By Laura Fulton
FAYETTEVILLE, TUESDAY, DRY & SUNNY: The Dickson Street Bookstore is exactly how I remember it – the order of the shelves, the steps leading up to the second room, the register in the corner. I wander the stacks, breathing in the aroma of old books, running my fingertips along the spines. I want to tell the girl sorting stock about how this store saved me twenty years ago, when I found myself nineteen years old and newly divorced, my ill-advised marriage a fiery wreckage of judgment and broken ties.
I want to tell her how I came here with twenty meagre dollars, enough to fill a paper grocery sack with secondhand copies of Stephen King novels, how I took that sack home to my one-bedroom apartment where I slept on the floor with my cheap clock radio and half of a sectional sofa, how I devoured those books in between my shifts waiting tables. I know if I start talking, though, she’ll just smile blankly.
Instead, I wander the stacks and breathe in old books and memories. Not for the first time, I think there is magic here, in this ancient store, tucked among these Ozark Mountains. There are fiction books, horror, science fiction, romance, fantasy, but also whole sections devoted to fairies, regional folklore, gypsies, gnomes. These are not just rumours, fairy tales, but weighty texts, researched and published by reputable houses. Fayetteville is not some backwater country town peopled by yokels. At the end of the street sits the oldest, largest campus of the University of Arkansas, which opened in 1871 and began graduating students in 1875, ten newly trained teachers, among them several women. This is a place of education and learning.
But some still believe in the old magic.
I feel I should make a purchase, but nothing jumps out at me, and I am painfully aware I will be able to carry only so much back to Australia when I fly home at the end of next week, so I snap a few photos and say goodbye.
I drive aimlessly for a while. This is my hometown, and I don’t know what I’m looking for. Everything has changed—the roads are wider, the highways more efficient, the university bigger, the high school more sprawling—but nothing is different. I scroll through radio stations, tapping past ads. Every song is one I know from when I last lived here, and for a split second, I think maybe the last thirty years have been a dream. I think maybe I never left, never moved to the big city or overseas, never met my husband, or had my kids, or made a home for myself in Melbourne. I wonder if maybe I’ve been here all along and I shudder and I want to cry and then I tap the radio again and Cardi B comes on belting something I’ve never heard before that didn’t exist in 1992, a heavy rap about how she doesn’t need more press, and I can breathe again.
I make a loop around the square, the single city block that used to be the epicentre of town. In the middle sits the grand old structure that was once the old post office, then a restaurant and hotel named (creatively) The Old Post Office. My sister tells me it’s empty now, up for sale, but I know they still run the farmer’s market on the sidewalks around the square, and I’m reassured by how much I recognise among these four streets. I see Block Avenue, where Hugo’s still sits. I’m glad the funky little underground café with its straightforward menu – burgers, beer, sandwiches – hasn’t changed since I was in undergrad school.
At the edge of campus, I turn at a row of fraternity houses, pull over, get out. I wander along the pathways leading up to Old Main, the historic building that was once the whole of this university, then find my name stamped into the pavement among the graduating class of 1992. The lawns are lush, well maintained, the reverent old trees majestic. I remember the Sunday afternoons I once spent here as a kid with my family, my dad and his brothers playing frisbee, my sisters and I running around, playing.
Down the hill, Wilson Park lies before me. There’s new playground equipment, much fancier than the swing sets they had when we were kids. I’m surprised by how small the park looks. When we came every weekend, back in the ‘70s, it seemed massive. The park’s creek looks the way I remember—green, shaded, just deep enough to cool you on a hot day, shallow enough to wade through in shorts and last year’s runners.
There was once a time if you asked me, “Where are you from?” I would say “Arkansas”, and these images came to my mind unconsciously—Dickson Street, the square, Hugo’s, Old Main, this park, this creek, this place.
Now, I’m not sure. Now, I think “home” should mean something else.
MOUNTAINBURG, WEDNESDAY, DRY & SUNNY: I’d forgotten how many buildings are made of stone in this little town nestled south of Fayetteville among the Ozark Mountains. Over and over, blue government signs urge me back to the broad, straight interstate, Highway I-49, but I want to drive this narrow road, 71.
What was once the main route between Alma and Fayetteville has now been designated a ‘byway’, part of the ‘Heritage Trail—Civil War Trail’, an educational program designed to “interpret—not commemorate or memorialize” certain people, places and events that were notable during that crucial conflict. But this road means something different for me. When I was growing up, it was the way to I-40: east on I-40 would take you to Little Rock, Memphis, the Atlantic Ocean, west to Oklahoma, Texas, the blue Pacific. But getting to I-40 meant taking this road.
Back then, it was simply State Highway 71. According to the (online) Encyclopedia of Arkansas, it was first a tangle of Native American trails, becoming an official road in 1827 and part of the Ozark Trail in 1913. Little more than a wagon trail come good, it bows to the lay of the land, curving and plunging and rising with the mountain. The road is lined with acres of dense, lush trees that tower in every direction. A person would be forgiven for setting aside a rational faith in God and believing that, within this brooding forest might lurk all manner of fairies and goblins and gypsies.
I tap through the radio, turn it off. An alarming number of stations feature Christian rock groups and evangelists of every vocal intonation (from quietly earnest to clamorous), all stridently pointing us towards that wide, paved path. “This is the one and only way,” they chime, “Ask no questions, tell no lies.” Along the side of the road stand churches of every evangelical protestant denomination, more plentiful than gas stations, ready to save souls and burn witches.
As I drive, my mind wanders back to the branches of a family tree that remain hidden in a past I cannot remember. I have two family trees, myself the creeping vine that joins them, though they stand apart, unknown to each other. I’ve worried this bone so many times. I only know a little. He was the oldest of several children, the man who was once my father. A ward of the state. A soldier. And poor. How did I come to be what I am, I want to ask him – a foundling, a castaway, a child thrown into the world? Who, exactly, did the throwing, and why? It is not so much the person I am looking for but the story.
I have gathered up these bare bones I know of him, just a handful excavated from those two or three years when his life intersected with mine. How many times have I tried to divine a sense of the man? In my mind, I have put flesh to those bones, telling myself stories, making fictions from the truth of him, never knowing how close I come to hitting the mark. I fear my yarns are only fairy tales; I am no witch, no matter where I come from.
All too quickly, I see the signs for Alma, but I know I will remember. I have driven this road more times than I can count. I remember the steep inclines, the hairpin turns, the twists and corkscrews as the road doubles back on itself, holding my breath, gripping the steering wheel. I remember the tiny cafes and lookout spots where a person can pull over and soak in the grand rolling green mountains that stretch out for hundreds of miles. I remember the tidy homes and the tiny, crumbling cabins clinging to the sides of the mountain, just a hint of roof and a sliver of smoke unwinding from a chimney to give away their hiding spots.
And then I’m out of the forest, out of the mountains and flanked on either side by fast food restaurants—McDonalds, Sonic, Dairy Queen—insurance companies and signs for I-40. This time, I’m not going west towards Texas. This time, I go under the highway overpass and turn left. East. I’m going to the place I come from, but I can’t say for sure if it’s home. My life is enough, and I think maybe I should stop picking at this ancient wound.
LITTLE ROCK, TUESDAY, HOT & DRY: Now that I am away from familiar territory, I bow to the judgment of my GPS and willingly follow the interstate. Traffic moves steadily towards the state capital, so I set my cruise control and turn the radio back on—Limp Bizkit, screaming about I don’t know what. I take notes on everything as I drive; I don’t want to miss anything. I’ve just seen a sign for Toad Suck, Arkansas. If I don’t write that down, I might forget, and I’m afraid of forgetting this unfamiliar stretch of road.
The trees don’t stop, even when I get to Little Rock. I’d always been told the state capital is a shithole, dirty, full of “trashy” people, but everywhere I go, it’s beautiful. I find the Department of Health and discover the Office of Vital Records is a separate room right out front. This is a momentous occasion, I think, so I snap a few pictures.
Inside, I find the clerks have more to do than deal with cases like mine. The majority of their time seems to be spent lodging certificates of birth, death, marriage and divorce. This room is not the dusty storage space I had imagined it would be, filled with rows and rows of towering file cabinets. That room likely exists somewhere, but I can’t see it from here.
The waiting room is a hive of activity, regular people going about the regular business of life. Behind a glass window, a pair of patient clerks process forms. It’s midday the Thursday before Memorial Day weekend, so everyone must be tired, but the ladies go through the procedure with each person waiting. A sign directs me to take a number. I am 70. The clerk on the left calls 63. She calls a few names, people whose paperwork has been completed. She calls 64. A new mother with a baby in a stroller tries to cut the line. When she confirms that she is 71, the clerk sends her back, tells her to wait for her number to be called. The clerk calls 64 again, and once more, then in quick succession 64-65-66-67. One more call and number 68 goes forward. The clerk confirms that there are no more 60s and it’s my turn.
I approach the window, suddenly shy. This entire scenario is more public than I thought it would be when I tried it on in my head, and I fear everyone in the waiting room will be able to hear me as well as I’ve been able to hear every other person who’s gone before me. I slide my form through the window.
“I have a different form. It’s for an adoption file.”
The clerk takes my form, brow furrowed.
“No, I …” but she’s read the heading and understands.
“Oh! You’re requesting YOUR adoption file!”
“Oh, OK!” She taps on her computer, looks up at me, smiles, “Are you excited?”
I smile back, suddenly glad I came. “Yes, ma’am.”
She smiles again, a sunshine smile. She’s pretty, with long extensions braided into her hair. “That’s exciting.”
I hold my breath. This moment is the first step where this application process could all go wrong. I’ve given her my passport as my form of ID, which bears no address, and my sister’s address in Springdale – I’m sure they won’t send the file to Australia, if they’re able to find it at all. But the clerk only needs to confirm that I am the person I say I am. I’m surprised by my relief. I was prepared to get no further than this counter.
I see the cashier next, a friendly younger Black lady with blonde hair. I wonder if she feels sorry for me. She reminds me of a student I once taught in Dallas, in a school of mostly Black and Hispanic kids. When it came up in conversation that I had been adopted, the whole class made sympathetic noises. One girl’s face crumpled as she said, “That make me wanna cry for you, Miss.”
I hand over my money order and make small talk (sure is busy today, looking forward to the long weekend, had a lot of rain this spring), then she tells me I can expect to hear something in five or six weeks. I try to keep my expectations low. There is every possibility my original adoption file has been lost or that the information it contains will be no different from the information I already have. I know I’ve lived a charmed life up to now, comfortable, wanting for nothing. Part of me wants to give this sleeping dog a pat on the head and tiptoe on my way.
The other part of me is standing in the Office of Vital Records, lodging the form to request my original adoption file, on my way through to the town where I was born.
I thank the cashier and go, glad again that I came. I have tried to imagine this day, anticipating it too deeply for too long. Until recently, these files have been sealed by the state, and I have had no legal access to them. It has been too easy for me to cast these clerks as the villains of the tale, turning me away on a whim for no logical reason, quibbling over bureaucratic details. These ladies, however, bear me no ill will. I think they are happy for me…
Laura Fulton is a writer, educator and researcher born in the Mississippi delta region of Arkansas and is currently based in Melbourne, Australia. Her recent creative practice PhD explores how the adopted person may address issues of identity, origin and belonging through creative writing experimentation and the writing of the creative field journal. A former columnist, staff writer, ghost writer and project writer, she has published numerous commercial books and articles in the UAE and Australia. Her creative and critical work has appeared in publications including Swamp Writing, TEXT, Qualitative Inquiry, Pendulum Papers and Antithesis, and the AAWP’s The Incompleteness Book.