Saturday, May 19, 2018

Leaving Arkansas in Sunshine

It’s amazing what a short whiskey and an hour and a half nap on a good bed can do to improve your mood.  I woke up hungry in another strange motel room.  It was dark and still raining hard.  I ventured down to the lobby. 
I asked the night clerk, the very cheerful woman who rented me a room, if there was a rib joint close and she suggested one straight out the parking lot blocks away.  As I guided the Buick through the rain I plowed water most of the way.  I couldn’t help but think of the flooded road I turned back from and whether I would have made it had I ventured into the pond around the Forked River Bridge.  I hunched over the steering wheel reading street signs, then turned, splashed through deep water at the curb, and parked in front of a little place called the Delta Q.

There weren’t many cars in the parking lot, and when I walked in a big garbage can was in the middle of the dining room, water occasionally dripping into it.  Only a few tables were occupied.  The waitress came right over.
“Excuse the mess.  It’s been raining for three days and our flat roof just stated leaking this afternoon.  I guess it’s a two day roof.”

She handed me a menu and set a small bucket of homemade pork rinds in front of me.  They had craft beer and I ordered one.  I used to love pork rinds.
The menu told me they served all the standard rib joint fare.  I have trouble deciding between ribs or brisket.  The waitress brought my beer. 

“It says you can get your ribs wet or dry.  Which is best you think?”

She didn’t hesitate.  I like that.
“The dry have good smoky flavor but sometimes they’re a little bland.  The sauce they use on the wet ribs gives them more flavor, but they’re still not what I call spicy.  Course you can put the sauces on the dry ribs yourself but I don’t know, I just think the wet are better.”

“You smoke your own meat here right?”
“Oh yeah.  The owner is all about the hogs, the wood, how hot, how long.”

“Good.  I’ll have a slab of wet ribs with baked beans and cole slaw on the side.”
“Coming up.”

I got on Delta Q’s wi-fi and checked out their competition at a site called ‘The Best 20 Restaurants in Forrest City.’  I found a little of everything; Mexican, Asian, seafood, barbeque, and steakhouses.  Twenty restaurants?  How did a town of 15,000 hit that culinary jackpot? It seemed so ironic that seven hours earlier I was unable to find even a hot dog near Frog Jump Tennessee and here I had my choice of foods.  It’s literally feast or famine in America.  Find the interstate and you apparently find the food.
Of course you do.  That’s where people with money are spending it.  This is where they’re travelling, spending the night, being away from home without a kitchen.  It’s the interstate, a funnel with people pouring through it.  I’m sure at one time you could find a nice hotel on Route 51, and probably a good cheap meal.  But why would I expect to find either there now?  The only people traveling on Route 51 are locals.  They don’t need a hotel room.  And how much money could you make in a restaurant in Frog Jump anyway?

Apparently not much given the looks of that shuttered restaurant where I regrouped in the rain.   Meaningful commerce and services appear to be over in those communities.  If you need something drive to a community which corporations find worthy of investment.  I’m not sure they are going back to small town America anytime soon.    
My waitress brought the ribs and she was right.  They were none too spicy.  I added some sauce from the table.  I figured there was not much dry rub on them either.  I get it though.  It’s that understated smokiness they’re after in the South.  I still like the sauce we’re used to farther north.  I was hungry.  The ribs were gone pretty quickly.  Good smoky beans.  The slaw was so so, drowned in sweet creamy dressing.

The waitress came to clear the table.
”What’s for dessert?”

“You sir, are in luck.”
People had been calling me sir all day.  I must look old.

“I’m biased but I serve the best bread pudding in Arkansas.”
“Did you make it?”

She laughed pretty big at that one.
“God no.  And you’re lucky.  The owner, who like me doesn’t know the first thing about bread pudding, buys two big pans a day from a lady in town that makes it fresh in her own kitchen every day.  If you want dessert, try the bread pudding.  Plenty of vanilla, touch of cinnamon.  I’m telling you it melts in your mouth.”

Not many waitresses describe a dessert like she did.  She looked hungry just talking about it.
“Bread pudding it is.”

“Good choice.  I’ll warm it for you.”
Sometimes you get an unexpected surprise on the road.  I expected bread pudding that stands tall, all square and sharp edged, sort of stiff and heavy.  This plate of bread pudding looked different, shallow and slumped over, a little sloppy.

When I got a forkful in my mouth I sat unmoving, closed my eyes, and hummed.  I did that involuntarily, I’m convinced, to shut out all other sensations but taste.  Who would think scalded milk, heavy cream, eggs, butter, vanilla, and a few spices with bread cubes could result in such complex flavor and be so damned good?  It was light and moist, disappearing in my mouth with little need for chewing.  I almost ordered another.
Hats off to the woman in Forrest City who bakes that delicious bread pudding.  I’m still mad at myself for not getting her name.  You ma’am, whoever you are, make the best bread pudding I ever had.

The next morning was still overcast and rainy.  At the breakfast buffet, still eating those instant scrambled eggs with lots of hot sauce, I caught the weather report.  There were flash flood warnings all around me.  I headed for the Interstate again. 
I took 40 W to Little Rock, thought of Bill Clinton in his heyday but not enough to stop, and stayed on 40 to Pine Bluff.  As I drove the sky began to clear.  The rain became a sprinkle, and then went away.  I turned my wipers off for the first time in days.   Screw the floods.  I left the Interstate in celebration, taking Arkansas Route south 425 toward Monticello.

On the floorboard of the passenger seat were a batch of CD’s in a cut down brown grocery bag.  My CD’s live in the shack and rarely travel.  I pulled it up on the seat beside me.  Music on the road trip was way overdue.
“Love and Theft” called to me.  I had been thinking about those songs in the silence of the past rain filled days, trying to recall whole lines and not just phrases.  Sometimes you just need to hear good songs again.  It had been way too long since I had heard those.

I first unwrapped the “Love and Theft” disc the morning of September 11, 2001.  My son had just pulled out of the drive on his way to high school.  Moe was away at college.  I had a little time alone before leaving for work and I skipped the news, anxious to hear the latest from my old friend Bob Dylan.  Later when I later got the office I discovered all hell had broken loose. 
You never know what you are going to get in a Dylan album.  I was pleasantly surprised with this one.  For Dylan it was positively buoyant.  Strong melodies and great unexpected lyrics like always.  Even his voice sounded better.  I turned up the volume that morning, just as I turned it up 17 years later, the sun shining on my Buick, speeding down some two lane Arkansas road headed for the  Louisiana state line.  The world has changed entirely since the first day I heard those tunes, but the feeling I get will always stay the same.

I was waiting for the lyrics to “Mississippi”, a state I would get to eventually, and there they came.  Four line stanzas, two rhyming couplets each.  Here’s four of the twelve.
Every step of the way we walk the line
Your days are numbered, so are mine
Time is pilin' up, we struggle and we scrape
We're all boxed in, nowhere to escape

Walking through the leaves, falling from the trees
Feeling like a stranger nobody sees
So many things that we never will undo
I know you're sorry, I'm sorry too

Well my ship's been split to splinters and it's sinking fast
I'm drownin' in the poison, got no future, got no past
But my heart is not weary, it's light and it's free
I've got nothin' but affection for all those who've sailed with me

Well, the emptiness is endless, cold as the clay
You can always come back, but you can't come back all the way
Only one thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long

Dylan recorded his first album in 1962 when he was 21 years old.  This one was recorded in 2011, nearly fifty years later, when he was 60.  That made him 77 years old wherever he was as I was on my leisurely tour of the sodden South.  I hope he’s taking care of himself.

As I drove through the little town of Hamburg, Arkansas, “Floater (Too Much To Ask)” came on.  It’s a stroll of a tune, four line stanzas again, lines two and four rhyming most of the time.  Dylan, like many of us, makes up his own rules.  The stanzas are related in subject only a little.  Great musicians hold it all together.  Here’s but a few.

I keep listenin’ for footsteps
But I ain’t hearing any
From the boat I fish for bullheads
I catch a lot, sometimes too many

They all got out of here any way they could
The cold rain can give you the shivers
They went down the Ohio, the Cumberland, the Tennessee
All the rest of them rebel rivers

My grandfather was a duck trapper
He could do it with just dragnets and ropes
My grandmother could sew new dresses out of old cloth
I don’t know if they had any dreams or hopes

I had ’em once though, I suppose, to go along
With all the ring-dancin’ Christmas carols on all of the Christmas eves
I left all my dreams and hopes
Buried under tobacco leaves

It’s not always easy kicking someone out
Gotta wait a while—it can be an unpleasant task
Sometimes somebody wants you to give something up
And tears or not, it’s too much to ask

Turned out Hamburg was my last Arkansas town.  Civilization gets sparse near the Louisiana line.  I drove between two National Wildlife Refuges, Felsenthal and Overflow.  The Ouachita River flows through there.  Wetland areas it sounds like, full of birds, slow water, and gators.  I’m sure it’s beautiful, but I wasn’t stopping.  I was into the music, the trees, and a bright blue sky.  It was still cold in Illinois, but springtime had come to the South. 

“Moonlight” came through the speakers.  I’d forgotten all about it.  How many other beautiful things in our lives do we lose track of never to revisit?   I played it too or three times, trying to burn the tune and the lyrics into my poor old brain.  I don’t want to lose it again.  Three line stanzas, with two rhyming, and one line so pretty he repeated it in six of the eight verses.

I’ll give you the first five stanzas, but you really should listen to this one.  It’s short.   Ask Alexa or your favorite, always listening home robot to play it for you.  Bob appears to have the rights sewn up, as he should, so I can’t find a free link to give you and you don’t want to listen to a cover. 

The seasons they are turnin’ and my sad heart is yearnin’
To hear again the songbird’s sweet melodious tone
Won’t you meet me out in the moonlight alone?

The dusky light, the day is losing, Orchids, Poppies, Black-eyed Susan
The earth and sky that melts with flesh and bone
Won’t you meet me out in the moonlight alone?

The air is thick and heavy all along the levy
Where the geese into the countryside have flown
Won’t you meet me out in the moonlight alone?

Well, I’m preachin’ peace and harmony
The blessings of tranquility
Yet I know when the time is right to strike

I’ll take you cross the river dear
You’ve no need to linger here
I know the kinds of things you like

Sometimes a day and a song complement each other.  It was one of those days.  The Buick and I were headed to Natchez Mississippi, and we had all afternoon to get there.

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