The Observer got up to Vilonia and Mayflower on Monday. We got as close to those towns as we could, which wasn't all that close, and we Observed.
You go to see a thing. That is the job. You try to make sense of it on paper, if not in your own head, so others can make sense of it. You employ the oldest, best advice: The Bigger and More Terrible Something Is, the Tighter Your Focus Should Be. It's the only way to feel it. It's the only way to distill the scope of it: not aerial photos of destruction, but hairbrushes, splintered wood, packets of Christmas cards, baby shoes knotted carefully together, books and DVDs and bottles of dog shampoo, a shattered car with A Precise Concordance of the New Testament untouched on the back seat, a broken sink where someone brushed their teeth just that morning, T-shirts and blue jeans and chunks of barn tin crumpled so artfully that they could be displayed as masterpieces in any gallery in the world. You get down in the mud and push the tragedy of it along with the tip of your nose. You walk that strip of the earth that had people and homes on it, all scrubbed out by chaos, a butterfly having flapped her wings in Fiji with just the right velocity and angle to send a tiny vortex spinning, bigger, growing, until it wound up here, big enough finally to sweep someone's toaster and mattress and baby book and dog leash and cabinet door up into the clouds to deposit it by the side of the freeway, a hundred yards or a thousand from where they started.
With a fire, things are destroyed — sooted, warped, burned to ash and lost. The frustrating thing here, though, is that so much of what's left looks almost useful. Cars sitting on their wheels that look fine until you look closer and realize that God has coughed and blown out all their windows, fenders and doors rippled with a thousand pin-prick hits of flying nails and splinters of wood; clothes that look fine until you look closer and see they're shot through with holes, as if moths have been at them; 2x4 studs that look as if they could be cleaned and reused, until you look closer and see the hairline cracks born of titanic force, rending the fibers.
The Big Picture is easy. The Big Picture looks like a few weeks with trash bags and skidloaders piloted by the National Guard, and it'll be right as rum. Focus, on the other hand, is hard. Focus is heartbreaking. In the absence of an owner, for instance, who will decide what is lost and what is found, what is salvageable and what is irreparable? A home is full of things that mean nothing except to the people who live there. How many dreams will be carted off to the dump or burned in great bonfires by the side of the road in coming days? How many more dead lie in the rubble? How many are maimed? How many will never sleep again through a night rattled by thunder? How many will lie awake when rain hits the windows years from now and imagine that swirling black tree of horrors bearing down on them again? Who, dear Lord, can say?
Corrections are warranted, and a particularly embarrassing one in this case: Last week was Pub or Perish, the lively and well-attended bar reading this Observer has hosted for lo these many years on the Saturday of the Arkansas Literary Festival. T'was a hoot, and thanks for asking. If you missed it, you definitely missed a good time.
The correction is, we somehow became convinced that this year was the 11th year for Pub or Perish, instead of the 10th. We wrote a piece on PoP for the Times under the spell of that confusion, and went so far as to personally pen an ad which triumphantly proclaimed 2014 our XI Year! using the Roman numeral, which looks much classier than plain ol' 11 in our experience. Alas, we were wrong, possibly because we hate Big Anniversaries (5! 10! 15!) so much that we were trying to speed the plow. Apologies, and here's hoping you never have a job where you have to print all your screw-ups in a box on the second page of the newspaper.