please don't


by Matt Baker

The town I come from is a little thing called Sparkling in southeastern Arkansas. It’s a town of many faiths. It says so right when you enter the city limits. A big sign reads, "Welcome to Sparkling. A Town of Many Faiths." Of course, by many faiths they mean that Baptists and Methodists co-mingle in squeaky harmony. If Palestine and Israel needed a damn model for peace then Sparkling, Arkansas would be the place. If it were my town I’d change the sign to, "Jesus Isn’t the Way. Jesus Gets in the Way."

But I don’t live here anymore. I get back when I have to for funerals, illnesses, court appearances, things like that. I’d rather not be burdened by these trips which are made all the more exhausting since my father used to be mayor of the town. This place has whittled down to less than a thousand people, which is fine by me. Some of the town’s folks have hired a by-the-hour lobbyist to help their cause of siphoning tax dollars to Sparkling in order to rebuild the city that has managed to retain the luster of cigarette ash. Something special happened in our town many years ago. And because of that they think it’s worth building a museum and polishing things up a bit, enough to keep the town around. I’m here to make sure that doesn’t happen.

I think this place should disappear.

That’s me. I’m not everybody. I’m the only person in the world who thought Kerri Strug was faking it when she landed her final vault in the 1996 Olympics, hopping on her one golden ankle. I called bullshit.

I think the term "hard-working Americans" is fiction; just complete arrogance and nothing more than a belly rub to keep us content with our delusions. It’s also an effective phrase in the selling of trucks—an advertising and marketing cue for us to get up off our asses and go buy something.

I think people who talk on their cell phones while they drive should face mandatory six-month jail terms for their first offense. After that, send them to the big house, five year minimum. Drugs should be legal. Alcohol should be illegal. Cigarettes need to be taxed. Fast food heavily taxed. Professional sports should be kept off limits from the general public, let the rich and richest build tall gates around their very own modern day gladiatorial showcases.

I represent people with unpopular causes, cases and beliefs. I represent the people who want New Orleans to drown, those who want inconvenience instead of convenience. Convenience has turned us into a divergent branch of homo sapiens which I’ve aptly labeled—circusius sealius, or the common circus seal, flapping our fins for another fishy for our fat bodies.

What happened in Sparkling that was so special was that a rice farm in town was the site of the very first American crop of white rice that was trucked up to St. Louis and used to make Budweiser beer. This is the historical significance given to establish the first and only rice museum in the state. I’ve been sent down by Move On, not to be confused with Move On dot Org, but simply Move On. I’m prepared to do battle, Civil War style, with the Past Farmers of America. These old-timers who think nothing could be better than preserving as a tourist destination the precious field that first sprouted the rice used to make a beverage which helps to kill more than 100,000 of our population every year. Maybe 100,000 isn’t a lot. But 3,000 dead on September 11th was enough to go to war. You tell me.

Move On’s position is simple: This is a complete waste of taxpayer money. Past Farmers of America maintains that history needs to preserved, cherished and taught to future generations. Move On’s position—which is mine, by the way—is that it’s time to move on. And frankly, who the fuck cares about rice?

I don’t believe in anything. I have no hope for the air quality and other pollutants. I have no hope for mankind. Earth, now there’s something that will persevere contrary to popular sentiment. We’re going to save it, supposedly. I’m not a fan of popular beliefs. They’re wrong, inaccurate or slippery with greed 99% of the time.

I’m appearing in court tomorrow. Well, not court, per se, but a city meeting, a hearing of some format where my objections will be heard publicly. There’ll be stenographers and minutes taken and we have to swear on the bible, I’ve been told. I’m not sure if this follows municipal procedure but what do I care about swearing on a book? It means nothing. Just like everything else, you’ll see. You don’t believe me? You will one day. You all will. You’ll watch your last breath sail from your lips and it’ll crack open and the hollowness will be exposed—just in time, for you, for me, for everybody.

I grew up in the church. Every Sunday and some Wednesdays we attended service. Sunday school too. I was frequently kicked out or asked to leave. In the hallway I’d do full speed sprints from end to end while everyone else bowed over their thick books with small letters on flimsy paper, sucking in every word. The worst spanking I ever received was after my father told me that Jesus’s love allows us to live forever and I said, "You believe that shit?" The scar remains, I tell you. It hurt. Back then—maybe still?—you could beat your wife or kids once a year with a stick no bigger than the circumference of your thumb. My father’s thumb was rather plump.

I check into the Uptown Motel, the same one that’s been here for forty years, maybe longer. Fifty years? I do the math in my head when someone clears their throat and I realize someone is waiting behind me. A line? At the Uptown Motel. Incredible.

The key works, the bed’s made, the TV turns on. Twenty-five years ago I brought my first wife, Kim, here on our third date. She thought it odd that a quiet night in front of the television with a couple of Bomb Pops meant a television at the Uptown Motel. I said I was always full of surprises, that was my shtick. She said, "What’s a stick?" I watched her work that Bomb Pop all the way down to the wood. Take it slow, she said. I never take anything slow, I said.

I’ve always moved faster than the folks in this town. When I left twenty-five years ago there were 2,900 total. Now, less than a thousand. Numbers, they’re so simple, higher, lower, more, less, the most, the least. Their categories always fit somewhere. My father, Mayor Milligan, he was called, wanted the population to get over 5,000. That was his goal even if it meant letting plastics factories set up with tax-free initiatives and allowing them to dump their toxic crude into our soil. Those companies used up Sparkling like a twenty-dollar whore and left us crying each time; leaving nothing behind, only stench and stains that never went away.

I’ve got my statement prepared. I’ve got my cigarettes. The world’s last proud smoker. I’m truly satisfied with the product. That’s why I continue to indulge. I like to light up in crowds. I like to blow smoke into people’s faces and watch them keel over with fright. I have few friends. I never have. I’ve had a few wives. Three, I think. Maybe four, but I don’t think a marriage that lasted 26 days really counts. That was in my late 20’s. I’d discovered meth. I did a lot of it. Then I discovered my wife had left. I discovered that I’d been fired two months after the fact. It reminds me of the old Robin Williams cocaine joke from the 1980s about how if you go home and find all your furniture gone and your cat says, "I’m outta here prick," then you might have a problem. Well, I didn’t need a talking cat to tell me I had a problem. The judge, oh, a blessed soul, so gentle and pure—judges are angelic, aren’t they? He stuck my ass in a rehabilitative center then a rehabilitative community after getting busted for possession. I was very lucky, he told me. For some odd reason I hear more talk about luck in courtrooms than anywhere else in my life. Judges love to tell defendants how lucky they are. When it was my time to face the force of the law the judge told me that normally I’d be sent to prison. I was lucky. But one more possession arrest and I’d go definitely to prison, three to five years. I argued vehemently, for possession? Are you kidding me? The judge just looked at me in that indifferent tired way of old judges, "Does it look like I’m kidding, Mr. Milligan?"

The community rehabilitation was the worst. Living with thirty deadbeats, repeat offenders, burnouts and other losers like me. That is not a good way to get healthy, to get positive and refocused. You need to surround yourself with success. Their endless enthusiasm for hollow hope and higher powers drove me to the edge. Suicide watch. Around the clock observation. But I followed the rules and got it struck from my record. I’m still a lawyer!

At my father’s funeral there was plenty of singing and joke telling. An Irish wake, drunkenness and funny stories. I was sober then, so I didn’t partake in the festivities in the same way everyone else did. I was lonely. My father had died. I wasn’t prepared for this. A heart attack—the classic premature death. He was 62. That’s young. I was thirty-five. That was ten years ago. The phone rang at 3:19am and I knew that a message from death was coming my way. I picked up the phone and didn’t say hello for the longest time. Only the voice, the voice of my sister, "He’s gone."

I said, "Is he coming back?”

My sister said, "I doubt it."

The sun always shines in Sparkling. It leads me to believe that the founders of the town noted this particular fact too and hence the name Sparkling was born. But instead of being the town that always shines, we’re the town of many faiths.

Sometimes I take on cases for personal reasons when I have a strong motivation. For example, I took on the makers of the sleep aid Ambien when I was personally affected by this drug in an adverse way. Several years ago after complaining to my doctor that I wasn’t sleeping very well he interrupted me before I was finished and wrote me a prescription for Ambien. He failed to warn me of any side effects and I downed a pill while in Kansas City on business and chased it with a Dr. Pepper and ice cubes I splashed together, thinking this would ooze me into a fitful sleep. Instead I came to with me and my rental Buick floating in the J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain. Luckily it was 2am and I hadn’t hurt anyone. But I was arrested for driving under the influence of a controlled substance. I said, "What the hell happened?" The cop said, "Welcome to the City of Fountains." The charges were later dropped once they were able to positively confirm that I had an authorized prescription for the Ambien. It took a week.

Breakfast is had at the Corner Café, as subtle a name you could ever think up for such a place. I pour Louisiana hot sauce by the spoonful on my eggs and drink coffee faster than my bladder can keep up. I’m charged up and ready to say my bit. To fight, to stand up, to repeal this insane effort to waste money.

If you want a label I’m not going to give you one but I’m probably somewhere in the middle like most people. Those who affirm to the liberal or conservative label give too much of a shit about their own backyards for my tastes. It smells rotten like something’s died and ain’t coming back.

There’s no traffic. No one has anywhere to go. I’m somewhat nervous. It’s normal. I’m not naturally bold. I’m prone to tears especially if it involves children. I don’t have any kids for that very reason. My heart’s too big. I wouldn’t be able to keep it together. I’d worry. I don’t worry about myself. I never have. It’s everybody else I care about. It’s a paradox. It’s because I’ve come to something that is rare and I cherish tenderly. It’s something I’m lucky to have because so few have it. It’s called acceptance.

This group that hired me, Move On, is headquartered in suburban Washington D.C. and their sole agenda is to literally move on. They want to see obsessive nostalgia go by the wayside. They argue, for example, that some cities need to die off. It’s a process. A lot like evolution, it says in their full color pamphlet. Why isn’t society any different? Everything dies and the new begins again. Nothing lives forever. No one seems to understand this very basic concept. Everything comes to an end.

Move on, they say. Why save Detroit? Toledo? The Rust Belt, the Sun Belt, the Bible Belt, all the belts. Does Buffalo really need to use tax dollars to spiff up its downtown? Who’s going to Buffalo? The same goes for professional sports teams and their owners who pass the bill to taxpayers for stadium remodels or implode the old stadium and build a brand new one. But we’re cutting back on library funding, on education, on funding police departments? The madness. The great problem of the world has always been that those in power are reluctant to change the system that got them their power in the first place. And once you’re up there in your tower you’ll spend the rest of your life playing payback to keep your tower from crumbling. When you’ve reached that point, the societal rules and laws no longer apply to you. You’ve broken through. No wonder nothing ever changes.

So my argument centers on nothing too flashy or insightful, just common sense: A museum for a rice field that made beer could perhaps use that money for something better. If I had more faith in my fellow man I’d think this was an open and shut case. An easy decision. The city board of elders will pound their gavels—each member has one—and declare this matter a complete waste of time, and expound upon the ridiculousness of such a motion. I might have more faith in my fellow man if people didn’t watch Super Bowl strictly to watch the commercials. How far have we fallen? When will the pull strings finally descend from heaven and save us?

There’s something about museums that get people's blood pressure elevated. They love them. I’ve battled the construction of twelve museums in the last four years—all contract work from Move On. I lost every time. How does Move On finance all of this? How can they afford to pay me a hefty hourly and cover travel to far off places like Walla Walla, Washington and Sparkling, Arkansas? There are a few fat cats who have some fight left. And it’s a living for me, my life, as an overgrown earthworm meandering through the soil, always lost, always going back and forth through the same way I’ve come and gone before. Thus, human life.

I almost forgot, holidays. I fight the implementation of new holidays. Every state wants to make a new holiday to honor various groups and veterans of this and that. Sometimes they want very specific groups to have the day off with full pay, supplied by the government. Like the Texas bill that would grant Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans with 30% or more of at least one limb amputated the day off with time and half pay. I pushed to pass a bill that would empower the state of Texas to stand up to delirious executive orders proclaiming war on non-threatening nations to avoid this amputee problem in the first place. I needed a police escort and 24-hour-a-day security for the three days I was in Austin. A few individuals didn’t take too kindly to my constitutionally protected free expressions. Apparently I’m un-American and therefore I should die. There may be a few of these idiots following me now, scoping me with their long-range assault rifles. Let it be.

I can’t worry anymore. I saw a psychiatrist and psychologist and rational-emotive therapist all at the same time, every other day, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for six months. The psychiatrist told me I had generalized anxiety disorder. I said, "That’s where you’re wrong, Doc. I have very specific anxiety disorder." He said, "There’s this pill…" This was in the 1990’s when these drugs were really taking off. I told him, "My dad just died. I’m anxious. I’m sad. That’s normal, right?" He said, "What’s normal?" And wrote me a prescription.

My psychologist made me take a bunch of tests. It was fun but ultimately told me nothing about myself that I didn’t know already except that I apparently have excellent hand-eye coordination in "problem-solving tasks." Yeah, who knew?

The rational-emotive therapist told me it wasn’t rational to be anxious about the passing of my father, even six months later. There was a lot of closing of the eyes, visualization and drawing T-charts on scratch paper. Problem-solving strategies, she called them.

I called bullshit. And quit the whole damn mess.

I suck down an entire cigarette in three drags before walking inside. At city hall I’m led to the room where the town’s elders sit, sprinkled across the back wall, elevated a few feet above everyone else. The men are all old and frightening. I feel like I’m a paranormal investigator whose job is to debunk the obvious horseshit from the plain and potent truth of the matter.

I sit down at my table, just me and my briefcase, which is really a laptop case. I don’t even have a glass of water. Opposite me are the Past Farmers of America representatives, which include three lawyers, a public relations guy from Budweiser who I recognize, and a woman who sits behind all of them juggling three blackberries and a cell phone, in constant communication.

The Sparkling residents that showed up all sit behind their side.

The gavel pounding starts. The Budweiser guy goes first. "Ladies and gentlemen, the town of Sparkling has a very unique place in America’s grand history…" I lean back, cross my arms, and want to nap this one out. I’m not a fan of patriotic American lager rhetoric. You got to watch out for those who time and time again hide behind the red, white and blue. Second to Jesus, I don’t know a bigger copout.

The lawyers take turns making brief statements. When I can talk I ask a very easy question. Too simple, in fact. "How much is this museum and proposed monument—which by the way, this is the first time I heard talk of building a monument in addition to the museum—how much is this going to cost taxpayers?"

No answer. Some muffled talk of reviewing various proposals.

"How about an estimate? A ballpark number. Lowball it, I don’t care. Give me something," I said.

One of the lawyers said, "We don’t have to answer your question.”

"Well, excuse me for asking. I mean, this is the Delta. This is the poorest region in the country. Education is horrible. Health care is almost nonexistent. Don’t worry, I won’t go on with statistics and other firm and concrete examples that will have no affect on you or anybody in this room, I’m just wondering, in a very general sense, if our tax dollars can be used more appropriately?”

A different lawyer said, "We are well aware of the true motivation of the group you represent, Mr. Milligan. Move On is notorious for undermining American values—”

"I call bullshit!" I shouted, pointing at the entire table of Past Farmers of America representatives and lawyers and the public relations guy from Budweiser.

"Order! Order!" The town elders pounded their gavels. One of the elders, Mr. Wilson, a close friend of my father, stood wobbly and frail and said, "Mr. Milligan, I demand you recant your last statement. This is no place for such foul language."

"Mr. Wilson, I respectfully cannot recant my statement for one simple reason and that’s because it’s the truth. You may not like my choice of words, which I can understand, but I cannot think of a more direct and blatant way of stating my objection to their attempt to attack me and my organization by way of some bogus claim that we somehow want to oppress or bring down the United States of America. Quite to the contrary. Move On wants the United States of America to grow up and move on. We have this crazy notion in this country that everything’s basically okay and we can’t do a whole lot better than what we got. That’s false. We have potential. I’m the optimist. Those telling you that everything is fine are the pessimists.”

I looked around the room. There was silence, except for my voice, so I continued. "We can be better, much better. But instead we’re wasting our time and money honoring our past, which really is ridiculous if you think about it. We’re going to build a rice museum in Sparkling, Arkansas to honor yet another alleged great American something or other, for what?”

A different town elder pointed his gavel at me, "Are you suggesting, Mr. Milligan, that the past has no significance?”

"I wish I could say that, but of course it’s not true. Yes, the past has significance. But it doesn’t need to turn into an obsession. We fetishize our past, fantasize about it, glorify it because it’s easy to do. And it changes nothing. We fail, even despite our efforts, to grasp its meaning. So what’s the point? It’s much more difficult, I believe, to turn the other way and face an uncertain future and strive to enhance our present lives, make them better for future generations, to look forward, to take chances, unsure of the outcome. That’s bravery.”

Mr. Wilson cleared his throat. "You have an awfully simplistic way of viewing these matters, Mr. Milligan. I’m sure Move On compensates you very well for your elitist diatribes aimed at the average American. Talking down to them. Hoping they feel shame. Taking away what little some of the people here—in this very town for instance—have to hold onto anymore. A town, by the way, that your father helped to run for many years. If I may be so bold, and perhaps I speak for the majority of those in attendance today, but I’d reckon your father would be gravely disappointed in you.”

"I call bullshit!"

"Order! Order!" The gavels pounded in a maddening fury. I knew they were enjoying it too much.

"Jesus Christ, shut the fuck up with the gavel banging!”

"You are in contempt, Mr. Milligan!”

"How can I be in contempt? This isn’t even a court of law.”

They pounded some more but I spoke loudly. "Seriously though, how many gavels do you all need? I thought only one person gets a gavel. How much is this costing taxpayers? This is a perfect example of wasteful government spending just so each of you can have a toy."

"Mr. Milligan I now know for a fact that you would be a total and utter embarrassment to your father if he were still alive.”

"I don’t really care what my father would think of me. He died ten years ago. He has absolutely nothing to do with what we’re talking about today. And I take offense to your use of the word, average, when talking about the very people who inhabit this town. You may think of them as average, but I think they have the potential to be extraordinary."

I admit that I probably went too far with the extraordinary versus average stuff. And everything pretty much wrapped up after that. They tried to invoke my father again. They ended up approving the measure and the good people of Sparkling, the county, and the state of Arkansas will be paying for a museum and yearly operating expenses for the Arkansas Rice Museum. Also, a bronze statue of a rice kernel.

I’ve seen the preliminary plans, they had them on large colorful poster board to show everyone during the proceedings. The ohhhs and ahhhs were deafening. The glitter, the pretty colors, the balloons, someone even said that it was the most beautiful thing they’d ever seen. As we departed the building, I lit a cigarette and spewed the smoke like an oscillating fan. There was victory in the air. That’s all this was about, winning.

Matt Baker's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Texas Review, Tampa Review, Cimarron Review, Saint Ann's Review, and elsewhere.

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