Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
Looking out of our office window, The Observer can see the Historic Arkansas Museum's 1850s homestead and log cabin preserved amidst the urban jungle of Little Rock's downtown. It's what used to be called a dogtrot house, with a breezeway that cuts right through the middle, so that you can see clear from one side to the other. It's beautifully incongruous, encircled by a jutting wooden fence, but also looks fit to be lived in. Once, during the recent snow, The Observer could swear we saw smoke rising from the chimney.
As such things often do — as, in fact, they are specifically engineered to do — the cabin lends itself to nostalgic brooding. Growing up, The Observer frequently spent time on an uncle's farm in Pelham, Ga., sleeping in a cabin of comparable design. This cabin did have electricity, as well as an occasionally functional water heater and an air hockey table, but it was the real thing. Many afternoons were spent there mowing grass, feeding catfish and swatting carpenter bees with a ping-pong paddle.
On the wall inside the living room, someone had carved a message in the chinking before it dried: "See that mountain over there?" It was a joke, because there were no mountains. It was also a reference to the Southern rock band Alabama, whose song "Mountain Music," opens with the same question. The phrase has embedded itself in this Observer's memory, in any case, detached from its original significance. It has become something like a Zen koan: See that mountain over there?
Once, a cousin wrestled an alligator out of the pond onto the cabin's dock, ran inside for his gun and came back to shoot the thing in the head. At the time, we were awed by this act of dumb heroism and savagery. Seeking to emulate or even top the act, we — a brother and myself — would float around the pond in a canoe looking for alligators to hunt. Sometimes we would come close, hovering barely over the waterline right beside one, but we were always too stunned to act and so would just look away and pretend not to notice.
Later, when we were in high school, we would bring friends to the cabin. We would have bonfires and fish poorly and listen to Outkast and disco-era Rolling Stones. We watched the movie "Signs" there once, the Mel Gibson one about aliens. The plot seems too distant to recall, but we remember walking out onto the dock afterwards and feeling a profound calm. Absent the city's light pollution, one could really see constellations from that dock, and though we could not name them, we were glad to see they were there. We thought of carpenter bees and intelligent life on other planets.
Here in Little Rock, walking past the downtown cabin or noticing it from the Times office window, we can't help but remember "Signs" as well as that earlier ritual of fake alligator hunting. Why even bother, in hindsight? For that matter, we haven't spoken to our brother in a couple of weeks. Maybe we should call him. Who used to live in that cabin? Why did they call it a dogtrot? Will anyone ever live there again? See that mountain over there?
Meanwhile, down the street, The Observer's honey works a day job that brings her frequently to the Pulaski County Courthouse, that stately old pile at Spring and West Second streets. She spends a lot of time in courtrooms, sitting on hard pews, avoiding the ones with cracks that can give you a smart pinch on the beehind if you scooch just right, learning the 10,000 reasons why a television courtroom drama that captured the reality of courtroom drama would be the equivalent of NyQuil: Spanish Influenza Strength. The Observer is proud of her. She's one of the good guys, just like every person who goes to the courthouse every day and works in the employ of Lady Justice: Judges, clerks, lawyers for and against, everybody else. You'll never hear The Observer make a lawyer joke. We told our last one some years back to a wily old attorney. His cheerful response: "Call a plumber when you get arrested, and see how that works out for you." Touche, Mr. Barrister.
As an added bonus, Spouse brings home delicious tales of the circus that is an average morning at the courthouse, so full of characters and questionable hair and wardrobe choices. Her most recent one: Sitting in court, watching a woman's trial on a felony charge. Only when the woman went up to the stand to testify on her own behalf could the gallery see that printed on the back of her T-shirt, in black "Frankie Says Relax"-sized block letters, was the phrase "DRUNK AS SHIT."
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