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Head east and you'll get upscale; head west to get down.

HUGHES, Arkansas -- If at any time last year someone had told me that in late summer of 2002 I'd be in American Equatorial Arkansas, my response would have been (edited for family consumption), "Heh heh."

But as a philosopher king once remarked, One never knows, do one?

Hughes -- forty miles south and west of Memphis -- is one of those river towns not on the river. As a knowledgeable Mississippian once said when I used that term, "The river? Oh, yeah. The River." The Father of Waters, America's large intestine.

The River is fifteen miles to the east and just across it lies the Mississippi Delta. Hughes is in the Arkansas Delta. The similarities are evident.

This is poor country. Some public schools classrooms have, here and there, sheets of plywood covering broken windows. This gives them a "Closed" look. Some schools have no textbooks. There's not much happening economically. Today's agriculture is techno-chemo-mechanical. This translates into fewer jobs and more and more water pollution at no extra charge.

This is far from the land of plenty we know in Tennessee with its jobs, highways, air conditioned classrooms, computers, and liquor by the drink. Delta economy balances precariously on agriculture. The soil is rich and the current soybean crop may be astoundingly large as it comes to fruition.

Occasional fields are flooded in what looks to be 30-acre squares, neatly fenced by low, earthen dams. Aerators spray water high into the air. Catfish farming is perhaps the first successful new crop introduced here since the soybean came over from China sixty-five years ago. It is said that an acre of water produces more food than an acre of land. At one of these commercial fish ponds, a lone man wets a line and awaits a tug that's sure to come. These places teem with catfish, though you'd guess they aren't often hungry.

If you think all these swamps, all this casual water -- in summer unmoving bayous grow a thick, green surface algae -- incubate mosquitoes, how right you would be. There may be three or four on your arm at any moment.

At a discount store, I ask the comely clerk where I can buy a six-pack . Next door, she says, but better to go to Red Top, which is cheaper. She smiles, displaying a set of teeth in desperate need of intensive and expensive work.

A tiny black child presents her purchase and a dollar bill. "It's a dollar and eight cents," the clerk says. The child is speechless. Another customer tosses a dime out there and the clerk says, "Now, honey, tell the man thank you." She does.

At school, there's a difficult task. "I'm old leather," an aging black lady says, "but I'm all together." She pitches in.

I tell a coach about the downside of a family member's rental arrangement. "Our two have grown up and moved on. If she has a problem, she can live with us."

A service station attendant hustles out to inform me I've stopped on the wrong side of the pump. It's a borrowed SUV.

A Bud Light driver departs from his truck and waves.

A black guy inflating a tire looks up and says, "How ya doin'?"

I find myself nodding, smiling, waving, tipping the hat. In the midst of squalor, there's this unconquerable spirit – courtesy, friendliness, sweetness. A brother's keeper thing, maybe.

Maybe not.

Hank Haines is a former resident of Memphis and East Arkansas newspaper editor who now views things (and writes columns about them ) from the middle distance of Murfreesboro.)

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