What lies beneath the waters

Perhaps the most common query I get from readers of The Vapors is “what happened to Hazel?” I suppose it’s a testament to how attached readers get to Hazel and invested they are in her fate. It’s also probably a sign that it was a mistake to write the epilogue in the manner I did - trying to leave readers with a sense of open-ended optimism rather than spell out how the next half-century would play out for everyone. The point, I figured, wasn’t what happened to Hazel, rather what could have happened given her situation at that one particular moment in her life. She had escaped a terrible situation, her sons were grown up and on their own and going to manage, and a new chapter in her life was about to begin. So, too, was the case for Dane Harris and for all of Hot Springs. The coming decade would be a chance to start anew, and that moment felt like a hopeful one. There’s a reason I ended the book at a Baptism in the lake. I wanted the reader to feel some of the hope that the congregants felt being spiritually reborn. But Hazel still feels some reluctance there at the end, and that’s important, too. While being born again is supposed to be a beautiful moment in someone’s life - one filled with hope and promise and a renewal of the spirit - it doesn’t always take. There’s another reason I ended the book at a Baptism in the lake. These feelings are nice, even powerful. But they are also fragile. As time marches on, they often pass.

Readers of this newsletter will already know that Hazel lived to old age, holed up in her little trailer on Central Avenue, proud and poor to the end of her days. By the time I came around she was a doting grandmother like any other, and my memories of crawling around her smokey trailer, exploring her collection of old matchbooks and casino chips, listening to her stories of the old days were the initial seeds that would one day germinate into this book.

Her days immediately after the events in The Vapors, however, were not spent looking after grandkids. The carnival man she takes up with at the end of the book was a wild one. I’ve written about him, too. The story I wrote for ESPN about him murdering someone and then betting on a fixed horserace to get out of jail was one of the first major things I ever published. The stories that Hazel’s friends told me about her days on the road with him were worthy of their own book. In fact, in very early incarnations of The Vapors, I tried to work these stories into the narrative, to little success.

Since I’m feeling very humble and proud of the fact that The Vapors was just named one of the year’s notable books by the New York Times, I figured I could share a little bit of embarrassing prose from an early attempt at this book, and give you a glimpse into Hazel and Eric’s carnival life while also giving you a glimpse into my failed attempt to write like Harry Crews or some shit. I originally tried to write this book in a much more stylized way, complete with an omniscient narrator who spoke in vernacular and composite characters who were cobbled together from true stories yet in their aggregate were complete inventions. I am glad I abandoned this in favor of writing a more straightforward book. But once I decided to do away with the composite characters, and to end the book with the end of casino gambling in Hot Springs, I no longer had any use for Eric the carnie or any of the crazy stories about him and Hazel’s life together.

Here is a snippet from a chapter in that early attempt, where I recounted a story about Hazel and Eric that was told to me by a friend of theirs who was with them. In this story, “Jack” is a composite of the real Jack we see in The Vapors and Eric, who we only briefly meet at the end. The story about the car was Eric, Hazel and this friend who told me the story and it happened in the mid 70s.

“Here she is!” he cried when he saw her. The other boys applauded her arrival. She smiled as big a smile as she had in some time. Jack pulled out a chair and took her coat. “You boys should have seen her do her thing. I tell you what, Hazel. You were born for this.” He kissed her on the top of her head. The other boys patted her on the shoulder and gave her atta girls. She soaked it all up. Someone put a beer in front of her. She soaked that up, too. Things were going great guns until a fight broke out at the bar. 

It weren’t much of a fight, neither. One old boy got knocked off his barstool by this other one, a short one, all swole up like a rooster and so mad his whole head turned red. The short one started kicking the other one while he was down on the ground. Just kicking him in the belly, the face, wherever he could find a target for his boot. The one on the ground didn’t put up any resistance at all. He just covered up and doubled up and tried not to die. The short guy kicked him clear across the room to the stairwell. The man tried to tell him to stop but he couldn’t uncover long enough to get a word in before that boot came swinging at his maw and he’d have to cover up again. He was bleeding all over himself, all over the floor. The little guy kicked him down the stairs and followed him down, stomping at him all the way. The sounds of him cussing the man and punching him carried up the stairwell to the now-silent bar. Nobody moved a muscle to help. 

Eventually the short one came back up the stairs and though the door, still seething, and grabbed a girl who couldn’t be more than sixteen years old by the arm and drug her up out of there. Once the door closed and everyone was sure they were gone the bingo caller started back up and everyone exhaled. 

The mood had shifted dramatically, so one of Jack’s friends leaned in close and said to him “take a drive with me.” Jack nodded and tugged on Hazel. “C’mon, let’s get.” 

The three of them piled into Jack’s new car, a long pretty Oldsmobile that Jack brung back from a recent trip to Iowa where he had gone to meet up with some old carnival buddies to “do some business.” He came back with this Oldsmobile and a sack full of pills. Hazel asked Jack what the pills were for and he said “medicine.” She didn’t reckon they were. She didn’t like being treated like a fool. 

The three of them drove the Oldsmobile to Jack’s house, and Jack gave the keys to one of his other cars, a Plymouth, to Hazel and told her to follow them. The Plymouth looked brand new but it weren’t. Jack’s daddy left him the Plymouth when he died and Jack rebuilt it himself. It weren’t a lot of car to look at but he loved it so. Hazel drove carefully as she followed them all the way out into the country towards Lake Hamilton, wondering where the hell they were headed. 

The Oldsmobile turned off onto Lookout Point Road right before the bridge crossing Lake Hamilton. Hazel tailed it around a long, winding, pitch-black road. There were no houses out here. No street lights. They drove slowly to the end of the road and edged the Oldsmobile to the edge of a cliff looking high over the water. Jack motioned for Hazel to park the Plymouth. She got out and joined the two men in the Oldsmobile, sliding in to the back seat. Jack passed her the sack of pills. “You want some medicine?” he teased. 

Hazel popped two of the red pills. Jack passed her a bottle of rye and she washed them down with a swig. The two men in the front seat laughed. Hazel asked what she took. “Bennies,” Jack answered. Benzedrine. The government had just banned it. The carnival folks were hooked on it. Hell, half of Hot Springs was hooked on it, he said. But now you can’t get it without a doctor. 

“How’d you get it?” she asked. 

“I know a doctor,” he said. The two men laughed. Hazel didn’t press the point. She went with the flow. She felt the speed kicking in. She drank more rye. She took another pill. The world spun. They passed the sack and the bottle and laughed and kissed and crawled around the walls of the inside of the Oldsmobile for what felt like hours. Then, when they came back down, Jack told Hazel to go get in the Plymouth, start the car, and get in the passenger seat. She did what he said, then watched as Jack and his friend got out of the Oldsmobile with Iowa tags and pushed that goddamn car plumb over the side of the cliff and into the lake below. 

As they sped off down Lookout Point Road in the Plymouth, laughing like a bunch of hyenas, Hazel felt a little scared for a second. But that feeling passed. 

Hazel and Eric stayed together for quite some time, and when I was young Eric was essentially my grandfather. He attended Christmas and Thanksgiving with us and bought us presents and carted us to school and whatnot. He had wonderful stories and a pleasant disposition, despite all the crazy stories about him committing fraud and grand larceny and murder and whatever else. Like I said, this chapter in Hazel’s life was probably worth it’s own book, and a better one than the cheesy one I tried to originally write. But that’s the thing about writing about real people and their actual lives - they have to end somewhere. You can’t possibly include every detail in a person’s life in a single book. You especially can’t when your book is about three people! There’s a lot about Hazel that isn’t in The Vapors, and there’s even more about her that I will never and should never know. It’s probably for the best that we all leave her be in 1968 there on the side of the lake, hopeful for her future, and relieved that she and her children, unlike that Oldsmobile, made it out alive.

With hope and optimism,



Before I leave you I wanted to let you know about a few things…

For the last year I’ve been working on a podcast for The Ringer and Spotify called “Gamblers,” and it debuted last week. Episodes come out on Wednesdays, and the first two are already up. I really enjoyed doing it and hope I’ll get a chance to do it again, but that really depends on whether or not enough of you follow and subscribe, so please do that! Here’s a link to the show on Spotify, but you can get it wherever you usually get your podcasts.

I wrote about the writer Walter Tevis, who wrote the book that the fantastic Netflix series The Queens Gambit is based on. When Susan Orlean read this piece she tweeted “OMG” and that’s as good as a recommendation as you could hope for. If you’re interested in that show, or chess, or pool (Tevis also wrote The Hustler and The Color of Money) or just the hidden lives of writers, then please give it a read.

I was invited to participate in the University of Arkansas Clinton School’s speaker series and had a really nice conversation with Lindsey Millar, editor of the Arkansas Times. You can watch that talk on YouTube by clicking here.

I was also invited by American Ancestors to participate in their author series American Inspiration. I’ve done a lot of these talks in the past six months but this one was unique because I began the talk by giving a reading from The Vapors. I chose to read a section that takes place at the church, and instead of reading the sections where Millard Shields preaches, I played the actual audio recordings that I took the sections from. It was kind of a weird idea but I think it worked out ok, and I suspect that for a lot of people it will be interesting to hear him preaching in his own voice. You can watch that reading and discussion at this link.

And if you’re still looking for holiday gift ideas, why not buy someone you love a copy of The Vapors? It’s in stock everywhere, so please buy it from your local independent bookstore. Or buy it from Bookshop here at this link.

And Happy Thanksgiving. I hope you’re spending it with as few people as possible. Let’s all stay home and do our part to keep each other safe and with some good fortune we’ll all see each other again soon.