Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
The Observer doesn't get out of our little 800-word box over on page 11 very often, and we're cool with that most weeks. As you know if you've been paying attention, little boxes are one of the sole remaining products made right here in the good ol' U.S.A.: snug little boxes for people and snug little boxes for ideas, boxes for what makes a woman and what makes a man, for what makes a success and what makes a failure, for what makes love and what makes hate. But here we are, Dear Reader, busted out of our own little box, proof in the puddin' that one can escape the neat little compartments others build for us in their heads and hearts.
While all that sounds inspiring, the truth is, we didn't make the Great Escape, jumping our stolen Nazi dirt bike over column inches like Steve McQueen, to demonstrate the triumph of the human spirit. Koon flaked, we heard, too strung out on narcotic goofballs after some kind of wisdom tooth-related catastrophe to get his shit together. Lindsey Millar is in his office listening to incomprehensible hip-hop at high volume and nursing the bum knee he FUBARed awhile back in the midst of trying to show his kid some sweet skateboarding flipz or trix or routinyz, whatever the appropriately rhadikal skateboarder misspelling is these days, not recalling that his bones are no longer made of teenage rubber but of cut-rate dollar-store porcelain like the rest of us old farts. Benji Hardy is down in the basement with his miner's hat on, steadily digging sweet dirt on scumbag politicians of all stripes. Will Stephenson is blotting tears, counting the days until vacation and pining for his Georgia home. Leslie Peacock is up on the roof with her big U-boat hunter binoculars, scanning the horizon for the prophesied return of the Orange-Breasted Merkinlark or something bird-related. Brantley's packing his bags for a month in picturesque Pago Pago or dumping his Pago Pago-stinking laundry into the hamper back in Arkansas, one or the other. And so it falls to Yours Truly to crank out a cover story for once; to pull our weight instead of just phoning in another 700-worder about the weather, our cat or somebody farting in line at the grocery store.
"Just riff," said Millar, rubbing his robotic knee and wincing. "Get your sweater with the reindeer on it out of the closet and write something about Christmas." And so, we shall. A tripartite riff, then, a naked ripoff of our ghost-haunted favorite of olde.
The Observer was born here in Little Rock in the sweltering depths of July 1974, but we grew up from the age of 11 — the part of growing up that's worth a damn — out in the wilds of Saline County.
Don't tell Boss Millar, but the truth is: The Observer doesn't remember the specifics of very many of our Christmases. Not the stuff people want to know, anyway, what was said around the dining room table beyond pass the biscuits, or our Christmas spirit or lack of. For The Observer, the holiday has become — as it has undoubtedly become for many of you — the blur of Thanksgivingchristmasnewyear, full of colored lights and the taste of chocolate, the sound of tearing paper, the taste of apple pie, the smell of pine.
The oranges, however, we remember in particular: the pasteboard box full of beautiful orbs of California sunshine, bought in bulk by The Observer's Pa every Christmas. They were a nod to his hand-to-mouth childhood down in the broken heart of College Station, where he clawed to manhood before The Observer's mother found him and they saved each other. Some years when he was a boy, Pa said, he received not a lot more for Christmas than an orange. And so, when he was himself a father, he bought his children oranges by the dozens — so many that we got sick of them long before Christmas, mouths full of acid burns, the last of those beautiful fruits eventually gone moldy in the dark corners of the box.
The Old Man, 15 years now in his grave in Upchurch Cemetery, but no Scrooge he, worked hard to reach escape velocity from his own bitter Christmases. And so The Observer grew up in what surely would have seemed splendor to that boy from College Station. The stretchy, mile-long knit sock we used as our Christmas stocking was always swollen as a newly fed python on Christmas morning, jumbo apple tucked snugly into the toe, followed by the handful of mixed nuts we'd later shatter on the porch with a hammer after unsuccessful attempts with Pa's boot, the Lifesavers Candy Books and cassette tapes of whoever Ma heard was rhadikal with the youngsters that year; the Hot Wheels cars, the shining Case knives, the decks of marked cards when we took a liking to magic but before we realized our hands were too clumsy for it; the keyfobs and fancy chrome valvestem caps when we turned our attention to cars. Around the tree, the piled gifts: toy trucks giving over to radio-controlled boats giving over to books. The bushel-basket-sized car stereo speakers that we thought we needed one year and which our old ears still regret every time Spouse has to ask us to turn down the TV. The coveralls and mechanics tools we used to poke at the mysterious mechanical guts of things. The bottles of horrendous cologne with which we tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to attract something other than the pimpled nimrods we hung out with. One year, a flush year, a Browning 12-gauge shotgun, beautifully engraved, so nice that we shot a half box of shells through it, cleaned and oiled it within an inch of its life, then cocooned the perfect walnut and steel in its suede-lined case, where it stayed until The Observer's brother needed money bad and it was all we had to give him to sell. At 13, The Observer's first word processor, a replacement for the balky Royal whose keys maddeningly stuck, a gift that we know now was really a gift for Ma and Pa, who had surely grown tired of their middle child sitting up to all hours, clack-clack-clacking his heart onto a page, Machine-Gun Kelley style, laboring over those round keys long after such instruments had become curiosity and paperweight for the rest of the world. Seated before that machine, and the word processor, and the keyboard of a very heavy computer that came a few Christmases later, we learned the joy of words and construction. That love that has persisted up to, in fact, this very moment.
And every Christmas, the family trip to the state Capitol, to look at the lights; to pass through the tunnel below the steps and venture inside to see the great tree trucked in from Way Yonder and hauled into the building by convicts. It was our one yearly chance to walk the acres of citizen-owned marble; the place where we saw, at 11, a man we have always assumed was a ghost: elderly, bald, brown oxfords and old-timey tweed suit, a man who stepped around a column and seemed to disappear into thin goddam air, like he'd dropped down a trapdoor.
As an ink-swilling wretch for many a year, we've come to know the state Capitol for what it really is: the wind-powered gristmill that grinds good intentions, millions of dollars and a generous scoop of ego into flour of questionable quality, from which we all must bake our daily bread. As a boy, however, at Christmas, it was The Seat of Wisdom, the place where the learned Leaders elected from among us met in steady counsel to decide What Was Best. It was there, outside under the lights in the cold December dark, walking the lovely and deserted corridors with our parents, that The Observer came to see service as love.
That didn't stop us, however, from telling Junior at 4 years old that the great domed building on the hill was the Summer Villa of Santa Claus, a fib that we never took back, and which may live in his heart to this day. It seemed so right to do it at the time.
Forty-one, brothers and sisters. Not 39, on the edge of something. Not 40, on the precipice. Forty-one, having dropped silently from the ledge and now freefalling toward some unknown point. Beard fully gray and mustache catching, hair salt and pepper at the temples, face as lined as a butcher block. Every time we see that someone has dropped dead, The Observer can't help but take their age and do the simple arithmetic: 59 = T-minus 18 years. 62 = T-minus 21 years. T-minus 10 years if the hammer of What Can Go Wrong With a Body falls and we go out like our own father, gone at 51. Thinking like that makes you appreciate things, including the ticking clock on the wall, every second a second closer to the Wile E. Coyote splat.
There is, by luck and coincidence, almost exactly the same age difference between Junior and his Old Man as there was between The Observer and our own dad. Junior turned 16 last week, a December baby, whose birthday presents always come wrapped in candy-cane paper. Standing before the burning candles, listening to Spouse warble "Happy Birthday" to him while The Observer provided weak and tone-deaf baritone, we thought of our father at 41 and Yours Truly at 16, a smug and selfish boy who couldn't have found his ass with both hands, but who thought we knew everything. We thought of The Old Man, and thanked him, and saved a bit for our self.
Overall, The Observer has developed as dim a view of The Holidays as the one once held by our own Dear Ol' Dad — not the spirit of it, which is still mostly good, just the craven and naked consumerism of it all. Journalism keeps the lights on by selling ads that push craven and naked consumerism, of course, so we won't make a fool of our damn self by decrying the evils of bread and butter. But we can tell you that if the world was ours, there would be a Constitutional amendment requiring that every Christmas gift cost less than $20 total, including tax and maybe the gas it takes to get to the store. People would spend a lot less, and maybe make a lot more Christmas gifts. Wouldn't you rather have a $20 something made by your mom's own hands than some $200 electro-doo-dad that's going to end up in a landfill in a year and a half? Wait. Don't answer that, especially if your mom is within earshot.
Our wish for wishlist simplification notwithstanding, The Observer is also a slave of expectations, and so we saddle up with Spouse to brave the mall every year. Endless circling for a parking spot. Slamming doors. Santa bored and frowning, waiting for the next young'un to be shoved into his lap, the next snap, every one closer to the moment when he can lose the itchy suit and become flesh and blood again. The low din of hundreds, fretting. The pushy perfume girls with their cards, purring the names of celebrity smell-goods. The cash register ring in your head, even though cash registers don't ring anymore. The hiss of plastic through the swipe slot. The smell of coffee from the kiosk. The cheery drone of Christmas music everywhere. The angular bulk of boxes inside plastic bags. The bank account balance tumbling down and down, the credit card balance spiraling up and up. And back home, the wrapping paper sliced and flaps taped down, the remnants cleaned up, the presents around the tree like sandbags waiting for the explosion, counting down until Christmas: 10, 9, 8 ... And still, looking at it, asking the question: Is it enough? Can it be enough? How can one buy enough to represent the love in a human heart?
Whatever we get, it is always enough for The Observer, who can think of absolutely nothing we want or need most Christmases, a fact that drives Spouse all kinds of crazy. Junior is the same way, even at 16, though in recent years, nuts for gaming, his wish list has consisted entirely of mysterious electronic boxes to be installed inside other mysterious electronic boxes and never seen again. This year, all The Observer wants is a pair of boots, something we can wear for a good long while. That's it. Beyond that, we're happy to see others do the gettin'. May your life and heart be so full that it's true of your own life, friends.
There is, however, one thing we must buy every year: a silver spoon, engraved with the year. If you've watched The Observer's usual space for a while, you know that we've been giving those to Spouse every Christmas since the first we were together, a tradition left over from the years when Yours Truly was so damn broke that we couldn't do much more; a symbol that we would never let her go without, come hell or high water, even if we had to beg on streetcorners or knock over liquor stores with a squirt gun. She's getting close to having 20 spoons now, polished to mirror shine when she gets them, but soon gone black in a cup in the cabinet. They come back out at Christmas, polished again.
As we strolled the aisles of an antique mall in the weeks leading up to Christmas this year, looking for another to complete the wish of the heart of the young man we once were, we thought: What a foolish boy you were, my friend. What a romantic idiot. What a lovely and courageous and incorrigible sap. The old graybeard you became touches your dewy face, son, and smiles.
There is a reason why The Ghost of Christmas Future is the most terrifying of the three spirits in every version of "A Christmas Carol" ever produced: cloaked, mute, pointing a long and skeletal finger through the moonlit dark toward Scrooge's lonely and unmourned grave. No language needed. Just a long finger, pointing toward the inevitable if he did not change his ways. The future, friends, can be terrifying. Unknowable. Unfathomable. Impossible to see unless Jacob Marley comes to visit you on Christmas Eve, dragging his cash boxes and muttering dire warnings of impending ghouls.
The Observer is no oracle, and so we can't see our own Christmases to come, nor yours. How many more we'll get. How many more will be spent in joy instead of simply being endured. It is the way with all days, of course, but especially the big ones: birthdays and Christmases. Days are scary once you start thinking of them as the ticking of that doomsday clock we talked about. T-minus to liftoff.
Junior will be out of the house in a few years, and that will be hard. A very smart friend told us once that the relationship between parent and child is the only one in your life that must eventually break apart a bit in order to be successful (no offense to folks living in Mom and Dad's back room or basement), and so we know he will pack his bags someday and ship out. There will likely be some stark-naked dancing on the living room rug by two old farts when that happens, but eventually we'll come back to earth, put our britches on, and accept the new normal: that the chick has flown and that, while our work for him is not done by a long shot, it is mostly done, Junior having received the best we can give him and off to make his own way.
The Observer, trying to stare into the crystal ball with some trepidation, imagines those Christmases then: Junior coming in with bags of laundry and a two-day beard. Junior coming in trailing a significant other by the hand. Junior coming in, and he and his old man sitting up late, drinking the good Scotch from the back of the cabinet before the Christmas tree and talking about maybes. Junior coming in with a diaper bag and bundle in a carrier. Junior coming in with a boy or girl with The Old Man's blood in those veins, to be scooped up and tummy raspberried to within a centimeter of meltdown. And, yes, there will be some Christmases when Junior may not come in at all, maybe too hung up on the other side of the world with unfathomable business that he simply cannot make it, other than to call and wish his love to the two old grayheads who pushed him out the door in the first place. Those will be hard, but we will take what we can get. And as for you — yes, you, reading this — would it kill you to call your mother or father, if they're still with us?
The Observer, if we can, tries not to live with an eye on the unknowable future. A long while back, Uncle Max taught Yours Truly never to assume, to check it out, to make sure, then For Damn Sure. Trying to see into the future is the worst brand of assumption, based on nothing more than hopes and good intentions. Too, living in the future is no way to live, one ear always listening for the thud of the other shoe, dropped by The Man Upstairs, instead of to the lovely music of life swirling about us, even now, even as you read this. But today we must. And so we shall.
If the Good Lord wills it, The Observer sees himself years from now, sitting before the fire of some unknowable house, where the stockings hang from the mantle. We see the drifts of wrapping paper about our feet on the floor. We feel our old bones. We see Junior, grown to man's face and a father's respect. We see the little hands, unwrapping. We see the girl we married, face lined and hair gray, but still The Fairest of Them All because The Observer was smart enough to fall in love with the eyes first.
And then, because we are still a father's son, we will dip a shivering old hand into a nearby box, and take out an orange. We will peel that lovely, golden orb of sunlight in the frozen heart of December, the warm scent of summer rising. We will break apart the wedges inside one by one, and we will eat them one by one. And as we do, we will remember all the good days and bad days — the weddings and funerals, births and deaths, the featureless blur and those moments when time stopped and let us get a look at her shining clockworks. We will remember this life, and we will be thankful for all the days that brought us to that moment, so far from where it all began, no matter how many more remain.
The Observer smiles upon you, and hopes the same for you, Dear Reader.