Larry Brody: Live! From Paradise! #42 – “The Angel of Arkansas”

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THE USUAL NOTE FROM LB: From the summer of 2002 to  the spring of 2010, Gwen the Beautiful and I were the proud and often exhausted owners of a beautiful Ozarks property we called Cloud Creek Ranch.

In many ways, the ranch was paradise. But it was a paradise with a price that started going up before we even knew it existed. Here’s another Monday musing about our adventure and the lessons we learned.

Oh, and if y’all detect any irony, please believe me when I say it comes straight from the universe and not your kindly Uncle Larry B.

by Larry Brody

I spent last night in Conway, at the home of Wanda Fincher, the Angel of Arkansas.

If ever a human being deserved sainthood, it’s Wanda, who would go to her death denying she deserved any honors not bestowed on everyone else.

From the very first time this tall, dark-haired, string bean of a gal wrapped her strong arms around me and gave me a typical Wanda hello I knew I was in the presence of someone special.

Raised as an orphan in the little town of Walnut Ridge, for a while Wanda took the last name of her first husband—Lovelady—and being a loving lady is what she’s all about.

The calling that took her out of Walnut Ridge was nursing. Wanda became an Air Force nurse. She’s divorced now. Never had any children. But Wanda’s raised zillions of foster kids.

Not official ones, that the county gives you. Unofficial sons and daughters. Drop-offs from shamed mothers. Babysitting jobs that ran years instead of hours.

She adopts adults as well. Through her church, Wanda became involved in an outreach program for convicts, and countless parolees have lived on her big lakeside property. Just as she’s cared for the abandoned children, so Wanda has watched over these troubled grown-ups. She’s gotten them jobs and, several times, spouses as well.

Wanda has never met anyone she didn’t love in the best way, and if you love people you’ve got to help them, right?

Need money but can’t go to the bank because your credit’s deader than a flattened rabbit? Have a drug habit you can’t shake? In pain over abuse you were afraid to report?

All you’ve got to do is run into Wanda somewhere, and the minute she finds out your problem she does what she’s got to do. Often without you even knowing.

When Gwen the Beautiful first went blind, Wanda was at our ranch every week, bringing us the next week’s worth of meals and cleaning our house.

She brought a gardener too, and plants from a nursery owned by a couple she helped get started. Why, she even tried to get Chet the Unhandyman a job!

Wanda’s not just a goody-goody. She’s smart and funny and does the kind of physical comedy that could’ve made her the Lucille Ball of the South. Why tell a story when she can act it out?

Which isn’t to say that she’s a quiet woman. Wanda knows how to talk, all right. Even Robin Williams would have to let her have the floor.

What brought me to Wanda’s last night was her standing offer of the finest in hospitality. I’d dropped Gwen off in Hot Springs for a weekend with some old friends, and just couldn’t stand the thought of the long, lonely drive home.

It was a typical Wanda evening. We had dinner with her two nieces, Sarah and Charla, who live in Wanda’s guest house while they’re going to college in town. And with her next door neighbor, Ashley.

And her best buddy Freddie and Freddie’s teenage son. And another buddy, Linda the Private Detective.

Oh, and another friend, David, who mistakenly thought this was Bible study night, but stayed for the laughter and the eats.

And there was a lot of laughter.

Especially when Gwen called and Wanda told her, “You can be proud of your husband, lady. He’s here with five women, and hasn’t hardly laid a finger on one. ‘Course the other four’re powerful tired…”

But this morning when I was leaving, Wanda looked troubled.

“Lordy,” she said. “I’ve got all these ideas. Half-written books. But the only writing I’ve been able to finish was writing I did for other people. People who’re famous authors. While I’m just the ol’ gal from Walnut Creek.

“Sometimes,” she said, “it breaks my heart, to not be known as the writer I am.”

Then she shook it off. “But not now! Lordy, not now!” and with a hug and a little kiss she pushed me into my truck.

As I drove home I thought about what Wanda had said, and how much I disagreed. She’s every bit as good with words as those people she worked for. And, books or no books, everyone who knows her—including Almighty God—knows what a brilliant author Wanda Fincher is.

We know it by the way—every moment of every day—the energy-filled Angel of Arkansas writes her loving, giving, hilarious, and utterly bodacious life.

Larry Brody: Live! From Paradise! #41 – “The Ghost Dog”

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THE USUAL NOTE FROM LB: From the summer of 2002 to  the spring of 2010, Gwen the Beautiful and I were the proud and often exhausted owners of a beautiful Ozarks property we called Cloud Creek Ranch.

In many ways, the ranch was paradise. But it was a paradise with a price that started going up before we even knew it existed. Here’s another Monday musing about our adventure and the lessons we learned.

Oh, and if y’all detect any irony, please believe me when I say it comes straight from the universe and not your kindly Uncle Larry B.

by Larry Brody

I’ve written before about the fact that the original owners of our ranch sold it to us at a more than fair price because they thought the house and land were haunted.

Gwen the Beautiful and I have seen and heard many signs of spirits during our time here. Old men. Singing divas. Wisps in the night. This week, after living on the property for almost two years, Chet the Unhandyman joined the club.

He saw a Ghost Dog.

Chet’s a catnapping kind of guy. Doesn’t sleep more than a few hours at a time. Four in the morning is a common wake-up time for him.

Usually it’s no big deal. But for the past several nights, when Chet looked out the window of his bedroom in our old singlewide he’s seen one of our dogs lying near the center of the clearing.

Not just anywhere near the center but at the highest part of what we call, for lack of a better word, the “Mound.”

The Mound is a pitcher’s mound sized area where nothing grows. It’s the very top of our Mountain and looks suspiciously like all the mounds in the Southwest that cover ancient ruins before they’re excavated. I’ve always wanted to dig it out, but good sense and the cost of renting a backhoe have prevented that.

Now, the problem with Chet seeing one of our dogs out there is this: It’s impossible.

Under our current living arrangements, Emmy the Bold AKA the Itty Bitty Pitty Mom, sleeps on the bed with Gwen and me, Tiger the Troublemaker sleeps tethered on the front porch, and Decker and Belle sleep in a fenced dog yard nearby. Not one of those dogs can be the one sleeping on the Mound.

But Chet insists he’s looked out at one. Says it’s caramel-colored and short-haired and the general size and shape of Emmy’s kids. Sometimes the dog looks over at him. Sometimes it rolls around. Sometimes it stretches in its sleep.

And none of the other dogs barks at it, he says, “like it’s not even there.”

Well, when you’re living on a haunted ranch, that “like it’s not there” thing rings a bell.

Three years ago, Emmy gave birth to twelve puppies. Emmy refused to nurse one of them. Pushed it away. That puppy died the second night. I discovered it in the morning, while mother and children were napping and quietly put it outside, in the trash.

When Emmy woke up, she looked at her pups…and started to howl. She went to the door to be let out and looked for her missing pup all around the clearing. Under every building. In every hidey-hole.

She went out looking three or four times a day every day for weeks. Continued her search at longer intervals over the next several months.

At birth, that puppy was caramel-colored and short–haired, and if it had lived it would’ve been the general size and shape of what Chet’s been seeing.

I’m fascinated by the idea that Emmy’s Lost Puppy has returned to its pack.

I’m fascinated by the idea of a Ghost Dog sleeping in front of our cabin every night, atop what I like to think of as our Mystery Mound.

And I’m more than fascinated by the idea of learning more about the Ghost Dog. What, after all, could be more exciting than getting to know the Ghost Dog as it seems to want to know us?

Tonight I’m setting my internal alarm clock for four a.m. I’m getting up and going outside to see if I can spot what Chet’s been seeing. To get as close to it as possible. To learn the truth.

I’ll bring my camera and see what happens when I snap some pix. Maybe I’ll bring my spotlight in case something goes wrong and I need to flood the Mound with a million megabeams of light to save myself from a dangerous, ghostly monster by forcing it to disappear.

Who says mystics can’t be scientists too? Or that I can’t have as much fun as an adult as I did when I was an eight-year-old believing a towel safety-pinned around my neck was a cape, and that I was flying so high my parents couldn’t see what I was up to no matter how much their necks craned?

If you don’t hear from me for awhile, blame the Ghost Dog.

Or Chet’s imagination.

Or mine.

Larry Brody: Live! From Paradise! #40 – “I’ve Become My Father”

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THE USUAL NOTE FROM LB: From the summer of 2002 to  the spring of 2010, Gwen the Beautiful and I were the proud and often exhausted owners of a beautiful Ozarks property we called Cloud Creek Ranch.

In many ways, the ranch was paradise. But it was a paradise with a price that started going up before we even knew it existed. Here’s another Monday musing about our adventure and the lessons we learned.

Oh, and if y’all detect any irony, please believe me when I say it comes straight from the universe and not your kindly Uncle Larry B.

by Larry Brody

I’ve got to admit to not knowing nearly as much as I want to about most things.

How and why our politicians do what they do is a mystery. Ditto why women always ask men who love them questions we don’t dare answer. And why men always try to answer them anyway is another big unknown.

There’s one thing, however, that I thought I had nailed. I figured I knew myself pretty well. So I was shocked yesterday when I discovered something completely new—and at Wal-Mart, of all places.

Where I looked into the mirror in the men’s room. And saw my father looking back.

There he was. Leonard Aaron Brody, who died in 1994 at the age of 72. Of lung cancer, after having smoked at least two packs of cigarettes every day of his life since he was 12. (My mother died three months later at the same age and of the same thing. They’d done everything together for sixty years.)

I know many people who’ve found themselves turning into one parent or another as they got older, and they’ve taken it in stride, but I was totally thrown by this whole thing. Because since adolescence I’ve tried as hard as I could to be nothing like my old man.

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t hate my father. (I keep wanting to write, “my dad” but I’ve never once regarded him that way) My problem is that although he was always physically present he and I never connected.

We were so far apart that even now, when people ask me about him, I always say, “My father was a very quiet man. In my whole life I don’t think I heard him speak more than a total of twenty minutes.” It’s not literally true, but the situation sure felt that way.

I’ve been told that Leonard A. Brody was a very intelligent man, but I never saw him demonstrate that. He was a handsome boy in a family with four older sisters who in his youth coddled and protected and did for him. A job my mother took on when he and she married.

My father never finished college. When I asked him what he’d dreamed of being he said, simply, “Employed.” But he never held onto a job either.

When I was a teenager he opened his own business with one of my uncles. Their partnership ended when Uncle Morrie punched out my father at a family gathering, for reasons no one understood.

My mother loved my father, but he didn’t communicate much with her either. Theirs was a relationship of silences and looks.

I wanted to know what my father felt. What he thought. When I became an adult I’d say to him, “Who are you? Let’s spend some time together. Why won’t you talk?”

And he’d say, “I’m me,” and when we did spend time together he’d pick up the newspaper and read to himself until I left.

When my father died, his funeral bulged with a couple of hundred mourners. But no one stood up and spoke.

I didn’t either. I had nothing to say.

After the funeral not one person who came to my mother’s house had any stories or reminiscences about the deceased other than, “He was such a nice guy.”

I figured the only reason there’d been such a big attendance was because people liked my mother and were showing their respect for her. But when she died no one but the immediate family came to her service.

So it wasn’t about her. It was about him. But why?

Here I am, living as publicly as possible and writing about all I do so my children and the readers of this paper—and just about everyone else who might care—won’t wonder who I was. So they’ll know me and understand.

And then yesterday I looked into a mirror and saw my mysterious father instead of myself, the way he looked when he was my age.

In spite of all my efforts, he’s won. I’m him, in a way I should’ve expected but never did.

I moped around about this all day. But as I write I feel full of hope. Because I’m thinking maybe now that I’ve become the man others called “Len,” I’ll understand him.

And if I can do that, then maybe someday I’ll finally be able to think of my father as “Dad.”

Larry Brody: Live! From Paradise! #39 – “Yesterday’s Lovers”

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THE USUAL NOTE FROM LB: From the summer of 2002 to  the spring of 2010, Gwen the Beautiful and I were the proud and often exhausted owners of a beautiful Ozarks property we called Cloud Creek Ranch.

In many ways, the ranch was paradise. But it was a paradise with a price that started going up before we even knew it existed. Here’s another Monday musing about our adventure and the lessons we learned.

Oh, and if y’all detect any irony, please believe me when I say it comes straight from the universe and not your kindly Uncle Larry B.

by Larry Brody

Last week’s column about Burl Jr.’s pursuit of love started me thinking about what might’ve happened if he hadn’t followed his heart. If he’d stayed put and married Ashley. And that started me musing about all the men I know who’re pining over women they let get away.

Paulie, my old friend from high school, told me one day—on the eve of our fortieth reunion!—that a week doesn’t go by when he doesn’t wonder about his high school girlfriend, Lois, and what’s going on in her life. Did Paulie go to the reunion to find out? He did not. “I remember her exactly the way she was when we were eighteen,” he said. “Why would I want to ruin that?”

Keith, who I’ve known since we were college roommates, and whom I still talk to once a week, often brings up Suzanne, his girlfriend back in the day. “I love my wife,” Keith always says as he turns to this topic—which is how I know that’s where he’s going—“but I lie there in bed with her and think of how Suzanne felt in my arms. And I wish I was holding her again instead.”

Then there’s Stan. He’s a successful guy. Turned his parents’ record store into a big record company specializing in reissuing oldies but goodies. I’ve known Stan for over twenty years. For the last ten of those years he’s been happily married to Sylvie, a beautiful woman who’s borne him child after child. I think they’re on number six right now.

But one night, while the happy couple was visiting Gwen the Beautiful and me here on the Mountain, Stan confided that, “There hasn’t been a day since we broke up that I don’t think of that crazy lady I dated right before Sylvie. I keep wondering what would’ve happened if we’d stayed together. If I would’ve been even happier than I am now.”

Paulie, Keith, and Stan are the tip of the iceberg. I’ve been shocked by how many of my friends say to me, on the one hand, “I know I made the right choice with my life. This is the best relationship I’ve ever had…” and, on the other, “Remember Marcia, that girl I brought over to your house for dinner fifteen years ago? I tried looking her up on the web last night. I think I found her, but I’m not sure.”

I don’t know what kind of response these friends want from me when they say these things, but usually the rest of the conversation goes something like this:

“Why?” I say.

“Why aren’t I sure? Because I found thirteen different women with that same name.”

“No,” I say. “Why did you look her up on the web?”

“How could I not look her up?” my friend will say. “I had to. I see her face in front of me everyday. I hear her voice in my head. I have to be with her again. I’ll go nuts if I’m not!”

But they never are with them again. Even when they get the information they want. “I’ve got Suzanne’s e-mail address now,” Keith said to me the other day. “I can say hi and tell her how much I miss her whenever I want.”

“And when’ll that be?” I said.

“When I need to,” Keith said. “The important thing isn’t talking to her. It’s being able to talk to her. It’s knowing she’s there.”

One thing my old friends have in common is that they’re all city boys. Now that I’m not so citified anymore I figured it was important for me to learn if the country boys of Paradise felt the same way.

I rounded up the usual suspects, asking Brannigan the Contractor, Dwayne the Earth Mover, and Buck the Ex-Navy Seal if they had ex-girlfriends they were dying to get in touch with again.

“Absolutely not!” roared Brannigan.

“Not a’tall!” announced Dwayne.

“No way!” averred Buck.

As usual, Buck set me straight: “I grew up in this town. All my ex-girlfriends are from here. And they’re still here. Why would I be wondering about somebody I can see every time I set foot on Old Main?”

And there we have it. It’s not love or loss that drives the city boys’ hearts. It’s mystery, pure and simple. And while Paradise has its share of mysteries, what yesterday’s lovers are doing today isn’t one of them.

Larry Brody: Live! From Paradise! #38 – “The Power”

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THE USUAL NOTE FROM LB: From the summer of 2002 to  the spring of 2010, Gwen the Beautiful and I were the proud and often exhausted owners of a beautiful Ozarks property we called Cloud Creek Ranch.

In many ways, the ranch was paradise. But it was a paradise with a price that started going up before we even knew it existed. Here’s another Monday musing about our adventure and the lessons we learned.

Oh, and if y’all detect any irony, please believe me when I say it comes straight from the universe and not your kindly Uncle Larry B.

by Larry Brody

Anyone who thinks words don’t have power doesn’t understand human beings.

This morning I drove into Paradise to the Appliance Shop. The glass on our oven door had cracked, and Billy from Abilene had ordered another. When I arrived to pick it up the door was locked. I knocked, and Billy let me in.

“Sorry,” he said. “We’re kinda unorganized today.”

“You’re unorganized,” Burl Jr. said, coming out of the back room carrying a big suitcase. “I’m just fine.”

I like Burl Jr. He’s 21 years old and has been Billy’s assistant forever. He’s quiet with most people, a terrific guitarist, and as smart as they come. His father’s a small farmer, but Burl Jr. knows so much about electronics that he was offered a top paying job before his college graduation ceremony was over

“He turned down the job,” Billy said. “He’s leaving town!”

“I thought you just got back from a trip,” I said to Burl Jr.

“He went to Virginia with Ashley, his girlfriend,” Billy from Abilene said. “They were announcing their engagement. Ha!”

Burl Jr. looked embarrassed. “He doesn’t get it. Nobody gets it.”

“Gets what?” I said.

Burl Jr. took a deep breath. “Ashley and I drove to Bristol, where her grandmother lives. Everything went fine till we stopped at a restaurant. The Golden Corral.

“There was this waitress. Her name tag said she was Brittany, and she’s the most gorgeous girl I ever saw. A tiny little thing with long, dark hair and this shy smile…”

Burl Jr.’s eyes glazed over. “I was a total doofus. Could hardly give my order. All I could do was stare.

“Ashley asked how Brittany liked her job. Brittany said she liked talking to people from all over the country. Especially when they told her about where they lived because she’d never been anywhere. Never left Bristol. Not even for a day.

“By the time we finished lunch we pretty much knew her life story. She’s nineteen. She dropped out of high school because she was pregnant. She never married the father. And she and her daughter live with Brittany’s parents. She doesn’t like it there.

“The whole time Brittany was talking,” said Burl Jr., “she was looking at me. I was scared to death of meeting her eyes, but couldn’t turn away. Ever had that happen with a woman?”

“Yes,” I said. “When I first saw Gwen. I called it love.”

Burl Jr. nodded. “I left a $20 tip, and while Ashley and I were getting into the car Brittany came running out to the parking lot with my $20 bill saying, ‘Sir! You made a mistake! You left me too much!’

“I said that’s what I wanted her to have. So she could leave Bristol someday.

She looked like she was gonna cry, and she leaned toward me like—well, like she was going to kiss me. But instead she ran back inside.

“Ashley didn’t talk to me the whole rest of the day. We’ve been home two days, and she’s barely talking to me now. Me, I’m still thinking about Brittany. Maybe I’m crazy, but I can’t let that be all there is of her in my life.

“Soon as my car’s packed up I’m bee-lining it back to Bristol. I’m going straight to the Golden Corral. And the way my life’s going to be is, either I’m going to stay in that town with her and her little girl forever, or I’m going to bring them here to be with me till I die.”

Burl Jr. carried his suitcase from the shop to his car. I stayed with him. All I could say was, “Are you sure—absolutely certain—this is the right thing?”

Burl Jr. put his suitcase into the trunk. “I know it’s right,” he said. “Because the man I respect more than anyone else in the world told me this is what I’ve got to do.”

“Your dad told you that?”

“No, sir,” said Burl Jr. “The man who one day about a year ago wrote this down and stuck it to my chest while I was talking about what I wanted in my future.”

Burl Jr. dug a crumpled purple stick-it from his pants pocket. Placed it in my hand. “I’ve been walking around with this ever since.”

I looked down at the note.

“Don’t you dare not go for your dream,” it said. And it was signed:

“Larry B.”

Words. Choose them carefully. They’ve got real power.