Bolden

The Edification of Iron Gulch

…how a small Southern town made a big noise.

By Denise White Parkinson

Suggins children of Arkansas in their natural habitat

Suggins children of Arkansas in their natural habitat

Cast of Characters:

Jean Petite:
Art School grad arriving in Iron Gulch to open the town’s first Art Center

Colonel Crackerfrakkin:
Evil slumlord and owner of the local mining industry

Mrs. Crackerfrakkin:
Wicked wife of the Colonel; fancies herself an interior decorator

Laken:
The Greers Fairy – stirred up over plans to frack beneath Greers Ferry Lake

Tad McTacky:
Nephew of the Colonel; an artist who paints barnyard scenes– roosters a specialty

Lola:
Classless daughter of the Crackerfrakkins – had her name legally changed to Lola (from her given name of Gina Mae Crackerfrakkin)

The Suggins Children:
Little kids of the town that want the Art Center because they’ve never studied art in school

Reverend Chip:
Small-town preacher with big political ambitions; sucks up to the Crackerfrakkins

Rednecks 1,2,3:
Greek Chorus with banjos

She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named:
The Director of the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quandary

MC Fouke & Jazzquatch:
Disaffected youth of the Arkansas bottomlands

Hobo:
Refugee from the Not-So-Great Depression

Cernunnos:
Druidic forest deity: part man, part stag

MUSICAL NUMBERS

Battle of Iron Gulch (Rednecks 1, 2 & 3)

Iron Gulch, Keep On Mining (Rednecks 1, 2 & 3)

Pig in a Pen (Rednecks 1, 2 & 3)

Little Man Eulogy (Suggins Children)

Flow (MC Fouke & Jazzquatch)

Fault Line Blues (Hobo)

End of Days Blues (Redneck #3)

Battle of Iron Gulch Reprise (Cast)

PLACE:

Iron Gulch, Arkansas, the county seat of Dimrock County

TIME:

Summertime

ACT 1

SCENE 1

Setting: The Old Springs Depot, a historic train station next to an ancient coldwater spring in Iron Gulch, Arkansas.

At Rise: Laken, the Greers Fairy, hovers unnoticed over the Three
Rednecks as they lounge on benches by the depot. They have
a guitar, banjo and harmonica.

LAKEN:
Iron Gulch, population Not Many, is the county seat of Dimrock County, Arkansas. Its mining heyday came and went long ago. After the boom-and-bust, the area’s Vanadium Ore played out, leaving behind the steaming wastes of the Gulch.

Now there’s a new plan: Fracking for Natural Gas! Dimrock County is situated atop the area’s biggest shale play: The Dimwit Shale! Alas, the only uncontaminated water left in Iron Gulch is the fountain at the Old Springs Depot. The Depot was bequeathed to unsuspecting art teacher Jean Petite. She’s on her way to Iron Gulch right now, to claim her inheritance and turn the Depot into the town’s very first Art Center for Children. What could possibly go wrong?
(FLUTTERS OFFSTAGE)

SONG: BATTLE OF IRON GULCH – Rednecks 1,2 & 3
(to tune of Battle of New Orleans)
“In 2015 we took a little trip
With Colonel Crackerfrakkin in the shale of Dimwit
We mined all the ore, sludge leaked into the streams
And then we set to frackin’
And a-poisoning the springs.
We mined that ore and the sludge kept a-comin’
We fracked that shale til the water was aglow
We dumped that sludge where no-one was a knowin’
Down the Ouachita River to the Gulf of Mexico.

[Redneck #3: I thought the glow over the Gulch was the Second Coming, but turns out, it’s just radioactive waste from the mining sludge!]
{reprise}

We mined in the hills and we fracked in the valleys
We fracked in the bushes where the rabbits wouldn’t go
We mined all the ore til the water was a-glowin’
Down the Ouachita River to the Gulf o’Mexico.

[Redneck #3: Who coulda predicted that vanadium sludge makes people sick? Surely not the State Health Department – why, they’ve known about the radioactivity for years!

Redneck #2: They’s the ones that sent me the documents!]

We dumped our sludge in the creeks and the valleys
Making people sick like your Maw and your Paw
Frackin’ that shale til the air be a-stankin’
Aided and abetted by the State of Arkansaw…

REDNECK #1:
I ‘magine I best be getting back to the house.

REDNECK #2:
Aw, what’s your hurry?

REDNECK #3:
Yeah, what’s anybody’s hurry? That’s the thing about the Endtimes – you don’t have to rush around doing stuff no more. The Endtimes is all about stopping to smell the roses…

REDNECK #1:
Iron Gulch ain’t never smelled like no rose. There ain’t a single rose in this town. Daddy used to say: ‘Smell that, son? Smells like money! Our stink is our pride,’ Daddy always said. Remember back before they closed down the school cuz of the mold problem? The Iron Gulch Odors never lost a home game!

REDNECK #2:
The Iron Gulch Odors – yeah we had us a great football program, ‘cept for them shower room scandals. You were all-state werentcha?

REDNECK #3:
Hey y’all – lookee there, who is that walking down the tracks? Looks like Jesus a-comin!

REDNECK #1:
I can’t see that far without my glasses.

REDNECK #2:
Whoever they are, they’re wearing some kinda hat or shawl or something on their head. I can’t tell if it’s a dude or a lady.

REDNECK #3:
Is that a muslim head-thing, a jihad hanky, what’s it called?

REDNECK #1:
Definitely a furriner. Looks like they’re waving at us, should we wave back?

REDNECK #2:
Maybe if we all wave together – 1, 2, 3

REDNECK #1:
Shut up y’all – here they come –

[Jean arrives, carrying suitcase. She removes her scarf.]

JEAN PETITE:
Whew! It’s warm – um, excuse me, but is this the town of Iron Gulch?

REDNECK #1:
“Excuse you” – why? Did ya cut one?

REDNECK #2:
He means, did ya fart!

JEAN PETITE:
I beg your pardon – I –

REDNECK #1:
Beg? Now you’re beggin? Who do I look like, Colonel Crackerfrakkin? You ain’t got to beg me for nothing, ma’am!

JEAN PETITE:
It’s just that the train let me off way back there, and I had to walk the last mile to get here, and that sign says “Old Springs Depot,” but I’m supposed to be going to Iron Gulch…I’m a little tired and thirsty…

REDNECK #1:
Here, sit down, get a cup of water – this here’s the best water in Iron Gulch –

REDNECK #2:
This here’s the only drinking water in Iron Gulch –

REDNECK #3:
It’s a sign of the Endtimes.

JEAN:
So this is Iron Gulch, and this is the right train depot? [Takes a drink] Wow, that water is awesome, thanks! Oh, I’m getting some more! [drinks cup after cup] It’s ice-cold too! So refreshing!

REDNECK #1:
And while you’re getting a drink of water, we’ll sing you a little song about Iron Gulch. Ready boys? Ah one and a two—

[Bluegrass song to the tune Blue Moon of Kentucky]:

Iron Gulch, Iron Gulch, keep on minin’
Mine all the ore down in the ground
Iron Gulch, Iron Gulch, a-keep on minin’
Mine all the ore that can be found.
Well it was on a moonlit night, Crackerfrakkin done it right
Mined all the ore and more and piled it high
Iron Gulch, Iron Gulch, a-keep on mining
Frack the shale till all the springs run dry.

JEAN:
Oh my, what a colorful history… Maybe you knew my Great-Aunt Nellie? She owned this Depot and left it to me in her will.

REDNECK #3:
Miss Nell, yes she went home to heaven to meet her Lord Jesus Christ. She ain’t one o’them Left-Behinds.

JEAN:
My name’s Jean — Jean Petite.

REDNECK #1:
I’m Bobby, that’s Billy, and this here’s Buddy. So you’re the little lady Miss Nell left the place to! Well I’ll be darned. Say, aren’t you from the Big City?

JEAN:
I’m from Small Pebble – Aunt Nellie paid for me to go to college, and in return I agreed to come back and help her turn the Depot into Iron Gulch’s very first Art Center… but she passed away just a few days before I graduated.

REDNECK #2:
Graduated?

JEAN:
Yes, I have a Master’s Degree in Arts Education, and I minored in theater. Aunt Nellie’s lawyer sent me this key… [unlocks door and peers in] wow – it’s so roomy in here!

REDNECK #3:
I got me a degree too. I’m a 3rd degree black belt. Part of my survival training for the Endtimes.

REDNECK #1:
And I minered in ore ‘til the Vanadium played out.

REDNECK #2:
Speaking of mining, did you hear what Colonel Crackerfrakkin’s up to now?

JEAN:
Who is this Colonel Crackerfrakkin anyway?

REDNECK #1:
Ma’am — You sure ain’t from around here!

REDNECK #2:
The Colonel is a rich-ass cracker who won’t stop frackin’. He’s got drilling pads and gas wells up north a here, and now he wants to frack this very spot. We’re standing atop the Dimwit Shale, Ma’am! The biggest natural gas play in Dimrock County!

JEAN:
The Dimwit Shale?

REDNECK #1:
Hang on, Ma’am! – yep, feel that? There’s a tremor – bout a 3.4 I’d say – there’s your Colonel Crackfrakkin right now!

REDNECK 2:
Whenever we get a tremor, folks around here say, ‘there goes Colonel Crackerfrakkin a-rollin’ the dice.’ That weren’t no 3.4 — felt like a 4.1 on the rickety scale.

REDNECK #3:
“And behold, the seventh angel did pour out a fluid upon the ground, and the earth shook, and a third of the rivers did turn to blood—

REDNECK #1:
Stop with the Endtimer shit, will ya?

JEAN [emerges from Depot w/a broom]:
Was that an earthquake? I felt something shaking – But wait a minute, he can’t drill for gas here – it would poison the water – everybody knows that methane gas released by drilling gets into wells and ruins the –

REDNECKS:
You sure ain’t from around here!

JEAN:
Look, gentlemen, I own this depot now – I’ve got the papers to prove it– it’s going to be a beautiful Arts Center, for children’s programs and art festivals, classes, studio exhibits – I’m state-certified to teach –

REDNECKS:
Ma’am, this is Iron Gulch! Good luck to ya! We ain’t never had no art center here!

REDNECK #1:
The only artist in these parts is Tad McTacky – does he know you’re doing this?

JEAN: [sweeping breezeway of the Depot]:
Tad McTacky? I’m not familiar with his work – what is his medium?

REDNECK #1:
I’d say Tad ain’t no medium – he’s more like an extra-large.

REDNECK #2:
Yeah he’s a big ol boy, born with a full set o’ teeth, like a beaver—

JEAN:
I mean, what sort of art does he do?

REDNECK #1:
Oh– his paintings have that fancy glow – like that Thomas Kincade feller.

REDNECK #2:
I love me some Thomas Kincade – we’ve got one of his paintings out in our guest shed.

REDNECK #3:
Tad McTacky’s a pro – he studied art from that afro guy on TV.

JEAN :
You mean Bob Ross?

REDNECK #1:
Ain’t he a local feller? Didn’t he win the Draw Sparky contest?

JEAN:
I am definitely interested in local art and artists – could you put Mr. McTacky in touch with me? I’ve got to roll up my sleeves now and get to work fixing up my new home and business! I think I’ll call it The Springs Art Center – how does that sound? [exits]

REDNECK #1:
Colonel Crackerfrakkin ain’t gonna like this…

REDNECK #2:
No he ain’t…

REDNECK #3:
Well I’ll be — Art coming to Iron Gulch – it’s a Sign o’the Endtimes!
[exit]

ACT 1

SCENE 2

Setting: The exterior of the transformed Depot, with new signage, flowers, and easels displaying works by Van Gogh and Chagall.

At rise: Suggins Children enter and stand beside the Rednecks.

SUGGINS CHILDREN:
Miss Jean can we help? We wanna help!

JEAN:
Thank you! You guys have already done so much – would you like to water the flowers? [hands them the watering can] I set out some snacks – they’re inside on the table – help yourself! There’s some sidewalk chalk in this bucket if you want to make some chalk art, too.

SUGGINS CHILDREN:
Snacks! Sidewalk Chalk! Wow — thanks Miss Jean!
[exit thru doorway into Depot]

REDNECK #1:
You’re spoilin’ them kids, Ma’am.

REDNECK #2:
Spoilin’ em rotten!

JEAN:
But they’re such good kids – I’m writing a grant for an after-school program, so I’m getting ready to –

REDNECK #3:
Uh-oh, look who’s coming – it’s Tad McTacky and his entourage!

REDNECK #1:
Looks like the whole Crackerfrakkin clan is with him…

REDNECK #2:
AND Reverend Chip, that ol’ brown-nosing sumbitch. Actin’ like he’s the biggest hog at the trough!
JEAN:
Thanks for telling Mr. McTacky that I wanted to meet with him –

REDNECK #1:
Oh, we didn’t tell him nothin’! But we did write a song about him, ready boys? Ah one and a two:

[Bluegrass song, to the tune of “Pig in a Pen”]

I got a pig, home in a pen, and corn to feed him on
And Tad McTacky’s paintin’ him to hang on my shed wall.
I got a rooster home in the barn, a-crowing to the sun
And Tad McTacky paintin’ his portrait, paintin’ til it’s done

[Redneck #3: They say that every chicken in Dimrock County knows Tad McTacky!]

{reprise}

I got a cow home in the yard, a moo-in’ soft and low, oh
And Tad McTacky’s paintin’ her afore his next art show…
Tad, Tad McTacky, yeehaw!

JEAN:
I gather Mr. McTacky paints barnyard scenes…?

REDNECK #1:
He specializes in roosters, but he does all the livestock – he’s got a gift.

REDNECK #2:
His paintings hang over the best divans in Iron Gulch. The saying goes, ‘If it ain’t McTacky, then it ain’t art.’

REDNECK #3:
The sunsets he paints give off this intense glow – once, he painted a Jersey heifer o’mine against a flaming sunset and danged if she didn’t look like some cow right outta the Endtimes!

REDNECK #1:
You know what his secret is, dontcha? He collects the sludge outta the Gulch and mixes it in with his paints. All those heavy metals and iron oxides give his landscapes a sorta burnt-orange, oily rainbow sheen. They even smell like gasoline, mm — mmmm!

REDNECK #2:
When did you become an art critic?

COLONEL CRACKERFRAKKIN:
Hello boys – I came to greet the newest addition to Iron Gulch high society, Miss Jean Petite. So pleased to meet you — I was a great friend of your Aunt, young lady.

JEAN:
And you must be the Crackerfrakkins – welcome to The Springs Art Center.

MRS. CRACKERFRAKKIN:
My card – call me for your interior decorating needs, if you ever have any… It’s so kind of you to come all the way from the big city to our humble little town, and bring culture to the hills of Iron Gulch. The Reverend Chip came along with us to see your charming art shop. May I present our daughter –

REDNECK #2:
Howdy, Gina Mae – long time no see!

LOLA:
I had my named changed to Lola last year and you know it!

MRS. CRACKERFRAKKIN:
And this is our nephew: Tad McTacky, “Painter of Light”… surely you’ve heard of him, especially in the big city? Tad also happens to be the most eligible bachelor in Dimrock County!

JEAN:
So kind of you all to come – Actually, Small Pebble is not a very big city –

MRS. CRACKERFRAKKIN:
Nonsense! And you must let us help with your dear little Art Center, can we take a peek – Oh I see you have some of that hippie drug art up already…

JEAN:
Oh no, Mrs. Crackerfrakkin — those are originals on loan from the Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville.

[Suggins Children come out of the Depot, laughing and talking]

MRS. CRACKERFRAKKIN:
I swan to Jesus! I swan to my time! Git – Git! all of you, you Suggins Children – run along now and play in the Gulch. The grownups have important business to discuss.

LOLA:
You heard Mrs. Crackerfrakkin – ew, they probably have head lice, Momma!

[Suggins Children exit sadly]

JEAN:
Would you like a tour?

COLONEL CRACKERFRAKKIN:
I’m looking at your sign right now, and wondering why you ain’t a-calling it the Iron Gulch Art Center?

REDNECK #1:
Here we go.

JEAN:
That’s a great question. I really wanted a cross-promotional platform for the history of the springs and fountain, and also to suggest the act of knowing from an inspirational –

COLONEL CRACKERFRAKKIN:
Hold up there Ma’am, you talk as fast as a Yankee. First off, I got me a few ideas myself about this here Art Center. For one, would you like to sell it? Naturally, you could still run the place as my Art Manager. How does $80,000 a year sound?

JEAN:
What? Sir, I planned to run this as a non-profit organization! That’s certainly very generous of you, but—

COLONEL CRACKERFRAKKIN
Well then how about a tax deductible donation to your nonprofit organization? Say, $80,000?

JEAN:
Oh my God—
REDNECK #1:
Wait for it…

MRS. CRACKERFRAKKIN:
Obviously, if we are to become patrons of the Arts, we’d want to sponsor year-round exhibits of the entire McTacky oeuvre. Tad, show Ms. Petite your portfolio.

TAD:
My what?

LOLA:
Your paintings, you inbred idiot! Show her your art work!

TAD:
Okay Cousin! [produces several versions of a white rooster – in overalls, on a fence, in a sunset.]

[Rednecks whistle in admiration]

REDNECK #1:
Now that’s a Tad McTacky!

JEAN:
More than a tad, I’ll say… are these part of a series?

TAD:
A what?

COLONEL CRACKERFRAKKIN:
So it’s settled then.

[Mrs. Crackerfrakkin dumps the paintings off the easels and begins installing Tad’s work as the Colonel starts writing a check]

Now I wanna talk to you Ma’am about an exhibit I want set up in this courtyard area. See where this little park runs alongside the fountain? Crackerfakkin Industries will sponsor an interactive exhibit – an actual drilling pad and natural gas well – mighty educational for the kiddoes. I’ll donate back 10 percent of the profits from selling the gas, of course.

JEAN:
Of course…

REVEREND CHIP:
I hope you realize, young lady, the generosity being displayed by our very own Colonel Crackerfrakkin. I also need a word with you about certain, ahem, exhibits and whether or not they meet the Purity Standards of the Dimrock Endtimers All-American Church. For example, will you be having boobies on display here?

JEAN:
Wait a minute – I thought we might discuss board memberships or volunteer possibilities, but this is ridiculous! I can’t take your check – and I can’t tell you if there will be paintings of bare breasts in the gallery – and I certainly can’t – won’t — exhibit Foghorn Freaking Leghorn!

[Jean starts replacing the dumped paintings and tries to hand McTacky’s work to him, only to encounter Mrs. Crackerfrakkin blocking her way]

MRS. CRACKERFRAKKIN:
How dare you – you outsider! You ingrate! You have no idea of the art of Tad McTacky – he loves his subject matter inside and out – why I’ve taken his lunch out to the barn many a time and found him stroking a chicken til it hardly squawked at all! Never have I seen a man love a chicken as much as Tad McTacky! He paints from dawn til dusk – he was practically raised in a barn!

JEAN:
I can see that.

REV. CHIP:
We’ll just see what the Purity Squad has to say about your heathen, sodomite Art Center!

COLONEL CRACKERFRAKKIN:
I ain’t done with you yet, Ma’am. I aim to frack the hell outta the Dimwit Shale, and ain’t no fancy-pants Big City art lady gonna stop it.
[they EXIT]

JEAN:
I can’t believe these people – what planet is this?

[Rednecks play a slow, sad version of Iron Gulch, Iron Gulch, keep on mining…]

[CURTAIN]

ACT II

SCENE 1

Setting: The Gulch, midday. A place of strange lights and mists.
At rise: The Suggins Children poke around dispiritedly.

SUGGINS #1:
Granmaw says this place is haunted…

SUGGINS #2:
Granmaw needs to get offa that pipe!

SUGGINS #3:
Sure is stanky today. Miss Jean ain’t gonna like it when it kills all her flowers – ain’t nothing can survive Ozone-action level 13!

SUGGINS #1:
My daddy says it’s a sign o’the Endtimes!

SUGGINS #2:
Your daddy’s a Crackerfrakkin inbred!

SUGGINS #1:
You don’t know nothin’! I bet you don’t know the names of the Four Horses of the ‘Pocalypse! Cuz my daddy does!

SUGGINS #3:
Y’all stop arguing. What are the Four Horses of the Pocket Lips, anyhow?

SUGGINS #1:
The Four Horses come outta nowhere to trample everything and bring on the Endtimes! Wanna know their names? First one is called Pegasus—he’s got big, black, oily wings like a giant bat. Pegasus destroys the lakes. Next up, is Magellan—he’s in charge of destroying the rivers… Then you got Valero, that’s the one that finishes off the creeks and swamps.

SUGGINS #2:
But that’s only three horses of the Pocket Lips. You’re dumb!

[Suddenly, dead blackbirds rain down upon the Suggins Children’s heads. They stand stock-still in amazement then run into each other trying to get away. Two fall in a heap among the dead birds, while the 3rd one staggers offstage.]

SUGGINS #1:
Now whatcha got to say about my daddy!?

SUGGINS #2:
Aw shut up. Look at all these dead birds! Where’s Jolene?

SUGGINS #3/JOLENE [offstage]:
Over here – I found something – come help me y’all, it’s heavy!

[Sugginses drag the limp body of Laken, the Greers Fairy, into center stage and place gently on the ground]

SUGGINS #1:
It’s got wings – look! Where do you think it came from?

SUGGINS #2:
Do you s’pose there was one of them Raves out in the county somewhere?
JOLENE:
That ain’t a costume. I yanked on the wings real good wallago and they wouldn’t come off.

[Laken comes to, moaning]

LAKEN:
Water….Water!

JOLENE:
Let’s take it to Miss Jean! She’ll know what to do!

SUGGINS #2:
Cover its head, here come some more o’them blackbirds a-falling outta the sky!

SUGGINS #1:
It’s a sign o’the Endtimes!

[CURTAIN]

ACT II

SCENE 2

Setting: Interior of Springs Art Center, afternoon, same day

At rise: Jean paces back and forth talking on a cellphone

JEAN:
I’m telling you Mom, if it weren’t for the kids in this town–but they need this Art Center so bad – Mom? Mom? Can you hear me now? OOOHHH this Crackerfrakkin cellphone! Wow, this place is starting to get to me.

SUGGINS CHILDREN [offstage]:
Miss Jean! Help, Miss Jean!

JEAN:
What’s that you found? Oh my God, bring her inside [lays the Fairy on a couch] Jolene, get some water, quickly!

JOLENE:
Yes Ma’am!!
[Fairy drinks the water slowly reviving]

JEAN:
You’re going to be okay… I’m Jean, what’s your name?

LAKEN:
Laken – my name is Laken. Where am I?

JEAN:
You’re in the Springs Art Center in Iron Gulch, Arkansas.

LAKEN:
Oh wow. Thank you – I must have passed out.

SUGGINS #1:
Most people do first time they visit the Gulch.

JEAN:
How did you get here?

LAKEN:
There was an explosion – they were drilling sideways under my lake, and the fracking fluids spilled, and the next thing I knew, I was here.

JEAN:
Your lake? You mean, Greers Ferry Lake?

LAKEN:
Yes, my bad – I’m the Greers Fairy.

SUGGINS CHILDREN:
The Greers Fairy!!!

JEAN:
Jolene, run lock the door — let me know if you see anybody coming this way, okay? Now, Miss, um, Laken? I understand that you are some sort of Nyad or water sprite or…? Is there someone in your family I could call about coming to get you?

LAKEN:
I’ve got an uncle down in Fouke, Arkansas – but you wouldn’t want to call him. He’s rather unpleasant…

SUGGINS #1:
She’s talking about the Fouke Monster – my granmaw was in that movie, The Legend of Boggy Creek.

SUGGINS #2:
Granmaw needs to get off the pipe!

JEAN:
Kids, please! Laken, is there anyone at all that we could contact on your behalf?

LAKEN:
I would call my sister—but the Pegasus pipeline poisoned her lake and she’s been sick ever since…poor Connie! She’ll never be the same.

SUGGINS #1:
See? Even it knows about the Four Horses!

JOLENE:
Miss Jean! Miss Jean! Somebody’s comin’!

JEAN:
Laken, I’m terribly sorry but would you please step into the other room – I’ll handle this and then we can talk some more – Kids, please – don’t say anything until I figure out what’s going on.

SUGGINS CHILDREN:
Yes Ma’am.

[Enter Colonel Crackerfrakkin and Rev. Chip]

COLONEL C.:
Good day Miss Petite. How’s business?

JEAN:
Fine – at least, it would be fine if I could get a dependable cellphone or internet connection.

COLONEL C:
Oh, that. The cell tower was settin’ right on top of a big shale deposit, so I had to take it down and put a drillin’ rig up in there…

JEAN:
But this town needs to communicate with the outside world.

REV. CHIP:
And why would Iron Gulch want to do that? We’ve seen what your big city ideas can do – these children are being exposed to boobies!

SUGGINS #1:
Nuh-uh! We ain’t seen no boobies – all we seen is a fairy!

SUGGINS #2
Shut up! Miss Jean told us not to tell about the fairy!

REV. CHIP:
Just as I suspected – where is the Sodomite? Where are you hiding him, or It as I should say? Colonel Crackerfrakkin — these children are being introduced to alternative lifestyles at this Art Center! As soon as I’m elected, I’m a-closing it down!

SUGGINS CHILDREN:
Noooo!

COLONEL C. :
You hear that Miz Petite? We gonna close you down!

[Fairy bursts into the room in a blinding light]

LAKEN:
Get out! Out in the name of Clean Water! Get away from these children!

[She shoves them out the door and closes it]

LAKEN:
They won’t be back today.

JEAN:
How do you know?

LAKEN:
I just know, that’s all… I need to lie down… could you please get me something to eat? Some strawberries or pecans or something… [faints into Jean’s arms]

JEAN:
Kids – see what you can find in the kitchen, I’m putting her to bed – [exits]

JOLENE:
What’s a strawberry?

SUGGINS #2:
I dunno… what’s a pecan?

[exit – lights dim]

Digital film interlude: Dream sequence – Greers Fairy dances among scenes of nature vs. scenes of fracking, mining, and pipeline spills. Children dance to the original song, “Little Man Eulogy,” by Joseph Grundl:
When I no longer find a Mom & Pop to shop for sundries
My heart is broken, wandering lost
Singing the Little Man Eulogy.

When first the sailing ships arrived
From Far Eastern ports aplenty
The stevedores first heard my song
Singing the Little Man Eulogy.

(chorus)
I am one you must turn to
When the world is cold to you
And if you need a hand to hold
Tomorrow may never know today

His whip was woven of three cords
Omni Trium Perfectum
Father Son and Holy Ghost
Adeste fideles.
(repeat chorus)

[Curtain]

Act III

Scene 1

Setting: Iron Gulch, Night. Darkness and rumble of drums.

At rise: Residents take turns sitting up and speaking from their beds.
[kettle-drums rumble]

MRS. CRACKERFRAKKIN:
[sits up, turns on light]
Colonel, did you do that?

COLONEL C. :
Well, Sugar, in a manner of speakin’ – I guess you could say I did. That’s the sound of the Dimwit Shale getting fracked!

LOLA:
[rushes past wearing robe and cold-cream]:
Daddy I hate you! I’m trying to get my beauty sleep!

REDNECK #2:
[walks past w/a flashlight]
Looks like they’s been a lot o’sleepless nights at the Crackerfrakkins!

[lights off, rumbling of kettle-drums]

REDNECK #3:
[sits up and turns on light]:
Oh my Lord – if this ain’t the endtimes, they’s a-comin’ soon – I better run check on my beans!

[lights off, rumble again]

LAKEN:
[turns on light]
And so it goes.

JEAN:
What was that? Another earthquake?

LAKEN:
Don’t worry – it’s not going to happen tonight.

JEAN:
Huh? What?

LAKEN:
Go back to sleep, Jean. Sweet dreams….

[faint rumble, lights down]

[Spotlight falls on a hobo camp where Hobo sits on a log by a spent campfire, MC Fouke and Jazzquatch stand nearby]

(Song: Flow) MC FOUKE & JAZZQUATCH

We represent the youth
Betwixt and betweens
The ones getting busted for a broken machine
Yo, Moloch, hey man in the moon
800 pound elephant in the room
What’s this? What’s that?
You say you got something new?
You can’t trust the rust
When the bust has gone boom.

Hey, man, play us a song.

(Song: “Faultline Blues”)
HOBO:

Living on the fault line, biding my time
Second Great Depression and I don’t mind
I’m lonely, what’s to become of me
I was a thousandaire and I’m quite aware of my life.
Living on the fault line, walking that road
Quakin’ and a-shakin’ is taken its toll
I’ll never know why you went and looked at me
I’m a revolutionaire and I’m quite aware of my life.
[guitar solo]
Living on the fault line, biding my time
Sniffing the air and squeezing a lime
Hey Mister Charlie, you gotta give me more time
Because I’m living on the fault line
And I’m well aware of my life.

[Curtain]

ACT III

SCENE 2

Setting: Morning, Interior of Springs Art Center.
At rise: Jean and Laken wake up in a panic.

JEAN:
Wake up, Laken, please wake up – Oh My God – they’re coming!

LAKEN:
We’ve got to make a stand! Water is life! This is the last pure spring in the Natural State of Arkansas –the buck stops here. Speaking of buck — where IS the antlered deity of the Druids when you need him, anyway! Cernunnos, god of the Forest – where are you??

JEAN:
You’re delirious – sit down over here on the couch.
[Rednecks 1, 2 & 3 burst in – they doff their hats and bow to Laken]

REDNECK #1:
Colonel Crackerfrakkin’s a-coming, Miss Jean and Miss – um, well, they’re all a-comin up the road and we want to help.

JEAN:
What do we do? They might have eviction papers. Who knows what Reverend Chip came up with on his ridiculous Booby-witch-hunt!

REDNECK #2:
Reverend Chip ain’t the only hog at the trough!

[Colonel Crackerfrakkin, Rev. Chip and Tad McTacky swarm in, change out the art on easels with Tad McTacky’s rooster series]

JEAN:
What are you doing!?

REV. CHIP:
This artwork does not meet the Purity Standards of the Dimrock Endtimers All-American Church!

JEAN:
But that’s Van Gogh and Chagall!

REV. CHIP:
You best stop cussing me in French, young lady!

JEAN:
You people are impossible to deal with!

COLONEL CRACKERFRAKKIN:
That ain’t no way to talk to your betters, Ms. Petite! We got us a State Official that’s gonna certify our interactive exhibit from Crackerfrakkin Industries. Here she comes now!
JEAN:
Who is she? Laken, do you know who that is?

LAKEN:
Know her? I can smell her stench a mile away. She’s the most dangerous woman in Arkansas – “She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” – the Director of the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quandary!

REDNECK #1:
Don’t look her in the eye, boys – she’ll turn you to stone!
REDNECK #2:
And then the Colonel will frack us all to hell!

REDNECK #3:
It’s the Whore o’Babylon all right!

SHE:
As a lawyer and appointed Director of the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quandary, I hereby certify this site as the new interactive, educational Hydraulic Fracturing Museum and jobs-training program of Dimrock County. Thanks to Crackerfrakkin Industries, this exhibit will showcase progress towards our ultimate goal: Total dominion over the Dimwit Shale play!

REV. CHIP:
Ahhhh! A Dominionist – Now we’re talkin’.

SHE:
Yes indeed — I discovered a little-known clause in the state’s annotated code that allows us to take this property via eminent domain, Ms. Petite – so clear out and take your goody-two-shoes art project back to Small Pebble. Leave Dimrock County to its fate. There’s nothing you can do to stop us – the public comment period closed [CHECKS HER WATCH] about ten minutes ago – BWAHAHAHAHAH!

JEAN:
You’re an evil witch!

SHE:
How else do you think I got where I am today? By my looks or my brains? Okay, Colonel, I’m done here. Where’s my payoff? I have to get back to an urgent meeting of the Oil & Gas Commission – we’re changing Arkansas’s slogan from “The Natural State” to something more realistic: “Land of Missed Opportunity.”

LAKEN:
Over my dead, wingless body, you abomination against Nature!
[GRABS PITCHER OF SPRING WATER AND THROWS IT ONTO “SHE”].

SHE:
What have you done? That’s pure spring water! I’m melting, MELTING! Ohhh what a world, what a world – all I wanted was a state-sponsored vehicle, a bottomless expense account and a golden parachute – now my beautiful evil plans are ruined, ruined…. [expires]

[TREMOR STARTS TO RUMBLE]

REDNECK #1:
That there was a 5.1 I tell ya!

REDNECK #2:
More like a 4.8 on the rickety scale!

LAKEN:
You’re both wrong – The fools have re-started the Pegasus Pipeline! It’s gonna blow!

[CRASH, LIGHTS OUT, EVERYONE FALLS TO THE FLOOR, SILENCE]

REDNECK #3:
[raises up slowly, grabs a guitar out of the rubble, plays to tune of “Folsom Prison Blues:”]
I see the Lord a-comin’
Descending from the sky
We trusted Exxon Mobil, and now we’re gonna die!
We should have gone with solar
And changed our sinning ways
But now the Lord’s a-coming
And it’s the end of days.

[Song: reprise: Battle of Iron Gulch

CAST:
We mined that ore and the sludge kept a-comin’
We fracked that shale til the water was aglow
We dumped our sludge where no one was a knowin’
Down the Ouachita River to the Gulf of Mexico.

[cast gets up and starts to sing faster, louder, and dance around]

We mined in the hills and we fracked in the valleys
We fracked in the bushes where the rabbits wouldn’t go
We dumped our sludge til the water was a-glowin’
Down the Ouachita River to the Gulf of Mexico.

[CERNUNNOS, Druidic horned GOD OF THE FOREST, enters with SUGGINS CHILDREN and they all JOIN THE DANCE]

Piping that oil through the creeks and the valleys
Making people sick like your Maw and your Paw
Frackin’ that shale til the air be a-stankin’
Aided and abetted by the state of Arkansas
Aided and abetted by the state of Arkansas!!!

REDNECK #3:
And the Game & Fish Commission!
The end.