Excerpts from the Book

One Summer in Arkansas

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all. For no one can anticipate the time of disaster. Like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare, so mortals are snared at a time of calamity, when it suddenly falls upon them.

Ecclesiastes 9:11


The late afternoon Texas sun was streaming through large plate glass windows illuminating rows of worn red plastic seats where dozens of sweaty, baggage-laden passengers waited for the 6:15 flight to Riverton, Arkansas. Downstairs from the main terminal of the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, the remote corridor provided access to small towns across the South via short regional flights. In contrast to the bustling concourse above, the mix of passengers reflected unique small-town demographics, each lounge signaling the flight's destination by the dress, accent and bearing of the assembled travelers.

As Lee Addison approached the cramped waiting area for Gate 19F at the end of the corridor, he was overcome with a visceral feeling of claustrophobia.

Though boarding would not begin for half an hour, Lee preferred to stand. He dropped his briefcase near the wall and opened the New York Times he'd picked up in San Francisco that morning. He skimmed the latest headlines about the Gulf War as his ear acclimated to the pitch and inflection of the voices around him speaking in the familiar idiom of his childhood.

This would be his last chance to spend a summer at home before starting work. During law school, he had spent summers editing law review articles and interning at some of San Francisco's best law firms, firms engaged in a lively competition to attract the best students from the best schools—team building in the wine country; lunch at Greens with a hiring partner, watching the bright midday sun melt the last remnants of fog hanging off the Golden Gate Bridge; all hands meetings late into the night with the city's top investment bankers.

With each passing year it had become harder to find time to make the trek back to Arkansas. But his mother wasn't getting any younger and she had pleaded with him to spend this summer at home, promising litigation experience at Riverton's leading law firm. And his sister, M.J., younger than Lee by eight years, was struggling. Maybe quality time with her big brother would help her through an awkward adolescence.

"Lee Addison?"

The salutation was jarring and not just because he had been deep in thought. After three years of hearing the emotionally neutral voices of California, the sweet sing-song intonation in the greeting felt like an invasion of privacy.

He looked up to see a smiling and cosmetically perfect face framed by an ash-blond hairdo heading his direction. The woman seemed vaguely familiar.

"How in the world are you? It's been forever since you've been home, hasn't it?"

She extended her hand. "Peggy Phillips. From high school. Do you remember me?"

He did, but not well. He remembered an active cheerful girl, one of dozens similar in demeanor and appearance who inhabited the fading recollections of his adolescence. But the wholesome pink-cheeked exuberance of seven years ago had hardened into a more intentional look.

"I noticed you a couple of times at the Club when you came home from college. But after you broke up with Annie, you seemed to have dropped off the face of the earth."

He would have preferred this time to himself, time to adjust to the sounds and rhythms of the South, to ease into memories of his childhood and mistakes of his youth. Annie. Did he really have to go there, this many years later, even before he boarded the plane to Riverton?

The classmate from high school didn't appear to notice his discomfort.

"I don't see much of the old high school crowd," she continued. "You know how it is. Once you're past those years, you don't want to go back."

Peggy had a way of raising her pitch at the end of every sentence, leaving Lee unable to distinguish between statements of fact and questions.

"When did we graduate? '83? God, has it been seven years? I work in sales for Lawton Tires, you know, out on New Hampton Road? Travel all over the place—Austin, San Antonio. But my biggest clients are here in Dallas. I get over here all the time. Stay at the Hilton downtown. Great dance clubs. Nothing like Riverton, believe me.

"I don't know if you remember, I married Larry McFee right after we graduated. He walked out on me a year later. Found somebody else. I was devastated. So was my whole family. Daddy had spent every penny they had on that big wedding. I couldn't have made it through that year without my covenant group at church.

"Oh god, Annie moped around town for years after you dumped her. Everybody was talking about it. She wouldn't have anything to do with men, period. But, believe me, there were plenty of people who were not sorry to see it happen. Annie Rayburn had always gotten everything she wanted. Above it all, you know. I don't mean to put her down. I always liked Annie."

Hearing this second hand version of his own life story told by a woman he scarcely knew was unsettling.

"By the way, I hear your younger sister has been getting into trouble. She used to be shy. I don't really know her, but I've seen her a few times at the Club. Y'all aren't much alike, are you? God, aren't you glad we're past that stage? I don't mean to butt into your family affairs but... listen, if she would ever consider coming with me to Sunday night worship out at Lakeside Baptist, I would be more than happy to come get her. Seriously.

"Anyway, Lee, you probably want to be left alone to read your paper. Sorry to butt in on your privacy. I couldn't resist coming over to say hello. You were everybody's heartthrob in high school. Anyway, I feel kind of like family. You wouldn't remember this but my Grandma was Judge Dawkins' secretary for 40 years. So we always looked up to your family.

"Honestly, I don't know why I run on at the mouth so. Listen, I totally understand why you wouldn't want to come back to Riverton. Honest to god, nothing ever changes. Same old, same old..."

"Good to see you again," he stammered, glad for the excuse to gather his things and get in line at the boarding gate.

The crowded shuttle bus eased away from the terminal toward the parking strip where they would board the small prop jet into Riverton. Everybody stood, hanging perilously onto metal poles or synthetic loops of bright blue fabric. Lee could see the top of Peggy Phillips' silvery blond head toward the front of the bus, laughing and chatting cheerfully as the bus swerved, pushing her into the crowd nearby.

In the short walk from the terminal, Lee had been struck by a blast of hot air, waves of it radiating up from the pavement, mingling with the exhaust from the bus. Like the terminal, the bus itself was freezing, providing welcome if disorienting relief from the weather outside.

Despite the emotional distance he felt from the people surrounding him on the bus, Lee Addison knew full well that his own DNA carried the markers of Riverton, Arkansas, just as surely as theirs. Home. Founded in the early 1800s by Scots-Irish immigrant farmers, its laws and morals had been shaped by several generations of Lee's ancestors, itinerant circuit riders who practiced both law and ministry and kept the moral compass correctly aligned in that corner of the state. During his youth, Lee's maternal grandfather Corky Dawkins had been an eloquent, highly regarded superior court judge, active in politics and civic affairs, bequeathing to the Addisons a respectable position in the community even after the divorce of Lee's parents.

Coming from the Bay Area where airports were filled with people of diverse origin speaking languages from all over the globe, the median skin color like a double latte, Lee was struck by the starkly different mix of people on the shuttle. About half the passengers were black and, from what he could tell, a group of them had travelled en masse from LA to a reunion at Dunbar High School. Several were wearing sweatshirts touting the now-defunct black high school's historic football prowess. They laughed and chatted in a tone of voice several decibels higher than anybody else on the bus.

Where Peggy stood, the travelers were white, their faded blue jeans cinched below portly bellies, their speech nasal and flat, sounding to Lee's ear more like East Texas twang than the soft aristocratic accent he remembered from his childhood, a legacy to the South from the Protestant farmers who immigrated from Northern Ireland in the 1800s.

As they boarded the small aircraft, two seats abreast on the right, one on the left, the entrance was clogged because two passengers near the middle of the plane had been issued identical boarding passes. Ensconced in the disputed seat was a wiry, dark woman of indeterminate age, dressed in her Sunday best and clearly uneasy to be travelling alone by plane. Bright eyes shone from a wrinkled blue-black face topped with a red and silver hat worn at a jaunty angle. The matching floral red-belted dress, though frayed, was immaculately cleaned and pressed. She occupied the window seat on the right and Peggy Phillips had taken the seat next to her on the aisle. A ruddy, heavy-set young man with uncombed hair and faded jeans thinning at the knee was leaning across Peggy to demonstrate to the lady that she was in his assigned seat. Rattled by the encounter, the lady could not locate her ticket, already stowed in the carry-on luggage under the seat. Peggy looked at the proffered ticket and turned to her.

"He's right, ma'am. You're in the wrong seat. You need to go back to the front of the plane and talk to the flight attendant."

Disturbed by the implied accusation, the passenger scrambled to gather her belongings from under the seat and from the overhead bin, slowing the boarding process as she made her way to the front of the plane. By the time she reached the flight attendant, her travel dress was darkening under the arms and she looked disoriented as she tried to understand what had gone wrong.

Lee had taken his assigned window seat near the front of the plane and was looking forward to identifying familiar landmarks as they approached Riverton. Just before the announcement was made to prepare for departure, the deposed passenger, red hat ajar and luggage dragging, was escorted by the flight attendant to the empty place beside him. The overhead bins were now full so her suitcase was taken off to be gate checked. Lee helped her stow her personal items.

Her hands were shaking as she tried to fasten the seat belt.

"They always seem to overbook planes these days," Lee said. "Travelling has gotten to be harder and harder."

"Sho is. Mmmmm Hmmmm." She pulled a lace handkerchief out of her purse and mopped her brow.

"Is Riverton home for you?" Lee asked.

"Yes sir. Born and raised. My name's Lovey. I been livin' with my daughter and her children in Dallas, but I got some family problems back home. So I'm comin' back to Riverton for a while. My granddaughter there, she's havin' a hard time. She lost her boy in a drowning accident. Don't seem to have no heart for the other children."