Fiction May 1999

Combinations of Jacksons

MY ALABAMA grandmother wasn't pleased when her youngest son (a seventh son, my father) told her of his plans to marry an Arkansas girl. She kindly explained to him that the unfortunate women living west of the Mississippi River had, among other defects, feet at least one size bigger than those of their dainty little sisters to the east. No Cinderella to be found in the Bear State. Any mention of that old slander, even a teasing one fifty years later, could still make my placid mother bristle and blaze up a little. In any kind of refined-foot contest, she said, she would pit her Waddell-Fielding-Arkansas feet against all comers with Portis-Poole-Alabama feet.

My father was a dutiful son, but he defied his mother in this matter and married Alice, the Arkansas girl. So, a new family, a mingling of blood, a new combination of Jacksons, so to speak. We fetched up in southern Arkansas, at Mount Holly, where at dusk ("dusk-dark," it was called there) flying squirrels glided across our front yard, from oak to oak. I haven't seen one since.

Now a not quite deserted village, Mount Holly then had two cotton gins, a sawmill, two schools (white and black), a bank, a post office, a café, a barbershop, an ice house, three general stores and a sawmill commissary, a few moonshiners and bootleggers, one auto mechanic, one blacksmith, who was also the constable, and one known white Republican. My father pointed him out to me. (Now in much of the South it is the white Democrat to be pointed out with a whisper, as for a sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker.) Some blacks still voted, when not deterred by the poll tax or some courthouse chicanery, for the Grand Old Party of Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, but by that time, the early 1940s, most had switched their allegiance to Franklin Roosevelt if not to the local "lily white" Democratic Party groups. They had also begun to christen their baby boys with his Dutch surname.

What was a bit odd, on two counts, Mount Holly proper had only one church, and that the true church of the elect, Presbyterian. The normal ratio at that time and place was about two Baptist churches or one Methodist church per gin. It usually took about three gins to support a Presbyterian church, and a community with, say, four before you found enough tepid idolaters to form an Episcopal congregation. There was always difficulty in getting a minister who pleased everyone. What the elders of the church kept looking for, my father said, and what was hard to find in the 1940s, was a wise, saintly, hearty, scholarly, eloquent thirty-five-year-old Confederate veteran, who would be content to live on a small salary, in something pretty close to apostolic poverty.

On Saturdays we usually drove to El Dorado, the county seat and a flourishing oil town then, with two refineries. One was owned by Lion Oil, a palindrome. Black-market gasoline was readily available, outside the rationing system, but my father, scrupulous in such things, refused to buy it, and we made do on the four or five gallons a week he was allotted by the B sticker on his windshield. (B was better than A; an A got less.) There was little chocolate to be had. The schoolyard rumor was that all the Clark bars were going to the Japanese-American internment camps over at Rohwer and Jerome, in the Delta, and to the German prisoners of war (most of them from Rommel's Afrika Korps) up at Camp Chaffee, in the hills. A patriot like me had to do without. (We schoolboys would have been hard pressed to explain the difference between the two classes of prisoners. I can't remember hearing anyone, adults included, question or even discuss the need for "relocating" the Japanese-Americans from California. President Roosevelt had sent them here, so it must be all right.) We lived in a place where they sent prisoners; what to make of that?

Gasoline and candy bars were much less important to me than movie theaters, or, as we called them, picture shows. The tale unfolding on the screen was a picture show, and the theater building itself was also a picture show. El Dorado had four. The Majestic was fairly noisy, and the Ritz a little noisier. The shabby and disreputable old Star was very noisy indeed, with the hubbub of a pack of unruly boys, much on the move. At the Star you sometimes had to try two or three of the folding seats before finding one that didn't pinch your leg, or tip you forward and dump you. There were frequent delays, as the celluloid film itself, or an image of it, turned brown, writhed, curled, and caught fire before our eyes. The breakdown would be followed at once by piercing whistles and animal howls of outrage, a performance in itself by little shriekers who had been eagerly awaiting the cue to show their stuff. No rats, though, in disgusting numbers, pattering about underfoot at the Star, as was widely believed. The story was kept alive by my fastidious older sister (Star = rats at play) and others like her who had never set foot in the place. This isn't to say that an occasional rogue rat never darted down an aisle there.

I made a round of these three picture shows (and how well I knew that circuit, starting from the courthouse square), seeking out the best program. Decisions came hard. A very good bill would have been a chapter of the Captain Marvel or Dick Tracy serial, a Spike Jones comedy short, a Boston Blackie feature, and a Western with Tim McCoy, George O'Brien, or Johnny Mack Brown, my favorite cowboys. And yet there were so many things to consider before I committed myself irreversibly to a twelve-cent ticket. For example, Bob Steele was better with his fists than any of my favorites. Ken Maynard was a better rider. Ken—and even I could sense that he wasn't much of an actor, perhaps to his credit—vaulted over the rump of his horse in the fast-getaway mount with a light swagger that always pleased me.

When I was younger and in her keeping, my sister sometimes took me against my will to the fourth picture show, the quiet Rialto, where an attentive and well-mannered audience remained seated, and where the more ambitious pictures played. Even very fat people could settle in at the Rialto without fear of being dumped and laughed at, or of having their tender and spreading flanks nipped at by the seats. I didn't object to the decorum or the comfort, just the pictures. The posters outside, which I always carefully read ("Theirs was a passion not to be denied!"), were enough to sink the hopes of a small boy. In these stories there would be some strange men scheming against each other and beating each other's brains out to see who got to marry Bette Davis, or it might be Joan Crawford. The winning suitor would get to spend every minute of the rest of his life in the company of a harridan. I was soon asleep.

MOUNT HOLLY had its own summer pleasures. We, the village boys, swam like seals by day in the creeks and ponds, and at night, with our carbide lamps, we ran trotlines—a series of fishing lines hanging from a central support line that was strung across a stream. We swung from vines in the bottomlands, trying to reproduce, and never bringing off anything remotely like, Tarzan's aerial glide across the jungle, leaping from one opportune vine to the next. That, I've since learned, was even more of a cheat than I suspected: it was all done with ropes. Ignorant of the laws of physics, I did know from experience that when you jumped from a swinging vine to one that was hanging dead still and vertical, you weren't going any farther, and could only be left looking foolish, dangling there at rest. I was also uneasy, not knowing exactly why, with Batman's practice of shooting a rope line from atop a tall building across to a lower building, and then swinging down to the lower building on that line, which somehow remained taut.

We made model airplanes, little replicas of warplanes built far away from Mount Holly in huge factories with such satisfying corporate names as Chance Vought and Consolidated Vultee. First, with the models, there was the fragile skeleton to be assembled, of balsa ribs and stringers, and droplets of glue; this was then covered with a thin skin of paper, and painted with a dope sealant that smelled of bananas. The delicate work tried my patience, and gave me an early appreciation of how it is that real aircraft, no matter how fierce in appearance, must be the tinny and flimsy shells that they are, in order to leave the ground. In my haste, and with twinges of guilt, I sometimes cut corners, leaving out a troublesome strut or spar, like some crooked defense contractor.

We rigged up our own fireworks, with carbide (granular calcium carbide, bought in cans; it fizzes and gives off a combustible gas when mixed with water) and with black powder we compounded ourselves. We burned our own charcoal, and bought the other ingredients, sulfur and saltpeter, in little paper cartons at Bailey's store, arrayed there on the patent-medicine shelf with the big bottles of liniments, violent purgatives, female tonics, chill tonics, croup tonics, cramp tonics, catarrh tonics, and nerve tonics. No need in those days of tonics to be put through the indignities of "a full battery of tests," at great expense, for every little sinking spell. I no longer see tonics on the shelves of country stores, that space now being given over to videocassettes. Catarrh, with its fine pair of purring rs, seems to have gone away too, whatever it was.

Our watermelons (not always lifted from a melon patch; you could buy one, preferably a long green Tom Watson, for about fifteen cents) we left floating in the creeks to cool as we swam, mostly in Swift Hole, on Beech Creek. The water in Swift Hole wasn't swift; moccasins swam calmly about on the surface, untroubled by the slight current. We—David Bailey, Max Lewis, Gerald Lewis, Francis Crumpler, Richie Bidwell, Buddy Portis—paid little heed to the snakes and soon scattered them with our noise and splashing and, low comedians all, with our strutting antics along the banks. No one, that I recall, was bitten there. But Swift Hole was a hole, deep enough that we could dive into it from a height of eight or nine feet and not crack our necks on the bottom.

A leaning tree shaded the pool, and from a high limb there hung a rope with a stick tied at the end. You grabbed the stick with both hands, ran down the sloping bank, took flight, and at the peak of the upswing let go, doing a back flip or a half gainer on the way down. Some unknown person had patiently spliced the long rope together from the separated strands of a thick oil-field hawser, and hung it there for our delight. One day it was just there. With the ingratitude of children we accepted it as part of the natural order of things, as no more than our due, and asked few questions.

Mount Holly was just outside the oil fields, but we did have one lone gas well, on Cypress Creek. A man would drive up a dirt lane to the unattended wellhead in his 1928 Ford Model A roadster, or his 1939 Chevrolet Master Deluxe sedan, and look furtively about. He would see us, some boys with purple stripes on our faces (pokeberry juice), pulling a ragged seine through the creek. Unterrified by the war paint, he would dismiss us as a threat and proceed to drain off something called "casing head" from the well, which he then poured into his gasoline tank.

This was a liquid condensate that formed in gas lines, and although it burned a little rough in car engines, it did burn, and was unrationed and free for the taking. There must have been some kind of bleeder valve in that tangle of high-pressure gas pipes, but I've forgotten how it worked, if I ever knew. I do seem to remember a Stillson wrench, an adjustable pipe wrench, in the hands of one of those furtive casing-head thieves. I remember, too, that we once dredged up a curious snake in our seine, along that same stretch of Cypress Creek. It was a rusty-orange color with a thick body and what appeared to be a barbed stinger protruding from its tail. Zoologists, who should venture outdoors more often, say the stinging snake exists only in folklore, but we were there and saw that beast. We all agreed it was a stinging snake.

It was in Beech Creek, in the shoal water below Swift Hole, that I carried on most of my underwater contortions with breathing tubes. Reeds were out, and among other rejects was a copper pipe, which left a sharp taste in the mouth. Another one, tasting worse, was a black and smelly rubber hose, a piece of old fuel line from a car, with a spiral curl to it like that of a pig's tail. I had to expose a small but conspicuous hand above the surface of the water to keep this one upright.

I kept coming back to bamboo, the best of a poor lot, and soldiered on. There was always another obstacle. When I was underwater, clutching a tree root, lying more or less supine, and took a deep draft of air through my mouth tube, an equal volume of water would come rushing in through my nose, with a strangling effect. The nose clip existed then and might have solved the problem, but I couldn't be seen with a nose clip. Only girls used nose clips. Far better to strangle. Couldn't I simply have pinched my nostrils shut with thumb and finger? Yes, nothing easier, except that both hands were already occupied, with the tube and the root. And as I lay there more or less supine on the creekbed, struggling to breathe and to hold my upper body down, then my telltale feet would rise. Feet unfettered float, for all their bones, and when toes break the surface and bob about, they will catch the eye of the dullest observer.

I never did get it all worked out to suit me, and when the war ended, in 1945, I lost interest in breathing tubes and model airplanes and black-powder bombs and cigarettes rolled with rabbit tobacco or corn silk. A spell was broken. The world had changed. I put all that juvenile dementia behind me. It was time to take on some serious responsibilities in life. I cut a coupon from the back of a funny book and bought a $1.98 money order at the Mount Holly post office and sent them off to a place in New Jersey for a home-study course in ventriloquism.

UNCLE ALEC didn't quite make it to a hundred, dying a year short, in 1946. He had lived to see the U.S. Army, still with plenty of ammunition, if not mules, on the winning end of another great war, and he was probably the last man who could remember seeing Jo Shelby riding at the head of his mounted column along the Ouachita River near Camden, or hearing another general, the portly Sterling Price, calling out for one more charge into the fog and powdersmoke at Jenkins' Ferry.

No peevish coot, he made a good showing toward the end, still jaunty, laughing quietly in his chair, and with no bits of food on his chin that I can remember. A better showing, in his dark suit, vest, watch chain, and polished leather shoes, than many of the old-timers I see today, men who went ashore at Tarawa and Anzio, now much reduced in their retirement costume of grotesque white athletic shoes, pastel resort rompers, and white baseball cap crammed down hard on the head, bending the ears. Their model seems to be The Golfer.

A coot now myself, slightly peevish, of three score and five, I recently saw a vision in broad daylight of The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. The apparition was an old man at the wheel of an old tan Pontiac station wagon. He had stopped next to my car at a traffic light here in Little Rock. The wagon was a long, sagging barge, packed inside to the roof with lumpy objects bundled in green-plastic tarpaulins and tied up with what looked like clothesline. But what objects? At a guess, all his goods, his assets, now luggage: bits of chain, rolls of duct tape, forgotten cans of soup, jumper cables tangled around a jack frozen with rust, encrusted bottles of Tabasco sauce, sacks of Indian arrowheads, sacks of silver dimes, sacks of cat food, an old owlhead .32 revolver with a wobbly cylinder and a pitted barrel, corroded flashlights, ivory, apes, peacocks, and bottles of saw-palmetto capsules to treat the sinister prostate gland. The old man was smirking. It was the gloat of a miser. Stiff gray hairs straggled out of the little relief hole at the back of his cap, above the adjustment strap. In short, another Jackson, and while not an ornament of our race, neither was he, I thought, the most depraved member of the gang. He might even have made some claim to being a gentleman, as defined by my Concise Oxford Dictionary: "n. Man entitled to bear arms but not included in the nobility . . ."

There I was in the flesh, a little more weathered, just a few years from now. The resemblance was close. I saw myself sunk low there under the wheel, even to the string bolo tie with its turquoise slide, and even to that complacent smirk, knowing that all my flashlights and other treasures were right behind me, safely stowed and well hidden from the defiling gaze of others. I could see myself all too clearly in that old butterscotch Pontiac, roaring flat out across the Mexican desert and laying down a streamer of smoke like a crop duster, with a goatherd to note my passing and (I flatter myself) to watch me until I was utterly gone, over a distant hill, and only then would he turn again with his stick to the straying flock. So be it.

Uncle Sat, who never got TB and who wouldn't let young government agents tell him how to prune his peach trees and cure his hams and who ate better food than a rich man can buy today and who never lost so much as a finger while fooling around with his detonator caps and his sticks of dinnamite, was eighty-eight when he died, in 1964. I saw him now and then over the years, talking away, as ever, but I can call up his face more clearly, his red farmer's face, from an earlier time, at that kitchen table, over the newspaper maps. I can see the winter stubble in his fields, too, on that dreary January day in 1942. Broken stalks and a few dirty white shreds of bumblebee cotton. Everyone who was there is dead and buried now except me.

Presented by

Charles Portis, a novelist and journalist who lives in Arkansas, is the author of the book True Grit.

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