Homer and Otis, Or My Introduction to Arkansas
By Conrad Shumaker
It all began one day when my father was going into Tucson to run some errands and noticed a car sitting on the shoulder of Interstate 10, going out of Tucson. When he was heading back to the farm several hours later, he saw that the same car was still there. These were the days before cell phones or serial killers, so Dad pulled off and went to investigate, even though the hood of the car wasn’t up and the two men in it seemed to be sitting there contentedly.
“Are you having car trouble?” Dad asked when he got to the open window.
“Sort of,” the driver said. “We’re out of gas.”
Dad offered to drive them to the nearest station, which was about two miles back, but the driver shook his head.
“That’s okay,” he said. “We’re out of money too.”
To make a long story short, Homer and Otis soon became the inhabitants of a small travel trailer parked beside our farmhouse, which had accommodated hired hands before but was currently empty. They had been traveling out west and were on their way back home to Arkansas when they ran short on funds. Since they often ate with us, my brother and I soon got to know them fairly well.
They represented my introduction to Arkansas and the south, a place that I knew very little about as a ten-year old in Arizona. Much later when I was in graduate school I shared an office with a student from Arkansas, who told me about a place named Toad Suck Ferry. That seemed completely grotesque to me. Little did I know that I’d end up spending the majority of my life living in a town that describes itself as “halfway between Pickles Gap and Toad Suck Ferry.” But until I moved to Conway, Arkansas in my imagination meant Homer and Otis.
Otis was the leader of the pair. He was short and burly, a bit of a lady’s man, maybe, though I wouldn’t have seen that then. Homer was taller and lanky with large features and a slow way of talking and moving. Otis had had some experience running a Caterpillar tractor, and it was disking season, the time when last summer’s cotton stubble was disked under in preparation for plowing and planting next year’s crop, so Otis spent his days running a D8 bulldozer, dragging a large disk. Homer spent his days following the tractor and catching the small animals that ran out as the disk ripped up their shelter. If Homer saw us, he was likely to call us over.
“Lookee here,” he’d say, raising the flap on the pocket of his denim work shirt. A little ground squirrel head would pop up, and its owner would look at us from the pocket, seemingly content with its perch. Under the pocket we usually noticed a spreading wet spot.
After the pair had been around for a while, there was a knock on our door one Sunday morning at about 6:00. When Dad opened the door, Homer and Otis were standing there covered in sand and dust from cap to toe.
“I reckon we need the key to the Cat,” Otis said.
Dad fished the key out of his Levis pocket and handed it over. “You mind telling me what you need it for?” he asked.
“Well,” Otis said, “we was coming back from Tucson last night, and we might have had a bit to drink, and we was going pretty fast, I reckon, road being empty and all. Pretty soon we seen these flashing lights come up behind us, so we took the exit there by the dairy. Them lights was still behind us, so we pulled off into the dairy and kind of drove around between them corrals and hay barns and all, but them lights was still there. So you know that old road at the end of the dairy that goes off into the dry river? We took that road and drove up the river a ways, and them lights didn’t follow us there. But we been trying to get that car out of the sand all night and I reckon nothin’ but the Cat’s gonna do it.”
Another Homer and Otis adventure involves a plant called devil’s claw. When it’s mature, the “fruit” of this plant looks like what it’s named after. A pair of curving six-inch horns split off from a dry central pod, which contains several small seeds covered in a black leathery skin. If you take the trouble to dig the seeds out and peel them, they’re quite tasty, but it’s usually not worth the effort. It’s a genuine desert plant. When it’s immature, though, the devil’s claw fruit is a long tapering cylinder covered in a green fuzzy skin. So one day Homer and Otis showed up at the little trailer talking excitedly and carrying gunny sacks filled with devil’s claw. My brother and I went over to investigate.
“What are you gonna do with them?” I asked.
“Fry ’em up,” Otis said. “We done found a whole patch of this wild okra.”
Even at 10 years old I could tell that this was a moment for diplomacy. “I don’t think that’s okra,” I said, “but then I don’t know much about okra.” The last part, at least, was true. Whatever discovery they made when they tried to cook the wild okra was never reported.
Not long after the okra episode, we were having lunch in the Tumbleweed Café, one of those little places you used to find in small Western towns, where the waitress is in her fifties, has worked there for thirty years, and remembers not only your name but what you like to eat. She also makes sure it gets to you quickly, unless you’ve done something to tick her off, in which case she remembers that too. Dad, my uncle Weldon, my brother, and I were sitting at one table, and Homer and Otis were in a booth across the way, having come in a bit earlier than the rest of us. They had a road atlas in front of them and appeared to be arguing vehemently about something. After a few minutes, Dad went over to see what the discussion was about.
Otis pointed a strong stubby finger at the map of Arizona. “I been trying to show Homer here that we could’ve got to Tucson a lot faster if we’d come down this way”—he ran his finger more or less south from Winslow—“instead of going over this way toward California.”—the finger went back to Winslow and moved west along Interstate 40.
“Oh,” Dad said. “So you were actually planning to go to Tucson.”
Homer and Otis looked at him as if he were crazy. “No,” Otis said. “We was going to L.A.”
Dad went back to his hamburger.
Homer and Otis moved on after a couple of months. To my ten-year-old mind one day they were there and the next they were gone. But they’ve become part of our family story, the kind of thing that takes only a few words—“Remember the wild okra?” or “Remember Homer and the ground squirrels?”—to make everyone smile and nod. At first they were only funny stories, but having gotten to know Arkansas through my students, my travels, and my friendships, they’ve become something more. There’s a kind of innocence evoked by the picture of two men sitting patiently beside the highway trusting that something will come along to help them down the road, of Homer with his love for ground squirrels, of their excitement at finding something as familiar as okra in the unfamiliar desert. These pictures make me wish I’d known them better. And there’s another kind of innocence in a time and place where my father could help two broke and homeless men by giving them a job and taking them into the family without fear or judgment. West or South, that’s a place I sometimes miss.
My world has almost always included chickens. They were around as I grew up in Arizona, and they’re still part of our lives in the Arkansas hills. When I think of chickens in Arizona, I mean “around” literally, since no coop ever seemed to hold them for long. They would hang out on the front porch of our old adobe house, fight the cats for the meager bowls of cat food we put out, catch insects and lizards in the overgrown yard that my brother and I inevitably put off mowing, and even compete with the cats for perching space. The kitchen windowsill was a particularly attractive spot for one cat and one hen, for example. Washing the dishes, I would often see a cat lying there contentedly for a few minutes; then there would be a noisy scuffle and the cat would be replaced by a hen. A few minutes later the scuffle would be repeated and the cat would be back. Once my mother left the kitchen window open for a couple of hours and came back to find a freshly laid egg in the dish drainer. Usually, though, gathering eggs was like an Easter-egg hunt; my brother and I had to scour the brush and high grass around the house and find them before they went bad in the desert sun. In short, chickens meant adventure and entertainment.
So one of the first things I did after moving into a house in the hills a few miles south of Conway was to build a chicken coop and stock it with hens and occasionally a rooster, depending on how I happened to be feeling about loud crowing at 3:00 on a summer morning. I love fresh eggs, and I don’t like to support the treatment of hens that produces most supermarket eggs, but mainly I just like having chickens around. Even as I write this, I can hear the high-pitched announcement by a hen that she has laid another egg for us. That’s real country life.
But, as anyone knows who has raised hens in the south, if you have eggs you have snakes. The big black kind that are called rat snakes by some, chicken snakes by others, and less printable names by anyone who goes to gather the eggs and finds that they have all disappeared. At least once a summer a large snake finds our nest boxes, and I have to hope I’ll be lucky enough to go out to gather while he or she is at work so I can catch the culprit.
Now, I generally like snakes. In fact, when I was a kid, I liked them much too well for my mother’s peace of mind, catching king snakes and gopher snakes and sneaking them into the bedroom my brother and I shared. Whenever they escaped, we could depend on my mother to find them for us and announce the discovery with a loud scream so we could come and collect our adopted pets. But I don’t like to have snakes eating our eggs, and I’ve largely outgrown the pleasure of keeping them in the house, so I catch them and give them a long one-way ride to a new home deeper in the woods. That’s the general plan. But I never know when I’ll be lucky enough to catch a new snake in the act, and I have to act quickly before the snake disappears through the nearest hole in the chicken wire or crack between the henhouse floorboards, so in practice the plan is less like a plan and more like an improvisation. I grab the snake behind the head and go toward the house yelling for my wife Sara to bring some kind of bag or pillowcase to put it in, and then we rush to the nearest vehicle with the writhing bag and decide which direction to drive this time. Sara isn’t quite as fond of snakes as I am, but she’s a brave and resourceful woman, so that strategy usually works. It doesn’t always work perfectly, of course; for example, the first time we tried the plan, I forgot to tell her that snakes are surprisingly strong, so she relaxed her hold on the bag just a little, and about half of the five-foot snake shot up into the space between her and the dash of the car. It was a bit of a challenge to push the snake back into the bag and reassure her that she hadn’t actually married a maniac, all the while driving on a curvy country road, but we managed to bring the experiment to a successful conclusion.
In any case, I was gratified one afternoon a few summers ago to discover a large dark-colored snake lying in one of the nest boxes with an incriminating egg-shaped bulge behind its head. Here was the thief who had been devouring our eggs once or twice a week for the last month. I grabbed the snake just above the bulge and started heading toward the house, calling for Sara as I went. While most of my mind was intent on executing the usual plan, however, a voice from some corner of my brain was busy making observations. “That’s interesting,” this other voice said, “this snake isn’t trying to wrap itself around my arm the way constrictors like rat snakes usually do.” This observant part of my mind also watched the snake open and close its mouth repeatedly, seemingly gasping for air because of the egg trapped just behind its head. “That’s interesting,” the voice said, “I’ve never noticed how pearly and satiny the inside of a rat snake’s mouth is. It’s really kind of pretty.” Meanwhile, I had reached the front porch, where Sara had appeared in response to my yells, holding an old pillowcase. I don’t think that she can explain to this day exactly what made her react the way she did, but she stood in the doorway of the house and refused to come any closer. “No,” she said, “something’s not right about this.” I was puzzled and frustrated by her response, and I was worried that the poor snake was strangling—after all, it kept opening and closing its mouth as if it was getting desperate—so I carried the snake to the gravel driveway and set it down so it could get some air. It immediately coughed up the egg, so I reached down and picked up the egg—about three inches from the snake’s head.
Meanwhile our dog had come to see what the commotion was about. He trotted in the direction of the snake, stopped and sniffed suspiciously, then yelped as if he’d been stung and departed the scene with great dispatch. Yes, I know that this offers clear evidence that every sentient being on earth is smarter than a human male who is busy executing a plan that has worked for him in the past, but at the time even this behavior by our faithful dog didn’t clue me in. It was only as I prepared to catch the snake again that I saw clearly the shape of its head, now unobscured by the egg-shaped bulge, and realized that I had been carrying around a cottonmouth.
As I stood on the front porch asking myself the obvious questions about my level of intelligence and what I should do next, the snake settled the matter. It moved directly toward me, not throwing itself into the usual sinuous loops that characterize snake motion, but crawling with its belly scales so that its body was absolutely straight. Maintaining this posture, it moved under the part of the porch I was standing on precisely between my feet and disappeared for good, since I wasn’t inclined to follow it. Now I know that a biologist might find a perfectly rational explanation for the snake’s movement, but I am nevertheless convinced that that snake was flipping me off with its whole body. I’m also pretty sure that it never came back to steal eggs again because it was convinced that it had encountered a person who was dangerously insane.
When people have expressed their fear and loathing of snakes, I sometimes tell them that our culture’s fears of the serpent kind are misplaced and that in my experience only people who are very unlucky or very stupid get bitten by venomous snakes. Apparently you can even fall quite firmly into the “very stupid” category and still not get bitten. In any case, I now look very closely at any snake in the nest box before I pick it up.
Conrad Shumaker grew up on a cattle ranch/cotton farm outside Tucson, Arizona. He completed a BA in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Arizona, an MA in English at the same university, and a Ph.D. at UCLA.
After finishing his doctorate, he moved to Conway to teach American Literature at UCA and continued writing the occasional poem and story. He built his own house in the hills outside Conway (with the help of a builder who actually knew what he was doing and a couple of students). Though he kept in touch with his Southwestern roots by taking students out to reservations in New Mexico and Arizona to read and discuss American Indian literatures and cultures in the places where the poems and stories originated, he also grew to love the Arkansas hills and forests. He retired after 38 years at UCA, and now lives with his wife Sara, his son Greggory, and an ever-evolving flock of chickens on 12 acres of woods.
His scholarly and creative works have appeared in such journals as American Literature, The Arizona Quarterly, The Journal of American Culture, Slant, The Cave Region Review, The Sky Island Journal, The Redneck Review of Literature, and many other places. He also published a book on teaching Southwestern American Indian Literatures.