“‘Oh, there are lost cities everywhere. But when we finish Y City, we are done with this book.’
‘When we finish Y City?’ she will ask. ‘Aren’t we finished, yet?’”
—Donald Harington, Let Us Build Us a City
IT’S RUSH HOUR the night before Thanksgiving, and my Mercury, sluggish but cush, too, saddled with me and all my earthly possessions, has just made that luxe River Market rise to Interstate 30 that begins at the corner of the Main Library. A stack of business jackets and ties crowd my sight lines, but there, above my head, briefly, is Lorraine Hansberry’s name etched in the frieze, the glass high-rises reflecting one another like big boys bumping chests. It was my last day at work for Mangan Holcomb Partners, but not my last workday because they’ve agreed to take me “remote”—what a brainy new world where your attendance is not required.
Hey, there’s the Clinton Presidential Center for the last time, and now the glistening Arkansas River at dusk. So long, Little Rock. AR-rivederci. I’m Memphis-bound, and mamma, I’m never coming home.
Home is what Arkansas had become.
I’d arrived some 20 years ago from Detroit. Arkansas and Michigan are sister states, it turns out, admitted 25th and 26th in the line of succession, though Michigan is now four years her senior. I rented an old farmhouse on Guy Terry Road in Springdale, where the smell of chicken processing in the summer is synesthetic. Once, while I was jogging, a snarling dog broke a gate and gave chase and bit my ankle. The dog’s teenage minder came ambling after it like a bystander. “She’s half-wolf,” he explained, and just “dun’d heel noways.” That neither man nor wolf-dog probably remembers this really lingers with me.
I came to Fayetteville for the University of Arkansas’ Masters of Fine Arts degree, the “writing program” that graduated Barry Hannah before another living soul. It was Jim Whitehead’s program, though he’d retired the year before. Whitehead, according to lore, literally cleaned up after Frank Stanford’s suicide. Stanford, the Orpheus, was writing book-length poems and had started a press, was living with the poet C.D. Wright while nurturing Lucinda Williams’ affections and was said to have known Ellen Gilchrist “very, very, very, very well,” or so Gilchrist put it. A .22 is a damn shy caliber to put to a skull, so when Stanford shot himself, he introduced the bullet to his heart. That image of Whitehead, the former football lineman, made to wipe up Stanford’s actual mortal mess … it was a story every single one of us heard and imagined and shared.
I wrote this down, from the writer Isak Dinesen: “I write every day, without hope, without despair.” Man, did I wish it for myself! Turns out, being a landed baroness buoys the march. I have never, ever published a piece of fiction or poetry. (Unless you count my bound, 163-page thesis, “Tight March, Despair, and Other Stories,” which looks just like any other library book, indigenous to Mullins Library, UA and naught else.)
By the mid-2000s, Arkansas was a memory. I’d returned north, first to Detroit, then to Maine, Brooklyn, then back to Detroit. About five years in all. I’d turned myself into the kind of cub reporter who demonstrates all the pedigree of an MFA grad (“Clever lede, cubby. Too clever. Let’s cut it.”) and none of the bird-dog breeding that sustains the profession.
No, I was to be a features writer. Five years after I’d left Northwest Arkansas, I returned to be the understudy to the grand dame of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette society page, Cyd King, who arrived at Arsaga’s coffeehouse for my interview like Betty Boop in a spring line of Realtor couture. Together, we covered “parties.” Parties with silent-auction items like artists’ castoffs and baskets of batteries. She taught me to socialize in 30-second visits. Flatter, pitter-patter—lean in, touch her hand, smile!—now promise to do something soon, and shove off. I survived two buffeting rounds of layoffs.
“Do you have a wife?” Cyd asked me at that Arsaga’s interview. “No? Then one will be provided.”
And she was right, if not right off.
In the summer of ’09, a cocksure and fantastic young Democrat-Gazette staff writer named Kyle Brazzel decamped for New York City, and I moved to Little Rock and took his still-warm seat amid Jennifer Christman and Ron Wolfe and Philip Martin. Columnist Jay Grelen drove me and Chad Day, then all of 22 (now a rising politics reporter for The Wall Street Journal and a new dad), to H.B.’s Bar-B-Q, and we supped that hash and Grelen’s evangelism like James Beard was at the smoker. The entire South can be divided into people who believe barbecue is low-country symphony and those who rightly dismiss it as a mere frontier preservative.
The friendships I made in Arkansas are “Graceland” to me, a midlife summit that casts all the future peaks in the shade. They began in graduate school and populated the third-floor newsroom at the paper. Time and distance make them at once warm to me, as I type this, and increasingly uncomfortable. Boats—Fitzgerald, F. Scott called us—beating against the current, against time, but for friendships I prefer Fennelly, Beth Ann (UA ’98): “Open your eyes, my [snake] charmer: I’m still wound around your arm. When the snake loves, it’s the fiercest kind of love.”
And I’ve loved it all fiercely. The friendships, the tempo here, the uncustomary nearness of people and places. I’ve been inside Joe Johnson’s 300 Third Tower condo and watched Corliss Williamson play pickup ball at the University of Central Arkansas—both gone now, too. I have seen Bonnie Montgomery at Whitewater (but not Charles Portis at Waffle House). I met Calvin Borel in the paddocks at Oaklawn and Chelsea Clinton inside a hangar at Adams Field before it was renamed for her parents, then nicknamed “HillBilly National.”
I’ve despised (but in the way that’s routinized like love) the summer heat. I can close my eyes and feel the world outside the Democrat-Gazette on Aug. 3, 2011, the hottest day in recorded history: 114. It scintillates. I called my mom back home in Detroit, and she said, “Oh, poo, it doesn’t get that hot anywhere.” Bless her heart.
Oh, the language! Bless your heart and might-could, cattywampus and high cotton and high dudgeon, druthers and “occult hand” and my favorite—tump—all language I carry with me like Destin seashells. No, not all are Arkansan, or even Southern, I realize.
And the politics. What used to be culture shock or culture clash became culture wars and now, simply, politics. The morning after Barack Obama was elected president, a man stood along Walton Boulevard in Bentonville near the interstate holding a sign that read “Sarah Palin Save Us.” I’ll never forget that, or the memory it stirred in me of the mood in New York City, where I was living four years earlier when George W. Bush was re-elected. So twice, I was deeply behind the lines of the vanquished. Will we, as a nation, face a reckoning always? Will we, ever, if just for a time, get it right?
This is American-born, not Arkansan, of course, but everything national is local. The election of Obama and the rise of the TEA Party. From the third-floor newsroom, I watched Sandy Hook silence the nation. I worked beside Ellis Widner the day the Supremes gave gay marriage the OK, then marked his marriage to Scott Hardy in the pages of “High Profile” the following year. It was in Little Rock that “streaming” began for me in earnest, and Spotify squeezed radio, and I first hailed a complete stranger by app to come pick me up.
And I was in Arkansas when Arkansas “went national,” too. In Midtown Billiards when Athletic Director Jeff Long explained why the Razorbacks were dumping their winning football coach after he tumped his hog. At Cummins for a bunch of executions the state rushed. On the Capitol steps for the Satanists’ unveiling of Baphomet, that bronze rebuke of the state-sanctioned Ten Commandments monument that’s now attended by a choir of bollards—another word I carry with me—after it was run over. I was in Little Rock the next time the nation picked a new president. This one had never held office or served our country, a Big Apple billionaire and reality TV star we preferred to a former Arkansas first lady by a margin greater than our own governor carried the state in 1992. Greater than Reagan!
We’re just so sick and tired, some of us said. Of what? I suppose the picking.
That election, Arkansas voters approved medical marijuana. I wanted to do a radio documentary about the great rebuke of Christian messaging just a generation old that had us “just say no.” To my surprise, I struggled to find very many incensed fellow Christians (the Bishop Robert E. Smith and lobbyist Jerry Cox the exceptions). A Shorter College elder, the Rev. Reginald Henderson, over at Greater Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in North Little Rock was pleased with the vote but so very careful not to say as much. Maybe marijuana exposed a rift in national Christianity, he pointed out. Christ is celebrated differently, black and white. In the white church, he is the risen Lord, the Christ, ascendant and resplendent—the King of Man, in white and literally “lording” over us.
“In the black church, we worship the Cross,” he said, “the suffering Savior, Jesus, the Son of Man, who promises to love us, who came to bear our pain.”
Henderson lingers with me, he and the times I’ve spent parsing the distinction between “integration” and “desegregation.” He and the barbecue, the friendships, the place names—that mongrel kid with his half-wolf! I’m not an Arkansan by birth, and like I said when I left, I’m never coming home.
I linger there. On home.
Bobby Ampezzan works as a senior public relations account executive at Mangan Holcomb Partners from Gainesville, Florida. Some of his stories, sound reporting, and photographs are at bobbyampezzan.com. Follow him on Twitter, or write to him at email@example.com.