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Write-in writer 

The real Observer is sick today, and is looking for a stand-in. Us other Observers in the office don't really like to stand in, because the real Observer is such a good writer. Which got us to thinking about the Readers' Map of Arkansas.

The Readers' Map contains 462 names of writers who have a connection to Arkansas through birth or career. They are listed, along with one of their published works, but not in alphabetical order: That makes you read the whole list if you're looking for someone (though you can cheat on the website, arkansasreadersmap.com).

So the real Observer was in the minor Observer's office the other day studying the map. I had to tell the real writer that his name does not appear because, though his fiction is published, it appears in compilations, like "New Stories from the South" and Crazy Horse and Glimmer Train, rather than a whole book.

The real Observer, who returned to Arkansas after getting his M.F.A. at the Iowa Writers Workshop ("All children born in Arkansas are born with boomerangs on their asses; no matter how far they go away, they always come back," he said in a Hillbilly M.F.A. interview), once wrote a Christmas story for the Arkansas Times about a little boy born with a birthmark that looked like Jesus. It was absolutely a classic piece of writing, a tale that ranks right up there with any short story you want to compare it to. Here's an excerpt:

"Even though I'm Baptist with some Pentecostal on my Daddy's side, doing the things me and Honey did in front of the Virgin Mary can really tear you up in hindsight, especially given how it all turned out. Personally, I believe that any woman who could go through being knocked up by God deserves some respect. It's hard enough when the father is in jail halfway across the county, so I can only imagine what it's like being pregnant by God, Him off somewhere, taking care of all the fish in the sea and all the birds in the blue sky and everything that creepeth and runneth and swimmeth.

"But, to get to my point: Contrary to what has been said, I can wholeheartedly attest to the fact that my baby Jimmy was made just like every other baby all the way back to the beginning of time, which is to say: The Old Fashioned Way. Same thing with how he was born. When Jimmy came out, he was screaming to beat the band, and looked just like any other baby. You couldn't tell there was anything different about him until they rolled him over.

"It's one of those trick-of-the-eye things, you know?

"At first, it looks like a big birthmark — which is, they tell me, exactly what it is. It's almost like it doesn't want to be seen. But when you hold him out at arm's length, and turn your head just right, it falls together, and there, before you — right in the middle of his back but a little off-center, from his shoulder down to the top of his butt — is the prettiest picture of Jesus you ever seen. And not some Andy Gibb-looking Jesus, either. This is him looking the way you know he had to look coming from where he did in the world, with a wide, soft face and eyes dark as the bottom of a well. The first one to see it was an El Salvadorian nurse who was hosing Jimmy off in a sink. Her face went pale and her eyes went wide, and then she backed away, crossing herself and mumbling in Spanish, until her ass hit a tray of instruments and they went into the floor with a clatter like the end of the world."

You want to keep reading, don't you? Check out the Times' archives, Dec. 24, 2009.

This isn't the only great story the real Observer has written. So I'm thinking I'm going to take my Readers' Map of Arkansas and write the real Observer's name on it, and "Jesus on his back" next to it. And whenever I see a Readers' Map of Arkansas, I'm going to whip out my pen and sneak it in. Maybe I'll write it diagonally, down the blue of the Arkansas River. Or just up the side.

I know they had to draw the line somewhere, the folks who put the map together. The poster is oversized as it is. It's a great thing. But it's missing the real Observer's name, and this minor Observer, is going to smuggle it in. Mike Trimble's name, too.

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