There was a time when Judsonia, Arkansas, was a booming metropolis keeping pace with the rest of the country. The people were hopeful—working, shopping, and living life. A women’s college was teaching ladies, and the town cemetery kept a plot for fallen Union soldiers right smack in the middle of all the dead Confederates.
That was back in the 1940s. Then in ’52 a tornado swirled in and tore the whole place down, leaving a dusty depression in its wake. After that, time got sticky while the people got slower and stayed that way. Since then, Judsonia just hasn’t moved on the way the rest of the country has.
At thirteen years old, I was hanging out one afternoon in a pair of sweats and a hand-painted T-shirt, bumming around a mostly empty house. It was the early ’90s, but there, in Judsonia, it might as well have been the ’80s, or the ’70s. I, Mary Beth Ditto, did not go to school that day. I stayed at home to laze around the house—a house that was normally crawling with way too many kids and a sick aunt, but which was miraculously empty that day, totally peaceful. Just because I played hooky, don’t go getting the idea that I was a bad kid. I wasn’t, but I wasn’t a good kid either. I wasn’t a nerdy square turning in homework on time and kissing my teacher’s butt, and I certainly wasn’t some juvenile delinquent ducking class to hunt down trouble. I just wanted to see what that big, hectic house would feel like full of unusual quiet.
My three little cousins were off at school. Because they had the misfortune of being born to the world’s shittiest mom, those three cousins—who all had names that began with A—had come to live with Aunt Jannie. When social services had finally been called for the fourth time, the social workers poked around to see if those three little A’s had any family who could take them in, and when they found Aunt Jannie she, of course, said yes.
The A’s made their beds on couches and chairs at Aunt Jannie’s, crawling next to one another in the night, hunkering down wherever there was space and warmth to snuggle into. Their arrival in Aunt Jannie’s home was part of a grand tradition in my family. In a family so large that it tumbled and stretched to the edges of comprehension, every one of us came knocking on Aunt Jannie and Uncle Artus’s front door eventually, looking for refuge. Something always pushed us there. For the A’s it was their drunken, neglectful mother. For me it was my violent stepfather. For my mother it was her sexually abusive father. And there were countless other short-term squatters, like my cousins whose mother shot her husband in the head. Children came and children went as circumstance and tragedy dictated. Aunt Jannie just couldn’t turn away a kid with nowhere to go, not even when her diabetes made her so slowed-down and sickly.
Aunt Jannie took people in for so many years that her house probably would’ve felt empty without stray bodies on every spare bit of furniture. Jannie’s heart—her original heart—was a good and giving thing, even though her life had fossilized pain around the outside. Deep inside, Jannie was secretly warm and caring, and that was the place that made her take in any person who was going through a tough time in life. She never sat down and calculated the costs of being the whole town’s savior. Her impulse to help, plus the whole town’s expectation that she would open her doors, and everyone loving her for doing it, meant that, eventually, Aunt Jannie just couldn’t say no to anyone. Even when maybe she should have. When she was at the end of her mental rope, Aunt Jannie probably needed someone to reach out and give her a hand, but I don’t know how she could’ve asked for that when she was the one always giving it.
Aunt Jannie’s daughter—my Aunt Jane Ann—lived in that big house too. Jane Ann was young enough to feel like a sister but old enough to take me to a Rolling Stones concert. Her teenage son, Dean, was the unofficial king of the house. While the rest of us lived like forest creatures, constantly looking for a nice space to burrow in, Dean got his very own bedroom. His own bedroom! I couldn’t comprehend the luxury. Like some put-upon fairy-tale princess I earned my place keeping the A’s in line and tending to Aunt Jannie’s slow-motion suicide—fixing her the pitchers of Crystal Light that had her as addicted as the five packs of full-flavor Winstons she smoked her way through each day. That was taking care of Aunt Jannie: tearing open packets of the fake-flavor tea and inhaling the lemony aspartame powder till my nose was crusted with it, then bringing it to the kitchen table, where she lit her Winstons one from another. There was always something smoldering in the ashtray. I would sit in the cigarette haze and listen to her talk about the old times in Judsonia. Truth be told, being an audience for Aunt Jannie’s crazy tales was my real task; they could snag my imagination better than television. I would listen, wide-eyed, to her outlandish stories, like the ones about her running from her wheelchair-bound mother as a little girl and climbing up on the furniture so that poor woman, who was crippled from polio, couldn’t grab her. Aunt Jannie was a spitfire Scorpio. She used to sneak down to the river, to a chained-up shed that hid a forbidden jukebox. Judsonia didn’t allow dancing, so Aunt Jannie, thirteen years old and full of pent-up fire and life, would sneak into the woods with other barely teenage rebels, and together they’d dance, getting drunk on home-brewed liquor and twirling away the night.
That teenage Aunt Jannie felt her culture pushing down on her, and so she pushed back with the shove of her whole body twisting to the beat. In between segments of Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! she told me all about it. Aunt Jannie always got the answers to all the game shows right, smacking the table with satisfaction when they confirmed her answer. She would’ve won big bucks as a contestant, but she wasn’t, so she was just smart, the smartest, a genius, always guessing that phrase before Vanna White flipped the vowels over, or getting the answer before that schoolteacher from Omaha hit the buzzer. Aunt Jannie had the smarts—she was even good at math—but she’d dropped out of school when she was just fourteen. As much as I didn’t care about school, I couldn’t comprehend being forced to drop out because I’d gotten pregnant and lost the father—my love—in a crashed-up car on a country road. That was Aunt Jannie’s story, and it was mine to imagine back then, to bear witness to.
As the reigning teenage king of the house, Dean didn’t have to hang with Aunt Jannie or corral the three little ones. He didn’t have to try to keep the wild mess of the house under some sort of control or clean up after the two mangiest dogs ever, Alex and Cleo—little froofy mutts. Dean didn’t have to deal with any of it, he just hung out in his room like royalty. He was a year older than me, and even shorter than me, five foot three at best.
Dean was a pool shark. Still a kid, trolling the pool halls, he’d wager with grown men and come home with a wad of cash balled up in the front of his Levi’s: twenty, twenty-five dollars. That’s a lot when you’re a teenager in Judsonia. He blew his winnings on weed, tall glass bongs tucked in his closet, and cases of something strong to get drunk on with his friends in the woods. As for the Izods and Eastlands, loafers and Levi’s—the preppy-popular look Dean rocked so well—his mom, Jane Ann, put all that on credit cards. A credit card wardrobe and a room all his own. Dean had it made.
The afternoon that I’d skipped school, I was watching television in the kitchen, half missing the constant chatter of Aunt Jannie and her suffocatingly familiar cloud of smoke while I flipped through the stations. My aunt’s shabby immune system had allowed a staph infection to bloom in her body, so Jane Ann had gone with her to the hospital for antibiotics. Some dork in a suit was cleaning up on Jeopardy! If Aunt Jannie were there she’d have kicked his butt. What is the quadratic equation? What is plutonium? Who is Eleanor Roosevelt? Then Dean walked in, doing something violent to a Coke can.
What are you doing, Dean? I asked, watching him stab tiny holes into the aluminum with a knife.
Makin’ a pipe.
A pipe? On the screen, Alex Trebek confounded the contestants with a new question; in the kitchen I watched my cousin’s odd crafting, stumped.
For pot, he explained. The can was crushed, almost folded. On the far end, away from the opening, Dean poked and punctured until he’d created a tiny perforated area for a clump of weed to be ignited, then inhaled through the mouth of the can.
I’d never thought of a Coke can in quite that way before, and I guess it was sort of nice to observe Dean engaged in something remotely useful.
You want to smoke some? he invited. It wasn’t like Dean to share the wealth, so I figured I should take advantage of his generosity. Besides, smoking pot with Dean seemed much more exciting than spacing out to another round of Jeopardy! I tagged behind my cousin.
Something you should know about that hectic house filled with aging, chain-smoking party girls, young moms and younger kids, with crazy puppies and me—the misfit cousin/built-in babysitter/housekeeper/nurse—is that the house was built from the ground up by Uncle Artus himself. Uncle Artus was an excellent carpenter and had made a bunch of money supervising jobs around the state of Arkansas. He just must have been so crazy busy with paid work that he never quite got around to finishing up his own place. Though he’d built it thirty years before, most...