The Observer went down to England, Ark., the other day to watch some people try to find a body.
The Missing Man in question was Little Rock businessman John Glasgow, who disappeared as if he'd ascended to heaven in 2008. His car was found up on Petit Jean, wiped down. Beyond that, nary a trace of him has been discovered. A few weeks back, a jail inmate in Faulkner County told the cops that Glasgow was buried in a field near the unsurprisingly muddy Clear Lake, just off Highway 161. We heard they were running ground-penetrating radar down there last week, so off we went.
Half The Observer's genes come straight out of the fields around England, our dear old Daddy's half. His people were all from that flat and windy place, where — my father's stories went — they existed almost entirely on picking cotton and mink hunting. How hard was it to survive in the Arkansas River bottoms back in those days? Here's how hard: In the 'teens, my father's people had a champeen mink dog named Sleepy whose name is still sung. Sleepy fed whole families with her nose and sheer hatred for mink. Believers in the power of genetics, my kin desperately needed an heir as Sleepy's days on earth grew short, but she was a secretive dog who always hid when it came time to birth her puppies. Worse, she would grimly kill and devour every puppy born to her. It was a great day, however, when one of my kin found her in a thicket and snatched the last, lone runt from her jaws, the scar from his mother's bite christening the pup Old Sunkins for the rest of his days. Sleepy died soon after, and Sunkins never was worth a damn at hunting. So began the time of misery and want that only ended when The Observer's tribe was flushed out by the Great Flood of 1927 and sent into exile in Little Rock.
Here's the point: You know a family is poor if they hand down stories about hunting dogs. A story like that speaks to desperation. A story like that speaks to living life on the frayed hem of existence. The Observer thought about all this as we stood at the edge of the field, watching the folks from the Arkansas Archeological Survey pace back and forth with a three-wheeled sensing unit, trying to conjure a ghost out of the earth. If not for the houses 75 yards away, where people would have surely noticed a backhoe burying a body, we might have been able to believe that The Missing Man was down there. Just as we'd suspected, though, the results of the scan and a day of digging turned up nothing. Driving back that day, we looked at the winter-fallow fields scrolling past, and thought of our father. Somewhere around there is the forest that my dad called The Willie Bell Woods in his hand-me-down stories: a great and swampy thicket of cypress, several miles square. It might be gone now for all we know, but it lives on in my mind. The Observer is a fiction writer, and The Willie Bell Woods often make an appearance in our own tales: a place of spirits and mystery.
Once, as a boy, dad told us a story about a phantom house he and his brothers came upon while hunting and lost in those woods: a fine and perfectly-preserved two-story house with no road going to it, looming up out of the darkness in the yellow light of their coon-hunting lamps. Inside: ancient cans in the cabinets, made beds, a slate pool table, chairs, tables, oriental rugs, books, the glass-eyed head of a record buck on the wall over the fireplace, forks and spoons in the drawers, all of it covered in a thick and undisturbed layer of gray dust. They stayed there awhile, waiting for the rain to stop, then trudged on and finally found civilization. The next day, in daylight, he said they tried to backtrack and find the house again in order to make off with some of the abandoned treasures inside. He claimed they found the trail, even found the fallen log where they scraped their boots before going inside. The house, however, was gone. Nothing left behind, he said, but an empty clearing. Probably just a story. Probably just something he told a boy to give him a chill. Driving back from England, though, we managed to give our self a new flash of goose bumps thinking of The Missing Man in that Missing House, shooting pool while old Sleepy dozes on the rug before the fire, the two of them lost together deep in the heart of the haunted woods.
A man wouldn't be the first thing to go missing in those parts, we thought. Not by a long shot.