The return to Moon Lake had been a quiet one—a drive through downtown Helena, depressing, most of the storefronts abandoned, the sidewalks cut apart by bursts of weeds. On the Arkansas side of the great fat river, everything had died off by leaps and bounds over the past fifteen years.
In the yard of the old house we rented, the only two gingkoes in town upheld their portion of godless sunlight. In the fall, people would come walking or biking from all over town to watch them burn off their absolute yellow onto the lawn. Kids would run up holding their noses at the smell of the rotting fruit, grab a few out of the grass, then launch them at passing cars.
The house had been built in the late 1800's, back when West Helena was large and alive and a strong challenger to Memphis. Five of us had lived there, each of whom either moved to New Orleans or back to northern cities, where the jobs were. The only jobs here, it seemed, were for teachers. Or as vendors of some sort during the one weekend of the year when the town took up and blossomed--for the King Biscuit Blues Festival. Named after a radio show Sonny Boy Williamson had gotten his start on. The King Biscuit company ran aground how long ago, but the music it used to shill its wares took hold and outlasted it, and maybe only because the people at Sun Studio oversaw its rapid mutation into something a youth culture could grow around. The youth living off some permutation of it still to this day…
The place seemed filled with homeless people even then, didn't it? When the grass grew to a certain height, a rough-looking man of ancient skinniness would materialize on the front porch, offering to mow the lawn for a few beers. Introduced himself as Blue. No comment necessary on that nickname. But a lawn can only be mowed a number of times a month, not often enough to curry the amount of spare change and beers a man like that would need to keep himself careful; so eventually carelessness crept in. Coming home to find Blue in the back yard. Blue rooting around in the garage. Blue on tiptoes at the east-side windows. When the lawnmower disappeared, we let it go. That old nonsense about teaching a man to fish instead of handing him the fish instead--hard not admire him, when he comes to the conclusion that, to do so, he will need to steal your rod and line as well.
Not to lean too heavily on accepted desolations--the kind one would expect from such a place. The tall humid light, the fallen row-bound starstuff of those cotton fields. Time achieving its circularity there at an almost visible pace: laying itself bare on dozens of porches.
But also: the seven chemical plants upriver, the cancer deaths every year claiming its quota.
Kudzu rolling across the edges of town, dragging whole buildings and telephone poles into its undertow.
Who was it that told us the story of the Anasazi at Mesa Verde; how they died off, leaving behind their tools, their dwelling places as fantastical as they were empty? They fashioned whole cliffs into a castle of sorts, yet had a life expectancy of thirty-eight. Died of extreme ruination of the teeth.
Sad to think it took the rise of the white man to realize why they were dying with such regularity, with very few teeth. Corn was a primary form of sustenance, and this they ground into meal with sandstone pestles; tiny grains of sand tainted the meal; chewing it involved a prolonged, incremental destruction of the molars. Rot set in, then infection. All so the white man's teeth might smile upon them.
But without insurance, even his teeth have the opportunity to die off painfully.
Consider the man we saw not long ago, an old farmer who drove to town to have a tooth pulled. Before walking over to us, the dentist paused to look into his mouth. "Whoa," he said, with a surprise that would be hard to fake. "It looks like a world of hurt in there."
"No, sir," the old farmer insisted. "It doesn't hurt me, except the one tooth."
Then: "How much would it cost me for you to remove it."
The dentist tried to explain the nature of rot, the contagiousness of it, then applied this to very specific descriptions of what he was seeing. Almost all the teeth would need to go. There would need to be dentures. It would be expensive. Was he covered by insurance?
"Hell no," the old farmer said. "Haven't ever been covered. Haven't needed to be."
Once the price was quoted, he sat up, pulled off the paper bib the hygienist had laid across his collar, said "well then", without once looking at the dentist. He had offered two hundred dollars, all he had with him, but the dentist, with as much politeness as could be applied to such a situation, said that wouldn't be enough to cover even the single tooth.
"I'll do it myself, then," the farmer said.
Imagine it. With pliers, or wriggling it loose and in the raw between his own fingers. Then imagine that trip back to Helena, Arkansas. And later that afternoon, to Moon Lake, across the river.
Nothing defines self-loathing on a grand scale like a hatred of obsolescence. For that reason, whole towns, counties, whole regions of a country have been destroyed in good opinion and in memory. There is the term "flyover zone." As if it couldn't all be easily flown over.
In the colder months, geese could be seen over the better part of that place; and more often than not, could be found resting a while on Moon Lake.
A few good paces off the rim of it, huddled among a number of buildings that had been joined over the period of several decades by carpentry and enterprising wishfulness--that restaurant we'd visit every few weeks, Uncle Henry's. The best stuffed catfish to be had in two centuries.
On the walls were framed photos of Morgan Freeman and any number of politicians and wealthy duck hunters. But also regular red-faced drinkers.
A bring-your-own-liquor establishment, so for dinner we'd bring our own handle. Rest it on the bar. George, the chef, who cooked there right before you, would take his share of your bottle as a kind of tithing. Everything good that made its way to plate there must have been put together along the warmth of a long drunk. The more he took, the more he talked; George was a loud, large talker.
Had once been a drug connection for Willie Nelson.
Had run planes between Belize and Texas.
Once, at the end of a hard wistful laugh, had even finished a sentence with: "That is the last time I'll kill a man!" This comment had followed a brief description of his time in New Orleans.
When we pulled into the earthen lot, the place was closed. By chance, two women outside walked over to talk. By odd luck they had driven from across the state that day to celebrate George's birthday. His sisters, they explained, George gone three years now. Died right in the kitchen, where they found him. Today, long ago, before the town started disappearing, their baby brother had been born; so it seemed fitting they'd come back to help oversee their own small part in his disappearance also.
And Miss Cora, we asked. Is she still about?
Yes, she was, at ninety-eight years old.
We remembered the old woman talking with clipped anger about The War, and without even asking we knew which one she was talking about. The kind that put her in the South, even before she was born.
It goes without saying the jukebox contained more than its share of country music.
One song would appear every time we came in. Evelyn, one of our housemates, was a redhead; and George, having a sentimental gentlemanly lust for redheads, would put a Bonnie Raitt song on every time she pulled to the bar. He never knew her name, was content enough to call her Bonnie. The song would come on, she would laugh, he would saunter over on the romance of his liquor, asking her to the dance floor for a slow one. Only once did she agree to it. He held her with such grateful formality, she later admitted it elevated him in her eyes to a level of charm she hadn't thought many men his age were capable of.
But he was. And it left him smiling.