A big old white refrigerator stands by the cash register like an accomplice beside the woman who runs the place, arms folded across a wide white apron, gray hair done up in a tight, elaborate, crown-like do, eyes like scanners keeping track of friend and foe alike. The jukebox is silent today, the same one that once played “Hello Darlin’” when I was suffering from a broken heart in high school. Each table boasts a Coke bottle with a fake pink flower stuck determinedly down its neck. The one dessert of the day is plopped down first and without comment. Our catfish dinner is brought to us on green plastic cafeteria plates. Every catfish dinner sold around here comes with pinto beans, as well as slaw and fries. We’re here today because my father prefers their beans. The catfish is excellent as well.
Living in one place most of your childhood, leaving and then coming back as an adult can affect more than an outlook; it can seriously affect the eyesight. On my first visit home from college, the roads had shrunk. I don’t mean the trip home seemed shorter, but the gravel roads leading out to our place were just smaller. It was the oddest thing, and to my amazement they were to remain shrunk for every visit to come, although never to such an alarming degree. The big hill up which I trod to meet the school bus and down which I coasted my bike was no more than a...small hill. It was the same place through a different lens.
In a distant state I once asked a woman if she was from “around here,” and the answer was a definite no. She was from the next town ten miles down the road and thought she was a stranger in a strange land. Around Here means different things to different people.
Around Here for me is Broken Bow, a little place in the southeast corner of Oklahoma. Just a bit further west, the land flattens out, but here we still boast trees and hills. McCurtain County’s nickname is Little Dixie. It’s an ambiguous little Dixie, though, enamored of western things: cowboy hats, rodeos, and small ranches. Just a bit further south and west the ranches expand enormously and sprout oil wells like shameless heiresses wearing all their jewelry at once.
Singer/songwriter and actor Hoyt Axton, whose father John coached Broken Bow football, said, “There are three main industries in McCurtain County: Weyerhauser, moonshine, and welfare.”
Hoyt Axton wrote “Joy to the World” and “Never Been to Spain,” and his mother Mae, who was a Broken Bow High School teacher, wrote “Heartbreak Hotel” for Elvis. And this is the place of which native Gail Davies sang haunting tributes. Around Here we’re proud of all that.
There’s no welfare for poverty of the imagination, nor architects capable of designing the kind of beauty with which Davies filled her old galvanized bucket of memories.
I hear there are places with gated subdivisions, where the residents are protected from every vestige of danger and poverty. And of local color and history, too. A child of a gated subdivision would not have in her head (as I do) a persistent picture of an old green house, owned by two fat bachelor brothers in bib overalls, being driven off on a truck to make way for her new house. Neither would this be forever engraved on her brain: a strange name, TEBO, deeply and unevenly knife-scratched into the soft old wood of the barn door, perhaps the name of one of those brothers.
More pictures which would not be in her head. A cottonmouth sunning on the island of dry ground in the creek she just jumped, touching down lightly before he was spotted. Big iron wash pots resting against a fence by the creek nearest Choctaw neighbors. A two-room shack in the pasture, rented by another Choctaw family and then standing vacant for years. A straw-backed kitchen chair sitting on the bank of the nearby creek. Collecting snake skins in that vacant house. Beating out a grass fire with tow sacks, a family affair. A graveyard of livestock bones among the leaves on top of the hill thought to be an Indian mound. Priceless pictures all, because they are unique to Around Here and every one a story.
The town itself remains basically unchanged. Unlike my gravel roads, the two main streets are wide. I never really noticed this until my children were old enough to make comparisons. They were reminded of an Old West town, pointing out the wide streets. Did Old West towns really have wide streets, or did we just often see them widened by the camera’s angle during gun fights?
Thirty miles east is a strip of beer joints which has marked the Oklahoma border for longer than I’ve been in the world. I pass them on every trip home. They can claim neither beauty nor usefulness. Time, however, has molded and softened those old structures, each unique in its own homliness. They’ve blended into the landscape so that, were they razed, it would be startling to see.
In contrast, a formation of shiny aliens: a Walmart, a modern service station or two, a Pizza Hut, a McDonald’s, and the new high school, have precariously taken their places along the road leading south of town. This is the brazen new kid, who has the best clothes, the most toys and a semblance of fame, yet trembles at knowing he isn’t yet liked for himself.
There is absolutely nothing new on the roads going north, east, or west of town. If silence can speak volumes, the sight of nothing new can be an intriguing picture. It’s as if an agreement was made between Around Here and the Agent of Change. They sat at a table in the Charles Wesley Restaurant and the former wore a straw cowboy hat, plaid shirt and sagging jeans. The latter wore a suit and spoke with a midwestern accent. After much haggling, A.H. agreed to give A.C. that particular strip of road south of town with the stipulation she steer clear of the other three intersecting roads and the town itself. It’s all there in the contract, binding for at least another twenty years. A.H. thought her unusually pretty for a liberated woman, but after she left, he winked at the waitress and said he got the better end of the deal, what with him making big bucks on that limited area while keeping up appearances everywhere else.
Broken Bow has not changed a whole lot in the last few decades, and I hope it never does. If you spend all or most of your childhood in one place, it’s fixed forever in your mind as it was then, and changes jar your nerves. Those few years are as deeply and unevenly knife-scratched into the soft old wood of a child’s mind as if they were a hundred years. The larger span of time that is the rest of her life is nothing by comparison. And for good or bad, no other place will ever be quite like Around Here.
Charlton Walters Hillis has a fine arts degree, but her first love is creative writing, primarily the short story. She has a nonfiction work in progress of an art buyer in the Voronezh region of Russia.