Gary Guinn

Literature of the Ozarks

Tag: Ozarks

Being a Doaks in the Ozarks and in Literature

The story “Being a Doaks and All” was first published years ago in The Rockford Review, and it was included last year in Yonder Mountain: an Ozarks Anthology, published by the University of Arkansas Press. Among my own stories, it has always been special to me, in part I think because it captures not just small-town life in the Ozarks, but also the inherent class divisions that exist everywhere, especially in small towns, where a person’s sense of self is formed by a  limited number of forces and those forces are powerful.

There are characters like this, a Doaks, everywhere, not just in the Ozarks. To some extent, we are all a Doaks, or have been at some point in our lives. The story is not very long, about a thousand words. Two young people, a chance meeting for only a couple of minutes. The shaping power of futility, fear, impotence, misunderstanding. The way we cope.

I’d love to hear what you have to say.


Being a Doaks and All

By Gary Guinn

The boy was fifteen, tall and thin, uncomfortable in town, where people stared at him, at the faded overalls that hung on him like a sack, at the worn denim shirt, the sleeves not quite long enough.

The girl walked up to him as he stood on the mercantile porch, waiting for Virgil. Her white blouse, clean and pressed, was tucked into the narrow waistband of a gray skirt. The lines of the pleats in the skirt dropped away from the curve of her hips. Her penny loafers were freshly polished.

“You’re a Doaks, aren’t you?” she asked. “What’s your name?”

He turned away.

She walked around to face him again, looked up into his eyes, daring him not to answer. “I said what’s your name?”

He looked at his feet, then glanced at the closed and silent door of the mercantile.

“You don’t look mean to me,” she said. “Ollie Delphia told me a body might better run up on a rattlesnake in a dry creek than meet a Doaks in close quarters.” Her brown eyes were steady and unblinking. “What’d she mean by that?” Her lower lip dropped in a moist curve beneath the slight shadow of her nose and the handful of freckles sprinkled high on her cheeks. The arc of flesh beneath her eyebrows rose above the long lashes.

His thin frame leaned slightly toward the alley that ran down the side of the mercantile, as if drawn to it by invisible wires, but he stood rooted to the porch, his face flushed and his ears burning. He remembered the slumped figure of his mama the day Virgil made her drive him to town, the only time he ever remembered her leaving the farm. Job Fincher had looked out the window of the butcher shop next to the mercantile and had come out and stood on the porch and wiped his hands on his bloody apron and looked at her through the windshield and smiled the smile of a man who knows some private joke. She had stayed in the truck, gripped the steering wheel and stared at the hood. The boy wondered if he looked that way now to the girl.

“Nate Farley says you can’t talk. Is that right?” The girl pushed her lips out. “Well? You can nod your head, can’t you?”

The words lay heavy in the base of his throat—that his name was Mason, that she was prettier than the women pictured on the covers of the magazines in the rack in the mercantile. He swallowed. Pleasant Varner, the schoolteacher, had stood over him, her arms folded in weary silence, her tired face saying that his resistance must be a perversity of stubbornness. A boy, no matter how shy, could speak out, if only he chose to do so.

The girl waited. His feet were brown with dust, and he wished he had worn his shoes. In the stinging absence of words he looked out at the street, across the square to the hotel, where Willie May Boseman had stood the day her husband Samuel was killed when he fell from the scaffolding there as Willie May waited for him to come down and eat the lunch she had brought. Mason had stood in the open square a few yards away, watching the men work. He remembered the look on Willie May’s face after Samuel fell, as she stood there without moving, holding the red bandanna, its corners tied up to make a sack for the lunch. The momentary quiet across which he looked at her. During the commotion that followed, he watched the impotent terror on her face as she stood unable to move. He wondered if he looked like that to the girl.

“It’s rude not to answer when you’re spoken to,” she said, “but I suppose you’ve never been taught any better, being a Doaks and all.”

The edge of the tongue-in-groove board at his feet warped up slightly, and he raked his toe across it. His eyes began to water, and he looked again at the alley.

“Mason!” Virgil Doaks’ voice from the doorway behind him made him jump. “Quit standin’ around like a jackass. Get in there and get that box of groceries.”

Virgil Doaks, thin and bent, carrying a tight gunnysack of grain on his shoulder, brushed past. His clothes hung on him like a scarecrow tilting in rocky soil. He dropped the sack over the side of the pickup bed and started around the back of the truck, past the bare bulb of the taillight and the rusted tailgate. The boy scrambled through the door of the mercantile to get the box. When he came back out and crossed the porch, he glanced at the girl, who stood exactly where she had when Virgil came out. Her eyes had narrowed.

“I see where you get your manners,” she said and tipped her head slightly toward Virgil.

As the pickup pulled away from the curb, it rattled and whined and spewed a swirl of blue-gray smoke. A thin stream of tobacco juice squirted like a silent exclamation through the truck window onto the street, and Virgil shifted the wad of tobacco to the other side of his mouth as the clutch banged against the bare metal of the floorboard and the gears ground together. On the movie marquee, “Afternoon Matinee 1:30” was spelled out in red slide-in letters. When the pickup stopped at the intersection, it groaned, and the boy watched the mercantile porch vibrate in the side view mirror.

When they got home, he took the box of groceries to the kitchen. His mama was nowhere to be seen. He slopped the hogs and searched the barnyard for eggs, looking in all the usual places—under the tool shed, in the feed trough, behind the broken stanchion, in the glove compartment of the DeSoto behind the barn. And in the hayloft.

He lay at the far end of a mountain of bales. Beside him a gray cat suckled four kittens, their purring vibrating in the heavy air. A fat blue fly buzzed lazily around the egg basket at his feet. He thought about the mercantile porch, about the girl. She asked him his name, and he told her without taking his eyes from hers. “Mason Doaks,” he said. The words came easily, like rain on the river, his voice deep and resonant. She looked down at her bare feet, unable to speak. He smiled and waved the fly away and watched flecks of dust float down the sun slanting through the gable window.

Religion in the Ozarks

The Ozark Mountains have a long history of deeply conservative religious expression. Robert K. Gilmore, in Ozark Baptizings, Hangings, and Other Diversions, describes the people of the Ozark Mountains as “predominantly Bible-believing, traditional Protestants” who were “strongly aware of the presence in their midst of the ever-zealous devil and were equally zealous in their efforts to rid themselves of him” (68). Drinking, shows, cards, dancing, and the fiddle (nicknamed the Devil’s Music Box) were all proscribed as “evidences of the ‘old gentleman’s’ (Satan’s) efforts to corrupt” weak human beings. Long sermons, annual two-week nightly revivals, and camp meetings–held in the early days in brush arbors and later in large tents–were all standard fare for the religious.

I grew up in the heart of this ethos in a small congregation of the southern Church of Christ, which was, in those days, an exclusive fundamentalist denomination. My early memories of that community and the people in it are sweet. The adults were mostly simple working class people and farmers–like old Brother Hubbard, a farmer and an elder, with my father, in the church, and whose wife taught elementary school. When she died, Sister Hubbard, because I too had made education my profession, left me a packet of her teaching materials in hopes that I would find them useful. And Brother Ballard, another of the elders who, like my father, worked as a railway mail clerk, kept a Model T pickup truck and drove it in all the local parades. And Sister Davis, who searched the scriptures earnestly, seeking the truth, whose heart was broken by what she found there.

On warm summer nights we played hide-and-seek after the services while the grown-ups talked among the circling moths in the lights of the porch, the men smoking and the women bouncing babies on their shoulders. The world was secure and circumscribed.

I am a recovering Fundamentalist, just as my grandfather was a recovering alcoholic. I seek, day by day, the source of love and peace and strength. I am often surprised at the places it may be found.

“Being a Doaks and All” in anthology

The story “Being a Doaks and All” will appear in Yonder Mountain: an Ozarks Anthology, from the University of Arkansas Press in the spring of 2013.

© 2019 Gary Guinn

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